There were three Punic or Carthaginian Wars is Roman history. These were between 264 and 146 BC. These wars were the first great wars of Roman expansion outside Italy. The enemy of Rome had a large empire that stretched along the coast of North America and southern Spain and some parts of Sicily. This empire was known as Carthage. The purpose of these wars was to decide which power would become the dominant force around the Mediterranean Sea.
The first Punic War lasted from 264-241 BC. It was fought mainly at sea, off the coast of Sicily. This was the first time Rome had built a navy. Rome besieged many of the Carthaginian cities on Sicily, and when Carthage attempted to raise the siege with its navy, the Romans utterly destroyed them. For the first time since the rise of the Carthaginian Empire, the Carthaginians had lost power over the sea-ways. The war ended with no particular side winning over the other. In 241 BC, the Carthaginians and Romans signed a treaty in which Carthage had to give up Sicily and to pay an indemnity to cover Roman costs for the war.
The second Punic War was fought between 218-202 BC. In 221 BC, a young man, only twenty-five years old, assumed command over Carthaginian Spain. This young man was known as Hannibal. According to the Roman historian Livy, Hannibal was a man of great strength, endurance and skill. He was fearless in exposing himself to danger and was always the first and last soldier to enter and leave battle. However, he was inhumanly cruel and untruthful. Hannibal marched his huge army of almost 60,000 soldiers and some war elephants across the Alps and straight into Italy all the, way from Spain. On the way, he lost almost half of his army and all his war elephants and came to face Rome with only 26,000 soldiers. Although his army was tired from the journey, he literally smashed the Roman armies in northern Italy.
During the next sixteen years Hannibal won a series of great battles in Italy. In the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC the Romans suffered their greatest military defeat ever, losing over 30,000 men. According to the Greek historian Polybius, in the Battle of Cannae two Roman leaders had a dispute over whether to advance or not. One of the leaders, Lucius Aemilius, saw that the ground was flat so he thought they should not engage with their enemy. However, the other leader, Marcus Terentius Varro, thought differently and thought they should advance. The solution to this problem was to let the leaders be in command on different days and since the next day was Marcus Terentius Varro’s day to command, he ordered them to advance. In the battle Lucius Aemilius died in the thick of the fight and Marcus Terentius Varro fled. In the end the Carthaginians won because of their superiority in cavalry.
Many of the states of Italy that Rome had conquered a century before now joined Hannibal. This was a threat to Rome, so the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio took a Roman army to north Africa and then Hannibal went back to defend Carthage. In the battle at Zama, near Carthage, in 202 BC the Romans finally defeated Hannibal.
The third and last Punic War lasted three years, from 149-146 BC. The war started because the Romans were worried that the Carthaginians army regain power. The Romans totally defetated the Carthaginians and Africa became a new province of the Roman Empire.
After the Punic Wars, Rome controlled all of Italy, Sicily, much of Spain and part of Africa, as well as Greece and the eastern Mediterranean world. As you can see, at that time Rome and Carthage had very powerful and large empires with strong and skilled armies.