Carthaginian Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Carthage, a historic city on the north coast of Africa, traditionally was founded in 814 b.c.e. by Phoenicians.

Military Achievement

Carthage, a historic city on the north coast of Africa, traditionally was founded in 814 b.c.e. by PhoeniciaPhoenicians. Historically, the military achievements of Carthage, a maritime trading power, have been measured by its naval and land conflicts with Rome, the emerging power on land. This deadly hegemonic contest, however, was not the only formal measure of Carthage’s military achievements. Long before its fateful clashes with Rome in the Punic Wars (264-146 b.c.e.), Carthage had made its military presence forcefully known throughout the western Mediterranean, Southern European, North African, and West African regions from the eighth to the third centuries b.c.e. This strategic presence was based on a powerful professional navy with a significant troop-transport capacity that sustained land forces that protected Carthage’s home and overseas territories, important trade routes, and wide-ranging commercial fleets. Carthage’s strategic ability to move significant military forces throughout the western Mediterranean region would, for a period of time, deter Rome both politically and militarily from challenging Punic control of Sardinia and Sicily.CarthageRome;CarthagePunic War, FirstPunic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)Punic War, Third (149-146 b.c.e.)Africa;CarthageCarthageRome;CarthagePunic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)Punic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)Punic War, Third (149-146 b.c.e.)Africa;Carthage

The land and naval expeditionary forces of Carthage ranged widely in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, resulting in the occupation of Corsica, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and territories of North Africa. This first phase of Carthage’s expansionism (264-237 b.c.e.) was characterized by a strict civilian control by the Council of Elders of senior army and navy commanders and their mercenary troops. During this period of civilian supremacy over political and military policy, Punic generals and admirals who were successful in battle were rewarded, and those who were not were either exiled or killed.

During the twenty-three years of the Punic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)First Punic War, Rome had 400,000 casualties. At the same time, Carthage suffered major defeats in the Battles of Mylae, Battle of (260 b.c.e.)Mylae (260 b.c.e.), Ecnomus, Battle of (256 b.c.e.)Ecnomus (256 b.c.e.), Adys, Battle of (256 b.c.e.)Adys (256 b.c.e.), and Panormus, Battle of (250 b.c.e.)Panormus (250 b.c.e.). Carthage won a major battle at Tunis in 255 b.c.e., led by the Spartan general XanthippusXanthippus (Spartan general)Xanthippus, who defeated the Roman consul RegulusRegulus (Roman consult)Regulus and forced the latter’s retreat from Africa;CarthageAfrica. At the Battle of Drepana, Battle of (249 b.c.e.)Drepana (249 b.c.e.), the Punic naval commanders Adherbal, Carthalo, and Himilico defeated a large Roman fleet under admiral Claudius toward the end of the First Punic War. Despite this victory, Carthage’s surrender at the Aegates Islands (241 b.c.e.) ended the First Punic War. The defeat resulted in a severe loss of Carthaginian territory, including Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia. Carthage also suffered large reparations, a vastly reduced battle fleet, and a weakened land army.

Rome, Rome;navyNaval warfare;Romana weaker naval power, owed much of its success in the First Punic War to its acquisition of a new naval technology: the Corvus (grappling hook)corvus, a nautical grappling Grappling hooks hook. This device was simply a long, spiked gangplank mounted on the bow of a Roman warship and dropped onto the deck of a Carthaginian ship, securing the two ships together and allowing a Roman contingent to board and capture the opposing vessel. The corvus effectively ended Carthage’s naval supremacy and had a long-term negative impact on Carthage’s national security and overseas military operations.

The second phase of Carthaginian expansionism occurred from 237 to 202b.c.e. The military achievements and the very survival of the Carthaginian Empire during this time rested on the strategic leadership and tactical genius of its talented military commanders, the Barcid Barcid clanfamily. The commanders–Hamilcar Hamilcar BarcaHamilcar BarcaBarca (c. 270-228 b.c.e.), Hannibal BarcaHannibal (247-182 b.c.e.), Mago BarcaMago BarcaMago (died c. 203b.c.e.), Hasdrubal BarcaHasdrubal BarcaHasdrubal (died 221b.c.e.), Hanno BarcaHanno BarcaHanno (fl. third century b.c.e.), and Maharbal BarcaMaharbal BarcaMaharbal (fl. c. 216 b.c.e.)–would train the physically tough and hard-fighting indigenous and mercenary troops through the force of their personalities, charisma, and personal courage. This period also signaled the masterly control of the political and military policies of Carthage by these strong-willed and militarily gifted generals.

In 247 b.c.e. the Council of Elders’ appointment of Hamilcar Barca as the military commander of Sicily began a dynamic new phase in the military history of Carthage. After the end of the disastrous Punic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)First Punic War, the Barcid clan began to question the competency of the mercantilist faction of the Council of Elders to conduct political policy and wage war against Rome. This fierce internal struggle within the Council of Elders between the mercantilist faction and the Barcid clan and among other Punic interest groups would have long-term consequences.

The end of the First Punic War found Carthage without sufficient bullion to pay its mercenary army adequately, which revolted and attacked Carthage and its surrounding provinces. Hamilcar Barca was appointed by the Council of Elders to put down the revolt and moved quickly to defeat the rebellious mercenary forces. In the summer of 237 b.c.e., Hamilcar and his sons Hannibal, Mago, and Hasdrubal landed in Spain;BarcidsSpain. After eight years of military campaigning, Hannibal subjugated important Spanish territories in preparation for the coming military conflict with Rome. He was the first in a dedicated group of highly trained and dedicated Punic military commanders who would practice strategic endurance, exercise tactical brilliance, and exert complete control over Carthage’s political policy in the grand military conflict with Rome. In the winter of 229-228 b.c.e. Hamilcar died and his son-in-law Hasdrubal took over in Spain. After Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221 b.c.e., Hannibal came to power in Spain and in Carthage and strengthened the Punic army of 50,000 foot soldiers, 6,000 cavalry, and 200 battle elephants. In 218 b.c.e. Rome declared war against Carthage in response to Hannibal’s defeat of Rome’s ally in Spain, the city-state SarguntumSarguntum.

In late 218 b.c.e., Hannibal descended victoriously into Italy’s Po River Valley with 20,000 soldiers and 6,000 cavalry. He had designed a major trap for the two Roman generals Scipio Scipio AfricanusScipio Africanus (Roman general)Africanus (236-184 or 183 b.c.e.) and Tiberius Sempronius Sempronius Longus, TiberiusSempronius Longus, TiberiusLongus, who were meeting at Scipio’s camp near Trebia, and routed the Roman forces. In June, 217 b.c.e., Hannibal designed another large ambush at Lake Trasimeno and killed 20,000 soldiers in the army of Gaius Flaminius. In August, 216 b.c.e., the co-consuls Lucius Aemilius Paulus, Lucius AemiliusPaulus, Lucius AemiliusPaulus (died 216 b.c.e.) and Gaius Terentius Varro, Gaius TerentiusVarro, Gaius TerentiusVarro (fl. c. 216 b.c.e.) arrived at Cannae, Battle of (216 b.c.e.)Cannae with more than 87,200 soldiers. Hannibal’s army of 50,000 men was prepared for battle. With losses of 47,000 infantry and 2,700 cavalry, and with 19,000 prisoners, the Roman army was decimated in what became known as the first battle of Annihilation, battles ofannihilation in history.

However, the military achievements of Hannibal and Carthage came to a final end with his military defeat by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama, Battle of (202 b.c.e.)Zama in 202 b.c.e.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

There Armor;CarthaginianUniforms;Carthaginianis little historical evidence relating to the weapons, uniforms, and armor used by the Carthaginian army and navy. The polyglot army that Hannibal fielded in the Second Punic War was a unique mixture of Africans, Spaniards, Celts, Numidians, and Libya-Phoenicians, along with Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians. Hannibal’s army was international in its racial and ethnic composition and was extremely loyal in its dedication to its supreme military leader. Hannibal used his heavy and light infantry divisions as maneuver units to unbalance enemy forces and his heavy and light cavalry divisions as his main strike force on the battlefield to annihilate the enemy forces.

Battles of the Second Punic War, 218-202 b.c.e.

The weapons, armor, and uniforms of Hannibal’s infantry reflected the rich diversity of its fighting soldiers. The famous African heavy infantry were formidable, tenacious, and highly trained fighters from northern and western Africa. They wore a variety of colorful uniforms and clothing and were heavily armed with long and short battle swords, bows and arrows, and lances, as well as an assortment of other exotic weapons, which they used with deadly efficiency in battle. The African heavy infantry, which proved itself at the Battle of Cannae (216 b.c.e.), wore chain mail and carried shields for protection.

Hannibal recruited the courageous and tough-fighting Spain;infantrySpanish infantry, heavy and light, from the Iberian tribes of Spain. The Spanish light infantry were armed with javelins, darts, slings, and wooden shields, whereas the Spanish heavy infantry were dressed in chain mail and armed with javelins, as well as the noted heavy steel sword later adopted by the Roman heavy infantry. The Celts;infantryCeltic light infantry were recruited from the Po River Valley in Italy and were armed with swords. They wore no armor and fought nude or half naked. Finally, the proud and sagacious Libya-Phoenician infantry[Libya Phoenician infantry]Libya-Phoenicians were recruited from the Carthaginian elite classes, wore chain mail armor, and expertly used the battle weapons of the Greek hoplite. The Libya-Phoenicians formed the elite backbone of Hannibal’s Carthaginian army in Italy, and they would prove their mettle repeatedly in countless battles and campaigns.

The heavy and light cavalry forces in Hannibal’s army were also a polyglot mixture of nationalities, races, and languages. The cavalry corps were Hannibal’s strategic strike force and implemented his orders on the battlefield with both precision and decisiveness. The elite heavy cavalry were composed of a small number of Carthaginians and Libya-Phoenicians, highly expert fighters on or off their battle horses and drilled in every conceivable cavalry maneuver. The Spanish heavy infantry comprised the bulk of Hannibal’s heavy cavalry force, and they dressed in helmet and mail armor and were armed with short and long lances, short swords, buckler-shields, and greaves (armor for the leg below the knee).

The magnificent light cavalry force comprised the Numidia;infantryNumidians, a North African people famous throughout the Mediterranean region for their outstanding mobility and expert fighting abilities. In battle, the Numidians wore their famous leopard skins and used swords, short javelins, and lances to maneuver expertly around and through their enemies, seeking a fatal weakness before striking. Finally, Hannibal used African battle Elephantselephants both to anchor his lines and to launch, along with heavy and light cavalry, combined-arms shock assaults to disorient and defeat the enemy on his front and rear. It has been argued that Hannibal also used his elephants along his route of march to impress and frighten European tribes to join his army.

The battle-hardened Carthaginian army constantly changed its weapons systems, military uniforms, and body armor after each successful battle with the Romans. This exchange of military technology and weapons systems was an integral component of Hannibal’s war in Italy and proved decisive in allowing his forces to fight against Rome.

Military Organization

The military organization of the Carthaginian army stands unique in the history of the ancient world. Carthaginian leaders had decided early on that a standing professional army recruited from the general population of eligible men would ensure neither national security nor the worldwide advancement of Carthage’s foreign economic policy interests. After enduring a period during which Punic generals and admirals sought to control the state’s political policy, Carthage’s Council of Elders ruled that the recruitment of trained Mercenaries;in Carthage[Carthage]mercenaries from the western Mediterranean region and elsewhere would be sufficient to meet military requirements in case of war.

The traditional military organization of the Carthaginian army was the Greek HoplitesPhalanx;Carthaginianhoplite phalanx. Carthage inherited this military tactical system from the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, and it was a prominent tactical system in most ancient militaries, including that of Rome. However, Hannibal fundamentally altered the hoplite system to gain flexibility and tactical maneuverability in battle. His changes were designed to ensure maximum coordination and communication between the main strike force, the cavalry, and the main maneuver force, the infantry.

The importance of decisive battlefield communications, rapid logistical support, accurate military intelligence, and sound battlefield leadership was constantly communicated to officers and soldiers. As the historical record indicates, Hannibal tried to maximize surprise and shock against the enemy, attacking the enemy in difficult geographical areas, making the enemy fight up hilly terrain, or driving the enemy cavalry from the field of battle in order to launch attacks against the remaining enemy on his front or rear. In this context, Hannibal developed and trained an effective corps of officers, known for their toughness, wisdom, bravado, and discipline.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The strategic political doctrine of the Carthaginian Empire was based both on satisfying its national security interests and on maintaining its worldwide commercial relations and trade routes. After the negative outcome of the Punic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)First Punic War, Carthage’s strategic doctrine took into account the empire’s depleted resource base, its weakened battle fleet and naval troop transport capability, and its severe manpower limitations in any future conflict with Rome. Carthage had a military manpower base of 100,000 to 120,000 fighting men for its army and navy and a 30,000- to 35,000-man cavalry force, out of an estimated total population base of 700,000 citizens. In contrast, Rome and its allied states had a strategic military manpower base of 700,000 foot soldiers and 70,000 cavalry forces, and, for combat operations, Rome could deploy within a year more than 250,000 foot soldiers and a 23,000-man cavalry force. Based on these comparative manpower data, a war of attrition was out of the question for Carthage.

Hannibal’s army crosses the Rhone River in 218 b.c.e. on its way to invade Italy. Hannibal made the most famous use of war elephants with his crossing of the Alps in this Italian campaign.

(Library of Congress)

For this reason, the Barcid clan reasoned that any future war with Rome would have to be fought in Italy, in order to break the wills of the Roman Senate and the Roman people. This position, advocated by Hannibal, argued that Carthage could prevent Rome from launching major invasions of Carthage, Spain, or other important overseas territories only by launching aggressive combat operations in the heart of the Roman state. The Barcid clan also reasoned that Carthaginian military land forces executing a major land war against Rome and contiguous territories could not expect military reinforcements from the sea while facing overwhelming Roman land armies. In this specific context, the Carthaginian forces would need to inflict serious manpower losses on the Roman army while minimizing their own losses until military reinforcements could arrive from either Carthage or Spain.

At a deeper level, Rome’s increasing land and naval power operations in the western Mediterranean region proved a challenge to Carthaginian military strategy. Carthage could no longer adequately control sea lanes for military and commercial purposes; transport troops to danger spots; supply, reinforce, or extradite troops from overseas bases; or protect Carthage and Africa from Roman raids and invasion. For the Punic military and naval planners, the lack of robust naval forces to deter the powerful Roman navy had a profound impact on subsequent strategic military planning and tactical operations.

Cannae, 216 b.c.e.

The implementation of Carthage’s strategic military doctrine in the light of Rome’s military resources and manpower preponderance was not easy. Hannibal’s rise to power injected a new strategic dynamic factor, namely Hannibal’s military genius and leadership capabilities, into Roman and Carthaginian foreign security relations. On the ground, Hannibal’s offensively oriented strategy was based on the following principles: to win battlefield victories and encourage the defection or the neutrality of Rome’s allies and, if militarily decisive in battle, to force Rome to negotiate a compromise peace on Carthaginian terms.

On the battlefield, Hannibal’s operational doctrine was to execute the war against Rome using Rome’s own material resources, instead of those of Carthage. Hannibal’s decision to engage Rome in its own territory and use its resources was consistent with Punic strategic military doctrine against fighting wars of attrition. The objective was to fight a war for victory in Italy and, at the very least, to achieve a negotiated settlement, which would leave Carthage and its territories free of Rome. The implementation of this tactical doctrine required Hannibal to utilize a variety of military factors to engage, fight, and defeat the much larger and better-equipped Roman army in Italy for more than fifteen years. Among the tactics he employed were successful battlefield maneuvers, strategic and tactical surprise, psychological warfare, mastery of the geographical terrain, and military intelligence.

However, Hannibal’s war strategy was ultimately unsuccessful. Rome’s military manpower and preponderance of material resources, combined with its improved military generalship, very powerful battle fleets, and large land forces, proved strategically overwhelming. The direct result was the inevitable dissolution of the Carthaginian Empire.

Ancient Sources

Ab urbe condita libri (c. 26 b.c.e. -15 c.e. ; The History of Rome, 1600), by the ancient Roman historian LivyLivy (Roman historian) Livy (59 b.c.e. -17 c.e. ), is one of the primary reference sources that classical and modern scholars have used to “reconstruct” the great political, economic, and military struggle between the mature African power, Carthage, and the rising Italian power, Rome. Livy’s critical analysis of the Punic Wars was based in the prevailing Roman worldview, and in his writings Livy painted both Hannibal and Carthage in less than friendly terms. He provides the student of Carthaginian warfare, however, with some insights into the character, intensity, and implications of Hannibal’s military engagements with Rome from a Roman point of view.

Polybius PolybiusPolybius (Greek historian)(c. 200-c. 118 b.c.e.), a Greek historian taken as a prisoner to Rome in 168 b.c.e., wrote a series of histories of Rome and nearby countries from 220 to 146 b.c.e. (The General History of Polybius: In Five Books, 1773). His work contributed to the development of historiography as a significant area of inquiry away from previous leanings toward didacticism. Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Silius Italicus, Tiberius Catius AsconiusSilius Italicus, Tiberius Catius Asconius (Roman poet) Italicus (25 or 26-101 c.e. ), a Latin epic poet and politician, authored a seventeen-volume epic on the Second Punic War, entitled Punica (Punica, with an English Translation, 1934). Appianos, also known as AppianAppian (Greek historian) Appian, a second century c.e. Greek historian, authored Romaica (Appian’s Roman History, 1912-1913), a history of Rome and its conquests, including that of Carthage.

A more modern work that provides an interesting analysis of the origins of the First and Second Punic Wars using ancient sources exclusively is B. D. Hoyos’s Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars (1997). Hoyos uses Roman historical writers such as Polybius, among others, to look deeply into the origins of the conflict between Carthage and Rome. The tightly argued historical analysis reexamines both ancient evidence and recent findings about the origins of the Punic Wars and the major personalities and events of the great struggle.CarthageRome;CarthagePunic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)Punic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)Punic War, Third (149-146 b.c.e.)Africa;Carthage

Books and Articles
  • Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars. London: Hutchinson, 1990.
  • Bradford, Ernle. Hannibal. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
  • Campbell, Duncan B. Ancient Siege Warfare: Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans, 546-146 B.C. Illustrated by Adam Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2004.
  • Cornell, Tim, Boris Rankov, and Philip Sabin, eds. The Second Punic War: A Reappraisal. London: Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 1996.
  • De Beer, Sir Gavin. Hannibal: Challenging Rome’s Supremacy. New York: Viking, 1970.
  • _______. Hannibal: The Struggle for Power in the Mediterranean. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.
  • Gabriel Richard. “Carthage, 814-146 b.c.e.” In The Ancient World. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.
  • Hoyos, Dexter. Truceless War: Carthage’s Fight for Survival, 241 to 237 B.C. Boston: Brill, 2007.
  • _______. Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998.
  • Kern, Paul Bentley. “Early Sieges and the Punic Wars.” In Ancient Siege Warfare. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Lazenby, J. F. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1978. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  • Stephenson, Ian. Hannibal’s Army. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Tempus, 2008.
  • Wise, Terence. Armies of the Carthaginian Wars, 265-146 B.C. Illustrated by Richard Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1982.
Films and Other Media
  • Annibale. Feature film. Euro International Film, 1959.
  • Carthage. Documentary. Films for the Humanities, 1990.
  • Carthage: The Roman Holocaust. Documentary. RDF Media, 2004.
  • Decisive Battles: Cannae. Documentary. History Channel, 2005.
  • Hannibal: Rome’s Worst Nightmare. Television film. British Broadcasting Corporation, 2006.

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