To What Extent Was Rome Responsible for the Punic Wars?

1 January 2017

The responsibility for the Punic wars greatly shifts from one to the next as both Rome and Carthage were Superpowers in their own right and it was inevitable that there would be a collision and subsequent reaction from any action taken. This exhausting conflict was, according to Caven, a ‘contest in three rounds’ in which the Romans fought first for control of Sicily, then for the leadership of the western Mediterranean and finally to determine the survival or extinction of Carthage. By 270 Rome had conquered Italy and organised it into a confederation of Roman citizens and Latin and Italian allies.

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Polybius says that the Romans ‘Once having made themselves masters of Italy applied themselves to the conquest of countries further afield’ . This combined with the fact that the most populated parts of Italy were along the western side where the Dominant power was Carthage made it inevitable that Rome’s first contact in the Mediterranean would be with Carthage. The first of these three wars stemmed from a minor incident involving the town of Messana on the northeast tip of Sicily and the powerful city of Syracuse in the southeast of the island. The rest of the island was under Carthaginian influence.

Although Syracuse and Carthage were on reasonably good terms at this stage the Carthaginians did not want to see Messana fall into Syracusian hands. This prompted the mamertines to be pushed out of Messana and become concerned that the Carthaginians might occupy Messana permanently. And so it was decided to seek an alliance with Rome which seemed ‘To offer better long term security than Carthage’ Although the relationship between Carthage and Rome at this point was cordial they decided to ally themselves with the Mamertines making themselves solely responsible for joining into a wider conflict with the Carthaginians.

The acceptance of the mamertines into the Roman alliance forced the Syracusans and Carthaginians to co-operate in order to prevent Messana falling into the hands of the Romans and threatening their interests in Sicily. As far as Rome and Carthage were concerned, the war could have ended at this point. The romans had shown that they were prepared to protect the Mamertines, and Carthage had no reason to destroy them. The first Punic war was the classic example of an incident that got out of hand The first Punic War left Carthage greatly weakened.

Rome now occupied Sicily, while the Mercenary War left Carthage vulnerable in Africa as well. The Carthaginian response was to send Hamilcar Barca, their undefeated general from Sicily, to Spain (c. 238-7 BC), where he was to greatly revive Carthage’s fortunes. In 266 Carthage signed a treaty with Rome agreeing not to interfere with matters north of the River Ebro. This agreement didn’t cause any problems to either side at this point as Carthage’s Spanish lines were much further south, while Rome was not involved in Spain at all at this point.

This implies that Rome felt she had the right to intervene in Carthage’s affairs even at a distance, something that was bound to annoy the Carthaginians. Hasdrubal was replaced in command in Spain the son of Hamilcar, who was elected by the army in Spain. Everything suggests that he was intent on war with Rome from the moment he came to power, a trait he inherited from his father’s complete hatred of all Romans (considered by Polybius to be one of the main causes of the second war).

May historians have alluded to the possibility that Hannibal’s campaigns in Spain in 221 “can be seen as an attempt to capture more fertile lands to feed his army for an invasion of Italy” When the chance came to make the break with Rome, Hannibal seized it. By 220 the city of Saguntum, a long way south of the Ebro River, had allied with Rome. When a tribe allied to Carthage started to raid Saguntum’s territory, Hannibal sided with the allied tribe, and despite a direct warning from the Romans not to, he attacked Saguntum.

This blatant act of hostility towards Rome through the breaking of agreed lands in the Ebro River treaty places the responsibility of the 2nd Punic war firmly with Carthage and more specifically Hannibal. By the time the Second Punic War had ended, Carthage was a mere shadow of its former power. However, Hannibal proved to be as good a chief magistrate as he was as a general, and soon Carthage recovered. However, Messinia, governor of Numidia and a strong ally of the Romans, was able to pick at Carthage until Carthage attacked Numidia in 150 BC, breaking the treaty that ended the Second War.

The underlying cause of the third Punic war was the determination of Rome to dispose of the threat once and for all, which it perceived from Carthage, against which it had already won two wars. However, the official cause was violation of the peace treaty from the Second Punic War which made the Roman Senate, arbitrator of all border disputes involving Carthage, so that Carthage had to get approval from the Roman Senate before going to war. Rome then used its ally Numidia as proxy to harass Carthage, which eventually had to defend itself.

This gave Rome a valid excuse to declare war and destroy Carthage, establishing Rome as undisputed power in the western Mediterranean. Rome declared open war on Carthage in 149 BC, and an army landed in Africa after a long blockade. Carthage surrendered, as they could not take the onslaught of Roman might. The Roman terms were bitterly opposed by Carthage, as they called for the physical destruction of the city. This was in no small part due to the constant calls of Cato the Elder, who ended each speech he made in the Senate with “Carthago delenda est! (Carthage must be destroyed).

Carthage managed to withstand a siege for 3 years before yielding and the city was destroyed. Rome emerged from this war utterly transformed. Prior to the war, Roman territory had been limited to Italy. After the war Rome had gained Spain, secured control over the Mediterranean islands, and seen her first direct involvement in Greece. The years immediately after the war also saw Rome gain control over large areas of Greece previously closer to Carthage rule.

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