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Mediterranean Chronology

The Second Punic War

218-202 BC

The Second Punic War, fought between Carthage and the Roman Republic from 218-202 BC, marked the end of major Carthaginian military opposition to Rome. The term "punic" comes from the Latin "poeni," which means "Phoenician" and refers to the Carthaginians. After the end of the First Punic War in 241 BC, Carthage decided to concentrate on controlling Spain to gain direct control over its mineral resources and to mount an army of the inhabitants to go against the Roman legions. This policy was started by the great leadership of Hamilcar Barca and continued under his son, Hannibal. In the Second Punic War, with his masterful war tactics, Hannibal wreaked havoc all over Italy under harsh conditions. No Roman commander was able to successfully match his army even though they mounted more numerous and experienced armies. In the end, Roman perseverance was the key, though. Carthage failed to supply Hannibal with needed reinforcements and Rome began to attack Carthage forcing Hannibal to return and defend it. With a stronger and more experienced army, the Roman commander Scipio was able to defeat Hannibal and conquer Carthage, ending the war. Carthage was then stripped of much of its power and was never again a formidable opponent to Rome.

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The Second Punic War

In 218 BC, Hannibal took control of the Greek city and Roman ally, Saguntum, and set up a strong Carthaginian base there. Immediately after hearing the news of Saguntum's fall, Rome declared war on Carthage. From his new base at Saguntum, Hannibal planned to march across the Pyrenees and the Alps in winter to surprise the Roman army. Along the way, Hannibal recruited reinforcements from the warlike Celtic tribes who hated Rome. To maintain his hold in Spain, Hannibal left about 20,000 men under the control of his brother Hasdrubal. After crossing the Rhone, Hannibal avoided conflict with the Roman commander Scipio by turning northward up the Rhone River valley. He then pressed his army through the wintry climate of the Alps. Hannibal lost over half of his men and most of his elephants due to the cold climate and unexpected resistance from mountain tribes. He reached the Po River Valley with about 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and a few elephants. However, Hannibal was able to increase the size of his army to about 30,000 by recruiting Gauls.

The Roman general Scipio caught up with Hannibal after he reached Italy in April of 217 BC. Scipio encountered Hannibal in a few battles including the first major battle, the Battle of Lake Trebia, in which Hannibal severely routed the Romans. Hannibal then pressed farther into Italy by crossing the snowy Apennine Mountains. During this trek Hannibal suffered an eye infection from which he lost the sight in one of his eyes. Learning of the approach of the headstrong Roman general, Flaminius, Hannibal set up an ambush near Lake Trasimene to head off the ensuing army. The Battle of Lake Trasimene resulted in a slaughter of a Roman army in which approximately 30,000 Romans, including Flaminius, were killed.

Hannibal's successes convinced the dictator of the Roman Senate, Quintus Fabius, that he could not defeat Hannibal on the battlefield. He decided instead to conduct a campaign of delays and harassment. Hannibal enticed the Romans, but few accepted the challenge. Rome began to gather a large army of about 80,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry to attack Hannibal in one large onslaught. Hannibal, who had about 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, fervently accepted the challenge. The two forces met near Cannae on August 2, 216 BC. The Roman general Varro decided to crush his opponent with shear numbers. He doubled the number of Hannibal's men and attacked him head-on. Hannibal, on the other hand, used his superior battle tactics to overwhelm the Romans. The heavy Carthaginian cavalry swiftly crushed the Roman cavalry, but the Roman infantry began to force the Carthaginians back to the river. Then suddenly, amidst Roman cries of victory, Hannibal signaled the commanders of his wings to wheel inward against the Romans while the Carthaginian cavalry attacked the rear. With this tactic Hannibal encircled the entire Roman army. The Roman cries of victory turned to cries of horror as the Carthaginian army slaughtered the hemmed-in Romans. In the end, over 60,000 Romans, compared to only 6,000 Carthaginians, lay dead. This battle is considered the high point in Hannibal's career. With a considerably smaller army Hannibal was able to defeat the stronger and more skilled Romans.

Rome persevered. New hope was found in the Roman commander, Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Marcellus was able to repulse Hannibal's forces in three separate battles at Nola. Hannibal received a few reinforcements from Carthage around this time, but not enough to risk an attack on Rome. Hannibal's lukewarm support in the senate which was controlled by Hanno, his father's old political opponent, combined with Roman naval superiority prevented any reinforcements from arriving in bulk. After a series of inconclusive battles with Marcellus, Hannibal decided to focus on capturing the seaport city of Tarentum. Fighting continued between the two sides with Hannibal continuing to defeat the Romans in the majority of the battles. However, Hannibal could not win a decisive battle against Marcellus. Short of men, Hannibal waited in Tarentum for the arrival of reinforcements from his brother Hasdrubal. Rome then recaptured Tarentum from Hannibal. However, Hannibal continued to hold off the far more numerous and efficient Roman armies.

Hasdrubal responded to Hannibal's orders for reinforcements by marching to Italy from Spain where he had been engaged in battles with the Roman commander Scipio. As he was on his way to reach Hannibal he was ambushed by a Roman army near the Metaurus River. The Romans slaughtered the Carthaginians in their first major victory of the war. Hasdrubal was one of the more than 10,000 Carthaginians that died in the Battle of Metaurus in 207 BC. Meanwhile, Scipio retook control of Spain and prepared for an invasion of North Africa. After Scipio invaded North Africa and defeated the Carthaginians near Utica, the Carthaginian Senate sent for Hannibal in 203 BC. After Hannibal returned, Carthage rallied to form a new army under him. In 202 BC, with about 45,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, Hannibal marched inland to Zama away from Carthage to draw Scipio away from the capital. Scipio pursued with about 34,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry. Hannibal now had a considerably weaker cavalry upon which he had depended heavily in his major victories. Consequently, he was unable to execute his favorite tactics in the Battle of Zama. In this battle the Roman cavalry quickly routed the Carthaginian cavalry and then attacked the rear of their infantry, similar to Hannibal's strategy in the Battle of Cannae. The result was the slaughter of Hannibal's army. Although Hannibal escaped, 20,000 Carthaginians died and 15,000 became prisoners. The Romans suffered minimal losses numbering around 1,500.

With the defeat of Hannibal's army, Carthage was forced to sue for peace and to accept Scipio's terms. Carthage handed over all warships and elephants, agreed not to make war without permission of Rome, and agreed to pay Rome 10,000 talents over the next 50 years. Carthage was never again a major threat to Rome.


Map of Second Punic War from Khader and Soren, Carthage: A Mosaic of Ancient Tunisia , p. 32 as found at Carthage University Humanities Classics http://www.carthage.edu/dept/outis/carthage1.html .


Cotterell, Arthur ed., The Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilization (New York; Mayflower Books, 1980)

Dupuy, R. Earnest, The Encyclopedia of Military History (New York; Harper and Row, 1970)

Wetteran, Bruce, World History (New York; Henry, Holt, and Co., 1994)

Edited by: Tait M. Swenson
Researched by: Nathan A. Leafgren
Written by: Joshua E. VerHage
November 25, 1997

Text copyright 1996-2005 by ThenAgain. All rights reserved.

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