World Chronology, Lesson 21. The Punic Wars (264 – 146 BC)

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With this lesson, we begin the second half of World Chronology I. As we learned in the first lesson in this course, history moves west with time. When we began the course, we focused on the middle east, studying Egypt, Israel, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. As time went on, we looked further west to Greece. With this lesson, we move further still to Italy as we pick up the history of Rome.

The Growth of Rome

Rome was established in three basic steps. First, following the Trojan War, Aeneas settled on the shores of Lavinia on the west coast of Italy. Second, Alba Longa was established by Ascanius, the son of Aeneas. Third, Romulus, descendant of the lords of Alba Longa, built the walls of the great city of Rome in 753 BC.

We learned that Romulus was the first of seven kings that ruled in Rome until ambition and pride corrupted the throne and turned kings into oppressors. In 509 BC, Brutus led the Romans in overthrowing the monarchy and the Republic was established. The laws of Rome were written for all to see, justice was established and the people’s rights protected against abuse.

Since then, however, Rome has been unheard from in our study of world chronology. The borders of the Republic barely reached beyond the city itself–but this is about to change. Rome was one of many cities in Italy and each was concerned about its own prosperity and safety. Thus, it was inevitable that as cities grew, conflicts would arise. During the first 30 years of the Republic, Rome fought with and conquered its closest neighbors. This pushed the borders of Rome away from the city itself and gave the Romans enough breathing room to develop their Republic and establish a firm foundation of law and politics.

It did not take long, however, for the Romans to face their first great defeat. From the north, barbarian tribes known as the Celts (pronounced “kelts”) swept into Italy and when the Romans tried to resist them, they were crushed and the city of Rome destroyed. It was realized that the more men were exposed to the comforts brought in by trade and leisure, the weaker they became. The northern tribes, being far removed from such softening influences, came upon the Romans like lions and this experience warned of future troubles if they gave themselves over to the increasing wealth and safety they were beginning to enjoy. From this point forward, the Romans knew that a terrible enemy lived in the north and could invade at any time and they remained on guard. Out of this fear of weakening, the Romans took pride in living with “simple austerity“–simplicity and strictness.

Despite this loss to the Celts, Rome had expanded to control all of central Italy by the end of the 300s. At this time, however, a new enemy arose. While Rome grew throughout central Italy, much of western and southern Italy was occupied by Greeks who had moved over from the east and established colonies there. In fact, the Greek population was so heavy on the western side of Italy that the region was called “Greater Greece” (Magna Graecia). In time, the growing Roman state pressed upon the Greek colonies and conflict arose. The Greeks called upon Pyrrhus, a Greek military leader, to come to their aid. Pyrrhus moved into Italy and defeated the Romans at every turn. However, in winning, Pyrrhus suffered heavy losses. While Pyrrhus was winning the battles, Rome was winning the war. Eventually, Pyrrhus realized that his forces were exhausted and that he could not afford to continue to fight, even though he had enjoyed success. For this reason, we call a “Pyrrhic Victory” any success for which the cost is too great. The greatest example of such a victory is that of the man whom Jesus said, “gained the whole world, yet lost his own soul”. Some victories are very costly.

This new challenge was unlike those previously faced, but the Romans were lucky. Alexander the Great devoted all of his attention to the east and left the Romans alone in the west. The Romans faced weak opponents and barely won, but grew stronger and more experienced in battle with each victory. Had Alexander considered them a threat, the Romans would have been quickly crushed by the Greeks. It seems that history smiled upon the Romans and they were allowed to slowly grow in the west while the Greeks kept their eyes to the east.

The Growth of Carthage

Across the Mediterranean another power grew with Rome. The ancient Phoenicians, famous for their sea trading and wealth, had established many colonies around the Mediterranean, but none so important as the city of Carthage, seated right at the center of the great sea on the coast of North Africa. This city provided the Phoenicians with the ideal center for their trade and travel, and slowly grew into a powerful state of its own.

Carthage was ruled by its own governors, called Suffetes, and was the mother of many other Phoenician colonies from which it received tribute. The Carthaginian navy was the world’s finest, as its knowledge of the seas gained through trade was of great value in time of war. The army, however, was made up of paid professional soldiers (mercenaries), who were led by Carthaginian commanders. Mercenaries are very useful in that they are paid whenever they win, but they are also dangerous because if they are not devoted to the army they are serving, they can be bribed by the enemy. After all, they’re working for money.

Over time, Carthage established colonies around the western Mediterranean Sea and the spotlight was set on the island of Sicily which sat between the two growing powers–Carthage and Rome–in the center of Mediterranean Sea. In 264 BC, a conflict arose between a king on Sicily and a group of troublemakers on the northeast coast of Sicily who were known as the Mamertines. The Mamertines asked both the Carthaginians and the Romans for help, which put the Romans in a difficult position.

The Romans knew of the growth of Carthage and Carthage knew of the growth of Rome. The Romans did not want to get involved with the situation in Sicily, but if the Romans decided not to help the Mamertines, Carthage might. If the Carthaginians were then successful, they would gain an ally dangerously close to Italy. For the sake of their own safety, Rome had to support the Mamertines, and after success in Sicily, decided to declare war on Carthage.

The Punic Wars

Before we get into the details of the Punic Wars, we should first clarify the name of the wars: where does “Punic” come from? Carthage, as said above, was a Phoenician colony. The Romans called the Phoenicians the Punici and since the Carthaginians were known to be of Phoenician origin, the Romans called them Punici as well. Therefore the wars with the Carthaginians were called the Punic Wars. We cannot understand the future of the Roman Republic and Empire if we do not understand well the history of the Punic Wars. Moreover, these wars provide us with a treasury of practical wisdom if we will study carefully. Let us learn not mere trivia for talk, but wisdom to live well.

The First Punic War (264-241 BC)

The Romans could feel the pressure of Carthage in the north and decided that the time was right to attack. The Romans declared war in 264 BC, intending to drive Carthage out of Sicily and far from the Roman borders.

The Romans could expect no success though as long as supplies could be shipped from Carthage to support the troops in Sicily, so the Romans had to begin with a massive undertaking: building a navy and learning how to wage war at sea! The spirit of determination that made Rome famous allowed them to overcome this challenge and a fleet of 100 ships was built in a very short time. Moreover, as the ships were powered by teams of trained rowers, the Romans practiced the art on land while the ships were being built. Knowing that they could not match the Carthaginians in sea combat, the Romans invented a device that would give them an advantage. The crow (Lat., corvus) was a long plank that extended off the deck of the Roman ship, controlled by ropes with a great spike at the end. The Romans would use the crow to catch hold of a Carthaginian ship and allow the Roman soldiers to run aboard the enemy’s deck and turn the sea battle into a hand-to-hand fight. This allowed the Romans to fight by their own strengths and not try to match the Carthaginians at sea.

In their first sea battle, fighting against the greatest navy in the world, the Romans were victorious. They drove the Carthaginians out of Sicily quickly and decided that, since they had already matched the Carthaginians at sea, they would go after the city of Carthage itself. The Carthaginians retreated to the city and all appeared to be lost. The Romans sacked cities around Carthage and threatened the city with invasion. The Carthaginians sought terms for peace and the Roman general Regulus made a great mistake.

Seeing the Carthaginians in desperation, Regulus decided to demand complete surrender. The consul insisted that Carthage surrender its entire fleet, leave all islands in the Mediterranean Sea to the Romans and pay all of Rome’s expenses for the war! The Carthaginians, realizing that the Romans intended their complete ruin, were angered and provoked to fight to the death. It just happened that a Spartan military leader was present in Carthage at the time and the army was set under his command. The Spartan commander led the Carthaginians in a shocking defeat of the Romans and the consul who proposed the terms was captured in battle. The Roman Senate called the forces home to Rome, but a storm in the Mediterranean destroyed the entire Roman fleet. Rome was so close to victory–yet found itself completely ruined. We learn here a good lesson in negotiating: sometimes less is more.

Despite the losses, the determination of the Romans produced a second fleet of ships, which was shortly thereafter destroyed by another storm at sea. Discouraged, but refusing to lose, the Romans built a third fleet and continued in their mission to expand and defend their borders against their enemy to the south.

At this point, the agricultural lifestyle of the Romans proved to be more stable than the merchant trading of the Carthaginians. As the Carthaginians were unable to conduct their business during the battle, they began to run out of money. The Romans, owning the natural resources they needed to supply their forces, remained strong. At this point, the Roman consul Regulus, who was humiliated by the Carthaginians, had a second chance to prove his excellence. He was sent by the Carthaginians to Rome to seek terms of peace between Rome and Carthage. The only thing that required Regulus to return to Carthage was his word, for he promised to return. The Romans refused to make terms and Regulus returned to a certain death in Carthage. He was tortured by the enemy and suffered a horrifying death, but proved himself a true lover of Rome.

As the war continued, Rome’s third fleet of ships was destroyed, yet they built a fourth! Finally, in 241 BC, the Romans defeated the Carthaginians at sea and the war came to an end. This time, Rome was wiser in offering terms of surrender and required simply that Carthage withdraw from Sicily, release all Roman prisoners of war and pay a sum of money in reparation for the Roman costs of war. These terms were accepted and the First Punic War came to an end.

The Second Punic War (218-201 BC)

After the war ended in 240 BC, the new Carthaginian commander, Hamilcar, began planning his future revenge. However, the Carthaginians ran into trouble at home. The paid soldiers they had used against Rome were ready to come home and receive their pay–but Carthage had no money. Angered by the sense of betrayal and knowing that the city was weak, the mercenaries revolted against Carthage. The general Hamilcar put down the revolt, but while the Carthaginians were at their weakest, Rome decided to add further demands to their former terms and required Carthage to withdraw from the other islands in the sea and to pay an additional sum of money for peace. The Carthaginians had to accept, but once again, the Romans’ zeal would come back to haunt them.

Hamilcar decided to move further west into Spain and build an army. His plan was to build a massive army in the west and then invade Italy from the north! He moved into Spain with his 9 year-old son Hannibal (who will become famous), took a Spanish wife to unite himself to the people and began building his army. Within 10 years, Hamilcar had gained control of all of Spain. While Hamilcar gained strength in Spain, the Romans flexed some of their new muscle in easily crushing the barbarians in the north, proving that this was not the same Roman army as it was 50 years earlier. The Roman army was by this time an efficient machine thanks to the growing experience of war on land and at sea. Back in Spain, Hamilcar died and after being replaced by his brother-in-law Hasdrubal, the Carthaginians came under the command of Hannibal, who would lead them on a most famous course. As Carthage gained control of Spain, they came upon an old town that was an ally of Rome. As Hannibal pressed upon this town, Rome declared war.

While the Romans expected to fight again in the south, Hannibal marched his entire army from Spain all the way through the Alps mountains in northern Italy! This incredible march has earned Hannibal fame throughout history. However, reaching Italy by land did not come without great losses. Hannibal lost 30,000 of his 50,000 men along the way and lost 3,000 of his 9,000 horses. It may be hard to understand how an enemy army could possibly march all the way though northern Italy when it was in Roman control, but what we must remember is that Rome controlled Italy only by force. When the enemy entered the north, the cities were ready to support the challenger and ease their movement southward. Hannibal said that “I come into Italy not to fight against Italians, but to fight for the liberty of Italians against Rome.” At first, his plan worked perfectly. He moved successfully through Italy, crushing the Roman armies at the battles of Trebia and Trasimene. However, as he moved further south, the Italian cities refused to join him.

By this time, the Romans were terrified by the thought that Hannibal would appear at the gates of the city at any moment. The Senate sought out a dictator to take complete command of the army and appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabius wisely elected to watch and starve Hannibal’s troops rather than challenge them to battle in the field. The dictator cut of all of Hannibal’s supplies and intercepted his communications, refusing to fall for Hannibal’s attempts to lure him into battle. For this strategy, Fabius was called “the Lingerer”. Fabius’ plan worked well because any losses in battle may have encouraged Italian cities to side with Carthage if the fall of Rome seemed near. Unfortunately, the consuls that followed Fabius elected to abandon his strategy and engaged with Hannibal. The Roman army met Hannibal at Cannae and was completely routed. Over 40,000 Romans were killed.

Once news of the disaster reached Rome, all turned to Fabius again to save the city. Rome returned to the defensive strategy of Fabius and the stage was set for the final confrontation. Hannibal had Rome on the ropes, but his wisdom kept him from acting too rashly. While his men wanted to take the city and finish the job, Hannibal denied them. He knew that he did not have supplies to attack the city and also that cornering the Romans would force them to fight to the death, rather than lead them to surrender. Hannibal was received by Italy’s second largest city–Capua–and all of southern Italy was ready to follow their example. It appeared that Hannibal’s plan to unite Italy against Rome was about to come together at the perfect time. However, the wisdom of Fabius allowed Rome to hold the Carthaginians off while they reloaded the army. For several years, the war saw no action as both sides positioned themselves for what appeared to be its approaching end.

As the action in Italy quieted down, fighting moved to Spain and Sicily. In Spain, the Romans cut off Hannibal’s supplies and blocked communications. In Sicily, the Romans enjoyed great success, capturing the capital city of Syracuse and driving the Carthaginians back again into Africa. After Syracuse fell, Hannibal resumed action in Italy. He won a number of small battles and against small legions, but as he moved about, the Romans wisely blockaded the Italian city of Capua, which had sided with Hannibal. Hannibal tried to assist them, but was blocked and after realizing that the Roman armies were set about Capua, he elected to head for the city of Rome itself! The Romans sent half of their army at Capua back to defend Rome and they beat Hannibal to the city. Having successfully defended the city, Hannibal realized his opportunity for victory may have passed.

However, news came from Spain in 211 BC that the Roman forces where surprisingly overcome by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal and that he was now leading a Carthaginian army into Italy to assist Hannibal! However, after crossing the Alps and entering into Italy, messengers sent by Hasdrubal to Hannibal were captured and Hasdrubal’s plans were discovered. The Roman consul Claudius Nero led an army to cut him off and Hasdrubal was trapped and routed at Metaurus in 207 BC. Hannibal’s hope of help now vanished, while the people of Rome rejoiced.

As the Romans celebrated the victory at Metaurus an even more important victory was achieved in Spain. A young Roman named Scipio rose to lead the army in the west with great success. The young Scipio was very much unlike the older Fabius and while Fabius was famous for his defensive strategies, it would be Scipio who designed and led the Roman attack. Scipio shocked the Carthaginians by attacking New Carthage in Spain and winning the city–and all of Spain–in 206 BC. After his victories there, he decided that the time had come to invade Africa and end this terrible war.

Scipio returned to Rome and was given control of the island of Sicily. He also received permission to invade Africa and found many volunteers from Italy ready to fight for him. He set off for Sicily with a fleet of ships and in 204 BC invaded Africa. Carthage, filled with terror, recalled Hannibal from Italy to save the city. Hannibal was forced to give up all that he had achieved in Italy as the loss of Carthage would end the war no matter what he accomplished in Italy. Hannibal returned to Africa and mustered an army to face Scipio at the Battle of Zama in 201 BC. The young Scipio defeated Hannibal there, winning unimaginable glory on the battlefield and laid out the terms of surrender for Carthage.

  • Carthage would surrender its entire navy, but for 10 ships.
  • Carthage would never wage war without Roman approval.
  • Carthage would pay 10,000 talents of silver (over $2 billion in our money) to Rome over the next 50 years.

The Third Punic War (149-146 BC)

The Numidians were a people west of Carthage who had helped the Romans greatly in the battle of Zama. After the war, they frequently harassed and raided the Carthaginians, who asked Rome for help. The Romans sided with their friends and Carthage grew frustrated. After the war indemnity had been paid in full, the Carthaginians organized a new army and battled the Numidians. Seeing this new life in their old enemies, some of the old Romans warned that Rome would never be safe until Carthage was completely destroyed. The Romans believed that Carthage was still indebted to them and they wished to cut down this new growth seen in Africa.

The Romans made a number of ridiculous demands of the Carthaginians and when they were refused, Rome declared war on Carthage. In 146 BC, the Romans sacked the city and burned it to the ground. Carthage was at last destroyed.


The Punic Wars made Rome the world power we know of in history. Before the Punic Wars, Rome was an Italian city that ruled much of the Italian peninsula. After the Punic Wars, Rome ruled the entire western Mediterranean–from the west coast of Greece to the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, the Romans now had an experienced and confident military that had enjoyed success on land and at sea. As they looked to the east, they saw Alexander’s kingdom, divided and weakening. The stage was set for the Romans to fulfill their destiny and build an empire that would have no boundaries.

Memory Work

Directions: Read each date and event and recite it several times. By daily repetition, thoroughly memorize these events. Memorize them using your complete chart so that you can “see” the chart in your mind.

  • 4000 BC – 750 BC  Ancient World
  • 4000 BC  Creation of the World
  • 3500 BC   Ancient Sumeria Begins
  • 3000 BC   Ancient Egypt Begins
  • 2950 BC – 2000 BC Life of Noah
  • 2000 BC – 1780 BC  Life of Abraham
  • 1450 BC – 1410 BC  Hebrew Exodus
  • 1200 BC   Trojan War
  • 1000 BC – 960 BC  Life of King David
  • circa 960 BC  The Temple of Solomon
  • 753 BC  City of Rome Founded
  • 750 BC Homer Writes the Iliad & Odyssey
  • 750 BC –  500 AD  Classical World
  • 722 BC  Assyrian Captivity
  • 586 BC  Babylonian Captivity
  • 600 BC – 535 BC  The Prophet Daniel in Babylon
  • 530-450 BC  Esdras the Scribe
  • 509-31 BC  The Roman Republic 
  • 480-323 BC  Classical Greece
  • 336-323 BC Conquests of Alexander the Great
  • 323 – 146 BC  The Hellenistic World
  • 264 – 146 BC  The Punic Wars
  • 500 AD – 1500 AD  Medieval World
  • 1500 AD – Present  Modern World

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