The First Punic War broke out after the Romans crossed over to Sicily, ostensibly to support a band of brigands fearful of suppression by Hiero of Syracuse. Their real motivation was to secure a foothold in Sicily for further expansion, though they gravely underestimated the consequences which brought them into conflict with Carthage for possession of the island.
Twenty-three years later the Romans had finally evicted the Carthaginians and a peace treaty was agreed, though it was only to endure for 23 years before Hannibal renewed the contest. Indignant at the lack of support his father had received while contesting Sicily, Hannibal conquered Spain to establish an independent base from which to assault the Roman homeland. After marching his army along the coast from the Pyrenees, Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC to begin the most epic of campaigns, the Second Punic War.
His strategic aim was not the destruction of Rome itself, but the break- up of the confederation it had established throughout Italy by conquest. The cohesive power of Rome lay in its army. If this could be destroyed, then a general uprising might follow, but the problem Hannibal faced was, how to achieve this when the Romans were so much stronger?
In developing his operational plan, Hannibal rejected the time-honoured custom of besieging cities as this would allow the Romans to concentrate against him, while should the cities fall they would have to be defended, leading to a wide dispersion of his force and so its piecemeal destruction. Instead he adopted a manoeuvre-based concept whereby he would fight the Roman army at a time and place of his own choosing.
The first of these battles took place in 217 BC at Lake Trasimene when he set an ambush for the pursuing Romans between the lake and the surrounding amphitheatre of hills. Some 15,000 Romans died, many of them cut down by Hannibal's Numidian cavalry, who rode out into the water to despatch those seeking its shelter.
The battle of Cannae followed the next year, when the Romans massed their legions to smash through Hannibal's extended line but, as the centre sagged, the wings closed round the Roman flanks and the Numidian cavalry assaulted their rear. Some 70,000 Romans fell and the road to Rome lay open. Why Hannibal did not immediately march on the city instead of persevering with his policy of breaking up the Roman Confederation remains a matter for conjecture.
Though a number of cities came over to Hannibal, they were far removed from Rome and the three great allied states surrounding the city remained loyal. Cannae proved to be the pinnacle of Hannibal's fortunes. Thereafter he was thrown on the defensive, with Rome extending the war and Scipio conquering Spain, so depriving Hannibal of his base and ending Carthaginian domination of the western Mediterranean.
In Italy the general uprising Hannibal hoped for still did not occur, so he found himself in the very predicament he had sought to avoid; having to protect widely dispersed cities with an army incapable of simultaneously acting offensively. Driven the length of the peninsula, he was forced back to Africa after the Romans invaded the Carthaginian homeland. Here Scipio's victories left no alternative but for the Carthaginians to sue for peace, one which endured uneasily for 50 years until Rome began the Third Punic War in 149 BC. That ended, three years later, with the destruction of Carthage.
Nigel Bagnall is the author of `The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage and the struggle for the Mediterranean' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)