Rome before Hannibal

At this point we should perhaps pause to go back and consider the more conventional history of Rome in these two vital centuries.

Following the settlement with the Latins, the Latin towns remained under their own control. They could elect their own magistrates, retain their town councils and popular assemblies: one of the unexpected features of Pompeii are the election slogans – a fierce election for the town council was taking place when the town was overwhelmed by Vesuvius, and we must expect that similar elections took place regularly in all the Roman allies. Similarly, the administration of justice was divided: the allies could keep their own magistrates, and to a large extent their own laws, though Rome had a system of circuit judges – a praetor or his junior the prefect, who would preside over the hard cases; gradually, local laws tended to align themselves with Roman law.

There was the downside of course, first and foremost the demand to provide troops for the Roman army – indeed rather under half of the Roman army consists of allied troops; though for the soldiers, the harshness of the service was to some extent alleviated by the prospect of bringing home booty and plunder – which the Romans normally shared with their allies. A solder could return home rich. And there were taxes to pay, though these were light. The Romans alone paid tributum, the property tax; allied taxes were limited to the customs duties and the rent paid for farming on the public lands: the Romans had the habit of confiscating much of the best land, and then renting it back – at a price. Against this were the benefits: there was the pax Romana the Roman peace: wars with neighbours were no longer permitted. The ius commercii permitted trade, the Roman roads encouraged it, and the combination of peace and free trade allowed the Roman allies to grew rich: they soon felt themselves to be ‘Roman’.

Some were even allowed to participate in the elections in Rome – they could be enrolled in a tribe – several tribes were set aside for this. In practical terms the effects would be minimal – the Roman upper classes packed the main tribes – but it was also possible to stand for office – and in this way, the provincial voice could be heard. A distinction was made between the best allies who had this privilege, and the allies sine suffragio – without the vote – who did not receive this privilege.

But after this, the Roman expansion continued. Was it because the Romans were inherently warlike? Did they need to conquer fresh territories to provide fresh land to distribute to the plebs? Or was it because the prestige of the patricians was geared to war and to success in war? Or was it that the Romans were no different to any other state at the time, that war with one’s neighbours was to some extent the norm – the only difference being that the Romans were rather more successful at it, and rather better at holding ont0 the land they had conquered?

But the expansion continued. First it was against the Sabines, the hill people who lived in the Apennines behind and to the south of Rome. It took three successive wars to defeat them, but their defeat gave Rome the mastery of Central Italy. The next stage saw Rome fighting in southern Italy, this time against foreign invaders from Greece. It is interesting to realise that this was the time when Alexander the Great was transforming the geography of the eastern Mediterranean and the near East. But though Alexander himself was never tempted in his short life to turn to the West, others did. An earlier attempt was his cousin Alexander of Molossos from North Western Greece who was tempted who came over to southern Italy in 334 with a band of followers, only to perish a couple of years later in a comparatively small skirmish. Rome was changing from being the oppressors of the Italian peoples to becoming their champion.


More serious was the invasion of Pyrrhus in 280 BC. Pyrrhus was King of Epirus again in north west Greece, and in 280 he crossed over to support the Greek colonies against Rome. He was a commander of genius, and he brought a secret weapon – 20 elephants with him. He won several ‘Pyrrhic’ victories, where he won the battle but with enormous losses of his troops. He marched on Rome, but the Roman allies failed to support him: this was the first demonstration of the success of the Roman system, that allies and colonists were beginning to feel that they were part of Rome, and that being part of Rome was preferable to joining a foreign enemy. But when in 275, Pyrrhus withdrew from Italy, Rome emerged as the leader: it was after this that the Etruscan states virtually disintegrate, and the Roman empire extended up to the broad plain of the Po, where by now the Gauls were firmly ensconced.

But the real turning point were the three wars with Carthage, the Punic wars, the second being the best known, because this was fought against one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, Hannibal.

The problem of Carthage

Carthage presents the archaeologist/historian with a problem.  Why did they, and indeed the Etruscans fail, when Greece and Rome succeeded? With the Etruscans one can always give the glib, though possibly not full answer to say that they never adopted money. The Carthaginians on the other hand did adopt money, but nevertheless they were defeated by Rome. What is the reason for their failure? Conventional historians simply say that they were defeated by Rome, but is this the full story? Was their society really not up to running a great empire?

The Carthaginians originally came from Tyre, in what is today Syria, and had been sent out as a colony, probably as early as the 8th century BC – the traditional date is of 814 BC may not be far wrong. But to some extent they were only a stepping stone to the really important settlements in Gadir (Cadiz) in southern Spain where the silver, lead and tin mines provided the metals on which the eastern Mediterranean countries depended. How far should we see Carthage as being simply a middleman for taking silver from Spain to the east?

The Carthaginian problem. In north Africa, they were hemmed in by the desert. Therefore they could either expand by capturing the islands in the Mediterranean, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. But when these were captured by the Romans, the only place they could then expand was in Spain.

The problem with Carthage lay in the very nature of this original expansion from Tyre in Phoenicia. The settlements along the North African coast were mostly hemmed in by the desert, and Carthage in modern-day Tunisia was the only settlement that had a substantial fertile hinterland.

But the desert beyond was occupied by the Numidians, who led a very different form of life : sometimes they were allied to the settlers on the coast, more often they were hostile.  Thus if the Carthaginians wanted to expand, there were only really two options: Spain or the islands in the Mediterranean. In Spain they were faced with the Iberians who were rapidly developing  a sophisticated society that is now becoming better known, but who resented Carthaginian expansion every bit as much as the Etruscans resented the Roman expansion. The other alternative was in the Mediterranean itself, notably the three big islands, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, of which the most important was Sicily.

In the sixth to fourth century, the Mediterranean Islands were fiercely fought over between Etruscans, Greeks and Carthaginians, with the Romans playing in an ever increasing role. Sicily in particular was the major source of conflict, with the Greeks holding the eastern end around the great Greek city of Syracuse, while the Carthaginians held the western end. But as Rome expanded, Sicily became a major battlefield, and in the first Punic War from 264 – 241 BC, Romans and Carthaginians battled it out. ( The term ‘Punic War’ is derived from the Phoenicians, reminding us that Carthage was originally a Phoenician colony). Much of the war was played out at sea, where the Carthaginians at first had the advantage, as they were essentially a seafaring nation. But during the war the Romans built their own fleet, and eventually at the end of the war they defeated the Carthaginians and found themselves in control of Sicily. Sicily became their first ‘province’, and the bread basket for the growing city of Rome itself. Shortly afterwards Corsica and Sardinia were added to the Roman Empire.

Carthaginian Art. This terracotta lion was one of the finest examples of art found at Kerkouane.

Archaeologically, the Carthaginians remain difficult to assess: comparatively little work has been done on native Carthaginian sites. Much of the literary evidence comes from the hostile sources of the Romans. The Romans complain about their habit of child sacrifice, and a number of burial grounds have been discovered, known as tophet which contain huge numbers of child burials – always cremations of children under three. Artistically the Carthaginians have little to show, their best work being derived from the Greeks or the Egyptians, and their pottery is very workaday — but then, at this time, the Romans had little to show either.

Kerkouane. The sea to the right has already eroded part of the town. But this fine courtyard house, showing Greek influence, is one of the finest surviving houses.

The one extensive settlement that has been explored is Kerkouane, a substantial town on the coast 50 miles north east of Carthage. Here there are extensive remains of houses many of them containing small hip baths which either suggests that they were excessively clean or that they formed part of some ritual. There are indeed a few larger houses which appear to be in a Greek style but surprisingly there is no major central space nor indeed any major buildings or indeed a major public square: is this because they have not been discovered, swept away by the sea perhaps? Or is it that they did not exist? Or was Kerkouane, and the other towns and villages so completely under Carthaginian dominance that there was no effort at local rule or local control?

After the loss of Sicily, the only place where Carthage could expand was in Spain, and it is here that the next stage in Carthaginian history takes place. From 237 to 229, Carthage’s greatest general Hamilcar Barca campaigned in Spain to expand the Carthaginian territory. However in 232 he was killed and his place was taken by his slightly less bellicose son-in-law, Hasdrubal. But in 221 Hasdrubal was assassinated and was succeeded as commander by Hamilcar’s son – Hannibal: the Carthaginian advance was now in the hands of one of the world’s greatest strategists.


Hannibal was born to greatness. When we was nine, so the story goes, he accompanied his father to Spain, and his father (Livy 21,1) made him swear that he would be an enemy to the Roman people. And when, at the age of 25, he succeeded as Commander in chief, he at once showed his genius by securing Spain. He made a sweep through central Spain, and partly by diplomacy, but partly by force, he brought the heartlands of Spain within the Carthaginian sphere.

Here we see the sites of three of Hannibal’s greatest battles, at Trebia in the north, then at Lake Trasimene, and finally his greatest victory, at Cannae in the south.

But Rome was the enemy, so he decided to strike the enemy in their homeland, and he set out for Rome, famously taking his elephants with him, passing through southern France and then heroically over the Alps. The Romans were not great soldiers: whenever they fought Hannibal in open battle, Hannibal usually won.

Having arrived in northern Italy, he made friends with the Gauls in the north and soon won an important battle at Trebia in 218 BC. The Romans sent out a large army to oppose him but it was then that they realise that they were fighting a formidable opponent. At Lake Trasimene in 217 BC he trapped them in a narrow ravine and slaughtered two legions. But Rome did not give in, and a year later at the Battle of Cannae, this time in the southern Italy, Hannibal once again annihilated the Roman army and it was only by the skin of their teeth and the support of their allies that Rome managed to survive.  In their despair, Rome appointed a dictator, Fabius Maximus known as Fabius Cunctator, or Fabius the Delayer, who realised that the Romans would never defeat Hannibal in open battle so he always evaded direct fight and shadowed Hannibal. This meant refraining from attacking when Hannibal laid waste the fields of the allies, but nevertheless the Roman army, and indeed Rome itself, survived.

Eventually Rome acquired a general of genius, Scipio the younger. Scipio decided to attack Hannibal in his rear, so he went to Spain and turned the tables on Hannibal and soon turned a Carthaginian empire into a Roman one. Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal decided to abandon Spain and set out with a relief force to Italy but was himself defeated and killed at the Battle of Metaurus: according to the story, his head was cut off and taken to Hannibal’s camp, hundreds of miles to the south and tossed in by the Romans as proof that his brother and the vital reinforcements had failed. As a result, Hannibal lost his air of invincibility, and many of the Italian towns that had been wavering, returned in their allegiance to Rome. Finally, Scipio invaded north Africa, and in 203, Hannibal was recalled and in 201, at the battle of Zama, he — and Carthage — were finally defeated. Hannibal fled to the east and eventually died – committing suicide to escape the Romans, probably in 183 BC aged 63.

The end of Carthage shows Rome both at its best, and at its worst. Most modern Romanists like to assume that the Romans were always bloodthirsty and constantly looking for war. To them I would say, consider the period of 50 years between the second and third Punic war: there was a war party led by the old monster Cato who ended every speech in the Senate with the words Carthago delenda est —Carthage must be destroyed. Equally there was fairly consistently a peace party, led for much of the time by Corculum, one of the junior members of the Scipio family; and for 50 years the two parties were evenly balanced.

Following the battle of Zama, Rome imposed peace conditions that left Carthage viable, stripping it of its overseas empire, forbidding it to have a significant army or navy, and imposing a huge indemnity. At first the Carthaginians had difficulty in paying, due to mis-rule by the ruling oligarchs. But then Hannibal was elected chief magistrate and reformed the constitution so effectively that the Carthaginians were able to pay the indemnity promptly. But Carthage was in an awkward position, for the tribes of the interior, the Numidians, led by a warrior of genius, Masinissa, were constantly trying to increase their territories at the expense of the Carthaginians. And the Romans, having forbidden the Carthaginians to make war, always took the side of the Numidians.

Eventually the war party at Rome came out on top, and when the Numidians were particularly aggressive, they took the opportunity to argue that Carthage had broken the 50-year old treaty, declared war and after a three-year siege Carthage, was finally destroyed and the inhabitants sold into slavery. Nevertheless the Roman historians were clearly somewhat unhappy about the reasons for the war, and  the unease felt about Rome’s treatment of Carthage suggests that some Romans at least felt that Rome had been unduly bellicose.

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