The Third Punic War: The Year 147 BCE


  • The Roman fleet commander Lucius Hostilius Mancinus captures a part of Carthage, but has to be rescued there by Scipio Aemilianus;
  • Scipio restores discipline in the Roman army;
  • Scipio leads an attack against the Megara suburb and captures part of it; realising he cannot hold his conquest, he abandons it again;
  • Hasdrubal the Boetharch executes Roman and Italian prisoners;
  • Scipio has his men dig trenches to cut off Carthage from the outside world; he also orders them to construct a mole to close off the harbour mouth;
  • The Carthaginians respond by digging a new channel from the war harbour to the sea and by constructing a new fleet;
  • A naval engagement between Carthaginian and Roman ships ends in a draw, but most of the Carthaginian ships are put out of action;
  • The Romans attack an outer quay of Carthage and capture it at the second attempt;
  • Viriathus begins a new ‘War like Fire’ in Spain; the praetor Gaius Vetilius is defeated, captured and killed;
  • The Romans try to weaken the Achaean League by allowing several of its members to secede.

With Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus at the helm as the new consul and commander in chief of the Roman army in Africa, the Third Punic War went into its third year. At the same time, a new war broke out in Spain in which the Romans were up against a very talented Lusitanian leader called Viriathus, a former shepherd. The icy relations with the Achaean League led to a new conflict in Greece in which Rome would be forced to intervene with military means. Once again, the Romans were playing chess on three separate chessboards, but it was a game at which they still excelled.

Third Punic War

It took some time for Scipio to arrive in Africa, so this spring, his predecessor Piso continued his campaigns in the African interior. The Roman fleet commander Lucius Hostilius Mancinus was still in the vicinity of Carthage and had suddenly spotted a section of the circuit walls – over 30 kilometres in length – that was undefended. The reason was that this part of Carthage was defended by steep cliffs and looked almost unassailable. Mancinus nevertheless decided to attack there. Using his ships, he landed a party of soldiers with scaling ladders. Although the terrain was very difficult, the Romans defeated the Carthaginian defenders that were sent against them and drove them back into the city through a gate. They subsequently entered the city through this same gate and more and more of their comrades joined them from the ships, most of them unarmed members of the ship crews.

Map of Carthage.

The Romans had now occupied a part of Carthage, but it would be very hard for them to hold it. Just 500 of the Roman soldiers were properly armed, the rest – some 3.000 men according to Appianus – would have been the unarmed sailors. Mancinus and his men furthermore lacked provisions, so they desperately needed help from either Piso or nearby Utica. Fortunately Scipio had just arrived there and read the letter that Mancinus had sent to the magistrates of the city. Scipio immediately took action. Provisions were gathered, Carthaginian prisoners were released so that they could tell their countrymen that Scipio was on the way and messengers were despatched to Piso to urge him to return to Carthage. Scipio then set sail for Carthage with the part of the fleet that was not with Mancinus, the decks of the warships crammed with soldiers. This was an intimidating sight for the Carthaginian defenders. Mancinus’ men had desperately defended themselves against superior numbers and were close to being pushed off the cliffs, but now that Scipio had arrived, the Carthaginians retreated and the hard-pressed Roman soldiers and sailors could be evacuated.

Scipio subsequently took a number of important measures. First, Mancinus was sent home and replaced by Scipio’s legate Serranus, who may or may not have been Marcus Atilius Serranus, known for his victories in Spain in 152 BCE. The consul then made his camp on the isthmus in front of Carthage, with the Carthaginians responding by building their own camp about a kilometre outside the walls to observe Scipio’s movements. The latter proceeded to restore discipline in the Roman army, which had reached unacceptable levels. Basically everyone who was not a soldier was kicked out of the camp.

Now it was time for an attack on Carthage. Scipio decided to attack the Megara suburb, located north of the Carthaginian citadel, the Byrsa. Two storming parties were formed and sent to two different sections of the wall several kilometres apart. When the party led by Scipio was spotted by the defenders, everyone began to shout: the defenders, Scipio’s troops ánd the still undetected soldiers advancing on a different part of the walls further to the south. This caused some confusion among the Carthaginians, but they still managed to repulse the attack by Scipio’s men.

Some of the equipment of a triarius.

The attack could have ended here, but the Romans then discovered and captured a tower that was just outside the walls. The tower had been private property and had been deserted at the start of the war. It happened to be of about the same height as the city walls. Scipio sent up some of his bravest soldiers, who first cleared the walls of the city of defenders by peppering them with missiles and then threw planks across the gap between the tower and the walls. The soldiers ran across the improvised bridge, captured the walls and opened a gate to let their comrades in. Some 4.000 Romans poured into the city and the Carthaginian defenders fled to the citadel. It seems unlikely that Scipio had any prior knowledge of the nature of the Megara suburb. It was largely made up of gardens and orchards and full of walls, hedges, shrubs and ditches filled with water. This was difficult fighting terrain and the Romans could easily have got lost on their way to the Byrsa. Scipio therefore took the difficult decision of abandoning his conquests and retreating to his camp.

The war continues

The next day, Hasdrubal the Boetharch decided to parade Roman and Italian prisoners on the city walls. He then had them tortured, mutilated and murdered in full sight of their comrades in the Roman camp. These atrocities seem to have been too much even for some of the Carthaginians. The Council of Thirty Elders protested, and in response Hasdrubal had some of the Elders executed. The Third Punic War was now entering into a very grim phase.

Scipio had in the meantime decided to completely cut off Carthage from the outside world. For much of the war, the city had been under a loose siege at best and most of the time the inhabitants had had little trouble getting supplies into Carthage either by land or by sea. That would change now. Scipio’s attack of the previous night had had one positive effect: the Carthaginians had abandoned their camp on the isthmus and had fled back into the city. Scipio burned it to the ground and then had his men dig a trench from the sea to the shores of the Lake of Tunis. It was almost 5 kilometres long. He then had a second trench dug behind it, facing the countryside. Two shorter trenches connected the long trenches on either side, forming one gigantic rectangle. On the side facing the city, an immense rampart was built with a balustrade and towers. The tower in the centre was exceptionally high and could be used as an observation platform to keep an eye on troop movements inside Carthage. Ditches and spiked obstacles protected the Roman fortifications on both sides. It was clear that it would now be impossible to enter or exit Carthage by land.

Roman ship on a tomb from Classe, near Ravenna (Archaeological Museum of Ravenna).

However, in spite of the presence of the Roman fleet, provisions could still enter the city by sea. The Roman ships could never completely seal off the entrance to the harbour (or cothon) and fast supply ships constantly managed to evade the blockade. Scipio therefore decided to close off the harbour mouth by constructing a large mole. Working parties were shipped to the Taenia, the tongue of land south of the city between the Lake of Tunis and the sea. The work progressed well, but the Carthaginians countered the Roman action by digging a new channel running from the war harbour to the sea in the east. Women and children were employed to help with the digging, and at the same time warships were constructed from old material. Even though the Romans heard the noise and had their observation tower, they were apparently completely unaware of what was going on.

When the new channel and the ships had been completed, the Carthaginians sailed out at dawn with 50 triremes and several smaller ships. They managed to surprise the Romans, who were wholly unprepared. But instead of attacking the virtually defenceless Roman ships, the Carthaginians simply put up a show of force before retreating into the harbour again. One explanation for this rather curious action may be that the ships were of bad quality and the crews lacked training. In any case, three days later there was a real naval battle which ended in a draw. After several hours of fighting, the Carthaginian ships again retreated towards the harbour, but several of the smaller boats collided and became entangled, and as a consequence blocked the harbour entrance. The larger ships were now forced to divert their course to an external quay constructed alongside the city wall. Here they took up a defensive position with their prows facing the Roman ships.

Punic cuirass, made of bronze (reverse side; Bardo Museum).

Although the Carthaginian ships were trapped, the Romans found it difficult to assault them. Then the crews of ships from Side in present-day Turkey taught the Romans to drop their stern anchors first, then ram the Carthaginian ships and finally haul themselves back using long ropes attached to the anchors. This new tactic worked perfectly and the Roman ships inflicted heavy damage before night put an end to the battle. Early the next day, Scipio marched his men across the mole and attacked the outer quay because it was well situated to be used for an attack on the harbour itself. The Romans tried to batter down the wall that protected it, but the Carthaginians put up some stiff resistance. During the night, many of them stripped naked, entered the water and waded or swam to the quay with torches. The appearance of these naked men, hungry but ferocious, caused a great panic among the Romans. Roman discipline was still pretty substandard, and even though the attackers must have suffered heavy casualties, they still managed to set the Roman siege engines ablaze.

The panic now began to spread and many soldiers fled back to the Roman camp on the Taenia. Scipio rode out with a band of horsemen to stop the fleeing soldiers. The commander gave the order to kill those men who would not stop their flight, and Appianus claims that he even killed a few soldiers himself. Scipio’s action was brutal, but in the end it worked. After spending an uneasy night in the camp, the Romans resumed their assault on the outer quay and managed to expel the defenders. Scipio then had a new wall built here that had the same height as the city walls. 4.000 soldiers were stationed near the Roman wall, which indicates that the quay was fairly broad. These men were ordered to harass the defenders with missiles as much as they could. It was now autumn and the Romans were one step close to conquering the city.


In 150 BCE, the consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus and the praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba had massacred scores of Lusitanians. This may have temporarily stopped the Lusitanian raids into the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior, but this year the tribes were back with a vengeance and the Romans had a new ‘War like Fire’ on their hands (purinos polemos in Greek, a term coined by Polybius). Some 10.000 tribesmen overran Turdetania and were then confronted by the praetor Gaius Vetilius and his army of about the same size. Vetilius managed to corner the Lusitanians and negotiations were opened. These could have resulted in a new peace agreement, but then one Viriathus stepped forward. He was a shepherd that had survived Galba’s massacre three years ago and reminded his countrymen of Rome’s bad faith on that occasion. Appianus claims the Lusitanians subsequently elected him as their leader, but it seems more plausible that he was already serving as one of the commanders in the Lusitanian army.

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

Viriathus ordered his men to form up for battle, but told them to disperse in every direction if he himself mounted his horse. The Lusitanians then harassed the Roman lines with 1.000 picked troopers on swift horses, peppering them with javelins before retreating again. Vetilius tried to engage the horsemen, but every time he got close, they simply galloped away. With this tactic, Viriathus allowed his foot soldiers to escape. These men had been given order to assemble at the town of Tribola (the exact location is unknown). Here more and more volunteers, hearing about Viriathus’ bravery and heroic deeds, joined the ranks of the Lusitanians.

Replica of a falcata (image: Dorieo, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

The praetor advanced on Tribola with his army of 10.000 men, but suddenly found himself ambushed in a densely forested area. 4.000 Roman and Italian soldiers were killed and Vetilius was captured. Appianus claims that the Lusitanian tribesman who had taken him prisoner had no idea who he was. Since the praetor was old and fat, he was considered useless and therefore killed in cold blood. The survivors fled to a city on the coast that Appianus calls Karpessos (Καρπησσός) and that he believed was ancient Tartessos. A quaestor was now in charge, and with just 6.000 men under his command, he obviously had no more taste for a new campaign. The quaestor sent 5.000 auxiliaries from the Belli and Titti into Lusitania, but these were all massacred.


The relationship between Rome and the Achaean League had been sour for decades, especially after 1.000 Greeks had been deported to Italy as hostages in 167 BCE. The decision to release the 300 that were still alive in 150 BCE did little to abate Achaean anger. There were problems regarding the restitution of property to these former prisoners, who had been away from home for seventeen years. Furthermore, the fiercely pro-Roman politician Kallikrates had died in 149 BCE while on his way to Italy. The League quickly began to be dominated by politicians with anti-Roman tendencies, such as Diaios and Kritolaos. These men had seen that the Romans were no longer invincible: in 148 BCE they had suffered a humiliating defeat in Macedonia against the usurper Andriskos. And what was more: Rome was embroiled in a war against Carthage and was at the same time fighting a new war in Spain. Men like Diaios and Kritolaos believed that this made a Roman military intervention in Greece unlikely. This made them less willing to yield to Roman demands.

Corinthian Greek helmet (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam).

And then there was the problem of Sparta. Ever since it had been forced to join the Achaean League in 192 BCE, it had been a most recalcitrant member. Attempts to secede had usually been brutally suppressed by the League army. Rome had generally been indifferent to either the Spartan attempts at secession or the Achaean response. Often the Romans just sent a diplomatic delegation to Greece to investigate the situation and then did nothing. The delegation that arrived this year was led by Lucius Aurelius Orestes, one of the consuls of 157 BCE. By now the Senate had reached the conclusion that the League had become too powerful. The envoys had been given instructions to weaken it by allowing several cities to secede. Among these cities were relatively junior members such as Herakleia in Trachis and Orchomenos in Arcadia, but also important cities such as Sparta, Argos and especially Corinth.

Orestes was apparently in Corinth itself when he broke the news to the Achaeans and it was not well received. Spartans living in the city were harassed and arrested. Some took refuge with Orestes, who as a diplomat enjoyed sacrosanctity, but still the Achaeans tried to drag them away by force. Orestes of course protested and when he was back in Rome, he greatly exaggerated what had happened and even claimed that his own life and the lives of the other Roman envoys had been at risk. This was far from the truth, but the indignant Senate decided to send a new delegation to Greece led by Sextus Julius Caesar, Orestes’ colleague in 157 BCE. Caesar seems to have actually tried to defuse the situation at a League meeting in Aigion. He hardly referred to the incident involving Orestes and simply told the Achaeans to keep their calm.

The situation would later escalate anyway, and Polybius blamed this on anti-Roman politicians within the League, and especially on Kritolaos, who would soon be elected strategos. Kritolaos later met with the Roman envoys at Tegea in Arcadia, where he arrived late and then simply refused to make a deal with the Spartans, claiming that he had no mandate to do so. The Spartans and the Romans had to wait for the spring meeting of the League of next year, they were told. That meeting was still months away. Polybius may have been right about Kritolaos and he was certainly well-informed, as his brother Thearides was serving the League as a diplomat at the moment. However, our historian was hardly an impartial observer with regard to Greek affairs.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 347-351;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 343-345.

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