Ancient History & Civilisation

3. THE ROMAN OFFENSIVE IN AFRICA

On his return from Spain Scipio was elected consul for 205 amid great popular rejoicings, although he was not granted a triumph, which as a mere privatus cum imperio he could not claim. It was now well known that he wished to carry the war into Africa. When the Senate discussed the allocation of provinces, strong opposition to Scipio’s African project was led by Fabius; but finally a compromise was reached by which one consul should command in Sicily with the right to sail to Africa if he thought fit. As Scipio’s colleague, P. Licinius Crassus, was Pontifex Maximus and could not leave Italy, Scipio had clearly won. But he was still further checked; he was given the command of only the two legions in Sicily, who were the disgraced survivors of Cannae. However, he raised 7,000 volunteers and the Italian allies supplied corn and material for the fitting out of 30 ships, so that he had a good nucleus with which to forge a weapon to strike at Carthage.

Fabius’ opposition to Scipio’s schemes was based on politics and strategy. Politically, he represented a class which did not look beyond Italy for Rome’s future. Such men tried to stem the tide of Hellenism which was flooding Rome and wished to finish the war with all speed and to heal the wounds it had inflicted on the countryside of Italy.8 The other view, as represented by the Scipios, was that a purely Italian policy was obsolete and that Rome must become a Mediterranean power. The military views of the two parties varied correspondingly. The object of the Fabians was ‘limited’: Hannibal was to be forced from Italy. Scipio’s object was more ‘absolute’: the crushing of Hannibal and Carthage. He thought Rome would never be secure until Carthage was humbled and fettered – though not destroyed: the cry ‘delenda est Carthago’ had not yet arisen. The strategy of each party represented its aims. Tactical inferiority forced on Fabius a defensive strategy, which had won him the title Cunctator. But a strategy of exhaustion seldom wins a war. Fabius could only hope that the war might ‘fizzle out’ and Hannibal retire. He could never conquer Carthage. But Scipio by his tactical reforms did not fear to meet Hannibal in the field and could use a strategy of annihilation. To defeat Hannibal in Italy might terminate the war, but Carthage would remain a danger. Hence he determined to disregard the enemy’s main forces, strike at their base and so force Hannibal to return to Africa to fight the decisive battle. And this policy won the day.

Scipio began to train his new army in Sicily where his Hellenic sympathies and conduct won him ready support. His seizure of Locri from Hannibal had an unfortunate sequel, for Pleminius, the governor whom he left in charge, spent his time plundering the unhappy Locrians, and thus gave Fabius a chance to criticize the absent Scipio. A senatorial commission, headed by Scipio’s cousin Pomponius, was sent to conduct an enquiry. Pleminius was condemned, but when the court began to investigate Scipio’s Hellenic manner of life, he skilfully turned the tables by impressing them with his own military preparations. The Board, which had come to criticize, remained to bless, and in the spring of 204 the expeditionary force, numbering perhaps 30,000 men, set sail for Africa amid great enthusiasm.

Scipio landed according to plan at Porto Farina near Utica, which he hoped to capture as a base. He was soon joined by Masinissa and his cavalry, the young Numidian prince with whom he had wisely negotiated in Spain, but not by Syphax, whom Hasdrubal had won to the Carthaginian cause by giving him his beautiful daughter Sophonisba in marriage. After a slight cavalry success Scipio advanced to Utica and encamped on the hill behind the town. Meanwhile Carthage in alarm prepared for a siege and sent out desperate appeals for help to Syphax and Hasdrubal; the latter’s son, Hanno, was busy recruiting. But Masinissa decoyed Hanno’s squadron past some hills to the south-west of Utica at the Tower of Agathocles, while Scipio lay ambushed behind them. Suddenly Scipio’s troops burst forth over a flat saddle of the hills and fell on Hanno’s flank, while Masinissa wheeled round and attacked in front. After this victory Scipio pressed forward the siege of Utica by land and sea, but winter came on and the town still resisted. Threatened by Hasdrubal and Syphax, Scipio withdrew for the winter to a sharp headland projecting into the sea which was later known as the Castra Cornelia.

The first season’s campaign had been somewhat unspectacular and Scipio was driven to an awkward position. His initial caution, however, was quite justified and has been compared with that of Gustavus Adolphus when he landed in Germany. He had wisely refused to contemplate an attack on Carthage before winning an adequate base. During the winter Syphax attempted to negotiate peace on the terms that Carthage should evacuate Italy, and the Romans Africa. Though Scipio had no intention of accepting conditions which would offer Rome no compensation for all her sufferings, he prolonged negotiations in order that his envoys might pay frequent visits to the enemy’s quarters and obtain detailed topographical information, for Syphax and Hasdrubal were encamped during the winter on two adjacent hills; these formed the southern termination of the ridge which in the north ended at the Castra Cornelia, some six miles away.

In the spring of 203 Scipio broke off negotiations and renewed the blockade of Utica. When the enemies’ suspicions were lulled, he launched an attack as sudden as his dash on Cartagena. One night he marched under cover of the hills against the enemies’ camps, which he learnt were made of osier and reed. While he himself held back, Masinissa surrounded Syphax’ camp and Laelius set fire to it. When the Carthaginians in Hasdrubal’s camp, thinking the fire was accidental, rushed out to help, Scipio fell on this camp also. The two enemy leaders escaped, but a large part of their armies was destroyed. Polybius believed that no other disaster, even if exaggerated, could compare with the horror of this night. For the Romans success was complete. Instead of being confined to a narrow peninsula, Scipio had taken the offensive and with practically no loss had crushed superior forces.

At Carthage alarm prevailed, for Scipio was not only renewing the siege of Utica but now commanded the open country. Yet the bolder counsels of the war party predominated and it was decided to recruit a fresh army out of Scipio’s reach. Within a month of the disaster Hasdrubal and Syphax had mustered some 20,000 men at the Great Plains (near Souk el Kremis) on the upper reaches of the Bagradas, seventy-five miles from Utica. They were still gathering strength in the quiet of the desert when suddenly Scipio struck. Leaving part of his army to continue the siege of Utica, he set out with some 12,000 men in light marching order, and in five days camped opposite the enemy. Trusting in their superior numbers and local knowledge the Carthaginians unwisely determined to fight; guerrilla tactics would have been safer. Thinking that they had Scipio within their grasp, they advanced to battle, with their Celtiberian mercenaries in the centre, the Carthaginians on the right wing, the Numidians on the left. Scipio placed his infantry in the centre in the usual three lines, the Italian cavalry on the right wing, Masinissa’s horse on the left. At the first encounter the enemy’s wings gave way and exposed the flanks of the centre which stood firm. Under cover of the first line the two rear lines of the Romans turned into column, half to right and half to left, and marched out to encircle the Celtiberians, who were cut to pieces. It was a great tactical victory. Not only were Scipio’s troops more flexible, but he had used his legionaries (not merely the cavalry) to outflank the foe; at the same time the enemy’s centre was not merely held at bay, as at Ilipa, but was actually engaged. Scipio could now do what Hannibal had done at Cannae; he had trained an army to meet the master tactician.

Scipio next captured Tunis, only fifteen miles from Carthage, where he could command the enemy’s land communications. The Carthaginians made a desperate counter-attack on his fleet at Utica, but he marched there just in time to thwart it. He did not, however, return to Tunis immediately. Meantime Laelius and Masinissa had pursued Syphax to his own country and defeated him near Cirta (Constantine), which they captured. Syphax was taken prisoner, but his wife Sophonisba took poison.9 The situation at Carthage was now desperate and Hannibal was at length recalled to defend his country. But the peace party of merchants and landowners prevailed and peace was sought. Scipio, who did not aim at the destruction of Carthage itself, offered terms: Carthage was to evacuate and renounce Italy, Gaul and Spain; surrender her navy, except 20 ships; pay an indemnity of 5,000 talents; and recognize the power of Masinissa in the west and the autonomy of the native tribes of Libya and Cyrenaica in the east. The terms were severe and would reduce Carthage to a purely African power, crippled in her trade, nominally independent, but in practice little more than a client state of Rome. But she accepted them, an armistice was made and the Senate after some delay ratified the treaty (winter 203–202). The delay was ominous for Scipio; it meant that rival noble families grudged him his success and were working against him. The war seemed at an end, but Hannibal was returning.

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