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Background to the Wars with Carthage

By 270 BC Rome had conquered Italy and organized it into a confederation of Roman citizens and Latin and Italian allies.

In the Western Mediterranean, Carthage was the dominant power, controlling a large part of North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and part of Southern Spain.

Polybius says the Romans, having mastered Italy, applied themselves to conquest further afield. Some modern scholars believe contact with the Mediterranean powers came about partly by design but more by accident. The fact that the most populated area of Rome was along the west coast made it inevitable that Rome’s first contact in the Mediterranean would be Carthage.

The Punic Wars were contested in 3 rounds, the Romans first fought for control of Sicily then the leadership of the Western Mediterranean and finally to determine the survival or extinction of Carthage.

The second of these 3 wars marked a turning point for Rome in both domestic and foreign policy. It also involved her in hostilities with Macedon and alliance with the Greeks.

Rome became the natural protection of smaller states against the aggression of Hellenistic empires.



Romans who had been involved in Greek affairs since 200 BC were sensitive to Greek attitudes and after 168 BC carried out a political purge of those suspected of disloyalty to Rome. Polybius was among 1000 taken to Rome, and he remained there for 16 years, becoming a close friend and advisor to Scipio Aemilianus.

He was an eyewitness to the destruction of Carthage.

In many eyewitness, where he was not, he was able to interview cases he could say he was an those who had witnessed events.

Because of his privileged position in Rome he was able to consult official Roman documents and inscriptions such as treaties between Rome and Carthage

Some bias in dealing with Scipio Aemilianus, some confusion in chronology, inconsistent attitude to religion.


No experience with war or politics, no knowledge of the places about which he wrote. He was an armchair historian

His aim in writing was to put on record the story of the greatest nation of the world

Livy had to base his work on written accounts of others, relying a great deal on Polybius

Livy’s mistakes were due to nature of his sources, lack of opportunity to verify sources, imaginative use of sources and intense patriotism

He is a valuable authority on the role of individuals, descriptions of the meeting of The Senate, military population, Italian colonies, income, taxation and the names of allies


There is abundant archaeological evidence for the period, remains of Corinth and Carthage, sites of important battles (Trasimene), weapons, reliefs depicting soldiers and ships of the period and bronze and marble busts (Scipio Africanus, Claudius Marcellus)

Coins minted in Sicily, Carthage, Spain and Italy provide evidence concerning people – Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal, Masinissa and events of the period

Inscriptions on monuments, sarcophagi and coins also complement written sources.


Est. on seaward side of the peninsula which provided a sheltered harbour and protection from attack by land. Guarded by the frontier called ‘The Phoenician Trenches’

In the 6th century Carthage embarked on a deliberate policy of expansion

For 3 centuries she had been in conflict with the Greeks of Sicily for control. In 278 BC the Greeks called Pyrrhus for help but by 276 BC Carthage had control as far as Syracuse

Effective power was in the hands of the wealthy nobles. Ruling oligarchs could hold more than one office. Factions often ruled in their own interest, preventing a unified approach

Controlled large and prosperous commercial empire. Trade, customs, tribute and produce in North Africa cultivated by slaves

Navy was the most important. Relied on a large fleet to protect commercial fleet and spheres of influence. It had never really been tested in battle

Army was recruited from subject states and mercenaries as there were too few Carthaginian citizens to serve. Generals and officers were Carthaginians. Extensive use was made of the Numidian cavalry. Elephants were introduced as '‘tanks'’about 270 BC

Diplomatic relations with Rome from about 6th century BC




Dominant in w Mediterranean

Large revenue

Large navy

Professional generals

City virtually impregnable


Dominant in Italy

Unlimited source of manpower

Favourable policy to allies secured loyalty

Citizen army patriotic

Reasonably stable govt.



Reliance on mercenaries

Members of empire subjects not allies

Ruling oligarchy made up of factions


No real navy

Roman commanders consuls for 1 year only

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Copyright Sherrie Thompson 1999
all rights reserved

Posted 4 May 1999