Ancient History & Civilisation



WITH Cartagena in his grip, Scipio had gained the strategical initiative, which is by no means identical with the offensive. To attack the Carthaginian field armies while he was still markedly inferior in numbers would be to throw away this advantage and imperil all that he had gained. On the other hand, he held the key to any possible Carthaginian move. If they moved to regain Cartagena, itself impregnable if adequately garrisoned, and still more so when the defender had command of the sea, he lay on their flank with his main striking force. If they moved against him, he would have the advantage of choosing his own ground, and, in addition, Cartagena would threaten their rear, for his command of the sea would enable him to transfer forces there. If they remained passive, and this inaction proved their choice, they would suffer the handicap due to the loss of their base, depot, and main line of communication with Carthage. Nothing could have suited Scipio better, for the respite allowed the moral effect of Cartagena’s capture to sink into the minds of the Spanish, and allowed him also time to win over fresh allies to offset his numerical handicap. The result proved the soundness of his calculations, for during the next winter Edeco, Andobales, and Mandonius, three of the most powerful chieftains in Spain, came over to him, and most of the Iberian tribes followed their example. As Polybius justly says, “ Those who have won victories are far more numerous than those who have used them to advantage,” and Scipio, more than any other great captain, seems to have grasped the truth that the fruits of victory lie in the after years of peace—a truth hardly realised even to-day, despite the lessons of Versailles.

The outcome was that Hasdrubal Barca, faced with this shifting of the balance, felt forced to take the offensive. This gage Scipio, thus reinforced, was not loth to accept, for it promised him the chance to deal with one hostile army before the others had joined it. But with the principle of security impressed on his mind, he still further strengthened his forces, to meet the possibility that he might be forced to fight more than one army at once. This he did by the ingenious measure of hauling his ships on shore at Tarraco and adding their crews to his army, a course which was feasible because the Carthaginian ships had been swept from the sea, and because he was about to advance into the interior. His foresight in exploiting the workshop resources of Cartagena gave him an ample reserve of weapons from which to arm them.

While Hasdrubal was still preparing, Scipio moved. On his advance from his winter quarters he was joined by Andobales and Mandonius with their forces, handing over to them their daughters, whom he had apparently retained—because of their key importance,—unlike the other hostages taken at Cartagena. Next day he made a treaty with them, of which the essential part was that they should follow the Roman commanders and obey their orders. Scipio evidently appreciated the importance of unity of command. The army of Hasdrubal lay in the district of Castalon, near the town of Bæcula on the upper reaches of the Bætis, to-day called the Guadalquiver. On the approach of the Romans he shifted his camp to an admirable defensive position—a small but high plateau, deep enough for security, and wide enough to deploy his troops, difficult of access on the flanks, and with a river protecting its rear. The formation of this plateau, moreover, was in two “ steps,” and on the lower Hasdrubal posted his screen of light troops, Numidian horse and Balearic slingers, while on the higher ridge behind he entrenched his camp.


Scipio for a moment was at a loss how to tackle such a strong position, but not daring to wait lest the two other Carthaginian armies should come up, he devised a plan. He sent the velites and other light troops to scale the first “ step ” of the enemy’s position, and despite the rocky ascent and the shower of darts and stones, their determination and practice in using cover enabled them to gain the crest. Once a footing was secured, their better weapons and training for close combat prevailed over skirmishers trained for missile action with ample space for a running fight. Thus the Carthaginian light troops were driven back in disorder on the higher ridge.

Scipio, who had the rest of his army ready but inside their camp, “ now despatched the whole of his light troops with orders to support the frontal attack,” while, dividing his heavy foot into two bodies, he himself led one half round the left flank of the enemy’s position, and sent Lælius with the other to skirt the opposite flank of the ridge until he could find a good line of ascent. Making the shorter circuit, Scipio’s s men climbed the ridge first, and fell on the Carthaginians’ flank before they had properly deployed, as Hasdrubal, relying on the strength of his position, had delayed leading his main forces out of the camp. Thus trapped before they had formed up and while still on the move, the Carthaginians were thrown into disorder, and during the confusion Lælius came up and charged their other flank. It may be mentioned that Livy, in contradiction to Polybius, says that Scipio led the left wing and Lælius the right, a divergence obviously due to whether the position is considered from the attackers’ or the defenders’ side.

Polybius states that Hasdrubal’s original intention in case of a reverse had been to retreat to Gaul, and after recruiting as many of the natives as possible, to join his brother Hannibal in Italy. Whether this be surmise or fact, as soon as Hasdrubal realised the battle was lost he hurried from the hill with his treasure and his elephants, and collecting in his retreat as many of the fugitives as he could, retired up the river Tagus in the direction of the Pyrenees. But Scipio’s double envelopment, and still more his foresight in sending beforehand two cohorts to block two of the main lines of retreat, caught as in a net the bulk of the Carthaginian troops. Eight thousand were slain, twelve thousand taken prisoners. While the African prisoners were sold as slaves, Scipio once more showed his political sagacity by sending home the Spanish prisoners without ransom.

Polybius says, “ Scipio did not think it advisable to follow Hasdrubal, as he was afraid of being attacked by the other generals,” and to a military critic the reason is convincing. It would have been foolhardy to press farther into the mountainous interior with two more hostile armies, superior in strength, able to converge on him or to cut him off from his base. A bare statement of the military problem is ample answer to those, mainly civil historians, who decry Scipio on the score that he allowed Hasdrubal to quit Spain and move into Italy on his ill-fated attempt to join Hannibal. It is interesting to note that Hasdrubal followed the route of Wellington after Vittoria, making his way to the northern coast of Spain, and crossing by modern San Sebastian and the western gap where the Pyrenees slope down to the sea.

To pretend that Scipio, had he remained on the defensive, could have barred this passage is absurd, based as he was on the eastern coast. Either of the other Carthaginian armies could have contained him while Hasdrubal slipped through one of the numerous western passes, or again, if he attempted so distant a move through wild and mountainous country, not only would he have exposed his base but have invited disaster. But for Scipio’s offensive and victory at Bæcula, Hasdrubal could have entered Gaul in force, and thus have avoided the two years’ delay—so fatal to the Carthaginian cause —enforced by his need to recruit and reorganise his army in Gaul before passing on.

The aftermath of Bæcula, like that of Cartagena, contains two incidents which illumine Scipio’s character. The first was when the Spanish allies, old and new, all saluted him as king. Edeco and Andobales had done so when joining him on the outward march, and he had then paid little attention, but when the title was re-echoed so universally he took action. Summoning them to an assembly, he “ told them that he wished to be called kingly by them and actually to be kingly, but that he did not wish to be king or to be called so by any one. After saying this he ordered them to call him general ” (Polybius). Livy, relating this incident in other words, adds, “ Even barbarians were sensible of the greatness of mind which from such an elevation could despise a name, at the greatness of which the rest of mankind was overawed.” It is assuredly the clearest indication of Scipio’s mental stature that in the first flush of triumph this youthful conqueror could preserve such self-command and balance of mind. Weighed solely by his character, apart from his achievements, Scipio has claims to be considered the highest embodiment of the Roman virtues, humanised and broadened by the culture of Greece, yet proof against its degenerate tendencies.

The second incident, whether it be due solely to the sympathetic insight which peculiarly distinguished him or to the diplomatic foresight which made this gift of such inestimable value to his country, is equally significant. The quæstor selling the African prisoners came upon a handsome boy, and learning that he was of royal blood, sent him to Scipio. In answer to the latter’s questions, the boy said that he was a Numidian, his name Massiva, and that he had come to Spain with his uncle Masinissa, who had raised a force of cavalry to assist the Carthaginians. That, disobeying his uncle, who considered him too young to be in battle, “ he had clandestinely taken a horse and arms, and, without his uncle’s knowledge, gone on the field, where, his horse falling, he was thrown and taken prisoner.” Scipio asked him whether he wished to return to Masinissa, and on his assenting with tears of joy, presented the youth with “ a gold ring, a vest with broad purple border, a Spanish cloak with gold clasp, and a horse completely caparisoned, and then released him, ordering a party of horse to escort him as far as he chose.”

Scipio then fell back on his base, and spent the remainder of the summer in exploiting the effect of the victory by securing the alliance of most of the Spanish States. His wisdom in not following up Hasdrubal was justified by the fact that within a few days after the battle of Bæcula, Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, and Mago arrived to join Hasdrubal Barca. This arrival, too late to save the last-named from defeat, served to bring about a conference to settle their future plans. Realising that Scipio by his diplomacy and his victories had gained the sympathies of almost all Spain, they decided that Mago should transfer his forces to Hasdrubal Barca, and go to the Balearic Isles to raise fresh auxiliaries; that Hasdrubal Barca should move into Gaul as soon as possible before his remaining Spanish troops deserted, and then march on into Italy; that Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, should retire into the remotest part of Lusitania, near Gades—modern Cadiz,—where alone the Carthaginians might hope for Spanish aid. Finally, Masinissa, with a body of three thousand horse, was to have a roving commission, his object being to harass and ravage the lands of the Romans and of their Spanish allies.

The chronology of these years is somewhat difficult to determine, but the victory at Bæcula seems to have been in 208 B.C. The next year Scipio’s hold on the country was threatened afresh. A new general, Hanno, had come with a fresh army from Carthage to replace Hasdrubal Barca. Mago also had returned from the Balearic Isles, and after arming native levies in Celtiberia, which embraced parts of modern Arragon and Old Castile, was joined by Hanno. Nor was the threat only from one direction, for Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, had advanced from Gades into Bætica (Andalusia). If Scipio moved into the interior against Hanno and Mago he might find Hasdrubal across his rear. Therefore he detached his lieutenant, Silanus, with ten thousand foot and five hundred horse, to attack the former, while he himself apparently kept watch and check on Hasdrubal.

Silanus marched so fast, despite the rugged defiles and thick woods on his route, that he came on the Carthaginians before any messengers or even rumours had warned them of his approach. The advantage of surprise offset his inferior strength, and falling first on the Celtiberian camp, where no proper watch or guard was kept, he had routed them before the Carthaginians had come up to their aid. Mago with almost all the cavalry and two thousand foot fled from the field as soon as the verdict was clear, and retreated towards the province of Gades. But Hanno and those of the Carthaginians who arrived on the field when the battle was decided were taken prisoners, and the Celtiberian levies so thoroughly dispersed as to nip in the bud the danger that other tribes might copy their example and join the Carthaginians.

It is characteristic of Scipio that he was unstinting in his praise of Silanus. Having thus ensured the security of his flank for an advance southward, he moved against Hasdrubal, whereupon the latter not only fell back in indecent haste, but lest his united army should attract Scipio on to him, he broke it up to form small garrisons for the various walled towns.

Scipio, seeing the enemy thus abandon himself to a passive defensive, decided that there was no object in conducting a series of petty sieges likely to drain his own force without adequate advantage. However, he sent his brother Lucius to storm one town, Orinx, which served Hasdrubal as a strategical pivot from which to make incursions into the inland States. This task Lucius carried out successfully, and Scipio’s nature is again instanced in the record that he commended Lucius with the highest praise, representing the capture of Orinx as equal in importance to his own feat at Cartagena. As winter was by now approaching he dismissed the legions to winter quarters, and sent his brother with Hanno and other distinguished prisoners to Rome.

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