The Third Punic War

When Rome defeated Carthage at the end of the 2nd Punic War, they planted the seeds for the future outbreak of hostilities. Of the many peace terms, two were especially restrictive to the defeated Carthaginians: they were forbidden from any military action without prior Roman permission, and they were stripped of all their overseas possessions. A third provision, an indemnity of 10,000 silver talents to be paid annually over 50 years, was intended to be a constant reminder of both their defeat and their subservience to Rome.

But, Rome’s most serious restriction on Carthage was the fact she was forced to share west Africa with her previous subject kingdom, Numidia led by King Massinissa (Figure 1), a friend and ally of Rome. Although embroiled internally with dynastic problems, his mere existence was enough to worry the Carthaginians. Later, when he had finally consolidated his power in Numidia, he was to serve Roman interests (whether purposely or incidentally is unknown) by playing a game of brinkmanship with Carthage (Figure 2).[1]
Figure 1: Massinissa, King of Numidia
Figure 2: Numidia and Carthage

Figure 3: The two man-made harbors of Carthage.

Carthage, having lost both the farms outside Carthage proper and the minerals of Spain, first tried to pay the indemnity by raising taxes. Although Hannibal had initiated some rural reforms, these taxes seriously hampered any potential agricultural recovery. When Carthage’s indemnity payment of 199 BCE was refused due to its poor quality, further reforms were called for. In 196 BCE, Hannibal was elected suffete and initiated the necessary reforms, over the oligarchic objections. Hannibal increased profits by promoting the cultivation of olives in Carthage and eliminated much of the waste endemic in corrupt Carthaginian politics. From this point on, the economic recovery of Carthage seems to be steady. By 191 BCE, Carthage even offered to pay the entire 50 year indemnity at once, after the tenth year.[2] This is also the time period when Carthage built their great harbors to handle the increased trade, since her merchantmen had begun reappearing around the Mediterranean Sea (Figure 3). All in all, a great start to a return to prosperity from such a disastrous defeat!

In the meantime, Rome had many foreign interests after the 2nd Punic War other than a powerless Carthage. First, Rome had to put down an uprising in Gallia Cisalpina by the Boii and Insubres, who resented Roman colonization of the Po River valley. Next, she fought wars against two eastern powers that she felt were threatening Roman interests. King Philip V of Macedon had been reckless enough to ally with Hannibal during the 2nd Punic War. When Rhodes and Pergamum contacted Rome about Philip’s new conquests around the Aegean Sea, Rome declared war. Rome defeated him at Cynoscephalae in 197 BCE, restricting Philip to his homeland. King Antiochus the Great of Syria, utilizing the exile Hannibal’s advice, began to attack allies of Rome in Asia. Rome defeated King Antiochus at the battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE, keeping him entirely out of Asia Minor by treaty. Within little more than a decade, Rome had defeated two major powers and forced its will on the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
When King Philip died, his son King Perseus tried to reestablish Macedonian control of Greece, but was defeated by Rome at the battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, and Rome divided the kingdom into four independent republics. Rome’s incompetent governors of Hispania drove the Spaniards to revolt in 155 BCE, in fighting that would last for two decades. In 150 BCE, Macedonia revolted under Andriscus for the last time, being turned into a province after its defeat. As can be seen, Rome spent the half-century after the 2nd Punic War involved in war after war.[3]

This same half-century saw Carthage concentrating on its agricultural production and trade, while keeping a close eye on Massinissa. By claiming he was simply recovering ancestral lands as allowed by Rome in treaty, every decade Massinissa made some inroad on Carthaginian territory with impunity. Whenever Carthage complained to Rome as required by treaty, visiting Roman ambassadors either supported Massinissa or delayed judgment permanently.[4] One of these embassies (155 BCE) contained Cato the Elder (Figure 4) who began urging the final destruction of Carthage as a threat to Rome’s future existence. Although overstated, Cato’s jealousy of Carthage’s prosperity and fear of possible military resurgence was able to stir up Roman memories of Hannibal. He began ending every speech with his famous quote, “Carthago delenda est”.[5] In response, the Senate sent another embassy (152/151) with Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica who returned a decision against Massinissa for the first time in decades. Scipio Nasica also made his famous argument that it was in Rome’s best interest to keep Carthage as a viable rival, to ensure Rome’s greatness and to check her arrogance.[6]

The year 151 BCE also marked the last payment of the war indemnity owed by Carthage. Since the terms of the 201 BCE treaty had been fulfilled, Carthage felt they should now be free to act unilaterally. Carthage didn’t realize that Rome felt otherwise; a defeated enemy should remain a defeated enemy, and never be allowed to become a threat again.[7]

Figure 4: Cato the Elder.
Figure 5: Utica and Castra Cornelia
Figure 6: Roman camps around Carthage.

Unfortunately, the war-party now gained ascendancy in Carthage and fielded an army against Massinissa’s latest invasion. Although the entire Carthaginian army was destroyed, Rome now realized that her former enemy was again capable of fielding an offensive force and began recruiting her own army of four legions to send into Africa. Realizing their error, Carthage condemned their general, Hasdrubal, who fled, and sent ambassadors to Rome to belatedly complain about Massinissa’s actions. When Carthage received an ambiguous answer, Utica, less than twenty miles north of Carthage, submitted to Rome as a base of operations for the anticipated war in Africa. A frightened Carthage sent a second embassy to Rome and was told to turn over 300 hostages (they did) and they would retain their freedom and their territory.[8]

When the Roman army landed in Africa, at Castra Cornelia outside Utica (Figure 5), Carthage sent yet another embassy to the consuls and was ordered, first, to turn over all their munitions. Carthage meekly acquiesced and sent 200,000 sets of armor, 2,000 pieces of artillery and tons of ammunition. Next, they were told the final demand: to abandon the site of Carthage itself and found a new city, at least 10 miles inland. Although Rome would level the buildings, at least the temples and cemeteries would not be destroyed and could be visited from their new city. When these terms were taken back to the city, the incredulous Carthaginians refused and began preparations for a war to the death.[9]

Although they were surprised that the Carthaginians had finally said “No”, Rome was prepared to back their demands. The consuls, Manius Manlius and Lucius Marcius Censorinus, led their army in two divisions, totaling 80,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, to Carthage (Figure 6).[10] Manlius built a camp at the north end of Carthage’s triple wall (Figure 7), and Censorinus built his camp at the south end. The unimaginative Manlius stormed the walls in a straight frontal attack. Censorinus made a joint attack by land and sea at the south corner of the city where the triple wall gave way to a single wall at the edge of Lake Tunis. Both attacks were surprisingly repulsed, not just once, but twice.[11]

Figure 7: Cross-section of the triple walls of Carthage.
The Carthaginians, incensed by the Romans’ unreasonable demand to abandon their city, had been able to rearm themselves well enough to put up a proper defense. They had communicated with the previously exiled Hamilcar requesting him to return to Carthage’s aid with his field army of 20,000. While the Roman commanders had waited for them to realize the hopelessness of their situation, the Carthaginians had produced hundreds of shields, javelins, and swords every night.[12] So, when the Romans attacked walls they thought defenseless, they were driven back. As the Romans regrouped, Hamilcar defeated a Roman foraging party, killing 500.[13]

After preparing to assault walls they knew would be fiercely defended, Manlius and Censorinus attacked again. Manlius met with no more success storming the triple walls this time than he did the first two times. Censorinus at least changed his tactics, and used two battering rams, one manned by infantrymen, the other by sailors, competing with each other. By the end of the day, two breaches were made, but the Romans were driven back before nightfall. While the Romans went to camp, ready to enter the city in the morning, the Carthaginians did their best to repair the breaches, and even made night sorties to set the battering rams on fire. Although one breach remained open, the Carthaginians gathered just inside and prepared to meet the Romans. At dawn, the Romans recklessly stormed the breach and charged into the city, only to be met with a withering resistance. As they withdrew, they were covered by a cohort led by a young Scipio Aemilianus (Figure 8), the adopted grandson of the great Scipio Africanus.
Figure 8: Scipio Aemilianus.

Now the Romans maintained a loose siege around Carthage, and in Censorinus’ camp they were stricken by disease during the summer. When Censorinus moved his camp south, away from the unhealthy area, he left Manlius alone on the isthmus opposite the triple walls. Censorinus also built a harbor on the edge of the sea, where the Carthaginians were able to cause considerable damage to his fleet with fire boats. After raiding the few remaining allies of Carthage along the coast, Censorinus sailed back to Rome for the consular elections that autumn.[14] Back on the isthmus, Manlius’ camp was attacked one night and only saved from panic by the timely intervention of Scipio Aemilianus once again. From now on, the Roman siege works were raised and Manlius began conducting raids into the interior to prevent provisions from reaching Carthage.

When these efforts failed to reduce Carthage to starvation, Manlius decided to make a major assault at Nepheris against the field army of Hasdrubal before winter arrived. Although the battle was fought to a draw, when the Romans withdrew across a wadi in disorder, Hasdrubal rejoined battle and decimated the Romans. Once more, Scipio Aemilianus saved the Roman army by leading the cavalry against the advancing Carthaginians. When it was reported that four maniples were surrounded by the enemy, Scipio once again led the cavalry to their rescue. The Romans were harassed by Carthaginian cavalry as they were returning to camp and by the Carthaginians as they entered camp. With winter approaching, Manlius withdrew his army to Castra Cornelia.[15]

Over the winter of 149/148, important developments happened in Rome and in Africa. In Rome, Cato the Censor died but not before praising Scipio Aemilianus’ deeds and calling him Rome’s lone bright star in the war so far.[16] In Africa, the 90 year old Massinissa finally died and named Scipio as his executor. Scipio divided the kingdom of Numidia between Massinissa’s three sons, one of whom, Gulussa, led the formidable Numidian cavalry east to join the Roman army against Carthage. Now Rome would have a cavalry to match the Carthaginians’’ for next year’s consul.[17] But before his arrival, Manlius once more mounted an attack against Hasdrubal at Nepheris, once more failed to defeat the Carthaginians, but did receive the defection of Himilco Phameas, a major Carthaginian general.[18] Scipio was sent back to Rome to escort Phameas.

The new consul for 148 BCE, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, chose not to press the siege against Carthage itself, but instead he concentrated on its allies. Although he seized some minor cities, he ended up retiring to winter quarters in Castra Cornelia with no significant victories. These unimpressive results raised the spirits of the Carthaginians to such heights they were beginning to think of victory, not just survival. They sent an embassy to Macedonia offering alliance to Andriscus, a Macedonian pretender leading a rebellion against Rome.[19]

Back in Rome, the lack of success for two years against a supposedly powerless foe, had angered the people. Although Scipio Aemilianus was running for election as Aedile, the people forced the Senate to allow the underage and unqualified Scipio to run for the consulship. With his well-publicized successes in Africa and the support of both his families, Scipio was elected and assigned Africa as his province. He recruited soldiers to refill the legions in Africa, and sailed to Castra Cornelia.[20]

When Scipio arrived in Africa, the admiral Hostilius Mancinus had just assaulted a weakly defended sea wall of Carthage and managed to break into the city. But, no provisions for reinforcements or even food being made, Mancinus’ position was becoming desperate. Scipio freed Carthaginian prisoners to inform the city of his arrival, and led a rescue force that was able to re-embark Mancius’ survivors. Scipio also recalled Calpurnius Piso from his pointless raiding parties in the interior, and as new commander-in-chief, he changed Rome’s strategy.[21]

The only target of the Roman army from now on was the city of Carthage itself. The troops were re-disciplined and the numerous camp followers were driven away. Castra Cornelia was abandoned, and a new camp built at Carthage. Scipio’s first action against the city was an attack at the Megara area of Carthage. Gaining entrance with only a small force, Scipio withdrew. This small setback convinced Carthage to recall Hasdrubal back to the city.[22]

Scipio’s next action was to completely block the isthmus of Carthage with a double line of earthworks, to prevent any food from entering Carthage by land. Then, Scipio had the Romans begin constructing a mole across the entrance to the double harbor of Carthage. The Carthaginians refused to believe Scipio could succeed, but as the mole neared completion, they realized their danger. They cut a new entrance from the harbor out into the sea, and boastfully sailed out a new fleet that Rome was unaware of, and then returned to port. It’s possible they could have destroyed the unmanned Roman fleet; now Rome was aware and would be careful. When the Carthaginians sailed out again a few days later, the Romans were ready and repulsed them. With the mole finished, Scipio was able to position battering rams to break into the harbor and ultimately to seize control of the outer, rectangular harbor. This finally cut all access to Carthage, both by land and by sea.[23]

Scipio next took some troops inland to eliminate the Carthaginian force camped near Nepheris, now led by a Diogenes. After sending one legion to hide at the rear of the enemy camp, Scipio attacked from the front. When the defenders all raced to the front, the Romans in the rear attacked undefended walls and stormed the camp. The Carthaginian survivors fled to Nepheris, but were surrounded and starved out by winter. Now all of those cities still supporting Carthage capitulated and Carthage was alone to face her fate.[24]

As winter passed, Rome chose not to send a new commander, but instead prorogued Scipio’s imperium for another year.[25] Although Carthage’s starvation was just a matter of time, Scipio decided not to wait. In the spring, Scipio mounted a final assault through the harbor sections. As the Romans forced entry into the city, Hasdrubal had the dockyards and warehouses burnt and his troops withdrawn. Carthage built a final defense line centered on the Byrsa. As the Romans advanced they had to advance street by street, house by house into the heart of the city. Although pillaging Roman troops slowed down at times, for six days they neared the Byrsa. On the seventh day, Carthaginian envoys came out begging for their lives to be spared, which Scipio granted. Only 900 deserters and Hasdrubal’s family were left. When Hasdrubal surrendered, he was cursed by the soldiers he abandoned and his wife killed herself and their children. Fifty thousand prisoners were sold into slavery and the city turned over to the soldiers for plundering.[26]

As the city was burned, Scipio was seen to weep and wonder aloud if the same fate awaited Rome. Afterwards, the land of Carthage was cursed, the cities that had supported Carthage were destroyed, and those that supported Rome were rewarded. Utica was made the capital of the new Roman province, Africa.[27]

Annotated Bibliography:
Primary Sources

Appian of Alexander, Roman History. Appian wrote a history of Rome, concentrating on military actions. Only his Civil Wars are extant, but fragments of his other works do survive. One of his most complete books is his Punic Wars, covering from Scipio Africanus’ invasion of Africa in 206 BCE to Augustus’ colonization of Carthage in 44 BCE. The Third Punic War is covered in Books 10-20.
Cassius Dio, Roman History. Cassius Dio wrote a history of Rome in 80 books, from its origins to his present (229 CE). Only about one-third of his work survives, with many additional fragments from Byzantine epitomes and excerpts. Fragments of his chapter 21 on the Third Punic War survive in Zonaras’ History of the World.
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Diodorus Siculus published his work during the time of Octavian, covering world history up to Caesar’s consulship of 59 BCE. His work is a summary in 40 books, using excellent sources to create a straightforward story. Unfortunately, book 32, the Third Punic War, survives in fragments only and concludes the extant remains.
Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Plutarch’s masterpiece consists of 23 pairs of Greeks and Romans matched by Plutarch to illustrate common moral points. Not all are extant in their entirety, being cut short or with gaps. Not primarily concerned with history, Plutarch did include many facts and details about his various subjects not found elsewhere. The most pertinent biography is that of Marcus Cato. The last two chapters of this biography covered the time immediately before the Third Punic War, and detail his role in bringing about this war.
Polybius, The Histories. Originally published in 40 books, only the first 5 books survive in their entirety. As tutor and, later, friend of Scipio Aemilianus, Rome’s hero of the Third Punic War, Polybius was perfectly placed for information on the war, as a witness or confidant. Fragments from books 36 to 39 cover the time period of the Third Punic War.

Florus, Epitome of Roman History. Florus wrote an epitome of Roman history from its foundations to Augustus. Generally considered an abridgement of Livy’s work, it does occasionally use other sources. Probably written during Hadrian’s reign, his work was intended to extol Rome and reflected a division into four ages/eras; infancy (the Roman kingdom), youth (conquest of Italy), maturity (conquest of the Mediterranean), and old age (the Roman empire). Florus felt that Rome’s conquest of Africa (and of Numantia) marked the height of its mature strength, weakened afterwards by the annexation of Asia and the subsequent civil discords. Chapter 31 has one brief chapter devoted to the Third Punic War.
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita. Livy’s great masterpiece covered all Roman history in great detail from Aeneas to Augustus. Written in 142 books, only 35 books survive in their entirety. Even in antiquity, the great length of Livy’s work created a desire for epitomes and summaries, many of which still survive. The books covering the Third Punic War, 48-51, exist only in epitomes, called Periochae.
Florus’ single chapter and the brief Periochae of Livy could easily be used in Latin classes.

Online Sources
All of the above authors are available online in English translation.
Boise State University has an illustrated site with many articles on Carthage versus Rome. Included is this one on the Third Punic War.
United Nations of Roma Victrix has a web site dedicated to the Third Punic War exclusively.
Wikipedia has a web site dedicated to the Third Punic War exclusively.

Secondary Sources for Teachers
There are no texts devoted entirely to the Third Punic War, but there are books which have substantial sections covering the time period after 200 BCE up to and including the Third Punic War.
Astin, Alan E., Cato the Censor. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1978.
A full biography on Cato the Censor, this book covers in some detail the situation between Carthage and Massinissa, and his role in bringing about the Third Punic War.
Astin, Alan E., Scipio Aemilianus. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967.
A full biography on Scipio Aemilianus, this book covers in some detail the situation between Carthage and Massinissa, and his role in conducting the Third Punic War.
Bagnall, Nigel, The Punic Wars, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Bagnall briefly covers all three Punic Wars, with two chapters devoted to the lead up to and conduct of the Third Punic War.
Caven, Brian, The Punic Wars, St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
Caven covers all three Punic Wars, with three chapters devoted to the lead up to and conduct of the Third Punic War.
Goldworthy, Adrian, The Punic Wars, Cassell & Co., 2000.
Goldworthy covers all three Punic Wars, with four chapters devoted to the lead up to and conduct of the Third Punic War.

Secondary Sources for Students
The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 8, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
The CAH treats the Third Punic War as an episode between the end of the Second Punic War. But it does have 20 Pages in Chapter 5; fifteen pages on the buildup, five pages on the actual war.

  1. ^
    The terms of the treaty at the end of the Second Punic War are covered in Bagnall, Nigel, The Punic Wars, St. Martin’s Press, 1990, pp. 297-8; and Caven, Brian, The Punic Wars, St. Martin’s Press, 1980, pp. 254-5; Goldworthy, Adrian, The Punic Wars, Cassell & Co., 2000, pp. 308-9. Carthage’s troubles with Massinissa are covered in Astin, Alan E., Scipio Aemilianus, pp. 49-51. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967, pp. 49-51 and Astin, Alan E., Cato the Censor. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 283-6.
  2. ^
    Bagnall, pg. 304; Caven, pg. 264.
  3. ^
    Macedonia, Bagwell, pg. 260. Goldworthy, pg. 321.
  4. ^
    Bagnall, pp. 305-6; Caven, pp.263-70.
  5. ^ Plutarch, Life of Cato 27.
  6. ^ Appian, Roman History, 10.69.
  7. ^
    Goldworthy, pp. 332-3.
  8. ^
    Bagnall, pg. 308; Caven, pp. 273-4; Goldworthy, pg. 338.
  9. ^
    Bagnall, pg. 309; Caven, pp. 275; Goldworthy, pg. 338-9.
  10. ^
    Appian, Roman History, 11.75.
  11. ^ Bagnall, pg. 313-4; Caven, pp. 277-8; Goldworthy, pg. 341.
  12. ^ Bagnall, pg. 309; Caven, pg. 276.
  13. ^ Caven, pg. 278; Goldworthy, pg. 341.
  14. ^
    Bagnall, 314; Caven, pg. 278.
  15. ^
    Goldworthy, pg. 343-4.
  16. ^
    Plutarch, Life of Cato 27.
  17. ^ Appian, Roman History, 16.105-7.
  18. ^ Appian, Roman History, 16.107.
  19. ^
    Piso Caesonius, Bagnall, pg. 316; Caven, pp. 280-1; Goldworthy, pg. 346. Carthaginian elation and embassy to
    Andriscus, Caven, pg. 281.
  20. ^
    Astin (67), pp. 61-9; Bagnall, 316; Caven, pg. 278-283; Goldworthy, pp. 343-6.
  21. ^
    Bagnall, pg. 316; Caven, pg. 283; Goldworthy, pp. 347-8.
  22. ^
    Caven, pg. 284-5; Goldworthy, pp. 348-9.
  23. ^
    Bagnall, pp. 316-7; Caven, pp. 385-7; Goldworthy, pg. 349.
  24. ^
    Bagnall, pp. 317-8; Caven, pp. 287-8; Goldworthy, pg. 351.
  25. ^
    Astin (67), pp. 73-4; Caven, pg. 288.
  26. ^ Bagnall, pp. 318-9; Caven, pp. 288-90; Goldworthy, pp. 351-3.
  27. ^
    Astin (67), pg. 77; Bagnall, pg. 320; Goldworthy, pg. 354.