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The Punic Wars: Kriegsschuldfrage and the Question of the Just War

Map Showing Rome and Carthage at the Beginning of the Second Punic War, 218 BC The Germans have a wonderful expression for culpability in war: Kriegsschuldfrage. Who is to blame for the initiation of war and its concomitant horrors? Related to this question is the determination of whether a war was justified or not. A “just war” is often regarded as one waged in self-defense, as when one nation repulses invasion by another, but the matter becomes slippery when pre-emptive aggression is labeled “just.” As for the notion of a “good” war, I would argue that war is never good, as it invariably produces carnage afflicting the innocent. In recent times some historians have referred to WWII as “the good war,” arguing that it was so because it countered the menace of Hitler, but history is never that simple. Even in that conflict, the “good” side committed horrendous crimes against humanity, such as the incineration of innocent civilians in the fire-bombing of Dresden, or in the holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the atom bomb. No, there is no “good war,” but a war may be “just,” and that matter often hinges on the determination of the Kriegsschuldfrage.

The three long wars waged between Carthage and Rome from 264 to 146 BCE, called by the latter “Punic Wars,” pitted the North African maritime trading city-state of Carthage against the power of the militaristic Roman Republic. The conflicts resulted in over a million casualties and a scale of destruction not seen before in the history of warfare. Who deserves the blame for these conflagrations—who was it that started the wars, and for what purpose?

The Roman Republic is well known for its emphasis on laws and legality and Roman historians 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 this claim in the light of the facts of the historical record.  When we do so, we will see that all three so-called Punic Wars were actually initiated by Rome under one pretext or another, and not for benevolent purposes.

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, 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 it 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. (We have already demonstrated the fallacy of the alleged “eternal hatred,” see A Matter of Hatred on this website.)  But let us examine the historical facts.

The prelude to the second 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 the “truceless war” it was forced to wage against its own mutinous mercenaries (241-237). Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, had been the commander of the Carthaginian land forces in Sicily at the time of the disastrous naval defeat at the Aegates Islands, which compelled Carthage to capitulate in 241 BCE. Although Hamilcar 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.

Hamilcar led an expeditionary force to Spain, to secure the resources that Carthage would need to pay the indemnity owed to Rome. He was successful in his endeavors, expanding Carthaginian control in Iberia until his death in an ambush in 228, where he sacrificed himself to save the lives of his sons. His successor was his son-in-law, Hasdrubal the Handsome, who continued Carthaginian expansion, mostly by diplomatic means, until he was assassinated in 221. It was during his rule that the Romans, concerned with the success of the Carthaginians, sent a delegation to establish the Ebro Treaty (signed in 226 or 225). By it, the Carthaginians agreed to accept the boundary of the river Iber (Ebro), which they were not to cross in arms. Interestingly enough, the Roman historians do not inform us about Rome’s responsibilities under the treaty, although obviously there must have been some quid pro quo: Rome was not to interfere south of the Ebro.

The Romans implicitly violated the Ebro treaty by forming an alliance with the city of Saguntum, south of the Ebro and thus within Carthaginian territory. There is no evidence that such alliance existed prior to the signing of the treaty. Not only that, but Rome encouraged the Saguntines to massacre Carthaginian partisans in their city and to aggress against the Turboleti, a tribe under Carthaginian protection. Hannibal, who had been voted by acclamation the new commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian forces in Spain upon the death of his brother-in-law, reacted by marching against Saguntum and taking it by storm, after an eight-month-long siege.  During those eight months the Saguntines sent repeated requests for assistance to Rome, to no avail—no help materialized.  The Romans waited until Saguntum had fallen and then sent a delegation to Carthage to demand that Hannibal be turned over to them for punishment. Following the refusal of the Carthaginian assembly, Rome declared war on Carthage.