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Roman Imperialism and the Dogs of War: The Origins of the Ancient Conflict With Carthage

Carving on the sarcofago Ludovisi in Rome, showing Romans in battle The wars between Carthage and Rome in antiquity resulted in death and destruction in a scale so vast that it is comparable to that of WWI and WW II. Called “Punic Wars” by the Romans, they were surely known as “Roman Wars” by the Carthaginians, whose records have been lost or obliterated. The conflict lasted over a century, from 264 to 146 BCE, longer than any other war in recorded history. The protagonists were a North African maritime trading city-state and an emerging imperialistic power in the Italian peninsula. The struggle between them devastated the Mediterranean world and resulted in well over a million deaths. But who deserves the blame for these conflagrations—who started them, and why? In this article we will examine the matter of the culpability or Kriegsschuldfrage in the “Punic” (or “Roman”) wars. This question has generated quite a bit of literature and debate, as reflected by the entries in the bibliography at the end of this paper.

The Roman Republic, it is often argued, was well known for its explicit emphasis on laws and legality. Roman historians typically present the city on the Tiber as following the rule of law. They would have us believe that Rome was always in the right and fought wars only for a just cause, to ward off aggression by others or to defend allies they had agreed to protect. Let us examine these claims in the light of the facts of the historical record.  When we do so, we will see that the evidence does not support them and that all three so-called Punic Wars were actually initiated by Rome under one pretext or another, none being the result of benevolent intervention.

Let us start by looking at the first conflict (264-241). At the time, Sicily was divided between the eastern part, under the control of Syracuse, and the western part, under the influence of Carthage. In 288 BCE, a group of thugs known as the Mamertines, who were renegade Campanian mercenaries, occupied the city of Messana (today’s Messina) in Sicily, killing all the adult males and forcing the women to become their “wives.” Defeated in battle by the forces of King Hiero II of Syracuse, the Mamertines secretly called on the Carthaginians and on the Romans for help. The Carthaginians, interested in curtailing Syracusan control, interceded first, achieving a cessation of hostilities with Hiero and placing a detachment of troops in Messana, the latter to the displeasure of the Mamertines. The Roman Senate, in the meantime, although Rome had no presence or investment in Sicily, voted to send an invasion force to exploit the opportunity to displace the Carthaginians and commence Roman expansion into Sicily. The Roman attack started the first Punic War, which initially saw Carthaginians and Syracusans become allies to try to repel the invaders. After being defeated by the Romans, King Hiero, in self-preservation mode, switched sides, and the war became one between Rome and Carthage.

That the Roman invasion was not motivated by altruistic goals is clear from the fact that at the same time that Messana was initially occupied by the Mamertines, a similar gang of cutthroat renegade soldiers had taken over Rhegium, right across the narrow strait separating Italy from Sicily. The thugs on the Italian side were severely punished by the Romans (most were summarily executed). Consequently, any claim by the Romans that they were interested in the protection of a similar gang in Messana is laughable. Clearly, expansionistic greed was behind the initiation of hostilities that would last 23 years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

As for the second Punic War, pro-Roman historians, such as Polybius and Livy, have tried to blame the initiation of the hostilities on the actions of the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, who some believe was motivated by a need to avenge the wrongs committed against Carthage as well as by his undying hatred of Rome. According to the classical sources (Polybius and Livy), when Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, was preparing his expedition to Iberia, nine year old Hannibal asked to be allowed to accompany him. Hamilcar, the story goes, asked his son to put his hand on the sacrificial animal offered on the altar to Baal, and made him swear that he would never be a friend of Rome (Polybius). Livy’s version changes this to “forever being an enemy of Rome.” But where does the story of Hannibal’s childhood oath come from? Polybius (3.11) reports that Hannibal, then 54, in exile at the court of Antiochus III of Syria, needed to convince the king of his trustworthiness as an enemy of Rome, and related the story of his youthful oath to dispel any doubts. It is not clear how the anecdote reached Polybius, or that it is at all authentic. Livy’s version was clearly based on the Polybian account, and when others followed Livy (e.g., Silius Italicus, Punica, Book 1, 100-121), the image of the hate-filled bogeyman from Carthage was formed.

Not only is the authenticity of the story questionable, but the meaning of the Polybian version, “not to be a friend of Rome,” must be examined within the context of the significance of Roman expressions of the time. An “amicus” of Rome does not have the same meaning as the word “friend” in modern usage, for amicus signified also a “client,” and therefore a subject, of Rome. A city or state that was a friend (amicus) of Rome was one that not only was not bellicose, but was actually subservient to Rome. If we were to accept for a moment that the anecdote is not fictitious, the meaning of Hannibal’s swearing that he would never be a “friend” of Rome would most likely be that he promised not to accept being subjugated by Rome, or submitting to Roman hegemony—a far cry from “eternal hatred,” indeed.

The prelude to the second “Punic” war (218-201) was the Roman annexation of Sardinia, a Carthaginian territory, at a time when Carthage was unable to respond due to the devastation caused by the first war and by the “truceless war” it was forced to wage against its own mutinous mercenaries (241-237). Hamilcar Barca had been the commander of the Carthaginian land forces in Sicily at the time of the disastrous naval defeat at the Aegates Islands in 241 BCE, which compelled Carthage to capitulate. Although Hamilcar himself remained unvanquished, he was forced to accept the defeat of Carthage and was put in charge of repatriating the contingents of mercenaries that composed his army. He wisely sent them home gradually, so that they could be paid and dismissed one group at a time. The Carthaginian magistrates, though, misjudged the situation, waited until all the men were back, and then attempted to negotiate reduced pay. This led to violent mutiny, and in the following conflict, characterized by atrocities on both sides, the very survival of the city was at stake. While Hamilcar was able to crush the rebellion, Carthage was exhausted and powerless to resist the theft of Sardinia and later Corsica by the Romans, who added insult to injury by demanding an exorbitant additional war indemnity under the threat of a new declaration of war.