The legacy and glory of Rome is unmistakable even in the 21st century. Its language is the foundation of the words on the tongues of billions. Its laws form the basis for how billions more conduct their lives. Its architecture, philosophy, and literature are deeply embedded in our cultural DNA. Even the way our cities are laid out, according to a grid pattern, was bequeathed to us by the Romans. But hindsight is easy. No one could have predicted at the time that Rome would go on to the imperial splendor that it achieved in later centuries and would leave behind such a rich legacy when it finally met its end.
This imperial glory was not won easily. To get there, Rome would have to walk through the depths of despair, a katabasis that nearly broke it in half. The main antagonist: the Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca. The ordeal: The Second Punic War. Rome won the Second Punic War, but for many, many years, this possibility seemed remote, even fantastical. The battles of the Second Punic War were savage, and Rome was almost knocked out.
How did Rome win the Second Punic War in the end?
Rome did have a few very important advantages at the start of the war: its huge agricultural surplus and its large population. Yet, other states had possessed these kinds of advantages in history and had still collapsed. During the Second Punic War, Hannibal used the strategy of proto-Blitzkrieg, coming at the Romans hard and fast to shock them and minimize their advantage in numbers. With smart choices of terrain, he prevented the Romans from preparing or deploying to utilize their strengths, often turning them into weaknesses. While Rome could replace its armies at rates that other states wouldn’t have been able to do, it was not clear that this alone would have won the war.
Rome’s advantage that eventually allowed it to outlast Carthage was deeper. It was institutional.
Roman vs. Carthaginian Institutions
In Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy quotes the Greek historian Polybius, who remarked that the political institutions of the Romans kept internal peace and order, allowing it to wage external wars with far greater efficiency and ferocity, allowing it to ultimately overcome the catastrophic victories that Hannibal had won in rivers of Roman blood.
It was the Second Punic War that was to prove the mettle of these institutions of republican Rome. This was the high point of the Roman Republic. The social decay and class divisions of later times hadn’t yet set in. One of the foremost of the republican institutions was the Roman army and its espirit de corps. Forged over multiple hard wars won in the early Republic, military service was compulsory in Rome for all free, propertied men. This was heartily consented to. Bearing arms wasn’t just considered a right or a duty, but a privilege by the men of Rome. Neighbor served alongside neighbor, friend with friend, in the common service of Rome, which they loved so dearly. To be denied this opportunity was a humiliating disgrace.
This produced a system of well-trained men eager to serve and if necessary, die for their country. Strongly motivated, they would fight to the end and suffer tremendous losses. The Second Punic War wasn’t by any means the start of this process. The First Punic War and the wars against Pyrrhus of Epirus proved repeatedly how far Romans would go in the service of their Republic despite bloody battles and severe casualties, as long as their country won in the end. With this ethos of devotion and camaraderie, and with the Senate and august, stable political institutions to guide and provide for the fighting men, all of whom were equally devoted to Rome and to victory, the Romans had a very clear advantage heading into the Second Punic War, though it might not have been so obvious when Hannibal won his great victories and bathed in Roman blood.
By contrast, Carthage’s system of government seems to have been far less stable. Unfortunately, our records are relatively sparse. One thing that is known is that Carthage’s military system didn’t prepare it well for either the First or Second Punic War. These long, drawn out conflicts were unsuited to Carthaginian institutions.
Unlike Rome, Carthage didn’t have a national army with national devotions. Instead it seemed to have relied entirely on mercenaries to fight its wars. Mercenaries, especially foreign ones, were always dangerous. Unlike the Roman army, with its strong espirit de corps based on its national and communal ties, Carthaginian mercenaries came from all over the Mediterranean world where the Second Punic War was fought. Where the Roman army was almost entirely Italian at this time, composed of either full citizens or allied communities with some kind of stake in the welfare of Rome, the military forces of Carthage were disparate peoples with nothing in common. There were tough Iberians and hardy, but wild Gauls. There were Libyans and Africans who had long been treated poorly by the Carthaginians. The best troops that Carthage had at its disposal, and which Hannibal used to great effect in the battles of the Second Punic War, were the Numidian cavalry. Yet, even these had no real personal connection to Carthage or its cause. In fact, the Numidians would go on to fight for Rome at the conclusion of hostilities. How did the Second Punic War end? It ended with the Numidian cavalry playing an important role at the Battle of Zama…on the Roman side. Hannibal was defeated by the same Numidian cavalry that had served him so well in the end.
Clearly, this system had problems and wasn’t as well-suited to have won long, drawn out wars as that of its Roman rivals.
After Carthage got tired of the fighting and decided to conclude the First Punic War, its mercenaries went unpaid and revolted. Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, put it down, but at great cost to Carthage. Heading into the Second Punic War, Carthage learned nothing from this experience and continued the same system of military organization. The result was that Rome’s soldiers were highly trained, with a uniform military doctrine, and deeply devoted to their country. Carthaginian soldiers had nothing in common except for pay and potentially, loyalty to charismatic leaders like Hamilcar or Hannibal. Outside of their capable hands, Carthage’s military system was often a mess, as seen by its failure in less gifted leaders like Hasdrubal, who was crushed at the Battle of the Metaurus in 207 B.C. While Rome’s Italian allies did show some disloyalty during the Second Punic War, most notably in the case of Capua after the Battle of Cannae, this ultimately proved a minor irritation. Carthage’s military system served as an existential threat to Carthaginian interests that was only carefully masked by Hannibal’s success.
Clearly, Rome’s long-enduring institutions and its military system centering on national bonds, unity, and patriotism was superior to the Carthaginian system of defense outsourcing. But there was one other, arguably even more important reason why Rome ultimately won the Second Punic War, despite the ferocious efforts of Hannibal.
The Roman Mindset
The First Punic War lasted over 20 years. For a long time, the balance of power was relatively even. It became clear that Carthaginian naval domination was a big problem, and Rome innovated new naval strategies to compensate, including building fleets through private financing (showing once again the devotion of the Romans to their country) but even so, losses continued to mount. It is arguable that Carthage actually won, but just didn’t have the stomach to continue the fighting, and so snatched defeat from victory.
Rome kept building new fleets and persisted after any defeat, coming back at Carthage to fight again. This would be the case once more in the next conflict, in the face of the victories Hannibal won. As Adrian Goldsworthy stated on The True Story of Hannibal, “the Romans took every war personally.” This is why, even after the bloody defeats in Hannibal’s battles, where by every expectation in wars of the past, the Romans would have been considered the losers, they refused to give in. As a famous token gesture, the Senate auctioned off the land Hannibal was camped on after the defeat at Cannae to raise money for a new army.
In contrast, Carthage didn’t treat its wars in the personal way of the Romans. Even after the glorious victories Hannibal won, where the Romans were on the brink of collapse, the city refused to send him reinforcements. The only major effort came from his brother Hasdrubal, which ended in disaster when the Romans won the Battle of the Metaurus.
As its system of hiring mercenaries may attest, the Carthaginians seemed to have treated their wars as commercial enterprises rather than as a struggle of nations and peoples. No private money is attested in the Carthaginian fleets of the First Punic War, and never were there eager volunteers from Carthage itself to serve in the army in either the First or Second Punic War.
The result was that while the Romans suffered serious and demoralizing defeats, they always came back. Fabius’ strategy of attrition was adopted. Rome simply avoided direct conflict with Hannibal while successfully undermining Carthaginian arms in Italy, the Mediterranean, Spain, and finally, Carthage itself under capable generals, Scipio Africanus most famous among them.
Who won the Second Punic War? Seemingly against the odds, Rome, through its superior system and national spirit. This, above all else, is how Rome won the Second Punic War. Rome was simply better prepared than Carthage. Its system and its mindset allowed it to discard bad generals like Varro and eventually find ones that worked, such as Fabius and Scipio. These great generals were then able to mobilize the resources of a great nation to military success over what may be, perhaps unfairly, described as a commercial enterprise that took on the appearance of a nation.
The lesson of the Second Punic War is, as Scott Adams might say, that good systems and perseverance trump pure talent. In terms of talent, Hannibal was one of the greatest military minds of all time, but Carthage didn’t provide a good enough system for this great talent to win. If Carthage had a better system – better principles of military organization, more of a fighting spirit, more patriotic institutions, it would have likely won the Second Punic War and radically changed the course of history. Instead, Hannibal was allowed to twist in the wind with dwindling forces while Rome gathered strength after its defeat. As talented as Hannibal was, he alone couldn’t adapt to the new strategies of the Romans. This led to the eventual collapse of Carthage and the Carthaginian cause, which didn’t seem to go far beyond Hannibal himself anyway.
The Romans won the Second Punic War through their great system, leaving Carthage literally on the ash heap of history. Such is the power of having an indispensable system. You can get your hands on one by reading Stumped.