History in the Alternate: 19th Century Punic Wars
How would the Punic Wars play out if they happened in the 19th Century?
Reddit prioritizes quick answers, so I answered sort of off the cuff. You can see my original answer here, but I couldn’t get the question out of my head and wanted to take the opportunity to expand on it now that I’ve had more time to think.
Defining Our Terms
Obviously, there are a couple of viable ways to answer the question. For example: What if Carthage and Rome never fell?
Let’s first define Punic Wars as “wars between North Africa and the Italian Peninsula” for the sake of discussion, since neither the Roman Empire nor Carthage existed in the 19th century and the changes involved in positing that the Roman Empire or Carthage lasted until the 19th century would be way, way beyond the scope of something manageable or fun.
Choosing Our Moment
In that case, we wind up with Italy during its unification period, the Risorgimento. Most Italians were pretty poor at this time period. Industrialization was just taking off in the north, and in the south the exploitation of local peasants eventually led to the rise of the Mafia.
Across the sea, North Africa was defined by four states, only two of which really wound up surviving; Tunis and Morocco. Since you asked about Carthage, let’s go with Tunis. Around this time, the Ottoman Empire had dissolved and Tunis was caught between European expansion and the declining Ottoman Empire. [Britannica] It was exceedingly vulnerable militarily and economically.
Finding Our Path
So it seems to me that the most likely thing that would happen is that the newly united Italy would have had to expand into Tunisia instead of Ethiopia. Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1895.
But by this point in history, Tunisia was under French rule. Europeans had been in control of Tunisia since 1869 because Tunisia went bankrupt. Why not Italy? From Wikipedia:
Initially, Italy was the European country most interested in incorporating Tunisia into its sphere of influence. Italy’s strong motivation derived from the substantial number of expatriate citizens already resident there, with corresponding business investment, due to its close geography. Yet in the emerging national conscience of the newly unified (1861) Italian state, the establishment of a directly ruled colony did not then attract high-priority interest for the political agenda.
With her own substantial interests in Tunisia, Italy protested but would not risk a confrontation with France.
So basically, if the Punic Wars had happened in the 19th century, Italy would have won, because Tunis was already extremely boned. Italy controlling Tunis actually came pretty close to happening anyway, so this would only be a minor shift in outcomes requiring just a little bit more motivation and military oomph on the part of Italy.