Second Punic War

The Second Punic War allowed Rome to incorporate the Iberian Peninsula into the Roman Empire and paved the way for Roman domination of the western Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

By 275 b.c.e., Rome controlled the Italian peninsula. The Romans then began to acquire an empire around the Mediterranean. Their expansion south brought them within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of Sicily, where Carthage, a major power situated on the Bay of Tunis on the north coast of Africa, was contending with Greek colonists for control. Its strategic location at the narrowest part of the Mediterranean helped Carthage develop into a great commercial state. Hamilcar Barca
Hasdrubal Barca
Scipio, Gnaeus Cornelius
Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus

To protect and expand its commercial interest, Carthage built one of the largest navies of the time and expanded to include North Africa from Bengazi to Gibraltar, Spain, Portugal, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, and parts of Sicily. With the capture of Malta, the people of Carthage were able to exclude the Greeks, their greatest commercial and colonial rivals, from the western Mediterranean.

Carthage forced the captured peoples to become tribute-paying subjects and failed to win friends and allies as Rome had done in Italy. This unwise policy caused Carthage enormous difficulties and helps explain its defeat. During the wars with Rome, revolts broke out among Carthage’s subject peoples in North Africa and Spain. Even the wealth and commercial domination of Carthage were not enough to fight both internal uprisings and Rome.

Other problems contributing to the Carthaginian defeat resulted from its political and military institutions. Carthage was an oligarchic republic dominated by a small group of wealthy men who were greedy and corrupt. The Carthaginian army was composed of conscripted soldiers from the empire. Their loyalty was questionable. Additionally, Carthaginian generals who won too many battles were considered dangerous and punished, but generals who lost battles were sometimes nailed to the cross. Only the navy, manned by Carthaginians and commanded by experts, was excellent.

During the First Punic War (264-225 b.c.e.), Rome had defeated Carthage, forcing it to surrender Sicily and to pay an indemnity. Carthage’s sea power and its control of the western Mediterranean were lost. Rome became a major sea power and also became politically involved in the western Mediterranean.

Following the war, Rome distrusted Carthage and continued its own imperial expansion. Carthage resented its defeat at the hands of Rome and wanted to regain its former position. To achieve this goal, Carthage turned to Spain as a source of money, men, and supplies. Under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca, general of the Carthaginian army during the First Punic War, and his son-in-law Hasdrubal, Carthage extended its control over most of the Iberian Peninsula south of the Ebro River. Hannibal, eldest son of Hamilcar Barca, took command in Spain after Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221 b.c.e. He continued the Iberian campaign until only the city of Saguntum (Sargunto), a trading partner of Rome’s ally Massilia (Marseille), remained. In 219 b.c.e., Hannibal captured Saguntum, and the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.) began.

Hannibal’s army crosses the Rhône River.

(Library of Congress)

Hannibal had one large, loyal, and well-trained army but had no navy. Roman naval superiority prevented Carthage from transporting large amounts of supplies and men to the Iberian Peninsula and enabled Rome to establish beachheads when and where it wanted. Because Hannibal had only one army and only Spain as a supply base, he chose to create a single front, preferably in Italy. As long as the city of Rome was in danger, the Romans would be forced to concentrate most of their power in Italy. Hannibal also believed that an invasion of Italy would break up the Roman Confederation, and the Roman allies in central and southern Italy would join him against their Roman overlords. Sometime around May 1, 218 b.c.e., Hannibal left New Carthage (Cartagena) with about forty thousand infantry, six thousand cavalry, and sixty elephants to invade Italy. He had crossed the Ebro River, the Pyrenees, and the Rhone River by the middle of August.

Rome planned an offensive war using its naval power. Rome sent an army to Sicily to invade Africa and landed another army under Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio at Massilia, where the Roman army could either invade the Iberian Peninsula or intercept Hannibal in Gaul (modern-day France). The Roman occupation of Massilia, however, was too late to stop Hannibal. When Publius discovered that he had missed Hannibal, he ordered his brother Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio to lead the army to Spain. He returned to Italy to lead the two legions in Cisalpine Gaul against Hannibal as he crossed the Alps.

It is not known what pass Hannibal used to cross the Alps. None of the passes would have been easy, and he lost approximately one-third of his forces to dangerous terrain, deep snow, and the attacks of mountain tribes. When he reached the plain of northern Italy, Hannibal had about twenty-six thousand infantry, four thousand cavalry, and twenty elephants. Nevertheless, the Carthaginians fought well. Between 216 and 212 b.c.e., the Romans suffered a series of defeats that forced them to give up temporarily the idea of invading Africa. In 217 b.c.e., Rome gained control of the coastal waters off Spain and prevented the Carthaginians from using Spain as a supply base or from sending reinforcements to Hannibal in Italy. Hannibal could not win new allies in Italy nor protect those cities that had gone over to him, but he continued to fight in Italy until he was recalled to Carthage to stop the invasion Rome began in 204 b.c.e.

Spain was one of the major areas of the war both on land and sea. In 215 b.c.e., the Scipio brothers defeated Hasdrubal Barca near Iberia. Two years later, the recall of Hasdrubal to Africa to put down a Numidian revolt gave Rome an even greater opportunity to strengthen its position. Many Spaniards went over to Rome. When Hasdrubal returned shortly after Rome captured Saguntum in 211 b.c.e., the Spaniards deserted Rome, and the Carthaginians defeated the Roman army. Publius and Gnaeus were killed in separate battles.

In 210 b.c.e., Scipio Africanus was appointed proconsul and given command of the Roman forces in Spain. He reformed battle tactics and adopted the better weapons of Spain—the short sword and probably the javelin. After extensive training, his army became a more efficient battle force. In 209 b.c.e., New Carthage was captured, giving Rome a strategically located stronghold, money, ships, supplies, weapons, and the ten thousand Spanish hostages held by the Carthaginians. Scipio Africanus earned substantial good will by allowing these hostages to return home with part of the loot. Hasdrubal was defeated in 208 b.c.e., but managed to escape with his army. He joined his brother Hannibal in Italy. Scipio defeated the remaining Carthaginian generals, who were quarreling with each other. By 207 b.c.e., Carthaginian power in Spain was gone, and Rome decided to retain the peninsula to prevent any nation from using the area as a base to invade Italy. Rome also wanted Iberian wealth to help pay for the war.

Rome had difficulty subduing Spain. There were no large kingdoms or states that could be held responsible for collecting taxes or maintaining order. The interior had not been effectively controlled by Carthage or even explored. The tribes in the interior had long raided the richer and more civilized areas controlled by Carthage and now by Rome. Rome had to conquer the peninsula to actually control it or to benefit from its wealth.

Spain was divided by mountains into many small communities and separated clans. Communications and access were difficult. Rome could not conquer the tribes in a few battles. Even though the Second Punic War ended in 201 b.c.e., the Spaniards continued to fight the Romans until 133 b.c.e., and even then Spain was not fully subdued.


Although Rome won the Second Punic War, the conditions of its treaty with Carthage were punitive and soon led to Carthaginian discontent. Fifty years after the end of the Second Punic War, the Third Punic War broke out when Carthage rearmed itself, against the terms of its treaty with Rome, and attempted to win back what it had lost. However, by this time Carthage was a spent force and was defeated so roundly that the Romans leveled the city and, according to tradition, sowed the site of Carthage with salt to prevent anything from ever growing there again.

The Punic Wars were seminal in setting Rome on the road to an empire. By defeating one of the largest trading empires in the world, Rome acquired its commercial interests and had to develop a bureaucracy to administer its new possessions or else lose them to the next aggressor.

Further Reading

  • Crawford, Michael. The Roman Republic. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Places the conquest of Spain in the context of the Roman expansion into the eastern and western Mediterranean. Includes a list of important dates.
  • Daly, Gregory. Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War. New York: Routledge, 2001. The Battle of Cannae, in which Hannibal defeated the much larger Roman army, has become known as one of the most strategically important and destructive battles of the ancient world. This account both covers the technical aspects of the battle and provides a vivid picture of the experience of war from the soldier’s point of view.
  • Hoyos, B. D. Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1998. Provides the political background to the Punic Wars in extensive detail. Maps, bibliography, and indexes.
  • Lazenby, J. F. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. A detailed history of the campaigns of the war, focusing on the battle of military wits between Hannibal and Scipio.
  • Prevas, John. Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy and the Second Punic War. New York: DaCapo Press, 2001. Focuses on the logistics of Hannibal’s transalpine invasion. Includes a list of key figures, a chronology, a select bibliography, and index.

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Hamilcar Barca; Hannibal; Scipio Africanus. Punic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)