Ancient History & Civilisation

The Battle of Ilipa, 206 BC

After two aggressive campaigns, Scipio appears to have been far less active in 207. A Roman column seems to have had a success when it surprised Hanno, the Punic officer sent to replace Hasdrubal Barca, whilst he was recruiting soldiers amongst the Celtiberians. The Carthaginians were still as concerned with maintaining their control over the Spanish tribes as they were with defeating the Romans. When Hasdrubal Gisgo made a demonstration of force in Baetica, in the far south of Spain around Gades, Scipio concentrated his forces and advanced towards him. Hasdrubal dispersed his men to garrison the region's cities and refused to be drawn into a pitched battle. As in the earlier campaigns when Scipio had lunged deep into Punic-held territory, he could not afford to stay there for any length of time, as supply would become a problem and the enemy's numbers would steadily increase and eventually overwhelm him. He sent his brother Lucius, serving as his legatus, to capture the city of Orongis to ensure that the Romans achieved a token victory, before they withdrew north and returned to winter quarters in and around Tarraco.16

The next year the Carthaginians decided on a major effort and massed a large army with which to overwhelm the bold young Roman commander. Polybius tells us that Hasdrubal Gisgo led out 70,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, supported by thirty-two elephants, although Livy says that there were only 50,000 foot and 4,500 horse. He camped near a town called Ilipa, placing his camp on readily defensible high ground with an open plain in front of it. This was probably in the region of modern Seville, near Alcala del Rio. It was a clear message to the Romans that this time Hasdrubal was ready and willing to fight. When Scipio had called in the various detachments of his army, they mustered around 45,000 foot and 3,000 horse. Only just over half of these were Romans or Italians, the two legions and two alae composing the standard consular-sized army which he seems to have had since 210. The remainder were allied troops, many recentiy raised from Rome's new allies amongst the Spanish tribes, similar to the warriors whose desertion had precipitated the disaster suffered by his father and uncle. Even with these additional men, Scipio had at best rough parity with the enemy and may even have been significantly outnumbered. Nevertheless, eager to fight the decisive action which had eluded him the year before, he advanced to confront Hasdrubal.17

As the Roman army pitched camp on a line of low hills facing the enemy, Mago led the Punic cavalry in a sudden attack, hoping to catch them unprepared. The skirmish gave another indication of the careful preparation that underlay the overt boldness of Scipio's operations. In addition to the usual outpost placed to cover the construction of a camp, a unit of cavalry had been concealed behind one of the hills. As the Punic horsemen, led by Masinissa's Numidians, swept down on the outposts and the main column still marching up to the camp site, the Roman horse charged unexpectedly against their flank, spreading disorder. The momentum of the Punic charge was lost, and there was time for the outposts to be reinforced by units specifically kept in battle order and also by some men drawn off from the construction. The Carthaginian cavalry were slowly pushed back, until their retreat turned into panicked flight and they were pursued with some loss back to their own lines.18

This success raised the morale of the Roman army. For the next few days the rival armies deployed to offer battle in the plain between their camps, but neither advanced far enough to force the other to fight, contenting themselves instead with sporadic skirmishing between the cavalry and light troops. Success in these small fights and single combats were believed to give a good indication of the relative courage and prowess of each side. Neither side marched out to form up too early in the day, an indication of their lack of desire for an immediate fight. Each day the Carthaginians moved first, and it was only in apparent response that Scipio gave the order for his own columns to march out of the camp gates and form up. Hasdrubal placed his best foot, the Libyans, in the centre, stationed his Spanish warriors on their flanks and had the cavalry and elephants on the wings. Scipio's formation was equally conventional, with the Roman legions in the centre, the alae to their flanks and the Spanish foot to their right and left, with the horse on the wings. Neither side possessed a great superiority in cavalry and as was normal in Spain these formed a lower proportion of the total army than was common elsewhere, especially in Hannibal's army. This battle, like most others in Spain, would be decided primarily by the close order infantry.

Scipio decided once again to wrong-foot his opponent. Orders were issued for his soldiers to have fed themselves and be ready in battle order by dawn the next day. Summoning his tribunes to his consilium he issued new orders, altering the army's battle order. It was probably then that he also explained the complex manoeuvre planned for the next day. At, or a little before, first light the Roman cavalry and velites were sent out with orders to push up as close to the enemy camp as possible. Behind them the remainder of the army marched out in columns and wheeled into a battle line with the Spanish in the centre and the Romans and Italians on the flanks. The Punic outposts were rapidly driven in and Hasdrubal responded by ordering first his own horse and light troops and then the entire army to march out and deploy. The Carthaginian soldiers did so before they had a chance to eat breakfast and in the same order as on previous days. It was only after pushing back the Roman light troops and forming his own line on the level ground beneath his camp that Hasdrubal realized that Scipio had altered his deployment, and by then it was too late to change the orders for his own troops. Half a mile, or a little more, apart the two lines stared at each other for a long time - perhaps hours - as their respective light troops continued to skirmish, periodically retiring through the intervals between the formed troops to rally, before returning to their long-range combat.

Scipio then recalled his velites and ordered them to the wings of his army, before beginning a general advance. The Spanish troops in the centre had been ordered to move slowly and it is unclear who commanded them. The wings were composed of the cavalry as well as the legions and Latin alae, and Scipio himself led the right wing. The left was commanded by Marcus Junius Silanus and Lucius Marcius, the equestrian who had salvaged the situation in 211 and had been treated with great honour by Scipio. Having initially deployed his men in the usual triplex acies facing the enemy, Scipio ordered them to turn to the right so that they now formed three columns parallel to the enemy line. The left wing turned to the left to mirror this formation change. The Roman commanders then wheeled the heads of their columns towards the enemy and advanced in column directiy towards them. A narrow-fronted column will always move faster than a line, for it encounters fewer obstacles and there is less need for its officers to halt and reform the ranks at regular intervals, so they further outstripped the Spanish allies. Nearer the enemy, the Roman wings wheeled again to 90 degrees and marched out to form the triplex acies facing the enemy again. The Roman troops were now close to the edges of Hasdrubal's Spanish infantry, so much so that the velites and cavalry were able to outflank the enemy position. Scipio's manoeuvre was a variation on the normal Roman method of deploying an army, but it had never before been performed so close to and under the gaze of a formed enemy. Only the exceptionally high discipline and training of his army made this possible.

The Carthaginian army had watched, mesmerized, as the Roman columns had arrogantly come straight at them. Hasdrubal did nothing. It was one thing for the Romans to carry out a carefully planned and prepared manoeuvre, but far harder for him on the spur of the moment to issue new orders, sending some of his line forward to face them. If his Libyan foot had been sent forward to outflank the Roman wings, they would in turn have exposed their own flanks to the Spaniards forming the Roman centre. Attempting to shift his units to face a different direction risked splitting the army up, confusing his battle line without achieving anything positive. In any case the Roman manoeuvre will not have taken much time, perhaps as little as an hour, reducing the Punic response time.

The Roman wings attacked with great enthusiasm, the velites bombarding the elephants with missiles, causing many to stampede. The legions and alae charged into the Spanish foot, who met them with considerable determination. In the centre, the pick of the Punic army remained unengaged for some time, inactive observers of the fighting, until the Romans' Spanish allies eventually came into contact. On the wings the Romans gradually started to make headway. Polybius mentions that hunger weakened the resilience of the Spanish warriors as the fight continued through the heat of the day, whilst we may suspect that the Roman multiple line system allowed them to inject renewed impetus into their fighting line. Hasdrubal rode around the line urging his men on, and probably the Roman officers did the same on the other side. At first the Spanish and then the whole Punic army went back step by step, still facing the enemy. Then the pressure grew too much and, as the Romans surged forward, they broke and fled. For a while they seemed to rally at the base of the hill beneath their camp, but as the Romans came on to renew the fight, the rout started again. Our sources tell us that the Romans were only prevented from storming the enemy camp by a sudden deluge of rain which ended the fighting. 19

Our sources do not give casualty figures for Ilipa. The details of the manoeuvre performed by the Roman army has, like so many other aspects of the war, been endlessly debated by scholars. All agree that it demonstrated a far higher standard of corporate discipline than Roman armies had
possessed in the early years of the war. Sometimes attempts have been made to compare the battle to Cannae, measuring Scipio's tactical skill against Hannibal's mastery. This is a mistake, since they were very different battles fought in very different circumstances. What the Roman general had shown was his ability to manipulate to his own advantage the rituals of a formal battle, with its days of delay, skirmishing and displays of confidence.
He had dictated how and when the battle would be fought, surprising and wrong-footing his opponent. In this sense he had displayed the same sort of superiority over Hasdrubal that Hannibal had shown over the Roman commanders in 218-216.20

After a miserable night spent in the pouring rain, Hasdrubal found on the next day that his Spanish contingents were already abandoning him.

Giving up any thought of continuing the fight, he ordered a retreat. It was always difficult to disengage from close contact with the enemy and the Romans, elated by their success, pursued with great enthusiasm. Hasdrubal and Masinissa managed to make their way to the coast and took ship for North Africa, whilst Mago fled to Gades. Abandoned by its leaders, the Punic army in Spain dissolved, whilst the Spanish tribes flocked to pledge their allegiance to Scipio. The Romans divided to mount a series of punitive expeditions against those chieftains who did not submit readily enough. Some of this fighting was very bitter, the population of one town allegedly murdering their families and committing mass suicide rather than surrender. A conspiracy by some deserters from Gades to betray the city to the Romans was discovered by Mago and suppressed, but it was an indication of the collapse of Carthaginian power in the Peninsula.21

Around this time, Scipio fell seriously ill and a rumour of his death spread rapidly throughout the tribes. Indibilis, the powerful chieftain of the Ilergetes, saw this as an opportunity for rebellion and rallied many Iberian and Celtiberian warriors to his call, leading them in raids against Rome's allies. Perhaps this was a sign of the fear that now that the Romans were supreme in Spain they might become as repressive as the Carthaginians. More probably it was just a reminder that the loyalty of the Spanish tribes focused upon individual leaders rather than foreign states. Simultaneously, a force of 8,000 Roman soldiers garrisoning the town of Sucro mutinied, complaining that they were owed much back pay and wanted either to return to campaigning with its prospects of booty or to be sent home and discharged. Some of the soldiers in Spain had been there for over a decade, most for half that time, so that the desire for discharge now that the war seemed won may be understandable. Others in fact would later choose to stay in Spain, settling in the new colony of Italica. However, most military mutinies throughout history have occurred when troops were inactive, and have frequently had very complex causes. The ringleaders of the mutiny were executed, whilst the remainder were paid, brought back under tight discipline and forced to renew their oath by a commander now recovered from his sickness. Scipio then led the bulk of the army against Indibilis, defeating him in a battle in which once again his troops displayed their skill at manoeuvre and their commander his ability to dictate how the battle would be fought. Perhaps as a result of years of fighting with or against the Carthaginians, or because it was part of native military culture, the Spaniards seemed to expect battles to occur in the same formal way as Rome, Carthage and the Hellenistic world. However, these fiercely individualistic warriors were hard for any chief to control and the movements of their army clumsy in the extreme. The revolt was crushed, but Indibilis escaped, only to be killed when he rebelled again after Scipio had finally left the province.22

Mago's hopes may briefly have revived when he saw the Romans experiencing problems. Soon he was ordered off to prepare his Italian expedition, but not before he had alienated the population of Gades. The city surrendered soon after his departure and several hundred years of Carthaginian presence in Spain ended. Scipio returned to Italy to deliver his report, being greeted by the assembled Senate outside Rome although, because he had never held a magistracy, he was denied a triumph. His fame was such that he easily secured election to the consulship of 205, despite the fact that he was well below the normal minimum age. Scipio's achievement was undoubtedly spectacular. Marcius and Nero had helped to prevent the utter expulsion of the Romans from Spain, but when Scipio had arrived in 210 the balance of power was absolutely in favour of Carthage. In just four campaigns the young, untried commander had utterly reversed the situation and ejected the enemy from the Peninsula. He had achieved this success with very modest resources, far less than those at the disposal of his opponents. Conditions had changed in Rome's favour, particularly the widespread resentment amongst the tribes against the increasingly harsh Punic rule, but the main factor in his success was Scipio's own ability. He combined the traditional aggression of Roman commanders with careful preparation, planning and training. This was a combination which, when a means was established of permanently keeping Roman armies at a high level of skill and efficiency, would later make Rome militarily dominant for the best part of five centuries.

Rebellions began to break out in Spain soon after Scipio left, confirming the personal nature of the loyalty amongst the chieftains and tribes, but his eyes were already further afield. Even whilst still in Spain he had begun to anticipate a campaign to strike at the Punic hearriand in Africa. He made several attempts to form alliances with Numidian princes, sending men to negotiate with Masinissa in an attempt to lure him over to join Rome. He resumed the contact his father and uncle had had with King Syphax, even sailing across the Straits of Gibralter to visit him in his kingdom. This resulted in the bizarre incident when both Scipio and Hasdrubal Gisgo with their respective officers sat down as guests at the royal table only a few months after Ilipa. Ultimately the negotiations with Syphax failed, but in Masinissa Scipio made an important ally who would do much to affect the outcome of the Roman invasion of Africa. It is to this that we must now turn.23

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