In Spain, where the war had started, the tide of war first rolled back on the Carthaginians. This country, where large armies starve and small armies get beaten, has always imposed similar difficulties and restrictions on invading armies. Only a small part was directly involved in the Hannibalic war, namely, the Mediterranean littoral with its hinterland; more particularly, the Ebro valley in the north and the rich valley of the Baetis (Guadalquivir) in the south, where lay the seat of Carthaginian power. These two valleys were linked by a coast road which passed through the two key towns of Saguntum and New Carthage (Cartagena), the latter being the Carthaginian war base. To an army invading Spain from the north-east three factors are necessary: control of the coast road, an adequate base and command of the sea. Thus Pompey’s first plan of attack against Sertorius failed because he lacked the last two, while centuries later in different circumstances Wellington, entrenched at Torres Vedras with the command of the sea, threw into relief the vain attempt of Sir John Moore to advance inland without an adequate base. The three Scipios who fought in Spain realized the conditions of warfare which the country imposed, and thus succeeded where Napoleon failed; ultimately, to adapt Napoleon’s vain hope, they were able ‘to carry their victorious eagles to the Pillars of Hercules and drive the “Punic” leopard into the sea’.
The supreme importance of holding the enemy at bay in Spain was realized by P. Scipio, who despatched thither his brother Gnaeus in 218 and joined him the following year. Reinforcements from a country so rich in natural wealth and manpower must at all costs be prevented from reaching Hannibal. But events were to show that the Scipios, the two Thunderbolts of War (duo fulmina belli), aimed not merely at a defensive campaign of holding the line of the Ebro but at an offensive to break the enemy’s power in the Peninsula.
In the late summer of 218 Cn. Scipio landed with two legions at Emporiae (Ampurias), from which base he marched south. His passage was uncontested till he reached Cissa, the enemy’s base in northern Spain, where he defeated the commander Hanno. Cissa was taken, and Scipio advanced his fleet to Tarraco (Tarragona). Here the Roman naval camp was attacked by Hasdrubal, the Carthaginian commander of southern Spain, who arrived on the scene too late to help Hanno. Hasdrubal was repulsed and withdrew to his base at New Carthage. Thus in his first campaign Scipio prevented reinforcements reaching Hannibal, won a base and commenced the conquest of the district north of the Ebro. The next year, 217, was critical in Spain. Would Hasdrubal break through before the arrival of Roman reinforcements? With all his land forces and fleet he approached the mouth of the Ebro. Notwithstanding the smallness of his fleet Scipio decided to give battle, not only to avoid having his flank turned, but also because command of the sea was essential for further advance southwards, not to mention for precluding the shipping of help to Hannibal. Further, Scipio was reinforced by the Massilians, whose naval prowess was well known and who were eager to safeguard their trade with Spain by checking the power of Carthage at sea. So the Romans sailed forth and engaged and defeated the enemy’s fleet off the mouth of the Ebro. This victory, besides enabling them to cross the Ebro in safety, affected the whole war and Hannibal’s hopes of success. After a feeble demonstration off Italy in the same year, the Carthaginians abandoned any large-scale naval operations, so that Hannibal was left in Italy with Rome as mistress of the seas.12
When the proconsul Publius Scipio had joined his brother in Spain with reinforcements of 20 warships and 8,000 men, they advanced in the autumn across the Ebro and encamped near Saguntum. After this demonstration to impress the Spanish tribes they withdrew to winter-quarters north of the Ebro, having won and garrisoned Intibili and Iliturgi.13 During the next year the war was at a standstill; the Romans consolidated in the north, while Hasdrubal suppressed a serious rising of the Turdetani in the south. But in 215 Hasdrubal, who had received reinforcements, advanced to try his chances. He met the Roman army near Ibera on the Ebro. The situation was critical. A Roman defeat would involve the loss of Spain and allow Hasdrubal to join Hannibal in Italy. Hasdrubal used the same tactics as his brother had at Cannae, but his weak centre of Spanish troops crumpled before his wings could outflank and surround the enemy. The Roman victory was crushing, since Hasdrubal’s best African troops suffered most. The Scipios had won the first victory of the war in pitched battle; an achievement which might well hearten the home government in the gloom caused by Cannae. It strengthened Rome’s prestige in Italy and still more in Spain, where other native tribes revolted from the Carthaginians.
To counteract this defeat the Carthaginians diverted to Spain an army under Hannibal’s brother Mago, which had been destined for Italy. Native risings in North Africa under Syphax, however, involved the temporary recall of Hasdrubal, but by 212 the Carthaginians were able to maintain three armies in Spain under Mago, Hasdrubal Barca and Hasdrubal son of Gisgo. Meanwhile the Scipios had rested on their oars (215–213), because their strength was temporarily exhausted and further advance involved securing a new base and the coast road, while the further south they marched the deeper they penetrated into pro-Carthaginian territory, where to win native support by force would alienate their allies, while to neglect it would endanger their communications. But by 212 their gradual advance was crowned with success, for they won the urgently needed base by capturing Saguntum.14 They could now plan an offensive further south, although the superior forces of the enemy rendered it risky and further penetration would increase the distance from the centre of supplies. But to revert to a defensive policy would involve the sacrifice of their previous conquests and of their new Spanish allies. Trusting these, in 211 they advanced in two divisions against the enemy. This division was probably a mistake, as the united force might have crushed Hasdrubal Barca. They divided to put less strain on the natives of the districts from which they derived supplies. But Gnaeus was the first to learn the fickleness of their Spanish allies, who deserted when he advanced with one-third of the army against Hasdrubal. Forced to retire, he was harassed by the Carthaginian cavalry until the infantry came up and destroyed his forces at Ilorci (modern Lorqui), in a desolate plain surrounded by bleak and arid mountains in the hinterland of New Carthage. Meantime his brother Publius, penetrating probably to the upper courses of the Baetis, was cut off and his army was destroyed in an attempt to break away. Only a remnant under Fonteius at length reached the Ebro, where the soldiers elected as commander a Roman Knight, L. Marcius Septimus.
So fell the Scipios. But they had accomplished much. They had prevented reinforcements reaching Hannibal from Spain; they had inflicted two severe defeats on the enemy, by sea off the Ebro, by land at Ibera; then taking the offensive they had captured Saguntum, and advancing further south had won from Carthage a considerable part of her Spanish empire. But their last gallant attempt overstrained their inadequate resources. The Carthaginians, however, lamentably failed to drive home their victory, for each of the three generals wished to exploit the success for himself and would not co-operate with his colleagues. This saved Rome. Carthage lost a unique chance of sending help to Hannibal. The way was soon to be barred by the arrival of Nero and then barred still more firmly by the future conqueror of Spain.