The War for Empire: Rome Versus Carthage

On December 5, 2016, the FPI Center for Military and Diplomatic History co-hosted an evening event with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, featuring Dr. Barry Strauss of Cornell University as speaker and Dr. Eric Edelman of CSBA as moderator. Dr. Strauss spoke about his chapter “The War for Empire: Rome versus Carthage,” from the new book “Great Strategic Rivalries from the Classical World to the Cold War,” edited by James Lacey. FPI Intern Oliver Thomas summarizes key points presented by Dr. Strauss during the event.

Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian known for his narration of the Peloponnesian War, maintained that states go to war for three reasons: fear, honor, and interest. Nations often use force pro-actively, rather than reactively. The decision to fight is a product of historically compounded perceptions, one in which fear, honor, or interest boils to the surface, resulting in retaliation against adversaries.

Assessing the origin of enduring strategic rivalries underscores the relevance of Thucydides’ claim. As the micro interests of the state converge with macro structural shifts in the international order, the subsequent shock or disruption often manifests in battle. This process led to long lasting tensions between the great powers of Rome and Carthage.

The Roman-Carthaginian rivalry that culminated in the Punic Wars resulted from burgeoning strategic disputes between the two great powers. Two traditionally amicable republics bound by treaties and geography eventually came to discern expansionist tendencies in one another. As their spheres of influence collided, both Rome and Carthage elbowed for space to pursue respective economic and personal ambitions, and to achieve glory. In particular, Rome could not abide Carthaginian control of key commercial maritime routes such as the Straits of Messina. Nor could Carthage allow continued Roman access to Sicily. Neither state belonged in the other’s imperial vision.

Believing their security to be endangered, both nations consolidated forces and called on surrounding allies to assist them in their fight for regional supremacy. The first of the Punic Wars began in 264 BCE over Sicily. Battle forced both sides to face their operational weaknesses. Carthage, a traditional maritime power, adapted its strength to maneuver on land in Southern Italy through raids and asymmetrical warfare. Rome, conversely, initially lacked operational capabilities at sea, which were crucial to defeating Carthage’s assault. Though Carthaginian generals such as Hamiclar Barca displayed tactical prowess, Rome’s naval innovation partnered with growing tensions within the ranks of Carthage’s mercenary force made Roman victory possible.

Carthaginian resentment and pursuit to reclaim its honor in the Mediterranean culminated in the Second Punic War. Hannibal’s expansion into Spanish territory and through the Alps into Northern Italy sparked a Roman response. Hannibal won a number of tactical victories through imaginative use of Numidian cavalry and effective flanking maneuvers. But with an exhausted army and dwindling manpower, Carthage was unable to obtain victory against the staunchly resolute Romans. Rome defeated Hannibal as a result of its political cohesion and the strategic genius of its commander, Scipio Africanus. After consolidating allied forces and acquiring vast swaths of public land, Rome ultimately moved to wipe Carthage off the map in the Third Punic war, ending the conflict in 146 BCE.

As the Punic Wars underscore, political and strategic steadfastness can often overcome tactical finesse. Carthage’s tactical victories failed to yield strategic success while the Romans adapted and used Carthagian setbacks to their advantage. By homing in on Carthaginian weakness in its ally chain, the Romans effectively used Nubian dissidents against their former friend. Carthage also suffered from a blight of hubris within the upper echelons of its military ranks. Hannibal, for example, refused to commit his forces to siege warfare, a tactic he found much less appealing than flashy maneuver warfare. Had such tactics been employed, Carthage could have won a resounding strategic victory over Rome. Roman stoicism, expansive resources, and infrastructural connectivity ultimately trumped Carthaginian naval superiority.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More