The Prelude to the War
By the latter half of the third century BC, Rome was a well-established power in the Western Mediterranean with its only real rival being the Phoenician city-state Carthage. Situated in what is now known as Tunisia, Carthage was an impressive maritime power possessing a great deal of commercial wealth. The two powers had clashed previously in 264 to 241 over the sovereignty of Sicily with Roman emerging as the eventual successor.
By the 220s Carthage had recovered and was thriving by establishing a substantial foothold in the Iberian Peninsula. Roman concerns over the possibility of Carthage and the Gauls reuniting against them led to the creation of the ‘Ebro Treaty’ in 226BC. This treaty was conducted with the Carthaginians and set a boundary to their Northern expansion at the river Ebro. However, Rome’s alliance with Saguntum, located south of Ebro, was viewed as a violation by the Carthaginians. Carthage, still feeling aggrieved by their loss to the Romans 20 years prior, attacked Saguntum in the spring of 219 launching a second war with Rome.
Mezzotint and etching of Hannibal as a child swearing enmity to the Romans; pring made by Turner, after Singleton. 1802; published in 1803
In British Museum, Accessible: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1871-1111-811
The Republic at War (218-201BC)
The Second Punic War was an unprecedented challenge for the Romans in a variety of ways, one being the multiple theatres in which it was fought. Fighting took place not only in Italy but Spain, Africa and at sea. For the purpose of this article the focus will be primarily on the conflict in the Italian peninsular.
The war can be divided into three phases characterised by Rome’s changing strategy. Firstly, the initial war in Italy from 218 to 216 which saw a series of stunning victories by Carthage’s general Hannibal and a devastation of the Roman army. The second stage from the conclusion of Cannae up till 205 saw Rome adopt a defensive war of attrition wherein pitched battles were avoided completely. The final phase was the invasion of Africa which effectively ended the war in favour of Rome.
In the opening years the Senate was slow to act anticipating the majority of the fighting to take place in Spain as demonstrated by Cornelius Scipio, the consul for 218, being sent there. Consequently, Hannibal was able to slip into Italy via the Alps and surprise the Roman forces. What followed was a series of increasingly catastrophic disasters for the Senate. The first major pitched battle was at the River Trebbia in North-Western Italy in December 218 which saw over half of the deployed Roman forces being eradicated.
The consul elected for 217, Flamminius, was desperate to avenge this defeat and pursued Hannibal’s army into the hills at Lake Trasimene in June 217. Hannibal used the cover of the hills and the morning fog to ambush the Roman force with Flaminius and 15,000 of his men dying. Rome now faced a mounting disaster with one consul dead and a significant portion of the army wiped out. Rome’s response in 216 was to take the unprecedented action of equipping the newly elected consuls with 20,000 men each as well as 40,000 supplementary troops from Roman allies. The combined consular forces with the added allied troops now totalled 80,000 men. It is with these forces that the consuls confronted Hannibal at Cannae, a vital supply base for the Romans. Unfortunately, the Roman commander did not take into account the flat terrain which heavily favoured Carthaginian cavalry and a massacre of Roman forces occurred. Out of the 80,000 men who fought only 14,500 Romans escaped death of captivity. Rome faced a crisis never seen before in their history up to this point.
The Roman Response and its consequences
Recognising the futility of facing Hannibal in a pitched battle, Rome now embraced a defensive policy proposed by Fabius. Essentially, Rome would avoid full-scale battles and focus on winning back the support of defected communities. Fabius argued that Rome’s military presence in Spain coupled with their naval dominance would ensure that Hannibal could never replenish his army and would eventually lose. Fabius also ordered a ‘scorched earth’ policy where the burning of Italian farmland was actively encouraged to prevent Hannibal’s men from using it.
Although this strategy was eventually successful and a depleted Carthaginian army was repelled from Italy, the cost of this policy was a heavy one. As the Senate no longer felt confident enough to confront Hannibal, the Carthaginian general was given free rein to ravage and pillage the Italian countryside. This was made worse by Fabius’ scorched earth approach which saw the rural populous being instructed to leave their settlements, burn their crops and find the nearest fortified towns. In the short-term Rome was forced to increase corn and grain imports from Egypt and Sicily but in the long term the consequences were far more devastating.
The complete destruction and abandonment of arable land effectively ended the livelihoods of the Republic’s subsistence farmers. Larger landowners were able to implement temporary measures to offset the cost of the invasion such as using slave labour and were actually able to profit from the food shortages. The abandoned land quickly become an attractive opportunity for these wealthy landowners, and this was further facilitated by Rome’s treatment of its defected allies. Capua, for example, was punished for its loyalty by having its status as a self-governing community revoked and its land distributed to veterans and wealthy entrepreneurs. Therefore, the second Punic War acted as a catalyst for the increased peasant displacement and the emergence of large centralised estates as seen in the second century.
Rome’s finances also felt the wrath of Hannibal’s 15-year occupation. The war witnessed an extreme shortage of both bronze and silver which forced the Senate to pass a major reform of the Roman monetary system in around 212. The Senate was forced to impose frequent bouts of tributum (tax) on the Roman citizenry to supplement the ever-dwindling war treasury. The situation became so desperate that Rome became dependent on the voluntary contributions of the Roman people beginning in 210 until it was eventually agreed in 204 that these would be repaid in instalments.
Fabius’ policy depended heavily on maintaining a large standing army to erode Hannibal’s forces. The human cost of this policy was extreme. Briscoe estimated that at its peak in 212 BC Rome’s total standing army, including the navy, numbered around 240,000. As a result, several emergency edicts were needed to maintain a consistent supply of manpower. Some examples include the more affluent of the Roman citizenry being asked to contribute their slaves as rowers to the state and to provide their wages. Moreover, the normal military age was lowered as well as the necessary funds required to enlist.
When Hannibal left Italy in 203, he infamously claimed that he had destroyed 400 towns in Italy and had killed over 300,000 Romans and Italians (Appian, Pun. 134). This statement is of course highly hyperbolic, but it is undeniable that the war had devastating and far-reaching repercussions for the Republic.
Rome’s census drops to 214,000 citizens in 203BC and it does not reach 300,000 again until the census of 164 (Hoyos). The destruction of the countryside through both Hannibal’s looting and Rome’s own actions exacerbates a trend in wealth inequality that reaches a climax in Tiberius Gracchus’ agrarian reforms in 133 BC. There is also a case to be made that the Second Punic War is a precursor to the late Republic’s ever-increasing reliance on ‘strongmen’ with Fabius being elected to the office of dictator in 216 to restore order after the reverse at Cannae.
The war itself signalled an end to Carthage’s great power status and confirmed Rome as hegemon of the Western Mediterranean. The conclusion of the war marks a turning point in Rome’s foreign policy and its self-perception of its position in the world. The succeeding decades see Rome increasingly interfering in matters overseas, most notably Greece, with the Republic gradually transforming from a regional power to a multi-continent spanning one. Thus, in many ways the Second Punic War signals the end of the Republican city-state and the beginning of the Republican Empire.
Statue of Hannibal counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC) carved by Slodtz out of marble (1687-1704) from the Louvre.
Briscoe, J. (2008) The Cambridge Ancient History – Volume 8
Hoyos, D. (2013) The Oxford handbook of warfare in the classical world
Appian, Punic Wars
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