Ancient History & Civilisation





PUBLIUS CORNELIUS SCIPIO was born at Rome in the 517th year from the city’s foundation—235 B.C. Though a member of one of the most illustrious and ancient families, the Cornelii, of his early years and education no record, not even an anecdote, has come down to us. Indeed, not until he is chosen, through a combination of circumstances and his own initiative, to command the army in Spain at the age of twenty-four, does history give us more than an occasional fleeting glimpse of his progress. Yet bare and brief as these are, each is significant. The first is at the battle of the Ticinus, Hannibal’s initial encounter with the Roman arms on Italian soil, after his famous passage of the Alps. Here the youthful Scipio, a lad of seventeen, accompanied his father, the Roman commander. If his first experience of battle was on the losing side, he at least emerged with enviable distinction. Let the story be told in Polybius’s words : “ His father had placed him in command of a picked troop of horse ” (in reserve on a small hill) “ in order to ensure his safety ; but when he caught sight of his father in the battle, surrounded by the enemy and escorted only by two or three horsemen and dangerously wounded, he at first endeavoured to urge those with him to go to the rescue, but when they hung back for a time owing to the large numbers of the enemy round them, he is said with reckless daring to have charged the encircling force alone. Upon the rest being now forced to attack, the enemy were terror-struck and broke up, and Publius Scipio, thus unexpectedly rescued, was the first to salute his son as his deliverer.” It is said that the consul ordered a civic crown, the Roman V.C., to be presented to his son, who refused it, saying that “the action was one that rewarded itself.” The exploit does credit to the young Scipio’s gallantry, but the outcome, as emphasised by Polybius, does still more credit to his psychological insight. “ Having by this service won a universally acknowledged reputation for bravery, he in subsequent times refrained from exposing his person without sufficient reason when his country reposed her hopes of success on him—conduct characteristic not of a commander who relies on luck, but on one gifted with intelligence.”

To the present generation, with personal experience of war, the point may have greater force than to the closeted historians. To the former, the higher commander who aspires to be a platoon leader, thrusting himself into the fight at the expense of his proper duty of direction, is not the heroic or inspired figure that he appears to the civilian. To some too, not natural lovers of danger for its own sake—and these are rare in any army,—the point will touch a chord of memory, reminding them of how by the moral hold on their men given by one such exploit they were thereafter enabled to take the personal precautions which better befit the officer entrusted with the lives of others. The civilian at home poured scorn on the German officer “leading” his men from behind; not so the fighting soldier, for he knew that when the occasion called, his officer enemy did not hesitate to risk, nay throw away his life, as an example. The story still lives of the German officer who led a forlorn hope mounted on a white horse.

The exploit, and the popular fame it brought, launched Scipio’s military career so auspiciously as to earn him rapid advancement. For, less than two years later, 216 B.C., Livy’s account speaks of him as one of the military tribunes, from whom the commanders of the legions were nominated, and in itself a post that made him one of the deputies or staff officers of the legion commander. If a parallel is desired, the nearest modern equivalent is a staff colonel.

This second glimpse of Scipio comes on the morrow of Cannæ, Rome’s darkest hour, and it is curious that the future general, who, like Marlborough, was never to fight a battle that he did not win, should in his subordinate days have been witness of unrelieved disaster. There is no record of Scipio’s share in the battle, but from Livy’s account it seems clear that he was among the ten thousand survivors who escaped to the greater Roman camp across the River Aufidus, and further, one of the undaunted four thousand who, rather than surrender with their fellows, quitted the camp after nightfall, and eluding the Carthaginian horse, made their way to Canusium. Their situation was still perilous, for this place lay only some four miles distant, and why Hannibal did not follow up his success by the destruction of this remnant, isolated from succour, remains one of the enigmas of history, to all appearance a blemish on his generalship.

With the four thousand at Canusium were four military tribunes, and, as Livy tells us, “ by the consent of all, the supreme command was vested in Publius Scipio, then a very young man, and Appius Claudius.” Once more Scipio shines amid the darkness of defeat ; once more a time of general disaster is the opportunity of youth backed by character. Disruption, if not mutiny, threatens. Word is brought that men are saying that Rome is doomed, and that certain of the younger patricians, headed by Lucius Cæcilius Metellus, are proposing to leave Rome to its fate and escape overseas to seek service with some foreign king. These fresh tidings of ill-fortune dismay and almost paralyse the assembled leaders. But while the others urge that a council be called to deliberate upon the situation, Scipio acts. He declares “ that it is not a proper subject for deliberation ; that courage and action, and not deliberation, were necessary in such a calamity. That those who desired the safety of the state would attend him in arms forthwith; that in no place was the camp of the enemy more truly than where such designs were meditated.” Then, with only a few companions, he goes straight to the lodging of Metellus, surprising the plotters in council. Drawing his sword, Scipio proclaims his purpose : “I swear that I will neither desert the cause of Rome, nor allow any other citizen of Rome to desert it. If knowingly I violate this oath, may Jupiter visit with the most horrible perdition my house, my family, and my fortune. I insist that you, Lucius Cæcilius, and the rest of you present, take this oath ; and let the man who demurs be assured that this sword is drawn against him.” The upshot is that, “ terrified, as though they were beholding the victoriòus Hannibal, they all take the oath, and surrender themselves to Scipio to be kept in custody. ”

This danger quelled, Scipio and Appius, hearing that Varro, the surviving consul, had reached Venusia, sent a messenger there, placing themselves under his orders.

Scipio’s next brief entry on the stage of history is in a different scene. His elder brother, Lucius, was a candidate for the ædileship,1 and the younger Publius “ for long did not venture to stand for the same office as his brother. But on the approach of the election, judging from the disposition of the people that his brother had a poor chance of being elected, and seeing that he himself was exceedingly popular, he came to the conclusion that the only means by which his brother would attain his object would be by their coming to an agreement and both of them making the attempt, and so he hit on the following plan. Seeing that his mother was visiting the different temples and sacrificing to the gods on behalf of his brother and generally showing great concern about the result, he told her, as a fact, that he had twice had the same dream. He had dreamt that both he and his brother had been elected to the ædileship, and were going up from the Forum to their house when she met them at the door and fell on their necks and kissed them. She was affected by this, as a woman would be, and exclaimed, ‘Would I might see that day,’ or something similar. ‘Then would you like us to try, mother ? ’ he said. Upon her consenting, as she never dreamt he would venture on it, but thought it was merely a casual joke—for he was exceedingly young,—he begged her to get a white toga ready for him at once, this being the dress that candidates are in the habit of wearing. What she had said had entirely gone out of her head, and Scipio, waiting until he received the white toga, appeared in the Forum while his mother was still asleep. The people, owing to the unexpectedness of the sight, and owing to his previous popularity, received him with enthusiastic surprise ; and afterwards, when he went on to the station appointed for candidates and stood by his brother, they not only conferred the office on Publius but on his brother too for his sake, and both appeared at their home elected ædiles. When the news suddenly reached his mother’s ears, she, overjoyed, met them at the door and embraced the young men with deep emotion, so that from this circumstance all who had heard of the dreams believed that Publius communed with the gods not only in his sleep, but still more in reality and by day.“

“ Now, it was not a matter of a dream at all ; but as he was kind, munificent, and agreeable in his address, he reckoned on his popularity with the people, and so by cleverly adapting his action to the actual sentiment of the people and of his mother, he not only attained his object, but was believed to have acted under a sort of divine inspiration. For those who are incapable of taking an accurate view of opportunities, causes, and dispositions, attribute to the gods and to fortune the causes of what is accomplished by shrewdness and with calculation and foresight.”

To some the deception, even though for a worthy end, may seem out of tune with the higher Roman virtues ; and Livy, to whom as a Roman the artifice would appear less admirable than to Polybius, a Greek, leaves in doubt the origin of this habit of Scipio’s, developed in his after career either by reason of its success or practice. Here is Livy’s appreciation: “ Scipio was undoubtedly the possessor of striking gifts ; but besides that he had from childhood studied the art of their effective display. Whether there was some vein of superstition in his own temperament, or whether it was with the aim of securing for his commands the authority of inspired utterances, he rarely spoke in public without pretending to some nocturnal vision or supernatural suggestion.” Livy may exaggerate the frequency, for he wrote at a later date, and legends grow round the characteristics of the great. Such supernatural claims only appear occasionally in Scipio’s recorded utterances, and he, a supreme artist in handling human nature, would realise the value of reserving them for critical moments.

Livy continues : “ In order to impress public opinion in this direction, he had made a practice from the day he reached manhood of never engaging in any business, public or private, without first paying a visit to the Capitol. There he would enter the sanctuary and pass some time, generally in solitude and seclusion. This habit ... made converts to a belief, to which accident or design had given wide currency, that his origin was other than human. There was a story once widely believed about Alexander the Great, that his male parent had been a huge serpent, often seen in his mother’s chamber, but vanishing directly men appeared. This miracle was told again of Scipio ... but he himself never cast ridicule upon it; indeed, he rather lent it countenance by the course which he adopted of neither wholly disclaiming such tales nor openly asserting their truth.” This last tale, incidentally, is repeated by several of the ancient writers and enshrined in ‘ Paradise Lost,’ where Milton writes :—

“ He with Olympias, this with her that bore
Scipio, the height of Rome.”

The view that this claim to divine inspiration had a religious and not merely an intellectual basis gains some support from Scipio’s conduct in the Syrian War of 190 B.C., when, because he was a member of the college of the priests of Mars, known as Salian priests, he stayed behind the army and indirectly kept it waiting at the Hellespont, as the rule bound him to stay where he was until the month ended.

Again, modern psychologists may suggest that his dreams were true and not invented, such is known to be the power of strong desire to fulfil itself in dreams. Whatever the explanation and the source of his “ visions,” there can be no doubt as to the skill with which he turned them to practical account. And it is a supreme moral tribute to Scipio that this power was exerted by him purely to further his country’s good, never his own. When trouble and accusation came in later days, and an ungrateful State forgot its saviour, Scipio did not invoke any divine vision in his defence. That he so refrained is the more definite and the more significant, because, with other psychological means, he showed himself still the supreme “ organist ” of the human instrument.

Scipio’s election to the ædileship is historically important, not only because it illumines the sources of his success and influence over men, but also for its light on the causes of his political decline, the self-imposed exile from an ungrateful country, which saw a marvellously brilliant career close in shadow. It is Livy who shows that his election was not so unopposed as Polybius’s account would suggest; that the tribunes of the people opposed his pretensions to the office because he had not attained the legal age for candidature. Whereupon Scipio retorted that “ if the citizens in general are desirous of appointing me ædile, I am old enough ”—an appeal over the heads of the tribunes which was instantly successful, but which by its triumphant defiance of tradition and rule was likely to add resentment to the jealousy which inevitably accompanies the precocious success of youth.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!