The Punic Wars and Roman Expansion



In spite of the military genius of Hannibal, Carthage was destroyed as the result of three wars between 265 and 146 BCE.


By John Gibson Warry

Ancient Authorities

We have now once more reached a period of history for which there is important first-hand evidence. This is provided by the work of Polybius, who was born about 200 BC and died some time after 118 BC. He wrote the history of Rome’s conquest and domination of the ancient world during the third and second centuries BC and the scope of his work was extended to include a more or less favourable assessment of the resulting Roman supremacy. His original Historiescontained 40 books, but of these only the first five, plus excerpts and fragments from later books, remain extant.

The stele of Kleitor depicting Polybius, Hellenistic art, 2nd century BC / Photo by Jona Lendering, Museum of Roman Civilization, Wikimedia Commons

Polybius was a citizen of Megalopolis, the city originally founded by Epaminondas as a bulwark against Sparta. About 170 BC he was serving as a cavalry commander in the Achaean League, but after the collapse of Macedon and the consequent control of Greece by the Romans, Polybius was deported with other political suspects to Rome and was indefinitely detained in Italy, on no explicit charge. This detention, however, seems to have been regarded by him as an opportunity; he became intimate with influential political and literary circles in Rome, being personally acquainted with some of the characters who figure eminently in his history. Afterwards, he had the opportunity of travelling widely. He wrote a book on tactics and a history of the war which the Romans waged round Numantia in Spain, but these works are unfortunately lost. As it is, we have in Polybius’ surviving books the testimony of one who was in close contact, at the highest level, with the military and political life of his day.

For Hannibal’s war against Rome and the period which immediately followed it, Livy is of course our most extensive authority. Perhaps it is not possible for a historian to be completely objective, but one must remember that Livy was inspired by patriotic motives, as were many of the writers on whose evidence he depended. In addition to this, family pride and flattery often played an important part of shaping the accounts given by Roman historians; it is easy to feel that if the successes of some Roman commanders in Italy had been as great as Livy suggests, Hannibal would have been defeated much sooner than, in fact, he was. Apart from the early history of Rome down to 294 BC, Livy’s surviving books narrate events from the beginning of the Hannibalic War down to the conquest of Macedonia and defeat of the Seleucid power in the second century BC. Were the entire 142 books extant, we should possess the history of Rome in the full form which he gave it, down to the year 9 BC. As it is, nearly all the contents of Livy’s lost books have been transmitted to us by later writers in summarized form. Historians of the imperial epoch in many instances either used Livy as a source or had access to the sources which he had used. These included the important Greek historian Appian and Dio Cassius, who were both born during the second century AD.

By contrast, Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus, about 86–35 BC), the historian of the war against Jugurtha, lived close to the events which he described, having the oral and written testimony of men who took part in them. But although Sallust served in Julius Caesar’s African campaign of 46 BC, his interests were of a political rather than a military nature.

Historical Outline

Punicus is the Latin for “Carthaginian”. The first Punic War was provoked by those perennial troublemakers the Mamertines who, based on Messana (Messina), appealed to the Carthaginians against Hiero II, the Greek king of Syracuse. Their object achieved, the Mamertines wished to be rid of the Carthaginian garrison which had protected them, and they appealed to Rome. The Carthaginian threat across the narrow straits was too great, the opportunity of removing it too good, and Rome intervened in 264 BC.

A Carthaginian shekel, dated 237–227 BC, depicting the Punic god Melqart (equivalent of Hercules/Heracles), possibly with the features of Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal Barca; on the reverse is a man riding a war elephant / Wikimedia Commons

To win the war in Sicily, Rome built a fleet with which she defeated the Carthaginians. Imitating the strategy of Agathocles, the Roman general Regulus crossed into Africa and launched an offensive, but the Carthaginians employed a brilliant Spartan mercenary leader, Xanthippus, and Regulus was defeated and captured. The Romans’ newly achieved command of the sea, however, enabled them to win the war, despite the fact that their fleets were repeatedly destroyed in storms. Isolated in east Sicily, Hamilcar Barca, the great Carthaginian commander, was at last obliged to come to terms with the Romans and surrender command of the island in 241 BC.

Before the next outbreak of hostilities with Carthage, Rome was involved against the Gauls in North Italy. The Romans also found it necessary to subdue an Illyrian queen who, encouraged by Macedon, had extended her power southward in support of the piracy which was the mainstay of her nation’s economy. Carthage, meanwhile, was threatened with a gruesome revolt of her own mercenaries, abetted by subject populations in North Africa. From this so-called “Truceless War”, the city was barely saved by the military ability of Hamilcar Barca. Of Rome and Carthage in this period, it might be said that either nation would have been quicker to take advantage of the other’s difficulties, but for its own. As it was, the mercenary war had forced Carthage temporarily to withdraw from Sardinia, and the Romans, opportunists as previously, intervened in this sensitive Carthaginian area.

Hamilcar now concentrated on Spain, both as a military base and as a zone for further economic expansion. After his death in action, his son Hannibal pursued the same policy. War followed the siege and capture of Saguntum, a city friendly to Rome. Hannibal then invaded Italy via the Pyrenees, the Rhône and the Alps. His invasion may be compared with that of Pyrrhus. The defeats which he inflicted on the Romans were overwhelming and unambiguous in a way that Pyrrhus’ dubious victories certainly were not, but, like Pyrrhus, he was unable to detach Rome’s Italian allies from her, let alone capture or come to terms with Rome in the course of his campaigns.

On the initiative of Publius Cornelius Scipio, later honoured with the surname of Africanus, the Romans again applied the remedy of an African counter-offensive. Hannibal, recalled by the Carthaginians and defeated at Zama in 202 BC, was driven into exile. At Zama, invaluable cavalry support had been provided by Masinissa the Numidian king, who had abandoned his alliance with Carthage. In the peace which followed, Masinissa took full and shameless advantage of the protected position which he enjoyed as a Roman ally, and Rome did little to discourage him. Thus provoked by the Numidian, Carthage in retaliation infringed the Zama peace treaty. Using this as a pretext, the Romans disingenuously induced the Carthaginians to make what amounted to an unconditional surrender; when, however, the Romans next required them to vacate their city and their coast and resettle as homeless wanderers in the interior, they resisted. After a long siege by land and blockade by sea, the Romans captured, sacked and utterly destroyed Carthage in 146 BC.

Since the Second Punic War, Rome had found itself surrounded by nations which, whether they had been the allies or enemies of Carthage, were now in a position to inherit that city’s much dreaded power. In pursuit of stable frontiers, the Romans were obliged to fight in Spain and North Africa. Here, frontiers were offered by the Ocean and the Sahara Desert respectively. In other directions, the situation did not lend itself so readily to conclusive results. In the East were three great dynasties, the Macedonian, the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic, controlling Alexander’s European, Asian and North African legacies respectively. In the north of Italy, the Gauls were still not completely subdued, and those beyond the Alps posed problems for the future. The second and first centuries BC therefore found Rome involved in far-flung theatres of war, driven by fear of encircling enemies into a policy of continual expansion.

The Roman Naval Effort

Location of Mylae (Milazzo) on the coast of northern Sicily / Wikimedia Commons

A remarkable feature of the Punic Wars was that Rome, with virtually no naval tradition, contrived to dominate the seas almost throughout, while Carthage, which was by comparison an unmilitary power relying on mercenary armies, produced two supremely brilliant generals in the persons of Hamilcar and Hannibal.

The first Roman naval success came at Mylae in 260 BC, in support of the struggle for Sicily. The victory had been preceded by an effort of shipbuilding and naval training which must be regarded as prodigious, even if we do not believe all that ancient historians wrote on the subject. For instance, we are told that a wrecked Carthaginian ship which fell into Roman hands was used as a model for building the new fleet. In fact, the Romans had previously possessed a small fleet. Consisting of 20 ships, it had operated under the orders of two officers known as duoviri navales; one such officer had commanded the squadron which came under Tarentine attack in 282 BC. The diminutive Roman fleet was, admittedly, composed of triremes, and heavier vessels were now required to match those of the Carthaginians, but no one would have thought that sea-going Greek allies were capable of supplying Rome with quinqueremes for imitation, and that Hiero II of Syracuse, who, after the early days of the war, had resumed his alliance with the Romans, could have offered instruction in shipbuilding.

The ancient world affords other examples of navies successfully built in haste, and it must be remembered that even the heavier galleys of Roman times were small compared with the sailing ships of later European history. In the First Punic War, it is estimated that Rome had a fleet of approximately 160 vessels, whereas the Carthaginians had about 130. Both sides were limited in their building programmes by the number of available rowers. The useful Roman superiority was probably again derived through Greek assistance.

Roman naval victory was mainly the product of tactical and technical innovation. From the first, the Romans renounced the traditional ramming manoeuvres and concentrated on boarding tactics, which would permit them to fight what were virtually land battles at sea. To this end, they effectively developed an iron-beaked grappling device, known as a “raven”. Polybius described the structure and operation of this mechanism in great detail, although a diagram would have made his meaning clearer. In Greek, the “raven” was acorax (Latin: corvus), and a hooked instrument called a corax had previously been used in siege warfare for grappling fortified walls.

The “raven”, as used by the Roman navy, was a swivelling, derrick-operated gangway, mounted on the prow of a warship. Its pivoting base allowed it to be effective in at least three directions, and its iron beak, when lowered to a horizontal position, spiked and gripped the enemy’s deck. A boarding party then poured across the gangway. To this device the Punic fleet proved extremely vulnerable.

According to Polybius, the derrick section of the gangway was 24 feet (7.3m) long and the horizontal, turntable section on which it hinged (like a flail) measured 12 feet (3.6m). Some scholars think that an apparatus so large would have caused the ship on which it was mounted to capsize; others believe that it did indeed cause accidents and was therefore discontinued. It could, in any case, have been dismounted when not in use. It may be remembered that Demetrius the Besieger erected siege-towers on his war galleys at Rhodes. We also have ancient representations (first century BC) of Roman warships with turrets mounted on the deck. These turrets are apparently iron-plated, like Demetrius’ helepolis, and in any case must have been heavy. Some suggest that they were painted to resemble stone or even built of stone blocks. Polybius’ account of the “raven” should not be rejected hastily. According to one reading of Diodorus, Demetrius at Rhodes had built twin towers on two galleys yoked, for stability, alongside each other. In action, the “raven” would have been similarly balanced by the enemy ship.

Hannibal’s Long March

War elephants depicted in Hannibal Barca crossing the Rhône, by Henri Motte, 1878 / Wikimedia Commons

The unprecedented Roman naval achievement was paralleled on the Carthaginian side by Hannibal’s overland advance from Spain to Italy. In Spain, treaty agreements defining the Carthaginian sphere of activity as south of the Ebro were equivocal; for Saguntum, south of the Ebro, was a Roman all. Hannibal was in no flagrant breach of treaty when he besieged and captured the city, but he intended war – and war ensued.

Before crossing the Pyrenees, Hannibal saw to it that Spain and North Africa were well garrisoned, but he did not intend to preserve his own communications with either of these areas. He could hope to create a new base in North Italy. His route, via the Rhône and the Alps, had been well prepared by diplomacy and reconnaissance and he expected to live off the land during his long march. This being so, the attitude of the Gauls and Alpine tribes who lay along his route varied from place to place. Either they might speed him on his way as soon as possible, or they might resist.

The tribe whose territory straddled the Rhône crossing-point was in two minds. The inhabitants on the west bank gave Hannibal maximum assistance and cooperated in building boats of all shapes and sizes, but those on the farther bank opposed his crossing. However, a small Carthaginian force under an officer called Bomilcar, guided by friendly Gauls, crossed the river at a point one day’s march upstream, where the current was split by an island. Rafts were used and cavalry ferried across, while the Spanish infantry swam with their shields beneath them. The whole move, initiated by a night march, was made in secret. When Hannibal’s main body crossed, the enemy suddenly found himself encircled by Bomilcar’s force and dispersed in panic. Some ingenuity was required to transport the elephants, but three days later a Roman army newly landed at Massilia (Marseille) in the hope of intercepting Hannibal found only his empty camp. The Roman general Scipio (father of Africanus) did not attempt any further pursuit but turned his attention towards Spain, to ensure that no reinforcements should be available from that quarter.

The march over the Alps makes epic reading; even in Livy’s hostile narrative, Hannibal emerges as its hero – rather like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. There is no precise agreement about the points at which either the Rhône or Alps were crossed. Indeed, the latter was much debated even by ancient historians. Certainly, Hannibal did not approach the Alps by the shortest route, but marched four days northward up the Rhône valley, to avoid any further Roman interference with his plans. In this area, he won the goodwill and assistance of a Gallic tribe by successfully arbitrating in a disputed succession to the chieftainship. His ascent on the north side of the Alps, however, met with opposition and treachery from the mountain peoples. Hannibal sustained frequent losses of men, animals and stores, but by his indefatigable courage and resource repeatedly extricated the army from traps which man and nature placed in its way. The descent into Italy was begun when fresh autumn snow was already falling. Icy conditions, landslides and precipices impeded the famished troops but, when all else failed, timber was hewn, vast fires lit and the men’s sour-wine ration poured on the hot rocks blocking the path in order to crack them. A snaky track was thus chiselled down the sheer mountainside. Hannibal is recorded as having reached Italy in the fifth month after leaving his Spanish base; the crossing of the Alps took him fifteen days.

Ancient reports vary considerably as to the number of men he led into Italy. Polybius’ account, derived from an inscription left by Hannibal in southern Italy, puts the figure at 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry. Livy bases himself on the account of the historian Lucius Cincius Alimentus, who had at one time been Hannibal’s prisoner. But he regards Alimentus’ estimate of 80,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry as inflated. It would seem, in any case, that Hannibal may have lost upward of one-quarter of his entire force during the march. Perhaps even this cannot be described as a crippling loss. But the fact remains that during the ensuing 15 years’ campaign in Italy, despite brilliant battle victories, Hannibal was continually faced with acute problems of recruiting, winning allies and receiving reinforcements. To none of these problems did he find a satisfactory answer.

Hannibal’s Victories

A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal / Wikimedia Commons

Publius Cornelius Scipio, consul in 218 BC, having dispatched his own army into Spain under the command of his brother Gnaeu, returned with exemplary speed to North Italy and took command of the legions there. He met Hannibal’s invading army, which had already occupied the area of Turin, in the angle of the Po and the Ticinus, its northern tributary. In the cavalry battle which followed, Scipio was repulsed and wounded, and retired on Placentia. The fight had proved Hannibal’s cavalry superiority and the consul hoped to divert future warfare away from the open country which favoured cavalry tactics.

In face of Hannibal’s threat, the other consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus, preparing for an invasion of Africa, was posted northward to join forces with Scipio. With Scipio severely wounded, Sempronius virtually took charge of the situation and, encouraged by a successful cavalry skirmish, fought a battle on the Trebia, a southern tributary of the Po, in bitter winter conditions. Hannibal, after a personal reconnaissance, had cleverly used wild country to mask a cavalry ambush. The Romans lost about two thirds of their army. But even so, 10,000 Roman legionaries, although encircled, forced their way through the enemy centre and found safety in Placentia. The Roman horses, though not the Roman soldiers, were still terrified by elephants. But Roman light-armed troops (velites) managed to turn back the big animals and, by spearing their rumps, almost succeeded in stampeding the poor creatures.

Icy conditions prevented Hannibal from following up his victory, and as he picked his way southward in the following spring, his own army suffered badly in areas flooded by melting snow. Afflicted by an ophthalmic complaint which eventually cost him the sight of one eye, Hannibal himself rode on the one remaining elephant, barely high and dry. The rest of the elephants had succumbed either to war or weather.

Publius Scipio was sent into Spain with a new command. In Italy, the succeeding consul, Gaius Flaminius, who guarded the western side of the Apennines, was bent on a decision, and now followed the Carthaginian army. On the north shore of Lake Trasimene in Etruria, Hannibal lured the Romans through a bottleneck between the hills and the water on to a pocket of level ground. The ambush which he had posted on the high ground overlooking the lake was hidden by mist. As the Romans advanced to meet his frontal challenge, the troops from the mountain slopes swept down and, catching the legions still in column of march, drove them into the lake amid butchery and confusion. Two legions were annihilated and Flaminius killed. This victory was followed up by an ambush against the forces of the other consul, when the Romans lost some 4,000 cavalry.

Feeling the need for unified command as an emergency measure, the Romans now appointed a dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, and a Master of the Horse, to replace the surviving consul.

Hannibal, meanwhile, needed allies. The Gauls of North Italy, although he had recruited many of them, had proved disappointing. The previous summer, their renewed warfare at the prospect of Carthaginian invasion had diverted Scipio and crucially delayed his arrival on the Rhône. But now the tribes were hesitant and lukewarm. Hannibal accordingly hoped to find Italian allies in the south, but here he was even less successful. He also tried to bring the Roman dictator to battle, but Fabius, with a strategy which became proverbial, could not be tempted into combat.

Hannibal ravaged Apulia and Campania and provoked discontent with Fabius’ strategy. Consuls were once more appointed, and their joint armies were overwhelmingly defeated at Cannae in Apulia, in 216 BC. In this battle, Hannibal’s central infantry, mainly Spaniards and Gauls, advanced in a wedgelike formation, with Hannibal himself commanding in this sector. The Romans drove back the wedge and turned it into a dent, so that the Carthaginian battle-line changed in form from convex to concave. This event, however, was not unforeseen by Hannibal. The central retreat was controlled and, at a well-chosen moment, the already enveloping wings of the Carthaginian army closed around and encircled the Romans.

Hannibal was a great exponent of ambush. The Trebia battle had been won largely through a cavalry ambush. Trasimene had been based on an ambush. At Cannae, where the terrain did not lend itself to ambush, a ruse served his purpose. A party of about 500 Numidians pretended to desert to the Romans, throwing down their weapons. But they had other weapons concealed under their clothes and these they soon used to devastating effect in the rear of the Roman troops.

Hannibal was also extremely weather-wise and quick to take advantage of climatic conditions. At the Trebia, in freezing weather, he had seen to it that his men were well fed and rubbed down with oil to preserve the suppleness of their muscles, while the Romans went into battle numb with cold and without breakfast. At Trasimene, his ambush had made full use of the morning mist which rose from the lake. At Cannae, he had so placed himself that the wind blew from behind his army, driving dust at the Romans.

The Romans’ political dedication to the separation of powers was often their military undoing. At the Trebia and at Cannae, one consul called for caution while the other counselled action. A similar disagreement arose between Flaminius and his officers before Trasimene. Minucius, Fabius’ Master of the Horse, who had been appointed by the people and not, in the traditional way, by the dictator, regarded himself as Fabius’ equal and frequently frustrated his strategy and defied orders given by him.

Perhaps these differences of opinion have been too much stressed. Rome hesitated between strategies of action and caution; and Livy, as much a dramatist as a historian, repeatedly personified such strategies. One must also allow for the prejudices of the earlier Senatorial historians on whom Livy based himself. They were ever inclined to exonerate men of their own class and consequently throw blame on popular leaders.

Rome’s Survival and Triumph

Roman bronze bust of Scipio Africanus the Elder/ Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Wikimedia Commons

After Cannae, Capua and many southern Italian localities defected to Hannibal. The Romans besieged Capua and, to divert their troops from this quarter, Hannibal feinted with a march up to the walls of Rome itself. The Roman reaction, however, was not what he hoped; unable to relieve Capua, he led his army off into Apulia.

The two elder Scipios had campaigned successfully against three Carthaginian generals in Spain, but in 211 BC they were both at last, through lack of resources, defeated and killed. In the following year, the younger Scipio (Africanus) landed in Spain and soon captured New Carthage (Cartagena). He could not, however, prevent Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s brother, from slipping across the western Pyrenees with reinforcements for the Carthaginian army in Italy. Hasdrubal, wintering unmolested in Transalpine Gaul (Southern France), crossed the alps in a more clement season and more propitious circumstances than his brother had done, and the Alpine tribes, by now convinced that the Carthaginian objectives lay further south, were not hostile.

However, in trying to join forces with his brother, Hasdrubal was defeated by two Roman consular armies and killed, in a battle on the river Metaurus in Umbria (207 BC), Hannibal, remembering the difficulties of his own pioneer Alpine crossing, had been surprised at his brother’s early arrival and was slow to move northward. A message to him from Hasdrubal was intercepted by the Romans, and the two consuls, Marcus Livius Salinator and Gaius Claudius Nero, were able to combine their armies in secret. For Nero, despite his morose temperament, showed rare initiative and – for a Roman general – an even rarer ability to collaborate with a consular colleague. Hasdrubal, suddenly surprised to find that he faced two Roman armies in place of the one which he had supposed to be encamped before him, attempted to withdraw, but he was overtaken by the superior Roman forces and obliged to fight at a disadvantage. His defeat was the product of brilliantly conceived and efficiently executed strategic manoeuvre, and in the long term it produced decisive strategic results. From then on, Hannibal could not hope for reinforcement.

Scipio, after his successful war in Spain, returned to Italy. Politically and strategically, he found himself in opposition to the war policies of Fabius, but the time for vigorous counter-offensive had now arrived and Scipio was allowed to cross with an army into Africa. His campaign here began inauspiciously when he failed to take Utica, on the coast northwest of Carthage, but after wintering on a coastal promontory he defeated the Carthaginian and their ally King Sypha in the battle of the “Great Plains”, in the North African interior. Carthaginian difficulties were such that Hannibal was eventually recalled from Italy; although peace negotiations were afoot, his presence resulted in the continuation of the war.

Hannibal’s last great battle and first serious defeat is generally referred to as having occurred at Zama (202 BC), although there were several places of this name and various alternative names and sites have been suggested. Some of the 80 Carthaginian war-elephants that opened the battle with a frontal charge were turned back in panic by the pandemonium of shouts and trumpet blasts which the Romans raised; the rest were allowed to pass through gaps in the Roman ranks. For this purpose, the Roman maniples were ranged directly behind and in front of each other, not in their usual quincunx formation, covering intervals. The way was now clear for a cavalry battle. While in Spain, Scipio had captured the young Numidian prince Masinissa and had won him over to the Roman cause. Masinissa was now a Roman ally and as a result Scipio possessed a strong Numidian cavalry contingent, which, with the Roman cavalry, routed Hannibal’s horsemen, already thrown into confusion by the rioting elephants. The two front lines of the Carthaginian army were scattered and forced out on to the wings of those behind, who refused to let them retreat any farther. Scipio took advantage of the chaotic situation to give his men a breathing space rather than press his attack. He reformed his army in a single line with principesand triarii on the wings and hastatiin the centre, presumably because he feared to be outflanked in an infantry battle. At the same time, he hoped anxiously for the return of his cavalry, which had been drawn away too far in pursuit. The critical moment came as the Romans faced the remaining Carthaginian line, veterans of the Italian wars whom Hannibal had till now held in reserve. But, fortunately for Scipio, his Roman and Numidian cavalry returned to the battlefield just in time to decide the issue in his favour. Outflanked on either side, the Carthaginians were cut to pieces. Hannibal with a few horsemen, escaped first to Hadrumetum on the coast and thence to Carthage, where he advised the government to make peace.

The Legions against the Phalanx

Didrachm of Philip V of Macedon / PHGCOM, Wikimedia Commons

Rome had clashed with Philip V of Macedon when he cautiously allied himself with Carthage. Roman military commitments had then led to a compromise peace, but war was renewed two years after Zama. The Romans did not wish for a bad neighbour on the other side of the Adriatic, let alone one who often emerged as the ally and patron of pirates. Pretexts for intervention in Greek and Macedonian affairs were not far to seek. Since 273 BC, Rome had been on friendly terms with the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Ptolemaic succession difficulties had now arisen, and with avid opportunism Philip had allied himself to Antiochus III, who ruled Syria – the rump of the Seleucid empire – in an attempt to seize the Ptolemies’ overseas possessions. As usual, in a struggle between the successor powers, would-be neutrals were reluctantly involved, and Rhodes and Pergamum, a Greek Asiatic kingdom of culture which had recently stemmed Celtic inroads and defied the Seleucids, appealed to Rome.

The Roman commander who eventually took charge in Greece was Titus Quinctius Flaminius, an ardent philhellene. He finally defeated Philip at the battle of Cynoscephalae in Thessaly (197 BC). Cynoscephalae in Greek means “dog’s heads”, the shape of local hillocks suggesting the name. The uneven ground seriously hindered the Macedonian phalanx, but heavy mist early in the day also hampered Roman mobile tactics. On both sides, the right wing was victorious, but the scales were tipped in Rome’s favour by a tribune whom history has not named. On his own initiative, he diverted 20 maniples from a point where victory was already assured, to surprise the enemy phalanx in the rear. Flaminius, thus victorius, was welcomed as liberator of Greece. Subsequently, however, in 183 BC, he appeared in a less generous light, attempting to extradite the aged Hannibal, who as a harmless exile now lived in the Asiatic kingdom of Bithynia. Hannibal took poison. Even Roman senators did not approve Flaminius’ action, condemning it as officious and harsh.

Rome’s terms with Philip were not unduly severe, but war already loomed with Antiochus, his eastern ally. The logic of Roman military expansion is clear enough. For the sake of security and trade, Rome wanted peace in the eastern Mediterranean, but since she could not countenance any power strong enough to act as peacemaker, she had to exert her own strength in this capacity. Antiochus neglected rather than suspected Roman power and he had, perhaps tactlessly, employed the exiled Hannibal in a military capacity. In the war which followed, Antiochus’ fleets were unable to resist the Roman grappling and boarding tactics which had destroyed Carthaginian naval supremacy. On land, he was defeated first at Thermopylae (191 BC), then at Magnesia near Sipylus (190 BC), in Lydia. This last battle proved decisive. The Roman legions, as at Zama, had the advantage of good allied cavalry support, provided here by Eumenes, king of Pergamum. In their desire to tempt Antiochus from his defensive position, the Romans exposed their right wing, but Eumenes’ attack anticipated and threw into confusion the outflanking movements by Antiochus’ heavily armoured cavalry. The Roman left wing was thrown back by a charge of Oriental horsemen under Antiochus’ personal leadership, but the victors in this section of the field continued their pursuit too long and left the central phalanx unsupported. The phalanx, stationed in dense formations, at intervals, with elephants filling the gaps, was broken when the Romans successfully stampeded the elephants and breached the line.

The peace terms which followed Magnesia reduced Antiochus to impotence as far as the Mediterranean was concerned. But Rome fought a third Macedonian war with Perseus, son of Philip V. The decisive battle which finally established Rome as arbiter of the eastern Mediterranean world came at Pydna in Macedonia (168 BC). The pikemen of the Macedonian phalanx were again at a disadvantage on broken ground and the Roman legionary swordsmen were able to exploit gaps in their ranks. Roman tactical flexibility was, on this occasion, well turned to account by the generalship of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, son of the consul killed at Cannae.

Rome’s victories in these eastern wars cannot be understood unless it is realized that the ponderous Macedonian phalanx of the second century BC differed completely from the original flexible and mobile phalanx of Philip II and Alexander the Great. With the growing tendency towards heavier weapons and armour, it in effect reverted in character to the rigid Greek phalanx of the fifth century BC. At Cynoscephalae, the phalanx, attacked by Flaminius’ tribune in the rear, had been unable to wheel about even to protect itself. This helplessness compares significantly with the alacrity of Alexander’s phalangists at Gaugamela, who faced sharply about to rescue their baggage train from a Persian breakthrough.

Ever since the days of Camillus, when the maniple formation had been introduced, the Romans, unlike the Macedonians, had developed consistently in the direction of flexibility. To this development, the genius of Scipio Africanus had given great impetus, and the commanders who fought Rome’s eastern wars in the second century BC had thoroughly absorbed his tactical principles.

Weapons and Tactics

Dispositions prior to the Battle of Pydna / Wikimedia Commons

The confrontation between the legion and the phalanx raises questions as to the comparative effectiveness of sword and pike. The pike, of course, had the longer reach, but the sword was a more manageable and less cumbersome weapon, giving greater opportunity for skill in its use.

At Pydna, the Italian allies serving under Aemilius Paullus hurled themselves with reckless heroism at the enemy pikes, trying to beat them down or hew off their points. But they sacrificed themselves in vain; the pike points pierced their shields and armour, causing terrible carnage. The phalanx was eventually shattered as the result of cool tactical judgment. Paullus divided his force into small units with orders to look for gaps in the pike line and then exploit them. The gaps appeared as a result of the rough ground which prevented the phalangists from moving with uniformity and keeping abreast. Forced at last by the infiltrating legionaries to abandon their pikes and fight at close quarters, the Macedonians soon discovered that their small swords and shields were no match for the corresponding Roman arms.

The Macedonian dynasts who relied upon the phalanx were perfectly aware of the dangers to which it was exposed and their awareness explains the hesitation to join battle that marked their encounters with the Romans. The phalanx was considered secure while it remained stationary. The Romans consequently tried to tempt it into action but, even so, had to beware lest in provoking an attack they rendered themselves too vulnerable.

Gaps, of course, might be opened in the enemy lines by the pilum. Something could be expected from the volley of weighted javelins with which the legions normally commenced a battle. But against this, the phalangists were heavily armoured: Perseus’ phalanx at Pydna drew its title of “Bronze Shields” from the round bucklers which his men wore slung round their necks and drew in front of them as fighting started. But wooded or uneven country was the legionary’s best chance against armies of the Macedonian type. The Romans had learnt their lesson as early as the battle of Asculum against Pyrrhus, where they had been able to withdraw nimbly before the intact line of the phalanx, only to rush in where ground obstacles created ready-made breaches in the pike formation.

A similar confrontation of sword and spear is to be found in Italy in 225 BC, when, in the period between the First and Second Punic Wars, Rome fought with invading Gauls at Telamon in Etruria. On this occasion the Romans were the spearmen and the Gauls the swordsmen. The Roman general, in fact, placed some of his triarii in the front line in order that their spears might blunt the Gallic swords: the Gauls, like the Italian soldiery at Pydna, tried to parry or hack away the spear heads. Gallic swords were sometimes made of very soft iron. In fact, Polybius tells us that the Gallic sword was so soft that after striking a blow the swordsman was obliged to straighten the bent iron against his foot1. Incidentally, Plutarch tells the same story of poorly tempered Gallic swords in his Life of Camillus. The Gauls seem to have relied on carrying all before them at the first onset; this is understandable if their swords were rendered so quickly unserviceable. Perhaps the defect was localized in certain tribes where ironworking had not advanced beyond a primitive stage or where facilities for obtaining good weapons did not exist. At Cannae, although the Spaniards in Hannibal’s army fought with their short thrusting swords, the Gauls preferred their normal, unpointed, slashing weapons. However, there is no mention here of soft iron and the Gauls, so far from despairing when immediate victory eluded them, doggedly retreated in the face of Roman pressure, until Hannibal’s tactical plans matured. In any case, one feels that Hannibal’s astute generalship would not have permitted the use of soft iron weapons among his troops.2

Polybius gives a graphic account of the Gallic invaders of 225 BC. Although the rear ranks wore cloaks and trousers, the huge men of the front line, with traditional bravado, fought stark naked save for their gold collars and armlets. The sight was formidable, but the prospect of acquiring the gold stimulated Roman efforts to kill the wearer. The shields of these reckless fighters were not large enough to protect them; the bigger the warrior, the more exposed he was to the Roman pilum. The Roman legionary regularly carried two pila, one more slender than the other, perhaps for convenient reservation in the shield hand. The long, barbed, iron head was riveted so securely to the shaft that it would break rather than become detached from the wood. However, this very solidity was later felt to be a mixed blessing, for a spent missile, intact, could be recovered and used by the enemy. Technical measures were taken to neutralize the danger.

Sackers of Cities

The remains of the archaic temple of Apollo, Corinth (550-530 BCE) / Ancient History Encyclopedia, Creative Commons

Advantages cease to be advantages when one becomes too dependent on them. Rome’s dependence upon overseas power and wealth led to neglect of the old self-sufficient Italian economy. Roman overseas wars assumed the aspect of predatory exploits rather than peace-keeping missions; the struggles of the later second century BC characteristically terminated in the pitiless sack of cities rather than decisive battles followed by peace terms. When the Achaean League and its ally Corinth revolted against the Roman settlement of Greece, the Corinthians treated Roman senatorial ambassadors with disrespectful violence. After the short war which followed, the Roman consul Lucius Mummius razed Corinth and enslaved its inhabitants. Mummius was hardly a philhellene. For Greek art treasures, he displayed the enthusiasm of a collector rather than a connoisseur.

The same year (146 BC) had seen the destruction of Carthage, bringing the Third and last Punic War to its bitter end. The Carthaginians had recalled from exile an able general – another Hasdrubal – who organized their very solid defences. Against the 45-foot (13.7m) city walls, the Romans made slow progress. The Roman besieging army itself, at one time in grave danger, was saved only by the energy and resource of Scipio Aemilianus, son of Aemilius Paullus, victor of Pydna, and grandson by adoption of the Scipio Africanus who had defeated Hannibal.

When the Carthaginians were successful in running the Roman blockade by sea, Scipio built a mole across the gulf into which their harbour issued, thus cutting them off. The Carthaginians dug a canal from their inner (naval) harbour basin to the coast and put to sea with a full fleet, but the Romans defeated them in a naval engagement. The walls of Carthage were finally breached, Hasdrubal surrendered and was reserved for the day when Scipio triumphed as a victorious general in Rome, but his wife and children preferred to perish in the flames which enveloped the Carthaginians citadel and temples.

Another appalling siege was that of Numantia in 133 BC. For Rome, the capture of Numantia marked the successful culmination of a savage and often shameful war in which, after the elimination of Carthage, the Romans aimed to impose their rule on the native peoples of the Spanish peninsula. The siege operations at Numantia were, like those at Carthage, conducted by Scipio Aemilianus.

Scipio was something of an expert in sieges. Appian says that he was the first general to enclose with a wall an enemy who was prepared to give battle in the open field. It might have been expected that such an enemy would prove impossible to contain. But Scipio’s measures were very thorough.

Numantia was beset with seven forts and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. The perimeter of the circumvallations was twice as long as that of the city. At the first sign of a sally by the defenders, the threatened Roman sector had orders to hoist a red flag by day or raise a fire signal by night, so that reinforcements could immediately be rushed to the danger spot. Another ditch was built behind the first, also with palisades, after which a wall 8 feet (2.4m) high and 10 feet (3m) wide (not including parapets) was constructed. Towers were sited at 100-foot (30.5m) intervals along the wall, and where the wall could not be carried round the adjacent marshland its place was taken by an earthwork of the same height, thicker than the wall.

The river Durius (Duoro), on which Numantia stood, enabled the defenders to be supplied by means of small boats, swimmers and divers. Scipio therefore placed a tower on either side of the river, to which he moored a boom of floating timbers. The timbers bristled with inset knives and spearheads and were kept in constant motion by the strength of the current. They acted as a barrage, effectively isolating the city from any help which might reach it along the river.

Catapults and all kinds of siege engines were now mounted on Scipio’s towers and missiles were accumulated along the parapets, the forts being occupied by archers and slingers. Messengers were stationed at frequent intervals along the entire wall in order that headquarters might be informed immediately of any enemy action, whether by day or night. Each tower was furnished with emergency signals and each was ready to send immediate help to another in case of need.

Thus invested for eight months, the Numantines starved. They took to cannibalism, and at last 4,000 surviving citizens, now mere filthy and ragged skeletons, surrendered unconditionally.

Roman Camps

Numantia ruins / Creative Commons

Excavations at Numantia have brought to light 13 Roman camps in the vicinity. Seven of these have been identified as Scipio’s. Others were those of his less successful predecessors in Spain. The Numantine excavations of Schulten testify in general to the accuracy of Polybius’ description of Roman camps, though some notable differences in internal arrangements and dimensions must be recognized.

A camp containing two legions with an equivalent strength of Italian allied contingents, commanded by a consular general, was normally built in the form of a square. A main road (via principalis), 100 feet (30.5m) wide, separated the headquarters of the general, with those of his paymaster (quaestor)3, staff of officers and headquarters troops, from those of the legionaries and attached cavalry. The via principalis issued on either side through gates in the camp wall. The headquarter section of the camp covered one-third of its total area. The remaining two-thirds was itself bisected by another road (via quintana), 50 feet (15.2m) wide, parallel to the main road. The word quintana indicated that it was adjacent to the tents of the fifth maniple and its attached cavalry. Both these roads were bisected at right angles by a third road, which ran to the general’s headquarters from a gate in the farthest wall. The headquarters (praetorium) was connected by a short road, on the other side, to a gate in the nearer wall.

Between the camp ramparts and the tents inside, a margin (intervallum) of 200 feet (6lm) was left vacant. This placed the tents out of reach of enemy missiles – especially fire darts. In exceptional cases, also, the camp could accommodate extra troops, and there was room to stow booty. Before the battle of the Metaurus, Claudius Nero had managed to smuggle his own legions into the camp of his colleague Livius without the enemy being aware of it. Hasdrubal only knew that he faced two consular armies instead of one when he heard the same trumpet call sounded twice in the same camp.

A Roman army never halted for a night without digging itself a camp. The perimeter was formed by a ditch, normally about 3 feet (.91m) and 4 feet (1.22m) wide. The excavated earth was flung inside to form a rampart, which was surmounted by a breastwork of sharpened stakes. For the purpose of constructing such a camp, each soldier on the march carried a spade, other tools and sharp stakes to set in the rampart.

In wartime, a Roman army encamped at a chosen spot for the winter. In this case, the camp comprised a more solid structure. The tents made of skin were replaced by huts thatched with straw. Each tent or hut held eight men, who messed together. Polybius’ account suggests that the huts or tents were laid out in long lines with streets between them, but the evidence of Numantia excavations points to the grouping of maniples round a square.

The War against Jugurtha

Jugurtha in chains before Sulla, from Sallust’s La conjuracion de Catilina y la Guerra de Jugurta (Madrid, 1772) / Wikimedia Commons

As in Spain, so in Africa, Rome’s succession to Carthaginian power and influence did not ultimately go unchallenged. After Zama, Masinissa, Scipio’s Numidian friend, captured King Syphax, an ally of Carthage, and his beautiful Carthaginian queen, Sophonisba. Masinissa immediately fell in love with her. But Scipio, fearing her influence, insisted that Sophonisba should join the other captives destined for Rome. Unable to renounce his friendship with Scipio, Masinissa regretfully offered her, as an alternative to Roman captivity, a cup of poison – which she drank without demur.

However, even while Rome used Masinissa as a catspaw to apply her vindictive polities against a crippled Carthage, she was alarmed at his growing power and, at his death, arranged for the distribution of his kingdom among his three legitimate sons, thus averting the potential threat of a united Numidia. But unfortunately, Jugurtha, Masinissa’s grandson, united Numidia once more under his own rule. When a Roman army was sent against Jugurtha, it would seem that he either bribed its commander or used the influence of Roman friends to secure easy terms. Jugurtha was given a safe-conduct to Rome in order that he might account for his actions. On this occasion, he contemptuously bribed his way through all difficulties. Another Roman army was sent against him, but he defeated it. Later Roman generals had more success but could not bring the war to an end.

It is a sad reflection that Rome’s great reign of peace was made sound at the circumference only to crumble at the centre – in Italy and in the city itself. The war in Spain had shown that the narrow military caste which governed Rome was no longer competent. The war in Africa underlined the fact that it was also corrupt. Gaius Marius, who at length assumed command against Jugurtha, was a “new man” and came from outside the hereditary ruling class. He had new military ideas and was in many ways a living repudiation of aristocratic claims to superiority and privilege.

However, his success in North Africa was only partial and the war was at last brought to an end by his quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. A quaestor, although exercising the functions of paymaster and purser, could be called upon to act in a military capacity, deputizing for the general under whom he served. In such circumstances, Sulla secured the capture of Jugurtha. His success was made possible by the treachery of Bocchus, king of Mauretania, who had been an ally of Jugurtha. In his negotiations with Bocchus, Sulla himself was exposed to possible treachery, but it so happened that, presented with the interesting choice, Bocchus chose to betray Jugurtha to Sulla rather than Sulla to Jugurtha.

Jugurtha later perished in prison at Rome, after being led in triumph by Marius (104 BC), but the enterprising quaestor did not hesitate to claim credit for having ended the war. Unlike Marius, Sulla came from an old aristocratic, though not very prominent, family; it was perhaps foreseeable that the antagonism which had begun as professional jealousy would issue in political conflict, although few could have guessed the extent to which it was destined to convulse and create divisions in the Roman state.

Admirers of Roman institutions and ethics may deplore the fact that Jugurtha was betrayed into Roman hands, not vanquished by them. Similarly, the heroic Lusitanian chief, Viriathus, had defied Roman armies in Spain until the Romans had suborned his trusted associates to cut his throat as he lay sleeping. In the preceding century, Roman standards of honour had won the respect of Pyrrhus, who was a chivalrous character if nothing else. By the end of the second century BC, however, Rome had been obliged to deal frequently with barbarous foes who not only found it inconvenient to honour solemn undertakings – as civilized politicians often find it – but freely entered into undertakings which they had no intention of honouring. In a wider and more wicked world, the Romans fought their enemies cynically with their own treacherous weapons.

References

  1. Polybius’ account perhaps reflects an epoch when Roman pike tactics were regarded as an answer to the Gallic long sword. At a later date, skilled swordsmanship in the use of the gladius was recognized as the right answer. As for Celtic iron, it is praised in some ancient texts. Its quality would naturally be determined by geographic rather than ethnographic considerations.
  2. Hannibal had, in fact, issued many captured Roman weapons to his army, but these were unsuitable for use by slashing Gallic swordsmen.
  3. The quaestor’s duties included responsibility for pay and rations, disposal of booty and sale of captives to slave dealers.

From Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors, and Warfare in the Ancient Civilizations of Greece and Rome, by John Warry (University of Oklahoma Press, 10.15.1995), published by Erenow, public open access.

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