Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 11

The Rise of Scipio, 210-205 BC

Spain 211-205 BC

AFTER THE DISASTER IN 211 the remnants of the Roman armies had managed to cling onto a small enclave north of the Ebro. Lucius Marcius, elected leader by the soldiers and styling himself 'propraetor', drove back the few Carthaginian thrusts directed against the area, but the three Punic armies rapidly dispersed. It was difficult to feed too many troops when they were concentrated and apart from that each commander was eager to return to his own region of the province and restore order there. The Scipios defeated, the Romans were no longer the main enemy for the Carthaginians in Spain. Marcius wrote to the Senate reporting his activities and requesting supplies of food and clothing, but his adoption of a magisterial title caused considerable offence. Late in the year Caius Claudius Nero, the man who would later engineer the victory at Metaurus, was dispatched to take over the command. He brought with him reinforcements of, according to Livy, 12,000 infantry, half-Roman and half-Latin, and 300 Roman and 800 Latin cavalry; although Appian claims that there were only 10,000 foot and 1,000 horse. Probably in the next spring, Nero led an expedition across the Ebro and inflicted a minor defeat on Hasdrubal Barca.1

At the end of 210, Nero returned to Rome and was replaced in the Spanish command by Publius Cornelius Scipio, the eldest son of the consul of 218. During the next five years he showed himself to be the most gifted Roman commander of the war, utterly reversing the situation in Spain, so that at the end of his command the Carthaginians had been completely expelled from the province. Scipio's success should not blind us to the utterly unprecedented nature of his appointment, being given proconsular imperiumin spite of the fact that he was a private citizen. Other men had received similar grants of power since early in the war, but invariably they had held high magistracies at some point earlier in their careers. Scipio had been curule aedile in 213, but even during the height of the war with Hannibal this post was still essentially a civil office. In his mid twenties, he was far too young to have held the praetorship or consulship, although as a result of his father and uncle's premature deaths, he was head of one of the most distinguished and influential patrician families in Rome. Like most of his generation, the young Scipio had extensive military experience, having reached adulthood at the very beginning of the war. In 218 he had served with his father and perhaps saved his life at Ticinus. He had certainly been present at Trebia and may even have been at Trasimene. As a tribune of the Second Legion he had escaped the disaster at Cannae and played a prominent part in rallying stragglers from the battle and turning them back into some sort of organized force. Our sources are silent, but it seems probable that he saw active service in at least some of the campaigns in Italy during the next few years.

Livy claims that the Senate decided to hold an election in the Comitia Centuriam to choose a proconsul to send to Spain, but that no one seemed to want the post until the young Scipio appeared and was unanimously elected. This is very strange, because pro-magistrates were not elected officials, but appointed by the Senate. It also seems highly unlikely that in the closed world of senatorial politics that Scipio's intentions were not widely known before the event. Perhaps the formal vote was intended to legitimize a decision already made and confirm the legality of Scipio's power, but this does not explain why he was chosen. Attempts to understand the incident in terms of factional politics once again fail to convince and rely on far too many unjustified assumptions about the 'policies' of different families. The Romans were somewhat short of experienced commanders after the heavy casualties of the early years of the war, but there must have been men available who had held senior magistracies. Livy may be right to say that the Spanish command was not an attractive one. Even before their disastrous last campaign the Scipios had complained of lack of supplies. The new commander would continue to face an enemy greatly superior in numbers which would make it extremely difficult to achieve anything significant. There were far better opportunities for distinction in the operations in Italy, which could more easily be translated into future electoral success in Rome. Another factor certainly favoured the choice of Scipio, although it is impossible to know whether or not the Senate were aware of it. The loyalty of the Spanish tribes and chieftains tended to focus around individual leaders rather than states, as the Barcid family had shown. Scipio's name might well prove more useful in regaining lost allies who had once followed his father or uncle than prestige won elsewhere by an experienced, but unknown Roman senator. We can never know precisely how and why Scipio was chosen to go to Spain, but his appointment illustrates the flexibility of the Roman political system at this period just as much as the willingness to give multiple consulships to experienced commanders.2

Scipio Africanus was one of the most charismatic figures produced by the Romans during the Punic Wars. In many respects he conformed to the ideal of the youthful military genius which has done much to shape Western ideas of heroism since Alexander the Great. He was that familiar mixture of the man of action and the sensitive, intelligent lover of culture, particularly that of the Greek world. His operations were imaginative, bold and aided by good fortune, so that it is sometimes easy to overlook the careful preparation and planning which underlay the sense of youthful impatience. Polybius' adherence to Scipio Aemilianus ensured that all his ancestors received favourable treatment, but the author's admiration for Africanus seems to have been genuine. He was at great pains to emphasize Scipio's skill as a commander, that the risks he took were the result of sober calculation and not unthinking rashness. A rational Greek with a somewhat cynical view of religion as a useful tool for controlling the masses, Polybius argued that Africanus did not believe the stories of divine assistance which he used to inspire his men. This may be so, but other sources present Scipio as a man who believed that he possessed a special relationship with the gods. This was not unique amongst Roman commanders; both Sulla and Caesar later claimed to be especially lucky because of their personal favour with particular gods and found that their soldiers responded to such claims.3

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