The Third Punic War


The Third Punic war between Rome and Carthage ended in catastrophic capitulation for Carthage. Severely weakened by her recent war with Numidia, Carthage was in no state to fight a war. Even though the siege on her city lasted for three years, the defeat was imminent from the very beginning. The war was essentially an attack by Rome, and the Carthagians, having been weakened in

In this paper I will discuss, based on readings from ancient and modern historians, the reasons why the Romans declared war on Carthage, and whether these reasons were valid, and finally I will give my own analysis as to why I believe the Romans went to war.

Background to the war: Was there a threat on Rome’s security?

According to Harris (1979), if there was any threat on Rome’s security and on the prosperity of Rome vis-à-vis that of Carthage, then this must have been a most exaggerated threat indeed.  Carthage had just finished fifty years of war indemnity payments to the Romans. This had weakened their commercial and economic standing over the half century it took to make this payment. Carthagians had tried, under very difficult circumstances, to adhere to the terms of the peace accord signed with the Romans to end the Second Punic wars. Therefore the threat on Rome’s security was virtually non-existent.

Astin (1967) argues that if there was any threat on Rome, then it must have come from neighboring Numidia, and that Carthage was simply a proxy for Rome, with the ultimate aim of the Romans being that of neutralizing Numidia’s King Massinissa. Massinissa had recently embarked on many expansionists’ campaigns and Astin postulates that this may have made the authorities in Rome uneasy. And therefore when Massinissa defeated Carthage in the war between the two States in 149 BC, the Romans jumped into the fray in order to prevent their erstwhile ally Massinissa from occupying Carthage and therefore gaining a territorial foothold on Rome’s area of interest. Walsh (1965) however differs with this argument from Astin. According to his historical analysis, Numidia was not very advanced economically and politically as to cause jitters in Rome. Massinissa had also been Rome’s trusted ally and had fought on Rome’s side in many wars before, and as he again did in the Rome’s war against Carthage. Numidia was also a primarily agricultural society, and Rome’s main area of interest was in the merchant trades, which Carthage was primarily involved in. Massinissa must also have been very careful not to engage in any wars that would cause concern in Rome, and he always sought Rome’s blessings before he engaged in any territorial conquests. This was because even though they were allies, Numidia was in practice a very junior ally and all the authority in this partnership originated from Rome.

Therefore even if the fear was rightly from Carthage and not Numidia, was this fear justified? Harris (op.cit) offers evidence on the contrary. The Carthagians had surrendered their weapons to the Romans before the Third Punic War began, if not for any other reason, the Romans should have let the Carthagians be for this one. The enemy had no weapons, at least not for use in the near future. The Romans are shown to have a deep rooted hatred for Carthagians that lasted for generations, and this might explain there reluctance to listen to the protestations from Carthage is regards there justification (or lack thereof) for attacking Carthage. Rome was also the emerging power in the entire continent and was well equipped to counter any threat from Carthage on the battlefield, if it ever came to that. Therefore the Romans went to war and pulverized Carthage for reasons other than the presence of a threat. The foregoing discussion clearly points out that there was no immediate threat to the security and interests of Rome, at least not from Carthage.


Rome Goes to War: An analysis of possible reasons.

Since many Historians are of the view that Carthage posed no immediate threat to Rome, there must have been other reasons for Romans to desire to completely annihilate Carthage. According to ancient historian Diodorus (*), Rome had simply abandoned its previous policy of justice and fairness towards her neighbors and had undertaken a policy of ruthless war campaigns to acquire territories and expand her territorial reign. Romans had previously won the respect and admiration of various states to its democratic principles and the fairness with which it treated its vanquished opponents. Diodorus argues that in light of the fact that Carthage had been willing to acquiesce to nearly all the demands that Rome had set for them in order to desist from attacking, Rome had, as a matter of policy, decided to completely destroy Carthage. The example of Corinth, which was conquered and razed to the ground by the Romans, is given. Perceus was also attacked looted to extinction by the Romans.

Rich (1993) also paints a picture of a Rome that has been overcome by pride and territorial greed that knew no bounds. The Romans were now only interested in territorial expansion at any cost, and would brook no opposition in this quest. This is why Carthage, completely at a disadvantage and begging for peace, was like the other cities before her, razed to the ground. Ancient historian Appian (*) also records that before the commencement of hostilities the Carthagians had acquiesced to the outrageous demands of the Romans that the Romans had set for cessation of hostilities. This included the delivery of three hundred hostages for Roman, these hostages being the children of noble persons of Carthage. The Carthagians were also required to pay a huge fine for allegedly violating the terms for the peace accord signed to end the Second Punic war, which was largely untrue because the Carthagians had not violated any term. The charge that the Carthagians had violated the terms by raising an army was unsound because, as Harris (op.cit) argues, the peace terms did not forbid Carthage from having an army. The accusation of recruiting for the navy was itself a blatant lie by the Romans, and in any case, the Carthagians were willing to surrender their weapons.

The only condition that would satisfy Rome was if the Carthagians were willing to move out of their city and territory and move about fifteen kilometers inland. This would obviously present a challenge of gargantuan proportions to the Carthagians. Carthage was the city that they had built and had lived in for all their lives. There families were comfortably living there and their entire lifestyles had been built around the strategic location of the city. Carthagians were mostly engaged in the merchant business and the location of the city near the coast was of great economic significance to the people of Carthage. To move fifteen kilometers inland would expressly mean the abandonment of their merchant businesses and the adoption of an agricultural based economic activity which Carthagians had very little knowledge of.  In essence the Romans were asking the Carthagians to abandon their city, their homes, their businesses and then move to a different environment altogether and then start over; build new homes, acquire new friends and neighbors and then begin on a new economic activity that they had very little knowledge of.

The Romans might as well have asked them to grow wings and fly out into space, because this demand was the one that Carthagians could not comply with. To move would be suicidal for them. They refused to accept this outrageous demand, and the third Punic war began.



Territorial and Economic expansion: The Ultimate Reason for War.

            Ancient historians Pliny (*) and Plutarch (*) portray the picture of a Rome that had only on thing as its mission, expansion. Through the insinuations of the gifted orator Cato, the Romans were made to view the Carthagians as the enemy. Carthagians were portrayed as prospering at the expense of the Romans. In a dramatic gesture in the senate – a gesture many historians believe was the final push for war that unconvinced senators needed – Cato came with a plant in parliament and illuminated its healthy qualities and told a captive senate that it had come from their “enemies”, the Carthagians.

Indeed one can clearly discover that the issue of war and the destruction of Carthage was a foregone conclusion for the Romans. Appian (op.cit) points put that even as the Carthagians begged the Romans to reconsider their decision to go to war, they were told that the matter of razing the city was a resolved matter.  Harris (op.cit) argues that the Romans were envious of the merchant business that the Carthagians were engaged in, and the Romans knew that with the Carthagians out of the way (either by moving fifteen kilometers inland or having their city and its population decimated) the Romans would quickly move in and take up the trade.

Many historians also acknowledge an element of deep seated hatred towards the Carthagians by the Romans. Having fought many wars (fist and second Punic wars), the then contemporary generation of Romans were always deeply resentful of the Carthagians and their prosperity in trade. The war itself had the Romans – after a three year siege – engage in a massacre of genocidal proportions as they slaughtered unarmed men, women and children. As Rome was an emerging continental power, a foothold in the merchant business would be very advantageous, not to mention the strategic location of Carthage that would ensure they could effectively defend their territory when attacked from the seas. Therefore Cato was simply fanning nationalistic and chauvinistic flames with his acts. He was reputed to end every discussion he was involved in with a statement about the need to destroy Carthage. This was whether the discussion was related to Carthage or not. Although ancient historians Livy (*) and Plutarch (op.cit) portray the life of Cato as that of n honest man, his statements and acts contributed to the destruction of the city of Carthage and the subsequent spilling of a lot of innocent blood.

Ancient Historian Polybius (*) postulates that one of the reasons that contributed to Rome’s greatness was its nascent cultural diversity. Rome drew strength from the diversity of its citizens and many of the nations that were defeated by Rome in war were subsequently absorbed into Roman ways, bringing about this rich cultural mix. The Carthagians were not to suffer the same fate, they were slaughtered, they city razed to the ground and those who survived were sold into slavery. This indicates that the Romans harbored hatred towards the Carthagians, and wanted to gain their territory so as to deny them their very livelihood.

Carthage was attacked by Rome immediately after losing the war against King Massinissa of Numidia. The reason why Carthage and Numidia went to war in the first place was because King Massinissa had for a long time been deliberately acquiring territorial lands belonging to Carthage. As has been discussed here, King Massinissa was a very strong ally of the Romans, and as he plundered the lands belonging to the Carthagians, the Romans allowed it to happen and did not restrain him. Therefore Carthage here is twice deliberately provoked to war through no fault of her own. Once Carthage has been defeated by the Numidians, the Romans then enter the fray and completely destroy an already weakened enemy. There is a diabolic pattern that seems to emerge from the chronology of these events, and it may well be that Rome had all along plotted to destroy Carthage and acquire sole rights to the Carthagians thriving merchant business. The aristocrats in Rome were very keen on expansion and increasing trading options and the erstwhile enemies the Carthagians were a hindrance which had to be overcome.

To begin with the Romans accused the Carthagians of violations they clearly did not commit, this coming in the wake of the Carthagians having just finished paying war reparations faithfully to the Romans for nearly a half a century. The Romans then allowed an ally of theirs in the form of King Massinissa to provoke the Carthagians to war even when the King is clearly the aggressor. The Romans then begin to make a series of outrageous demands on the Carthagians, a host of which are faithfully met by the Carthagians in order to avoid a costly war. In the end the Romans make a demand which they very well knew could not be easily met, and when this state of Roman directed Impasse occurs, the Romans attack their disadvantage adversaries, laying a three year siege on their city and finally gaining entry and massacring all persons still alive.























Astin, A.E., (1967). “Preliminaries to the third Punic war,” in Scipio Aemiliunus. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 270-281.

Walsh, P.G. (1965). “Massinissa,” Journal of Roman Studies. Vol 55(1) 149-160

Harris, W. (1979) “The wars of 219-70 BC,” in War and imperialism in Republican Rome 327-70 BC. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 234-241

Rich, J. (1993). Ch 2: Fear ,greed and glory: The Causes of Roman war making in the middle republic. J. Rich and G.Shipley eds. War and Society in the roman world. NY: Routledge. 38-68

Pliny. (1953) “Book XV,” in Natural history. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 338-341

Livy. (1940). “Perocha summaries” in Livy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 88-95.

Diodorus, siculus. (1967). “Book XXXII,” in Diodorus of Sicily. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 410-437.



















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