Third Punic War

The Third Punic War, the last of a series of wars between Rome and Carthage, ended with the utter destruction of Carthage.

Summary of Event

After victories in two long wars (264-241 b.c.e. and 218-201 b.c.e.), Rome had reduced Carthage to a cipher and had imposed on the defeated North African city-state a peace treaty of grinding severity. Seizing Carthaginian possessions in Spain and requiring an enormous indemnity of 10,000 talents paid out over fifty years, Rome reduced the formidable Carthaginian navy to just ten ships and forbade the city to ever again make war without permission. Prostrate before the overwhelming military might of Rome, hedged in by Roman Spain and Sicily to the north and Roman clients in North Africa, Carthage no longer posed the slightest threat to its menacing imperial neighbor. A third Punic War was inconceivable. Cato the Censor
Scipio Aemilianus

However, Carthage had not been erased from history, for the city itself was virtually untouched by decades of warfare, did not suffer Roman occupation, and maintained control of a prosperous North African hinterland. For the next half century, its half-million residents minded their own affairs to their immense profit. As the enterprising middlemen between Africa and the Mediterranean, they restored their lucrative maritime trade and tended their abundant fields of grains, fruits, olives, and livestock. Relieved of the burden of military spending, they grew rich. Carthage had lost its wars, but in the covetous and apprehensive eyes of certain Romans, it had won the peace, and no one knew if the future might bring a reversal of fortunes.

Meanwhile, along the eastern edges of Carthage, the Numidians under Masinissa, Rome’s ally in the region, took advantage of their rival’s military incapacity to poach territory along its borders. Bound by the treaty of 201 b.c.e., the Carthaginians’ only recourse was protest to the unsympathetic Romans. After one of these periodic Carthaginian petitions, a Roman delegation arrived in North Africa in 153 to investigate. Among their number was Cato the Censor (also called Cato the Elder), a senator and former consul who came away unsettled by the wealth of Carthage and stirred to action. No matter the subject, every speech Cato gave in the Senate ended with the words “Carthage must be destroyed.” His hatred for Carthage and hunger for revenge for events long past, especially the ravages of Hannibal (247-182 b.c.e.) during the Second Punic War, never abated. Moreover, the prospects of conquering an enemy of great riches whetted the appetites of Roman politicians, generals, and common soldiers alike, each of whom stood to profit from the looting that inevitably followed conquest. From several influential quarters, then, pressure mounted for a preemptive strike.

To satisfy the growing clamor for war, all that was needed was a sufficient provocation, which, in 151 b.c.e., Masinissa provided by goading the Carthaginians into violating the treaty of 201. In response to the Numidian’s siege of one of its towns, Carthage raised twenty-five thousand troops to sally to its rescue. Even though the Carthaginian army was trounced, it had handed Rome its pretext. Panicked, the Carthaginian senate made a last-ditch effort to stave off ruination, sending envoys to Rome in 149 to offer unconditional surrender. They arrived too late; the senate had already declared war. What would be the price of peace? the unnerved delegates asked. They listened, horrified, as the Romans demanded three hundred young sons of the ruling class as hostages and reserved the right to impose further conditions in due time.

At heartbreaking expense, Carthage had frustrated the Roman design to force a war, but its groveling acceptance of Roman bullying only delayed the inevitable, for when the consuls swept into North African ports they came with secret orders from the senate to lay the city waste. The Roman army of more than eighty thousand supervised the surrender of all weapons, and the Carthaginians, disarmed and presumably powerless to resist, awaited the final Roman stipulation, so cagily withheld from the Carthaginian embassy. Soon the Romans produced their impossible demand: The people of Carthage must abandon the city and settle 10 miles (16 kilometers) inland. For a seafaring people dependent on the trade of the Mediterranean, acquiescence would have been tantamount to collective suicide, as the Romans had calculated it to be. The Carthaginians grimly took up newly forged arms and set their minds to a ferocious defense.

In the early stages of the fighting in 149 b.c.e., the Romans campaigned complacently and failed to drive their enemies’ armies from before the city walls. Nor could they break the Carthaginian resolve to resist; women sheared their hair to make rope for catapults. Progress was also slow in 148, in spite of a temporary penetration of the city’s walls. Finally, with the offensive stalled, Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted son of Scipio Africanus (the great hero of the Second Punic War), assumed command of the army in 147, drove the Carthaginians into the city, and built a barrier across the harbor to isolate Carthage from escape or resupply. In an audacious counterstroke, the Carthaginians constructed a fleet while excavating a new channel into the harbor. Even these heroic efforts were for naught, however. When the improvised navy issued forth, it squandered the advantage of surprise by a vainglorious display and then fought poorly. The last hope of Carthage drowned with her sailors.

In 146, Scipio carried the walls. To his astonishment, his storming of the ramparts did not lead to surrender but to bitter house-to-house fighting, an unusual occurrence in ancient warfare, when the capture of a city’s walls normally brought prompt surrender and pitiable supplications for mercy. The adaptable legions learned to avoid the streets and instead clambered from rooftop to rooftop with gangplanks. Attacking from top floors down, they rooted out and slaughtered all before them. For six hard days, the Romans mopped up the harbor district and, on the seventh, closed on the last stronghold, a heavily defended citadel called the Byrsa. Scipio offered all who surrendered there their lives and, spent from exhaustion and hunger, fifty thousand Carthaginians staggered from the redoubt to be sold into slavery. Remaining behind were nine hundred Roman deserters who could expect no quarter and who made their last stand from the roof of the temple of Eshmoun, where, cornered and determined to avoid capture, they set it afire and perished. Resistance at an end, the Romans pulled down the 22 miles (35 kilometers) of walls and all the buildings. After plundering to their satisfaction, they torched the rubble, which burned furiously for at least ten days, perhaps seventeen, depending on which Roman historian is to be believed.

As Carthage burned, Scipio is reported to have wept, not out of remorse for his actions or because he pitied the Carthaginians but for fear that the same fate might someday befall Rome. As for the moment, however, Carthage was subsumed into the new Roman province of Africa and much of its richest farm fields bought for a song by the rich Roman landowners who had pressed for one last war. Both Julius Ceasar (100-44 b.c.e.) and Augustus (63 b.c.e.-14 c.e.) rebuilt on the ruins and in 29 b.c.e. the Romans were calling their city Augustus Colonia Julia Carthago, the administrative headquarters of Roman Africa. In 439 c.e., the Vandals occupied it, and two hundred years later, Arab armies destroyed the city a second time.


Overseas prizes in three Punic Wars set Rome on the path of empire but at the cost of its republic, whose institutions and virtues could not stand the strain of vast imperial expansion. Two thousand years after the Third Punic War, Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821-1891), a German medievalist, wrote that the Romans crowned their rampage of 146 by plowing under the smoldering ruins of Carthage with salt so nothing would ever again grow there, but no ancient historian substantiates the claim. Even though this often-repeated story of the city’s final indignity is untrue, Carthage could have hardly endured a more humiliating and permanent exodus from history. Its Phoenician culture and heritage ended in the flames of its defeat, never to rise from its ashes. The stories, the myths, and the epics the Carthaginians may have written as a testimony to their existence were also consumed in fire; thus, their seven-hundred-year history—including their Armageddon—is known not in their authentic voice but almost entirely through the trumpeting of their most ominous foe and the destroyer of their civilization, the Romans.

Further Reading

  • Appian. Roman History. Translated by Horace White. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. A Roman account written more than a century after the event.
  • Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars, 264-146 b.c.
    Oxford, England: Osprey, 2002. A brief introduction to the economies, governmental institutions, religions, and military establishments of Rome and Carthage. Bibliography and index.
  • Coulston, J., and M. Bishop. Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome. London: Batsford, 1993. A handsomely illustrated study of military technology.
  • Dorey, Thomas. Rome Against Carthage. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. Stresses the clash of cultures and the Roman tendency of aggressive defense. Bibliography and index.
  • Lloyd, Alan. Destroy Carthage! The Death Throes of an Ancient Culture. London: Souvenir, 1977. Reconstructs Carthaginian culture so far as Roman sources and modern archaeology allow. Bibliography and index.
  • Nardo, Don. The Punic Wars. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1996. A good introduction for young readers. Maps and illustrations.
  • Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin, 1980. An eyewitness account of the sacking of Carthage by a friend and tutor of Scipio Aemilianus.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Cato the Censor; Hamilcar Barca; Hannibal; Masinissa; Polybius; Scipio Aemelianus; Scipio Africanus. Punic War, Third (149-146 b.c.e.)