rome spain

Roman Conquest of Hispania: Second Punic War

This is episode 6 called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Second Punic War and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Which were the two rising Mediterranean powers: Carthage and Rome
  • Why was Carthage interested in controlling Spain
  • How and why the Second Punic War started
  • Which was the Hannibal’s strategy to win the war
  • How did Rome almost fall
  • About the hopes of winning with the campaigns of Scipio Africanus in Spain and the decisive Battle of Illipa in 206 BC
  • How did the Second Punic War end
  • How the war affected Spain and the long-term impact of the Second Punic War for Rome and Hispania
  • Reflections about an alternative scenario where Carthage wins the war


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 6, called Roman Conquest of Hispania: Second Punic War. In this episode we abandon the Prehistory and Protohistory and start the Ancient Era. Because of that it’s going to be a very narrative and entertaining episode compared to the previous ones. You will learn the story of the Second Punic War, a war between two emerging Mediterranean powers, Carthage and Rome, and the implications that that had for Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!

Two powers emerged between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, one in each side of the Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome. After the fall of the old Phoenician metropolis of Tyre, Carthage, in modern-day Tunis, assumed the leadership of the Phoenician settlements of the Western Mediterranean, and they expanded their power through both trade and military action. Rome, on the other hand, relied more on the military and land-property interests to expand themselves rather than trade and naval power. Already in 509 BC, when the Roman Republic was founded, Carthage and Rome made a treaty to determine their areas of influence. At that time, Carthage was much more powerful than Rome, the Punics had influence over the entire North African coast, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and of course the southern and levant regions of the Iberian Peninsula. Meanwhile Rome didn’t even have complete control over the Italian Peninsula.

Nonetheless the weak situation of Rome changed during the course of the 4th century BC, and by the 3rd century BC Rome was a threat to Carthaginian interests. The clash of interests over Sicily resulted in the 23-years-long First Punic War that exhausted economically and demographically both powers, but the Roman Republic won. Carthage lost first Sicily and then Sardinia and Corsica as well. But even worse was that Carthage couldn’t pay its mercenary soldiers due to the economic exhaustion and the high indemnities imposed by Rome, which caused the Mercenary War that almost destroyed Carthage. Punic naval power declined as well and the Carthaginian oligarchy had to do something to make up the territorial and economic losses, so the Punic oligarchy debated about what should they do next. The landowner class wanted to renounce to any military action that could cause a new conflict with Rome, they preferred to focus their attention in controlling North Africa and maybe expand westwards to Numidia and Mauritania, modern-day Algeria and Morocco. But then you had the powerful families that had enriched themselves with maritime trade that wanted to expand overseas. The mercantile faction led by Hamilcar Barca of the Barcid family won the debate and the Carthaginian senate allowed the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

map second punic war

Therefore, in 237 BC Hamilcar Barca and his army got ashore Cádiz and started their military conquest in southern Iberia. He came along with his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair and his son Hannibal, who was at the time 9 years old. Hamilcar focused his initial campaign in conquering the territories that used to be Tartessos, with its fertile lands and still important mineral resources. There they fought the Iberians and Turdetani. The Turdetani who opposed Punic expansion hired Celtic and Celtiberian mercenaries. Carthaginian troops defeated them, killed the leaders of the confederate army and incorporated 3,000 of them into their army. Hamilcar gained control over the mines of Sierra Morena and the lands of the Guadalquivir River in a year. That allowed Hamilcar Barca to pay his army, pay part of the indemnities imposed by Rome and buy loyalties. But Carthaginian expansion eastwards proved more difficult. It took 4 years to control the area that is now Murcia and Alicante. Rome already warned Carthage in 229 BC to not advance towards the Iberian Levant because the cities of Emporion and Sagunto asked for Roman aid. Hamilcar replied saying that he was collecting the booty to pay the indemnities, and the Romans left the Carthaginians alone for some years.

Hamilcar moved his campaign to the northwest, in what’s now northeastern Andalusia, where he fought the Oretani tribes led by Orissus. Orissus apparently offered him an alliance to later betray him, as he killed Hamilcar in battle in 228 BC. His son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair succeeded him and founded the most important strategic base of the Carthaginians in Iberia, Carthago Nova in the region of Murcia. Hasdrubal preferred diplomacy rather than war, so he arranged pacts and marriages with the native elites to pacify the conquered territories. He even signed a treaty with the Roman Republic in 226 BC that delimited the boundaries of the two powers in the Iberus River, which is not clear whether it means the Ebro or the Júcar, which would make sense since the city of Sagunto that is below the Ebro asked for Roman protection. In any case, Hasdrubal was killed in 221 BC by a former slave of Celtic king Tagus, who avenged his dead master. Yeah, a truly moving story of loyalty.

Before I continue with the narrative, let me talk a bit about how the Carthaginians managed the occupied territories to fuel the war machine. The conquered regions were forced to give soldiers, hostages and slaves to the Carthaginians. Punic advanced techniques were implemented in agriculture and mining to increase production, and they also developed the shipbuilding, salting and minting industries in Cádiz and Carthago Nova. Their way to govern the conquered lands is clear: they brought their technologies with them to improve the efficiency of production and either enslaved the local populations or arranged pacts with the local elites.

At the age of 25, Hannibal Barca became the Supreme Commander of the Carthaginian Army, an army made up of professional North African, Balearic and Iberian and Celtic soldiers. Really makes you think that great commanders like Alexander or Hannibal accomplished many things while being young, while most of us haven’t done shit at that age. Anyway, he started his campaign by marching north, where he fought and defeated the Celts and Celtiberians of the Meseta. In the winter of 220 BC Hannibal was planning something no one was expecting. He planned with his brothers the invasion of Italy to revenge the Carthaginian defeat of the First Punic War.

The Second Punic War started in 218 BC, because Hannibal attacked the city of Sagunto that was somehow under the protection of Rome. The causes of the attack and the justification for the war have been a matter of controversy for centuries. The citizens of Sagunto weren’t saints, they raided territories that were under Punic control, so it’s understandable that the Carthaginians could be pissed off. The Romans declared war claiming that Carthage had violated the Ebro Treaty signed a few years before, but it’s not clear if Sagunto was included in the treaty. In any case, the siege of Sagunto lasted 8 months and the Carthaginian troops sacked the city. The city wasn’t destroyed though, as Roman sources try to make us believe. Another very interesting fact is that Rome didn’t aid their supposed allies, they only declared war on Carthage after they heard that the city had fallen and, more importantly, after they had come up with a strategic plan.

About the strategic plans that both sides came up with, we first have the Hannibal strategy that consisted in marching fast and undetected to the Roman homeland, crossing the Alps to then destroy Rome. Hannibal split the army, the majority followed him, but some soldiers needed to remain in Iberia and Carthage. The Carthaginian plan depended on speed and the surprise effect to be successful, but also on the capacity of Hannibal to provoke a revolt among the Italian cities and towns to give a final blow to Rome. On the other hand, the two Roman consuls planned to march one to Iberia through the coasts of southern France, while the other would move to Sicily to then attack Carthage itself. Here is an important detail to know about Roman politics, the senate elected each year two consuls that had the same power, and those consuls were also the supreme commanders of the Roman military. This dual system of course caused disagreements and all sorts of problems, but worse was the yearly term, especially in times of war, because that generated incentives to make stupid military moves for the sake of personal glory. More on that in a second.

hannibal crossing the alps

So, Hannibal marched from Carthago Nova northwards, first defeating the tribes of Catalonia and then crossing the Pyrenees. The Carthaginian Army took an inland route to travel through France, because they didn’t want the Romans or their Greek allies of Massalia to notice them. But the Romans did detect them, and Publius Cornelius Scipio, the consul that had to attack Carthaginian possessions in Iberia, returned to Rome to protect the Roman homeland. The Carthaginian Army was able to cross the Alps under the leadership of Hannibal, something that no one was expecting considering the difficulties of the terrain and that they crossed it when the cold winter was approaching. Take into account that Hannibal was brining thousands of men with him as well as war elephants, so it was a real accomplishment and that’s why it’s a very epic event of world military history. When the news of such an unthinkable action reached Rome, the Roman Senate panicked and the plan to invade the core North African territories of Carthage was aborted. Consul Sempronius Longus joined Scipio and they faced together Hannibal, in a desperate attempt to defeat Hannibal before they were replaced as consuls. The Battle of the Trebia River was the result of that impulsiveness, and of the 42,000 soldiers of the Roman Republic that participated in the battle, only 10,000 managed to retreat. 218 BC was a fantastic year for Hannibal, not only had he defeated the Romans but he was also making alliances with the Gauls, Celts and other people who had recently been conquered by Rome or that felt threatened because of them.

In the following year, new consuls were elected but they were also defeated, most prominently in the Battle of Lake Trasimene. This battle is one of the largest ambushes in military history, and it’s because of his creativity that Hannibal has been so praised in military history. With around 50 or 60,000 men, he killed or captured the entire Roman Army that was made up of 30,000 men. Hannibal held captive those who were Romans and released those who weren’t, to brand himself as a liberator and fighter for freedom against Rome. After the Battle of Lake Trasimene, the Romans panicked, and the Senate decided to appoint Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator. A dictator for the Roman Republic, that is before the transition to the Roman Empire, was a man entrusted with full authority but with some limitations to avoid the end of the Republican system. Within months or a few years, the dictator abandoned that position and everything got back to normal. Fabius famously adopted the so-called Fabian strategy of avoiding pitched battles and open battles, and instead provoke skirmishes that exhausted the enemy. He was called a coward for that and some thought that he only adopted this kind of strategy because he couldn’t come up with anything better.

Due to his unpopularity, new consuls were elected in 216 BC, consuls that adopted a more aggressive approach. The Roman Republic raised an army of 86,000 soldiers to confront Hannibal, who was failing to get support from the Italian people. But all that was for nothing, because this very large army by Ancient standards was led by incompetent generals. The Battle of Cannae is the most well-known victory of the Carthaginians. Hannibal accomplished his greatest military feat, destroying most of the Roman Army with his powerful cavalry and superior tactics. Estimates of the casualties vary, ancient historians like Livy said that Rome suffered more than 60,000 casualties, while modern historians lower that number to maybe 20,000. In any case, the battle was a disaster for Rome and many feared that Rome would fell. The city was on the brink of collapse. The Roman Legions had suffered defeat after defeat, some Italian regions were devastated due to the supply needs of both the Carthaginians and Romans, their morale was very low, and Romans were so desperate that they briefly restored human sacrifice. The Greek colonies and some Italian cities of southern Italy, Macedonia in Greece and the small independent Sicilian state of Syracuse all joined Hannibal. Few believed that the Roman Republic could survive, and everyone wanted to divide the spoils of the Roman Republic.

Yet Hannibal believed that he couldn’t attack Rome yet, because he had an army of around 40,000 and Rome itself had 200,000 inhabitants and still many allied cities and towns. Hannibal offered peace, but the Roman Senate rejected it. With the alliances Hannibal made with some coastal cities, Carthage was able to send reinforcements for the first and only time. Hannibal was basically acting without the support of Carthage, he used the manpower that was left from the initial expedition plus the natives he could ally himself with. Meanwhile, the Roman Senate turned again to Quintus Fabius Maximus and elected him consul in 215 and 214 BC. His strategy may have been the right one, they thought. Even though Carthage was conquering some cities, the Romans at least defeated the Carthaginian expedition to Sardinia, an island that was important to feed Rome, and they also prevented Hasdrubal, brother of Hannibal, to join him, since the Romans defeated Hasdrubal in Iberia.

In 213 and 212 BC two good things happened to Rome: they allied with Syphax, a king of Numidia, and they laid siege and captured Syracuse in Sicily. The Carthaginians were losing the initiative and the momentum they used to have. There were hopes for Rome. Oh, but wait because now there is an unexpected and dramatic turn of events, Hannibal captures the largest Greek city in Italy, Tarentum. Furthermore, the Romans are being defeated in their homeland and the Roman legions located in Iberia are struggling to maintain their position in Catalonia.

Now to continue with what was happening in Spain, the old Scipios captured Sagunto and they were able to hire 20,000 Celtiberian warriors. They launched a major offensive in 211 BC and Hasdrubal and Mago, brothers of Hannibal that led the Carthaginians in Iberia, had to not only keep their position but to try to decisively defeat the Romans in the Peninsula. Remember that Carthage wasn’t sending any reinforcements to Hannibal in Italy, so to have the chance of destroying Rome Hannibal needed the armies of his brothers. The Barca brothers actually managed to crush the Roman Army of Hispania and to kill the old Scipios in the Battle of the Upper Baetis. For the time being, the remaining Roman Army had to go back to its initial position in Catalonia. Who was going to lead them now? Although they were stabilized and reinforced by a general named Gaius Claudius Nero, it was the young son of Publius Scipio the one who replaced him. He would be known as Scipio Africanus, but he hadn’t earned that nickname yet.

Scipio Africanus wanted to avenge his father, keep his legacy alive and save the Roman Republic. He raised a 31,000 strong army, marched south and captured the base of Carthaginian operations in Iberia, Carthago Nova. He slaughtered its inhabitants, its riches were sacked, and the Spanish hostages were liberated to gain more allies. Moving to Italy, the Romans were successful in securing their control over Sicily and in the Italian mainland the war was essentially in a stalemate. Meanwhile, remember that Macedonia also declared war on Rome, and the Roman Republic relied on their Greek allies to fight for them. As in Spain, the Macedonians couldn’t breakthrough and that prevented them from aiding Hannibal in Italy.

It was clear that the Romans had their composure back, while the Carthaginians were making little progress. Hasdrubal was defeated by Scipio, but he was able to cross the Pyrenees and march towards Italy to reinforce the army of his brother and decisively crush Rome. I briefly mentioned Gaius Claudius Nero earlier, but it’s in Italy where he critically participated. This consul prevented the existence of a combined Hannibal and Hasdrubal army that would have been almost impossible to defeat. He tricked the master of tricks and while the lion was distracted, Claudius Nero joined forces with another Roman general and defeated and killed Hasdrubal Barca. The Battle of the Metaurus was a turning point of the Second Punic War, as Hasdrubal was killed and Hannibal was forced to retreat to the Southern Italian region of Calabria.

With Hannibal in a weak position in Italy, the Romans decided to leave him alone, avoid a costly frontal battle and focus on the other major theatre of the war, the Iberian Peninsula. The young and smart Scipio had been forging alliances and hiring native warriors for some time, and the time for a critical action in Spain had arrived. The Iberians, Celts and Celtiberian tribes were massively defecting the Carthaginian side, and the only territories the Punics still controlled were the lands of the south. They were soon to even lose those territories as well. Scipio had a combined Italian-Spanish army of around 50,000 men when he faced and defeated an equally large Carthaginian army led by Hannibal’s brother Mago. The defeat in the Battle of Ilipa of 206 BC was catastrophic for Carthage, and it was the decisive battle that sealed the outcome of the war. Even the old Phoenician colony of Cádiz revolted against Carthage at this point. Scipio had to face an Iberian revolt led by Indibilis and Mandonius, but they were quickly put down. The Iberians had to accept their new rulers, because nothing would be like it had been before the Second Punic War started. Mago Barca attempted to recapture Carthago Nova, but he failed. Scipio didn’t wait to pay a visit to the Numidian Kings Syphax and Masinissa. Syphax used to be an ally of Rome but switched sides, but Masinissa did the reverse, giving Rome the Numidian cavalry that was so highly regarded.

But what was next? Should Rome sign a treaty in favorable conditions? Should they focus on annihilating the remaining forces of Hannibal in Italy? Or should they attack Carthage itself in North Africa? The Roman Senate had disagreements, in part because Scipio was elected consul at the age of 31 in 205 BC, and many senators, including Quintus Fabius, were envious and questioned the ambitions of Scipio. He was already very popular because he secured the former Carthaginian possessions of Hispania for Rome, but what if he campaigned in Africa and destroyed Carthage? The glory of such an action would make him extremely powerful. Therefore, the Senate decided to not give him more troops that the ones stationed in Sicily. But due to his popularity, Scipio was able to hire more men and ships that the ones Rome gave him.

Scipio get away with his desired African campaign, he landed near Carthage, put the city of Utica under siege and set on fire the camp of the Carthaginians and Numidians of Syphax, slaughtering most of the Carthaginian army with a not very honorable but effective move. Scipio Africanus then chased down another Carthaginian and Numidian army, capturing King Syphax and helping King Masinissa unite Numidia under him. The Carthaginians were very worried, and some wanted to sue for peace while others wanted Hannibal and the rest of the Carthaginian army of Italy to go back home and protect the motherland. Carthage and Rome were arranging an armistice in 203 BC and Scipio proposed moderate peace terms, but Hannibal was recalled from Italy and once he arrived the Carthaginian senators that wanted to keep the war going won popularity and peace negotiations stopped. Hannibal and Scipio fought a final battle in 202 BC, the Battle of Zama. In this battle, Rome had for the first time cavalry superiority thanks to the Numidians, and although the battle was fierce and bloody, Scipio Africanus managed to win. After the battle, Hannibal convinced the few that still wanted the war to continue to stop and negotiate peace.

The Roman Senate wanted the destruction of Carthage and the death of Hannibal and his family, but Scipio instead offered more acceptable terms. The Carthaginians were banned to raise an army without Roman permission, their naval fleet was severely limited and they would have to pay an indemnity. Carthage lost all their Spanish possessions, and the Romans were able to keep the former Carthaginian Spanish territories under their control, except for the Balearic Islands that would take a little longer to conquer.

Now, since this podcast is called The History of Spain Podcast, let’s focus on the influence the Second Punic War had in the Iberian Peninsula. The conquered part of the peninsula was divided in two provinces, Hispania Citerior in the north and Hispania Ulterior In the south. The tribes that lived in what used to be Carthaginian Hispania lost their political autonomy, they had to pay taxes to the Romans and the Senate could ask for extraordinary contributions or the recruitment of auxiliary troops any time. Only Ampurias, Sagunto and Málaga maintained their status of free cities for some time as a reward for their collaboration. Nonetheless, the Romans in the initial phase of the conquest were very respectful with the local oligarchies. Rome essentially practiced exploitation colonialism, which means that with few colonists they kept the Iberian territories under their control to exploit the natural resources, manpower and trade opportunities to benefit the metropole. And how did they do that? Mainly using military force but also with the arrangement of pacts and marriages. But we will see in the next episode that the domination of Hispania wouldn’t be easy for Rome.

THE VERDICT: Okay, I know that this is alternate history stuff but, what if Carthage won the Second Punic War and destroyed Rome? The entire history of Europe would be incredibly different, I mean, the consequences of that are of such a magnitude that are almost unthinkable. Maybe more Oriental ideas would have influenced Europe, or maybe trade, instead of militarism, would have influenced more heavily European cultures. Would we even have Christianity and Islam, or Latin languages? But the survival of the Roman Republic and the conquest of the Carthaginian territories of Hispania provoked the rise of an unstoppable Roman imperialism that would eventually transform the Republic into an Empire, and change Europe, North Africa and the Near East forever. Carthage was a bit like Germany in the Second World War. They lost the first, they sought revenge and they were crushed again, this time much more decisively. In the end, I think that the chances of Carthage winning were lower than thus of Rome. The fact that it was mostly a defensive war for the Romans also created stronger loyalties, which is easy to understand because if you saw those foreign Carthaginians sacking and razing your region, would you be happy to collaborate with them? Would you see them as liberators? Carthage didn’t treat the rest of North Africans as equals and relied on a less-devoted mercenary force to combat, while Rome had more citizens and strong alliances with other Italians. That’s why Hannibal, speaking in broad terms, didn’t succeed in convincing the Italians outside Rome to join him, and that’s also why the Roman Republic could raise a new army every time they were severely defeated. And with that, The Verdict ends.

The Second Punic War supposed the unstoppable rise of one Mediterranean power, the Roman Republic, and the critical defeat of the other one, the Republic of Carthage. Never again Carthage supposed a serious threat to Rome, even though there was the Third Punic War, but that one was very asymmetrical and supposed the existential destruction of Carthage. Anyway, Rome consolidated its presence not only in Italy, but expanded or critically gained influence in Hispania, Africa and Greece. With the decline of Carthage as a trading power, Rome grew economically too, even though many parts of Italy and especially the south had been razed by the Carthaginian Army. That also brought social changes like the rise of the equites, a social class that unlike patricians could participate in trade, more and more poor common people and slaves moved to Rome, which increased social tensions, and Greek culture started influencing substantially Roman culture. Only time showed how relevant was the Second Punic War and how important would be Rome for Spain. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website,, where you can find the scripts of the episodes and a list of books about the history of Spain available on Amazon. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!




“EL IMPACTO DE LA CONQUISTA DE HISPANIA EN ROMA (218-154 a.C.)”. José María Blázquez Martínez

NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license