Had Carthage defeated Rome in the Punic Wars, would it have created a massive Mediterranean Empire just like the Romans did?

From what I understand, Punic and Phoenician as languages are not quite the same. They are perhaps two dialects of the same language, or two closely related languages. Punic is the name given to the language and cultures that developed among the Phoenician colonies and cities of the central and western Mediterranean from around the 6th century BC onwards, when the political connection between the diaspora and the Levantine homeland was being increasingly challenged by Assyrian, Babylonian and Achaemenid hegemony, and when Carthage ascended to become the dominant city in the diaspora. For more on the rise of the 'Punic world' in the central and western Meditteranean, the following are great books: Lancel 1994, Carthage: A History; Hoyos 2010, The Carthaginians; Miles 2011, Carthage Must Be Destroyed.
Concerning the OP, Carthage has the following disadvantage: Rome assimilated many of her allies. For example, they made the people of Capua Roman citizens, and Latins held a privileged place within their system of alliances. The Carthaginian hegemony was much looser, and the Libyans, Carthage's subjects in Africa, sometimes had a troubled relationship with their mother city, a probable partial reflection of the fact that Carthage often severely taxed the Libyans of their produce while not giving them citizenship. There was a major Libyan revolt in the 390s, Libyans supported Regulus when he invaded Africa from 256-255, and supposedly 70,000 Libyans joined the mercenaries who revolted against Carthage following the First Punic War. Carthage must have improved their relationship with the Libyans following this last revolt, since the Libyans did not support Scipio when he invaded from 204-202. But Carthage's relations with the Libyans speaks to a less successful hegemony. It thus seems unlikely that Carthage could ever reach Roman levels of imperialism short of overhauling the nature of their hegemony.

However, there are two factors that haven't been considered so far in this thread:

1. Carthage's empire at the start of the Second Punic War represents a unique phase in their history that transcends their usual modus operandi of mercantile dominance. From 241 to 237 Carthage lost their control over Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and they lost their naval dominance. This created the possibility of a new approach to empire, and this possibility was seized by Hannibal's father, Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar came to dominate Carthaginian politics over the course of Carthage's war with the Libyans and mercenaries (241-237). He saved Carthage from this existential threat (worse than the threat posed at that time by Rome), and thus won political supremacy for himself, his political allies (some of whom he made into relatives), and ultimately his sons. He won Carthaginian support for an expedition into Spain designed to conquer much of the region, and to secure direct control over mineral wealth (especially silver) and Spanish military manpower. He even founded a new city, Acre Leuke, and his successor Hasdrubal (his son-in-law) founded New Carthage, married a Spanish princess and had Spanish tribal leaders proclaim him Strategos Autokrator. Hannibal too married a Spanish princess, and the Barcids appear to have depicted themselves on coins, the first Carthaginian politicans to do so. That is, they were creating a personal empire with Carthaginian backing. Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Hannibal campaigned throughout Spain, fighting the Tartessiani, Turdetani, Orissi, Carpatani and Vaccei, with Hannibal penetrating into northern Spain. Hoyos, in Unplanned Wars (1998), on the origins of the First and Second Punic Wars, points out that Hannibal's campaigns from 221 to 219 were so far reaching that they threatened the Ebro Accord agreed between Hasdrubal and Rome in c. 226, whereby Hasdrubal agreed not to cross the Ebro River in northern Spain. As Hoyos points out, in 226 the accord probably seemed quite reasonable, since Hasdrubal's forces had not, as far as we can tell, crossed north of the Tagus. By 220, when Roman envoys pressed Hannibal to agree to the old accord, Carthage's presence in Spain had already drastically increased. In addition, the Carthaginians appear to have neglected their naval presence. At the beginning of the Second Punic War, the Romans faced off against small Carthaginian fleets. Instead, Carthage's attention was on the army. The Barcids also preserved support at home through marriage alliances and the sending home of silver, spoils and gifts. It is notable that the Barcids' biggest enemy at home, Hanno the Great, is depicted in Livy's account as being decidedly powerless against the Barcid faction. Therefore, the empire of 219 BC was not the same empire that Carthage had traditionally possessed. This was a more expansionist and more militaristic empire than the mercantile hegemony of old. For more on this topic, see Hoyos 2003, Hannibal's Dynasty.

2. Should Carthage have defeated Rome, they could have defeated the eastern Mediterranean powers. When we think about the First and Second Punic Wars, we are transfixed by the impressive determination of Rome, forgetting about the incredible determination also showed by Carthage. No Hellenistic power fought Rome as fiercely as Carthage did. The First Punic War lasted for 23 years, and Carthage lost many battles throughout that war and made impressive comebacks before finally giving up in 241 BC, with Hamilcar Barca's Sicilian army left undefeated. As for the Second Punic War, no Hellenistic general attempted what Hannibal did. Carthage earned her place as the forge in which Rome crafted her greatness. In contrast, the Hellenistic powers would fight short wars, seek a treaty and move on. Polybius, a Greek himself, recognizes this difference between warfare in the eastern Mediterranean and the west (1.63-4-7): '(The First Punic War) had lasted without a break for twenty-four years and is the longest, most unintermittent, and greatest war we know of. Apart from all the other battles and armaments, the total naval forces engaged were, as I mentioned above, on one occasion more than five hundred quinqueremes and on a subsequent one very nearly seven hundred. Moreover the Romans lost in this war about seven hundred quinqueremes, inclusive of those that perished in the shipwrecks, and the Carthaginians about five hundred. So that those who marvel at the great sea-battles and great fleets of an Antigonus, a Ptolemy, or a Demetrius would, if I mistake not, on inquiring into the history of this war, be much astonished at the huge scale of operations. Again, if we take into consideration the difference between quinqueremes and the triremes in which the Persians fought against the Greeks and the Athenians and Lacedaemonians against each other, we shall find that no forces of such magnitude ever met at sea.'
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I have edited part of that most recent post to include the following information, but for those who have already read my post I put it here as well. From 241 to 237 Carthage lost their control over Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and they lost their naval dominance. This created the possibility of a new approach to empire, and Hamilcar and his sons seized this opportunity.


Ad Honorem
May 2016
The native languages of the regions, examples being Iberian in Spain and various berber languages in north Africa.
Just a nitpick. Iberian was not a language but a family of languages, similar to the example that you gave to the Berbers. There were even some theories that the two could be related as they could be related with the Ancient Basque.

BTW, was Phoenician spoken anywhere in the Carthaginian Empire?
The Phoenician, even with some local differences, should be talked in the Phoenician colonies around the Mediterranean. Many of these Phoenician cities felt to the Carthaginian empire. If my memory doesn’t fail me epigraphy was found in Phoenician in some Phoenician colonies well after the 3rd Punic War, often this is called neo-Punic, already with some Latin influences.

Punic is a Phoenician language.
Something in the line of what DiocletianIsBetterThanYou said, I get the idea that they were the same language (similar to Hebrew), but different dialects due to the evolution of the Phoenician out of Phoenicia.


About the Phoenicians (including the Carthaginians), I recommend a book from several authors coordinated by Sabatino Moscati: “The Phoenicians”.
Apr 2019
It seems to me that the Carthaginian expansion in Iberia was very much a Barcid affair, in some ways it was reactionary to Rome's victory in 241BC and their subsequent annexation of Sardinia. As for crossing the Ebro and the siege of Saguntum, the Roman's cried foul play, however they simply weren't trustworthy as the Sardinian situation showed.
Apr 2018
Upland, Sweden
I have edited part of that most recent post to include the following information, but for those who have already read my post I put it here as well. From 241 to 237 Carthage lost their control over Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and they lost their naval dominance. This created the possibility of a new approach to empire, and Hamilcar and his sons seized this opportunity.
Interesting perspective, and very interesting previous post. I'm pretty skeptical on Carthage having a chance to beat Rome longterm though. Maybe they'd win the 2nd Punic War - even if they did, I believe it is not entirely unlikely Rome might return.

On top of the Romans' different way of assimilating their Italian allies, another thing I can't help but think is this: if the Barcids had such a personal role in bringing about this new appraoch to Empire you describe as taking place after the Libyan War, what does that say about the political dynamics within Carthage? While it is certainly an impressive form of comeback in a way, it also seems to indicate Carthage being somewhat unstable, and it makes me think that had Carthage actually come out of the 2nd Punic War in a better manner than it did it might perhaps have developed into something more similar to the Hellenistic monarchies, with the Barcid family as rulers. I'm sure it'd be a splendid and glorious the same way Antioch, Egypt and Macedonia were splendid and glorious, but what are the long term prospects of a power with such a political system dominating the entire Meditteranean? Even if it hadn't, and would have remained the kind of merchant oligarchy it was...

Polybius points out the Roman's political preconditions as one of their primary advantages. It seems to me that this "new" Carthaginian militarism is so closely tied up to the Barcid family specifically then that is a very fragile kind of strength, not grounded in deeper social realities. Also, why did the Libyan War come about to begin with? Carthage seems to have been too reliant on mercenaries (this is not something the Barcids changed too much, from what I've understood). Once again we have the similar kind of fragility. Polybius is not necessarily right just because he's Polybius, but in this respect I find him convincing.

The Romans seem to have been much better at incentivizing their entire society to go to war, and adapting themselves to that reality wholeheartedly. Of course there is a great disparity in sources here, but it still seems to be the case that we have one society with a base of landowning farming citizens on the one hand (Rome) and a society of people who are fundamentally tradesmen (Carthage) on the other. My money war warmaking is going to be on the yeoman farmers. This is obviously speculative and going to sound very frat-boyishly subjective, but I just don't think Carthage was tough enough to beat Rome. Sure, the 2nd punic war was long, but how much of that war consisted of them having Roman troops in their core territories? Yesyes, the Geography is completely different with Rome being concentrated to Italy in a different way, while Carthage is spread out (although a core around Tunisia/ Libya) and yes Scipio hung around Spain for quite a while, but I don't think it is the same. While casualty estimates from 2300 years ago should be taken with a grain of salt it still deserves to be said: in the 1st Punic War the Romans lost more ships and arguably more or just as much manpower and they still won. In the 2nd Punic War we have the same pattern, albeit a much greater disparity in losses with the Romans loosing what, half a million people and 300 000 men in battle? More? Frankly I don't think the Carthaginians had the willpower and the grit to win.

So my answer is that while I'm sure we can't know, and anything can theoretically happen, I think Rome was simply blessed by Mars. ;)

P.S. Many modern military analysts often use the number "1/3rd of all fighting age men dead" as being what it takes to win a war against a determined enemy. Well, I did a bit of 5 second search and found this nice guy in my university library portal (de Ligt, Peasants, Citizens and Soldiers - Cambridge, 2012). It's interesting, although I can't really relay any information from it as of yet. A thorough demographic comparison between Carthage and Rome would certainly have been interesting but ach, the sources... what to do. What I guess might be a possibility though - just throwing it out there - is that Rome always had a manpower advantage over Carthage.
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Ad Honorem
May 2016
... in 226 the accord probably seemed quite reasonable, since Hasdrubal's forces had not, as far as we can tell, crossed north of the Tagus
Our sources are Roman for this, so we have always more gaps than we want. And Hasdrubal may not have crossed the Tagus, but Hannibal did, according to Polybius 3.14:

“14 1 Next summer he made a fresh attack on the Vaccaei, assaulted and took Hermandica at the first onset, but Arbacala being a very large city with a numerous and brave population, he had to lay siege to it and only took it by assault after much pains. 2 Subsequently on his return he unexpectedly found himself in great peril, the Carpetani, the strongest tribe in the district gathering to attack him and being joined by the neighbouring tribes, 3 all incited to this by the fugitive Olcades, and also by those who had escaped from Hermandica. 4 Had the Carthaginians been obliged to meet all this host in a pitched battle, they would assuredly have suffered defeat; 5 but, as it was, Hannibal very wisely and skilfully faced about and retreated so as to place the river Tagus in his front, p35 and remained there to dispute the crossing, availing himself of the aid both of the river and of his elephants, of which he had about forty, so that everything went as he had calculated and as no one else would have dared to expect. 6 For when the barbarians tried to force a crossing at various points, the greater mass of them perished in coming out of the river, the elephants following its bank and being upon them as soon as they landed. 7 Many also were cut down in the stream itself by the cavalry, as the horses could bear up better against the current, and the mounted men in fighting had the advantage of being higher than the unmounted enemy. 8 Finally, Hannibal in his turn crossed the river and attacked the barbarians, putting to flight a force of more than one hundred thousand. 9 After their defeat none of the peoples on that side of the Ebro ventured lightly to face the Carthaginians, with the exception of the Saguntines. 10 Hannibal tried as far as he could to keep his hands off this city, wishing to give the Romans no avowed pretext for war, until he had secured his possession of all the rest of the country, following in this his father Hamilcar's suggestions and advice.”

(From: Polybius • Histories — Book 3)

And Livy 21.5:

“[21.5][…]At the beginning of spring he extended his operations to the Vaccaei, and two of their cities, Arbocala and Hermandica, were taken by assault. Arbocala held out for a considerable time, owing to the courage and numbers of its defenders; the fugitives from Hermandica joined hands with those of the Olcades who had abandoned their country - this tribe had been subjugated the previous year - and together they stirred up the Carpetani to war. Not far from the Tagus an attack was made upon Hannibal as he was returning from his expedition against the Vaccaei, and his army, laden as it was with plunder, was thrown into some confusion. Hannibal declined battle and fixed his camp by the side of the river; as soon as there was quiet and silence amongst the enemy, he forded the stream. His entrenchments had been carried just far enough to allow room for the enemy to cross over, and he decided to attack them during their passage of the river. He instructed his cavalry to wait until they had actually entered the water and then to attack them; his forty elephants he stationed on the bank. The Carpetani together with the contingents of the Olcades and Vaccaei numbered altogether 100,000 men, an irresistible force had they been fighting on level ground. Their innate fearlessness, the confidence inspired by their numbers, their belief that the enemy's retreat was due to fear, all made them look on victory as certain, and the river as the only obstacle to it. Without any word of command having been given, they raised a universal shout and plunged, each man straight in front of him, into the river. A huge force of cavalry descended from the opposite bank, and the two bodies met in mid-stream. The struggle was anything but an equal one. The infantry, feeling their footing insecure, even where the river was fordable, could have been ridden down even by unarmed horsemen, whereas the cavalry, with their bodies and weapons free and their horses steady even in the midst of the current, could fight at close quarters or not, as they chose. A large proportion were swept down the river, some were carried by cross currents to the other side where the enemy were, and were trampled to death by the elephants. Those in the rear thought it safest to return to their own side, and began to collect together as well as their fears allowed them, but before they had time to recover themselves Hannibal entered the river with his infantry in battle order and drove them in flight from the bank. He followed up his victory by laying waste their fields, and in a few days was able to receive the submission of the Carpetani There was no part of the country beyond the Ebro which did not now belong to the Carthaginians, with the exception of Saguntum.”

(From: Livy's History of Rome)

Wikipedia as a map: Batalla del Tajo - Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre

Eduardo Sánchez-Moreno as an article about it (in Spanish):

(Edit: having some difficulties to upload the pdf, the file is too large)
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Ad Honorem
Dec 2012
I agree with the folks who say that Carthage didn't have really have it in them to go on to achieve great conquests as did the Romans.

A few things:

1. From what little I know about them and their history, I don't think they were good at war. While they had success against "barbarians," in Spain and elsewhere, against Greeks the results were at best mixed and against the Romans they lost every single war. And Hannibal, imo, seems like a fluke; if you take away his contributions, then the Carthaginian war record looks even more paltry.

2. As has been mentioned already, how good at war or how warlike can a people be if they really don't have any soldiers of their own? Relying mostly on mercenaries doesn't seem like a good long term strategy. To be successful at the long game, I think it requires a more martial tradition among the people or culture; something that Carthage never really had.

just my $0.02

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