THE moderation and far-sighted policy of Scipio, which had undermined his influence in the years succeeding Zama, was now to cause his political ruin. The sequence of events is somewhat hazy, but their outline is clear. The narrow-minded party, led by Cato, who could not be content with the disarming of the enemy but demanded their destruction, were so chagrined at this fresh peace of mercy and wisdom that they vented their anger on its author. Unable to revoke the peace, they schemed to compass the downfall of Scipio, and fastened on the suggestion of bribery as the most plausible charge. Perhaps, quite honestly, men like Cato could conceive no other cause for generosity to a vanquished foe. However, they seem to have been clever enough not to assail the stronger brother first, but rather, aiming at weakness instead of strength, to strike at Africanus indirectly through his brother.
The first move seems to have been the prosecution of Lucius for misappropriation of the indemnity paid by Antiochus. Africanus was so indignant at the charge that, when his brother was in the act of producing his account books, he took them from him, tore them in pieces, and threw them on the floor of the Senate house. This action was unwise, but very human. Let any one put himself in the place of a man who by unparalleled services had rescued Rome from a deadly menace on her very hearth, and raised her to be the unchallenged and unchallengeable mistress of the world, and then, as he said indignantly, to be called on to account for four million sesterces when through him the treasury had been enriched by two hundred million. We must remember, too, that Scipio was a man suffering from an illness, soon to cause his death, and sick men are inclined to be irritable. Doubtless, too, that supreme self-confidence which marked him developed in later and sicknessridden years into something approaching arrogance. Thus Polybius tells us that on one occasion, whether this or at the trial later, he bitingly retorted that, “ It ill became the Roman people to listen to accusations against Publius Cornelius Scipio, to whom his accusers owed it that they had the power of speech at all.” He had refused regal power when it had been thrust upon him, and been content to remain a private citizen, but he expected some measure of special consideration for his supreme services.
The defiant act, however, gave his enemies the opportunity they had longed for. Two tribunes, the Petilii, instigated by Cato, began a prosecution against him for taking a bribe from Antiochus in return for the moderation of his peace terms. The news set all Rome aflame with excitement and discussion. “ Men construed this according to their different dispositions ; some did not blame the plebeian tribunes, but the public in general that could suffer such a process to be carried on” (Livy). A frequent remark was that “ the two greatest States in the world proved, nearly at the same time, ungrateful to their chief commanders; but Rome the more ungrateful of the two, because Carthage was subdued when she sent the vanquished Hannibal into exile, whereas Rome, when victorious, was for banishing the conqueror Africanus.”
The opposing party argued that no citizen should stand so high as not to be answerable for his conduct, and that it was a salutary tonic that the most powerful should be brought to trial.
When the day appointed for the hearing came, “ never was either any other person, or Scipio himself—when consul or censor,—escorted to the Forum by a larger multitude than he was on that day when he appeared to answer the charge against him.” The case opened, the plebeian tribunes sought to offset their lack of any definite evidence by raking up the old imputations about his luxurious Greek habits when in winter quarters in Sicily and about the Locri episode. The voices were those of the Petilii, but the words were clearly Cato’s. For Cato had not only been the disciple of Fabius, but himself in Sicily had made the unfounded allegations which the commission of inquiry had refuted. Then after this verbal smoke-cloud, they discharged the poison gas. For want of evidence they pointed to the restoration of his son without ransom, and to the way Antiochus had addressed his peace proposals to Scipio. “ He had acted towards the consul, in his province, as dictator, and not as lieutenant. Nor had he gone thither with any other view than it might appear to Greece and Asia, as had long since been the settled conviction of Spain, Gaul, Sicily, and Africa, that he alone was the head and pillar of the Roman power ; that a State which was mistress of the world lay sheltered under the shade of Scipio ; and that his nods were equivalent to decrees of the Senate and orders of the people.”
A cloud of words have rarely covered a poorer case, their purpose, as Livy remarks, to “ attack by envy, as much as they can, him out of the reach of dishonour.” The pleading having lasted until dusk, the trial was adjourned until next day.
Next morning when the tribunes took their seat and the accused was summoned to reply, the answer was characteristic of the man. No proof was possible either way, and besides being too proud to enter into explanations, he knew they would be wasted on his enemies as on his friends. Therefore, with the last psychological counter-stroke of his career, he achieves a dramatic triumph.
“ Tribunes of the people, and you, Romans, on the anniversary of this day I fought a pitched battle in Africa against Hannibal and the Carthaginians, with good fortune and success. As, therefore, it is but decent that a stop be put for this day to litigation and wrangling, I am going straightway to the Capitol, there to return my acknowledgments to Jupiter the supremely great and good, to Juno, Minerva, and the other deities presiding over the Capitol and citadel, and will give them thanks for having, on this day, and at many other times, endowed me both with the will and ability to perform extraordinary services to the commonwealth. Such of you also, Romans, who choose, come with me and beseech the gods that you may have commanders like myself. Since from my seventeenth year until old age, you have always anticipated my years with honour, and I your honours with services.”
Thereupon he went up towards the Capitol, and the whole assembly followed ; at last, even the clerks and messengers, so that his accusers were left in a deserted forum. “ This day was almost more famous owing to the favour of the Romans towards him, and their high estimation of his real greatness, than that on which he rode through Rome in triumph over Syphax and the Carthaginians.” “ It was, however, the last day that shone with lustre on Publius Scipio. For, as he could foresee nothing but the prosecutions of envy, and continual dispute with the tribunes, the trial being adjourned to a future day, he retired to his estate at Liternum, with a fixed determination not to attend the trial. His spirit was by nature too lofty, and habituated to such an elevated course of fortune, that he did not know how to act the part of an accused person, or stoop to the humble deportment of men pleading their cause ” (Livy).
When the adjourned trial took place, and his name was called, Lucius Scipio put forward sickness as the cause for his brother’s absence. The prosecuting tribunes refused to admit this, contending that it was merely his habitual disregard of the laws, and reproached the people for following him to the Capitol and for their lack of determination now: “ We had resolution enough, when he was at the head of an army and a fleet, to send into Sicily ... to bring him home, yet we dare not now send to compel him, though a private citizen, to come from his country seat to stand his trial.” They failed, however, to carry their point. On Lucius appealing to the other tribunes of the commons, the latter moved that, as the excuse of sickness was pleaded, this should be admitted, and the trial again adjourned. One, however, Tiberius Gracchus, dissented, and the assembly, knowing that there had been friction between him and Scipio, expected a more severe decision. Instead he declared that, “ Inasmuch as Lucius Scipio had pleaded sickness in excuse for his brother, that plea appeared to him sufficient; that he would not suffer Publius Scipio to be accused until he returned to Rome, and even then, if Scipio appealed to him, he would support him in refusing to stand his trial. That Publius Scipio, by his great achievements, by the honours received from the Roman people, by the joint consent of gods and men, had risen to such a height of dignity that, were he to stand as a criminal under the rostrum and afford a hearing to the insults of young men, it would reflect more disgrace on the Romans than on him.”
Livy adds that Gracchus followed up his decree by a speech of indignation: “ Shall Scipio, the famous conqueror of Africa, stand at your feet —tribunes ? Was it for this he defeated and routed in Spain four of the most distinguished generals of Carthage and their four armies ? Was it for this he took Syphax prisoner, conquered Hannibal, made Carthage tributary to you, and removed Antiochus beyond the Taurus mountains—that he should crouch under two Petilii ? That you should gain the palm of victory over Publius Africanus ? ” This speech, as well as his decree, made so strong an impression that the Senate called a special meeting and bestowed the warmest praise on Gracchus “ for having consulted the public good in preference to private animosity.” The prosecutors met with general hostility, and the prosecution was dropped.
“ After that there was silence concerning Africanus. He passed the remainder of his life at Liternum, without a wish to revisit the city, and it is said that when he was dying he ordered his body to be buried there ... that even his obsequies might not be performed in his ungrateful country.”
That he died in voluntary exile at Liternum, probably in 183 B.C., seems assured, but his burial-place is less certain, and monuments of him existed both at Liternum and Rome. At the time of his death he was only fifty-two years of age. By a fitting coincidence his great rival, Hannibal, also died about the same time, and probably in the same year—at the age of sixtyseven. He had escaped, after Magnesia, to Crete, and then taken refuge with Prusias of Bithynia. The Roman Senate had the good sense to realise that it was beneath their dignity to harry him from his last refuge, but the local commander, Flaminius, thought to gain distinction by instigating Prusias to murder his trusting guest. Hannibal thereupon defeated the assassins by taking poison.
Even after Scipio’s death, his enemies could not rest. It rather “ increased the courage of his enemies, the chief of whom was Marcus Porcius Cato, who even during his life was accustomed to sneer at his splendid character.” Instigated by Cato, the demand was pressed for an inquiry into the disposal of Antiochus’s tribute. Lucius was now the direct target, though his brother’s memory was still the indirect. Lucius and several of his lieutenants and staff were arraigned. Judgment was made against them, and when Lucius declared that all the money received by him was in the treasury, and therefore refused to give security for repayment, he was ordered to prison. His cousin, Publius Scipio Nasica, made a strong and convincing protest, but the prætor declared that he had no option, in view of the judgment, so long as Lucius refused repayment. Gracchus again intervened to save his personal enemies from disgrace. Using his tribunitiary authority, he ordered Lucius’s discharge on account of his services to Rome, and decreed instead that the prætor should levy the sum due from Lucius’s property. The prætor thereupon sent to take possession of it, “ and not only did no trace appear of money received from Antiochus, but the sum realised by the sale of his property did not even equal the amount of the fine ” (Livy). This convincing proof of the Scipios’ innocence caused a revulsion of public feeling, “ and the public hatred which had been directed against the Scipios recoiled on the prætor, his advisers, and the accusers.”
That his name should have been cleared after death was, however, no consolation to the last years of Africanus. “ Ingratitude towards their great men is the mark of strong peoples ”—so the proverb runs. Little wonder that Rome attained the sovereignty of the ancient world.