Overview of the Second Punic War of Rome

Hannibal marching as depicted in a fresco.

Anthony Majanlahti / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

At the end of the First Punic War, in B.C. 241, Carthage agreed to pay a steep tribute to Rome, but depleting the coffers wasn't enough to devastate the north African nation of traders and merchants: Rome and Carthage would soon fight again.

In the interim between the First and Second Punic Wars (also known as the Hannibalic War), the Phoenician hero and military leader Hamilcar Barca conquered much of Spain, while Rome took Corsica. Hamilcar longed to get revenge against the Romans for the defeat in Punic War I. Realizing that wasn't to be, he taught hatred of Rome to his son Hannibal.

Hannibal and Second Punic War General

The Second Punic War broke out in B.C. 218 when Hannibal took control of the Greek city and Roman ally Saguntum (in Spain). Rome thought it would be easy to defeat Hannibal, but Hannibal was full of surprises, including his manner of entering the Italic peninsula from Spain. Leaving 20,000 troops with his brother Hasdrubal, Hannibal went farther north on the Rhone River than the Romans expected and crossed the river with his elephants on flotation devices. He didn't have as much manpower as the Romans, but he counted on the support and alliance of Italian tribes unhappy with Rome.

Hannibal reached the Po Valley with less than half his men. He had also encountered unexpected resistance from local tribes, although he did manage to recruit Gauls. This meant he had 30,000 troops by the time he met the Romans in battle.

The Battle of Cannae (B.C. 216)

Hannibal won battles in Trebia and at Lake Trasimene and then continued through the Apennine Mountains that run down through much of Italy like a spine. With troops from Gaul and Spain on his side, Hannibal won another battle, at Cannae, against Lucius Aemilius. At the Battle of Cannae, the Romans lost thousands of troops, including their leader. The historian Polybius describes both sides as gallant. He writes about the substantial losses:

Polybius, The Battle of Cannae

"Of the infantry 10 thousand were taken prisoners in fair fight, but were not actually engaged in the battle: of those who were actually engaged only about three thousand perhaps escaped to the towns of the surrounding district; all the rest died nobly, to the number of 70 thousand, the Carthaginians being on this occasion, as on previous ones, mainly indebted for their victory to their superiority in cavalry: a lesson to posterity that in actual war it is better to have half the number of infantry, and the superiority in cavalry, than to engage your enemy with an equality in both. On the side of Hannibal there fell four thousand Celts, 15 hundred Iberians and Libyans, and about two hundred horse." 

Besides trashing the countryside (which both sides did in an effort to starve the enemy), Hannibal terrorized the towns of southern Italy in an effort to gain allies. Chronologically, Rome's First Macedonian War fits in around here (215-205), when Hannibal allied with Philip V of Macedonia.

The next general to confront Hannibal was more successful — that is, there was no decisive victory. However, the Senate in Carthage refused to send in enough troops to enable Hannibal to win. So Hannibal turned to his brother Hasdrubal for help. Unfortunately for Hannibal, Hasdrubal was killed en route to join him, marking the first decisive Roman victory in the Second Punic War. More than 10,000 Carthaginians died at the Battle of Metaurus in B.C. 207.

Scipio and Second Punic War General

Meanwhile, Scipio invaded North Africa. The Carthaginian Senate responded by recalling Hannibal.

The Romans under Scipio fought the Phoenicians under Hannibal at Zama. Hannibal, who no longer had an adequate cavalry, was unable to follow his preferred tactics. Instead, Scipio routed the Carthaginians using the same strategy Hannibal had used at Cannae.

Hannibal put an end to the Second Punic War. Scipio's stringent terms of surrender were to:

  • hand over all warships and elephants
  • not make war without the permission of Rome
  • pay Rome 10,000 talents over the next 50 years.

The terms included an additional, difficult proviso:

  • should armed Carthaginians cross a border the Romans drew in the dirt, it automatically meant war with Rome.

This meant that the Carthaginians could be put in a position where they might not be able to defend their own interests.


Polybius. "The Battle of Cannae, 216 BCE." Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University, April 12, 2019.

Siculus, Diodorus. "Fragments of Book XXIV." Library of History, The University of Chicago, 2019.

Titus Livius (Livy). "The History of Rome, Book 21." Foster, Benjamin Oliver Ph.D., Ed., Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University, 1929.

Zonaras. "Fragments of Book XII." Cassius Dio Roman History, The University of Chicago, 2019.

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Gill, N.S. "Overview of the Second Punic War of Rome." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/second-punic-war-120456. Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Overview of the Second Punic War of Rome. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/second-punic-war-120456 Gill, N.S. "Overview of the Second Punic War of Rome." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/second-punic-war-120456 (accessed June 2, 2023).