Ancient History & Civilisation



Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (c. 236–184 BC)

My mother bore a general (imperator), not a warrior (bellator).1

ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING ASPECTS OF THE SECOND PUNIC WAR WAS the willingness of the Roman Senate to dispatch armies to fight in several theatres simultaneously, and the persistence with which these campaigns were prosecuted even when Hannibal was on the loose in Italy and the issue of the war very much in doubt. Over time, the efforts of Fabius, Marcellus and others in Italy denied the Carthaginians victory, but the sum of their achievements was still essentially to prevent Rome from losing the conflict. Campaigns in Spain, Sicily and Macedonia prevented more than a trickle of reinforcements and supplies from reaching Hannibal’s army, and so supported the Roman war effort against him. Yet in the end it was these theatres which proved decisive, for Roman victories in Spain and Sicily made possible the invasion of Africa, which in turn led to the recall of Hannibal and, ultimately, the capitulation of Carthage.

The burden of maintaining a war on so many separate fronts was made possible by the great resources of the Roman Republic, although these were stretched almost to breaking point. Roman society was geared to warfare in a way that Carthage was not, but this should not lead us to understate the broader strategic vision and grim determination with which the Senate oversaw the conflict. They also adopted a pragmatic approach to political convention, permitting the multiple consulships of veterans like Marcellus and Fabius. In 210 BC they granted proconsular imperium and command of the war in Spain to the 27-year-old Publius Cornelius Scipio. There was no precedent for such a responsible position being given to so young a man, but the choice soon proved to have been exceedingly good. It was Scipio who drove the Carthaginians from Spain, and then took an army across to Africa where he won victory after victory, finally defeating Hannibal himself at Zama in 202 BC.

It is easy with hindsight to underestimate just how startling a reversal of fortune Scipio’s campaigns brought about. In 211 BC the Roman armies in Spain, which until now had enjoyed steady success, were almost annihilated. A remnant managed to cling to a small patch of land north of the River Ebro, fighting off Punic attempts to dislodge them. Scipio brought only modest reinforcements, bringing his total forces roughly up to the strength of a consular army, and was faced by three Carthaginian armies of a similar or larger size. Yet, within the space of four campaigning seasons, he had driven the Carthaginians entirely from the peninsula. Later, in Africa, he would outwit and outmanoeuvre significantly larger Punic armies, demonstrating the same sort of superiority over them which Hannibal had shown over the Roman commanders who had first faced him in Italy. He adopted the name Africanus, as a permanent reminder that he was the man who had ended the war with Carthage.

The Second Punic War dominated Scipio’s life. He was 17 when it began, and took part in the first action of the Italian campaign at Ticinus. Later he was probably at Trebia, possibly at Trasimene, and certainly at Cannae. Like all aristocrats of his generation he underwent longer periods of more arduous military service than any Romans either before or afterwards. If not killed, or crippled by wounds or disease, these men gained at an early age far more military experience than most senators had had in a lifetime. Nearly all became capable officers, and many proved exceptionally gifted. Scipio stood out even amongst his peers. By the time that the war ended he was only in his mid-thirties, and yet had spent much of his life on campaign, commanding an army for eight years, fighting and winning five major battles, as well as countless smaller engagements and sieges. The catalogue of his achievements dwarfed those of any other senator, yet, although he had already held the office in 205, he was still technically too young to be consul. The Republic, which had been glad enough of his services during the Second Punic War, struggled to find a place for him once it had finished, for its political system was supposed to prevent any one individual from gaining too much power or influence. Under normal circumstances he could expect another thirty or so years of active public life, but the world of the early second century BC presented no opportunities to equal, let alone surpass his earlier deeds. In the end he was forced out of politics into an embittered retirement, dying a disappointed man at a comparatively young age.


Sensitive, intelligent and charismatic, Scipio had the boundless self-confidence of a patrician who knew from childhood that he was destined to play a prominent role in Rome’s public life. Some of the stories about his early life have much in common with the tales told about Hellenistic princes and kings. Later, a myth identical to one associated with Alexander the Great even grew up hinting at divine parentage, claiming that his mother had been discovered lying with an enormous snake. Scipio was certainly an openly pious man, who when he was young developed the habit of going before dawn to sit in solitary silence in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol.2 Later he would openly claim that his plans were sometimes guided by dreams sent by the gods. Polybius, a rational Greek who felt that the Romans were inclined towards excessive superstition, argued that Scipio did not actually believe his own claims, but understood that the less sophisticated were readily swayed by such things. The historian lived in the household of Africanus’ grandson by adoption, Scipio Aemilianus, and so had access to family traditions and lore. He also met the elderly Laelius, who had been Africanus’ close friend. Yet it is not easy to know whether he correctly understood Africanus, or mistakenly ascribed to him the attitudes of his own, more cynical age. Scipio certainly had a genius for theatrical gestures and his true views may well have been complex, and neither simply manipulative nor wholly sincere.3

Scipio’s father, also called Publius, was consul in 218 and, like many sons, he accompanied his father on campaign as a tent-companion or contubernalis. The practice was seen as a good way for young aristocrats to gain early military experience. Most of the consul’s army went on to Spain under the command of his older brother Cnaeus (Marcellus’ colleague as consul in 222), but Scipio returned to Italy with his father when the latter discovered that Hannibal was moving to cross the Alps. In November 218, the consul led his cavalry and light infantry (velites) across the River Ticinus to locate the enemy position and discover his strength and intentions. Encountering a numerically larger and better trained force of Punic cavalry led by Hannibal himself, the Romans were routed. The consul was wounded and family tradition maintained that he had been saved from death only by the intervention of his son. According to Polybius, the young Publius had been given command of a picked troop of horsemen and stationed at the rear out of harm’s way. Seeing his father isolated with just a few bodyguards and threatened by numbers of enemy cavalry, Scipio urged his troop to ride to the rescue. The men refused, and it was only after he had spurred his horse forward in a lone charge that they were shamed into following. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, claimed that the consul subsequently offered his son the corona civica, but that Scipio refused. However, Livy mentions another version of the story given in the lost history of Coelius: that the consul’s rescuer was in fact a Ligurian slave, although he says that most authorities credited Scipio with the deed.4

When the elder Scipio recovered from his wound he went as a proconsul to join his brother Cnaeus in Spain. His son remained in Italy, and in 216 was a military tribune in the Second Legion, one of eight such units mustered under the joint command of the year’s consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Caius Terentius Varro. Scipio was married to – or would soon marry, the chronology is uncertain – Paullus’ daughter, Aemilia, so that in one sense this was another instance of the common practice of young aristocrats gaining military experience in an army led by a relative. However, a very high proportion of Rome’s aristocracy volunteered for service in this year, joining the great army which was intended to confront and overwhelm the enemy who had humiliated the Republic. The result was not what the Romans had anticipated, for at Cannae Hannibal’s outnumbered army surrounded and all but annihilated the massive Roman force. Casualties were appalling, and especially high amongst the senatorial families. Paullus was killed, as were over eighty senators, including Minucius Rufus, Fabius’ Magister Equitum, and more than half of the military tribunes. Scipio survived, and was one of four tribunes who found themselves with the largest body of fugitives at the nearby town of Canusium.

Although one of the other tribunes was Fabius Maximus’ son, who would himself be elected to the consulship in 213, command devolved upon the two youngest men, Scipio and Appius Claudius. The latter had been aedile recently, but it was their continued confidence and sheer force of personality, rather than any great experience, which caused the others to follow their lead. The scale of the holocaust engendered panic in many of the survivors. One group of young noblemen, including the sons of distinguished magistrates, were openly speaking of abandoning the doomed Republic and fleeing abroad. Scipio went with a few reliable soldiers to the quarters – presumably a house in the town – of their leader Quintus Caecilius Metellus, where the deserters were behaving in a typically Roman way and holding a council (consilium) to discuss what to do. Bursting into the room, the 20-year-old tribune stood sword in hand and swore a solemn oath to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, inviting dreadful retribution on himself and his family should he break it. The oath declared that not only would he never desert the Republic, but that he would not permit anyone else to do so and would kill them if necessary. One by one, he made each of his stunned audience swear the same oath. Over the next few days more stragglers came into the town, so that, by the time the surviving consul came to take charge, there was a force of over 10,000 men mustered there. It was a pitiful remnant of the 86,000 strong force which had marched out to battle on the morning of 2 August, but it was a beginning.5

In the aftermath of Cannae Scipio had personified the virtus expected of a Roman aristocrat, and especially a member of such a distinguished family, faced with adversity. His behaviour was all the more noticeable when other members of his class began to waver. The Romans accepted that they would sometimes suffer defeats, but refused to concede that these could ever be final. All citizens, and especially the high-born, were expected to fight bravely, but, as long as they had done so, there was no shame in having been defeated. A leader faced with defeat and disaster was not expected to die fighting, unless there was no way out, nor to commit suicide. Instead he was to begin to rebuild the army’s strength, salvaging as many men as possible from the chaos of a lost battle, and preparing for the next encounter with the enemy. For there would always be a next time, and eventually Rome would win. This was the spirit linking Fabius and Marcellus, in spite of their radically different approaches to facing Hannibal, for neither man ever openly questioned the assumption that Rome would keep fighting or that she might not eventually win. Virtus meant that any setbacks, however appalling, must be endured and the war continued until ultimate victory was achieved. When Varro, the consul widely blamed for the disaster at Cannae, returned to Rome, he was formally greeted by the Senate and thanked for ‘not having despaired of the Republic’.6

In 213 Scipio was elected to the post of curule aedile, but little else is known about his career after 216. It is probable that he underwent further military service given the high levels of mobilization in these years. However, it is not until he was appointed to the Spanish command in 210 that our sources once again describe his activity. In the previous year his uncle and father had both been killed, when the defection of their Celtiberian allies left the Roman armies in Spain dangerously exposed and massively outnumbered. A remnant of the army rallied under the leadership of an equestrian officer named Lucius Marcius and managed to cling on to a corner of north-eastern Spain, but most of Rome’s allies defected to the enemy. The Senate sent Caius Claudius Nero to take command and he seems to have won some small-scale actions, before returning to Italy within the year. There appears to have been considerable uncertainty over the choice of a successor. Many of the more ambitious and distinguished Roman commanders – and it should not be forgotten that the casualties incurred in the war so far did mean that there were fewer distinguished men left alive and fit for service – had no enthusiasm for a posting to Spain. The situation in the peninsula was bad, the resources likely to be committed there modest. From 218–211 Cnaeus and Publius Scipio had repeatedly complained to the Senate that they were not given sufficient men or funds to defeat the enemy. Unable to reach a consensus on a suitable commander, Livy claims that the Senate had recourse to deciding the issue by election and so convened the Comitia Centuriata. At first no candidates came forward, until suddenly Scipio announced his desire to stand and was elected unanimously. However, his youth – he was in his mid-twenties – and inexperience began to make many citizens wonder if they had acted unwisely and it was only after Scipio had made a speech that they were reassured. Livy’s narrative is extremely strange, for there is no evidence of the Romans ever acting in a similar manner on another occasion, so that many scholars have rejected this version of events. One suggestion is that the Senate had already decided to choose Scipio and then held a public vote to grant some official legitimacy to what was a highly unorthodox appointment. Whatever the actual details, Publius Cornelius Scipio was dispatched to command in Spain as a proconsul.7


Scipio landed at Emporion – a Greek colony in Spain which had been allied to the Romans from before the war – with some 10,000 or so reinforcements, which brought the total Roman strength in the province to 28,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. There were three Carthaginian field armies in the peninsula, each one equal or superior to this force, and commanded respectively by Hannibal’s brothers Hasdrubal and Mago, and Hasdrubal son of Gisgo. Yet the young Roman commander was supremely confident. Before he left Rome he had come to the conclusion that the disaster of 211 had not been the result of any Carthaginian brilliance. His father and uncle had recruited 20,000 Celtiberian allies for their final campaign. Emboldened by this great increase in strength, they split their forces into two and operated independently. When the Celtiberians proved unreliable and deserted en masse, each of the brothers had been attacked separately and overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. Scipio determined not to repeat the same mistake, and went to Spain determined to act aggressively rather than simply remaining on the defensive and clinging to the small region still controlled by Rome.8

Polybius had read and referred to a letter written by Scipio to King Philip V of Macedon, in which he explained how he planned this first operation in Spain. In 210 Rome was at war with Macedonia, a conflict which ended in 205 but was renewed almost as soon as the Second Punic War was complete, so this correspondence must date to the beginning of the next century. It may well have been written in 190, when Scipio accompanied his brother on campaign in Asia Minor and their army received aid and support from Philip V, who had been defeated in 197 and was now Rome’s ally. It is more than likely, then, that this source was written twenty years after the events it described and quite possibly reflects the assurance of hindsight, so that it must be treated with the same caution as the recollections of more recent commanders. Nevertheless this is the first time that we have even a hint at what a Roman general was actually thinking when he planned a campaign.9

Once in Spain, Scipio began to gather more information about the enemy’s strength and dispositions. The reports were encouraging. The three Punic armies had separated and were operating some distance apart. Hasdrubal Gisgo was in Lusitania (roughly equivalent to modern-day Portugal) near the mouth of the River Tagus. Hasdrubal Barca was engaged in the siege of a town of the Carpetani in central Spain, whilst his brother Mago was probably stationed in the extreme south-west of the peninsula, although an apparent contradiction in Polybius’ text makes it a little hard to locate his position precisely.10 Now that the Romans’ capacity for offensive action in Spain appeared virtually destroyed, there was no good reason for the Carthaginians to keep their strength concentrated, greatly increasing the on-going problem of keeping their troops supplied. The move was hastened by friction between the three generals and also the growing need to suppress rebellions amongst the tribes allied to or subject to Carthage. Punic rule appears to have grown much harsher and more exploitative once the fear of defections to Rome was removed. There was now little love for Carthage amongst the tribes, but for the moment there remained respect for Punic military might. When Roman fortunes began to revive many would seek alliance with Rome and provide Scipio with valuable contingents of troops, although he held firmly to his original resolve of not becoming over-reliant on their aid.

Scipio had decided to launch an offensive, and one of the Punic field armies offered an obvious target for this. His own army was strong enough to face and defeat any one of these forces so long as he was able to give battle in reasonably favourable circumstances. Yet ensuring that it did so would take careful manoeuvring and, most probably, time. The formal battles of this period rarely occurred without days or weeks of delay once the armies had closed. When one side occupied a strong position and refused to leave it, few commanders would risk an attack. Even Hannibal, for all his genius, was unable to lure Fabius Maximus into battle and unwilling to fight on ground chosen by the Roman. However bitter the disputes between the Carthaginian generals may have been, they would most certainly not wait passively for Scipio to defeat each of them in turn. Therefore, as soon as the Roman presence was discovered, messengers would be dispatched summoning aid. If Scipio could not fight and win his battle within a couple of weeks of closing with the enemy – and the expectation of reinforcement would doubtless deter his Punic counterpart from risking a battle – then he would find himself seriously outnumbered and facing a disaster similar to the ones which had overwhelmed his father and uncle.

Therefore, instead of singling out one of the Punic field armies and seeking a decisive battle, Scipio resolved to strike at the enemy’s most important base in Spain, the city of New Carthage (modern Cartagena). Founded by Hannibal’s father Hamilcar as the seat of government for the Punic province in Spain, and the base from which he had begun his epic march to Italy in 218, New Carthage was a strong symbol of Punic, and especially Barcid, pride. Virtually all Carthaginian colonies included a harbour, but the one at New Carthage was bigger and better provided than any other in Spain. Apart from the records and treasury of the provincial government, the city contained hostages taken from the noble families of many Spanish communities. There were also considerable stores of food and military equipment, as well as the factories and skilled labour force to produce more of the latter. All in all, New Carthage was an attractive target, one whose capture would strike a massive moral blow to the enemy as well as weakening his war-making capacity whilst greatly enhancing that of the Romans.

Each of the Carthaginian field armies was at least ten days’ march away from the city, and its garrison of trained soldiers was comparatively small. Yet New Carthage was still a fortified city and one defended on one side by the sea and on another by a salt lake, so that it could only be approached from the land across a narrow isthmus. Fortified places rarely fell to direct assault in this period. Sieges were more successful, although still uncertain, but a siege would take months and Scipio would have at best a few weeks before one or more of the enemy armies arrived. Quicker results came from treachery, but there was no prospect of that. Scipio did, however, receive a piece of information which was to prove vital. He had sought out fishermen and sailors from the allied city of Tarraco (Tarragona), men who regularly sailed along the coast as far as New Carthage. This in itself was an indication of the care with which the Roman general was preparing his campaign. These men told him that the lake to the north of the city could be forded at a certain place, and that the water level dropped even further in the evening. What the fishermen could not tell him was how his men could fight their way over the north wall of the city once they had waded across to it.

As he spent the winter visiting his troops, overseeing their training, and touring Rome’s few remaining allies, Scipio resolved on attacking the city, but as yet confided only in his close friend and senior subordinate, Laelius. Openly he praised his troops, scorned the Carthaginians’ achievements in the last two campaigns and spoke of the opportunity for bold action against them in the spring. He took particular care to praise and honour Lucius Marcius, the equestrian who had risen through sheer force of personality to command the survivors of the Roman armies after the disaster in 211, but had then upset the Senate by styling himself as ‘propraetor’ in his letters to them. At the beginning of the campaigning season he concentrated his forces near the mouth of the River Ebro. Only 3,000 foot and 500 horse were to be left behind to defend the area still loyal to Rome. The main force of 25,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry advanced across the river under Scipio’s direct command. A squadron of thirty-five war galleys, many of them undermanned, sailed under Laelius to rendezvous with the army at New Carthage.11

The details of the first phase of the operation are a little obscure. Polybius tells us that Scipio arrived outside New Carthage on the seventh day of a rapid march. The text implies, although unlike Livy it does not explicitly state, that they had begun at the Ebro. Elsewhere he informs us that the distance from New Carthage to the Ebro was 2,600 stades or 312 miles, which would imply an average speed of some 45 miles a day. This would be remarkably fast, especially for an army with baggage, and it may be that the figure is either wrong or describes only the last phase of the approach from some nearer spot. Yet the march probably was rapid by the standards of the day and went smoothly, army and fleet meeting outside the enemy stronghold as planned. It is not known at what point Scipio revealed their objective to his senior officers.12

New Carthage lay on a headland with the lake to the north and the bay which formed its natural harbour to the south. A canal connected the two. The city was surrounded by a curtain wall some 2.5 miles in circumference – a detail which Polybius tells us he had confirmed himself when he visited the place – and included five hills, one of which was topped by the citadel. The garrison commander, another Mago, had 1,000 regular troops, backed by a levy of male townsfolk, some 2,000 of whom were reasonably well equipped and confident. Scipio camped on the high ground at the end of the narrow neck of land facing towards the main gate. He ordered the construction of an earth rampart fronted by a ditch from one side of the isthmus to the other at the rear of his camp, but deliberately left unfortified the front nearest the city. It was an expression of confidence, but not a great risk, since the high ground would give his men a clear advantage against any sally. Scipio prepared for the assault, telling his men of the importance of the city, and promising lavish rewards to the brave, most notably the mural crown (corona muralis) to the first man over the walls. He also proclaimed that Neptune had appeared to him a dream, the sea god promising that when the time was right he would come to their aid. Polybius once again viewed this as a cynical ploy.13


The attack began at the third hour on the next day. It went in from two directions, Laelius’ ships rowing into the harbour and assaulting from the sea, whilst a storming party of 2,000 soldiers supported by ladder-bearers attacked from their camp. Mago had divided his regulars between the citadel and another hill, topped by a temple to the god of healing, Aesculapius, and facing towards the harbour. The best part of the levy were posted ready to attack from the main gate, whilst the remainder were distributed around the walls and provided with a good supply of missiles to hurl at the enemy. Almost as soon as Scipio sounded the trumpet call which sent the main storming party into the attack, Mago ordered the armed civilians to sally out from the main gate, hoping to break up the impetus of the Roman assault before it had even reached the city wall.

A striking feature of many ancient sieges was the willingness of the defender to leave the security of his fortifications and fight in the open. It was an expression of confidence, intended to intimidate the besieger, and served the practical purpose of delaying the real assault. On such a narrow frontage it was difficult for the Romans to bring their greater numbers into play immediately, and there was certainly no question of the Carthaginians being outflanked. In the initial confrontation 2,000 defenders faced a similar number of Romans. Probably deliberately, as he hoped to inflict heavy casualties on the boldest of the defenders, Scipio had held his men back close to the camp so that the fighting lines clashed about a quarter of a mile from the city walls.

The Carthaginians may have lacked training, but they displayed considerable enthusiasm and at first the combat seemed even. To the noise of the fighting was added the cheering of the defenders on the walls and the unengaged Roman troops as they urged on their sides. Yet Scipio had the bulk of his army formed and waiting in reserve only a short distance from the fighting line, and gradually fed in more and more fresh troops. Mago had few reserves to send to the aid of his men, and those few had to leave the city by the single gate and had much further to go before they could join the combat. The Carthaginians began to be driven back, and as the pressure increased eventually they collapsed into rout. The vast majority of casualties in ancient battles were inflicted at this moment, when one side fled from close contact and was pursued by an exultant and vengeful enemy. The sally which had begun so well ended in chaos as a mob of fugitives fled for the sanctuary of the single gate. The panic spread to many of those watching from the top of the wall, and for a while it seemed that the Romans might break into the city, intermingled with the routers.

Scipio had been supervising the battle from an elevated position in front of his camp on the high ground. Seeing the defenders’ confusion, he sent men and ladder parties to escalade the city wall. The general went with them, but he was no Marcellus, charging sword in hand at the head of his troops. Polybius tells us that

Scipio took part in the battle, but consulted his safety as far as possible; for he had with him three men carrying large shields, who holding these close covered the surface exposed to the wall and thus afforded him protection. So that passing along the side of his line on higher ground he contributed greatly to the success of the day, for he could both see what was going on and being seen by all his men inspired the combatants with greater spirit.14

Staying close to the fighting without getting directly involved, Scipio performed the two roles which were to characterize the Roman style of command for many centuries. As a general he paid attention to the large and small details of the battle, intervening even in minor tactical decisions when necessary, but always maintaining a sense of the wider battle. As a leader, and a leader who had promised great rewards to the brave, he acted as a witness to his men’s behaviour. Polybius elsewhere emphasized that the rewards lavished on those who performed conspicuous acts of bravery, and the punishments inflicted on the cowardly, were major factors in maintaining the Roman army’s fighting spirit and aggression. Roman soldiers fought better when they believed that their individual behaviour was being observed by their commanders. In the first century BC the historian Sallust praised the warlike spirit of past generations, claiming that ‘the greatest competition for glory was between themselves; each man strove to be the first to kill an enemy, to scale an enemy wall, and most of all to be seen performing such a feat.’15 This desire for an audience to watch and praise brave deeds was a survival of the old heroic ethos which would have been familiar to Homer’s warriors. It was the spirit which had inspired the conduct of Marcellus and many Roman generals before him, but which Scipio deliberately set himself outside. As Polybius said, he had already proved his physical courage at Ticinus and Cannae, and had rightly decided that there were more important things for a general to do. Thus he concentrated on directing the battle, doing this from close quarters because this gave him the best opportunity of judging how things were going, but taking care to minimize the risk to himself.

Taking a high and defended wall by escalade was never an easy task. In the initial chaos following the rout of the Carthaginian sally, the Romans were able to reach the foot of the wall and set up their ladders, but the wall was the highest and strongest part of the city’s defences and a few defenders remained. Some ladders broke apart under the weight of the soldiers climbing them, others were pushed away by the Carthaginians. It is possible that other ladders were too short, for it was always extremely difficult for the attackers to calculate the necessary length before an attack. At Syracuse, Marcellus’ men had used a period of negotiation to count the number of courses of stone in one section of the city’s walls. Multiplying this by their estimate of the size of an individual stone, they had successfully calculated the height and constructed their ladders accordingly.16

A barrage of missiles greeted the soldiers trying to climb this wall and the men of the fleet attacking from the sea. In time, many of the defenders who had panicked were rallied and returned to join their comrades on the wall. Every Roman attempt to break into the city was thwarted and their casualties mounted. After some time, Scipio judged that his men were too weary to continue and called off the attacks, withdrawing the soldiers to their camp where they rested and reformed. Mago and his defenders were elated, feeling that they had beaten off the enemy’s main attack, and could only look on in dismay when, later in the day, the Romans renewed their assault. Fresh ladders were brought forward in even greater quantity than before and the legionaries attacked with redoubled enthusiasm. Yet, even though the defenders had largely exhausted their ready supply of missiles, the Romans were still unable to fight their way over the wall.

It was now late in the day and the tide in the lagoon was beginning to drop. During the lull Scipio had prepared a fresh unit of 500 picked men to ford across and assault the wall from a new direction. He went with the soldiers to the edge of the lagoon and encouraged them to step boldly into the ebbing water, but, holding to his resolve to direct the battle and not get directly involved, he did not lead the attack. Guides, presumably some of the fishermen from Tarraco, took the party into the lake and showed them the route across. They reached the wall without difficulty and found it unguarded and not especially high, for attack from such a direction was considered unlikely and the defenders had all been drawn away to oppose the other attacks. Setting their ladders against it, they climbed to the top and began to march along the walkway towards the main gate. The few defenders encountered were easily killed or driven off, the long body-shield and short stabbing sword of the Roman legionaries being especially well suited to fighting in such a confined space.

Some of the main attacking force had seen their comrades rushing across an apparently deep lake, and witnessing such an apparent miracle had remembered Scipio’s claim that Neptune would aid them. With renewed enthusiasm they pressed against the walls. One party raised their shields over their heads to form a testudo and advanced to the gate, men in the front rank bearing axes to chop through its timbers. In the meantime, the 500 attacked the defenders of this position from behind. Panic was almost immediate and the defence collapsed. Romans hacked at the gate from both sides until it was shattered, whilst more and more men were able to swarm up the ladders and across the wall. Perhaps because of a general slackening in the enthusiasm of the Carthaginians or maybe solely through their own efforts, at about the same time Laelius’ sailors also scaled the wall near the harbour.

The Romans were through the main circuit of defences, but that did not mean that their victory was certain. Mago’s regulars seem to have played little role in the defence and remained in control of the citadel. Ancient cities tended to be crowded, with very narrow streets running amongst a maze of buildings. Once inside, it was very difficult for the leaders of an attacking army to control their troops or respond to any new threat. If a defender was able to rally enough men or possessed still formed reserves, then it was more than possible that the attackers would be driven out once again. Scipio entered the city through the main gate almost as soon as this had been cleared. From outside he could neither see what was going on nor do anything to influence the course of events. Most of his army poured into the narrow streets and alleys, with orders to kill everyone they met, but not to begin looting until instructed by signal. Polybius tells us that this was the normal Roman practice, and suspected that it was intended to terrify, ‘so that when towns are taken by the Romans one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half, and the dismembered limbs of animals, and on this occasion such scenes were very many owing to the numbers of those in the place.’17 The Roman sack of a city was extremely brutal, and the roots of these customs probably date back to the early predatory warfare of the archaic period. Massacre was intended to give the defenders no chance to rally and return to the fight. Plundering was restricted and regulated so that all of the Roman army would benefit equally, and this assurance helped to keep the various sections of the attacking force at their appointed task.

Whilst much of the army dispersed to spread fear and slaughter throughout the city, Scipio kept a body of fresh troops formed up and under his tight personal control. After passing through the main gateway they followed the principal road into the open marketplace. From there he dispatched one detachment against one of the hills which still seemed to be defended, and led the main force of 1,000 against the Carthaginian mercenaries holding the citadel. After a brief resistance, Mago surrendered. Once the citadel was secure, and all formal resistance over, the trumpet was sounded to turn the men from slaughter to pillage. Each maniple was supposed systematically to plunder an area, all of the spoils being taken back to the marketplace, the whole process being supervised by the tribunes. Scipio and his 1,000 men occupied the citadel throughout the night, whilst other troops were on guard in the camp. When the booty was auctioned off – largely to the Roman traders and businessmen who accompanied any Roman field army, but possibly also to some locals – the profits were distributed to the entire army, each man receiving a share in proportion to his rank. Perhaps even more important than this financial reward was the parade at which those who had distinguished themselves were decorated and publicly lauded by their commander. At one stage a dispute between the fleet and the legions over who had been first to reach the top of the city walls threatened almost to spill over into violence, until Scipio declared that the rival claimants, Sextus Digitius from the navy and the centurion Quintus Trebellius of the Fourth Legion, had reached the top at the same moment and gave each man the corona muralis.18

The capture of the city was a remarkable achievement, especially as the first operation of a new commander with no experience of leading a force of this size. Its boldness was characteristically Roman, but the careful planning and preparation which had underlain his rapid drive into enemy territory were symptoms of greater military sophistication than had been shown in most earlier campaigns. There has been some scholarly debate over the precise nature of the natural phenomenon which permitted his men to cross the lagoon, in part because our sources are somewhat contradictory in this respect. The main controversy concerns whether the phenomenon was a daily occurrence or the occasional result of the wind blowing from a certain direction. If it was the latter, then it is suggested that Scipio was relying on fortune. If it was a regular and predictable occurrence, as our most reliable source Polybius clearly believed, then some have wondered why the Romans did not attack from this direction at the same time as they launched their first assault. Such a view misunderstands the difficulty of capturing a line of fortifications by escalade. Though the wall facing the lagoon was lower than elsewhere, it is unlikely that the attack would have succeeded if it had been held by even a small number of defenders. The Roman attacks were intended to draw the Carthaginians’ attention away from this vulnerable spot, and therefore needed to be delivered in full force, in spite of the high cost in casualties. There was always the slight chance that they would succeed on their own, as the fleet’s attack may actually have done. More importantly, Scipio gambled on these gaining and holding Mago’s attention so that the attack from the lake was likely to be successful.

New Carthage’s capture utterly changed the balance of power in Spain. In practical terms Scipio gained considerable military resources, ranging from artillery to another eighteen warships to add to the fleet, their crews made up of captured slaves who were promised their freedom if they served faithfully. Much of the population was set free, but 2,000 artisans were declared public slaves and set to produce weapons and equipment for the Roman army, and these men were also given the promise of freedom when victory was achieved. About 300 hostages from the noble families of Spain also fell into Roman hands. The stories of Scipio’s honourable treatment of these people, most especially the noblewomen amongst them, echo the tales of Alexander the Great’s capture of ladies of the Persian royal household. The women were placed under his personal protection and, in spite of the young Roman’s reputation as a womanizer, not molested in any way. One story claimed that the legionaries found an especially beautiful girl and brought her to their commander, but that, after thanking them, he refused to take advantage of the situation and restored her to her parents. Livy tells an even more romantic version in which the girl was returned to her betrothed, Scipio personally assuring the young aristocrat that her virtue was intact. The restoration of the hostages to their families set in course a round of diplomacy which would prompt an increasing number of tribes to ally with Rome.19

New Carthage gave Scipio a base in southern Spain and brought him more resources than he could expect to receive from Italy. The war effort in the peninsula was from now onwards to a great extent self-sustaining. Although the number of his Roman and Italian troops remained essentially the same, these were well clothed, equipped and fed and, as the commander imposed a rigorous training programme on them in the months after the capture of New Carthage, highly disciplined. However many allied soldiers were acquired, the core of the army remained the two legions and alae and it was these who would play the critical role in all his subsequent successes.


In 208 Scipio led his highly trained army against Hasdrubal Barca. It is a little difficult to tell from our sources whether the resultant action at Baecula was a full-scale battle, but what is clear is that the Roman and Italian troops outmanoeuvred their opponents. Scipio’s victory may have been marginal, and Hasdrubal was soon to begin his journey to join his brother in Italy, but it may be that the Romans inflicted serious losses upon him and made that expedition much more difficult. Hasdrubal left Spain, removing one of the Punic field armies from the peninsula and further shifting the balance of power in Rome’s favour. Although he reached Italy, he rapidly discovered that the Romans were far better prepared than had been the case in 218. The new Carthaginian invasion was rapidly confronted by superior numbers of well-trained and led Roman troops and utterly defeated at Metaurus in 207. Hannibal only became aware of his brother’s arrival when enemy horsemen hurled Hasdrubal’s severed head into his camp. As these events were occurring in Italy, Scipio achieved a series of minor victories in Spain, but his main offensive failed to draw Hasdrubal Gisgo into a pitched battle.20

By 206 Hasdrubal had become a lot more confident. Joining forces with Mago Barca, they together fielded an army of 70,000 infantry (although Livy gives the figure as only 50,000), 4,000–4,500 cavalry, some of them the superb Numidian light horse led by Prince Masinissa, and thirty-two elephants. This represented the bulk of the mercenaries in Spain, supported by many less disciplined and skilful contingents provided by Carthage’s allies and subjects. There was little time for the Punic commanders to integrate these elements into a cohesive whole, so this great host would manoeuvre clumsily, but its sheer size was daunting. Scipio was able to lead against it 45,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. He was therefore somewhat outnumbered, possibly by a very large margin. Even worse, only around half of the foot were his superbly drilled and confident legions and alae and the remainder the very allies on whom he was resolved never to rely. The Roman army, just as much as the Carthaginian, was not a united and coherent force used to operating together. When he advanced to camp near the enemy outside Ilipa – not far from modern-day Seville – the Roman general was faced with the problem of how to make use of the diverse troops at his command.21

As the Roman column began to construct its camp, Mago and Masinissa led the bulk of the Punic cavalry in an attack intended to disrupt and dismay the newly arrived enemy. It was normal practice for Roman armies to post pickets of formed troops to cover a camp both during and after construction, but in this case Scipio had taken the precaution of stationing his cavalry in the dead ground behind a hill. The sudden Roman counter-attack panicked the leading Carthaginian horsemen, some of whom – probably the Numidians who rode bare-backed – were unseated. A more protracted combat developed with the formed squadrons supporting the Punic attack, but these were gradually forced back as units of legionaries advanced from the camp. Close formation infantry provided stable shelter behind which horsemen could rest and re-form before advancing once more, and were very difficult for enemy cavalry to break on their own. Such support gave cavalry formations the stability which they inherently lacked. Cavalry combats were whirling affairs as squadrons charged, pursued, lost their formation and were in turn beaten back and chased themselves. Gradually, the Carthaginians found that they were reforming nearer and nearer to their own camp as the Roman foot soldiers pressed forward to hold gains made by their cavalry. In the end the pressure grew too great, and the Punic horsemen fled back to their camp.22

This seems to have been the first of several skirmishes fought between elements of the two armies in the days before the actual battle. Such encounters were common precursors to a massed encounter and success or failure in this small-scale fighting was seen as an indication of the relative courage and prowess of the two sides. A few days may have been occupied in this skirmishing, before Hasdrubal decided to deploy his entire army and offer battle to the enemy. The Punic camp was on high ground and, fairly late in the day, the Carthaginians marched to the edge of the plain below before forming their line. The deployment was conventional, with the best infantry, Libyan spearmen and perhaps some formations of citizens from the Punic colonies in Spain, placed in the centre. Hasdrubal divided his Spaniards on either flank and placed the cavalry, with elephants to their front, on the wings. Scipio swiftly matched the enemy’s confident gesture and deployed his own army, placing the Romans in the centre and the Spanish on either side of them, with the cavalry facing their enemy counterparts. As the dust clouds thrown up by so many marching feet began to settle, the two armies stood and watched each other. For all their initial confidence, neither commander wished to push his men forward and force a battle. After some hours, with the sun beginning to set, Hasdrubal gave the order for his men to return to camp. Observing this, Scipio did the same.

Over the following days this became almost a routine. At a late hour, which in itself suggested no great enthusiasm for battle, Hasdrubal led his army on to the edge of the plain. The Romans would then match the move, both armies deploying in the same formation as on the first day. Then the armies would stand and wait, until near the end of the day, first the Carthaginians and then the Romans returned to their respective camps. As we have seen, such delays were common before the battles of this period, but at first neither side appeared to be gaining any significant advantage from these displays of confidence. There was perhaps a marginal benefit in morale to Hasdrubal from initiating the challenge each day, but he had so far done nothing to build upon this.

The effort involved in deploying armies of this size into battle order should not be underestimated, for it was a process which must have taken hours. Most armies deployed using the processional method. As soon as the troops left their camp – or in the case of the Romans, whose camps were deliberately designed with space between the tent lines and wall, inside the camp – they were marshalled into a column. In the lead was the unit which would take station on the extreme right flank of the battle line. Following this was the unit which would take station to its left, and so on until the rear of the column was formed by the troops who would compose the extreme left of the line. Once formed into this order, the army column marched to the point where the left of the battle line would take station, before wheeling to the right and processing along the eventual line’s frontage. When the leading unit reached its position on the extreme right it halted and changed from open marching order into tighter battle formation facing towards the enemy. Behind it, the other units of the army performed the same manoeuvre until each was in its appointed place. The Roman method differed only in the respect that the troops were formed into three columns, one corresponding to each of the three lines in thetriplex acies. All of this required a good deal of supervision by senior officers to ensure that everyone ended up in the right place. Most armies sent out cavalry and light troops to cover the main column as it moved into position if there appeared to be any threat of enemy attack. The processional method was slow, particularly with large armies, but effective, especially since no army had yet developed drills which would allow it to deploy any more speedily. The biggest weakness of this system was its rigidity. A commander needed to decide on what his battle order was to be before forming the column up. Once this had been done, it was virtually impossible to alter it in any significant way. Most armies usually took up the same battle order, for each unit’s familiarity with its place in the line eased the entire process.

Scipio’s tactics at Ilipa need to be understood within the context of this system. After several days of matching Hasdrubal’s challenge without either commander actually committing their forces to battle, Scipio decided to force an encounter on the next day. Written orders were issued, probably in the early hours of the morning, for the troops to rise and breakfast early. Just before dawn he dispatched his cavalry and light troops to attack the Carthaginian pickets. The remainder of his army prepared to deploy, but this time Scipio altered his formation. On this day his Spanish allies would take up position in the centre of his line, whilst his best troops were divided between the two flanks, quite probably with one legion and one ala on either side. Once his troops had formed, he advanced more boldly than in the preceding days and did not halt until he was midway across the open plain. Whilst our sources do not state this explicitly, it is certain that the Roman general must have discussed this change with his senior officers, so that they were able to form the army’s columns accordingly. This most likely occurred at the consilium which a Roman commander normally held before a major action. Although sometimes translated as ‘council of war’, these were not normally forums for debate, but a gathering (rather like an ‘O’ Group in the British Army) at which the general’s plan was explained. In this case Scipio must surely also have explained the complex manoeuvres with which he had decided to open the battle.

When Hasdrubal’s outposts came under attack from the Roman cavalry and light troops, the Carthaginians responded quickly. Behind this attack, the main Roman force was visible as it marched out to deploy, although it is doubtful that at this distance – judging from later events it was probably at least a mile – the Punic general could see m ore than vague masses of men and great clouds of dust. Responding quickly to this challenge, Hasdrubal issued orders for his men to arm themselves and prepare to deploy. He may have felt that this sudden display of Roman confidence was intended to restore their spirits after days of responding to Carthaginian challenges. If Hasdrubal was to maintain any moral advantage then he had to respond to this Roman move and could not allow Scipio the chance of telling his men that the enemy were afraid of them and did not dare to meet their advance. Therefore the Punic commander had no hesitation in ordering the army to form up in the same order they had adopted on each of the previous days. They did this in haste, and most of his men had no opportunity to eat anything. Yet, even at this stage, it remained possible that no battle would result, and that the two armies would once again stand and stare at each other for most of the day.


The Punic cavalry and light infantry went out first, confronting their Roman counterparts and engaging in a whirling combat without clear result. The main Carthaginian army marched out and formed a line at the edge of the plain beneath the hill on which they had camped. Scipio’s men were about half a mile away, much closer than they had come in the past. At this distance Hasdrubal was at last able to see that the legions were not in their usual place in the centre, but were on the wings facing his weaker troops. This did mean that his best foot opposed the Romans’ Spanish allies, which may have been some consolation, for if it came to a head-on clash between the battle lines then his Libyans ought to beat these poorly drilled and less heavily equipped troops. Though he was perhaps disconcerted by the change, it is not obvious how this benefited his opponent. It would also now have been virtually impossible for him to change his own deployment to conform to that of the enemy. If he tried to shift large contingents around, this would only create confusion which the nearby and fully prepared enemy would surely exploit by launching an immediate attack.

There followed another of those lulls so typical of the battles of this period. Scipio advanced no further and the Carthaginians remained stationary at the edge of the plain. The cavalry and light infantry continued to skirmish with each other, but with both sides so closely supported by their main lines, it was relatively easy for groups under pressure to retire and reform behind the close order foot. After some time, all retired through the intervals between the units in their respective main lines and were sent to the wings. Eventually Scipio resumed the advance, but gave orders for the Spaniards in his centre to move slowly, whilst the wings began a complex series of manoeuvres which, as at Baecula, demonstrated the exceptionally high standard of their drill. Scipio himself commanded the troops on the right wing, whilst Lucius Marcius and Marcus Junius Silanus the propraetor controlled the left. Livy claims that Scipio sent an order to these officers telling them to copy his manoeuvres, but, whilst an instruction or signal to begin these may have been sent, it would seem likely that the officers were already aware of what was expected from them.

Scipio’s men on the right wing began by each individual maniple in three lines turning or wheeling to the right, so that they once again formed three columns. The three maniples which formed the heads of the columns then wheeled to the left and marched straight at the enemy line, the units behind following on. The movements of the left wing were a mirror image of these manoeuvres. Columns with a narrow frontage will move much faster than lines with a broad frontage, for it is much easier for the men to keep in ranks as they encounter fewer obstacles, and need to stop less often to restore order. Therefore the three columns closed with the enemy very quickly, leaving the slow-moving Spanish in the centre well behind. At only a comparatively short distance from the Punic line, Scipio wheeled his three columns to the right once again (whilst the left wing made the opposite manoeuvre), and led them along until they formed into a battle line which overlapped the enemy flank.

Hasdrubal and the Carthaginian army seem to have watched mesmerized as the Roman columns came towards them. Missiles from the Roman light infantry and cavalry drove off the elephants, some of whom stampeded through the Punic troops to their rear, spreading confusion. The Roman and Italian troops then attacked Hasdrubal’s Spanish allies on either wing. For a while the latter managed to hold their own, but gradually they were forced back. The Romans, who had eaten and been able to prepare for battle carefully, displayed greater endurance, no doubt helped by the normal tactics of feeding fresh troops into the fighting line from the maniples of principes and triarii. Slowly, they began to force the Spaniards back. After a while the retreat turned into a rout. Throughout this combat there was no serious fighting in the centre. Scipio’s allied contingents were deliberately held back, but by their very presence pinned the Libyans in place, for they could not go to the aid of their own wings without exposing themselves to attack from the Roman centre. When the Punic flanks gave way, the rest of the army fled with them. Hasdrubal tried in vain to stop the rout. For a while he managed to form a shaky line on the lower slopes of the high ground in front of his camp, whilst the Romans paused at the foot of the hill, quite possibly a sign that Scipio was keeping his men under tight control. When the Roman advance began once again, the flimsy Punic line collapsed and fled back to the safety of the camp. Our sources maintain that, had it not been for a sudden and violent thunderstorm, the Romans would easily have overrun the enemy position. During the night, Hasdrubal’s allies began to desert. He fled with the reliable sections of his army, but most of these were captured or killed in the subsequent Roman pursuit. Hasdrubal himself escaped, to fight with no more success against Scipio during the African campaign.23


Ilipa effectively ended the Carthaginian presence in Spain, for in the following months their remaining enclaves were mopped up with little difficulty. Before he left Spain, Scipio had to deal with mutiny amongst his own troops and a rebellion by some of his former allies, but he had already turned his attention to the invasion of Africa. He returned to Rome and the consulship – for which he was still technically too young – for 205, after which he managed to secure himself the province of Sicily as a base and permission to invade the enemy’s homeland. Support for this was not unanimous. Fabius Maximus, nearing the end of his life, opposed the move, in part through jealousy of the popular fame of the maverick commander from Spain. He also appears to have feared that an unsuccessful invasion of Africa might cause a revival of the Carthaginian war effort, as it had in 255. There were further problems when one of Scipio’s subordinates, a man named Pleminius, became involved in a scandal whilst acting as military governor of the city of Locri. This officer not only plundered the place he was supposed to protect, but managed to turn the tribunes under his command against him, even resorting to having them publicly flogged. When Scipio first intervened he showed loyalty to his own man, and supported Pleminius, who promptly threw off all restraint and executed the tribunes. Eventually the Locrians managed to send a deputation to Rome, leading the Senate to place the man under arrest.

Scipio’s rivals in the Senate attempted at this point to give his command to another magistrate, but were thwarted by his continued popularity with most Roman citizens. Their trust proved well founded, as Scipio demonstrated the same ability and skill in the new campaign as he had shown in Spain. In the first place he took care to prepare thoroughly before launching the expedition from Sicily, so that when he did finally sail it was at the head of a superbly trained army backed by ample logistic support. In North Africa he consistently outwitted his opponents, attacking with ruthless efficiency at the critical moment. The first two armies sent against him were destroyed in their camps by a surprise night attack. As at New Carthage, Scipio had taken great care to gather intelligence about the enemy’s strength and positions before the onslaught. During a period of negotiations he had attached centurions and other officers disguised as slaves to the following of his embassies. On one occasion one of the centurions is supposed to have been publicly beaten to maintain the subterfuge. Eventually, the Carthaginians were forced to recall Hannibal from Italy to face the invader. The two great generals met at Zama in battle that was not marked by especially subtle manoeuvring on either side. In the end, the Romans prevailed in the resultant slogging match, helped considerably by their numerical superiority in cavalry.24

Scipio returned to celebrate a spectacular triumph, taking the name Africanus as a permanent memorial to his achievement. He was still only in his early thirties and yet had achieved far more than most Roman senators managed in a lifetime. Although he continued to remain active in public life, it was hard to see how his subsequent career could possibly match, let alone surpass, what he had already done. He was elected to a second consulship in 194 and led an army against the Gallic tribes of Northern Italy, but was not engaged in heavy fighting. In 190 his younger brother Lucius became consul and, once Africanus announced that he would go with him as a senior subordinate or legatus, was given the command against the Seleucid Empire of Antiochus III. Scipio’s presence was considered especially appropriate because Hannibal, now an exile from his native Carthage, had taken refuge at Antiochus’ court and was expected to receive an important command. In the event the Carthaginian was placed in charge of part of the Seleucid fleet, whilst Scipio was ill and so missed the decisive land battle at Magnesia. It may be that the sickness was invented or exaggerated to ensure that Lucius gained full credit for his victory. There were also rumours of a deal with Antiochus to ensure the safe return of Africanus’ son who had been taken prisoner. Yet on their return from this war, scandal was once again to beset Scipio and his brother. Both were prosecuted on charges of misappropriating state funds during the campaign. Scipio’s response reflected the immense self-confidence which had marked his campaigns, but also revealed his modest political skills. In court he tore up his brother’s accounts from the war against the Seleucids instead of reading them out. On another occasion his trial was convened on the anniversary of the battle of Zama, so Scipio suddenly proclaimed his intention to sacrifice and give thanks to the gods in the temples on the Capitol. Everyone apart from the prosecutors and their attendants followed him, but in spite of the crowd’s enthusiasm the charges against him did not go away. In the end he left Rome and its politics and went to live out the last few years of his life in a country villa. It was a disappointing end for a man who had achieved so much in the service of the Republic.25

Livy had read an account which claimed that Scipio, as a member of a senatorial deputation sent to Ephesus in 193, met and conversed with Hannibal. During one of their encounters:

Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general of all time. Hannibal replied, ‘Alexander…because with a small force he routed armies of countless numbers, and because he traversed the remotest lands….’ Asked whom he placed second, Hannibal said: ‘Pyrrhus. He was the first to teach the art of laying out a camp. Besides that, no one has ever shown nicer judgement in choosing his ground, or in disposing his forces. He also had the art of winning men to his side….’ When Africanus followed up by asking whom he ranked third, Hannibal unhesitatingly chose himself. Scipio burst out laughing at this, and said: ‘What would you be saying if you had defeated me?’

‘In that case,’ replied Hannibal, ‘I should certainly put myself before Alexander and before Pyrrhus – in fact before all other generals!’ This reply, with its elaborate Punic subtlety…affected Scipio deeply, because Hannibal had set him apart from the general run of commanders, as one whose worth was beyond calculation.26

The story may well be apocryphal, but such a judgement was certainly not undeserved.

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