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

The Romans were confident of victory. Since they now controlled the Mediterranean (which they called Mare Nostrum), they were not concerned with an attack on Italy from the sea, and since the supposedly impassable natural barrier of the Alps in the north protected them from an invasion by land, they expected to wage the new war in Spain and in North Africa, the land of their enemies. Consequently, they sent an army to the south, under the consul Sempronius Longus, to cross over to Africa from Sicily, and another west, under consul Publius Cornelius Scipio (the Elder), to invade Spain. Of course they were not counting on the military genius of Hannibal, but that is another story. It is clear, though, that the blame for the provocation and initiation of the second Punic War rests squarely on Roman shoulders.

The third Punic War (149-146) was waged against a Carthage that no longer posed any threat to Rome, 34 years after the death of Hannibal. It was motivated by the hatred exemplified in the “delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage must be destroyed!”) that ended every talk of the bitter Roman senator and moralist, Cato the Elder, as well as by jealousy of the African city’s economic recovery following its defeat in the second war. Hannibal’s work as suffete or magistrate after the war had served to eliminate corruption in government and had allowed Carthage to offer to pay off the crippling indemnity imposed by Rome much faster than expected.

Another condition imposed on Carthage at the end of the second Punic War proved fatal—a prohibition to wage war, even in self-defense, without permission from Rome. The Romans encouraged the aggression of the Numidian king, Massinissa, who kept encroaching on Carthaginian territory. Appeals from Carthage for Rome to intervene were ignored.  When finally the Carthaginians attempted to defend themselves, Rome used this as excuse to declare war. The Carthaginians did not want war, and offered capitulation plus the payment of a further indemnity. The Romans demanded that in addition they also provide hostages and surrender all weapons in the city. Once the Carthaginians had complied, the Romans revealed their true intentions. They demanded that the entire population leave the city, moving south into hostile territory where their survival would be ephemeral, and declared that Carthage would be destroyed. This, the Carthaginians refused to do, and heroically defended their city against a Roman siege for three long years. When the Romans finally breached the city’s defenses, they engaged in an orgy of killing, what we would call today ethnic cleansing or genocide. The great city was razed and burned to the ground, the inhabitants—men, women, and children—were slaughtered (over 700,000), and the survivors (50,000) were sold into slavery. The libraries and records of the defeated were destroyed in the process, leaving only pro-Roman accounts to tell the story. It was a true holocaust, the first total genocide in recorded history, the murder and extermination of a people and the erasure of their culture.

Hannibal at Cannae

The causes of war, of any war, tend to be complex, and include social, cultural, economic, and psychological factors. The Punic Wars were no exception. Consequently the present brief analysis cannot claim to be comprehensive or exhaustive, but in view of the available evidence there can be no doubt about the Kriegsschuldfrage: The instigators of the wars between Rome and Carthage were the Romans, and that their primary motivations were greed, hatred, and a thirst for conquest—their wars against Carthage were not “just.” If there was a “just” struggle, it was Hannibal’s heroic effort to halt and contain Roman expansionism. The ultimate defeat of Carthage opened the gates for the legions of Rome to march and trample on whatever freedom remained in the Mediterranean world—the predatory Roman Empire had been born.

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© 2013 by Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 20 years. His Hannibal Library contains over 10,000 items.

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