Ancient History & Civilisation

New Carthage, 209 BC

Scipio took with him to Spain a further reinforcement of 10,000 infantry and probably some cavalry, increasing the Roman army in the province to 28,000 foot and 3,000 horse. This total was barely equal to any one of the three armies maintained by the Carthaginians. Landing at Emporion late in the campaigning season of 210, Scipio concentrated his forces at Tarraco and spent the winter there, negotiating with Spanish leaders. Even before his arrival, Scipio had been contemplating a bold strategy for his first full year's campaigning and the winter months gave the opportunity for the gathering of intelligence and detailed planning, as he later explained in a letter to Philip V which Polybius was to consult. The three Punic armies were widely dispersed, Hasdrubal Barca fighting the Carpetani roughly in the area of modern Toledo, his brother Mago near the Pillars of Hercules

(Straits of Gibraltar), and Hasdrubal Gisgo amongst the Lusitanians. It might be possible for the Roman army to march and confront one of these forces before the others could intervene. However, even if Scipio were able to move into contact there was no guarantee that he would be able to force the enemy into a decisive and successful battle. The longer the campaign continued without result, the greater chance of the arrival of overwhelming enemy forces and the risk that he would suffer at best a humiliating retreat and at worst a disaster similar to 211. Secretiy, Scipio decided that he would instead move against one of the most important strongholds of the Barcid province, the city of New Carthage. The dispersion of the enemy armies made it feasible for the Romans to advance this far without meeting serious opposition, but there was no certainty that they would then be able to take the city, for direct assaults were rarely successful and there would certainly not be sufficient time to blockade the city into submission before relief arrived. Intelligence reports indicated that the garrison was relatively small, whilst fisherman from Tarraco who plied their trade along the coast provided the valuable information that the lagoon apparently preventing access to one side of the city's walls was in fact readily fordable in several places. Scipio's preparations were careful and thorough, but this, and his eventual success, should not conceal the great boldness and high risks of this operation.4

Keeping their destination secret, Scipio led 25,000 foot and 2,500 horse into the field next spring, whilst his friend Gaius Laelius took the fleet along the coast to New Carthage. Polybius tells us that Scipio reached the city after a seven-day march, but does not tell us where he started from and this seems a very short time to move from Tarraco or anywhere else north of the Ebro. Whatever the details of this operation, it is clear that the Romans arrived rapidly and unexpectedly outside the city. Scipio pitched camp, but made no attempt to surround the city with a wall of circumval-lation. Assembling his troops, he made a speech explaining his reasons for wanting to capture the city and promising rich rewards for men who distinguished themselves, in particular the first man to get over the wall. Finally he claimed that the entire plan had been given to him in a dream by Neptune. Like all speeches supposedly given to massed armies, it is probable that this was delivered to smaller sections in turn.5

The garrison commander, another Mago, had 1,000 mercenaries supported by 2,000 armed townsfolk to meet the next day's assault. The eager but untrained citizens were stationed behind the main gate, ready to sally out, whilst the mercenaries were split into two, half holding the citadel and the remainder the hillock on the eastern, seaward side of the town, where there was also a temple to Aesculapius. The next morning's attack was met by an immediate counter-attack as the armed citizens charged out of the gate and engaged the Roman attacking columns. The defenders of ancient cities often displayed a willingness to fight outside their walls even when greatly outnumbered by the attacking army. Such sallies were a sign of confidence and served the practical purpose of delaying the start of any siegeworks by the attacker, who was forced to fight to gain control of the approaches to the defences. In this case the narrow isthmus connecting the city and mainland in the east prevented the Romans from overwhelming the citizens, despite the delay before all 2,000 had deployed into a fighting line, caused by the column having to leave the city by a single narrow gate. The two sides clashed about a quarter of a mile from the gate, nearer to the Roman camp than to the city walls. Polybius tells us that Scipio, anticipating just such a sortie and planning to inflict serious losses on the defenders, had deliberately kept his men back so that they could fight with every advantage. Despite their lack of training, the citizens fought well and the combat was long and hard, but as the Romans fed in more and more reserves to reinforce the maniples in the fighting line the pressure finally became too much. The Carthaginians broke and fled back to the city, many being cut down as they ran or injured as the mob tried to force its way back through the narrow gateway.6

The Romans followed up eagerly, assault parties racing forward to set ladders against the high city walls. Simultaneously Laelius led the fleet against the southern, seaward side of the city. Scipio himself directed the fighting from high ground near the walls, sheltered from missiles by three soldiers carrying large shields, a measure of prudence which Polybius admired. The Romans attacked with great determination, but made no headway as the barrage of missiles swept men from ladders. As the day drew on and the attacks continued to fail, Scipio had his trumpeters sound the recall. At this stage Mago may well have been satisfied with events. Although his sally had been repulsed, it had delayed the Roman assault and may have reduced its momentum. Neither the Roman army or fleet had made any impression on his walls and the best part of his garrison was still intact. There seemed every reason to believe that he would be able to hold out until relieved by one of the Punic field armies. Polybius claimed that none of the armies was further than ten days' march away.7

It came as some shock to the defenders when the Romans decided to renew their unsuccessful attacks. Usually several days' rest were given to troops before they attacked again after a failed assault. Once again the storming parties rushed against the walls, this time carrying even more ladders than in the earlier advance, more having been issued as the troops rested. Much of their ammunition exhausted, the garrison found it harder to hold back the Roman escalade and only narrowly succeeded in doing so. In the meantime, Scipio had positioned a specially picked unit of 500 men on the northern side of New Carthage, at the edge of the wide lagoon. He had deliberately waited until later in the day when the fishermen of Tarraco had told him that the tide lowered the depth of the water.still further. Without difficulty, the Romans waded through the shallows of the lagoon, following the guides Scipio had brought. Mago had stripped the northern walls of defenders to hold back the onslaught against the isthmus and the 500 men were unopposed as they set their ladders up and ascended. To the east, the rest of the army were inspired by the visible evidence of Neptune's favour and renewed their efforts. Holding their long shields over their heads in the famous testudo formation, soldiers approached the gate and began to hack at its timbers with axes. The 500 men made their way along the wall, their body shields and short swords ideally suited to disposing of any defenders who tried to stop them. Reaching the gate they secured it and let in the attacking party, whilst elsewhere the defenders began to give way and allowed many of the escalading troops to climb onto the walls.8

Getting into a city did not ensure its fall. It took time for the attackers to get many men into the city through narrow entrances or still using assault ladders and there was always a danger that the defenders would rally and, using their better knowledge of the city's layout, counter-attack and drive them out. As more and more troops entered the city, Scipio kept 1,000 men tightly in hand and led them to secure the citadel, where Mago surrendered after a brief resistance. The remainder were let loose into the streets with orders to kill anyone they met. Polybius tells us that he had witnessed the aftermath of the Roman sack of a city - probably when he accompanied Scipio Aemilianus on campaign in Africa or Spain - and had seen the dismembered bodies of men and even animals lying in the streets. There is some later archaeological evidence to support this picture of widespread atrocities. He believed that the practice was intended to inspire terror, both to overawe the population and prevent further resistance, but also to deter other cities from opposing a Roman army. The Roman sack of a city was brutal even by ancient standards, which assumed general massacre of men and rape of women. However, it is important to remember that the Roman soldiers who behaved with such brutality had undergone two major assaults against the city, during which they had suffered grievous casualties whilst making no headway or being able to injure the enemy. The skeletal evidence from towns sacked by the Romans suggests more wild frenzy than calm murder. In addition, the citizens of New Carthage were not peaceful neutrals, but active participants in the defence. This does not condone the Romans' behaviour, but it in part explains it.9

It may well be that Polybius exaggerates the tight control Scipio exercised over his men, who did not begin to plunder until a given signal, but the Republican army had a tightly controlled system for the central distribution of booty. The system may have had its roots in the old predatory warfare of archaic Italy, but had been reinforced as the army grew more organized and required men to remain to guard the camp or stay under arms when others were free to plunder. All legionaries were more likely to perform their duties if they knew that they would receive a fair share of the profits of victory. The collection of plunder into a central spot and its careful distribution under the supervision of the tribunes emphasized the communal spirit of the Roman army as representative of the entire State under arms. This distribution was carried out the day after the capture of the city. Later Scipio also took care to reward those who had distinguished themselves. The corona civica, the crown given to the first man over the wall and the additional prizes Scipio had promised for this deed were fiercely contested by a centurion of the Fourth Legion, Quiritus Trebellius, and a marine, Sextus Digitius, who had presumably attacked under Laelius from the seaward side of the city. After a detailed investigation and fierce rivalry between soldiers and sailors, Scipio gave the crown to both.10

There has been much debate over the precise nature of the information Scipio had about the level of the lagoon, whether the drop was caused by tide or wind, and whether it was a daily or occasional phenomenon. It is unlikely that these issues will ever fully be resolved. The Roman commander had used the knowledge that the lagoon was fordable with great care. Had the party attacking from this direction found the wall held in any strength at all, it is unlikely that they would have been able to force an entry by escalade. The initial Roman attack concentrated on the southern and eastern approaches, focusing enemy attention on these areas. The renewal of this assault with increased force confirmed Mago's belief that these were the sole points in danger and drew in his reserves. Scipio was willing to accept the high casualties inevitable in these direct frontal assaults to draw the enemy's attention away from the wall running along the side of the lagoon. Had Mago possessed a larger garrison this plan would have had far less chance of success, but Scipio had fairly accurate knowledge of the enemy forces and was willing to gamble on stretching the garrison so thinly that his unexpected attack had a good chance of succeeding.11

New Carthage contained considerable stores of material and war engines, as well as housing a rich Punic treasury, carefully catalogued by the quaestor Flaminius, son of the consul killed at Trasimene. Prisoners included Mago and several distinguished Carthaginians. Of the 10,000 men captured, the citizens were released, the non-citizen artisans of the type found in many mercantile cities were made public slaves but promised release at the end of the war, and from the remainder, who were mostly slaves, suitable men were selected to serve as rowers in the Roman fleet. Perhaps the most important prize was the more than 300 hostages taken from the noble families of the Spanish tribes to ensure their good behaviour. Scipio treated the hostages with great courtesy, rewarding them and sending them back to their families as a way of opening negotiations with the tribes. Several stories grew up concerning Scipio's chivalrous treatment of the noble women numbered amongst the hostages, similar in many respects to Alexander's treatment of captive women from the Persian royal family. Many, including the sister-in-law of the prominent chief Indibilis of the Ilergetes, were taken under his personal protection. When the soldiers brought an especially beautiful young woman to offer to their commander, Scipio thanked them, but took care to hand the girl back to her father. In

Livy's version the girl was betrothed to a young nobleman and Scipio is supposed to have reassured the man that the girl's honour was intact. This is typical of the romantic embellishments which grew up around the charismatic figure of Africanus. The good treatment given to the hostages served a practical purpose, furthering the Roman cause with the tribes, but that does not mean that we need believe that Scipio was acting against his true nature.12

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