Ancient History & Civilisation



THE interval between the return of Lælius and the embarkation for Africa is occupied, apart from material preparation, by two episodes of significance. The first is Scipio’s apparent “side-show” at Locri; the second, the political imbroglio which for a time threatened his ruin and that of his plans. Both deserve study for the light they shed on his character as a commander and a man.

Locri lay on the underpart of the toe of Italy (near modern Gerace), and was in Hannibal’s possession. After his brother Hasdrubal’s defeat at the Metaurus, Hannibal had fallen back on Bruttium, the southernmost province of Italy, and here he held at bay the consular armies, who dared not advance to seek out the scarred but indomitable lion in his mountain fastnesses.

Some Locrians who had gone outside the walls were captured by a Roman raiding party, and taken to Rhegium—the port adjacent to Sicily,— where they were recognised by the pro-Roman Locrian nobles, who had found sanctuary there when their town fell into Carthaginian hands. Certain of the prisoners, who were skilled artisans and had been in the employment and trust of the Carthaginians, suggested that, if ransomed, they would be willing to betray the citadel at Locri. The nobles, eager to regain their town, at once ransomed the artisans, and after concerting a plan and signals, sent them back to Locri. Then, going to Scipio at Syracuse, they told him of the scheme. He saw the opportunity, and despatched on the venture a detachment of three thousand men under two military tribunes. Exchanging signals with the conspirators inside, ladders were let down about midnight, and the attackers swarmed up the walls. Surprise magnified their strength, and the Carthaginians in confusion fled from the citadel to a second citadel on the farther side of the town. For several days encounters occurred between the two parties without decisive result. Alive to the danger to his garrison, and to the threatened loss of an important point, Hannibal moved to the rescue, sending a messenger ahead with orders to the garrison to make a sortie at daybreak as a cloak to what he hoped would be his surprise assault. He had not, however, brought scaling ladders with him, and so was forced to postpone his attack a day while he was preparing these and other materials for storming the walls.

Scipio, who was at Messana, received word of Hannibal’s move, and planned a countersurprise. Leaving his brother in command at Messana, he embarked a force, and, setting sail on the next tide, arrived in the harbour of Locri shortly before nightfall. The troops were hidden in the town during the night, a concealment made possible by the townspeople favouring, though not openly taking, the side of the Romans. Next morning Hannibal launched his assault in conjunction with the sortie from the Carthaginians’ citadel. As the scaling ladders were bering brought forward, Scipio sallied out from one of the town gates and attacked the Carthaginians in flank and rear. The shock of the surprise dislocated and disorganised the Carthaginians, and, his plan upset, Hannibal fell back on his own camp. Realising that the Romans, because of their grip on the town, were masters of the situation, he withdrew during the night, sending word to his garrison in the citadel to make their way out as best they could and rejoin him.

For Scipio this“ side-show” was a very real asset. Apart from the personal prestige he gained from his success in this first encounter with the dreaded Hannibal, scoring a trick even off the master of ruses, he had helped the Roman campaign in Italy by curtailing Hannibal’s remaining foothold in that country—and without any diminution of his own force. But, beyond these personal and indirect gains, his success had an important bearing on his own future plan of operations. For he had“ blooded” his troops against Hannibal, and by this successful enterprise given them a moral tonic, which would be of immense value in the crucial days to come. It is unfortunate that for this episode, as for Lælius’s reconnaissance in Africa, we have no Polybius to reveal to us the motives and calculations which inspired Scipio’s moves. The loss of Polybius’s books on this period must be replaced by deduction from the facts, and from the knowledge already gained of Scipio’s mind. To those who have followed his constant and far-sighted exploitation of the moral element during his Spanish campaigns, there can be little doubt that he seized on the Locri expedition as a heavensent chance not only to test and sharpen his weapon for the day of trial, but to dispel in his troops the impression of Hannibalic invincibility.

The second episode arose out of the subsequent administration of recaptured Locri. When Scipio had sent the original force to seize the town, he had instructed Quintus Pleminius, the propraetor at Rhegium, to assist the tribunes, and when the place was captured Pleminius, by virtue of his seniority, assumed the command until Scipio arrived. After the repulse of Hannibal’s relieving force, Scipio returned to Sicily, and Pleminius was naturally left in chief command of the town and its defence, though the detachment from Sicily remained under the direct command of the tribunes.

How Pleminius abused his trust is one of the most sordid pages in Roman history. The wretched inhabitants suffered worse from his tyranny and lust than ever they had from the Carthaginians—an ill-requital of their aid to the Romans in regaining the town. The example of their leader infected the troops, and their greed for loot not only harassed the townspeople but inevitably led to disorder among themselves. It would seem that the tribunes strove to check this growing license, and to uphold the true standards of military discipline. One of Pleminius’s men, running away with a silver cup that he had stolen from a house and pursued by its owners, met the tribunes in his flight. They stopped him and had the cup taken away, whereat his comrades showered abuse on the tribunes, and the disturbance soon ended in a free fight between the soldiers of the tribunes and those of Pleminius. The latter were worsted and invoked the aid of their commander, inciting him by tales of the reproaches cast upon his behaviour and control. Pleminius thereupon ordered the tribunes to be brought before him, stripped, and beaten. During the short delay while the rods were being brought and themselves stripped, the tribunes called upon their men for aid. The latter, hastily gathering from all quarters, were so inflamed at the sight that, breaking loose from the habits of discipline, they vented their rage on Pleminius. Cutting him off from his party, they mutilated his nose and ears, and left him almost lifeless.

When word of the disturbance reached Scipio, he sailed immediately for Locri and held a court of inquiry. Of the evidence and of the reasons for his judgment we know nothing. All that is handed down is the fact that he acquitted Pleminius, restored him to command, and pronouncing the tribunes guilty, ordered them to be thrown into chains and sent back to Rome for the Senate to deal with. He then returned to Sicily.

The verdict appears somewhat astonishing, the one serious blemish, in fact, on Scipio’s judgment. The motives which inspired it are difficult to surmise. Perhaps it was partly pity for the mutilated Pleminius, combined with anger that his own men should have shown such gross insubordination and committed such an atrocity. It is a natural instinct with the best type of commander to be more severe on the misconduct of his own direct subordinates than on those who are only attached to him, and in case of dispute between the two such a man may err because of his very scrupulousness to hold the balance fairly, and to avoid partiality towards his own. It was said of one of the finest British commanders in the war of 1914-18 that if he had a personal dislike or distrust of a subordinate he invariably gave the latter more rope than the others, knowing that if his distrust was justified the man would assuredly use this rope to hang himself. Similar may have been the motives underlying Scipio’s outwardly inexplicable verdict. In criticising it the historian must consider not only the gaps in our knowledge of the case, but view the incident in the general light of all Scipio’s recorded acts as a commander. The whole weight of evidence, as we have seen, goes to show that two qualities which especially distinguished Scipio were the acuteness of his understanding of men, and his humanity to the conquered. Trust in a Pleminius or condonation of brutality were the last things to be expected of him, and so, lacking evidence as to the facts on which his decision was based, it would be rash to pass adverse judgment on his action.

We need to remember also that Locri was in Italy, and therefore outside his province, and a close attention to its administration could only be at the expense of his primary object—preparation for the expedition to Africa.

The importance of the Locri incident is not as a light on Scipio’s character, but as a political rock on which his military plans nearly foundered. How this came about can be briefly told. After Scipio’s departure, Pleminius, who thought that the injury he had sustained had been treated too lightly by Scipio, disobeyed the latter’s instructions. He had the tribunes dragged before him and tortured to death, refusing even to allow their mangled bodies to be buried. His injuries still rankling, he then sought to avenge himself by multiplying the burdens put on the Locrians. In despair, they sent a deputation to the Roman Senate. Their envoys arrived soon after the consular elections, which had marked the end of Scipio’s term of office, though he was continued in command of the troops in Sicily. Their tale of misery raised a storm of popular indignation at Rome, and Scipio’s senatorial opponents were not slow to divert this on to the head of the man nominally responsible. It is no surprise to find that Fabius initiated this by asking if they had carried their complaints to Scipio. The envoys replied, according to Livy, that“ deputies were sent to him, but he was occupied with the preparations for the war, and had either already crossed over into Africa, or was on the point of doing so.” They added that his previous decision between Pleminius and the tribunes had given them the impression that the former was in favour with Scipio.

Fabius had got the answer he wanted, and after the envoys had withdrawn, hastened to condemn Scipio unheard, declaring“ that he was born for the corruption of military discipline. In Spain he almost lost more men in consequence of the mutiny than in the war. That, after the manner of foreigners and kings, he indulged the licentiousness of the soldiers, and then punished them with cruelty.” This envenomed speech Fabius followed up with“ a resolution equally harsh.” It was “that Pleminius should be conveyed to Rome in chains, and in chains plead his cause; that, if the complaints of the Locrians were founded in truth, he should be put to death in prison, and his effects confiscated. That Publius Scipio should be recalled for having quitted his province without the permission of the Senate.”

A hot debate followed, in which, “besides the atrocious conduct of Pleminius, much was said about the dress of the general himself, as being not only un-Roman, but even unsoldierly.” His critics complained that “he walked about the gymnasium in a cloak and slippers, and that he gave his whole time to light books and the palæstra. That his whole staff were enjoying the delights which Syracuse afforded, with the same indolence and effeminacy. That Carthage and Hannibal had dropped out of his memory ”—somewhat inconsistent on the part of the people who were proposing to recall him because he had been fighting with Hannibal. How petty, but how true to human nature! The real grievance of his crusted seniors was not his leniency with Pleminius, but his Greek refinement and studies.

But wiser counsels prevailed. Metellus pointed out how inconsistent it would be for the State now to recall, condemned in his absence and without a hearing, the very man whom they had commissioned to finish the war, and to do so in the face of the Locrians’ evidence that none of their tribulations occurred while Scipio was there. On the motion of Metellus a commission of inquiry was appointed to visit Scipio in Sicily, or even in Africa had he departed thither, with power to deprive him of his command if they found that the acts at Locri had been committed at his command or with his concurrence. This commission was also to investigate the charges brought against his military régime, whether his own alleged indolency or the relaxation of discipline among the troops. These charges were brought by Cato, who, besides being an adherent of Fabius, conceived it his special mission in life to oppose the new Hellenic culture and to effect cheese-paring economies. It is related that to save money he sold his slaves as soon as they were too old for work, that he esteemed his wife no more than his slaves, and that he left behind in Spain his faithful charger rather than incur the charge of transporting it to Italy. As quæstor under Scipio in Sicily he reproached his general with his liberality to the troops, until Scipio dispensed with his services, whereupon Cato returned disgruntled to Italy to join Fabius in an antiwaste campaign in the Senate.

The commission went first to Locri. Pleminius had already been thrown into prison at Rhegium, according to some accounts by Scipio, who had sent a legatus with a guard to seize him and his principal coadjutors. At Locri restitution of their property and civic privileges was made to the citizens, and they willingly agreed to send deputies to give evidence against Pleminius at Rome. But though invited to bring complaints against Scipio, the citizens declined, saying that they were convinced that the injuries inflicted on them were neither by his orders nor with his approval.

The commission, relieved of the duty of investigating such charges, nevertheless went on to Syracuse, to see for themselves the military condition of his command. There are parallels in history to such a political investigation on the eve of a great military venture—the Nivelle affair is the most recent,—and often they have reacted disastrously both on the confidence of the commander and the confidence of his subordinates in him. But Scipio survived the test. “While they were on their way to Syracuse, Scipio prepared to clear himself, not by words but by facts. He ordered all his troops to assemble there, and the fleet to be got in readiness, as though a battle had to be fought that day with the Carthaginians by sea and land. On the day of their arrival he entertained them hospitably, and on the next day presented to their view his land and sea forces, not only drawn up in order, but the former carrying out field operations, while the fleet fought a mock naval battle in the harbour. The prætor and the deputies were then conducted round to view the armouries, the granaries, and other preparations for the war. And so great was the admiration aroused in them of each particular, and the whole together, that they formed the conviction that under the conduct of that general, and with that army, the Carthaginians would be vanquished, or by none other. They bid him with the blessing of the gods, cross over....” (Livy).

These deputies were not, as the “frocks” of 1914-18, remarkable only for their ignorance of matters military. Like most Romans they were men of military training and experience, and no “ eye-wash ” would have deceived them. In face of such a verdict it is surprising that a historian of the reputation of Mommsen should here again swallow Fabius’s spiteful charges, and repeat as his own the opinion that Scipio failed to maintain discipline. Only a lay historian, militarily ignorant, could imagine that an army which had been allowed to run to seed could carry out the complex Roman battle drill and develop its preparations to a pitch of efficiency that not only gained the approval but aroused the enthusiasm of this expert commission.

On their return to Rome the warmth of their praise induced the Senate to vote that Scipio should cross to Africa, and that he should be given permission to select himself, out of those forces which were in Sicily, the troops which he wanted to accompany him. The irony of this grudging and tardy permission lies in the clause in italics. He was given their blessing, and that was all. For a venture of such magnitude, he was worse supported by the Senate than even Hannibal by Carthage. Of Roman troops, apart from his own volunteers, he had in Sicily only the 5th and 6th Legions, the remnant of those who had fought at Cannæ, and who in punishment for the defeat had been sentenced to serve in exile in Sicily. A less understanding commander might well have hesitated to rely on troops suffering such a degradation. But“ Scipio was very far from feeling contempt for such soldiers, inasmuch as he knew that the defeat at Cannæ was not attributable to their cowardice, and that there were no soldiers in the Roman army who had served so long, or were so experienced in the various types of combat.” They on their side were burning to wipe off the unjust stigma of disgrace, and when he declared that he would take them with him he could feel sure that by this proof of his trust and generosity he had won their utter devotion. He inspected them “ man by man,” and putting aside those unfit for service he filled up their places with his own men, bringing the strength of each Legion up to 6200 infantry and 300 horse.

Roman accounts differ widely as to the total strength of the force that embarked, and even in Livy’s time the uncertainty was such that he preferred not to give an opinion. The smallest estimate is 10,000 foot and 200 horse; a second is 16,000 infantry and 1600 horse; the third, and largest, is a total of 35,000, including horse and foot. The first is disproved by the previous facts, and these seem rather to point to the second as the correct estimate. In any case it was slender indeed for the object aimed at.

There is a striking parallel between the situation and numbers of Scipio in 204 B.C. and those of Gustavus Adolphus in 1630 A.D., when the Swedish King crossed the Baltic to strike at the seat of the Imperial power. And each force, small as it was, had been welded by the training genius and personal magnetism of its leader into a superb instrument of war—a cadre or framework for later expansion. How purely this expedition and its triumphant success was the plan and the work of Scipio can be aptly shown by quoting Mommsen, a far from friendly witness: “It was evident that the Senate did not appoint the expedition, but merely allowed it: Scipio did not obtain half the resources which had formerly been placed at the command of Regulus, and he got that very corps which for years had been subjected by the Senate to intentional degradation. The African army was, in the view of the majority of the Senate, a forlorn hope of disrated companies and volunteers, whose loss in any event the State had no great occasion to regret.” And yet many historians assert that Rome’s victory in the Punic War was due to the generous support she gave to her generals, the failure of Carthage to the reverse cause!

Not only were Scipio’s means slender, but the African situation had changed for the worse during the year’s delay forced on him by the need to raise and train his expeditionary force, in default of Rome’s aid, a delay still further protracted by the Locri inquiry. Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, on his return from Spain had checkmated Scipio’s newly won influence over Syphax, by giving the king his daughter Sophonisba in marriage, and in return got Syphax to renew his pledge of alliance with Carthage. Still afraid that Syphax would adhere to his old pledges to Scipio, Hasdrubal “took advantage of the Numidian while under the influence of the first transports of love, and calling to his aid the caresses of the bride, prevailed upon him to send envoys into Sicily to Scipio, and by them to warn him ‘not to cross over into Africa in reliance on his former promise.’” The message begged Scipio to carry on the war elsewhere, so that Syphax might maintain his neutrality, adding that if the Romans came he would be compelled to fight against them.

Passion had beaten diplomacy. One can imagine what a blow the message proved to Scipio. Yet he determined to carry through his plan, and merely sought to counteract the moral harm which might accrue if Syphax’s defection became known. He sent the envoys back as quickly as possible, with a stern reminder to Syphax of his treaty obligations. Further, realising that the envoys had been seen by many, and that if he maintained silence about their visit rumours would spread, Scipio announced to the troops that the envoys had come, like Masinissa earlier to Lælius, to urge him to hasten his invasion of Africa. It was a shrewd ruse, for the truth might have caused grave moral depression at the critical time. Scipio, wiser than the military authorities of 1914, understood crowd psychology, and knew that the led put the worst construction on the silence of the leaders, that they assume no news to be bad news, despite all the proverbs.

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