The Punic Wars all over again


Regular readers of the Commercial know that we are fond of historically informed perspective. Today we draw inspiration from the anniversary of world changing events in 202 BC. This week 1608 years ago, Hannibal Barca, leader of the invading Carthaginian army, was defeated by the Roman legions under Scipio Africanus in the Battle of Zama.

Zama was the deciding engagement in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) between Carthage and Rome. In many ways, the defeat of Carthage was foregone; only Hannibal himself remained to be conquered. Zama was a terrific clash of men and resources. Hannibal brought an estimated 50,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 80 elephants. Scipio’s legion boasted 34,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 6,000 Numidian cavalry. The presence in the Roman force of this last contingent, the Numidian cavalry, was something of an irony given that Hannibal had used the same type of swift-moving, light cavalry in his own invasion of Rome.

The Carthaginian defeat in the Second Punic War sealed the ultimate fate of their empire. The treaty foist upon the Carthaginian senate included hobbling terms that ensured Carthage would never again attain its former glory. A particularly important dimension of the treaty was the prohibition on Carthage from making war without Roman consent. This allowed the Romans to establish a thinly veiled casus belli (cause for war) for the Third Punic War when the Carthaginians defended themselves from Numidian encroachments. When Rome engaged Carthage in the Third Punic War, the Carthaginians could do little to stop the advance. The resultant destruction of their home city forever muted Carthaginian power.

While a knowledge of history is a good thing just on its face, the above described sequence of events holds many lessons for modern geo-politics — and local ones as well. In particular, the term, “casus belli,” gives us pause to ask what conditions are sufficient to wage war. The United Nations generally recognizes two permissible situations: response to being attacked; and actions approved by the UN.

Of course, even within these strictures a number of ethically thorny issues arise. For instance, was the sinking of the USS Maine sufficient justification for the United States to enter into the conflict now known as the Spanish-American War? Given a century of debate around the actual cause of the predicate explosion, this remains unclear. We could also point to the much more recent “weapons of mass destruction” premise of our war with Iraq — a premise now accepted as wholly false. We could include in this list the ongoing attacks on the Kurdish people by multiple parties, as well as the Soviet invasion of Finland during World War II.

The concept of casus belli is also informed by the Greek thinker, Thucydides. He used the term “proschema” to describe situations in which the stated reasons may or may not be the actual reason for waging the war. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides identified “fear,” “honor,” and “interests” as the three primary real reasons wars are waged. He contrasts this with “proschemata,” the common use of nationalism and fearmongering to incite public support for an otherwise unjust or unreasonable cause.

In this era, where technological ease has transformed the promulgation of war from one of massed armies to mouse clicks and joysticks, we must be careful to disentangle facility from merit. In other words, just because war is yet more easy to start doesn’t mean it’s any more just, ethical or right. Further, the more disputes we solve with bare knuckles and bombs, the more those solutions will suggest themselves in other areas. War will become little more than a method in search of motive. In so doing, humanity will find itself surrounded by many more technological toys, but still yoked to the plains of Zama.