Ancient History & Civilisation

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SCIPIO AND ROME’S OFFENSIVE

1. SCIPIO’S CONQUEST OF SPAIN

After the disaster of the two Scipios in 211 the Romans lost all Spain south of the Ebro, including presumably Saguntum, while the survivors clung precariously to the Ebro line. Had the Scipios been killed a year earlier, the situation would indeed have been calamitous; but the fall of Syracuse and Capua facilitated the sending of reinforcements. The appointment of Claudius Nero, who had long served in Italy under Fabius’ cautious strategy, suggests that the government envisaged a purely defensive strategy in Spain. Indeed, with his few troops Nero could hardly have acted otherwise. Landing late in 211 he tried during the next year to secure the land north of the Ebro; his hold on the interior was slender, though he possibly caused Hasdrubal Barca some trouble.

But a defensive attitude in Spain might not prevent the ultimate breakthrough of overwhelming forces. A return to the offensive strategy of the Scipios was indicated, if the man to direct it could be found; and who was more fitting to avenge the Scipios than the son of Publius, the future conqueror of Hannibal? Aged twenty-five, courageous, resourceful, self-confident and wise, the young P. Scipio had an extraordinary power of inspiring confidence in others. His character was a blend of the man of action and the religious mystic; his unusual enthusiasm was moderated by Greek culture and Roman common sense. He had fought in Italy, but as he had only held the aedileship (in 213) he was not qualified for a high command. The details of his election are obscure, but he was enthusiastically nominated by the people to a proconsular command in Spain, and the Senate wisely acquiesced. Constitutional precedent was neglected; Scipio was the first privatus to be invested with proconsular Imperium. His colleague, M. Junius Silanus, possessed only propraetorian imperium. Late in 210 he sailed with reinforcements to Spain where his total force, including the Spanish allies, was over 30,000 men.

Scipio spent the winter organizing his army and planning one of the most daring exploits of Roman history. So far from remaining on the defensive, he would strike at the enemy’s heart by swooping on their base, New Carthage (Cartagena). Its capture would be of immense value. It contained the bulk of the Carthaginians’ money and war material and their hostages from the whole of Spain; its harbour was one of the best in the western Mediterranean; and it would give Scipio a base from which to conquer the south. Inheriting the strategic ideals of his father, he realized that a base was essential and that his father had failed because Saguntum was not far enough south. His plan was possible because the three Carthaginian generals were still on bad terms and had wintered apart, Hasdrubal Barca in central Spain, the other Hasdrubal near the mouth of the Tagus, and Mago near Gibraltar; each was ten days’ march from New Carthage. Thus one morning early in 209 the small garrison of the city awoke to find the town beleaguered by land and sea. For Scipio, leaving Silanus to guard his communications, had marched south with his main army at great speed and arrived at the same time as the fleet under his friend Laelius.

The town lay on a peninsula, which ran east and west, within a deep bay which faced south. On the east the peninsula was joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. On the west it was separated from the mainland by a narrow channel which ran north into a large lagoon which spread over the land immediately north of the town. The town was thus surrounded by water on three sides: by the lagoon in the north, by the canal in the west, and by the bay and open sea on the south. On his arrival Scipio encamped on a hill across the eastern isthmus. Next day after beating back a sortie he vigorously assaulted the town from the land side, while the fleet attacked from the south. The first assault failed, but later in the day he renewed the attack and simultaneously sent a party through the lagoon to storm the northern walls while the enemy’s attention was engaged on the other fronts. This lagoon was shallow and in part fordable, but was probably not affected by any tidal action of the sea. When the wading party was about to start, a squall from the north suddenly sprang up and lowered the level of the lagoon by driving the water into the bay. Of this possibility Scipio who had made careful topographical enquiries during the winter may have been aware. To the men, however, it seemed like the direct intervention of heaven, not out of keeping with the mystical self-confidence of their inspired leader. The men raced through the now shallow waters and scaled the deserted battlements, for all attention was focused on Scipio’s frontal attack. Sweeping along the northern wall the escalading party fell on the enemy in the rear. At the same moment the whole defence was crumbling and the naval detachment was scaling the southern walls. So fell the city.1

Thus Scipio had won the key position in Spain. Besides an immense quantity of booty, money and munitions, he gained control of the local silver mines and thus cut deep into the enemy’s revenue. By his wise treatment of the Spanish hostages and prisoners, he obtained more than mere territorial advance. His romantic personality and his generous outlook, like that of Sertorius later, fired the Spaniards’ imagination, so that many native princes came over to him. He spent the rest of the year building up a new model army, drilling it in tactical reforms of far-reaching effect and training it in the use of new weapons. He adopted the Spanish sword and perhaps adapted the javelin (pilum) which led the Romans to the mastery of the civilized world. Meanwhile the three Carthaginian armies abandoned without a blow the eastern shore of Spain and held on to the south and interior.

Scipio now had a base sufficiently far south to justify an offensive in Baetica, where he marched early in 208. Hasdrubal Barca, who was quartered near Castulo, advanced to a strong position south-east of Baecula (Bailen) which he hoped would counterbalance the numerical superiority of the Romans. Scipio occupied the hills opposite, but fearing the arrival of a second Carthaginian army he decided to fight on the ground chosen by Hasdrubal. This was a gradual hill, broken half-way up by a flattish terrace; the front and rear were protected by rivers, the sides by streams or watercourses. The Roman light-armed troops at first engaged the enemy’s covering force on the terrace, while Hasdrubal began to lead his main forces out of the camp down towards it. Scipio sent all his light troops to support the first attack and to engage the enemy’s attention. Meanwhile he divided his main army. Detachments swept up the two valleys onto the terrace and fell on the Carthaginians’ flank before they had formed up. Seeing the day was lost Hasdrubal executed a masterly withdrawal and retired with half or two-thirds of his army. Crossing central Spain and the upper Ebro, he ultimately slipped through the western passes of the Pyrenees on his way to Italy.

Though thwarted strategically, Scipio had won a glorious tactical victory, which was a real turning point in the development of the Roman army. The Romans were learning the lesson of Cannae and being trained to greater flexibility and individual initiative. Tactically the weak point at Baecula was that Scipio’s light troops were not holding the enemy’s main body during the outflanking movement. But that was soon to be remedied. Scipio has often been condemned by ancient and modern critics for allowing Hasdrubal to leave Spain. In the circumstances the charge is unjustified for three reasons. To follow Hasdrubal was too dangerous, if not impossible; and he could not hold all the passes of the Pyrenees. Secondly, Scipio’s object in Spain was to subdue it, not to expose it to the other two Carthaginian armies while he went on a wild goose chase after Hasdrubal; indeed, it is doubtful whether as a mere privatus cum imperio he had the right to leave Spain without orders. Thirdly, the seriousness of Hasdrubal’s arrival in northern Italy in 207 has been over-emphasized; Rome could and did cope with the danger. Scipio solved a difficult situation with marked success.2

After Hasdrubal Barca’s departure for Italy, reinforcements were sent to Spain under Hanno, who joined Mago to recruit further in Celtiberia. They were checked by Silanus who captured Hanno, though Mago escaped and joined Hasdrubal Gisgo near Gades (207). With the threat to his flank now removed, Scipio could advance southwards, but Hasdrubal refused battle. His only hope was delay; so he turned to a Fabian strategy of exhaustion and distributed his army in various towns. Scipio did not waste time with a war of sieges, although as a demonstration his brother Lucius carried by assault a rich and valuable town, Orongis. In 206 the situation was changed. When Hasdrubal Gisgo heard that Hasdrubal Barca had been defeated and killed at Metaurus while seeking to join Hannibal, delay was useless; the fate of Spain must be staked on a pitched battle. Early in the year Scipio met the combined Carthaginian forces near Ilipa (Alcala del Rio, near Seville). For several days both armies faced each other in battle array with their best troops in the centre, their allies on the wings. Early one day Scipio drew up his troops in a different order with the Romans on the wings and a centre of Spaniards. A cavalry attack forced Hasdrubal to lead out his men in their usual formation, before he realized the altered Roman order. It was then too late to change. After a deliberate delay to weary the enemy, who had not breakfasted, Scipio stopped skirmishing and delivered the final blow. His centre advanced slowly, declining battle. Meanwhile his wings, by a complicated manoeuvre, were extended, advanced in column and then wheeled again into line, so that they outflanked the enemy, whose resistance soon crumpled. By a brilliantly rapid pursuit Scipio cut off the enemy’s retreat; though Hasdrubal and Mago escaped, their forces were cut to pieces or else surrendered. No less brilliant were Scipio’s tactics. He had rectified one of the weaknesses of Baecula; he now held the enemy’s main forces while the wings carried out their outflanking movement.3

The rest of the year was spent in diplomatic arrangements and punitive expeditions. To prepare for the future, Scipio slipped across to Africa to interview Syphax, the Numidian sheikh who had been troubling Carthage. On his return he made an example of some Spanish towns, Ilurgia (Illorci), Castax and Astapa (Estepa near Osuna), capturing the first by a brilliant converging attack. A report that Scipio was ill caused a mutiny among troops stationed on his lines of communication at the Sucro, but this was promptly crushed. To steady his men he led them against two Spanish allies who had also profited by his illness to revolt. A brilliant Roman victory up the Ebro restored their loyalty and removed a dangerous threat to Scipio’s flank. An interview with another African prince, Masinissa, and the founding of a colony at Italica (Santaponce, near Seville) for his veterans, completed Scipio’s work in Spain. The final Carthaginian resistance at Gades collapsed and Mago, after a vain attempt on New Carthage, sailed off to the Balearic Isles, where he has left his name enshrined in Mahon, the capital of Minorca. So fell the Carthaginian Empire in Spain, while Scipio returned to Rome conquering and to conquer.

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