The Roman Republic was known for its wealth even before it became an Empire. The Punic Wars, though costly, gave Rome a new source of riches: Spanish silver mines.
The Punic Wars take their name from the Latin “Punicus” or “Poenicus,” a reference to the Phoenician ancestry of the Carthaginians. In the third century BCE, Carthage and Rome were both major forces in the Mediterranean, and it was inevitable that the two would clash. Rome had the better military, but Carthage had the dominant navy. The conflict began small: a local war between Syracuse and Messina. Messina called the navy of Carthage to help, but betrayed them and summoned Rome to fight Carthage, resulting in the First Punic War. (This backfired somewhat, as the local fight soon escalated into all-out war that resulted in the Roman Republic controlling the Mediterranean and subsuming most smaller nations in the area.)
Rome defeated Carthage in a significant battle at Agrigentum in 262 BCE, and the Carthaginian leaders changed tactics to avoid land battles, trusting that they would be able to retain their naval domination. Rome built a hundred warships in two months, and developed the corvus, a spiked bridge that could be swung down onto the enemy’s deck, allowing the Roman soldiers to board. Although the corvus was eventually phased out as the Romans began to become better seaman, it was a brilliant tactic to leverage Rome’s infantry. In 241 BCE, Carthage admitted defeat and signed a peace treaty, agreeing to pay a significant indemnity. After the war, Carthage had a massive liquidity problem, and had difficulty paying their debts. Between the first and second Punic Wars, Carthage acquired land in Spain, which included some very productive silver mines.
During the interval between the First and Second Punic Wars, Carthage began to build alliances with the Celts in the Po river in Northern Italy. To forestall Carthage building strength in the area, Rome attacked the Po valley and annexed it, renaming it Gallia Cisalpina. The Carthaginian conqueror of Hispania, Hasdrubal, was assassinated around this time, and his brother Hannibal took charge. Rome seems to have believed that their actions in the Po Valley had eliminated any real risk from Carthage and were caught by surprise when Hannibal attacked Saguntum (near modern Valencia in southern Spain) and moved across the Alps. Hannibal scored many victories against Roman forces, but could not take the city itself. Most of his siege engines and elephants were lost in the alpine crossing, and Rome was able to quickly replace any forces lost.
Scipio Africanus, in the meantime, was almost a mirror image of Hannibal; he could not defeat the Carthaginian in any decisive way, but was able to take control of the Iberian peninsula.This had a two-fold effect, economically: Rome now had access to the extensive silver mines of Hispania, and Carthage’s main source of silver (and therefore cash flow) was cut off. The fighting eventually moved to Carthage’s home ground of northern Africa; eventually, Carthage was able to control only the city itself, its once-great empire falling to the Roman Republic. Scipio Africanus finally defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama in 202 BCE, ending the Second Punic War.
Recently, a study was made of 70 Roman coins from 310 to 101 BCE; scientists drilled into the rims of the coins to access unweathered heart metal. Isotopic analysis confirms that the lead isotopes in the coins are a match to Spain after 209 BCE. Before that, metal for Roman coins was mined from old Greek sources in the Aegean. Scipio’s advances in Hispania flooded the Roman world with new sources of metal for coins. (Hints of this can be seen in the movie Gladiator: Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, is a Spaniard in the Roman military, and his breastplate is ornately decorated with silver. In fact, during the movie, Maximus tells a young boy that the name of one of the silver horses on his breastplate is Argento, “silver,” though this is more a reference to the Lone Ranger than to the Spanish silver mines.)
Researcher Katrin Westner stated, “Before the war, we find that the Roman coins are made of silver from the same sources as the coinage issued by Greek cities in Italy and Sicily. In other words the lead isotope signatures of the coins correspond to those of silver ores and metallurgical products from the Aegean region. But the defeat of Carthage led to huge reparation payments to Rome, as well as Rome gaining large amounts of booty and ownership of the rich Spanish silver mines. From 209 B.C., we see that the majority of Roman coins show geochemical signatures typical for Iberian silver…This massive influx of Iberian silver significantly changed Rome’s economy, allowing it to become the superpower of its day. We know this from the histories of Livy and Polybius and others, but our work gives contemporary scientific proof of the rise of Rome. What our work shows is that the defeat of Hannibal and the rise of Rome is written in the coins of the Roman Empire.”
[Featured image is credit Flickr user Hans Splinter. Used under CC by ND 2.0.]