The Second Punic War

“Decided…. the fate of Rome, and perhaps of Europe. Its real cause was the growing rivalry between the two great powers that were now struggling for supremacy in the western Mediterranean. But it was directly brought about by the rapid growth of the Carthaginian dominion in Spain. While Rome was adding to her strength by the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul and the reduction of the islands in the sea, Carthage was building up a great empire in the Spanish peninsula. Here she expected to raise new armies, with which to invade Italy. This was the policy of Hamilcar Barca, her greatest citizen and soldier. The work was begun by Hamilcar himself, and then continued by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, who founded the city of New Carthage as the capital of the new province.

Rome began to be alarmed, as she saw the territory of her rival extending toward the north. She induced Carthage to make a treaty not to extend her conquests beyond the river Iberus (Ebro), in the northern part of Spain. Rome also formed a treaty of alliance with the Greek city of Saguntum, which, though south of the Iberus, was up to this time free and independent. Carthage continued the work of conquering the southern part of Spain, without infringing upon the rights of Rome, until Hasdrubal died. Then Hannibal, the young son of the great Hamilcar, and the idol of the army, was chosen as commander. This young Carthaginian, who had in his boyhood sworn an eternal hostility to Rome, now felt that his mission was come. He marched from New Carthage and proceeded to attack Saguntum, the ally of Rome; and after a siege of eight months, captured it.

The Romans sent an embassy to Carthage to demand the surrender of Hannibal. The story is told that Quintus Fabius, the chief Roman envoy, lifted up a fold of his toga and said to the Carthaginian senate, “Here we bring you peace and war; which do you choose?” “Give us either,” was the reply. “Then I offer you war,” said Fabius. “And this we accept,” shouted the Carthaginians. Thus was begun the most memorable war of ancient times.

Hannibal and Rome. Rome was now at war, not only with Carthage, but with Hannibal. The first Punic war had been a struggle with the greatest naval power of the Mediterranean, but the second Punic war was to be a conflict with one of the greatest soldiers that the world has ever seen. As a military genius, no Roman could compare with him. If the Romans could have known what ruin and desolation were to follow in the train of this young man of Carthage, they might have hesitated to enter upon this war. But no one could know the future. While Carthage placed her cause in the hands of a brilliant captain, Rome felt that she was supported by a courageous and steadfast people. It will be interesting for us to follow this contest between a great man and a great nation.

Hannibal’s Invasion of Italy. Even at the beginning of the war Hannibal showed his great genius as a soldier. The Romans formed an excellent plan to send two armies into the enemy’s country one into Africa under Sempronius, and the other into Spain under P. Cornelius Scipio (sip’i-o). But Hannibal, with the instinct of a true soldier, saw that Carthage would be safe if Italy were invaded and Rome threatened. Leaving his brother Hasdrubal to protect Spain, he crossed the Pyrenees with fifty thousand infantry, nine thousand cavalry, and a number of elephants. Without delay he pushed on to the river Rhone; outflanked the barbarians, who were trying to oppose his passage; and crossed the river above, just as the Roman army (which had expected to meet him in Spain) had reached Massilia (Marseilles).

When the Roman commander, P. Cornelius Scipio, found that he had been outmatched by Hannibal, he sent his brother Cn. Scipio on to Spain with the main army, and returned himself to Cisalpine Gaul, expecting to destroy the Carthaginian if he should venture to come into Italy. Hannibal in the meantime pressed on; and in spite of innumerable difficulties and dangers crossed the Alps. He finally reached the valley of the Po, with only twenty thousand foot and six thousand horse. Here he recruited his ranks from the Gauls, who eagerly joined his cause against the Romans.

Hannibal’s Early Victories. When the Romans were aware that Hannibal was really in Italy, they made preparations to meet and to destroy him. Sempronius was recalled with the army originally intended for Africa; and Scipio, who had returned from Massilia, gathered together the scattered forces in northern Italy and took up his station at Placentia on the Po. The cavalry of the two armies first met in a skirmish on the north side of the Po, near the little stream Ticinus. The Romans were defeated, and Scipio himself was severely wounded. Hannibal then crossed to the south of the Po. To prevent his advance, Scipio took up a strong position on the bank of the river Trebia. Scipio was soon joined by his colleague Sempronius, who came to him from Ariminum on the Adriatic coast.

The two hostile armies were now separated by the river Trebia. Here again Hannibal showed his great skill as a general. By a feigned attack he drew the Romans over to his own side of the river. He then attacked them in front, upon the flank, and in the rear; and the Roman army was nearly annihilated. The remnant of the army fled to Placentia. This great disaster did not discourage the Romans. They soon raised new armies with which to resist the invaders.

Battle of Lake Trasumenus (B.C. 217). In the following spring, the new consul, Flaminius, placed his own army at Arretium, in Etruria, and his colleague’s army at Ariminum, to guard the only roads upon which it seemed possible that Hannibal could move, in order to reach Rome. But Hannibal, instead of going by either of these roads on which he was expected to go, crossed the Apennines and pushed on toward Rome through the marshy regions of Etruria. He thus got between the Roman armies and the Roman capital. He knew that Flaminius would be obliged to hasten to Rome to protect the city. He also knew by what road Flaminius must go, and he determined to destroy the Roman army on its way.

He posted his army on the heights near the northern shore of Lake Trasumenus (Trasimene), overlooking a defile through which the Roman army must pass. The Romans approached this defile and entered it, not suspecting the terrible fate which awaited them. At a given signal, the soldiers of Hannibal rushed to the attack. The Romans were overwhelmed on every side, and those who escaped the fierce Gauls and the dreaded cavalry of Numidia were buried in the waters of the lake. Fifteen thousand Romans and Italians fell on that fatal field, with Flaminius, their leader. The Roman army was practically destroyed. Northern Italy was now at the mercy of Hannibal, and Rome seemed an easy prey to the victorious Carthaginian.

Fabius Maximus, Dictator. “We have lost a great battle, our army is destroyed, Flaminius is killed!” was the simple announcement which the praetor made, after the frightful disaster at Lake Trasumenus. But this simple announcement brought consternation to the Roman people. They recalled the days of the Gauls and the battle on the Allia. But they were still determined to defend their country. The times seemed to demand a dictator, and Q. Fabius Maximus was appointed. He was a member of that Fabian gens which had before proved its devotion to the country; and he was also that ambassador who had offered to Carthage the choice between peace and war. He ordered new armies to be raised, and the city to be put in a state of defense.

Hannibal did not see fit to attack Rome; but, turning to the east, he moved through Umbria and Picenum into Apulia, plundering the country as he went. He hoped to draw to his standard the allies of Rome in southern Italy, by showing that they were safe only under his protection. He also wished to provoke Fabius to a pitched battle. But Fabius had learned some lessons from the war; and he adopted the safe policy of harassing the army of Hannibal and of avoiding a general engagement. On account of this cautious strategy he was called Fabius Cunctator, or the Delayer.

In order to irritate him to a conflict, Hannibal marched through Samnium into the rich fields of Campania. Fabius then tried to shut Hannibal up in this little territory by holding the mountain passes. But when Hannibal was ready to go, he opened his way by a stratagem. He ordered his light-armed troops in the night to drive up the mountain side a herd of cattle, with lighted fagots tied to their horns. The Romans who guarded the way, deceived or panic-stricken by this unusual demonstration, abandoned their post. Hannibal marched through the unguarded pass, and was free again to plunder the countries of southern Italy. He moved eastward through Samnium, and then descended into the region of Apulia. During all this time the allied cities of Italy had remained faithful to Rome.

Battle of Cannae (B.C. 216). The cautious strategy of Fabius soon became unpopular; and the escape of Hannibal from Campania especially excited the dissatisfaction of the people. Two new consuls were therefore chosen, who were expected to pursue a more vigorous policy. These were Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paullus. Hannibal’s army was now in Apulia, near the little town of Cannae on the Aufidus River. To this place the consuls led their new forces, consisting of eighty thousand infantry and six thousand cavalry, the largest army that the Romans had, up to that time, ever gathered on a single battlefield; Hannibal’s army consisted of forty thousand infantry and ten thousand cavalry. But the brain of Hannibal was more than a match for the forty thousand extra Romans, under the command of less able generals. The Roman consuls took command on alternate days. Paullus was cautious; but Varro was impetuous and determined to fight Hannibal at the first opportunity. As this was Hannibal’s greatest battle, we may learn something of his wonderful skill by looking at, its plan.

The Romans drew up their heavy infantry in solid columns, facing to the south, to attack the center of Hannibal’s line. In front of the heavy-armed troops were the light-armed soldiers, to act as skirmishers. On the Roman right, near the river, were two thousand of the Roman cavalry, and on the left wing were four thousand cavalry of the allies. With their army thus arranged, the Romans hoped to defeat Hannibal. But Hannibal laid his plan not simply to defeat the Roman army, but to draw it into such a position that it could be entirely destroyed. He therefore placed his weakest troops, the Spanish and Gallic infantry, in the center opposite the heavy infantry of the Romans, and pushed them forward in the form of a crescent, with the expectation that they would be driven back and pursued by the Romans. On either flank he placed an invincible body of African troops, his best and most trusted soldiers, drawn back in long, solid columns, so that they could fall upon the Romans when the center had been driven in. On his left wing, next to the river, were placed four thousand Spanish and Gallic cavalry, and on the right wing his superb body of six thousand Numidian cavalry, which was to swing around and attack the Roman army in the rear, when it had become engaged with the African troops upon the right and left.

The description of this plan is almost a description of the battle itself. When the Romans had pressed back the weak center of Hannibal’s line, they found themselves engulfed in the midst of the Carthaginian forces. Attacked on all sides, the Roman army became a confused mass of struggling men, and the battle became a butchery. The army was annihilated; seventy thousand Roman soldiers are said to have been slain, among whom were eighty senators and the consul Aemilius. The small remnant of survivors fled to the neighboring towns, and Varro, with seventy horsemen, took refuge in the city of Venusia. This was the most terrible day that Rome had seen since the destruction of the city by the Gauls, nearly two centuries before. Every house in Rome was in mourning.


Hannibal’s New Allies. The battle of Cannae convinced the Italian allies that it would be better to have the help, rather than the hostility, of such a man as Hannibal. The Apulians, the Lucanians, the Samnites, the Bruttians, revolted and put themselves under his protection. But the Latin colonies and the Greek cities generally remained loyal to Rome. Capua, however, the most important city in Italy, after Rome, opened her gates to Hannibal; and Tarentum, which held a Roman garrison, was betrayed into his hands. The influence of Hannibal’s victory was also apparent outside of Italy. Syracuse transferred her allegiance from Rome to Carthage, and many other cities in Sicily threatened to revolt. Philip V., the king of Macedonia, also made an alliance with Hannibal, and threatened to invade Italy to assist him. Hannibal at this time was at the height of his power.

Dismay and Fortitude of the Romans. During the period which followed the battle of Cannae, the Roman character was put to its severest test. The people feared the worst. Everything seemed turning against them. They were in dismay; but they did not despair. The popular excitement was soon allayed by the firmness of the senate. Under the wise counsels of Fabius Maximus, new plans were made for the recovery of Italy. But the problem now seemed greater than ever before. The war must be carried on, not only in Italy, to recover the revolted allies and to meet the continued attacks of Hannibal; but also in Spain, to prevent reinforcements coming from Hasdrubal; and in Sicily, to prevent the cities of that province from following the example of Syracuse; and finally in Greece, to prevent the king of Macedonia from interfering in the affairs of Italy. In the face of all discouragements, the Roman people, supported by the faithful Latin towns and colonies, remained firm; and with fixed resolution determined to prosecute the war with greater vigor than ever before.

The Turning of the Tide. It was at this point that the fortunes of war began to turn in favor of the Romans. The first ray of hope came from Spain, where it was learned that Hasdrubal had been defeated by the Scipios. Then Hannibal’s army met its first repulse in Campania. The Romans also, by forming a league with the Aetolian cities of Greece and sending them a few troops, were able to prevent Macedonia from giving any aid to Hannibal. Soon Syracuse was captured after a siege by the Roman praetor Marcellus. Moreover, Hannibal’s forces were weakened by the need of protecting his new allies, scattered in various parts of southern Italy.

Recovery of Capua. The Romans were greatly incensed by the revolt of Capua, and determined to punish its citizens. Regular siege was laid to the city, and two Roman armies surrounded its walls. Hannibal marched to the relief of the beleaguered city and attempted to raise the siege; but could not draw the Roman army from its entrenchments. As a last resort, he marched directly to Rome, hoping to compel the Romans to withdraw their armies from Capua for the defense of the capital. Although he plundered the towns and ravaged the fields of Latium, and rode about the walls of Rome, the fact that “Hannibal was at the gates,” did not entice the Roman army away from Capua. Rome was well defended, and Hannibal, having no means of besieging the city, withdrew again into the southern part of Italy. Capua was soon taken by the Romans; its chief citizens were put to death for their treason, many of the inhabitants were reduced to slavery, and the city itself was put under the control of a prefect. It was apparent that Hannibal could not protect his Italian allies; and his cause seemed doomed to failure, unless he could receive help from his brother Hasdrubal, who was still in Spain.

The Scipios in Spain (B.C.E 218-212); Battle of the Metaurus (B.C.E 207). Hasdrubal had been kept in Spain by the vigorous campaign which the Romans had conducted in that peninsula under the two Scipios. Upon the death of these generals, the young Publius Cornelius Scipio was sent to Spain and earned a great name by his victories. But Hasdrubal was determined to go to the rescue of his brother in Italy. He followed Hannibal’s path over the Alps into the valley of the Po. Hannibal had moved northward into Apulia, and was awaiting news from Hasdrubal. There were now two enemies in Italy, instead of one. One Roman army under Claudius Nero was, therefore, sent to oppose Hannibal in Apulia; and another army under Livius Salinator was sent to meet Hasdrubal, who had just crossed the river Metaurus, in Umbria.

It was necessary that Hasdrubal should be crushed before Hannibal was informed of his arrival in Italy. The consul Claudius Nero therefore left his main army in Apulia, and with eight thousand picked soldiers hurried to the aid of his colleague in Umbria. The battle which took place at the Metaurus was decisive; and really determined the issue of the second Punic war. The army of Hasdrubal was entirely destroyed, and he himself was slain. The first news which Hannibal received of this disaster was from the lifeless lips of his own brother, whose head was thrown by the Romans into the Carthaginian camp. Hannibal saw that the death of his brother was the doom of Carthage; and he sadly exclaimed, “O Carthage, I see thy fate!” Hannibal retired into Bruttium; and the Roman consuls received the first triumph that had been given since the beginning of this disastrous war.


Publius Scipio Africanus. Of all the men produced by Rome during the Punic wars, Publius Cornelius Scipio (afterward called Africanus) came the nearest to being a military genius. From boyhood he had, like Hannibal, served in the army. At the death of his father and uncle, he had been intrusted with the conduct of the war in Spain. With great ability he had defeated the armies which opposed him, and had regained the entire peninsula, after it had been almost lost. With his conquest of New Carthage and Gades, Spain was brought under the Roman power. On his return to Rome, Scipio was unanimously elected to the consulship. He then proposed his scheme for closing the war. This plan was to keep Hannibal shut up in the Bruttian peninsula, and to carry the war into Africa. Although this scheme seemed to the aged Fabius Maximus as rash, the people had entire confidence in the young Scipio, and supported him. From this time Scipio was the chief figure in the war, and the senate kept him in command until its close.

The War carried into Africa. Scipio now organized his new army, which was made up largely of volunteers, and equipped by patriotic contributions. He embarked from Sicily and landed in Africa. He was assisted by the Numidian king, Masinissa, whom he had previously met in Spain; and whose royal title was now disputed by a rival named Syphax, an ally of Carthage. The title to the kingship of Numidia thus became mixed up with the war with Carthage. Scipio and Masinissa soon defeated the Carthaginian armies in Africa, and the fate of Carthage was sealed.

The Recall of Hannibal. While the war was progressing in Africa, Hannibal still held his place in Bruttium like a lion at bay. In the midst of misfortune, he was still a hero. He kept control of his devoted army, and was faithful to his duty when all was lost. Carthage was convinced that her only hope was in recalling Hannibal to defend his native city. Hannibal left Italy, the field of his brilliant exploits, and landed in Africa. Thus Rome was relieved of her dreaded foe, who had brought her so near to the brink of ruin.

The Battle of Zama and End of the War (B.C.E 201). The two greatest generals then living were now face to face upon the soil of Africa. The final battle of the war was fought (B.C.E 202) near Zama. Hannibal fought at a great disadvantage. His own veterans were reduced greatly in number, and the new armies of Carthage could not be depended upon. Scipio changed the order of the legions, leaving spaces in his line, through which the elephants of Hannibal might pass without being opposed. In this battle Hannibal was defeated, and the Carthaginian army was annihilated. It is said that twenty thousand men were slain, and as many more taken prisoners. The great war was now ended, and Scipio imposed the terms of peace (B.C.E 201).

These terms were as follows: (1) Carthage was to give up the whole of Spain and all the islands between Africa and Italy; (2) Masinissa was recognized as the king of Numidia and the ally of Rome; (3) Carthage was to pay an annual tribute of 200 talents (about $250,000) for fifty years; (4) Carthage agreed not to wage any war without the consent of Rome.

Rome in VICTORY was thus recognized as the mistress of the western Mediterranean. Carthage, although not reduced to a province, became a dependent state. Syracuse was added to the province of Sicily, and the territory of Spain was divided into two provinces, Hither and Farther Spain. Rome had, moreover, been brought into hostile relations with Macedonia, which paved the way for her conquests in the East.”





Eric graduated with honors in 2004 from the The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA. He was then commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps the same year, completed multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Counterintelligence / Human Source Intelligence Officer and later as a Case Officer and Active Duty Special Agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Eric honorably discharged as a Captain after 8 years’ service in 2012.

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