Causes of the Punic Wars


          The Punic Wars were a chain of three conflicts that started in 264 BC and ended in 146 BC. These wars were clashes between the Roman Republic and the Empire of Carthage. They took place in the western Mediterranean Sea and Sicily, along with small parts of North Africa. Carthage and Rome began as neighboring nations with a friendly treaty, but ended with the total destruction of the Empire of Carthage. You may be wondering what could have happened between them to conclude with so much devastation. Well, the answers are here, in the causes of the Punic Wars.

First Punic War

          To fully understand why these hostilities took place it is necessary to be aware of the background and history of the two rival realms, Rome and Carthage. Carthage was a larger and richer kingdom with an excellent navy, while the Roman Republic had a strong government, strategic military, and a vast number of loyal citizens. Both Rome and Carthage wanted to own the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily. This plentiful land with rich soil could expand either nation’s empires. Also, with Rome’s quickly swelling population of over 400,000 people, they were in desperate need of more living space. Carthage, on the other hand, could use this land to add to its already massive amount of money by farming or using it as an island for fishing and trading throughout the Mediterranean. Tension, which is generally what causes conflicts, was mounting in both of these countries in the 260s. These were the causes of the First Punic War.


          After 23 years of brutal fighting and tens of thousands of lives lost on both sides, Rome came out of the war victorious, due to the leadership of Marcus Atilius Regulus, and gained control and ownership over Sicily. After this struggle had concluded, Rome assembled a treaty to be signed by Carthage. This treaty was very complicated with numerous political consequences. It involved Carthage paying Rome 200 talents for 50 years, totaling 10,000 talents. Also, it stated that all Roman prisoners of war be returned without ransom, but Carthage was charged a hefty fine for each of the prisoners that the Romans had taken captive. Finally, it forbade Carthage from fighting with any of Rome’s allies. When drafting this treaty, the Roman government could not comprehend how much of their population wouldn’t live through the colossal warfare that was to come.

Second Punic War

          50 years after the First Punic War, Carthage had paid off their entire 10,000 talent fee. They then believed that this meant that the treaty was expired. Numidia, an ally of Rome, had frequently raided Carthage because in the treaty Carthage had agreed not to retaliate. Carthage was outraged that the Numidians had been allowed to invade their nation, and in return, Carthage assembled a small army to attack Numidia without Roman permission. This was the opportunity Rome was waiting for. Though many Roman senators wanted harmony, or a good rationalization for confrontation, they couldn’t ignore the fact that Carthage had broken the treaty. This was the reason for war that they wanted. When Rome gained knowledge of this unauthorized violence they initiated the building of the greatest army of ancient times. The primary and most important cause of what is now known as the Second Punic War, or the Hannibalic War, was this pact made 50 years previously, and that the Romans believed that the Carthaginians had broken it.

          It is my belief that if this treaty had not been so complicated and limiting, the Second and Third Punic Wars wouldn’t have been necessary. If they had made it clear in the treaty that their contract did or did not expire in 50 years when the fine of 10,000 talents was paid, there would not have been quarreling about it. Also, if Rome had allowed Carthage freedom with whom they chose to fight, the Romans could not have assumed that Carthage had broken the treaty by attacking Numidia.

          Another cause of the most incredible war of ancient times was Hannibal Barca, considered Rome’s greatest enemy. Hannibal was the son of the commander Hamilcar Barca, a prominent military leader in the first of the three ancient conflicts. As a young boy, Hannibal swore an oath to destroy Rome. Hannibal was the reason that many now refer to the Second Punic War as the Hannibalic War. Carthage placed its hopes and lives in the hands of this brilliant military mastermind.

          Hannibal’s level of ambition was met by only one Roman, Publius Cornelius Scipio. These two great generals fueled each others’ desire for victory. Both constantly plotted their tactics, honing them to what they thought was perfection, absolutely undefeatable. Their persistent aspirations pushed the war to a new intensity. The dreams of these commanders and others like them, such as Quintus Fabius, were a final reason that the Second Punic War begun.  

          “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.” (Morey, Outlines of Roman History)

          The 17 year long explosion of unmatched brutality and genius that followed this bold proclamation smoldered to a halt in 201 BC. Rome, the champion for the second time, was able to tighten their already powerful grip over Carthage.

Third Punic War

          Carthage attempted to construct several small armies throughout the succeeding years, but all were feeble challenges and Rome quickly swept through the land, annihilating them. The Carthaginians concluded that they must ask for peace or be obliterated. With this in mind, Carthage requested that Rome and Carthage have tranquility. Rome accepted their plan, but on a condition. They required 300 well-born Carthaginian children. Though the children they desired were presented to Rome, Rome continued to threaten them with war unless Carthage delivered all over their weapons and armor to them. Carthage granted this also. With Carthage weak, having no weapons and armor, and with Rome keeping 300 children hostage, Rome saw this as a perfect opportunity to strike and finally finish them. Rome asked the Empire of Carthage to do one more grim thing. They invited them to leave their city while the Roman soldiers burned it to the ground.

          Carthage understandable declined, and in 149 BC the last of the three Punic wars begun. Many historians agree that this war was very preventable and I have the same opinion. I believe this because Rome already had a substantial amount of control over the citizens and government of Carthage. Also, the Roman Republic was seeking an excuse and defense for why they needed to terminate the Carthaginians. If they had instead spent their efforts making peace with Carthage the two empires could have helped each other by being trading partners.

          During the course of the war that transpired, the Roman armies demolished the empire of Carthage and the survivors, approximately 50,000, were sold into slavery. The resources and hopes of the Empire of Carthage were completely depleted. Due to the lack of donations paid by citizens and allied nations to the government of Carthage, they were unable to produce sufficient funds to compensate for the high price to continue the naval power and military investment it would take to defeat Rome. However, Rome did have these types of donations and prevailed in the war once again. By 146 BC, three years after the beginning of the Third Punic War, only the crumbling ruins and salted ground of what was once the prosperous Empire of Carthage remained. The Romans sowed salt into the land of Carthage to prevent anything from growing in the future. The last of the three Punic Wars had ended.


          I feel that the Punic Wars were unnecessary and the outcome was appalling. On both the Roman and Carthaginian sides a myriad of presumably dignified, hardworking citizens were killed. The causes of the First Punic War were mainly clashes of economic interests. The main reasons for the Second or Hannibalic War were the ambition and pride of prominent military generals and a poorly configured political agreement. The Third Punic War was entirely avoidable was caused by Rome taking advantage of Carthage while they were weak. These were the main reasons for the Punic Wars.