Carthaginian War Elephants

Hannibal’s Superweapon: The War Elephant

The very idea of the war elephant is almost synonymous with the great Carthaginian general: Hannibal. He was able to win battles with them on their sheer terror factor alone. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a soldier in a Roman army. You’ve never seen an elephant before. Imagine facing a line of Carthaginian soldiers, and on the horizon looms this armored creature, up to eleven feet tall, maybe six thousand pounds of armored fury, and that creature comes charging at you. It was enough to scatter any army! Hannibal’s armored war elephants are, perhaps, one of the coolest bits of ancient war history. They’ve inspired the imaginations of storytellers for centuries, including the famous J.R.R Tolkien, who re-purposed the idea of Hannibal’s war elephant for his Mûmakil. They were the general’s favorite superweapon. Unfortunately for Hannibal, though, they were also his biggest weakness.

First, a little background on Hannibal Barca, and why exactly he wanted to use something like war elephants to destroy Rome. Hannibal lived during a period of enormous tension in the Mediterranean. He’s often regarded as one of the greatest military strategists to have ever lived, and is, unquestionably, one of the greatest generals of the ancient world. Hannibal was a child during the First Punic War– a war between the Roman Empire, and Carthage, surrounding a power struggle between the two empires. When Hannibal’s father and older brother died, Hannibal took over the Carthaginian army and led it against Rome in the Second Punic War in 218 BC. He literally wanted to destroy Rome, like, burn it to the ground, because he so believed in the supremacy of Carthage and the superiority of his own people over the Romans. He almost succeeded, almost. Unfortunately, Hannibal’s assault on Rome meant that he had bitten off slightly more than he could chew, and his war elephants didn’t help that fact. Managing them was a logistical nightmare for his army, and it could be said that his love of war elephants was partially responsible for Hannibal’s downfall and his failure to capture Rome.

Nobody can quite agree on where Hannibal got his elephants from. During Hannibal’s time (247 to 183 BC), there were only two varieties of elephant in existence: Asian, and African. Carthage wasn’t exactly very near either of these areas by the ancient world’s standards, and it would’ve been quite an ordeal to obtain the animals. It isn’t clear to historians whether Hannibal used Asian elephants, African elephants, or a combination of both in his army. But, it’s most likely that he used mostly Asian elephants. African elephants run larger than their Asian cousins, and are harder to control. An army like Hannibal’s would need elephants that could be well-trained and manageable, so Asian elephants seem the most likely choice.

The story goes that, in a battle, Hannibal would armor up his elephants, give alcohol with them to get them drunk, and then antagonize them by poking their ankles with spears. Animal cruelty aside, it was an excellent strategy. The elephants, completely drunk and worked up into a fury were easy to work with at that point. All Hannibal had to do was set them loose on the opposing army, and they’d go crashing through the enemy lines, wreaking havoc. It was the easiest way to force an enemy to break their lines and retreat known to mankind.

The trouble with elephants, of course, is that they’re big. They eat a lot of fodder in a day, and Hannibal had sixty in his army that he had to take care of. He did fine, for a while, when the Romans were actually meeting him on the field of battle. He could use the elephants to force the Roman army into retreat, up the body count, and utterly massacre them on the battlefield. The trouble started when the Romans started to realize that the only way to defeat Hannibal was by a strategy called attrition– basically, they hid in holes, practiced guerilla war tactics, and slowly let Hannibal’s army waste away. Hannibal had no way to fight an army that simply wasn’t there, especially with elephants. Eventually, all his elephants were doing was eating food and forcing him to carry extra stuff around with him to feed them. By the time Hannibal was actually on his way to Rome, many of his own officers advised him to leave the elephants behind. They were only a hindrance, they said. But Hannibal loved his superweapon too much, and his vision of crushing Rome was too important to him, and he needed those elephants to break Rome for good.

Crossing the Alps should have taken Hannibal one week. With his elephants, it took him two. In that time, he lost over half his army, and all but one of his elephants. The animals simply couldn’t withstand the harsh terrain, and his army simply couldn’t sustain their huge appetites and control them properly. By the time Hannibal came out on the other side of the alps, his army was far too weak to be able to sustain a march on Rome itself. Many historians argue that if Hannibal had listened to his officers and left his elephants behind, he would have been able to take the city of Rome and fulfill his vision of destroying the greatest empire the western world has ever known. I guess we’ll never truly know whether this was the biggest mistake of the famous general’s career or not, I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Hannibal’s Elephants: Myth and Reality

Pachyderms are an inseparable part of the image of the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, although they took part in a lot fewer engagements than most people familiar with his story assume. But let us examine three incidents involving elephants in order to evaluate the accuracy of the classical sources.

In the Summer of 220 B.C.E. Hannibal fought his first major battle, not against the Romans, but facing instead the combined forces of three Celtiberian tribes in northwest Spain, the Olcades, the Vaccaei, and the Carpetani. At the time, the young Punic general was fresh from having been appointed commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian army in Iberia following the assassination of his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal the Handsome, the previous year. He was returning from a successful campaign against the Vaccaei and the capture of their chief city, Hermandica, when the combined Celtiberian forces of the three tribes, numbering close to 100,000, descended upon him to block his way and annihilate his much smaller army. Here Hannibal’s gaze manifested itself for the first time. With an instant grasp of the terrain, the quality of the large but undisciplined opposing army, and the potentials of all the components of his own military force, he swiftly retreated across the Tagus river and waited for the enemy to attack from the other shore. Notice that his elephants, all 40 of them, had no difficulty in rapidly wading across the river and being deployed on both sides of the Carthaginian formation. Once the pursuing Celtiberians were midstream, and thus committed to the crossing, Hannibal unleashed his cavalry to cut them down in the water, with anyone who managed to reach the shore being promptly trampled to death by the elephants. The mass of tribal warriors panicked and as they fled Hannibal gave the order for his army to cross the river in pursuit, completing the rout of a force more than twice the size of his own. The battle of the river Tagus offered a premonition of what was to come.

For some time the Romans, alarmed by the prosperity and success of the Carthaginians in Spain, were preparing the ground for a renewal of hostilities against their rivals in the Mediterranean. The Ebro treaty had been signed with Hasdrubal the Handsome in 226 or 225, in which the natural boundary of the river Iber (today’s Ebro) was set to separate Roman and Carthaginian spheres of influence, with the Carthaginians agreeing not to cross the Ebro in arms. In violation of the spirit of the accord, Rome subsequently signed an agreement with the city of Saguntum, south of the Ebro and thus within Carthaginian territory, and later encouraged the Saguntines to massacre the Carthaginian partisans in the city and to attack the Turboleti, who were allies of Carthage. Hannibal responded by laying siege to Saguntum and taking it by storm after eight months, during which time the Roman help repeatedly requested by the Saguntines failed to materialize. The fall of Saguntum in 219 provided Rome with a casus belli to declare a new war against Carthage. The Roman navy controlled the Mediterranean, following the defeat of Carthage in the first war, and thus the Romans were not concerned about being attacked by sea. Since the Italian peninsula was protected against an invasion by land from the north by the impassable natural barrier of the Alps, they were confident that the war would be fought in Spain and in North Africa, the land of their enemies. They didn’t count on the genius of Hannibal, the master of the unexpected. Making a bold strategic decision, he decided to take an army over the Alps and strike from the north against his unwary adversaries. This amazing feat still reverberates in the pages of history.

On his way to the Alps, in 218, Hannibal had to cross first the Pyrenees and then the river Rhone. It was there that a second event involving elephants took place. Polybius (as well as Livy, who largely copies Polybius in the description of this incident) tells us that the Carthaginian crossing was opposed by a large mass of Celtiberian warriors of the Volcae tribe, waiting at the opposite (eastern) shore. What followed was the battle of the Rhone, where Hannibal’s glance was once more in evidence. He sent his lieutenant Hanno with part of his force upstream to ford the river and attack the Celtic tribesmen from the rear by surprise, after giving a signal to coordinate the crossing by his main force. Caught between Hanno’s cavalry and the Carthaginian army the undisciplined warriors fled in disarray. But an interesting problem remained: how to get the elephants across the river.

Polybius and Livy claim that barges had to be built to ferry the pachyderms over the Rhone, because the animals were terrified of the water. Large rafts were constructed and connected to ramps that were covered with dirt so the animals would not realize that they were not treading on solid ground, and female elephants were used to lead others onto the rafts. Once each raft was released, being towed to the opposite bank by small boats, the elephants tended to panic, some falling overboard. Fortunately they did not drown, for they were able to walk on the riverbed, using their trunks as snorkels, and eventually all 37 elephants were successfully assembled on the other shore. The elephants’ crossing of the Rhone was the subject of a well-known painting by Henri-Paul Motte showing elephants on barges being pulled across the river.

Two things are clear from such sublime piece of nonsense: neither Polybius nor Livy knew much about elephants, and their histories include fanciful fabrications presented in careful detail, as if related by actual witnesses—caveat lector. What neither classic historian was aware of is that elephants not only are not terrified of rivers, but can swim and are actually very good swimmers! The aquatic prowess of pachyderms would have been well known to the Carthaginians, who had been training elephants for more than a century prior to the wars with Rome. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that Hannibal would have attempted such complicated and unnecessary procedure to get his animals across the Rhone. The Romans, on the other hand, and even the Greeks, would have been less likely to be cognizant of such matters—Livy and Polybius were clearly uninformed.

The modern reader can enjoy stunning photographs of swimming elephants in Steve Bloom’s Elephant (Chronicle Books, 2006), or view a sampling by doing a Google search for “swimming elephant pictures.”

Elephants participated in only one of the great victories of Hannibal following the crossing of the Alps: the battle of the River Trebbia, in 218 BCE. Most of the elephants died of the cold that winter, and none took part in the later battles of Lake Trasimene or Cannae.

The one battle in which Hannibal supposedly did have a large number of elephants was that of Zama, in 202 BCE, where Polybius and Livy claim that he fielded no less than eighty! But, as we will see, this pachyderm battalion may have been fictitious, like most of the description of what the classical sources claim transpired at Zama, as was demonstrated in a 2007 article appearing in the International Journal of the Humanities.

War Elephant - History - Antiquity: The Mediterranean

The Ptolemies and the Carthaginians began acquiring African elephants for the same purpose, as did the Numidians and the Kushites. The animal used was the North African forest elephant which would become extinct from over-exploitation. These animals were smaller than the Asian elephants used by the Seleucids on the east of the Mediterranean region, particularly those from Syria, which stood 2.5-3.5 meters (8–10 ft) at the shoulder. It is likely that at least some Syrian elephants were traded abroad - the favorite elephant of Hannibal was an impressive animal named Surus ("the Syrian"), for example, and may have been of Syrian stock, though the evidence remains ambiguous.

Since the late 1940s a strand of scholarship has argued that the African forest elephants used by Numidian, Ptolemaic and Punic armies did not carry howdahs or turrets in combat, perhaps owing to the physical weakness of the species. Some allusions to turrets in ancient literature are certainly anachronistic or poetic invention, but other references are less easily discounted. There is explicit contemporary testimony that the army of Juba I of Numidia included turreted elephants in 46 BC. This is confirmed by the image of a turreted African elephant used on the coinage of Juba II. This also appears to be the case with Ptolemaic armies: Polybius reports that at the battle of Raphia in 217 BC the elephants of Ptolemy IV carried turrets these beasts were significantly smaller than the Asian elephants fielded by the Seleucids and so presumably African forest elephants. There is also evidence that Carthaginian war elephants were furnished with turrets and howdahs in certain military contexts.

Farther south, tribes would have had access to the African Savanna elephant. Although much larger than either the African forest elephant or the Asian elephant, these proved difficult to tame for war purposes and were not used extensively. Some Asian elephants were traded westwards to the Mediterranean markets Pliny the Elder stated that the Sri Lankan elephants, for example, were larger, fiercer and better for war than local elephants. This superiority, as well as the proximity of the supply to seaports, made Sri Lanka's elephants a lucrative trading commodity.

Although the use of war elephants in the Mediterranean is most famously associated with the wars between Carthage and Rome, the introduction of war elephants was primarily the result of the Greek kingdom of Epirus. King Pyrrhus of Epirus brought twenty elephants to attack the Romans at the battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, leaving some fifty additional animals, on loan from Pharaoh Ptolemy II, on the mainland. The Romans were unprepared for fighting elephants, and the Epirot forces routed the Romans. The next year, the Epirots again deployed a similar force of elephants, attacking the Romans at the battle of Asculum. This time the Romans came prepared with flammable weapons and anti-elephant devices: these were ox-led chariots, equipped with long spikes to wound the elephants, pots of fire to scare them, and accompanying screening troops who would hurl javelins at the elephants to drive them away. A final charge of Epirot elephants won the day again, but this time Pyrrhus had suffered very heavy casualties - a Pyrrhic victory.

Inspired by these victories, Carthage developed its own use of war elephants and deployed them extensively during the First Punic War. The results were not inspiring. At Adyss in 255 BC, the Carthaginian elephants were ineffective due to the terrain, while at the battle of Panormus in 251 BC the Romans were able to terrify the Carthaginian elephants, which fled from the field. During the Second Punic War, Hannibal famously led an army of war elephants across the Alps - although unfortunately most of them perished in the harsh conditions. The Romans had developed effective anti-elephant tactics, leading to Hannibal's defeat at his final battle of Zama in 202 BC his elephant charge was ineffective because the disciplined Roman maniples simply made way for them to pass.

Rome brought back many elephants at the end of the Punic Wars, and used them in its campaigns for many years afterwards. The conquest of Greece saw many battles in which the Romans deployed war elephants, including the invasion of Macedonia in 199 BC, the battle of Cynoscelphalae 197 BC, the battle of Thermopylae, and the battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, during which Antiochus III's fifty-four elephants took on the Roman force of sixteen. In later years the Romans deployed twenty-two elephants at Pydna in 168 BC. They also featured throughout the Roman campaign against the Celtiberians in Hispania and against the Gauls. Famously, the Romans used a war elephant in the invasion of Britain, one ancient writer recording that 'Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over', - although he may have confused this incident with the use of a similar war elephant in Claudius' final conquest of Britain. At least one elephant skeleton with flint weapons that has been found in England was initially misidentified as these elephants, but later dating proved it to be a mammoth skeleton from the stone age.

By the time of Claudius, however, such animals were being used by the Romans in single numbers only - the last significant use of war elephants in the Mediterranean was against the Romans at the battle of Thapsus, 46 BC, where Julius Caesar armed his fifth legion (Alaudae) with axes and commanded his legionaries to strike at the elephant's legs. The legion withstood the charge, and the elephant became its symbol. Thapsus was the last significant use of elephants in the West.

The Parthian dynasty of Persia occasionally used war elephants in their battles against the Roman Empire but elephants were of substantial importance in the army of the subsequent Sassanid dynasty. The Sassanids employed the animals in many of their campaigns against their western enemies. One of the most memorable engagements was the Battle of Vartanantz in 451 AD, at which the Sassanid elephants terrified the Armenians. Another example is the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah of 636 AD, in which a unit of thirty-three elephants were used, albeit less successfully, against the invading Arab forces. The Sassanid elephant corps held primacy amongst the Sassanid's cavalry forces and was recruited from India. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend−hapet, or "Commander of the Indians," either because the animals came from that country, or because they were managed by natives of Hindustan. The Sassanid elephant corps was never on the same scale as other further east, however, and after the fall of the Sassanid empire the use of war elephants died out in the region.

We don't actually have a lot of Punic writing examples available to us, and most of what we do have is religious inscription, which are unlikely to mention elephants, which were (to them) mundane creatures.

In ancient times there were in fact elephants native to both North Africa, and the Near East where the Carthaginians emigrated from. So these would not have been the exotic creatures to them which they are to most modern English speakers. It seems possible the 3rd Century BC military fad for their use had something to do with their disappearance from both places.

So this leaves us two likely possibilities. They borrowed the name that was in use by their Berber neighbors when they immigrated to North Africa, or they kept the NW Semitic name their Phoenician ancestors used. Well, there's sort of a third possibility suggested by my reading: The Semitic languages took their word from the Berbers, with the Carthaginians the natural conduit. The Berber (North African) word appears to have been "Elu", and the Semitic "fīl" * . My sources indicate the Semitic is derived from the Berber word, but since Phonecian and Punic were originally the same language, that doesn't necessarily help us much. I'd lean toward "fīl"

* - I found this information in a footnote of a paper by Vaclav Blazek, which itself referred to "Lokotsch 1927". Its possible this may be a reference to the paper/book: "Lokotsch, K., (1927). Etymologisches Wörterbuch der europäischen (germanischen, romanischen und slavischen) Wörter orientalischen Ursprungs. Heidelberg" I found referenced in another work, but I'm afraid my lack of German means the trail goes cold there for me.

Where was Carthage?

The ancient city of Carthage was founded around 814BC and situated on the eastern side of the Lake of Tunis in modern day Tunisia.

It was part of the Phoenician civilisation, which encompassed the ancient coastlines of what are now Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and beyond.

At the city state's peak, it was the capital of the Carthaginian Empire, which at its peak between the sixth and second centuries BC stretched across much of North Africa into Spain.

After hundreds of years of fighting the Romans, Carthage's great enemy finally destroyed the city in 146 BC.

Ancient Rome’s Darkest Day: The Battle of Cannae

In 216 B.C., the Roman Republic was embroiled in the second of what would eventually be three devastating wars with the North African city-state of Carthage. What had begun some 50 years earlier as a territorial dispute had devolved into an existential duel, with both powers vying for supremacy. Rome had emerged the victors in the First Punic War, but at the start of the second conflict in 218 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal had staged an audacious invasion of Italy via the Alps. Since then, his mercenary army of Libyans, Numidians, Spaniards and Celts had rampaged across the countryside, laying waste to farmland and trouncing Roman legions. In just two major battles at the River Trebia and Lake Trasimene, Hannibal had used his military genius to inflict as many as 50,000 casualties on the Romans.

Following these early losses, Rome adopted a delaying strategy that sought to cut off Hannibal’s supply lines and avoid the pitched battles that were his stock-in-trade. It was a canny tactic, but one the hyper-aggressive Romans would not embrace for long. In 216 B.C., they elected Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus as co-consuls and equipped them with eight legions—the largest army in the Republic’s history. Its mission was clear: confront Hannibal’s army and crush it.

The chance for a showdown arrived later that summer, when Hannibal marched into southern Italy and seized a vital supply depot near the town of Cannae. Varro and Paullus gave chase, and by early August the Romans and Carthaginians were both deployed along the River Aufidus. According to the ancient historian Polybius, Hannibal had around 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry at his disposal (his famous war elephants had all died by 216). The Romans boasted some 80,000 troops and 6,000 cavalry.

A history of the cavalry from the earliest times (microform). (Credit: Flickr)

On the morning of August 2, the two armies assembled on a hot, dust-blown plain and prepared for battle. The Romans set up in a traditional block formation with a mass of infantry protected by cavalry on both wings. Varro—the commander on the day—hoped to use his legions like a battering ram to break the center of the Carthaginian lines. Hannibal expected this, so he arranged his army in an unconventional formation designed to use the Romans’ momentum against them. He began by positioning his weakest troops—his Gallic Celts and Spaniards𠅊t the very center of his line. He then placed his more elite, battle-hardened Libyan infantry slightly to the rear on both flanks. The cavalry took up positions on the far left and right wings. When fully assembled, the Carthaginian line resembled a long crescent that bulged outward at its center toward the Romans. Never one to lead from the rear, Hannibal assumed a post at the front alongside his Spaniards and Gauls.

At the sound of trumpets, the two sides surged forward and the battle commenced. “Now began a great slaughter and a great struggle,” the historian Appian later wrote, �h side contending valiantly.” Light infantry initiated the fight by probing one another’s lines and hurling javelins, spears and projectiles. The first decisive maneuver followed when Hannibal’s heavy cavalry, under the command of an officer named Hasdrubal, stampeded into the horsemen on the Romans’ right flank. In short order, the superior Carthaginian riders had all but obliterated their Roman adversaries.

Back at the infantry battle, Hannibal’s bare-chested Gauls and Spaniards collided with the main body of Romans in a whirlwind of swords, spears and shields. As the troops slashed and stabbed at one another, the Carthaginian center was slowly pushed back, reversing its formation from an outward bulge into a concave pocket. This was all part of Hannibal’s plan. By giving the Romans the impression they were winning, he was only luring them into a space between the still-unengaged Libyan troops on the edges of his formation. With their spirits soaring, thousands of legionaries had soon streamed into the pocket in the Carthaginian line. When they did, they abandoned their orderly shape and became bunched together.

Hannibal now gave the order that would spell the Romans’ doom. At his signal, the Libyans pivoted inward and attacked the advancing legionaries’ left and right flanks, closing them in a vise. Hasdrubal, meanwhile, galloped across the battlefield and helped rout the cavalry on the Romans’ left wing. Having shorn the Romans of their mounted support, he then wheeled his force around and pounced on the legionaries’ unprotected rear. The surviving Romans—perhaps as many as 70,000 men—were totally encircled.

The memorial stone commemorating the Battle of Cannae. (Credit: De Agostini / V. Giannella / Getty Images)

Hannibal’s trap was complete, but the battle was still far from over. The corralled legionaries showed no signs of surrender, so the Carthaginians closed in and began the grisly work of cutting them down one man at a time. Over the next several hours, the plain at Cannae turned into a killing field. A few thousand Romans broke out of the encirclement and fled, but with no room to maneuver, the rest were slowly hemmed in and slaughtered. “Some were discovered lying there alive, with thighs and tendons slashed, baring their necks and throats and bidding their conquerors drain the remnant of their blood,” the chronicler Livy later wrote. “Others were found with their heads buried in holes dug in the ground. They had apparently made these pits for themselves, and heaping the dirt over their faces shut off their breath.” Ancient sources differ, but by sunset, anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 Romans lay dead and thousand of others were captured. Hannibal had lost some 6,000 men.

Word of the massacre at Cannae sent the city of Rome spiraling into a panic. “Multitudes thronged the streets,” Appian wrote, “uttering lamentations for their relatives, calling on them by name, and bewailing their own fate as soon to fall into the enemy’s hands.” In their desperation, the Romans dispatched a senator to the Greek oracle at Delphi to divine the meaning of the tragedy. They even conducted human sacrifices to appease the gods. While Hannibal ultimately decided that his army was too weak to march on Rome, Cannae had still pushed the Republic to the brink of collapse. In just one day of fighting, the Romans had lost at least seven times as many soldiers as were later killed at Battle of Gettysburg. �rtainly there is no other nation that would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of calamity,” Livy wrote.

Yet even in their darkest hour, the stubborn Romans simply refused to yield. Following a brief period of mourning, Rome’s senate rejected Hannibal’s peace offers and refused to ransom his Cannae prisoners. The citizenry was put to work making new arms and projectiles, and the crippled army was rebuilt by lowering the recruitment age, enlisting convicts and even offering slaves their freedom in exchange for service. For each of the Roman legions destroyed at Cannae, several more were eventually raised and committed to the field.

While his enemy fell back on its overwhelming manpower, Hannibal only grew weaker. He continued to maraud through Italy for several years in search of a second Cannae, but his isolated army slowly withered away after not enough of Rome’s allies rallied to his cause. The Romans’ miraculous comeback continued in 204 B.C., when the general later known as Scipio Africanus launched an invasion of North Africa with some 26,000 men, many of them survivors of the humiliation at Cannae. Hannibal was recalled from Italy to defend the Carthaginian homeland, but in 202, Scipio decisively defeated him in the war’s final clash at the Battle of Zama.

The Second Punic War effectively ended Carthage’s reign as a military power, allowing Rome to tighten its grip on the Mediterranean and begin building its empire. Even in defeat, however, Hannibal had cemented his place in the pantheon of great military commanders. The Romans built statues of him to celebrate their triumph over a worthy adversary, and his victory at Cannae later became a subject of fascination for generals ranging from Napoleon to Frederick the Great. Dwight D. Eisenhower described it as the 𠇌lassic example” of a battle of annihilation. Nevertheless, Hannibal’s tactical masterpiece had not been enough to break the Romans. He had won a legendary battle at Cannae, only to leave his enemy even more determined to win the war.

Alexander the Great and Hannibal

European civilization met with fighting elephants during the campaign of Alexander the Great. In the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. The Persian army had 15 Indian elephants. The Persians, who were not accustomed to battle elephants, hoped to use them to push through the formidable Macedonian phalanx and to intimidate the enemy. However, the elephants did not participate in the battle, they were captured by the army of Alexander and then used in the course of the further march of the Macedonian army to the east.

The Battle of Hydaspa took place in 326 BC between the armies of Alexander the Great and the Indian king Pora. In analyzing this battle, one can determine the tactics of using elephants by Indians. At first chariots enter confusion in the ranks of the enemy, the enemy loses combat formation, and then the elephants break through the front of the enemy’s army and introduce disorder into its ranks. Cavalry completes the general rout. However, in this battle, the chariots were put out of action by the army of Alexander at the beginning of the battle, and the elephants against the battle-hardened and disciplined Macedonian infantry could not do anything. When the breakthrough of the Macedonian system failed, the elephants turned back and agitated the ranks of the Indians, who were completely routed.

The Battle of Zama, which occurred in October 202 BC. e. between Hannibal and Scipio of Africa , is the last battle of the Second Punic War , which ended in the defeat of Hannibal’s army. The battle was started by the Carthaginians, who threw elephants into the attack. But because of the actions of Roman metal workers and the noise produced by the Roman army, the elephants turned back and crumpled the first rows of Carthaginian infantry and cavalry. Then the cavalry of the Roman army began to pursue the Carthaginian cavalry, temporarily leaving the battlefield. This decided the outcome of the battle, Hannibal was defeated, which became his only defeat in the whole career of the commander.


The main source for almost every aspect of the Punic Wars [note 1] is the historian Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC ), a Greek sent to Rome in 167 BC as a hostage. [3] His works include a now-largely lost manual on military tactics, [4] but he is now known for The Histories, written sometime after 146 BC. [5] [6] Polybius's work is considered broadly objective and largely neutral as between Carthaginian and Roman points of view. [7] [8] Polybius was an analytical historian and wherever possible personally interviewed participants, from both sides, in the events he wrote about. [9] [10] [11] He accompanied the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus during his campaign in North Africa which resulted in the Roman victory in the Third Punic War. [12]

The accuracy of Polybius's account has been much debated over the past 150 years, but the modern consensus is to accept it largely at face value, and the details of the war in modern sources are largely based on interpretations of Polybius's account. [3] [13] [14] The modern historian Andrew Curry sees Polybius as being "fairly reliable" [15] while Craige Champion describes him as "a remarkably well-informed, industrious, and insightful historian". [16]

Other, later, ancient histories of the war exist, although often in fragmentary or summary form. [17] Modern historians usually take into account the writings of various Roman annalists, some contemporary the Sicilian Greek Diodorus Siculus the later Roman historians, Livy (who relied heavily on Polybius [18] ), Plutarch, Appian (whose account of the Third Punic War is especially valuable [19] ) and Dio Cassius. [20] The classicist Adrian Goldsworthy states "Polybius' account is usually to be preferred when it differs with any of our other accounts". [note 2] [10] Other sources include coins, inscriptions, archaeological evidence and empirical evidence from reconstructions such as the trireme Olympias. [21]

The Roman Republic had been aggressively expanding in the southern Italian mainland for a century before the First Punic War. [22] It had conquered peninsular Italy south of the Arno River by 272 BC, when the Greek cities of southern Italy (Magna Graecia) submitted after the conclusion of the Pyrrhic War. [23] During this period of Roman expansion Carthage, with its capital in what is now Tunisia, had come to dominate southern Spain, much of the coastal regions of North Africa, the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, and the western half of Sicily. [24]

Beginning in 480 BC, Carthage had fought a series of inconclusive wars against the Greek city states of Sicily, led by Syracuse. [25] By 264 BC Carthage was the dominant external power on the island, and Carthage and Rome were the preeminent powers in the western Mediterranean. [26] Relationships were good and the two states had several times declared their mutual friendship via formal alliances: in 509 BC, 348 BC and around 279 BC. There were strong commercial links. During the Pyrrhic War of 280–275 BC, against a king of Epirus who alternately fought Rome in Italy and Carthage on Sicily, Carthage provided materiel to the Romans and on at least one occasion used its navy to ferry a Roman force. [27] [28] According to the classicist Richard Miles, Rome's expansionary attitude after southern Italy came under its control combined with Carthage's proprietary approach to Sicily caused the two powers to stumble into war more by accident than design. [29] The immediate cause of the war was the issue of control of the independent Sicilian city state of Messana (modern Messina). [30] In 264 BC Carthage and Rome went to war, starting the First Punic War. [31]


Most male Roman citizens were eligible for military service and would serve as infantry, with a better-off minority providing a cavalry component. Traditionally, when at war the Romans would raise two legions, each of 4,200 infantry [note 3] and 300 cavalry. Approximately 1,200 of the infantry, poorer or younger men unable to afford the armour and equipment of a standard legionary, served as javelin-armed skirmishers, known as velites. They carried several javelins, which would be thrown from a distance, a short sword, and a 90-centimetre (3 ft) shield. [34] The balance were equipped as heavy infantry, with body armour, a large shield and short thrusting swords. They were divided into three ranks, of which the front rank also carried two javelins, while the second and third ranks had a thrusting spear instead. Both legionary sub-units and individual legionaries fought in relatively open order. It was the long-standing Roman procedure to elect two men each year, known as consuls, as senior magistrates, who at time of war would each lead an army. An army was usually formed by combining a Roman legion with a similarly sized and equipped legion provided by their Latin allies allied legions usually had a larger attached complement of cavalry than Roman ones. [35] [36]

Carthaginian citizens only served in their army if there was a direct threat to the city. [37] When they did they fought as well-armoured heavy infantry armed with long thrusting spears, although they were notoriously ill-trained and ill-disciplined. In most circumstances Carthage recruited foreigners to make up its army. Many were from North Africa which provided several types of fighters including: close-order infantry equipped with large shields, helmets, short swords and long thrusting spears javelin-armed light infantry skirmishers close-order shock cavalry carrying spears and light cavalry skirmishers who threw javelins from a distance and avoided close combat. [38] [39] Both Iberia and Gaul provided large numbers of experienced infantry – unarmoured troops who would charge ferociously, but had a reputation for breaking off if a combat was protracted [40] [41] – and unarmoured close-order cavalry [42] referred to by Livy as "steady", meaning that they were accustomed to sustained hand-to-hand combat rather than hit and run tactics. The close-order Libyan infantry and the citizen-militia would fight in a tightly packed formation known as a phalanx. [39] On occasion some of the infantry would wear captured Roman armour, especially among Hannibal's troops. [43] Slingers were frequently recruited from the Balearic Islands. [42] [44] The Carthaginians also employed war elephants North Africa had indigenous African forest elephants at the time. [note 4] [41] [46]

Garrison duty and land blockades were the most common operations. [47] [48] When armies were campaigning, surprise attacks, ambushes and stratagems were common. [39] [49] More formal battles were usually preceded by the two armies camping one to seven miles (2–12 km) apart for days or weeks sometimes forming up in battle order each day. If either commander felt at a disadvantage, they might march off without engaging. In such circumstances it was difficult to force a battle if the other commander was unwilling to fight. [50] [51] Forming up in battle order was a complicated and premeditated affair, which took several hours. Infantry were usually positioned in the centre of the battle line, with light infantry skirmishers to their front and cavalry on each flank. [52] Many battles were decided when one side's infantry force was attacked in the flank or rear and they were partially or wholly enveloped. [39] [53]


Quinqueremes, meaning "five-oarsmen", [54] provided the workhorses of the Roman and Carthaginian fleets throughout the Punic Wars. [55] So ubiquitous was the type that Polybius uses it as a shorthand for "warship" in general. [56] A quinquereme carried a crew of 300: 280 oarsmen and 20 deck crew and officers. [57] It would also normally carry a complement of 40 marines [58] if battle was thought to be imminent this would be increased to as many as 120. [59] [60] In 260 BC Romans set out to construct a fleet and used a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme as a blueprint for their own. [61]

As novice shipwrights, the Romans built copies that were heavier than the Carthaginian vessels, and so slower and less manoeuvrable. [62] Getting the oarsmen to row as a unit, let alone to execute more complex battle manoeuvres, required long and arduous training. [63] At least half of the oarsmen would need to have had some experience if the ship was to be handled effectively. [64] As a result, the Romans were initially at a disadvantage against the more experienced Carthaginians. To counter this, the Romans introduced the corvus, a bridge 1.2 metres (4 feet) wide and 11 metres (36 feet) long, with a heavy spike on the underside, which was designed to pierce and anchor into an enemy ship's deck. [59] This allowed Roman legionaries acting as marines to board enemy ships and capture them, rather than employing the previously traditional tactic of ramming. [65]

All warships were equipped with rams, a triple set of 60-centimetre-wide (2 ft) bronze blades weighing up to 270 kilograms (600 lb) positioned at the waterline. In the century prior to the Punic Wars, boarding had become increasingly common and ramming had declined, as the larger and heavier vessels adopted in this period lacked the speed and manoeuvrability necessary to ram, while their sturdier construction reduced the ram's effect even in case of a successful attack. The Roman adaptation of the corvus was a continuation of this trend and compensated for their initial disadvantage in ship-manoeuvring skills. The added weight in the prow compromised both the ship's manoeuvrability and its seaworthiness, and in rough sea conditions the corvus became useless part way through the First Punic War the Romans ceased using it. [65] [66] [67]


Much of the First Punic War was fought on, or in the waters near, Sicily. [68] Away from the coasts its hilly and rugged terrain made manoeuvring large forces difficult and favoured the defence over the offence. Land operations were largely confined to raids, sieges and interdiction in 23 years of war on Sicily there were only two full-scale pitched battles. [69]

Sicily, 264–257 BC

The war began with the Romans gaining a foothold on Sicily at Messana (modern Messina). [70] The Romans then pressed Syracuse, the only significant independent power on the island, into allying with them [71] and laid siege to Carthage's main base at Akragas on the south coast. [72] A Carthaginian army of 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 60 elephants attempted to lift the siege in 262 BC, but was heavily defeated at the Battle of Akragas. That night the Carthaginian garrison escaped and the Romans seized the city and its inhabitants, selling 25,000 of them into slavery. [73]

After this the land war on Sicily reached a stalemate as the Carthaginians focused on defending their well-fortified towns and cities these were mostly on the coast and so could be supplied and reinforced without the Romans being able to use their superior army to interfere. [74] [75] The focus of the war shifted to the sea, where the Romans had little experience on the few occasions they had previously felt the need for a naval presence they had usually relied on small squadrons provided by their Latin or Greek allies. [72] [76] [77] The Romans built a navy to challenge Carthage's, [78] and using the corvus inflicted a major defeat at the Battle of Mylae in 260 BC. [79] [80] [81] A Carthaginian base on Corsica was seized, but an attack on Sardinia was repulsed the base on Corsica the Romans had seized was then lost. [82] In 258 BC a Roman fleet heavily defeated a smaller Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of Sulci off the western coast of Sardinia. [80]

Africa, 256–255 BC

Taking advantage of their naval victories the Romans launched an invasion of North Africa in 256 BC, [83] which the Carthaginians intercepted at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus off the south coast of Sicily. The Carthaginians were again beaten [84] this was possibly the largest naval battle in history by the number of combatants involved. [85] [86] [87] The invasion initially went well and in 255 BC the Carthaginians sued for peace the proposed terms were so harsh they fought on. [88] At the Battle of Tunis in spring 255 BC a combined force of infantry, cavalry and war elephants under the command of the Spartan mercenary Xanthippus crushed the Romans. [89] The Romans sent a fleet to evacuate their survivors and the Carthaginians opposed it at the Battle of Cape Hermaeum (modern Cape Bon) the Carthaginians were again heavily defeated. [90] The Roman fleet, in turn, was devastated by a storm while returning to Italy, losing most of its ships and more than 100,000 men. [91] [92] [93]

Sicily, 255–241 BC

The war continued, with neither side able to gain a decisive advantage. [94] The Carthaginians attacked and recaptured Akragas in 255 BC, but not believing they could hold the city, they razed and abandoned it. [95] [96] The Romans rapidly rebuilt their fleet, adding 220 new ships, and captured Panormus (modern Palermo) in 254 BC. [97] The next year they lost another 150 ships to a storm. [98] On Sicily the Romans avoided battle in 252 and 251 BC, according to Polybius because they feared the war elephants which the Carthaginians had shipped to the island. [99] [100] In 250 BC the Carthaginians advanced on Panormus, but in a battle outside the walls the Romans drove off the Carthaginian elephants with javelin fire. The elephants routed through the Carthaginian infantry, who were then charged by the Roman infantry to complete their defeat. [100] [101]

Slowly the Romans had occupied most of Sicily in 250 BC they besieged the last two Carthaginian strongholds – Lilybaeum and Drepana in the extreme west. [102] Repeated attempts to storm Lilybaeum's strong walls failed, as did attempts to block access to its harbour, and the Romans settled down to a siege which was to last nine years. [103] [104] They launched a surprise attack on the Carthaginian fleet, but were defeated at the Battle of Drepana Carthage's greatest naval victory of the war. [105] Carthage turned to the maritime offensive, inflicting another heavy naval defeat at the Battle of Phintias and all but swept the Romans from the sea. [106] It was to be seven years before Rome again attempted to field a substantial fleet, while Carthage put most of its ships into reserve to save money and free up manpower. [107] [108]

Roman victory, 243–241 BC

After more than 20 years of war, both states were financially and demographically exhausted. [109] Evidence of Carthage's financial situation includes their request for a 2,000 talent loan [note 5] [note 6] from Ptolemaic Egypt, which was refused. [112] Rome was also close to bankruptcy and the number of adult male citizens, who provided the manpower for the navy and the legions, had declined by 17 per cent since the start of the war. [113] Goldsworthy describes Roman manpower losses as "appalling". [114]

The Romans rebuilt their fleet again in 243 BC [115] after the Senate approached Rome's wealthiest citizens for loans to finance the construction of one ship each, repayable from the reparations to be imposed on Carthage once the war was won. [115] This new fleet effectively blockaded the Carthaginian garrisons. [111] Carthage assembled a fleet which attempted to relieve them, but it was destroyed at the Battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 BC, [116] [117] forcing the cut-off Carthaginian troops on Sicily to negotiate for peace. [111] [118]

The Treaty of Lutatius was agreed. By its terms Carthage paid 3,200 talents of silver [note 7] in reparations and Sicily was annexed as a Roman province. [116] Henceforth Rome considered itself the leading military power in the western Mediterranean, and increasingly the Mediterranean region as a whole. The immense effort of repeatedly building large fleets of galleys during the war laid the foundation for Rome's maritime dominance for 600 years. [119]

Mercenary War

The Mercenary, or Truceless, War began in 241 BC as a dispute over the payment of wages owed to 20,000 foreign soldiers who had fought for Carthage on Sicily during the First Punic War. This erupted into full-scale mutiny under the leadership of Spendius and Matho and 70,000 Africans from Carthage's oppressed dependant territories flocked to join the mutineers, bringing supplies and finance. [120] [121] War-weary Carthage fared poorly in the initial engagements, especially under the generalship of Hanno. [122] [123] Hamilcar Barca, a veteran of the campaigns in Sicily, was given joint command of the army in 240 BC, and supreme command in 239 BC. [123] He campaigned successfully, initially demonstrating leniency in an attempt to woo the rebels over. [124] To prevent this, in 240 BC Spendius tortured 700 Carthaginian prisoners to death, and henceforth the war was pursued with great brutality. [125] [126]

By early 237 BC, after numerous setbacks, the rebels were defeated and their cities brought back under Carthaginian rule. [127] An expedition was prepared to reoccupy Sardinia, where mutinous soldiers had slaughtered all Carthaginians. The Roman Senate stated they considered the preparation of this force an act of war, and demanded Carthage cede Sardinia and Corsica, and pay an additional 1,200-talent indemnity. [note 8] [128] [129] Weakened by 30 years of war, Carthage agreed rather than again enter into conflict with Rome. [130] Polybius considered this "contrary to all justice" [128] and modern historians have variously described the Romans' behaviour as "unprovoked aggression and treaty-breaking", [128] "shamelessly opportunistic" [131] and an "unscrupulous act". [132] These events fuelled resentment of Rome in Carthage, which was not reconciled to Rome's perception of its situation. This breach of the recently signed treaty is considered by modern historians to be the single greatest cause of war with Carthage breaking out again in 218 BC in the Second Punic War. [133] [134] [135]

Carthaginian expansion in Iberia

With the suppression of the rebellion, Hamilcar understood that Carthage needed to strengthen its economic and military base if it were to again confront Rome. [137] After the First Punic War, Carthaginian possessions in Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) were limited to a handful of prosperous coastal cities in the south. [138] Hamilcar took the army which he had led to victory in the Mercenary War to Iberia in 237 BC and carved out a quasi-monarchial, autonomous state in its south east. [139] This gave Carthage the silver mines, agricultural wealth, manpower, military facilities such as shipyards and territorial depth to stand up to future Roman demands with confidence. [140] [141] Hamilcar ruled as a viceroy and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, in the early 220s BC and then his son, Hannibal, in 221 BC. [142] In 226 BC the Ebro Treaty was agreed with Rome, specifying the Ebro River as the northern boundary of the Carthaginian sphere of influence. [143] At some time during the next six years Rome made a separate treaty with the city of Saguntum, which was situated well south of the Ebro. [144]

In 219 BC a Carthaginian army under Hannibal besieged, captured and sacked Saguntum [133] [145] and in spring 218 BC Rome declared war on Carthage. [146] There were three main military theatres in the war: Italy, where Hannibal defeated the Roman legions repeatedly, with occasional subsidiary campaigns in Sicily, Sardinia and Greece Iberia, where Hasdrubal, a younger brother of Hannibal, defended the Carthaginian colonial cities with mixed success until moving into Italy and Africa, where the war was decided. [147]


Hannibal crosses the Alps, 218–217 BC

In 218 BC there was some naval skirmishing in the waters around Sicily. The Romans beat off a Carthaginian attack [148] [149] and captured the island of Malta. [150] In Cisalpine Gaul (modern northern Italy), the major Gallic tribes attacked the Roman colonies there, causing the Romans to flee to their previously-established colony of Mutina (modern Modena), where they were besieged. A Roman relief army broke through the siege, but was then ambushed and besieged itself. [151] An army had previously been created by the Romans to campaign in Iberia, but the Roman Senate detached one Roman and one allied legion from it to send to north Italy. Raising fresh troops to replace these delayed the army's departure for Iberia until September. [152]

Meanwhile, Hannibal assembled a Carthaginian army in New Carthage (modern Cartagena) and led it northwards along the Iberian coast in May or June. It entered Gaul and took an inland route, to avoid the Roman allies to the south. [153] At the Battle of Rhone Crossing, Hannibal defeated a force of local Allobroges which sought to bar his way. [154] A Roman fleet carrying the Iberian-bound army landed at Rome's ally Massalia (modern Marseille) at the mouth of the Rhone, [155] but Hannibal evaded the Romans and they continued to Iberia. [156] [157] The Carthaginians reached the foot of the Alps by late autumn [153] and crossed them, surmounting the difficulties of climate, terrain [153] and the guerrilla tactics of the native tribes. Hannibal arrived with 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and an unknown number of elephants – the survivors of the 37 with which he left Iberia [71] [158] – in what is now Piedmont, northern Italy. The Romans were still in their winter quarters. His surprise entry into the Italian peninsula led to the cancellation of Rome's planned campaign for the year: an invasion of Africa. [159]

Roman defeats, 218–217 BC

Hannibal captured the chief city of the hostile Taurini (in the area of modern Turin) and his army routed the cavalry and light infantry of the Romans at the Battle of Ticinus in late November. [160] As a result, most of the Gallic tribes declared for the Carthaginian cause, and Hannibal's army grew to more than 40,000 men. [161] A large Roman army was lured into combat by Hannibal at the Battle of the Trebia, encircled and destroyed. [162] Only 10,000 Romans out of 42,000 were able to cut their way to safety. Gauls now joined Hannibal's army in large numbers, bringing it up to 60,000 men. [161] The Romans stationed an army at Arretium and one on the Adriatic coast to block Hannibal's advance into central Italy. [163]

In early spring 217 BC, the Carthaginians crossed the Apennines unopposed, taking a difficult but unguarded route. [164] Hannibal attempted without success to draw the main Roman army under Gaius Flaminius into a pitched battle by devastating the area they had been sent to protect. [165] Hannibal then cut off the Roman army from Rome, which provoked Flaminius into a hasty pursuit without proper reconnaissance. [166] Hannibal set an ambush [166] and in the Battle of Lake Trasimene completely defeated the Roman army, killing 15,000 Romans, [167] including Flaminius, [166] and taking 15,000 prisoner. A cavalry force of 4,000 from the other Roman army were also engaged and wiped out. [167] The prisoners were badly treated if they were Romans, but released if they were from one of Rome's Latin allies. [168] Hannibal hoped some of these allies could be persuaded to defect, and marched south in the hope of winning over Roman allies among the ethnic Greek and Italic city states. [163] [169]

The Romans, panicked by these heavy defeats, appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator. [170] Fabius introduced the Fabian strategy of avoiding open battle with his opponent, but constantly skirmishing with small detachments of the enemy. This was not popular among the soldiers, the Roman public or the Roman elite, since he avoided battle while Italy was being devastated by the enemy. [163] Hannibal marched through the richest and most fertile provinces of Italy, hoping the devastation would draw Fabius into battle, but Fabius refused. [171]

Cannae, 216 BC

At the elections of 216 BC Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus were elected as consuls both were more aggressive-minded than Fabius. [172] The Roman Senate authorised the raising of a force of 86,000 men, the largest in Roman history to that point. [172] Paullus and Varro marched southward to confront Hannibal, who accepted battle on the open plain near Cannae. In the Battle of Cannae the Roman legions forced their way through Hannibal's deliberately weak centre, but Libyan heavy infantry on the wings swung around their advance, menacing their flanks. [173] Hasdrubal led Carthaginian cavalry on the left wing and routed the Roman cavalry opposite, then swept around the rear of the Romans to attack the cavalry on the other wing. He then charged into the legions from behind. [173] As a result, the Roman infantry was surrounded with no means of escape. [173] At least 67,500 Romans were killed or captured. [173]

Within a few weeks of Cannae a Roman army of 25,000 was ambushed by Boii Gauls at the Battle of Silva Litana and annihilated. [174]

Roman allies defect, 216–205 BC

Little has survived of Polybius's account of Hannibal's army in Italy after Cannae. Livy gives a fuller record, but according to Goldsworthy "his reliability is often suspect", especially with regard to his descriptions of battles [note 9] nevertheless his is the best surviving source for this part of the war. [176] [177] Several of the city states in southern Italy allied themselves with Hannibal, or were captured when pro-Carthaginian factions betrayed their defences. These included the large city of Capua and the major port city of Tarentum (modern Taranto). Two of the major Samnite tribes also joined the Carthaginian cause. By 214 BC the bulk of southern Italy had turned against Rome. [178] [179]

However, the majority of Rome's allies remained loyal, including many in southern Italy. [180] All except the smallest towns were too well fortified for Hannibal to take by assault, and blockade could be a long-drawn-out affair, or if the target was a port, impossible. [181] Carthage's new allies felt little sense of community with Carthage, or even with each other. [180] The new allies increased the number of fixed points which Hannibal's army was expected to defend from Roman retribution, but provided relatively few fresh troops to assist him in doing so. [182] Such Italian forces as were raised resisted operating away from their home cities and performed badly when they did. [183]

When the port city of Locri defected to Carthage in the summer of 215 BC it was immediately used to reinforce the Carthaginian forces in Italy with soldiers, supplies and war elephants. [184] It was the only time during the war that Carthage reinforced Hannibal. [185] A second force, under Hannibal's youngest brother Mago, was meant to land in Italy in 215 BC but was diverted to Iberia after the Carthaginian defeat in Iberia at the Battle of Dertosa. [184] [186]

Meanwhile, the Romans took drastic steps to raise new legions: enrolling slaves, criminals and those who did not meet the usual property qualification. [183] By early 215 BC they were fielding at least 12 legions by 214 BC, 18 and by 213 BC, 22. By 212 BC the full complement of the legions deployed would have been in excess of 100,000 men, plus, as always, a similar number of allied troops. The majority were deployed in southern Italy in field armies of approximately 20,000 men each. This was insufficient to challenge Hannibal's army in open battle, but sufficient to force him to concentrate his forces and to hamper his movements. [187]

For 11 years after Cannae the war surged around southern Italy as cities went over to the Carthaginians or were taken by subterfuge, and the Romans recaptured them by siege or by suborning pro-Roman factions. [188] Hannibal repeatedly defeated Roman armies, but wherever his main army was not active the Romans threatened Carthaginian-supporting towns or sought battle with Carthaginian or Carthaginian-allied detachments frequently with success. [189] By 207 BC Hannibal had been confined to the extreme south of Italy and many of the cities and territories which had joined the Carthaginian cause had returned to their Roman allegiance. [190]

First Macedonian War, 214–205 BC

During 216 BC the Macedonian king, Philip V, pledged his support to Hannibal [191] – thus initiating the First Macedonian War against Rome in 215 BC. In 211 BC, Rome contained the threat of Macedonia by allying with the Aetolian League, an anti-Macedonian coalition of Greek city states. In 205 BC this war ended with a negotiated peace. [192]

Sardinia, 213 BC

A rebellion in support of the Carthaginians broke out on Sardinia in 213 BC, but it was quickly put down by the Romans. [193]

Sicily, 213–210 BC

Sicily remained firmly in Roman hands, blocking the ready seaborne reinforcement and resupply of Hannibal from Carthage. Hiero II, the old tyrant of Syracuse of forty-five-years standing and a staunch Roman ally, died in 215 BC and his successor Hieronymus was discontented with his situation. Hannibal negotiated a treaty whereby Syracuse came over to Carthage, at the price of making the whole of Sicily a Syracusan possession. The Syracusan army proved no match for the Romans, and by spring 213 BC Syracuse was besieged. [194] [195] The siege was marked by the ingenuity of Archimedes in inventing war machines to counteract the traditional siege warfare methods of the Romans. [196]

A large Carthaginian army led by Himilco was sent to relieve the city in 213 BC. [193] [197] It captured several Roman-garrisoned towns on Sicily many Roman garrisons were either expelled or massacred by Carthaginian partisans. [197] In the spring of 212 BC the Romans stormed Syracuse in a surprise night assault and captured several districts of the city. [197] Meanwhile, the Carthaginian army was crippled by plague. [197] After the Carthaginians failed to resupply the city, Syracuse fell in the autumn of 212 BC Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier. [197]

Carthage sent more reinforcements to Sicily in 211 BC and went on the offensive. A fresh Roman army attacked the main Carthaginian stronghold on the island, Agrigentum, in 210 BC and the city was betrayed to the Romans by a discontented Carthaginian officer. The remaining Carthaginian-controlled towns then surrendered or were taken through force or treachery [198] [199] and the Sicilian grain supply to Rome and its armies was resumed. [200]

Hasdrubal invades Italy, 207 BC

In the spring of 207 BC, Hasdrubal Barca marched across the Alps and invaded Italy with an army of 30,000 men. His aim was to join his forces with those of Hannibal, but Hannibal was unaware of his presence. The Romans facing Hannibal in southern Italy tricked him into believing the whole Roman army was still in camp, while a large portion marched north and reinforced the Romans facing Hasdrubal. The combined Roman force attacked Hasdrubal at the Battle of the Metaurus and destroyed his army, killing Hasdrubal. This battle confirmed Roman dominance in Italy. [201]

Mago invades Italy, 205–203 BC

In 205 BC, Mago landed in Genua in north-west Italy with the remnants of his Spanish army (see § Iberia below). It soon received Gallic and Ligurian reinforcements. Mago's arrival in the north of the Italian peninsula was followed by Hannibal's inconclusive Battle of Crotona in 204 BC in the far south of the peninsula. Mago marched his reinforced army towards the lands of Carthage's main Gallic allies in the Po Valley, but was checked by a large Roman army and defeated at the Battle of Insubria in 203 BC. [202]

Hannibal is recalled, 203 BC

After Publius Cornelius Scipio invaded the Carthaginian homeland in 204 BC, defeating the Carthaginians in two major battles and winning the allegiance of the Numidian kingdoms of North Africa, Hannibal and the remnants of his army were recalled. [203] They sailed from Croton [204] and landed at Carthage with 15,000–20,000 experienced veterans. [205] Mago was also recalled he died of wounds on the voyage and some of his ships were intercepted by the Romans, [205] but 12,000 of his troops reached Carthage. [206]


Iberia 218–215 BC

The Roman fleet continued on from Massala in the autumn of 218 BC, landing the army it was transporting in north-east Iberia, where it won support among the local tribes. [156] A rushed Carthaginian attack in late 218 BC was beaten off at the Battle of Cissa. [156] [207] In 217 BC 40 Carthaginian and Iberian warships were beaten by 55 Roman and Massalian vessels at the Battle of Ebro River, with 29 Carthaginian ships lost. The Romans' lodgement between the Ebro and Pyrenees blocked the route from Iberia to Italy and prevented the despatch of reinforcements from Iberia to Hannibal. [207] The Carthaginian commander in Iberia, Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal, marched into this area in 215 BC, offered battle and was defeated at Dertosa, although both sides suffered heavy casualties. [208]

Iberia, 214–209 BC

The Carthaginians suffered a wave of defections of local Celtiberian tribes to Rome. [156] The Roman commanders captured Saguntum in 212 BC [208] and in 211 BC hired 20,000 Celtiberian mercenaries to reinforce their army. [208] Observing that the three Carthaginian armies were deployed apart from each other, the Romans split their forces. [208] This strategy resulted in the Battle of Castulo and the Battle of Ilorca, usually combined as the Battle of the Upper Baetis. [156] [208] Both battles ended in complete defeat for the Romans, as Hasdrubal had bribed the Romans' mercenaries to desert. [156] [208] The Romans retreated to their coastal stronghold north of the Ebro, from which the Carthaginians again failed to expel them. [156] [208] Claudius Nero brought over reinforcements in 210 BC and stabilised the situation. [208]

In 210 BC Publius Cornelius Scipio, [note 10] arrived in Iberia with further Roman reinforcements. [212] In a carefully planned assault in 209 BC, he captured the lightly-defended centre of Carthaginian power in Iberia, Cartago Nova, [212] [213] seizing a vast booty of gold, silver and siege artillery. [212] [214] He released the captured population and liberated the Iberian hostages held there by the Carthaginians to ensure the loyalty of their tribes, [212] [214] although many of them were subsequently to fight against the Romans. [212]

Iberia, 208–207 BC

In the spring of 208 BC, Hasdrubal moved to engage Scipio at the Battle of Baecula. [212] The Carthaginians were defeated, but Hasdrubal was able to withdraw the majority of his army in good order. Most of his losses were among his Iberian allies. Scipio was not able to prevent Hasdrubal from leading his depleted army over the western passes of the Pyrenees into Gaul. In 207 BC, after recruiting heavily in Gaul, Hasdrubal crossed the Alps into Italy in an attempt to join his brother, Hannibal. [212] [215] [216]

Roman victory in Iberia, 206–205 BC

In 206 BC, at the Battle of Ilipa, Scipio with 48,000 men, half Italian and half Iberian, defeated a Carthaginian army of 54,500 men and 32 elephants. This sealed the fate of the Carthaginians in Iberia. [212] [216] It was followed by the Roman capture of Gades after the city rebelled against Carthaginian rule. [217]

Later the same year a mutiny broke out among Roman troops, which initially attracted support from Iberian leaders, disappointed that Roman forces had remained in the peninsula after the expulsion of the Carthaginians, but it was effectively put down by Scipio. In 205 BC a last attempt was made by Mago to recapture New Carthage when the Roman occupiers were shaken by another mutiny and an Iberian uprising, but he was repulsed. Mago left Iberia for northern Italy with his remaining forces. [214] In 203 BC Carthage succeeded in recruiting at least 4,000 mercenaries from Iberia, despite Rome's nominal control. [218]


In 213 BC Syphax, a powerful Numidian king in North Africa, [208] declared for Rome. In response, Roman advisers were sent to train his soldiers [208] and he waged war against the Carthaginian ally Gala. [208] In 206 BC the Carthaginians ended this drain on their resources by dividing several Numidian kingdoms with him. One of those disinherited was the Numidian prince Masinissa, who was thus driven into the arms of Rome. [219]

Scipio's invasion of Africa, 204–201 BC

In 205 BC Publius Scipio was given command of the legions in Sicily and allowed to enrol volunteers for his plan to end the war by an invasion of Africa. [220] After landing in Africa in 204 BC, he was joined by Masinissa and a force of Numidian cavalry. [221] Scipio gave battle to and destroyed two large Carthaginian armies. [203] After the second of these Syphax was pursued and taken prisoner by Masinissa at the Battle of Cirta Masinissa then seized most of Syphax's kingdom with Roman help. [222]

Rome and Carthage entered into peace negotiations, and Carthage recalled Hannibal from Italy. [223] The Roman Senate ratified a draft treaty, but due to mistrust and a surge in confidence when Hannibal arrived from Italy Carthage repudiated it. [224] Hannibal was placed in command of another army, formed from his veterans from Italy and newly raised troops from Africa, but with few cavalry. [225] The decisive Battle of Zama followed in October 202 BC. [226] Unlike most battles of the Second Punic War, the Romans had superiority in cavalry and the Carthaginians in infantry. [225] Hannibal attempted to use 80 elephants to break into the Roman infantry formation, but the Romans countered them effectively and they routed back through the Carthaginian ranks. [227] The Roman and allied Numidian cavalry drove the Carthaginian cavalry from the field. The two sides' infantry fought inconclusively until the Roman cavalry returned and attacked his rear. The Carthaginian formation collapsed Hannibal was one of the few to escape the field. [226]

The peace treaty imposed on the Carthaginians stripped them of all of their overseas territories, and some of their African ones. An indemnity of 10,000 silver talents [note 11] was to be paid over 50 years. Hostages were taken. Carthage was forbidden to possess war elephants and its fleet was restricted to 10 warships. It 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. [228] Henceforth it was clear that Carthage was politically subordinate to Rome. [229] Scipio was awarded a triumph and received the agnomen "Africanus". [230]

At the end of the war, Masinissa emerged as by far the most powerful ruler among the Numidians. [231] Over the following 48 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 its ally, Masinissa, and refused. [232] Masinissa's seizures of and raids into Carthaginian territory became increasingly flagrant. In 151 BC Carthage raised a large army, the treaty notwithstanding, and counterattacked the Numidians. The campaign ended in disaster for the Carthaginians and their army surrendered. [233] Carthage had paid off its indemnity and was prospering economically, but was no military threat to Rome. [234] [235] Elements in the Roman Senate had long wished to destroy Carthage, and with the breach of the treaty as a casus belli, war was declared in 149 BC. [233]

In 149 BC a Roman army of approximately 50,000 men, jointly commanded by both consuls, landed near Utica, 35 kilometres (22 mi) north of Carthage. [236] Rome demanded that if war were to be avoided, the Carthaginians must hand over all of their armaments. Vast amounts of materiel were delivered, including 200,000 sets of armour, 2,000 catapults and a large number of warships. [237] This done, the Romans demanded the Carthaginians burn their city and relocate at least 16 kilometres (10 mi) from the sea the Carthaginians broke off negotiations and set to recreating their armoury. [238]

Siege of Carthage

As well as manning the walls of Carthage, the Carthaginians formed a field army under Hasdrubal, which was based 25 kilometres (16 mi) to the south. [240] [241] The Roman army moved to lay siege to Carthage, but its walls were so strong and its citizen-militia so determined it was unable to make any impact, while the Carthaginians struck back effectively. Their army raided the Roman lines of communication, [241] and in 148 BC Carthaginian fire ships destroyed many Roman vessels. The main Roman camp was in a swamp, which caused an outbreak of disease during the summer. [242] The Romans moved their camp, and their ships, further away – so they were now more blockading than closely besieging the city. [243] The war dragged on into 147 BC. [241]

In early 147 BC Scipio Aemilianus, an adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus who had distinguished himself during the previous two years' fighting, was elected consul and took control of the war. [233] [244] The Carthaginians continued to resist vigorously: they constructed warships and during the summer twice gave battle to the Roman fleet, losing both times. [244] The Romans launched an assault on the walls after confused fighting they broke into the city, but lost in the dark, withdrew. Hasdrubal and his army retreated into the city to reinforce the garrison. [245] Hasdrubal 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 negotiations. Some members of the city council denounced his actions and Hasdrubal had them too put to death and took control of the city. [244] [246] With no Carthaginian army in the field those cities which had remained loyal went over to the Romans or were captured. [247]

Scipio moved back to a close blockade of the city, and built a mole which cut off supply from the sea. [248] In the spring of 146 BC the Roman army managed to secure a foothold on the fortifications near the harbour. [249] [250] When the main assault began it quickly captured the city's main square, where the legions camped overnight. [251] The next morning the Romans systematically worked their way through the residential part of the city, killing everyone they encountered and firing the buildings behind them. [249] At times the Romans progressed from rooftop to rooftop, to prevent missiles being hurled down on them. [251] It took six days to clear the city of resistance, and on the last day Scipio agreed to accept prisoners. The last holdouts, including Roman deserters in Carthaginian service, fought on from the Temple of Eshmoun and burnt it down around themselves when all hope was gone. [252] There were 50,000 Carthaginian prisoners, a small proportion of the pre-war population, who were sold into slavery. [253] There is a tradition that Roman forces then sowed the city with salt, but this has been shown to have been a 19th-century invention. [254] [255]

The remaining Carthaginian territories were annexed by Rome and reconstituted to become the Roman province of Africa with Utica as its capital. [256] The province became a major source of grain and other foodstuffs. [257] Numerous large Punic cities, such as those in Mauretania, were taken over by the Romans, [258] although they were permitted to retain their Punic system of government. [259] 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. [260] [261] Rome still exists as the capital of Italy [262] the ruins of Carthage lie 24 kilometres (15 mi) east of Tunis on the North African coast. [263] [264]

Xanthippus of Carthage

Spartan mercenary general hired by the Carthaginians to aid in their war against the Romans during the First Punic War. Credited for developing military tactics used by Carthage, he led Carthaginian soldiers into the battle of Tunis where the Roman expeditionary force was routed and the Roman consul Marcus Atilius Regulus was captured.

By the end of 257 the Romans had confined the Carthaginians to the western third of Sicily, they had neutralized the Carthaginian forces in Sardinia and Corsica, and they were ready to invade Africa. They organized a fleet of 300 ships with crews of 300 oarsmen and 120 marines each (a total of about 100,000 men) and two legions of about 15,000 men. The invasion force of 256 B.C. was commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus. Regulus had to fight for his passage against a Carthaginian fleet lying off Cape Ecnomus. The Roman “ravens” worked again, and the Romans captured fifty Carthaginian ships and sank thirty.

The Romans landed in Africa, seized the coastal city of Aspis, and ravaged the neighboring area. Regulus advanced into the Carthaginian hinterland (apparently he intended to cut Carthage off from its allies and revenues and force it to come to terms). When he was confronted by a much larger Carthaginian army, well supplied with cavalry and elephants, he feigned retreat, lured the Carthaginian army after him into rugged terrain (where their cavalry could not operate), and smashed them. Regulus then went into winter quarters at Tunis, from which he ravaged Carthaginian territory and persuaded Carthage’s Numidian allies (or subjects) to join him in ravaging Carthaginian territory. Regulus had every reason to be confident. The Romans outside Africa had won all but two (minor) engagements against the Carthaginians, he himself had defeated them in Africa, and he expected to defeat them again in the spring. Consequently, when he offered them terms, he named terms so harsh that he seemed to be goading them to further resistance rather than trying to settle the war.

During the winter, therefore, the Carthaginians sought, and found, help in a mercenary general, Xanthippus of Sparta Xanthippus retrained and reorganized their army to fight the legion, and in the spring he met Regulus in battle.

When campaigning began again in spring 255 they had the sense, too, to continue following his advice-it was hardly revolutionary-to operate on level terrain, bring the enemy to battle, and exploit their cavalry superiority and elephants. The Carthaginian army numbered only 12,000 infantry, which must have been roughly the same as Regulus’s, but its 4,000 cavalry vastly outnumbered his, and he had nothing to counter its ninety-odd elephants.

Regulus chose not to fight in the hilly country around Tunes or to undergo a siege there. He marched away to find open ground. Somewhere between Adyn and the Cape Bon peninsula, sometime in late May or in June 255, the clash took place. Here Xanthippus’s tactics were strikingly inventive. The elephants and elite mercenaries side by side formed the first line, the rest of the infantry stood behind in phalanx formation, and the cavalry as usual were on the wings, this time with the other mercenaries. Regulus deployed his legions in two closely packed divisions side by side-supposedly he thought this was how to cope with elephants- with the light-armed rorarii in front and his exiguous cavalry forming the usual wings. The infantry that clashed with the mercenaries made good headway, but the elephants’ charge against the other division bowled its leading ranks bloodily over. After the Carthaginian cavalry routed their opponents, they swung round to attack this division in its rear at the same time the main Carthaginian phalanx moved into action against the wearied other Roman division.

Regulus’s army, trapped on every side on the open fields, was virtually annihilated. Two thousand did escape to make a perilous journey back to the bridgehead at Aspis a mere 500 were captured-the consul among them. The rest had been slaughtered. Xanthippus’s tactics, to keep the Roman center occupied while its wings were swept away and then use his own wings to break it up, were essentially what Hamilcar had tried to do navally at Ecnomus. His tactics even more closely resemble Hannibal’s at Cannae forty years later and Scipio’s at Zama. A more immediate outcome was that the skillful Spartan was thanked by his employers and then dismissed: Carthage’s appreciation at being saved by a foreigner was not unalloyed. Romans later liked to visualize him being secretly murdered by Punic perfidy, but in reality he seems to have gone to work for the king of Egypt.

The defeat was severe but need not have been decisive the Romans still held Aspis and their fleet of 350 ships defeated a Carthaginian fleet off Aspis and captured, or destroyed, over a hundred ships, but chance, and the Roman unfamiliarity with the sea, wrecked their plans. As their fleet was returning to Rome by way of the Messana strait, an enormous storm struck, hurled almost 300 of their ships on the rocks, strewed wreckage for fifty miles, and drowned the crews, perhaps as many as 100,000 freeborn Italians, a large number of whom were Roman citizens.

What Xanthippus did with the Carthaginian army is unclear. Despite what some modern writers claim, perhaps following Vegetius’ lead, there is no evidence that Xanthippus reorganised the Carthaginian army on Greek lines. It is impossible to ascertain what form Xanthippus’ `orthodox’ commands took, for instance. Assuming they were oral, rather than visual or horn signals, were they in Greek or Punic? The former might seem more likely in the context of a Spartan officer commanding a Hellenistic-era army, but Greek was at most a `language of command’ in this army. Diodorus records Xanthippus speaking with the Carthaginians through interpreters (Diod. 23.16.1) and, according to Polybius’ account of the Mercenaries’ War, Punic seems to have been something of a lingua franca for the army he describes the Celtic chief Autaritas rising to prominence in the insurgent mercenary army through his fluency in Punic, a tongue with which all veterans were to some degree familiar (Polyb. 1.80.6). It is also significant that Xanthippus seems to have had no particular difficulty in manoeuvring the Celtic and Spanish elements in the army, neither of which were spear-armed this perhaps suggests that it was not necessary for the Libyans or Carthaginians to serve as a spear-armed phalanx under him either. It therefore seems that the Carthaginian army was nowhere near as `Hellenistic’ as it might first appear.

Hannibal did not lead his army without assistance but, as one would expect, had help in planning and carrying out his decisions. Polybius refers to Hannibal consulting his `council’ on a number of occasions (Polyb. 3.71.5, 85.6, 9.24.4-8), and there are many instances of Hannibal delegating command of army sections, whether in battle or to conduct individual operations, to his officers (Gsell, 1928, p. 393). It is perhaps not surprising that there should have been a military council and a definite chain of command in the Barcid army-if Xanthippus had any long-term effects upon the Carthaginian army it is likely that the Carthaginian command structure was remodelled on something like Spartan lines. 21 The Spartan army had a clear chain of command, and Spartan commanders tended to be accompanied by their subordinate officers, who could offer advice and act upon orders (Anderson, 1970, pp. 69 ff.).

Carthaginian use of Elephants

Carthaginians first became acquainted with war elephants fighting against Pyrrhus of Epirus on Sicily between 278 and 276 BC. Having experienced the effect of this new weapon, Carthage quickly realized that she, too, could acquire it, as African forest elephants inhabited North Africa in great numbers. It was much easier to hire professionals to catch this variety of elephants rather than importing elephants from India. Soon Carthage had the most powerful elephant corps in the Mediterranean world, with stables housing up to 300 elephants located in the capital. At first drivers were Indians hired through Egypt, but later drivers were also recruited from other regions including Syria, Numidia and some other African states. Elephants now replaced chariots as the Carthaginians’ main striking power.

During the First Punic War (264-241 BC), the Carthaginians were only beginning to master this new arm of warfare and paid a high price for their lack of experience on the battlefield. In 262 BC, when the Romans besieged the Carthaginian city of Agrigentum on Sicily, Carthage dispatched to Agrigentum an expeditionary corps of 50,000 infantrymen, 6,000 horsemen and 60 war elephants. The Carthaginian general stationed his elephants behind the first infantry line. When the Romans destroyed this vanguard, the fleeing soldiers frightened the elephants into running away. The integrity of the combat formations was completely broken and victory cost the Romans little effort.

In spite of this bitter experience, the Carthaginians did not give up on the use of elephants. When Marcus Regulus, a Roman general and consul, landed in Africa in 256 BC, a large army was sent to prevent the Romans’ advance on Carthage, but the elephants’ contribution to the battle of Adys was slight. The Carthaginians realized that the commander of the elephant corps should be replaced and hired a Greek named Xanthippus. Xanthippus had participated in the defence of Sparta from Pyrrhus of Epirus in 272 BC and met with war elephants there. In the battle against Regulus on the Bagradas River in 255 BC, Xanthippus put nearly 100 Carthaginian elephants in file in front of the infantry lines, as was common. Although the legionaries `fell in heaps’, according to Polybius, they bravely fought elephants in the centre. On the wings, however, a larger Carthaginian cavalry force put Roman horsemen to flight. The Romans were effectively encircled and a Carthaginian victory was assured. Only a small part of the Roman army forced its way back, but `the greater number were trampled to death by the vast weight of the elephants, while the remainder were shot down by the numerous cavalry in their ranks as they stood’ (Polybius, I. 34).

This experience, and the tales of the Roman legionaries who survived, ensured that Rome did not dare to confront elephants for several years. Conversely, the Carthaginians began patently to overestimate war elephants’ abilities and soon paid a high price for it. Caecilius Metellus, Roman commander on Sicily in 251 BC, resorted to a ruse to counter the war elephant threat. He hid a considerable army in the well-fortified city of Panormus and ordered a deep ditch dug out in front of the walls. Then Metellus sent a detachment of light-armed warriors to harass the Carthaginian troops incessantly. This provocation finally forced the Carthaginian general to draw his army up in a combat formation with elephants in front, as was expected. The detachment continued to worry the elephants, without really clashing with them, ready to hide themselves in the ditch if attacked. Hopeful of gaining an easy victory before their commander’s eyes, elephant drivers were thus provoked into assailing the Romans. But the elephants failed to cross the ditch, and a hail of arrows and javelins poured onto them from the fortress walls. Injured, they rushed back, scattering their own troops. At that moment Metellus brought his main forces out of the city and completed the rout. This battle restored the Romans’ self-confidence and they were no longer afraid of facing war elephants.

Watch the video: The Carthaginian Army Units u0026 History (January 2022).