Rome and Carthage

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Rome and Carthage                                                  (Back to menu of History of Italy)

For more than two centuries, since when in 509 BC the new Roman Republic had made a friendship treaty with Carthage, relations between the two states had remained good. Indeed, in 306 BC they were reinforced with the reciprocal recognition of a Roman sphere of influence over Italy and a Carthaginian one over Sicily. On the island, in fact, the last tyrant of Syracuse, Agatocles, was defeated at Ecnomus in 310 by the Carthaginians who had been opposed by the Syracusians for almost a century.

With their expansionist policy, the young and powerful Rome certainly could not be content with only the Italian peninsula. The conquest of Magna Grecia had to be completed with that of Sicily, even if it meant breaking with Carthage. The opportunity came with the revolt of the Mamertine mercenaries, who had seized Messina and asked Rome for help against the Carthaginian garrison (265 BC). The struggle between Rome and Carthage was to continue until the end of the century (264-201 BC) ending in two separate conflicts: Sicily was the scene of the first (264-241 BC) until it became a Roman province; and slightly later (238-227 BC) Sardinia and Corsica met the same fate. In this way the Tyrrhenian became the first entirely Roman sea (`Mare nostrum').

The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) began from the Carthaginians besieging Saguntum (219 BC), an Iberian town allied with Rome. Despite Hannibal's legendary crossing of the Pyrenees and Alps into the heart of Italy and his repeated defeats of the Romans (at the rivers Ticino and Trebbia, Lake Trasimeno and Canne), the Romans still managed to definitively defeat the Carthaginians at Zama (202 BC). Gaining this victory under Scipio Africanus.

Forced, during the conflict with the Carthaginias, to fight on different fronts and against different allied enemies, from the Iberian peninsula to the Po Valley and from Illyria (on the op posite shore of the Adriatic) to Macedonia, Rome took the occasion of its many victories over the Celtic (Iberi and Galli) and Hellenic (Greeks and Macedonians) peoples, who were often allied with Carthage, to enlarge her territorial domain and political sphere of influence over a large part of the Mediterranean basin. Of particular importance in this regard was the conquest of Greece, through the three Macedonian Wars (215-146 BC), and the control of Asia Minor (133 BC). While with the destruction of Carthage (146 BC, at the end of the brief Third Punic War), Corinth (146 BC) and Numantia (133 BC) Rome had become the major Mediterranean military power.

Meanwhile, to the traditional Roman economic activities of agriculture and pastoralism, which had declined due to war destruction (with the consequent abandonment of the fields and rural deterioration), there were added military and commercial interests. The latter was a monopoly of the equites (the knightly or propertied class) who, also thanks to contracts for revenue collection and public works, began to form a rich urban middle-class.

The conquest of Greece also had a profound effect on the cultural development of the Roman world. This took the form of Hellenisation, which changed society and customs while handing on the inheritance of Greek civilization to successive centuries. Finally, under the socio-economic heading, came the agricultural crisis. This was to cost the lives of the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (133-121 BC), tribunes of the plebs, who came up against the conservatism of the oligarchical senate.

However, the agrarian question gradually led to the rebellion of the Italic peoples, who were still excluded from Roman citizenship and therefore the allotment of land to cultivate in the `ager publicus'. In 90 BC a league was formed that, after varying military fortunes, finally achieved its aspirations. In this way too the political unification of Italy became concrete and was not to be interrupted even during the following periof of bitter civil wars: between Gaius Marius and Lucius Sulla (88-82 BC); Caesar and Pompey (49-46 BC); Octavian and Anthony (3630 BC); or even by the fierce struggles provoked by the slave revolts.

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