De Republica Vicit | The Second Punic War

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.

— Cato the Elder, message to the Roman Senate on numerous occasions —

“Thousands of Roman soldiers lay there, infantry and cavalry scattered everywhere, united in a death which the blind chances of battle or flight had brought upon them. A few, whose wounds had been staunched by the morning frosts, even rose from among the heaps of dead all covered in blood—only to be slaughtered there and then by their enemies. Others were discovered, still alive, but lying there with their knees or hamstrings sliced apart, baring their necks or throats and begging their enemies to drain the rest of their blood. Some were even found with their heads buried in the ground, having dug small pits for themselves and buried their faces in the earth, and then simply smothered themselves to death. The most spectacular sight of all was a Numidian soldier, still alive but lying beneath a dead Roman, with his nose and ears torn to shreds. The Roman had fought to his final breath, and when his hands could no longer hold his weapon, his anger turned to madness, and he died tearing his enemy to pieces with his teeth.”

This was the scene at Cannae in August 216 BC where the Roman Republic suffered the worst defeat in its history at the hands of the Carthaginian warlord Hannibal Barca. The Romans lost at least seventy thousand soldiers of their best-trained armies and one of their commanding generals. Moreover, many of Rome’s allies across the Republic rose up to support the Carthaginians in the hopes of gaining their freedom from the Romans. The morale of the Roman people plummeted. The Battle of Cannae remains one of the greatest examples of total victory on the field in the history of warfare, and strategists have studied it and tried to replicate Hannibal’s success for more than two millennia. And yet it was not the end of the Republic.

“I will use Fire and Steel to Arrest the Destiny of Rome”

Hannibal Barca was born in 247 BC in modern-day Tunisia. His father Hamilcar was a general in the armies of Carthage, the empire which stretched across the North African coast, southern Spain, and the island of Sicily. Carthage had been at war with the Roman Republic for fourteen years, and a year after Hannibal’s birth Hamilcar departed to lead the Carthaginians in the defense of Sicily. Unfortunately for Carthage, they lost the war in 241 andwere forced to pay a heavy indemnity to the Romans. At the age of nine, Hannibal went with his father to Spain, where Carthage planned to expand its empire far from the watchful eyes of the Romans. Hamilcar took the boy to a temple, held him over a roaring fire that burned his feet, and made his son swear that he would always oppose the Romans. As the flames licked his body, Hannibal pledged, “I swear so soon as age will permit…I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.” Satisfied, Hamilcar put his son down and bandaged his wounds.

Hannibal joined the Carthaginian army in Spain at the age of fourteen. When his father died and command passed to his brother-in-law Hasdrubal, Hannibal was one of his senior officers. The Roman historian Livy records that “No sooner had he arrived...the old soldiers fancied they saw Hamilcar in his youth given back to them; the same bright look; the same fire in his eye, the same trick of countenance and features. Never was one and the same spirit more skillful to meet opposition, to obey, or to command.” Hannibal’s hatred of the Romans grew as he fought their allies in Spain and expanded Carthage’s empire across the Iberian Peninsula. He eventually took command of the army in Spain after his brother-in-law Hasdrubal was assassinated. He intended to fulfill the oath he swore as a child and destroy the Romans, but he needed a cassus belli, a cause for war.

The treaty which had ended the First Punic War established a boundary at the Ebro River in northern Spain. The Carthaginians were not permitted to colonize lands or form alliances with cities north of the river, and the Romans would not do the same to the south. As Hannibal’s power in Spain grew, the Romans became nervous and signed an alliance with the city of Saguntum south of the Ebro. This was a clear violation of the treaty, and Hannibal laid siege to Saguntum. This was the start of the Second Punic War.

From the Alps to the Desert

Carthage’s greatest weapons in the field were its North African elephants, who carried men into battle as on horseback. Enemy soldiers often fled before these large beasts, and Hannibal hoped to use them as his main striking force against the Romans. First, though, he had to get into Italy. Elephants could not be transported on warships, so his army of 46,000 infantry and cavalry as well as 38 elephants marched north through southern France and into the Alps. Rome would not be expecting an attack on its northern frontier, Hannibal reasoned. Sadly for the elephants, the harsh conditions in the mountains was too much for them, and very few survived the journey.

After winning two battles against the Romans at the Trebia River and Lake Trasimene in northern Italy in the spring of 216, Hannibal bypassed the city of Rome and invaded southern Italy. He hoped to encourage the Greek city-states which had been subjugated by the Romans a century earlier to rise up, but few did when he arrived. The Romans sent their two consular armies, numbering nearly ninety thousand men, south to confront the Carthaginians. The armies met at Cannae on the “heel” of Italy. The Romans lined up their forces north-to-south in a Greek-style phalanx of three lines, while Hannibal placed his men in a “U” shape with Spanish and Gallic cavalry at the base nearest the Romans and his African infantry and cavalry on the wings further back. When the Romans attacked, the Spaniards and Gauls retreated quickly, drawing the slow but heavily-armored legionaries into a trap. Once the Romans had advanced far enough, Hannibal ordered his cavalry to turn and attack their front while his North African infantry assaulted the flanks. His Numidian cavalry drove away the Roman horsemen and then cut the legionaries off in the rear.

Surrounded, the Romans fought to the death, but fewer than fifteen thousand survived. One of Rome’s two consuls, the leading men in the Republic, was killed on the field and the other barely escaped with his life. When the Senate and people of Rome learned of the disaster at Cannae, there was utter panic in the city. Livy wrote, “Never when the city was in safety was there so great a panic and confusion within the walls of Rome…No other nation surely would not have been overwhelmed by such an accumulation of misfortune.” The people cried out to to gods for help, resorted to human sacrifice, and fled the city for the countryside. But Hannibal failed to take advantage of his stunning success. Many of Rome’s allies in southern Italy had switched sides, and the Republic had lost nearly a quarter of its total military strength. Hannibal could have probably marched on the city of Rome and sacked it, but he chose instead to remain in southern Italy. He believed that Rome would eventually surrender.

Many of the Roman survivors at Cannae fled to the town of Canusium, where their leaders met to discuss what to do. One of the tribunes was Publius Cornelius Scipio, a young man whose father was commanding the Roman defenses in Spain now under attack by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal. During the council of war, the two other surviving tribunes suggested they escape Italy and offer their services as mercenaries to a Greek king. Scipio was outraged when he learned of this and strode into the middle of the group with his sword drawn. The historian Livy records his words:

“I swear with all the passion in my heart that I will never desert our homeland, or permit any other citizen of Rome to leave her in the lurch. If I willfully break my oath may Jupiter, Greatest and Best, bring me to a shameful death, with my house, my family, and all I possess! Swear the same oath, Caecilius! And the rest of you, swear it too. If anyone refuse, against him this sword is drawn.”

With these words, Scipio rallied his men, and when he returned to Rome he was unanimously elected proconsul and given command of a new army. The war would continue. The Senate appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator with full power over the Republic to defeat the Carthaginians. Fabius worked with Scipio to devise a strategy that has since borne his name whereby the Romans would defeat the Carthaginians without fighting a major battle against Hannibal in southern Italy.

Scipio took his army to Spain in 211 BC—where his father and uncle had recently fallen in battle against Hasdrubal—and he immediately launched a surprise attack on New Carthage, the base of Hannibal’s power in Spain. At the same time, small Roman armies (which taken together outnumbered Hannibal’s) raided towns and villages in southern Italy and slowly weakened Hannibal’s forces. If Hannibal’s main army marched toward them, they would retreat and refuse him battle. To summarize, Rome’s main striking power would be employed against the weak Carthaginian forces in Spain, while small Roman armies would keep Hannibal’s troops in Italy. This was the essence of the Fabian strategy.

Scipio’s campaign in Spain lasted for six years and was a complete success for Rome. As he marched across the peninsula and liberated one town after another, he sent vast amounts of treasure, food, resources, and slaves back to Rome to be distributed equally to the people (making him wildly popular with the masses). Rome’s wealth and power rose with each victory as Carthage slowly faded. In 207 BC Hannibal summoned his brother Hasdrubal to join him in Italy, but Scipio defeated his army at Baecula and killed one-third of the Carthaginians.

Hasdrubal escaped but was then attacked by another Roman force once he had crossed into northern Italy. At the Battle of the Metaurus, Hasdrubal was decisively beaten. His army retreated, and he charged with the rearguard into the Roman lines and was captured and beheaded. Two years later, Scipio won the final battle in Spain at Ilipia and completed his conquest of Carthaginian Spain. He returned to Rome a hero. Hannibal’s army in Italy, now growing weary and hungry from constant Roman raids, was the only Carthaginian force left in Europe. In 205 BC, Scipio was proclaimed consul and sailed for Sicily.

He planned to invade North Africa and lay siege to Carthage itself, but political opposition hindered his efforts. Fabius believed that an attack on the city of Carthage would be disastrous for Rome and hoped that they might surrender without a pitched battle. Scipio raised a force from the Roman garrison at Sicily at his own expense and landed in North Africa with an army of forty thousand men. He quickly destroyed a Carthaginian army at Utica. The constant reversals of fortune for Carthage drove most of its allies in Italy and North Africa back into the arms of the Romans. Scipio opened negotiations with the leaders of Carthage and offered moderate peace terms, and the Carthaginians accepted a truce. However, they almost immediately broke it and recalled Hannibal to North Africa. He arrived with some of his soldiers as a nucleus for his new army and met Scipio’s undefeated Romans at the plains of Zama between Utica and Carthage.

The Battle of Zama in 202 BC was an almost blow-for-blow reenactment of the Battle of Cannae fourteen years earlier. The two sides lined up in standard battle formation, but Scipio had made a slight change to Rome’s deployments. Instead of forming three unbroken lines across the battlefield, each maniple was deployed with a space between it that would be filled by another one from the row behind (much like checkers on a board). This gave them greater maneuverability and allowed the first rank to charge into an enemy line and then bring in the second to exploit weaknesses and break through.

Hannibal moved first, sending in his eighty war elephants and missile troops to rain darts and rocks down on the Romans. The legionaries pulled back to draw the Carthaginians in, but the Roman cavalry on the flanks remained in place—creating a “U” shape on the field. The horsemen then charged the Carthaginian elephants, hacking at their legs and sending them into a panicked frenzy. The beasts threw their riders to the ground and trampled both Roman and Carthaginian alike as they ran amok. The Roman cavalry then turned and drove the Numidian riders in Hannibal’s army away as the main Carthaginian infantry charged. Using their new “checkerboard” lines, the Romans broke the Carthaginian phalanx to pieces. Scipio fought in the line with his men, leaving overall command to one of his subordinates. By midday, the first and second Carthaginian lines had broken and fled, and Hannibal was on the field with his last and strongest soldiers.

Both armies were exhausted, and a brief pause ensued. The two generals met between the armies for single combat, which was inconclusive. Scipio’s horse was hit by a spear thrown by Hannibal, and Hannibal’s shield was splintered by Scipio’s sword. Hannibal then ordered a charge, and the battle resumed. The Carthaginians managed to push the Romans back a few hundred yards, but at that point the Roman cavalry appeared behind Hannibal’s army and attacked. The tables had been turned on the Carthaginian warlord—he was now as surrounded as his enemies had been at Cannae. In all, more than half of Hannibal’s army of forty thousand men were slain at Zama and the rest fell prisoner to the Romans.

“Carthago Delenda Est.”

The Romans imposed a harsh peace on the Carthaginians in 202 BC. Their empire was taken from them and their lands reduced to a small piece of territory around the city. The government was removed and replaced with pro-Roman bureaucrats, and the Roman Senate was given veto power over Carthage’s ability to declare war. The city was also forced to hand over ninety percent of its revenue each month to the Roman treasury. In short, Carthage was bankrupt and could never again challenge Rome’s dominion of the Mediterranean world.

Hannibal Barca escaped the defeat at Zama and became a leading statesman in the new Carthage. He tried to restore some of his city’s former glory, but in 195 BC he was exiled because the Romans suspected he was plotting a new war. He fled to serve in the armies of the Seleucid emperor of Asia Antiochus III. When the Romans invaded Greece and fought the Seleucids, Hannibal served his master faithfully but was unable to stop Rome’s inexorable advance. He learned that the Seleucids were prepared to give him to the Romans as part of a peace treaty, and he took his own life rather than fall into his enemy’s hands.

Publius Cornelius Scipio returned to Rome and received a triumph and the name “Africanus” for his victory. He remained in the Senate as a voice of reason and moderation in the Republic’s dealings with Carthage. However, as Carthage slowly recovered its economic strength, many Romans began to fear their old enemy might rise against them a third time. Whenever he spoke on the floor of the Senate, Marcus Porcius Cato ended every speech (regardless of the topic) with the phrase “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam,” or “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.” Scipio opposed Cato’s warmongering, but in the end he was forced into retirement and died in relative obscurity in 187 BC (the same year that Hannibal committed suicide).

The Romans eventually followed Cato’s advice. In 149 BC, Carthage declared war on Numidia, Rome’s ally in modern-day Algeria, without the Senate’s permission. This gave the Romans cause for war, and an army was dispatched under Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, an adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus. The Romans slaughtered a small mercenary force Carthage had paid to fight its war and then laid siege to the city for three years. The half-million Carthaginians defended their city valiantly, but in the end the might of Rome was simply too much. When the city fell, the Romans massacred nine in ten Carthaginians and sold the surviving fifty thousand—mostly women and children—into slavery. They then systematically burned the entire city and turned its lands over to Italian colonists to resettle in the new Roman province of Africa.

The Turning Point: The Wealth of Rome

Before the Second Punic War, the Roman Republic was confined to the Italian peninsula and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. The conquests of 216-202 BC, and especially the massive influx of wealth and slaves and their distribution to Roman citizens created a fierce appetite for more glorious victories in new lands. The Second Punic War was the spark that led to two centuries of almost endless warfare in Europe, West Asia and North Africa that saw the Roman Republic spread from Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, swallowing up not just Carthage and its lands in Spain, southern France and North Africa but also the Greek successor kingdoms to Alexander the Great.

More importantly, the Roman people began to embrace not the rule of the Senate and its laws but any general who gave them spoils of war and triumph parades with their attendant gifts of gold and slaves. Scipio Africanus was the first of these men, but he was hardly the last. When he opposed a third war with Carthage, he was cast aside in favor of more aggressive leaders like Cato. When Gaius Marius arose a century later and reformed the legions to give penniless peasants a chance to win glory and wealth if they fought in the army, he was embraced by the Roman mob. His opponent, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, likewise paid spoils of war to the people during his dictatorship. The conflict between Marius and Sulla then set the stage for the downfall of the Roman Republic and its transformation into an empire ruled by one man.

Sulla’s chief lieutenant in his campaigns was Gnaeus Pompey, a champion of the elites and the status quo of oppressing the masses. Marius’ nephew by marriage, Gaius Julius Caesar, opposed Pompey and hoped to win himself the Roman throne. The war between Pompey and Caesar brought about the end of the Republic, the creation of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar’s adopted grand-nephew Octavian—later Caesar Augustus —and the unification of the Western world under the boots of the Roman legionary.

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