The Third Punic War: The Year 150 BCE


  • The consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus and the praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba massacre the Lusitanians;
  • The Numidians annihilate a Carthaginian army under Hasdrubal the Boetharch;
  • Claiming the Carthaginian offensive was illegal under the 201 BCE treaty, the Romans begin preparing for a new war with Carthage;
  • The Senate decides to release the Achaean hostages that are still alive;
  • Alexander Balas becomes the new ruler of the Seleucid Empire.

The five years discussed in this series were characterised by Roman imperialism in its most brutal form. Roman expansion on three different fronts not only led to massacres in Spain and the destruction of ancient cities in North Africa and Greece, but also to the addition of two new provinces to what could already be called the Roman Empire: Africa and Macedonia, with the latter comprising Thessaly, Epirus, Achaea and parts of Illyria, Paeonia and Thrace as well. At the same time, the Romans penetrated ever deeper into the Iberian peninsula. Mass killings by Roman commanders ultimately resulted in a new war against the Lusitanians and the Celtiberians that would last some fifteen years and that at times looked unwinnable for the Romans.


The consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus’ victories against the Arevaci, the Belli and the Titti in 152 and 151 BCE had put an end to the Celtiberian War. The province of Hispania Citerior was once again at peace. Since he had achieved very little in a rather stupid and unprovoked war against the Vaccaei the previous year, the consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus was looking for a new target so that he could return to Rome with a victory in his pocket. Further to the south, the Lusitanians were still threatening the province of Hispania Ulterior. Lucullus was wintering in Turdetania, close to Lusitanian territory. Since the tribes were once again raiding into territories that were under Roman control and Rome had a duty to protect her Spanish allies, the consul decided that he had cause to attack them. He sent out his legates, who intercepted the raiding parties and killed some 4.000 Lusitanians. A further 1.500 were killed by Lucullus himself as they tried to cross the Strait of Gibraltar near Gades. The survivors fled to a hill, where Lucullus had them surrounded by lines of circumvallation. The Lusitanians, seeing no way out, decided to surrender and large numbers were captured by the Roman troops. Their ultimate fate was the slave market.

Replica of a Roman gladius (left).

Having defeated the Lusitanian incursions, Lucullus counterattacked and invaded Lusitanian territory. In a series of rational massacres, he gradually depopulated the regions through which he marched with his army. The aim was likely to create some sort of no-man’s-land between the Roman province and the areas still under Lusitanian control, with the intention of stopping the perpetual raiding by the tribes. While Lucullus’ methods were brutal, those employed by his colleague Servius Sulpicius Galba were even worse. Galba’s tenure as governor of Hispania Ulterior had been marked by a severe defeat against the Lusitanians, in which the praetor had lost more than half of his army. With a replenished fighting force and hungry for vengeance, Galba now enthusiastically participated in a new campaign against the Lusitanians. Realising that their situation was hopeless, some of the tribesmen offered to negotiate. They referred to the treaty that had been made with Galba’s predecessor Marcus Atilius Serranus (see 152 BCE) and claimed that they were willing to renew it.

Galba at first seemed to sympathise with his opponents. He granted them a truce and claimed to understand that it was the poorness of the soil and other dire circumstances that had led them to brigandage, to war and to breaking their treaty obligations. Galba even offered them lands in more fertile parts of Spain, if only they were willing to assemble at a place decided by him. When the Lusitanians showed up there in good faith, he divided them into three groups – perhaps based on which clan they represented – and sent each group away to a different location. There they were to wait for further instructions. But instead of granting them land, he had each of the three groups disarmed and surrounded by his soldiers, who then systematically slaughtered their helpless victims. Suetonius claims that 30.000 Lusitanians were killed[1], but surely many of the women and children were taken prisoner and sold as slaves. Galba confiscated the victims’ possessions and – according to Appianus – kept most of the loot for himself.

Some of the Roman and Italian soldiers present must have been survivors of Galba’s disastrous campaign of the previous year. Their ferocity in killing the Lusitanians is somewhat understandable. Galba’s rational bloodbath at least made sure his men did not have to fight these tribesmen again the next war season. Nevertheless, the cruelty of his actions far exceeded what the Romans were willing to accept in a war, even against a notoriously difficult opponent. Galba would be brought to trial for his actions the next year, although he was ultimately acquitted. One of the survivors of the massacre was a shepherd named Viriathus. He would rise to become the leader of the Lusitanians some three years later and would lead his people to many victories over a string of Roman commanders.


Mask representing either Demeter or Medusa, 3rd or 2nd century BCE (Musée national de Carthage).

It was probably early in the war season when the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal – Appianus uses the term boetharch[2] – took his army of 25.000 infantry and 400 cavalry to confront the Numidian king Masinissa. At first there was some Carthaginian success: two Numidian commanders who had quarrelled with Masinissa’s sons defected to Hasdrubal with 6.000 cavalry. Hasdrubal then won a few skirmishes and Masinissa began feigning a retreat. The two armies now moved to desert terrain surrounded by hills. While Masinissa camped in the open plain, Hasdrubal occupied one of the hills and made his camp there. This position on the high ground looked quite favourable, but Masinissa was a wily old fox who still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Appianus says that the king was now 88 years old, but still able to mount a horse and lead his men in combat. Just two years previously, Masinissa had fathered another son, one of his many legitimate and illegitimate children. The king had learned much from the Romans in terms of siege warfare and logistics, and he would now use that knowledge against the Carthaginians.

Then suddenly Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus appeared in the Numidian camp. At the time he was serving in the Roman army in Spain under the command of the consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus (see above). He had been sent to Africa to collect war elephants from the Numidians. The next day the two armies fought each other to a bloody draw, with Scipio observing the battle from a hill. Scipio was now about 35 years old and held in high regard by both sides; after all, he was the great Scipio Africanus’ grandson by adoption. Scipio offered to mediate, but negotiations broke down when the Carthaginians refused to extradite the Numidian deserters. After collecting his elephants, Scipio left for Spain again and the war in Africa continued.

Coin with the image of Masinissa or his son Micipsa (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 2.5 license).

Using Roman siege tactics, Masinissa now surrounded the Carthaginian position on the hill with lines of circumvallation. At first Hasdrubal did not worry too much. He assumed that after a while the Numidians would just disperse if they ran out of provisions. This had probably happened a lot in the past, but now Masinissa – likely imitating the Romans – had presumably set up a supply system which allowed his troops to continue the siege. Soon the Carthaginians were suffering from food shortages, famine and disease. They were ultimately forced to make a humiliating deal with Masinissa, giving up the deserters, paying him a fine and allowing the king’s supporters who had been expelled from Carthage (see 151 BCE) to return. But when the Carthaginian troops marched out of camp without their arms and wearing just one piece of clothing each, they were suddenly attacked by Masinissa’s son Gulussa and a band of horsemen. It seems clear that Gulussa was out for revenge after the way he had been treated the previous year, but it is not certain whether Masinissa knew about it. In any case, thousands of Carthaginian soldiers were killed. The campaign had ended in disaster.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

One of the Carthaginians who had survived the massacre was Hasdrubal the Boetharch. Back in Carthage, he was blamed for the defeat and sentenced to death along with several others. Hasdrubal seems to have never reached the city and the penalty was in any case never effected, because next year we see the same Hasdrubal receiving a pardon and commanding a Carthaginian army again. But the Carthaginians were in serious trouble now. Their campaign against Masinissa had clearly been justified on moral grounds, but technically it was still a violation of the 201 BCE treaty with Rome, as the Romans had not given their consent to the war.[3] Envoys were despatched to Italy to complain about Masinissa and to try and avert a new war with Rome. But their mission was hopeless, as by now the Romans were already preparing for an armed conflict. Unlike with the war in Spain, there were plenty of volunteers to join the army this time. When the envoys asked the Senate how they could make up for the Carthaginian violation of the treaty, they were given the cryptic message that they must “satisfy the Roman people”. A second embassy sent to Rome to get this message elucidated was told that the Carthaginians knew perfectly well what was asked of them. The Third Punic War was now inevitable.


Also this year, the Senate at long last decided to release the Achaean hostages interned in Italy since 167 BCE. There had originally been 1.000 of them, but seventeen years later at most 300 were still alive according to Pausanias.[4] Their case had been advocated by Scipio Aemilianus and his tutor Polybius (now in his early fifties and formally still one of the hostages), who had turned to Cato the Censor for support. When the issue was debated in the Senate and some senators continued to oppose the release, Cato is said to have remarked:

“Here we sit all day, as if we had naught else to do, debating whether some poor old Greeks shall be buried here or in Achaia.”[5]

After the Senate had voted to release the hostages, Polybius apparently returned to the Senate House because he wanted the Senate to restore the men to their former positions in Achaea. On that occasion, Cato compared him to Odysseus returning to the Cyclops’ cave to get his felt cap and belt. Obviously the request came to nothing.


Coin of Alexander Balas (source: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.)

There were also important developments in the Seleucid Empire this year. Two years previously, the Senate had allowed one Alexander Balas, who claimed to be a son of the late King Antiochos IV, to return to Syria. Alexander had won the support of the Maccabean leader Jonatan Apphus and had started a war against the incumbent ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Demetrios I Soter. This year, he managed to defeat his opponent. Demetrios was killed in the fighting and Alexander took up his seat in Antiocheia as the new King of Syria. He immediately made an alliance with King Ptolemaios VI of Egypt and asked for his daughter Cleopatra Thea’s hand in marriage. Ptolemaios happily agreed, and Alexander and Cleopatra were married in Ptolemais (modern Akko) the same year. Jonatan Apphus, who had been set up as the Jewish High Priest by Alexander, was a guest of honour at the wedding.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana, p. 37-45 and p. 58-61;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 336-337;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 337-338.


[1] The Life of Galba 3.2 (the Galba of the biography is the emperor Galba, but the praetor Galba was one of his ancestors).

[2] The Greek word is βοήθαρχος; the term means something along the lines of ‘commander of auxiliaries’ and has nothing to do with the Boeotian League and the office of βοιωτάρχης.

[3] This was at least how the Romans saw the legal situation. One could argue that the treaty had expired after 50 years.

[4] Description of Greece 7.10.

[5] The quote is taken from Plutarchus, The Life of Cato the Elder 9.2. His source was likely Polybius’ himself.


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