What was the Third Punic War (149-146 BC)?

Introduction

The Third Punic War was the third and last of the Punic Wars fought between Carthage and Rome and lasted from 149 to 146 BC. The war was fought entirely within Carthaginian territory, in modern northern Tunisia. When the Second Punic War ended in 201 BC one of the terms of the peace treaty prohibited Carthage from waging war without Rome’s permission. Rome’s ally, King Masinissa of Numidia, exploited this to repeatedly raid and seize Carthaginian territory with impunity. In 149 BC Carthage sent an army, under Hasdrubal, against Masinissa, the treaty notwithstanding. The campaign ended in disaster as the Battle of Oroscopa ended with a Carthaginian defeat and the surrender of the Carthaginian army. Anti-Carthaginian factions in Rome used the illicit military action as a pretext to prepare a punitive expedition.

Later in 149 BC a large Roman army landed at Utica in North Africa. The Carthaginians hoped to appease the Romans, but despite the Carthaginians surrendering all of their weapons, the Romans pressed on to besiege the city of Carthage. The Roman campaign suffered repeated setbacks through 149 BC, only alleviated by Scipio Aemilianus, a middle-ranking officer, distinguishing himself several times. A new Roman commander took over in 148 BC, and fared equally badly. At the annual election of Roman magistrates in early 147 BC the public support for Scipio was so great that the usual age restrictions were lifted to allow him to be appointed consul and commander in Africa.

Scipio’s term commenced with two Carthaginian successes, but he tightened the siege and started to build a large mole to prevent supplies from getting into Carthage via blockade runners. The Carthaginians had partially rebuilt their fleet and it sortied, to the Romans’ surprise; after an indecisive engagement the Carthaginians mismanaged their withdrawal and lost many ships. The Romans then built a large brick structure in the harbour area which dominated the city wall. Once this was complete Scipio led out a strong force which stormed the camp of Carthage’s field army and forced most of the towns and cities still supporting Carthage to surrender. In the spring of 146 BC the Romans launched their final assault and over seven days systematically destroyed the city and killed its inhabitants; only on the last day did they take prisoners: 50,000 of them, who were sold into slavery. The formerly Carthaginian territories became the Roman province of Africa with Utica as its capital. It was a century before the site of Carthage was rebuilt as a Roman city.

Background

In the mid-2nd-century BC Rome was the dominant power in the Mediterranean region, while Carthage was a large city state in the north east of what is now modern Tunisia. The Carthaginians were referred to by the Romans by the Latin word Punicus (or Poenicus), and is a reference to Carthage’s Phoenician origin. “Punic” derives from this usage. Carthage and Rome had fought the 23-year-long First Punic War from 264 to 241 BC and the 17-year-long Second Punic War between 218 and 201 BC. Both wars ended with Roman victories; the Second when the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal, the premier Carthaginian general of the war, at the Battle of Zama, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south west of Carthage. Africanus imposed a peace treaty on the Carthaginians which stripped them of their overseas territories, and some of their African ones. An indemnity of 10,000 silver talents was to be paid over 50 years. Hostages were taken and Carthage was prohibited from waging war outside Africa, and in Africa only with Rome’s express permission. Many senior Carthaginians wanted to reject it, but Hannibal spoke strongly in its favour and it was accepted in spring 201 BC. Henceforth it was clear that Carthage was politically subordinate to Rome.

At the end of the war Masinissa, an ally of Rome, emerged as by far the most powerful ruler among the Numidians, the indigenous population which controlled much of what is now Algeria and Tunisia. Over the following 50 years he repeatedly took advantage of Carthage’s inability to protect its possessions. Whenever Carthage petitioned Rome for redress, or permission to take military action, Rome backed Masinissa, and refused. Masinissa’s seizures of and raids into Carthaginian territory became increasingly flagrant. In 151 BC Carthage raised a large army commanded by the previously unrecorded Carthaginian general Hasdrubal and, the treaty notwithstanding, counterattacked the Numidians. The campaign ended in disaster at the Battle of Oroscopa and the army surrendered; a large number of Carthaginians were subsequently massacred by the Numidians. Hasdrubal escaped to Carthage, where in an attempt to placate Rome he was condemned to death.

Carthage had paid off its indemnity and was prospering economically, but was no military threat to Rome. Nevertheless, there had long been a faction within the Roman Senate that had wished to take military action against Carthage. For example, the dislike of Carthage by the senior senator Cato was so well known that since the 18th century he has been credited with ending all of his speeches with Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”). The opposing, minority, faction included Scipio Nasica, who argued that fear of a strong enemy such as Carthage would keep the common people in check and avoid social division. Both Cato and Nasica were members of embassies to Carthage. Using the illicit Carthaginian military action as a pretext, Rome began preparing a punitive expedition.

What role Rome’s political divisions played in this decision is unclear. The modern historian William Harris describes them as “the large historical problems involved in the Third Punic War”. Modern scholars have advanced a number of theories as to why Rome was eager for war. These include: a Roman fear of Carthaginian commercial competition; a desire to forestall a wider war which might have broken out with the death of Masinissa, who was aged 89 at the time; the factional use of Carthage as a political “bogeyman”, irrespective of her true power; a greed for glory and loot; and a desire to quash a political system with Rome considered anathema. No consensus has been reached regarding these and various other hypotheses. Carthaginian embassies attempted to negotiate with Rome, which responded evasively. The large North African port city of Utica, some 55 kilometres (34 miles) north of Carthage, went over to Rome in 149 BC. Aware that its harbour would greatly facilitate any assault on Carthage, the Senate and the People’s Assembly of Rome declared war on Carthage.

The Romans elected two men each year, known as consuls, as senior magistrates, who at time of war would each lead an army; on occasion their term was extended. A large Roman army landed at Utica in 149 BC under both consuls for the year, Manius Manilius commanding the army and Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus the fleet. The Carthaginians continued to attempt to appease Rome, and sent an embassy to Utica. The consuls demanded that they hand over all weaponry, and reluctantly the Carthaginians did so. Large convoys took enormous stocks of equipment from Carthage to Utica. Surviving records state that these included 200,000 sets of armour and 2,000 catapults. Their warships all sailed to Utica and were burnt in the harbour. Once Carthage was disarmed, Censorinus made the further demand that the Carthaginians abandon their city and relocate 16 kilometres (10 miles) away from the sea; Carthage would then be destroyed. The Carthaginians abandoned negotiations and prepared to defend their city.

Opposing Forces

The city of Carthage itself was unusually large for the time: modern scholars give population estimates ranging from 90,000 to 800,000. Any of these would make Carthage one of the most populous cities in the Mediterranean area at the time. It was strongly fortified with walls of more than 35 kilometres (20 miles) circumference. Defending the main approach from the land were three lines of defences, of which the strongest was a brick-built wall 9 metres (30 ft) wide and 15-20 metres (50-70 ft) high with a 20-metre-wide (70 ft) ditch in front of it. Built into this wall was a barracks capable of holding over 24,000 soldiers. The city had few reliable sources of ground water, but possessed a complex system to catch and channel rainwater and a large number of cisterns to store it.

The Carthaginians raised a strong and enthusiastic force to garrison the city from their citizenry and by freeing all slaves willing to fight. They also formed a 30,000 strong field army, which was placed under Hasdrubal, freshly released from his condemned cell. This army was based at Nepheris, 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of the city. Appian gives the strength of the Roman army which landed in Africa as 84,000 soldiers; modern historians estimate it at 40,000-50,000 men, of whom 4,000 were cavalry.

The Course of the War

149 BC

Refer to Battle of Lake Tunis and Battle of Nepheris (149 BC).

The Roman army moved to Carthage and twice attempted to scale the city walls, from the sea and the landward sides, before settling down for a siege. The Romans set up two camps: Censorinus one with the primary role of protecting the beached Roman ships; and Manilius one to house the Roman legions. Hasdrubal moved up his army and harassed the Roman supply lines and foraging parties. The Romans built two very large battering rams and partially broke down a section of the wall. They stormed the breach but fell into disorder while clambering through and were thrown back by the waiting Carthaginians. The Romans may have taken heavy losses except for the actions of Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus, who was serving with the 4th Legion as a tribune – a middle-ranking military position. Rather than join the attack as ordered, Scipio held back and spaced his men along the partially demolished wall, and so was able to beat off the pursuing Carthaginians when the Romans in front of him fled back through the ranks of his unit.

The camp established by Censorinus was badly situated and by early summer was so pestiferous that it was moved to a healthier location. This, however, was not as defensible, and the Carthaginians inflicted losses on the Roman fleet with fireships. Separately, a night attack was launched against Manilius’s camp; a dangerous outcome for the Romans was again averted by Scipio. He promptly led a force of cavalry out of the rear of the camp, around it in the dark and attacked the Carthaginians in the flank; driving them off in confusion. The Romans repeated these attacks more difficult by building additional field fortifications. As winter approached, Manilius led a foraging force of 12,000 men into Carthage’s hinterland. This was intended to gather food for the winter and timber for cooking and building winter quarters, as well as despoiling anything they could not carry away in order to deny it to Carthage. Cavalry from the Carthaginian field army repeatedly attacked the foraging parties, except for Scipio’s, as he ensured that formed groups of supporting cavalry were always ready and within reach of his foragers. Once Manilius’s column had returned to camp, the Carthaginian cavalry mounted a night assault on the fortifications protecting the Roman transport ships. They retreated after Scipio confused them with a strategem; he gave torches to 300 cavalry and had them manoeuvre on the Carthaginians’ flank, but not attack them. The Carthaginians were so discomfited by this apparently large force massing that they hurriedly withdrew.

Manilius decided to strike against the Carthaginians’ main camp near Nepheris, despite its strong position and fortifications. Arriving there, Manilius ordered an immediate assault, against Scipio’s advice. This initially went well, but the Romans advanced into an untenable position: attacking uphill while tired, and with a river at their back. When they attempted to withdraw they were attacked by the Carthaginians, who inflicted heavy casualties. Scipio led 300 cavalry in a series of limited and well-disciplined charges and threats caused the Carthaginians to pause for long enough for most of the infantry to complete their retreat. Scipio then pulled back his cavalry force under pressure. That night it was realised that the Carthaginians had cut off a group of Romans, who had set up a defensive position on a hill. Scipio led his cavalry back in a night march, surprised the Carthaginians and audaciously rescued the trapped group. The Roman column was repeatedly attacked as it retreated to its camp. The sight of Manilius’s defeated force retreating into its camp outside Carthage was observed by a Senate investigatory committee and reported to Rome, as was Scipio’s performance.

Scipio made contact with several of the leaders of Carthage’s Numidian cavalry, then joined a second, better-planned expedition against Hasdrubal at Nepheris. In spite of the greater forethought, the Romans made no progress, although one of the Numidians contacted by Scipio did defect to the Romans with 2,200 men. Manilius withdrew after the Romans ran out of food, although their difficulties were alleviated when Scipio led a successful foraging expedition with the Romans’ new allies.

148 BC

The Romans elected two new consuls in 148 BC, but only one of them was sent to Africa: Calpurnius Piso; Lucius Hostilius Mancinus commanded the navy as his subordinate. He pulled back the close siege of Carthage to a looser blockade and attempted to mop up the other Carthaginian-supporting cities in the area. He failed: Neapolis surrendered and was subsequently sacked; but Aspis withstood assaults from both the Roman army and navy; while Hippo was fruitlessly besieged. A Carthaginian sortie from Hippo destroyed the Roman siege engines causing them to break off the campaign and go into winter quarters. Hasdrubal, already in charge of the Carthaginian field army, overthrew the civilian leadership of Carthage and took command himself. Carthage allied with Andriscus, a pretender to the Macedonian throne. Andriscus had invaded Roman Macedonia, defeated a Roman army, had himself crowned King Philip VI, and sparked the Fourth Macedonian War.

147 BC

Refer to Battle of the Port of Carthage and Battle of Nepheris (147 BC).

Scipio intended to stand in the 147 BC elections for the post of aedile, which was a natural progression for him. Aged 36 or 37, he was too young to stand as consul, for which the minimum age requirement was 41. There was considerable political manoeuvring behind the scene. Scipio and his partisans played on his successes over the previous two years and the fact that it was his adoptive grandfather, Scipio Africanus, who had sealed Roman victory in Africa in the Second Punic War. Public demand to appoint him as consul, and so allow him to take charge of the African war, was so strong that the Senate put aside the age requirements for all posts for the year. Scipio was elected consul and appointed to sole command in Africa, usually theatres were allocated to the two consuls by lot. He was granted the usual right to conscript enough men to make up the numbers of the forces there and the unusual entitlement to enrol volunteers.

Meanwhile, early in 147 BC Mancinus seized an unexpected opportunity to capture a sally port and forced 3,500 men into the city, 3,000 of whom were lightly-armed and armoured sailors. Mancinus sent messages asking for reinforcements. Our sources have Scipio arriving at Utica that evening to take up his post. He sailed overnight for Carthage and arrived just in time to evacuate Mancinus’s hard-pressed force as it was expelled by a Carthaginian counter attack.

Scipio moved the Romans’ main camp back to near Carthage, closely observed by a Carthaginian detachment of 8,000. He made a speech demanding tighter discipline and dismissed those soldiers he considered ill disciplined or poorly motivated. He then led a night march with a strong force that culminated in an assault against what the Romans considered to be a weak point in Carthage’s main wall. A gate was seized and 4,000 Romans pushed into the city. Panicked in the dark, the Carthaginian defenders, after an initial fierce resistance, fled. However, Scipio decided that his position would be indefensible once the Carthaginians reorganised themselves in daylight, and so withdrew. Hasdrubal, horrified at the way the Carthaginian defences had collapsed, had Roman prisoners tortured to death on the walls, in view of the Roman army. He was reinforcing the will to resist in the Carthaginian citizens; from this point there could be no possibility of negotiation or even surrender. Some members of the city council denounced his actions and Hasdrubal had them too put to death and took full control of the city.

The renewed close siege cut off landward entry to the city, but a tight seaward interdiction was all but impossible with the naval technology of the time. Frustrated at the amount of food being shipped into the city Scipio started to build an immense mole to cut off access to the harbour. As work on this progressed the Carthaginians responded by cutting a new channel from their harbour to the sea. They had built a new fleet of 50 triremes – medium-sized, manoeuvrable, oared warships – and a large number of smaller ships since sacrificing their original fleet two years before. Once the channel was complete the Carthaginians sailed out, taking the Romans by surprise. A few days were necessary to trim the new-built ships and to train the new crews who had not been to sea for over two years and were out of the habit of operating together. By the time this was complete and the Carthaginians felt ready to give battle the Romans had concentrated their own naval forces. In the engagement which followed the Carthaginians held their own, with their lighter craft proving difficult for the Roman ships to deal with. Breaking off the engagement the Carthaginian triremes were covering the withdrawal of their lighter vessels when a collision blocked the new channel. With the Carthaginian ships pinned against the city’s sea wall with no room to manoeuvre the Romans sank or captured many of them before the blockage was cleared and the Carthaginian survivors were able to escape back into harbour.

The Romans now attempted to advance against the Carthaginian defences in the harbour area. Carthaginians swam across the harbour at night and set fire to several siege engines and many legionaries panicked and fled. Scipio intercepted them in the dark and when they disregarded his orders to halt he had his mounted bodyguard attack them. Nevertheless, the Romans eventually gained control of the quay and constructed a brick wall as high as the city wall. This took months to complete, but once in place it enabled 4,000 Romans to fire onto the Carthaginian ramparts from short range.

Once this feature was complete Scipio detached a large force and attacked the Carthaginian field army at Nepheris. The Carthaginians, commanded by a Greek named Diogenes, had established a fortified camp for their winter quarters. Late in 147 BC Scipio directed an assault on the camp from several directions and overran it. Fleeing Carthaginians were pursued by Rome’s mounted Numidian allies and few escaped. The town of Nepheris was then besieged and surrendered after three weeks. Most of the fortified positions still holding out in Carthage’s hinterland now opened their gates.

146 BC

Refer to Siege of Carthage (Third Punic War).

Scipio’s position as the Roman commander in Africa was extended for a year in 146 BC, and in the spring he launched the final assault. It came from the harbour area and Hasdrubal, expecting it, set fire to the nearby warehouses. Despite this, a Roman advance party broke through to the military harbour and captured it. The main assault force reached the city’s main square, where the legions camped overnight. The next morning Scipio led 4,000 men to link up with the group at the military harbour; this group was delayed when they diverted to strip the gold from the Temple of Apollo. Scipio and his officers were helpless to prevent them. The Carthaginians did not take advantage, having withdrawn to defensive positions.

Having regrouped, the Romans systematically worked their way through the residential part of the city, killing everyone they encountered and firing the buildings behind them. At times the Romans progressed from rooftop to rooftop, to prevent missiles being hurled down on them. It took six more days to clear the city of resistance, and on the last day Scipio agreed to accept prisoners. The last holdouts, including 900 Roman deserters in Carthaginian service, fought on from the Temple of Eshmoun and burnt it down around themselves when all hope was gone. At this point Hasdrubal surrendered to Scipio on the promise of his life and freedom. Hasdrubal’s wife, watching from a rampart, then blessed Scipio, cursed her husband, and walked into the temple with her children, to burn to death.

There were 50,000 Carthaginian prisoners, a small proportion of the pre-war population, who were sold into slavery. The site was cursed with the intention of preventing it ever being resettled. The notion that Roman forces then sowed the city with salt is a 19th-century invention. Many of the religious items and cult-statues which Carthage had pillaged from Sicilian cities and temples over the centuries were returned with great ceremony.

Aftermath and Legacy

Scipio celebrated a triumph and took the agnomen “Africanus”, as had his adoptive grandfather. The formerly Carthaginian territories were annexed by Rome and reconstituted to become the Roman province of Africa, with Utica as its capital. The province became a major source of grain and other food. The Punic cities which had stood by Carthage to the end were forfeit to Rome, or in the case of Bizerte were destroyed, but the surviving cities were permitted to retain at least elements of their traditional system of government and culture. A century later, the site of Carthage was rebuilt as a Roman city by Julius Caesar, and would become one of the main cities of Roman Africa by the time of the Empire. The Punic language continued to be spoken in north Africa until the 7th century AD.

Rome still exists as the capital of Italy; the ruins of Carthage lie 16 kilometres (10 miles) east of modern Tunis on the North African coast. A symbolic peace treaty was signed by Ugo Vetere and Chedli Klibi, the mayors of Rome and the modern city of Carthage, respectively, on 05 February 1985; 2,131 years after the war ended.

Primary Sources

The main source for most aspects of the Punic Wars is the historian Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC), a Greek sent to Rome in 167 BC as a hostage. His works include a now-lost manual on military tactics, but he is best known for The Histories, written sometime after 146 BC. He accompanied his patron and friend, the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, in North Africa during the Third Punic War; this causes the normally reliable Polybius to recount Scipio’s actions in a favourable light. In addition, significant portions of The Histories’ account of the Third Punic War have been lost.

The account of the Roman annalist Livy, who relied heavily on Polybius, is much used by modern historians of the Punic Wars, but all that survives of his account of events after 167 BC is a list of contents. Other ancient accounts of the Third Punic War or its participants which have also been largely lost include those of Plutarch, Dio Cassius and the Greek Diodorus Siculus. Modern historians also use the account of the 2nd-century AD Greek Appian. The modern historian Bernard Mineo states that it “is the only complete and continuous account of this war”. It is thought to have been largely based on Polybius’s account, but a number of problems with it have been identified. These issues mean that of the three Punic wars, the third is the one about which the least is reliably known. Other sources include coins, inscriptions, archaeological evidence and empirical evidence from reconstructions.

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