Rome and Carthage at War

The struggle between Rome and Carthage is one of the most fascinating of conflicts for the student of history and is full of memorable events and personalities—Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, the strategy of the stolid and patient Fabius Maximus, the famous siege of Syracuse and the war machines of Archimedes, etc.

The Punic Wars represented a battle between Mediterranean superpowers that would ultimately determine who would dominate the region politically, economically and culturally. The struggle actually occurred in three distinct phases over a period of 118 years. The most famous phase was the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded and occupied large parts of Italy. The Hannibalic War, as it was known to the Romans, was first chronicled at length by the Greek writer Polybius and later by the Roman historian Livy. It is Livy who imitates the great historian Thucydides and makes the same claims for his account that the Greek author did for the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta:

The war I am about to describe is the most memorable of any that have ever been waged, I mean the war which the Carthaginians, under Hannibal’s leadership, waged with Rome. No states, no nations ever met in arms greater in strength or richer in resources; these powers themselves had never before been in so high a state of efficiency or better prepared to stand the strain of a long war… and so variable were the fortunes and so doubtful the issue of the war that those who were ultimately victorious were in the earlier stages brought nearest to ruin.

For a more modern study of the period I recommend Dorey and Dudley’s Rome Against Carthage (Doubleday, 1972). It is easy to read and short. It cuts through some of the biases, errors and confusion of ancient accounts. As the authors explain:

The three wars between Rome and Carthage were decisive in shaping the course of the civilization of the ancient Mediterranean world. They may be seen as a later counterpart to the struggles of the Greeks and Persians in the 5th century B.C.: in both cases victory went to “the West”…. The Oriental challenge to the West was not to be renewed on so massive a scale until Islam confronted Christianity.

Still there’s no comparing the perusal of a classical source so much closer in time to the actual events and, perhaps more importantly, closer to the traditions and thinking of the original participants. In addition to Polybius and Livy, readers can find concise and lively accounts of some of the key Roman players in the war with Carthage in the works of Plutarch.

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