Ancient History & Civilisation



ON the seventh day from the start of the march Scipio arrived before the city and encamped, the fleet arriving simultaneously in the harbour, thus cutting off communication on all sides. This harbour formed a circular bottle, its mouth almost corked by an island, while Cartagena itself was like a candle stuck in the bottom of the bottle, the city standing on a narrow rocky spit of land protruding from the mainland. This small peninsula bore a distinct resemblance to Gibraltar, and the isthmus joining it to the mainland was only some four hundred yards across. The city was guarded on two sides by the sea, and on the west by a lagoon. Here was a hard nut to crack, seemingly impregnable to any action save a blockade, and this, time prevented.

Scipio’s first step was to ensure his tactical security by defending the outer side of his camp with a palisade and double trench stretching from sea to sea. On the inner side, facing the isthmus, he erected no defences, partly because the nature of the ground gave protection, and partly in order not to hinder the free movement of his assaulting troops. The Carthaginian commander, Mago, to oppose him armed two thousand of the sturdiest citizens, and posted them by the landward gate for a sortie. The rest he distributed to defend the walls to the best of their power, while of his own regulars he disposed five hundred in the citadel on the top of the peninsula, and five hundred on the eastern hill.

Next day Scipio encircled the city with ships, throwing a constant stream of missiles, and about the third hour 2 sent forward along the isthmus two thousand picked men with the ladder-bearers, for its narrowness prevented a stronger force being deployed. Appreciating the handicap of their cramped position if counter-attacked by the yet unshaken defenders, he astutely designed to turn this handicap to his own advantage. The expected sortie came as soon as Scipio sounded the bugle for assault, and a closematched struggle ensued. “ But as the assistance sent to either side was not equal, the Carthaginians arriving through a single gate and from a longer distance, the Romans from close by and from several points, the battle for this reason was an unequal one. For Scipio had purposely posted his men close to the camp itself in order to entice the enemy as far out as possible “ (Livy says the Roman advanced troops retired according to orders on the reserves),” well knowing that if he destroyed those who were, so to speak, the steel edge of the population he would cause universal dejection, and none of those inside would venture out of the gate again “ (Polybius). This last point was essential for the freedom of his decisive move.

By the skilful infusion of successive reserves into the combat, the Carthaginian onset was first stemmed and then driven back in disorder, the pursuit being pressed so promptly that the Romans nearly succeeded in forcing an entrance on the heels of the fugitives. Even as it was, the scaling ladders were able to be put up in full security, but the great height of the walls hampered the escaladers, and the assault was beaten off. Polybius gives a picture of the Roman commander during this phase which reveals how he combined personal influence and control with the duty of avoiding rash exposure : “ Scipio took part in the battle, but studied 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 so afforded him protection.” “ ... Thus he could both see what was going on, and being seen by all his men he inspired the combatants with great spirit. The consequence was that nothing was omitted which was necessary in the engagement, but the moment that circumstances suggested any step to him, he set to work at once to do what was necessary.”

In modern war no feature has told more heavily against decisive results than the absence of the commander’s personal observation and control. Scipio’s method, viewed in the light of modern science, may suggest a way to revive this influence. Peradventure the commander of the future will go aloft in an aeroplane, protected by a patrol of fighters, and in communication by wireless telephony with his staff.

Scipio had achieved his first object of wearing down the defenders, and checking the likelihood of further interference with his plans from Carthaginian sorties. The way was thus paved for his next decisive move. To develop this he was only waiting for the ebb of the tide, and this design had been conceived by him long since at Tarraco, where, from inquiries among fishermen who knew Cartagena, he had learnt that at low water the lagoon was fordable.

For this project he assembled five hundred men with ladders on the shore of the lagoon, and meanwhile reinforced his forces in the isthmus with both men and ladders, enough to ensure that in the next direct assault “ the whole extent of the walls should be covered with escaladers ” —an early example of the modern tactical axiom that a “ fixing ” attack should be on the broadest possible front in order to occupy the enemy’s attention and prevent him turning to meet the decisive blow elsewhere. He launched this assault simultaneously with a landing attack by the fleet, and when it was at its height “ the tide began to ebb and the water gradually receded from the edge of the lagoon, a strong and deep current setting in through the channel to the neighbourhood, so that to those who were not prepared for the sight the thing appeared incredible. But Scipio had his guides ready, and bade all the men told off for this service enter the water and have no fear. He, indeed, possessed a particular talent for inspiring confidence and sympathy in his troops when he called upon them. Now when they obeyed and raced through the shallow water, it struck the whole army that it was the work of some god ... and their courage was redoubled ” (Polybius). Of this episode Livy says: “ Scipio, crediting this discovery, due to his own diligence and penetration, to the gods and to miracle, which had turned the course of the sea, withdrawn it from the lake, and opened ways never before trodden by human feet to afford a passage to the Romans, ordered them to follow Neptune as their guide.” But it is interesting to see that, while exploiting the moral effect of this idea, he made practical use of less divine guides. The five hundred passed without difficulty through the lagoon, reached the wall, and mounted it without opposition, because all the defenders “ were engaged in bringing succour to that quarter in which the danger appeared.” “ The Romans having once taken the wall, at first marched along it, sweeping the enemy off it.” They were clearly imbued with the principle that a penetration must be promptly widened before it is deepened—a principle which in the war of 1914-1918 was only learnt after hard lessons, at Loos and elsewhere. Next they converged on the landward gate, already assailed in front, and taking the defenders in rear and by surprise, overpowered the resistance and opened the way for the main body of the attackers. The walls thus captured, Scipio at once exploited his success. For while the mass of those who had by now scaled the walls set about the customary massacre of the townsmen, Scipio himself took care to keep in regular formation those who entered by the gate, and led them against the citadel. Here Mago, once he “ saw that the city had undoubtedly been captured,” surrendered.

If the massacre of the townspeople is revolting to modern ideas, it was the normal custom then and for many centuries thereafter, and with the Romans was a deliberate policy aimed at the moral factor rather than mere insensate slaughter. The direct blow at the civil population, who are the seat of the hostile will, may indeed be revived by the potentialities of aircraft, which can jump, halmawise, over the armed “ men ” who form the shield of the enemy nation. Such a course, if militarily practicable, is the logical one, and ruthless logic usually overcomes the humaner sentiments in a life and death struggle.

Proof of the discipline of Scipio’s troops is that the massacre ceased on a signal after the citadel surrendered, and only then did the troops begin pillaging. The massacre, however difficult for modern minds to excuse, was a military measure, and the conduct of the action was not impeded by the individual’s desire to obtain loot or “ souvenirs ”—an undisciplined impulse which has affected even recent battles.

The massacre, moreover, was partly offset by Scipio’s generous, if diplomatic, conduct to the vanquished, once the initial ruthlessness had achieved its purpose of quenching the citizens’ will to resist. Of the ten thousand male prisoners, he set free all who were citizens of New Carthage, and restored their property. The artisans, to the number of two thousand, he declared the property of Rome, but promised them their freedom when the war was over if they “ showed goodwill and industry in their several crafts.” The pick of the remainder were taken for sea service, thus enabling him to man the captured vessels and so increase the size of his fleet ; these also were promised their freedom after the final defeat of Carthage. Even to Mago and the other Carthaginian leaders he acted as became a chivalrous victor, ordering Lælius to pay them due attention, until subsequently they were sent to Rome in the latter’s charge, as a tangible evidence of victory which would revive the Romans’ spirits, and lead them to redouble their efforts to support him. Finally, he won new allies for himself by his kindness to the Spanish hostages, for instead of retaining them in his custody as unwilling guarantees, he sent them home to their own States.

Two incidents, related by both Livy and Polybius, throw Scipio’s character into relief, and enhance his reputation as one of the most humane and far-sighted of the great conquerors. “ When one of the captive women, the wife of Mandonius, who was brother to Andobales, King of the Ilergetes, fell at his feet and entreated him with tears to treat them with more proper consideration than the Carthaginians had done, he was touched, and asked her what they stood in need of.... Upon her making no reply, he sent for the officials appointed to attend on the women. When they presented themselves, and assured him that they kept the women generously supplied with all they required, she repeated her entreaty, upon which Scipio was still more puzzled, and conceiving the idea that the officials were neglecting their duty and had now made a false statement, he bade the woman be of good cheer, saying that he would himself appoint other attendants, who would see to it that they were in want of nothing. The old lady, after some hesitation, said, ‘ General, you do not take me rightly if you think that our present petition is about our food.’ Scipio then understood what she meant, and noticing the youth and beauty of the daughters of Andobales and the other princes, he was forced to tears, recognising in how few words she had pointed out to him the danger to which they were exposed. So now he made it clear to her that he understood, and grasping her hand bade her and the rest be of good cheer, for he would look after them as if they were his own sisters and children, and would appoint trustworthy men to attend on them ” (Polybius).

The second incident, as told by Polybius, was: “ Some young Romans came across a girl of surpassing bloom and beauty, and being aware that Scipio was fond of women brought her to him ... saying that they wished to make a present of the damsel to him. He was overcome and astonished by her beauty, and he told them that had he been in a private position no present would have been more welcome, but as he was the general it would be the least welcome of any.... So he expressed his gratitude to the young men, but called the girl’s father, and handing her over to him, at once bade him give her in marriage to whomever of the citizens he preferred. The self-restraint and moderation Scipio showed on this occasion secured him the warm approbation of his troops.” Livy’s account enlarges the picture, saying that she was previously betrothed to a young chief of the Celtiberians, named Allucius, who was desperately enamoured of her; that Scipio, hearing this, sent for Allucius and presented her to him ; and that when his parents pressed thank-offerings upon him, he gave these to Allucius as a dowry from himself. This kindly and tactful act not only spread his praises through the Spanish tribes, but earned a more tangible reinforcement, for Allucius reappeared a few days later with fourteen hundred horsemen to join Scipio.

With his own troops also his blend of generosity and wisdom was no less noticeable. The booty was scrupulously divided according to the Roman custom, which ensured that all was pooled ; and as he had so cleverly used every art to inspire them beforehand, so now he appreciated the moral value of praise and distinctive reward for feats achieved. Better still was his haste to make the victory secure against any unforeseen slip or enemy counter-stroke. He had led back the legions to their entrenched camp on the same day as the city’s capture, leaving Lælius with the marines to guard the city. Then, after one day’s rest, he began a course of military exercises to keep the troops up to concert pitch. On the first day the soldiers had to double three and a half miles in their armour, and the legions carried out various drill movements ; the second day they had to polish up, repair, and examine their arms ; the third day they rested ; and the fourth day they carried out weapon training, “ some of them swordfighting with wooden swords covered with leather and with a button on the point, while others practised javelin throwing, the javelins also having a button on the point ” ; on the fifth day they began the course again, and continued during their stay at Cartagena. “ The rowers and marines, pushing out to sea when the weather was calm, made trial of the manoeuvring of their ships in mock sea-fights.” “The general went round to all the works with equal attention. At one time he was employed in the dockyard with his fleet, at another he exercised with the legions; sometimes he would devote himself to the inspection of the works, which every day were carried out with the greatest eagerness by a multitude of artificers, both in the workshops and in the armoury and docks ” (Livy).

Then, when the walls had been repaired, he left adequate detachments to hold the city, and set out for Tarraco with the army and the fleet.

In summing up this first brilliant exploit in command, the first tribute is due to the strategic vision and judgment shown in the choice of Cartagena as his objective. Those who exalt the main armed forces of the enemy as the primary objective are apt to lose sight of the fact that the destruction of these is only a means to the end, which is the subjugation of the hostile will. In many cases this means is essential—the only safe one, in fact; but in other cases the opportunity for a direct and secure blow at the enemy’s base may offer itself, and of its possibility and value this master-stroke of Scipio’s is an example, which deserves the reflection of modern students of war.

In the sphere of tactics there is a lesson in his consummate blending of the principles of surprise and security, first in the way he secured every offensive move from possible interference or mischance, second in the way he “ fixed ” the enemy before, and during, his decisive manoeuvre. To strike at an enemy who preserves his freedom of action is to risk hitting the air and being caught off one’s balance. It is to gamble on chances, and the least mischance is liable to upset the whole plan. Yet how often in war, and even in peace-time manoeuvres, have commanders initiated some superficially brilliant manoeuvre only to find that the enemy have slipped away from the would-be knockout, because the assailant forgot the need of “ fixing.” And the tactical formula of fixing plus decisive manœuvre is, after all, but the domestic proverb, “ First catch your hare, then cook it.” Precept, however, is simpler than practice, and not least of Scipio’s merits is his superb calculation of the time factor in his execution of the formula.

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