The Third Punic War: The Year 146 BCE


  • As proconsul, Scipio Aemilianus destroys the Carthaginian field army at Nepheris;
  • Although Scipio offers him and his family safe conduct, Hasdrubal the Boetharch refuses to defect to the Romans;
  • The Romans break into Carthage through the cothon or harbour;
  • The Romans fight their way to the Byrsa or citadel;
  • 50.000 Carthaginians surrender and Hasdrubal the Boetharch defects after all;
  • 900 Roman and Italian deserters commit suicide by setting fire to the temple of Eshmun where they had entrenched themselves;
  • Carthage is taken, pillaged and systematically destroyed;
  • The Romans create the new province of Africa;
  • The Achaean League foolishly starts a war with Rome;
  • The League suffers several defeats against Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus; the strategos Kritolaos is killed;
  • The new Achaean strategos Diaios refuses to make peace with Metellus;
  • The consul Lucius Mummius defeats the Achaean League near Corinth; Diaios commits suicide;
  • Mummius razes Corinth to the ground;
  • Achaea is annexed and added to the province of Macedonia;
  • Start of construction of the Via Egnatia;
  • The Lusitanian leader Viriathus defeats the praetor Gaius Plautius twice.

Although Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus and Lucius Mummius were elected as the new consuls, Scipio Aemilianus’ imperium in Africa was prorogued so that he could continue the war against Carthage as a proconsul and destroy the city. Mummius – a homo novus or ‘new man’ – would get his chance at success in Greece, were the Achaean League foolishly declared war on Rome and was utterly defeated. Mummius performed well and earned the agnomen ‘Achaicus’, but owed his victory in large part to Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, the former praetor who had already been operating in the region. With so much violence going on, one would almost forget that censors had been elected the previous year. Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Lupus and Lucius Marcius Censorinus (the unsuccessful consul of 149 BCE) did their important work quietly. This year they completed the census, but unfortunately the number of registered citizens has not survived.

Third Punic War

Carthage was now completely blockaded. A huge system of trenches on the isthmus leading to the city made sure that no one could bring provisions into Carthage by land. At the same time the Romans had sealed off the harbour mouth with Scipio’s mole and controlled an outer quay near the commercial and the war harbour. Carthage could now be starved into submission. Hasdrubal the Boetharch understandably gave most of the available food to his soldiers, so it was the non-combatants who suffered the most.

Map of Africa (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

There was however one issue that was nagging Scipio: there was still a Carthaginian army in the country near Nepheris, now led by one Diogenes. The Romans had suffered defeats here in 149 and 148 BCE and these needed to be avenged, thus also clearing the final outside threat against the Roman positions at Carthage. While it was still winter[1], Scipio advanced on Nepheris. He took Gulussa the Numidian with him, as well as his legate Gaius Laelius, the son of Africanus’ great friend. Diogenes’ camp was attacked from one side, and when he responded to confront the danger, it was also attacked from the other side. 1.000 picked men fought their way into the camp and caused great panic and confusion among the defenders. Soon these were fleeing in all directions, but Gulussa and his cavalry mercilessly hunted them down. Thousands of Carthaginians were killed or captured.

Now that the Carthaginian field army had been annihilated, Scipio advanced on the town of Nepheris itself and took it after a siege of 22 days. The capture of Nepheris ended all resistance in other parts of Africa. One by one the cities still loyal to the Carthaginians surrendered. Around this time Hasdrubal the Boetharch offered to negotiate with Scipio and Gulussa. The historian Polybius was present and left us a vivid – but clearly biased – account of the meeting. Polybius basically thought the Carthaginian was a dolled up, loudmouth moron and an incompetent politician and general to boot.

Hasdrubal asked Gulussa, who seems to have acted as a translator for Scipio, to ask the proconsul to spare his city. Scipio was at first reluctant, because of the way Hasdrubal had treated Roman and Italian prisoners, who had been tortured, mutilated and executed. But then the Roman commander offered his opponent safe conduct if he were to defect, and his safeguards extended to Hasdrubal’s wife, children and a number of his relatives and friends as well. When this offer was brought to the Carthaginian commander, Polybius had a few more unkind words in store for him:

“He was by nature corpulent, and he had now become pot-bellied and was unnaturally red in the face, so that it looked as if he were living like a fatted ox in the plenty of a festival, instead of being at the head of a people suffering from such extreme misery that it would be difficult to set it down in words.”[2]

Yet even the Greek historian had to admit that Hasdrubal was a brave man, as he turned down the offer and said that if Carthage were to go down, he would go down with her. And so the war continued.

The end of Carthage

Map of Carthage.

In spring, Scipio decided to attack the cothon, the harbour of Carthage. This was an obvious target, as the Romans had for months been in control of the outer quay running alongside it. Hasdrubal had anticipated the attack, but assumed that the Romans would try to storm the rectangular mercantile harbour first. He decided to set fire to the buildings there to make the assault more difficult. But then Laelius outsmarted him by unexpectedly attacking the round war harbour behind it. The few defenders here were hungry and weak, and soon Carthaginian resistance caved in completely. The cothon was now in Roman hands and Scipio himself led his men to capture the agora behind it. Nightfall stopped the Roman advance, and the next day a party of 4.000 fresh troops was brought in. These men were well-rested, but ill-disciplined: instead of fighting their way to the citadel or Byrsa, they entered the nearby temple of Resheph (Apollo in Greek) and stripped it of all of its gold. The soldiers ignored the commands of their centurions and tribunes, and Scipio would later punish them for their despicable behaviour.

When the temple had been picked clean, Scipio could continue his advance. Three streets led from the agora to the Byrsa. On either side of each street were apartment blocks that were six storeys high. These buildings were occupied by Carthaginian defenders who pelted the Roman assault parties from roofs and windows with everything that they had. Unable to advance any further, the Romans entered the first buildings and began taking them apartment by apartment, floor by floor. This kind of house-to-house fighting was particularly savage. Climbing onto the roofs themselves, the Roman soldiers threw planks across the gaps between the buildings and fought their way towards the citadel. Their actions ensured that the troops below could resume their advance on the Byrsa using the three roads. Once his men had reached this final stronghold, Scipio concluded that the streets were not broad enough for his storming parties and siege engines. He therefore ordered the apartments to be burned to the ground, to create wider lanes running up the hill towards the citadel.

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage (Bardo Museum).

What happened next is described by Appianus in graphic detail, and he probably based his description on Polybius’ eye-witness account. Many Carthaginians, especially old people and children, were still inside the apartments and many of these perished in the flames. Others were killed when the buildings came crashing down. If they survived, they were trampled to death by the Roman cavalry. The bodies of the dead were incorporated into the Roman assault roads. It took the Roman engineers six days to level the rubble, and on the seventh day, envoys from the citadel arrived and begged the Roman commander to spare the lives of all those who chose to surrender. According to Appianus, 50.000 Carthaginians came down and were led away into captivity. Scipio’s clemency did not extend to Roman and Italian deserters. Some 900 of these had entrenched themselves in the temple of Eshmun (Asklepios in Greek) along with Hasdrubal the Boetharch and his wife and two sons. They could have held out here for a while, as the temple was difficult to assault because of its position. However, Hasdrubal quickly abandoned his men, wife and children during the night and fled to Scipio, who accepted his surrender.

Hasdrubal’s action seems a little strange, as he had previously announced that he would rather perish with his city than defect (see above). Apparently he was now desperate and wanted to save his own skin. The deserters realised full well that they would be executed if they surrendered and therefore chose to set fire to the temple. The men all died in the flames, and the same is likely true as regards Hasdrubal’s wife and children, although Appianus tells the dramatic story of how she first cursed her husband for his treachery, then killed her children and finally hurled herself and their dead bodies into the fire. Now that Carthage was taken, Scipio allowed his men several days to pillage the city and strip it of its treasures, but the men who had looted the temple of Resheph were excluded. Scipio furthermore gave rewards to soldiers who had shown great bravery and then sent a ship to Rome to report to the Senate about the victory. Objects that had been looted by the Carthaginians in wars against Greek cities on Sicily were returned to the island, including – at least according to Polybius[3] – the famous Bronze Bull of Phalaris, a torture device designed for the tyrant of Agrigentum.

Replica of a 6th century mosaic from Roman Carthage.

After it had been thoroughly pillaged, Carthage was systematically destroyed. Polybius – who was an eye-witness – claims that as the city went up in flames, Scipio cried, quoted lines from the Iliad about the destruction of Troy and then told his tutor that he feared that one day someone would give the order to burn down his own mother city, Rome. There can be no doubt that the destruction of Carthage was thorough. The city that had according to tradition been founded more than 650 years ago ceased to exist, the 50.000 citizens that had surrendered being sold as slaves. But the destruction was not total and the claim that the Romans ploughed the soil of the city with salt to prevent anything ever growing there again is just a silly legend. The Romans would later found their own colonies here, and Roman Carthage would become a large and prosperous city, one of the most important cities in the entire Roman Empire.

The former Carthaginian territories were organised into a new Roman province called Africa. Decemviri arrived from Rome to help Scipio settle this new province. When all this was done, Scipio returned to Rome to celebrate a spectacular triumph. He also received the agnomen ‘Africanus’, just like his famous grandfather.

Achaean War

The diplomatic delegation led by Sextus Julius Caesar (see 147 BCE) had by now left Greece. Kritolaos, the anti-Roman Achaean strategos, had told it to wait for the spring meeting of the League to get a decision about the position of Sparta. Caesar had immediately realised that he had been hoodwinked and had departed with his colleagues. Action was now taken by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, the man who had defeated the usurper Andriskos in Macedonia two years previously. He was still busy organising the new province of Macedonia, a process that took considerable time as it was much larger than just Macedonia proper. Metellus sent envoys to the spring meeting, which was held in Corinth. His men were mocked and jeered at by the Achaeans, who subsequently kicked the envoys out. Kritolaos then asked the assembly to declare war on Sparta, which in effect constituted a declaration of war on Rome as well. The anti-Roman politician believed that the Romans were so occupied by the wars against the Carthaginians and Lusitanians that they would not be prepared for a war with the Achaean League. Kritolaos was dead wrong.

Theatre of the Achaean War. The red rectangle is the pass of Thermopylae (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

It seems like the Achaeans had completely forgotten that Metellus had not just sent envoys, but that he also still commanded an army. Since Metellus was a former praetor, it cannot have been a large force, perhaps 10-12.000 men at most. But these soldiers had seen combat and were battle-ready. Metellus immediately marched his army from Macedonia through Thessaly to the Malian Gulf. Here the Achaeans were threatening Herakleia in Trachis, a city that the Romans had allowed to secede from the League. Kritolaos was astounded when he heard that the Romans were approaching. He could – and should – have made his stand at the pass of Thermopylae, but instead fled with his troops to Locris. Unfortunately for him, Metellus and his army moved even faster and surprised their opponents again near Skarpheia. The ensuing battle was a rout. The Achaean army was destroyed and 1.000 men were taken prisoner. Kritolaos was killed, but his body never found.

After his victory at Skarpheia, Metellus surprised 1.000 reinforcements from Arcadia that had been sent north to aid Kritolaos. These men had initially been welcomed in Elateia, but the population had expelled them again when it heard about the Achaean defeat at Skarpheia. While the Arcadians were retreating towards Chaironeia, they unexpectedly found themselves under attack by the Romans and were massacred. While Metellus marched on Thebes in Boeotia, the Achaeans appointed Diaios – also known for his anti-Roman stance – as their new strategos. As the situation was pretty desperate for the League after two heavy defeats, thousands of slaves were freed and then armed, and free citizens of military age were pressed into service. In this way Diaios managed to muster some 14.000 infantry and 600 cavalry. 4.000 of these were sent to the city of Megara as a garrison.

Cretan archer (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Metellus had in the meantime reached Thebes and had ordered the Thebans to pay a fine for supporting the Achaeans at Herakleia and Skarpheia. Their leader, one Pytheas, was captured and punished. Even though the city was largely abandoned by the population, who feared a Roman attack, Metellus would not allow his men to pillage it. Instead he marched on to Megara. The garrison there almost instantly fled back to Corinth, and the citizens opened their gates for the Romans. By now Metellus must have heard that he was to be relieved by the consul Mummius, so he was eager to make a peace deal with Diaios. The Achaean strategos, however, refused. This decision sealed the Achaeans’ fate. Mummius arrived on the Corinthian isthmus in the summer. He commanded an army of 23.000 infantry and 3.500 cavalry, basically a standard consular army. It was much larger than the Achaean force mentioned above. The Romans furthermore received reinforcements: a company of Cretan archers and auxiliaries sent by King Attalos II of Pergamum joined their ranks.

The final confrontation between Rome and the Achaean League took place in August or September. At first there was some success for Diaios as he managed to overrun a Roman outpost manned by Italian allies. But then the consul arrived with the whole army. His cavalry, which outnumbered their opponents by a large margin, almost instantly routed the Achaean horse. The infantry put up a spirited fight, but was ultimately overwhelmed, flanked and cut to pieces. Diaios could have withdrawn to Corinth and prepared the city for a siege. The city had a famous citadel, the Acrocorinth, and could probably have held out for months. But Diaios fled straight to Megalopolis where he first killed his wife and then committed suicide by taking poison.

View of the Corinthian acropolis, the Acrocorinth, from the city below (photo: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, CC BY 2.0 license).

Even though the gates of the city were open, Mummius hesitated about storming Corinth as he feared a trap. After three days, the consul ordered his men to enter the city. Much of the population had already fled. The men that had stayed behind were killed, the women and children sold as slaves. The city was systematically stripped of its art and then set ablaze. One of the oldest cities in Greece – Velleius Paterculus believed that it was 952 years old at the time of its destruction – was razed to the ground. This was the end of the Achaean War. The other Achaean cities now quickly surrendered. Decemviri were once again sent from Rome to help Mummius incorporate the Achaean territories into the new province of Macedonia, which was formalised this year. Its first governor was the Gnaeus Egnatius, who soon began construction of the Via Egnatia, a road leading from Dyrrachium (old Epidamnos) to Thessalonike and then on to Byzantium.

Mummius was awarded a triumph and acquired the cognomen ‘Achaicus’ for his victory, which was not bad for a ‘new man’ who had little formal education. Velleius Paterculus laughingly remarked that:

“Mummius was so uncultivated that when, after the capture of Corinth, he was contracting for the transportation to Italy of pictures and statues by the hands of the greatest artists, he gave instructions that the contractors should be warned that if they lost them,  they would have to replace them by new ones”.[4]


While the Romans had cause for celebration because of their victories in Africa and Greece, the situation in Spain was quickly going from bad to worse. Viriathus had now invaded Carpetania and was ravaging the country. In the third book of his Stratagems, the first century CE Roman author Frontinus mentions two attacks by the Lusitanian leader on the citizens of Segobriga and these attacks may very well have taken place this year. The Romans sent the praetor Gaius Plautius against him with a standard praetorian army of little more than 10.000 men. Viriathus pretended to retreat and then lured the Roman vanguard into an ambush, killing close to 4.000 men.

The war in Spain, 147-133 BCE (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

Appianus claims that Viriathus then crossed the river Tagus, which suggests that the first confrontation indeed took place in the vicinity of Segobriga, as the river runs just north of this settlement. The rebel leader retreated to a mountain named after Aphrodite or Venus and camped there. When Plautius arrived at the mountain as well, perhaps after having collected reinforcements, there was another battle in which the praetor was heavily defeated. Plautius withdrew to his winter quarters early and Viriathus roamed the country freely and extorted money from the tribes under Roman rule. The Romans realised that they were not going to win this conflict unless a more competent general with a larger army were to take charge of the war. Next year, they would send a consul to Spain.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 351-354;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 2-5 and p. 346-348.


[1] Scipio’s campaign was in early 146 BCE or late 147 BCE.

[2] Polybius 38.8.

[3] Polybius 12.25.

[4] Velleius Paterculus I.13.4.


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