The World of the Ancient Carthaginians - Warfare
First Sicilian war
Carthage's economic successes, and its dependence on shipping to conduct most of its trade, led to the creation of a powerful Carthaginian navy. This, coupled with its success and growing hegemony, brought Carthage into increasing conflict with the Greeks of Syracuse, the other major power contending for control of the central Mediterranean.
The island of Sicily, lying at Carthage's doorstep, became the arena on which this conflict played out. From their earliest days, both the Greeks and Phoenicians had been attracted to the large island, establishing a large number of colonies and trading posts along its coast, battles had been fought between these settlements for centuries.
By 480 BC, Gelo, the tyrant leader of Greek Syracuse, backed in part by support from other Greek city-states, was attempting to unite the island under his rule. This imminent threat could not be ignored, and Carthage — possibly as part of an alliance with Persia, then engaged military force, under the leadership of the general Hamilcar. Traditional accounts give Hamilcar's army a strength of three hundred thousand men; though these are almost certainly exaggerated, it must nonetheless have been of formidable force.
En route to Sicily, however, Hamilcar suffered losses (possibly severe) due to poor weather. Landing at Panormus (modern-day Palermo), Hamilcar spent 3 days reorganizing his forces and repairing his battered fleet. The Carthaginians marched along the coast to Himera, and made camp before engaging in the Battle of Himera. Hamilcar was either killed during the battle or committed suicide in shame. As a result the nobility negotiated peace and replaced the old monarchy with a republic.
Second Sicilian War
By 410 BC, Carthage had recovered after serious defeats. It had conquered much of modern day Tunisia, strengthened and founded new colonies in North Africa, Hanno the Navigator's journey down the African coast, and Himilco the Navigator's exploration of the European Atlantic coast. Although, in that year, the Iberian colonies seceded — cutting off Carthage's major supply of silver and copper — Hannibal Mago, the grandson of Hamilcar, began preparations to reclaim Sicily, while expeditions were also led into Morocco and Senegal, and also into the Atlantic.
In 409 BC, Hannibal Mago set out for Sicily with his force. He was successful in capturing the smaller cities of Selinus (modern Selinunte) and Himera, before returning triumphantly to Carthage with the spoils of war. But the primary enemy, Syracuse, remained untouched and, in 405 BC, Hannibal Mago led a second Carthaginian expedition to claim the entire island. This time, however, he met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the siege of Agrigentum, the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague, Hannibal Mago himself succumbing to it. Although his successor, Himilco, successfully extended the campaign by breaking a Greek siege, capturing the city of Gela and repeatedly defeating the army of Dionysius, the new tyrant of Syracuse, he, too, was weakened by the plague and forced to sue for peace before returning to Carthage.
In 398 BC, Dionysius had regained his strength and broke the peace treaty, striking at the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya. Himilco responded decisively, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also captured Messina. Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself. The siege was close to a success throughout 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces, and they collapsed.
Sicily by this time had become an obsession for Carthage. Over the next sixty years, Carthaginian and Greek forces engaged in a constant series of skirmishes. By 340 BC, Carthage had been pushed entirely into the southwest corner of the island, and an uneasy peace reigned over the island.
Third Sicilian War
In 315 BC, Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, seized the city of Messene (present-day Messina). In 311 BC he invaded the last Carthaginian holdings on Sicily, breaking the terms of the current peace treaty, and laid siege to Akragas.
Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Navigator, led the Carthaginian response and met with tremendous success. By 310 BC, he controlled almost all of Sicily and had laid siege to Syracuse itself. In desperation, Agathocles secretly led an expedition of 14,000 men to the mainland, hoping to save his rule by leading a counterstrike against Carthage itself. In this, he was successful: Carthage was forced to recall Hamilcar and most of his army from Sicily to face the new and unexpected threat. Although Agathocles' army was eventually defeated in 307 BC, Agathocles himself escaped back to Sicily and was able to negotiate a peace which maintained Syracuse as a stronghold of Greek power in Sicily.
Between 280 and 275 BC, Pyrrhus of Epirus waged two major campaigns in the western Mediterranean: one against the emerging power of the Roman Republic in southern Italy, the other against Carthage in Sicily.
Pyrrhus sent an advance guard to Tarentium under the command of Cineaus with 3,000 infantry. Pyrrhus marched the main army across the Greek peninsula and engaged in battles with the Thessalians and the Athenian army. After his early success on the march Pyrrhus entered Tarentium to rejoin with his advance guard.
In the midst of Pyrrhus's Italian campaigns, he received envoys from the Sicilian cities of Agrigentum, Syracuse, and Leontini, asking for military aid to remove the Carthaginian dominance over that island. Pyrrhus agreed, and fortified the Sicilian cities with an army of 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry and 20 War Elephants, supported by some 200 ships. Initially, Pyrrhus' Sicilian campaign against Carthage was a success, pushing back the Carthaginian forces, and capturing the city-fortress of Eryx, even though he was not able to capture Lilybaeum.
Following these losses, Carthage sued for peace, but Pyrrhus refused unless Carthage was willing to renounce its claims on Sicily entirely. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus set his sights on conquering Carthage itself, and to this end, began outfitting an expedition. However, his ruthless treatment of the Sicilian cities in his preparations for this expedition, and his execution of two Sicilian rulers whom he claimed were plotting against him led to such a rise in animosity towards the Greeks, that Pyrrhus withdrew from Sicily and returned to deal with events occurring in southern Italy.
Pyrrhus's campaigns in Italy were inconclusive, and Pyrrhus eventually withdrew to Epirus. For Carthage, this meant a return to the status quo. For Rome, however, the failure of Pyrrhus to defend the colonies of Magna Graecia meant that Rome absorbed them into its "sphere of influence", bringing it closer to complete domination of the Italian peninsula. Rome's domination of Italy, and proof that Rome could pit its military strength successfully against major international powers, would pave the way to the future Rome-Carthage conflicts of the Punic Wars.
The Punic Wars
When Agathocles died in 288 BC, a large company of Italian mercenaries who had previously been held in his service found themselves suddenly without employment. Rather than leave Sicily, they seized the city of Messana. Naming themselves Mamertines (or "sons of Mars"), they became a law unto themselves, terrorizing the surrounding countryside.
The Mamertines became a growing threat to Carthage and Syracuse alike. In 265 BC, Hiero II, former general of Pyrrhus and the new tyrant of Syracuse, took action against them. Faced with a vastly superior force, the Mamertines divided into two factions, one advocating surrender to Carthage, the other preferring to seek aid from Rome. While the Roman Senate debated the best course of action, the Carthaginians eagerly agreed to send a garrison to Messana. A Carthaginian garrison was admitted to the city, and a Carthaginian fleet sailed into the Messanan harbor. However, soon afterwards they began negotiating with Hiero; alarmed, the Mamertines sent another embassy to Rome asking them to expel the Carthaginians
Hiero's intervention had placed Carthage's military forces directly across the narrow channel of water that separated Sicily from Italy. Moreover, the presence of the Carthaginian fleet gave them effective control over this channel, the Strait of Messina, and demonstrated a clear and present danger to nearby Rome and her interests.
As a result, the Roman Assembly, although reluctant to ally with a band of mercenaries, sent an expeditionary force to return control of Messana to the Mamertines.
The Roman attack on the Carthaginian forces at Messana triggered the first of the Punic Wars. Over the course of the next century, these three major conflicts between Rome and Carthage would determine the course of Western civilization. The wars included a Carthaginian invasion led by Hannibal, which nearly prevented the rise of the Roman Empire.
In 266/265 BC the Romans, under the command of Regulus, landed in Africa and after suffering some initial defeats the Carthaginian forces eventually repelled the Roman invasion.
Shortly after the First Punic War, Carthage faced a major mercenary revolt which changed the internal political landscape of Carthage (bringing the Barcid family to prominence), and affected Carthage's international standing, as Rome used the events of the war to base a claim by which it seized Sardinia and Corsica.