Second Punic War, 218-201 BC

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The outbreak of War
The opposing plans
Hannibal in Italy
Minor Theatres of War
Spain
Africa
Aftermath of the War
Bibliography with Amazon (US & UK)

The outbreak of War

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. By the time he was killed in an ambush (229 BC), he had secured control of the southern coast of Spain. He was replaced by his son-in-law Hasdrubal, who continued the advance, before his own assassination in 221. The key event of his time in charge was that in c.226 BC he signed a treaty with Rome agreeing not to interfere north of the River Ebro. This agreement didn't cause any problems to either side at this point - Carthage's Spanish lines were much further south, while Rome was not involved in Spain at all at this point. However, it was typical of Rome's attitude that she 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 by the twenty six year old Hannibal, 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 cause he probably inherited from his father (considered by Polybius to be one of the main causes of the second war). With this in mind, Hannibal's campaigns in Spain in 221 can be seen as an attempt to capture more fertile lands to feed his army for Italy. Certainly, when the chance came to make the break with Rome, Hannibal seized it. By 220 the city of Saguntum, some way south of the Ebro, 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, attacked Saguntum (Spring 219 BC). Although the siege took eight months, it consisted of a series of attempts to take the city by storm, an unusually aggressive plan for this period. The city was captured at the end of 219, and Hannibal sent his troops into winter quarters.

Although Rome did nothing to help Saguntum, she did sent a delegation to Carthage over the winter. In a dramatic scene in the Carthaginian senate, the leader of the Roman delegation declared war. Only two decades after one of the most costly wars of antiquity, Rome and Carthage were once again at war.

The Opposing Plans

Although it is Hannibal's plan that is better known, the Romans also started the war with an ambitious plan. Six legions, each containing 4,000 infantry and 300 cavalry were raised for the war. The two consuls for 218 were to lead the main campaigns. Publius Cornelius Scipio, with two legions and 15,600 allied troops was to be sent to Spain to oppose Hannibal, while Tiberius Sempronius Longus with another two legions and 17,800 allied troops was sent to Sicily to launch an invasion of Africa. Unlike in the first war, Rome could now count on effective command of the seas. Finally, the remaining two legions along with 11,000 allied troops were sent to Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy) under Lucius Manlius Vulso, a praetor, to guard against another Gallic rebellion.

Hannibal's plan is much better known. Rome was expecting him to adopt the same passive approach that the Carthaginians had followed in the first war, waiting in Spain for the Roman attack. Instead, Hannibal launched one of the most audacious attacks in history. His plan was to march the largest army he could muster through northern Spain, along the south coast of France, through the alps, and into northern Italy, where he hoped to raise new allies from amongst the Gallic tribes recently repressed by Rome. This was probably the only offensive option open to Carthage, but it was still a massive gamble.

Hannibal in Italy

Preparing for the March
The March to Italy
Arrival in Italy
Fabius
The Crisis of Cannae
The Missed Opportunity?
Rome's Recovery

Preparing for the March

It has sometimes been suggested that Hannibal had not intended to march into Italy, and merely took advantage of Roman inactivity. This does not stand up to close scrutiny. First of all, Hannibal made provision for the defence of both Africa and Spain, sending nearly 16,000 men to Africa to defend Carthage herself, and providing a force of 18,000 men commanded by his brother Hasdrubal to defend Carthage's Spanish province. Second, the force that Hannibal took into northern Spain was probably 100,000 strong, a vast force by the standards of the time, and far more than would be needed for a defensive policy. More importantly, it is clear that Hannibal had sent representatives all along the route he would take, and into northern Italy, and that they returned by the end of the winter of 219-218 BC, suggesting that they must have been sent east long before the fall of Sagentum. It has often been speculated that the idea of a land invasion of Italy had first been planned by Hannibal's father Hamilcar, and that his families activities in Spain had the sole purpose of building up strength for this endeavour. While this may be overstating the matter, it is quite probable that the plan that Hannibal followed predated the immediate crisis that sparked the war.

The March to Italy

The exact route followed by Hannibal is probably one of the most debated issues of classical history, with a wide variety of routes gained passionate support. However, this debate is largely pointless. First, none of our sources are even near contemporary with Hannibal - even Polybius was writing fifty years after the events at the start of the war. In the ever changing politics of Gaul, this was more than long enough for most of the Gallic tribes to have been forced into new territories. Second, the landscape itself has changed since the pre-Roman period, in some cases due to the activities of Imperial Rome herself, making any close examination of the landscape somewhat pointless. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it doesn't matter. What is important is not which mountain pass Hannibal crossed or which river he followed when, but that he successfully crossed from Spain to Italy and changed the nature of the war.

Despite this uncertainty, we can be clear on the important events of the march. Hannibal set out from New Carthage towards the end of the spring 218. After crossing the Ebro, he spent a month subduing the tribes between the Ebro and the Pyrenees, and left a force 11,000 strong to keep the area quiet. The crossing of the Pyrenees was apparently trouble free, although Hannibal reached Gaul with only 60,000 men, suggesting that some 20,000 men had fallen by the wayside. From the Pyrenees to the Rhone he was unopposed, but at the Rhone a sizeable Gallic army was waiting for him on the opposite bank of the river. Hannibal set up a camp opposite them, and then send a detachment to secretly cross the river upstream. When they were in place, he launched an attack across the river. Once the Gauls were in place to oppose his landing, the detachment already across the river attacked the Gallic camp, causing a panic which broke the Gallic army, and allowed Hannibal to get the rest of his army over the river.

Now for the first time the two sides met. Publius Scipio had finally set off for Spain, travelling by ship along the coast, reaching the Greek city of Massilia (modern Marseille) at roughly the same time that Hannibal crossed the Rhone. As Scipio's mission was to deal with Hannibal, he unloaded his troops and prepared for battle. However, other than a skirmish between their scouts, there was no fighting. Hannibal learnt of the Roman presence in time to make his escape upstream, and despite his best efforts Scipio only found Hannibal's camp three days after it had been abandoned. Denied battle, Scipio returned to the coast, where he send his army on to Spain, while himself returning to Italy to face Hannibal.

Meanwhile, Hannibal was now faced with the task that has most firmly lodged in the imagination of the western world, the crossing of the Alps, complete with elephants. We do not know which pass Hannibal used, and the climate has changed in the intervening centuries, making even the best argued route unreliable. What is certain is that the crossing was highly dangerous. The Allobroge tribe, which occupied the pass, did not respond to Hannibal's attempts at negotiation, and were clearly intending to raid his army as it passed along the narrow pass, vulnerable and strung out along a narrow path. The first encounters went Hannibal's way. He camped at the foot of the pass, and sent out scouts to investigate the Allobrogian positions, which dominated the pass. Luckily, it turned out that the Gauls returned to their villages every night, and Hannibal was able to capture their strong positions overnight. This gained him a period of quiet, before individual tribesman started to attack the column. Finally, Hannibal was forced to launch an attack on a strong Gallic position in front of the line of march, after which he was able to capture the Allobrogian town. This attack apparently persuaded the Gallic chieftains that continued attacks were not worth the risk, and they offered a truce. Despite this, there was one more major attack, launched at the rear of the column, after which the column was largely left in peace. This just left nature to defeat on the descent into Italy, a foe that Hannibal promptly overcame. In five months he had marched an army from Spain, all the way into northern Italy. Admittedly, this army was now only 26,000 strong, 20,000 less than crossed the Rhone, but what was left was probably the elite of the Carthaginian army.

Arrival in Italy

Hannibal was now faced with two problems. The first was that the Gallic tribe in the area of Italy he had reached, the Taurini, were unwilling to fight for him. The second was that his army was critically short of supplies after their long march. He solved both of these problems with an attack on the main hillfort of the Taurini, which he took after a three day siege, after which he massacred the inhabitants. This removed any threat from the Taurini, made other Gallic tribes more likely to aid him, and gained his army the food stored in the fort.

Hannibal now learnt of the presence of Publius Scipio in the area. Having last met him with his army at the Rhone, Hannibal must have assumed that he now faced a much larger army than he in fact did, Scipio having returned without his troops. Both sides now advanced towards each other along the River Po, both obviously intending to give battle. Hannibal's plan relied on his gaining support amongst the Gauls, and he could thus not back down from this first Roman threat, while Scipio acted as all Roman generals of the time did, secure in his belief that his troops were superior. When the two armies scouts reported contact, both commanders went forward with larger scouting forces, in the case of Hannibal probably his 6,000 cavalry who outnumbered Scipio's forces. The two scouting commanders met at the battle of Ticinus (November 218 BC), a small-scale battle notable only as the first of Hannibal's battles on Italian soil. Hannibal's force was the larger, and his cavalry probably superior, and he came out victorious. Scipio, now injured, retreated across the River Trebia and encamped, awaiting reinforcements. This visible sign of Roman weakness encouraged many Gauls to join Hannibal, some deserting from Scipio's army, as would each of Hannibal's series of great victories.

Despite this first setback, Roman morale remained good. The Legions had yet to enter battle, and only the less important cavalry had been defeated. The other Consul for the year, Sempronius Longus, was ordered north from Sicily with his army, and managed the impressive feat of travelling most of the length of Italy with his army in forty days, apparently raising morale as he went. His force joined with that of the injured Scipio and the Romans once again prepared to attack.

Although he had not attacked Scipio, Hannibal had spent the forty days productively, securing new supplied, and scouting out the area where any battle would take place. The ground between the two armies was an apparently flat plain, with no risk of ambush, but Hannibal found a hidden gully, where towards the end of December 218 BC he placed a force of 2,000 men under his brother Mago. The next day he was able to provoke the Roman's into giving battle. The resulting battle of the Trebia saw Hannibal defeat a larger Roman force, probably of some 42,000 men. Mago's attack in the Roman rear was the turning point of the battle, although the Roman defeat was still not as severe as those to come. 10,000 legionaries from the centre of the Roman line were able to escape by breaking through Hannibal's own centre, but by then the battle was lost, and all they could do was make their escape. Once again, Hannibal's victory encouraged more Gallic tribes to join him. The superior skills of both Hannibal and his army were by now starting to become clear. At the Trebia he had managed to choice both the time and place of battle, and with an unorthodox plan was able to defeat a larger Roman force.

Roman morale was still not badly shaken. Neither consul had been killed, and their successors were appointed as normal. Moreover, Hannibal only had two options. The Apennine mountains which divide Italy forced him to either move down the east coast into Picenum, or cross the Appenine passes into Etruria in the west. To guard against this, one consul, Servilius Geminus was sent to the east coast, the other, Caius Flaminius to guard the passes, each with a normal consular army. Despite pointedly rapid movement by Flaminius, Hannibal still managed to get over the passes unopposed, and once again take control of the situation, this time by marching straight past Flaminius, burning and pillaging as he went, and forcing the Romans to chase him. Across the end of May and June 217 BC, the two armies marched across Etruria, until Hannibal found an ideal location for an ambush at Lake Trasimene, where the road passed along a narrow stripe on land between the lake on one side and some hills on the other. Hannibal marched through this natural trap, and made camp. Once the Romans were in place at the other end of the defile, Hannibal marched his troops back around the hills, where by daybreak they were in place on the reverse side of the hills, hidden to the Romans, who marched straight into the trap.

The resulting battle of Lake Trasimene (21 June 217 BC) was a crushing defeat for the Romans. Hannibal was able to hold back his attack until almost the entire Roman army was stuck in the trap, only attacking when the front of the Roman column encountered his troops at the exit from the defile. The Romans were trapped against the lake, unable to make any organised resistance. Even so, the battle lasted for three hours, and Hannibal's own losses were not trivial. However, in comparison the Roman losses were devastating. Flaminius died, although whether after panicking (Polybius) or after leading his men well (Livy), is unclear, and his army destroyed. The Roman disaster was made complete a few days later when Hannibal destroyed Geminius's cavalry, coming ahead of the rest of his army, and effectively stopping him in his tracks. For a moment, Rome looked to be almost defenceless.

Fabius

Finally, Rome was panicked. The Roman army still included a high number of men from the city, and the massive losses at Trasimene probably affected everybody in Rome. Their reaction was to appoint the 58 year old Quintus Fabius Maximus as Dictator, a post that gave him near total authority for a period of six months. His immediate concern was the defence of the city itself, for many expected Hannibal to march straight to Rome. However, his army had still not recovered from their epic journey before fighting three battles, and needed time to rest. He had thus marched them east, and after restoring his troops and their horses to health, marched down the east coast, devastating it as he passed.

Fabius now embarked on the strategy that he is most famous for. Near Aecae, Fabius with a new 40,000 strong Roman army came back into contact with Hannibal, but this time he was determined not to offer battle. Instead, his plan was to shadow Hannibal, never giving him a chance for another battle, but snipping away at Punic foragers and restricting the freedom of Hannibal and his men to plunder the areas they passed through. The aim of this was to all the new Roman armies to gain experience together, while weakening Hannibal. This was a unique strategy for a Roman general of this period, who were far more likely to attack at the first chance.

Hannibal responded by moving back west across the Apennines, and moving into the Ager Falernus, a fertile and prosperous area in Campania, where many Romans had vineyards. Hannibal hoped to provoke Fabius into an attack, but he was not to be shifted from his plan, and simply watched Hannibal ravage the area from the safety of the surrounding mountains. This soon left Hannibal with the problem of how to escape from the area. He chose to return over the same pass he had used to enter the area, a move that was anticipated by Fabius, who blocked the pass.

Hannibal's response has become a classic of military history. At night, he gathered together all the oxen captured by his army, tied burning torches to their horns, and drove them along a ridge near the pass. The Romans guarding the pass saw the lights, and chased off after the oxen, allowing Hannibal and his main army to slip through the pass unopposed. This success seriously weakened Fabius's prestige in Rome, and for a brief period his deputy Minucius was given shared command. Minucius quickly managed to get his half of the army into serious danger, only to be rescued by Fabius. Minucius returned his power to Fabius. Soon after this, his period of power ended, and he returned to Rome to be acclaimed as the saviour of the city, while normal rule resumed.

The Crisis of Cannae

The restoration of normal politics at Rome also marked a return to the attack in the war. The two new consuls, Caius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, were each given a double sized consular army, which gave them a combined force of 80,000 men, and once their army was ready this massive force moved off towards Hannibal. In light of the huge defeat soon to be inflicted on them, Roman intentions have often been a subject of debate. However, it is clear that the plan was to return to the attack. This new army was far bigger than would be needed to continue Fabius's plan. Moreover, each of previous Roman defeats could be explained by special circumstances if one so wished, and Fabius had created an army that had faced Hannibal for six months.

The two consuls caught up with Hannibal near Cannae in mid July 216 and quickly established a camp only a couple of miles from that of Hannibal, a clear sign that battle was desired. The massive Roman force outnumbered Hannibal by close to 30,000 men, and the battlefield would give no obvious advantage to Hannibal. Later traditions of dissent between Varro and Paullus are probably inventions made in the knowledge of the disaster to come. What is clear is that on Varro's day of command, the Romans decided to offer battle, and Hannibal accepted.

The Romans deployed 76,000 men on the battlefield. The centre of their line contained 55,000 heavy infantry, along with 15,000 velites. On the Roman right wing, Paullus commanded the Roman cavalry, 2,400 strong, guarding the River flank, while on the left, Varro commanded the 3,600 allied cavalry, up against the hill of Cannae. The Roman plan was simple. The cavalry on the wings would hold Hannibal's superior horse for long enough for the infantry to do its job and destroy the Punic infantry, thus ending the threat from Hannibal.

Hannibal's plan was more complex. The bulk of his cavalry, 6000 Gallic and Spanish cavalry, were on the left wing, facing the Roman cavalry. The 4000 Numidian cavalry were on the right, facing the Latin horse. In the centre were the 20,000 Celtic and 4,000 Spanish infantry. The key to the plan was the 8-10,000 Libyan heavy infantry, amassed in strong columns on both flanks, probably hidden from the Romans. The Celtic and Spanish infantry were position slightly ahead of the rest of the army. Hannibal's plan relied on the fighting ability of his men. The Spanish and Celtic infantry were to slowly retreat in the face of the Roman legions, while the Punic cavalry defeated the Roman and Latin horse. Once the Romans had advanced far enough, the heavy Libyan infantry was to plunge into the sides of the by then disordered Roman legions, while the Punic cavalry attacked the rear.

Hannibal's plan was successful. The battle of Cannae (2 August 216 BC), was one of the worst defeats in Roman history. However, there were moments when it might have failed. The Roman legions were a fearsome fighting machine, and the Spanish and Celtic troops came close to defeat. If the Punic centre had been defeated, then Hannibal's army would have been rendered harmless. Even it had simply been pushed back too quickly, the Roman troops might have been able to turn and defeat the new threat. As it was, the Spanish and Celts held out until the Roman infantry had turned into more of an armed mob than an army, and when the Libyans attacked, they were unable to mount a serious defence. By then, the Roman and Latin cavalry had been defeated, and the Legions were surrounded. The rest of the battle was a massacre. Several hours of fighting saw 50,000 Roman soldiers killed, a bloodbath rarely equalled in a single days fighting, even on the western front.

The Missed Opportunity?

What Hannibal should have done after Cannae has become one of the great debates of military history. He had just won one of the greatest victories, against a much larger army, and had once again wiped out a major Roman army. Many at the time, and since, have suggested that Hannibal should have marched as quickly as possible on Rome, where the level of panic caused by the defeat would have led to a quick Roman surrender. Instead, Hannibal chose to rest his army, and to avoid Rome.

What would have happened if Hannibal had arrived at Rome is impossible to tell. When he did arrive before the city in 211 BC, there was never any danger that he could take the city, or force a settlement, but by then Roman fortunes had recovered. Certainly there were strong Roman forces near to the city, which would have arrived in Rome before Hannibal, and the cities defences would have made it very hard for Hannibal to take the city. If it had come to a trial of military strength in front of the walls of Rome, the odds were against Hannibal. However, with their main army destroyed, it was the impact on Roman morale that would have been important. The most powerful argument in favour of a march on Rome is that we know that Hannibal's chosen strategy failed, and Carthage lost war. With this in mind, it is argued that a march on Rome could hardly have had a worse result. Naturally, Hannibal could not know this. Having defeated every army sent against him, it is natural that Hannibal would have expected to be able to repeat the performance. With an army exhausted by the fighting, Hannibal's decision not to risk a rapid cross-country march is more understandable.

Rome's Recovery

Although it did not seem so at the time, Cannae and it's aftermath marked the high point of Hannibal's time in Italy. His campaign went on for another thirteen years, and saw many individual successes before he was finally recalled to Africa. His plan was what it probably always had been - by inflicting defeats on Roman armies he hoped to split up the system of alliances that gave Rome control of Italy and the manpower to fight a war, and force them to come to terms. This had worked in the north of Italy, where Hannibal had been able to recruit his Celtic troops, and after Cannae it started to work in southern Italy, where a series of cities changed sides, most importantly Capua, which joined Hannibal soon after Cannae.

The Roman response to this was to prey on Hannibal's new vulnerability - his allies. Instead of using a single large army, Rome now began to field multiple smaller armies. Never mind how fast Hannibal could move, he could not oppose all of the Roman armies, which left his allies to defend themselves for much of the time. Despite their defeats, and the defections, Rome could still field far larger armies than Hannibal, and could replace losses much more easily. Only one fleet arrived to reinforce him, in 214, and an attempt to reinforce from Spain met with eventual disaster, as we will see below. One answer was to form armies of Italian troops with Carthaginian commanders, but this armies were generally unsuccessful, leaving Hannibal's own army as the only one truly capable of defeating Roman troops. He still won some notable victories, destroying an army 16,000 strong in 212 BC, another 7,000 strong in 210 BC, and killing both of the Consuls for 208.

For some time Hannibal still appeared to be on the brink of success. Over the winter of 216-215 he captured Casilinum, making Capua less vulnerable to Roman assault, and in 212 he captured the city of Tarentum. However, the Roman garrison managed to retain the citadel, which reduced the usefulness of the port, and no reinforcements came. 212 saw Hannibal's fortunes start to change. The Romans besieged Capua. The next year Hannibal was forced to march to defend his most important ally, but the Romans were not willing to risk a battle, and remained in their fortified lines. Hannibal launched an attack on the Roman lines, timed to coincide with a similar attack from Capua, but the attacks were repulsed. It was at this point that Hannibal finally marched on Rome, and for a brief period was camped outside the city, but by this point his appearance did not worry the inhabitants, and he was soon forced to march away, leaving Capua with no choice but to surrender. Two years later, in 209 BC Tarentum also fell to Rome. Rome was remarkably generous to those cities that returned to Roman allegiance voluntarily, rather than after defeat, and once the tide started to turn against Hannibal, many communities took the chance to disentangle themselves from his cause.

Rome faced one final threat in Italy. In 208-7, Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal followed in his footsteps, crossing from Spain to Italy with a new army, causing a panic in Rome. This time the Roman response was much more effective. One army, under the consul Salinator, was placed near Ariminum, while another under Varro was placed on the other side of the Apennines, blocking the two routes Hasdrubal could use to move south. Hasdrubal began by laying siege to Placentia, and sending messages south to his brother. However, neither effort met with success. The siege had to be abandoned, while the messages were intercepted. Armed with the knowledge of Hasdrubal's plans, the second Consul, Caius Claudius Nero, marched the best part of his army from southern Italy up to join Salinator, now facing Hasdrubal. Faced with a two consul army, Hasdrubal attempted a retreat, but got lost and was caught by the Romans pinned against the River Metaurus. The battle of Metaurus saw his army destroyed, and Hasdrubal himself killed. The last real threat to Rome was over. When another army, 14,000 strong and commanded by Hannibal's last brother, Mago, landed near Genoa, there was no panic, and the resulting campaign was low key, ending in the defeat of Mago, who died of his wounds while returning to Africa.

Hannibal too was soon to return to Carthage. While his campaign in southern Italy continued with some success, elsewhere the war had turned decisively against Carthage. With Spain and Sicily both firmly in Roman hands, Carthage itself was now vulnerable, and in 203 BC, Hannibal, with at least some of his army, sailed back from southern Italy to Carthage for the final confrontation of the war. One of histories great military adventures had come to a tame end. Hannibal never lost a major battle in Italy, but the war was lost.

Minor Theatres of War

Macedonia
Sicily

Macedonia

Although the Second Punic War spread to Greece, the fighting there, known as the First Macedonian War (215-205 BC) was something of a side issue, and involved almost no Punic troops, and rarely more than a single Roman legion. The war was begun by Philip V of Macedonia, who was worried about Roman expansion in Illyria, on his western border. Encouraged by Hannibal's successes against Rome, especially Cannae, Philip negotiated an alliance with Hannibal, and launched an attack against the Roman presence. This attack was easily defeated, but for a brief period news of the Macedonia alliance caused a panic in Rome, and expectation of a Macedonian invasion of Italy. The main importance of the alliance is that the treaty provides us with a rare insight into the Carthaginian war aims. The agreement between Hannibal and Philip made it clear that they expected Rome to survive the war in some strength, and to still present a threat to the new allies.

The war in Greece soon expanded into a continuation of the power struggles in Greece caused by the collapse of Macedonian power. In 211 BC Rome signed an alliance with the Aetolian league, one of the stronger powers in Greece, and Philip found himself under attack from several sides at once. However, he was the superior general, and the war continued with Philip winning a series of minor victories, while the Macedonians suffered defeats in his absence. However, in 207 his allies, the Achaean League, Philip's allies, won a great victory over the Spartans at Mantineia, and the Aetolian league made peace with Philip. Despite a brief attempt to fight on, Rome and Macedonia made peace in 205 (Peace of Phoinike), on terms relatively advantageous to Macedonia. The main legacy of the war was a great bitterness in Rome toward Philip, who they saw as attacking them during at their lowest ebb, which quickly led to the Second Macedonian War.

Sicily

Sicily had been the main theatre of war during the first Punic War, but during the second war it never achieved the same importance. When the war broke out, Sicily was split into a Roman province in the west, and an area in the east controlled by Syracuse, still controlled by Hiero, Rome's ally of the first war. When the war broke out in 218, Rome's first thought was to use Sicily as a base to invade Africa, but Hannibal's success in Italy put paid to that plan. It is a sign of how secure the Romans felt in Sicily that in 216 the troops then on the island were replaced by the two legions raised from the survivors of Hannibal's great victory at Cannae. However, this security was short-lived. Over the winter of 216-215, Hiero died, after fifty years of rule in Syracuse. He was succeeded by his young grandson, who began negotiations with Carthage, but he was murdered after thirteen months, in an outbreak of factional fighting that saw most of the Royal family killed. Syracuse itself remained controlled by a faction friendly to Rome, but there was a strong pro-Carthage faction, perhaps led by Hippocrates and Epicydes, two brothers in the Carthaginian delegation descended from an exile from Syracuse. In 214 they were elected to senior positions in the city, but the pro-Roman element was still stronger, and Hippocrates was sent to command the garrison of Leontini, where he was soon joined by his brother. This garrison included a large number of deserters from the Roman army in the west of the island, and led by the brothers Leontini declared itself independent. From this base they started to raid the Roman province, and were quickly disowned by Syracuse. The consul in charge on Sicily, Marcellus, attacked the city and captured it by storm, capturing most of the garrison, but not the brothers, who escaped from the city, managed to win over a Syracusan force sent to help the Romans, and managed to take control of Syracuse itself, making war in Rome unavoidable.

Marcellus, by now proconsul, decided to move to attack, and in the spring of 213 BC made an attempt to capture the city by storm, marking the start of the Siege of Syracuse, one of the great sieges of the ancient world. The city defences were amongst the best then in existence, having been repeatedly improved, most recently with the aid of the mathematician Archimedes, who designed a range of successful siege engines. Marcellus's assault on the city was a predictable failure, and he decided to split the Roman forces. Marcellus took one third of the army to attack other rebel communities, while he left the rest of the army under Appius Claudius Pulcher to conduct the siege of the city. However, this plan had to be abandoned when Carthage responded to the opportunity presented by sending a army 28,000 strong to Sicily. This new army moved east along the south coast of Sicily, occupying Agrigentum. Marcellus chanced across a Syracusan army which had broken out from Syracuse, marching to join with the Carthaginians, and was able to destroy it, before retreating back to Syracuse, closely followed by the Carthaginian force. The Roman army around Syracuse was also reinforced, while the Carthaginian army soon headed away into the interior in an attempt to reduce the number of Roman allies. In the event, a massacre committed by a Roman commander had more effect, but none of this stopped the siege, which ground on through 212 BC, increasingly favouring the Romans, first when they captured one part of the city, then when plague almost destroyed the Carthaginian army, and finally, towards the end of the year when the last great Carthaginian supply fleet turned away without reaching the city. Finally, the rest of the city fell.

The capture of Syracuse did not give Roman uncontested control of Sicily. In 211 BC a new Carthaginian commander, with a slightly reinforced army, led resistance from Agrigentum. Their greatest successes came from a force of light Numidian cavalry, who raided Roman lands with impunity, although the Romans won a victory at the River Himera when the Numidian commander, Muttines, was absent. Roman victory finally came in 210 BC. Their new commander, Marcus Valerius Laevinus, one of the consuls for the year, decided to launch an attack on Agrigentum. His task was made easier by the Carthaginian commander, who dismissed Muttines and replaced him with his own son. The Numidians remained loyal to Muttines, and when the Romans arrived at the city, opened one of the city gates and let them in. The loss of their last major base ended Carthage's interest in Sicily. The majority of rebel cities quickly returned to the Roman side, and the island remained safe for the rest of the war. This victory was important for several reasons. It was the first major Roman victory of the war, an important morale boost. It prevented Carthage from using Sicily as a base to reinforce Hannibal in Italy. Finally, Sicilian grain played a major part in feeding both the population of Rome, and the many legions by then in the field.

Spain

Cnaeus and Publius Scipio
Scipio Africanus

Cnaeus and Publius Scipio

While Hannibal marched to Italy, a Roman army under Publius was being sent to Spain. The two armies almost met near Marseilles, but Hannibal was able to avoid a battle. Publius returned to Italy to face him, but he sent the bulk of him army, now commanded by his brother Cnaeus Scipio on to Spain. The Roman army landed at Emporion, north of the River Ebro, where he quickly boosted his army to 25,000, including, as was always the case in Spain, a sizable contingent of locals.

Punic control of Spain was not secure. The heart of the Punic province was a small area around New Carthage and Gades. South of the Ebro Carthaginian conquests made before the war were still only loosely controlled, while the area north of the Ebro had been smashed through by Hannibal. The Spanish tribes were loyal to success, and frequently changed sides after a setback, emphasising any success or failure. This weakness may explain the Carthaginian reaction. The commander north of the Ebro, Hanno, faced the Romans with only 11,000 men. As the war in Italy shows, a commander who did not want to offer battle could not easily be forced to fight, but Hanno was defeated at the battle of Cissa (near modern Tarragona). Hanno was captured, as was Indibilis, a Spanish leader who was to play a major part in the war. In the aftermath of the Roman victory, most communities north of the Ebro quickly defected to Rome. Hasdrubal Barca, the overall Punic commander in Spain, led a small army in a quick raid against the Roman fleet, which caught out some Roman detachments, but was too small to remain safely north of the Ebro, and Hasdrubal retreated south, leaving Rome with a secure base in northern Spain. For the next few years the two sides engaged in inconclusive manoeuvres. In early 215 an attempt was made by Hasdrubal to lead another army along the land route to Italy, but this was defeated at the battle of Ibera. Otherwise, Rome was generally on the offensive in Spain, but only slow progress was made.

Roman Disaster

Publius and Cnaeus Scipio decided to launch an major offensive in 211 BC. The three Punic armies in Spain were for once fairly close together, and the Romans apparently felt strong enough to defeat them all. This confidence was probably aided by the 20,000 Celtiberian allies with the Roman armies. The Roman army split into two, one third under Cnaeus, two thirds under Publius, and moved to face the three Punic armies. Publius was the first to be defeated. Hearing that a force of Spanish allies were heading towards the Punic army, he decided to intercept it. After a night march the Roman army met the Spanish and engaged in a badly organised battle. When the Punic army arrived, the Romans found themselves in serious trouble. When Publius was killed by a javelin, the Roman situation became hopeless and the army was massacred. Cnaeus also soon came to grief. Hasdrubal Barca negotiated with his Celtiberian allies, who agreed to leave the battlefield. Cnaeus was forced to retreat in an attempt to return to safety, but the three Punic armies converged on his column and soon surrounded the Roman force. Cnaeus was killed, and his army overwhelmed. Roman power in Spain collapsed. Only a minor foothold remained to them north of the Ebro.

Scipio Africanus

Spain saw the first appearance of the greatest Roman general of the war - Publius Cornelius Scipio or Scipio Africanus - son of the Publius Scipio killed in 211. At the time he was only in his mid 20s, head of one of Rome's great families, but had not held the major posts in the Roman state that normally went before high military command. Quite why he was appointed is not clear, but the suggestion from the sources is that no one else wanted the post. He arrived in Spain towards the end of 210 BC with limited reinforcements, leaving the Romans outnumbered some three to one. However, the Punic armies were scattered across Spain helping to maintain Punic control of the province. Even if he had been able to confront just one of the Punic armies, Scipio could not be certain of forcing battle, nor of the result if he did, and so Scipio decided on a bold move. In 209 BC, Scipio launched an attack on the important Punic city of New Carthage. Moving quickly, the Roman army and navy appeared before the city without warning. After a failed assault, which served to wear down the defenders, a second assault met with success. Aided by local informers, Scipio had discovered that the northern lagoon protecting the city could be forded, and a small Roman force was able to get on to the undefended northern wall, from where they were able to reach the main gate and let in the Roman army. The citadel soon fell, and with it any hope of organised resistance. The fall of New Carthage still left the Punic armies intact, but it dramatically changed the overall position in Spain. The city had contained a major Punic treasury, as well as military stores and also hostages being kept to ensure the support of the Spanish tribes.

Despite this setback, 208 was to see another Punic expedition from Spain to Italy. Scipio started the year with another victory, this time over the army of Hasdrubal Barca at the battle of Baecula. However there is some uncertainty about Hasdrubal's intentions here. Immediately after the battle, he began his march to Italy, which suggests that his army was not badly damaged by the battle, and it may be that a truer image of the battle would be as a delaying action fought by Hasdrubal to allow his army to begin it's march.

Despite the capture of New Carthage and the departure of Hasdrubal Barca, the balance in Spain still appears to have favoured the Carthaginians. In 206, they took the offensive. An army somewhere between 55,000 and 74,000 strong, led by Hasdrubal Gisgo, moved into a position that made it clear he wanted battle. Scipio could face him with just under 50,000 men, although only half of these were Roman or Italian, the rest being the same Celtiberians who had deserted the Roman cause in 211. The resulting battle of Ilipa saw Scipio outwit his opponents. For several days the two sides deployed for battle but did not fight. On the day of the battle, Scipio changed his deployment, and at first light deployed closer to the Punic camp. Only after Hasdrubal had deployed his own troops did he realise that the Roman deployment had changed. The resulting battle saw a Roman victory, apparently ended by the weather, which prevented an attack on the strong Punic camp. In the aftermath, Hasdrubal's Spanish allies began to desert him, and he was forced to retreat. The retreat turned into a rout under strong Roman pressure. Hasdrubal was forced to flee to North Africa, Mago to Gades. After Mago left to prepare another expedition to Italy, Gades surrendered to the Romans. Scipio had won total success in Spain, ending for ever the Carthaginian presence in the Peninsular. Scipio now turned his attention to Africa.

Africa

As a result of his victory in Spain, Scipio Africanus won election as one of the consuls for 205 BC. His intention was to invade Africa and take the war directly to Carthage. This move was strongly resisted by some in Rome, especially Fabius Maximus. Their objections were quite valid - Hannibal was still active in Italy, with rumours of more reinforcements to join him, while the failed attempt to attack Carthage directly in 255 BC had prolonged the First Punic War by some ten years. However, Scipio had enough support to get his own way and was granted Sicily as his province for the year. This was the ideal base for an attack on Carthage - fighting on the island had been over for five years, while the garrison of the island could provide the nucleus of the invading army.

On his arrival in Sicily, Scipio settled down to train his army. The garrison of Sicily was based on the two legions disgraced at Cannae, still exiled on the island until the end of the war. Scipio was able to add to this force 7,000 volunteers, eager to play a part in the invasion of Africa and attracted by his reputation. He stripped out the elderly and unfit from the garrison and replaced them with these new troops. He also had to prepare his army for battle - the war in Sicily had not seen great set piece battles. Eventually, Scipio had his army, probably 25,000-30,000 strong, ready for the invasion.

The invasion force set sail for Africa early in the spring on 204 BC. The vast fleet, containing 400 transport ships guarded by a mere 40 warships, managed the crossing unmolested by the lacklustre Punic navy. Three days after leaving Sicily, the army landed at Cap Farina, near the city of Utica. There he was joined by Masinissa, king of the Maesulii, one of the Numidian tribes, who had been recently defeated by Syphax, a pro-Punic rival, but who was later to provide invaluable help. After defeating two small Punic forces, Scipio settled down to besiege Utica.

Carthage responded by raising another two armies, a Numidian army under Syphax, and a Punic army led by Hasdrubal Gisgo. These armies camped six or seven miles from the Romans, in camps about a mile apart. Early in the spring of 203 BC, Scipio launched simultaneous attacks on these camps and drove off both Punic armies, giving the Romans the freedom to act as they wished around Utica.

Carthage responded by raising yet another army, with many survivors of the debacle of the camps. Although this new Punic army outnumbered the Roman force, Scipio was willing to offer battle. His faith in his troops was justified at the Battle of the Great Plains (203 BC). The Punic army collapsed quickly, with the exception of a small Spanish contingent, whose resistance allowed most of the Punic army to escape.

However, the Romans were now in a dominant position. Scipio chose to split his force. One contingent was sent into Numidea to restore Masinissa to power while the rest under Scipio marched towards Carthage herself. The reaction in Carthage was panic. The momentous decision was made to recall Hannibal from Italy to lead the defence. A second response was to send the Punic fleet to attack the Roman fleet at Utica, but this attack was bungled. A lack of urgency allowed Scipio to return to the siege of Utica in time prepare a defence. Even so, the Punic fleet was able to capture sixty transports. Meanwhile, the army sent with Masinissa had defeated his rivals. From now on Rome was able to call on Numidean allies.

At the end of 203 BC, the Punic position was grim. At Carthage the 'peace party' came to the fore, and a delegation was sent to Scipio to negotiate an end to the war. What happened now is not entirely clear. It is certain that peace terms were offered, which included a Carthaginian withdrawal from Italy and Spain, the surrender of any claims to islands in the Mediterranean and a massive reduction in the size of their fleet as well as a fine of uncertain size. These terms were accepted, although whether this was genuine or just to allow time for Hannibal to return is unclear. It is also unclear what happened in Rome. According to Polybius the treaty was confirmed in Rome, while Livy claimed that the negotiations in Rome failed. Regardless, the treaty did not last. A Roman supply convoy fell into Punic hands during the winter, and Roman demands for it's return were refused, effectively reopening the war.

The renewed war took a more ruthless turn. Scipio was desperate not to see his victory usurped by a new commander and was determined to force an end to the war. The increased brutality of the Roman campaign forced Carthage to order Hannibal to attack. After a delay while he strengthened his army, Hannibal moved out to offer battle. Punic survival was to rest on a battle between the two greatest commanders of the war.

The resulting battle of Zama (202 BC) saw Hannibal finally defeated in battle. For years he had won victories with his experienced army, but now he faced the best Roman army of the war, while he himself commanded a makeshift army, containing remnants of the forces already defeated by Scipio supported by those of his veterans that Hannibal had managed to get back from Italy. His battle plan was suitably simple. His infantry was to attempt to smash through the Roman centre, with his veterans held in reserve for the final phase of the battle, when the Romans would have all of their infantry engaged. This plan came close to success, but at the key point in the battle, with the Roman lines in disarray and Hannibal about to put in his veterans, the Romans demonstrated the high level of training in their army. Scipio's army reformed, never easy during a battle, and very rare in this period, and was able to face and hold Hannibal's veterans, before the Roman cavalry managed to outflank the Punic army. Surrounded, Hannibal's army was destroyed.

The war was now over. Carthage was forced to sue for peace, this time on harsher terms than in the previous year. They were forced to abandon all lands outside Africa, acknowledge Masinissa's kingdom, and agree not to fight any wars in Africa without Roman permission. They were also to pay an indemnity of 10,000 silver talents over a fifty year period, support Scipio's army until the peace was confirmed, and reduced their fleet to a mere ten ships. What little protest there was against this in the Senate of Carthage was overruled by Hannibal, who knew that the war was lost. After seventeen years, the war was over.

Aftermath

Although massively weakened, Carthage survived the war. After a period of instability, Carthage was able to regain some of her commercial wealth, until eventually Rome once again felt threatened. However, as a military or Imperial power Carthage was finished. Roman control over the western Mediterranean was not threatened for centuries.

Rome emerged from the 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 saw Rome gain control over large areas of Greece and defeat the successors to Alexander the Great. An Imperial power had been born.

cover The Punic Wars, Adrian Goldsworthy. An excellent work which covers all three Punic wars. Strong on both the land and naval elements of the wars. cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 December 2002), Second Punic War, 218-201 BC, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_punic2.html

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