Over the past two weeks we have looked at the conflict between Rome and Carthage, beginning in the 1st Punic War starting in 264 B.C., and continuing down to the start of the 2nd Punic War in 218 B.C.
This series of conflicts would end up determining the balance of power in the Mediterranean and the destiny of each respective civilization. Win or lose, neither power would emerge the same.
One overarching concern I have the for the year is to show students that the various elements of civilization, be it economics, geography, or religion, are all part of a whole and have a symbiotic relationship to one another. The same holds true for the military. We ca easily make the mistake of viewing the military as functioning independently, but it will reflect the strengths and weaknesses from its home society.
First we looked at Rome’s values. These rural people tended to act a lot like modern farmers some of us may know — practical, persevering, plodding, disciplined in the routines of the year. The Romans made up their army not from professionals, but through a citizen militia. Their army fought in tribal/community groups in ways that did not allow individuals to stand out (which we looked at in our last update). Those who held high government offices often led in the field, which could serve to bind the average soldier not just to his fellow man, but also the government itself.
Carthage was older than Rome and different in character. They devoted their empire largely to trade, not agriculture. Nearly all their prominent citizens were merchants. Of course no moral difference exists between farmers and merchants, but they live different lives. We can imagine the majority of Carthaginians often going on the modern equivalent of business trips. If one is not around to mind the store, you have to hire someone to do it for you. Carthage’s military leaders came from a highly trained and well educated section of their population, but Carthage found it convenient and necessary to have the bulk of their forces be paid mercenary troops. This did not mean that Carthage had no military power. On the contrary they had a strong navy and a respected infantry. But their military had little to no direct connection to the society for which they fought. The diversity of their army could give them a great deal of flexibility, but it took a dynamic and forceful commander to hold such an army together.
These two titans did not clash for much of their history. Rome expanded first to the northwest, away from Carthage’s sphere of influence. But later, when Rome’s Italian empire drifted toward the south, it came close to Sicily, which Carthage relied upon for its grain. A spark in that environment could ignite a blaze, and the First Punic War resulted (264-241 B.C.). Rome showed incredible tenacity and adaptability by building a fleet and standing up to Carthage on Carthage’s turf — the sea. Setbacks did not seem to bother Rome. For example, in one 5 year stretch, Rome lost 700 ships at sea. No matter — they made more, and kept on coming.
Rome won that conflict, though narrowly, but it was how they handled that victory that helped set the stage for an even more devastating conflict, the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.). They made several key mistakes, some of them tactical, and others moral:
- After the First Punic War they offered lenient terms initially, which Carthage readily accepted. However, they then altered the terms of the peace and made it much tougher on the Carthaginians. Naturally the Carthaginians felt betrayed.
- Rome’s more stringent terms may have meant that Carthage could not pay its mercenaries, who promptly revolted and spurred on a brutal civil war within Carthage.
- While Carthage had its hands full internally, Rome took the opportunity to snatch a few of Carthage’s outlying provinces. In class I likened this to the foolishness of slapping a heavyweight champ while he is bound and gagged. You can get away with it, but only for so long.
- In response, Carthage sought additional territory in Spain, far from Rome. Once again, Rome inserted itself and insisted on limited Carthage’s sphere of influence. Once again, Carthage agreed. But then, just as before, Rome altered the agreement and insisted on that Carthage refrain from attacking Saguntum, a key port city on the Spain’s east coast.
At this point, Carthage felt it had all it could take. Their army now had a daring commander at its head, Hannibal Barca, son of the great Hamilcar Barca, Carthage’s top general in the First Punic War. Rome could technically claim that Carthage attacked them in 218 B.C., but Rome had done much in the interval to provoke that attack. Eventually actions do have consequences. The bull usually charges when one waves the red flag.
The Second Punic War has more drama and defining moments than the first conflict. Again, however, I want the students to see the big picture, and connect smaller events to larger realities, and this will be the subject of our discussions this week.