Ancient History & Civilisation


Spain, Macedonia and Sicily

NEARLY ALL THE FIGHTING in the First Punic War had occurred in and around Sicily, apart from Regulus' invasion of Africa and sporadic raiding of the Italian and African coastlines. The Second War between Rome and Carthage spread over a much wider area. Hannibal with the best of the Punic armies invaded Italy from his base in Spain, and there too the greatest number of Roman soldiers took the field, but the Carthaginians were later also to attempt the re-conquest of Sardinia and Sicily. From the very beginning, the Romans threatened the Punic province in Spain, and they were to end the war by mounting a second invasion of North Africa. Some of this widening of the conflict had been anticipated by both sides. In 218 the Roman Senate had expected the year's consuls to fight in Africa and Spain, and Hannibal had made provisions for the defence of both areas. In other cases the war spread unexpectedly. Philip V of Macedon, long nervous of growing Roman influence in Illyria, chose to ally himself with Hannibal, impressed by the latter's victories in 218-216. The king's intervention was purely opportunistic and more bitterly resented by the Romans as a result. For a decade a Roman fleet and army operated in Greece and Illyria to prevent a feared Macedonian expedition to Italy. The naval skirmishing around Sicily only escalated into a major war when political turmoil in Syracuse finally led to an alliance with Carthage.

There was some interconnection between the different theatres during the war. Spain was the base from which Hannibal had launched his invasion of Italy and one reason for the Romans' persistence in maintaining the long struggle there was fear of a repeat of this expedition. In fact, Hasdrubal Barca made an unsuccessful attempt to move on Italy in 215 and actually succeeded in 208-207. Had the Carthaginians re-established themselves in Sicily, its ports would have allowed them to support Hannibal's army in Italy far more closely. In reality Hannibal and the Punic and allied commanders in Sicily gave each other littie direct aid. A more direct impact on the Italian campaign resulted when both Hannibal and Mago were recalled to counter Scipio's successes in Africa. The slow pace of communications made it difficult to co-ordinate the operations in different theatres. Hannibal and Hasdrubal singularly failed to unite and support each other when the latter finally arrived in Italy in 207. The main role of central authority was in the allocation of men and resources to the different regions, along perhaps with dictating the priorities of the commanders there. The Roman Senate annually reviewed the state's war effort, how many troops should be in service, where they were to operate, how they were to be supplied, and who was to command them. Even when Hannibal was marauding through Italy, shattering one army after another, the Senate was still able to take thought for operations elsewhere. The Carthaginian war effort lacked such clear direction, imposed at a fundamental level on the Roman state by its tradition of annual magistracies. In 218 Hannibal appears to have disposed the military effort in both Africa and Spain, but once in Italy, he had only limited contact with either area. The authorities in Carthage were less intimately linked with military organization than their Roman counterparts. They did provide resources for and urge actions upon commanders in Spain and Sicily, but their directives were occasional and many decisions were reactions to Roman moves rather than the product of concerted objectives of their own.

Spain 218-211 BC

The Spanish Peninsula was occupied by three major peoples. In the west, in an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Portugal, were the Lusitanians. In southern and central Spain were the people who gave the region its name, the Iberians, whilst the land to the north was the territory of the Celtiberians, a mixture of migrating Gallic tribes and the indigenous population which had merged to create a distinct culture. All three peoples were tribal, but these tribes were far less coherent than their Gallic counterparts and the focus of loyalty for most tribesmen was the town or city. Invariably fortified and usually set on a hilltop, most of these communities were small, little more than villages. A few on the southern coast, like Saguntum, had grown much larger, possessed a literate culture and were by this period hard to distinguish in prosperity from the Greek and Punic colonies in the region. Various kings and chieftains appear in the narrative of the operations in Spain, but their power does not appear to have been fixed, depending instead on personal charisma and particularly on a reputation as warriors and leaders of warriors. Strong leaders, who had proved themselves in war, might control many settlements in both their own and other tribes' territories, the area loyal to them changing in size as their prestige, and that of rival leaders, fluctuated.

Warfare, particularly raiding, was endemic throughout the Spanish Peninsula. Like the tribes of Gaul, the peoples of Spain habitually raided their neighbours, and it was a dispute of this sort which had provided the ostensible reason for Hannibal's attack on Saguntum. Tribes or towns perceived to be weak were mercilessly raided, every successful attack encouraging similar enterprises. A leader could only expect to command the loyalty of allied communities for as long as he was able to protect them from depredations. A reputation for military might, achieved primarily by aggressive campaigns against others combined with swift reprisals to avenge any attack, deterred raiding, but this was hard to maintain and even a small defeat encouraged more raids. Both Rome and Carthage relied overwhelmingly on Spanish soldiers, who formed the most numerous element in almost every army in the Peninsula. Some of these troops were mercenaries, but the bulk were allies, whose loyalty was based above all else on a belief that whichever side they had joined was the stronger, at least locally. Defections followed rapidly when either Rome or Carthage came to be seen as weak. The old Carthaginian province covered only a small area, with its heartland around New Carthage and Gades. Elsewhere, although rapid campaigns had overrun other tribes, the Punic position had not yet been consolidated.1

In 218, having failed to intercept Hannibal on the Rhone, the consul Publius Scipio had sent his brother Cnaeus with the bulk of his army on to his province of Spain, before returning himself to confront the enemy in Cisalpine Gaul. Cnaeus had two legions and a strong allied contingent, an impressive army of perhaps 20,000-25,000 men. Sailing along the coast, he landed at the Greek colony of Emporion, a city with which Rome already had some sort of relationship, either directiy or through her ally Massilia. Other communities in the area proved ready to ally with Rome. Hannibal had swept through the area north of the Ebro in a few months, leaving Hanno with 10,000 foot and 1,000 horse to control it. Soon after disembarking his army, Cnaeus advanced against this force and easily defeated it at a place called Cissa, probably somewhere near Tarraco (modern Tarragona). Hanno was captured along with the heavy baggage which Hannibal had left under his protection before setting out for Italy. Also captured was a chieftain of the Ilergetes, a man named Indibilis (Andobales in Polybius) who appears to have been one of those strong leaders able to dominate communities from other tribes as well as his own. The Romans spread out and soon most of the tribes and cities north of the Ebro were defeated or voluntarily defected. Hasdrubal Barca, left in overall charge of Spain by his brother, hastily put together an expeditionary force when he heard of Scipio's arrival and, according to Polybius at least, of Hanno's defeat. With 8,000 foot and 1,000 horse he crossed the Ebro and attacked elements of the Roman fleet which had scattered around the coastal areas to raid the local communities. Dispersed and careless, several groups of Roman marauders were caught by the Cartaginians and cut to pieces. The survivors fled and several officers were punished by Cnaeus for their unnecessary defeat. Hasdrubal withdrew after this minor success, having neither the troops nor, probably, the supplies, to risk a longer campaign or an encounter with the main Roman force.2

The Romans had established themselves in Spain, gaining allies amongst not just the Greek cities on the coast, but the native tribes of the interior. Cnaeus detached some troops as garrisons to defend both the captured cities and his new allies, before returning to winter with the bulk of his army at Tarraco. Distributions of booty, especially the prizes from Hannibal's baggage train, added to the soldiers' good spirits. In the spring of 217 Hasdrubal mustered larger forces to mount an offensive against the Roman enclave. Crews were found for a few more of the ships left to him by Hannibal, so that forty galleys, the majority 'fives', sailed from New Carthage under the command of Hamilcar. These cruised along the coast, keeping pace with Hasdrubal's army on land, under whose protection the ships could beach and the crews rest each night. We do not know the size of the Punic army, but we must assume that it was substantial since Cnaeus decided that it was unwise to follow his first instinct and face it in battle. Instead the Romans loaded thirty-five ships with marines picked from the legions. At least some of this squadron was provided by Massilia, a maritime city whose sailors had a high reputation. Moving south along the coast, Cnaeus paused about 10 miles from the enemy and sent two small Massiliote ships forward to scout. When these reported that the Punic fleet was beached near the mouth of the Ebro, Cnaeus decided to launch an immediate attack in the hope of catching the enemy unprepared. However, Carthaginian scouts along the coast had already spotted the enemy fleet and warned Hasdrubal, who rapidly ordered Hamilcar to embark and put to sea. The rival squadrons engaged willingly, but the fighting did not last long and ended in a clear Roman victory, perhaps due mainly to the actions of the Massiliotes. Polybius argued that the presence of the Punic army did less to encourage their sailors than to offer them an easy prospect of flight to safety. Perhaps more importantly, at least a quarter of the Punic crews were recently raised, and even the existing ships' companies may not have been especially well-trained. Marauding expeditions rather than naval fighting were a far more common activity for the Punic fleet in Spain. Two Carthaginian ships were lost, four more lost their oars and marines, whilst the rest fled to the sanctuary of the army, beaching themselves in panic. Twenty-five enemy vessels were captured by the Romans, who had arrogantly rowed inshore and towed away many of the beached ships. The Roman fleet may have mounted a few raids along the Punic-held coastline later in this year, but the details are obscure. More Iberian communities sought alliance with Rome after this display of strength. Livy's narrative of this period is not supported by any of the extant passages of Polybius, but he claims that tribesmen from the Ilergetes raided communities friendly to Rome and were in turn attacked by Cnaeus, whilst the Romans managed to persuade some Celtiberians to ravage Carthaginian territory.3

Encouraged by Cnaeus' successes, and in particular his naval victory, the Senate decided to send reinforcements to Spain under the command of his brother, Publius, now recovered from the wound suffered at Ticinus. In late 217 Publius arrived with twenty or thirty warships and a draft of 8,000 men along with food and supplies. The brothers, both given proconsular imperium, were ordered to take the offensive and under all circumstances to prevent troops, supplies or money being sent from Spain to support Hannibal. With their combined forces, Cnaeus and Publius pushed across the Ebro and advanced towards Saguntum, where the treachery of a Spanish leader brought them an unexpected reward. This man, Abilyx, outwitted the local Punic commander into freeing a group of hostages, mostly the sons of aristocrats taken from the tribes by Hannibal, and handed them over to the Romans. Abilyx's action was prompted by his belief that the Romans were now stronger and more likely to prevail than the Carthaginians, to whom he had been conspicuously loyal in the past. Returning these to their home communities, the Romans were able to persuade more of the tribes to join them, Abilyx pleading their cause with great enthusiasm.4

Hasdrubal was in the meantime occupied with suppressing the rebellion of a tribe that Livy calls the Tartesii, incited in part by men, presumably tribesmen, who had deserted from the Punic fleet. In 216 he received from Carthage a small reinforcement of soldiers and orders to mount an expedition to join his brother in Italy. Hasdrubal replied that he lacked the resources to undertake this and still protect the Punic province in Spain and only after receiving more troops under Himilco did he begin serious preparations for a move to Italy. As Hasdrubal began to move out, either in late 216 or more probably at the very beginning of the campaigning season in 215, the Romans concentrated their forces and confronted him near the town of Ibera, just to the south of the Ebro. For several days the rival armies camped about 5 miles apart, but neither side felt ready to offer battle. Then, apparently on the same day, both armies deployed in battle order and advanced to contact. The Romans deployed in the usual triplex acieswith cavalry on the wings. Hasdrubal placed his Spanish allied foot in the centre of his line, flanked by Libyan and mercenary infantry on the left and Carthaginians on the right. It is distinctly possible that this last contingent consisted of troops from the Punic colonies in Spain rather than Carthage itself. The cavalry were divided between the wings, the right being held by a contingent of Numidians. The cavalry, or perhaps the flanks of the infantry line were strengthened by a force of elephants, perhaps the twenty-one left by Hannibal in 218. Numbers were roughly equal on the two sides, but our sources supply no figures for either army. Hasdrubal's deployment has frequently been compared to his brother's formation at Cannae, and the assumption made that he wanted the Romans to push back his centre and so make it easier to envelop them. This is certainly an error. The tactics of Cannae were peculiar to the local situation. Perhaps there is some similarity to Trebia, when Hannibal put his best infantry on the flanks to support the anticipated success of his cavalry wings. Livy tells us that Hasdrubal's centre of Spanish troops was solid, not deliberately thinned as Hannibal's was at Cannae. Even so, these warriors gave way quickly, which probably explains the mistaken comparison with Hannibal's victory in 216, although his centre held out for some time. Livy claimed that the Spanish were unenthusiastic about marching away from their homeland and gives this as the reason for their flight, which occurred after only a brief exchange of missiles before the two sides had closed to hand-to-hand contact. The Roman legions then did what the manipular system was designed to do, the reserve lines exploiting the breakthrough and wheeling to right and left to roll up the flanks of the enemy line. The Libyans and Punic troops put up a much harder fight against the flanks of the Roman line, but without reserves of his own there was nothing that Hasdrubal could do to plug the gaping hole in his centre. There was apparently little serious fighting between the cavalry and the Carthaginian horse fled after seeing the destruction of their own infantry. Cnaeus and Publius completed their victory by storming the enemy camp and plundering it. The threat of a second invasion of Italy was ended for the foreseeable future and this triumph persuaded even more tribes to abandon Carthage and side with the Romans.5

Livy's narrative for the next few years of the war in Spain presents many problems. The defeat at Ibera prompted the Carthaginians to send more troops to Spain, notably the forces under Mago Barca originally intended to go to Italy. In the years after Cannae there was far less prospect of reinforcement for Cnaeus and Publius Scipio, who on at least one occasion complained to the Senate of their lack of resources, a problem exacerbated by the corruption of some of the companies contracted to supply the legions in Spain (already mentioned in the last chapter). However, although numbers had started to favour the Carthaginians, the Romans were not their only enemy. Controlling a much larger area of the Peninsula required the dispersion of their forces to protect their allies from attacks and suppress rebellions by tribes bribed by the Romans or encouraged by their successes. Three main armies were formed, but each commander tended to concentrate on the problems of the area under his immediate control. This, perhaps coupled with personal disagreements, frequently prevented the effective co-ordination of and mutual support between the Punic forces. Their problems were not solely confined to Spain. Appian claims that Hasdrubal and a large force had at some point to return to Africa to suppress a rising by the Numidian King Syphax. Livy also tells us that Cnaeus and Publius negotiated with this monarch, as Scipio Africanus was later to do, and even sent him centurions to train his army in Roman drill and discipline. More often they devoted their efforts to raising rebellion amongst the Carthaginians' Spanish allies. The years after 215 were ones of steady progress in Spain for the Romans, although their sphere of influence was still predominantly in the north. Raids were sent further into Punic-held territory, minor encounters won and towns captured.6

In 211, or, according to Livy but less probably, 212, the Roman commanders in Spain decided to launch a major offensive. Two of the Punic armies led by Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Gisgo had for once united and were a mere five days' march away, whilst Hasdrubal Barca was slightly closer to the Romans near a town called Amtorgis. The Romans had added 20,000 Celtiberian allies or mercenaries to their army and felt themselves strong enough to confront both enemies simultaneously. Together the brothers advanced as far as Amtorgis, but then Publius led out two thirds of the old army, the legions and Italian allies, to face Mago and Hasdrubal, whilst Cnaeus with the remaining third and the Celtiberians confronted Hasdrubal Barca. The latter made use of the usual days of waiting before a battle to hold secret negotiations with the Celtiberian chieftains, who were bribed to return home. The tribesmen considered this breach of faith entirely honourable, since they were not actually being asked to fight against their allies. To the dismay of Scipio and his soldiers, the Celtiberians simply marched away. This was not the only occasion when these warriors, who had a great reputation for ferocity when they did choose to fight, behaved in such a manner. Now greatly outnumbered by Hasdrubal, Cnaeus had little choice but to retire in haste.7

By this time Publius Scipio had already suffered disaster. As the Romans drew near to the adjacent camps of Mago and Gisgo, their column was severely harassed by Numidian light horsemen, inspired by the leadership of a young prince named Masinissa, who was later to play a major role in events. The Roman outposts and foragers suffered severely and the repeated attacks made the soldiers nervous. Scipio discovered that the Carthaginians were soon to be joined by the chieftain Indibilis and 7,500 tribesmen from the Suessetani and decided to intercept the approaching force and destroy it. Leaving a small garrison in camp, he led his troops out in a night march, a typically bold action. The resultant encounter was confused, neither side managing to form a proper battle line. Things rapidly started to go wrong for the Romans. Masinissa and his Numidians found them and attacked suddenly from one flank. Later the main Punic army arrived and the pressure became overwhelming. Publius Scipio, riding round the front lines as a Roman general should to inspire and organize the men, was killed by a thrown javelin. As the news of his death spread, the Roman army dissolved into rout, to be massacred as they fled by the eagerly pursuing Numidians and Punic light infantry.

The two Carthaginian generals hurried to join Hasdrubal Barca and reached him before Cnaeus had any news of his brother's defeat and death. However, the arrival of enemy reinforcements, wherever they had come from, made it clear that he must continue his retreat. Leaving camp at night he was able to steal a march on the enemy, but by the end of the following day the Numidian cavalry had caught up with him. Harried by the agile horsemen, the Roman column made less and less progress, continually having to deploy to drive the enemy back. Near nightfall Scipio led his weary men onto a hill where they formed a ring around the baggage and his own outnumbered cavalry. By this time the vanguard of the main Punic armies was in sight. The ground was too rocky for the legionaries to dig the usual ditch and rampart around the camp, so the Romans laid out a line of pack saddles and piled their baggage onto it to form a crude barrier. For a while this delayed the enemy, but soon the vastiy outnumbered Romans were overwhelmed. A few survivors escaped in the night and managed to reach Publius' camp and the small garrison he had left behind. Cnaeus was killed during either the fighting or the subsequent pursuit. In just under a month the Carthaginians had smashed the Roman armies in Spain. Many of Rome's allies abandoned them after this display of their weakness. An equestrian, Lucius Marcius, who was serving as either a tribune or a senior centurion, rallied the survivors of the brothers' army and managed to hold onto some territory north of the Ebro, although Livy's account of his successes may well be exaggerated. The Punic armies dispersed to reassume control over the remainder of the Peninsula.8

The defeat of Cnaeus and Publius Scipio was sudden and all the more unexpected because of their previous record of success. For years, the Romans had been able to take comfort from the campaigns in Spain when elsewhere everything seemed to be going disastrously wrong. All this had been achieved at relatively little cost in funds or manpower to the Roman state. More importantly a disproportionate amount of enemy resources had been drawn to Spain and another invasion of Italy prevented. The Scipios had proved themselves able enough commanders, though Cnaeus may well have been more gifted than his younger brother, and typically aggressive in the Roman manner. Throughout the years of war they had continually raided into enemy territory and sought to gain as many allies as possible from the indigenous tribes. However, Hasdrubal's manipulation of the Celtiberians may point to his superior knowledge of the customs of these wild warriors. Whether or not the Romans could have defeated the three Punic armies if their allies had remained loyal is impossible to know. Even with these warriors, the Carthaginians may well have had a significant numerical advantage although, given the limitations of intelligence gathering in this period, it is questionable that the Roman generals knew this.9

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