Ancient History & Civilisation



SCIPIO MADE IT VERY clear that as consul he wanted to be sent with an invasion force into Africa, proclaiming that if permitted to do so he would win the war. The idea was not entirely new, since Sempronius Longus had been sent to prepare such an expedition in 218 before he was recalled, but the Romans' confident mood in that first year of war had long since been shattered by Hannibal. Eventually the Senate decided that the consular provinces for 205 should be southern Italy and Sicily and it became almost certain that Scipio would get his way. Publius Licinius Crassus, the other consul, was also pontifex maximus, Rome's senior priest, and so for religious reasons needed to remain in Italy itself, ensuring that he would go to Bruttium to face Hannibal, and Scipio to Sicily. The war there had been over for five years and the island was ideally placed to act as a base for an invasion of the Carthaginian heartland. Yet from the beginning there was intense opposition in the Senate, both to the idea of sending an army to Africa and to granting Scipio the command. Rumours circulated then and later that the young consul was willing to use radical methods to get his way, planning to persuade a tribune to pass a law in the Popular Assembly giving him Africa as his province if the senators denied him. Technically legal, such a move would have been utterly unprecedented, threatening the stability of a political system which relied so much upon convention and was in fact to begin breaking down in this way less than a century later.1

Most prominent of Scipio's opponents was Fabius Maximus, now too old to serve in the field himself and nearing the end of his long life. Our sources depict Fabius as still obsessed with avoiding all military risks and perhaps a little jealous of Rome's new hero, but the arguments attributed to him were reasonable enough. Hannibal was still in Bruttium, undefeated in a serious battle after more than a dozen campaigns on Italian soil. The Romans may already have been aware that Mago Barca was planning to join him, perhaps reviving the fears which had flourished back in 208 when Hasdrubal was poised to cross the Alps. The threat to Italy itself was still very real. Fabius was old enough to remember how Regulus' defeat in 255 had revived the flagging Carthaginian war effort, prolonging for over a decade a war which had seemed to be nearly won, and pushing Rome almost to the limit of her endurance. Landing an army on the other side of the Mediterranean and then supplying it were difficult tasks in themselves, without having to face an enemy fighting on their home ground and so inevitably superior in numbers. Fabius may well have felt that Scipio's Spanish campaigns had not prepared him for such an enterprise.

In the end a compromise favouring Scipio was reached. He was given Sicily as his province with permission to cross to Africa if he believed it to be in Rome's interest. Our sources claim that his opponents still tried to restrict his action by preventing him from levying a new army, although this tradition has sometimes been doubted. The garrison of Sicily was still substantial enough to provide an invasion force and in addition such was Scipio's popularity that volunteers flocked to join him: 7,000 men came forward, including a cohort of 600 from the city of Camerinum, whilst other communities provided food and equipment. Etruria proved especially enthusiastic, perhaps to prove their loyalty which had been suspected by the Romans earlier in the war. The size of the army eventually taken to Africa is unknown. Livy mentions three different totals given by unnamed sources, ranging from 10,000 infantry and 2,200 cavalry, through 16,000 infantry and 1,600 cavalry, to a maximum of 35,000 of both arms. The heart of the army was the two Cannae legions, now numbered Fifth and Sixth. Scipio had removed the old and unfit from the ranks of these units and replaced them with his volunteers, to produce two exceptionally strong units of 6,200 foot and 300 horse. There is no record of legions as large as this in the third century BC and Livy'S figure has as a result sometimes been doubted, but this is to deny the essential flexibility of the Roman military system. It was normal to increase the size of legions when faced by an especially dangerous enemy and Scipio's army was about to undertake a difficult operation, so there is no good reason to reject this figure. It is probable that the legions were supported by the usual two alae, giving Scipio a standard consular army. Assuming that the allies were roughly equal in size to the citizen troops, then this would have brought the army's total number of combat soldiers up to somewhere around 25,000-30,000 men, to which we must add servants and camp followers. It is doubtful that more than one in ten of the soldiers were cavalrymen and the ratio may have been even lower, given the difficulty of transporting horses by sea. If this estimate is near the mark, and it must remain conjectural, then this was one of the largest armies to be transported by sea to a hostile shore throughout the entire course of the wars.2

Scipio went to Sicily in 205, but did not actually launch the invasion until the following year. A squadron of thirty warships from the Sicilian garrison was put together and sent on a plundering expedition against the North African coast. In charge was Gaius Laelius, once again serving as Scipio's senior legatus. The raid caused an invasion scare in Carthage, before it was realized that it was only on a small scale. It also allowed Laelius to make contact with Masinissa, who was busy fighting a civil war to control his late father's kingdom, and complained about the delay in the Roman invasion. It was not only contemporaries who expected the invasion to occur in 205, for some historians have also wondered why Scipio delayed. This is to misunderstand the scale of the planned invasion and the preparations it required, which could not have been completed in a few months. A large fleet, particularly of transport ships, had to be assembled and crews provided. One difficulty was encountered when the galleys Scipio had brought with him to the island proved to have been constructed from improperly prepared wood and needed to be beached for extensive maintenance. The perennial problem of supply posed particular problems for an army that planned to operate so far from its bases. It would have been difficult to feed such a large army through foraging, especially in the winter months, and the requirement to do this would have placed serious limitations on Scipio's freedom of action in Africa. Instead, for the two years that the African campaign would last, the bulk of the food consumed by the Roman army was brought across by sea from Sicily or Italy. The troops themselves had also to be prepared for a new type of campaign. The Cannae legions had served continuously under arms longer than any other units of the Roman army, but for the last decade they had fought in Sicily where pitched battles were exceptionally rare and most of the fighting consisted of raids and sieges. In addition a good number of the men in their ranks, perhaps as many as 50 per cent, were recent replacements from Scipio's volunteers. An extensive training programme was needed to absorb the new recruits and raise the standard of drill and discipline to the same level that had allowed the legions in Spain to undertake the complex battlefield manoeuvres of Baecula and Ilipa. Scipio spent about a year preparing for the invasion, a fairly typical period for a major expedition in the ancient world. It was once again an indication of the thorough planning and preparation which formed the basis for his bold operations.

According to Livy the general knew that landing an army in Africa was not difficult. The problem was in keeping it there and defeating the strong defences arrayed against it. Scipio's attitude made military sense, but did assume that his command would be extended for at least another year and probably much longer. He appears to have been confident that his friends and supporters in the Senate were numerous and influential enough to ensure that this happened, or perhaps that the entire state realized that he was the best man for the job. During the months in Sicily a scandal occurred which challenged this assurance.3

Late in the campaigning season of 205, a group of Locrian prisoners offered to betray the city's citadel to the Romans. Scipio leaped at the chance to deny Hannibal one of the few cities still loyal to him and gave orders for 3,000 men commanded by the tribunes Marcus Sergius and Publius Matienus to march from Rhegium to Locri. One of his legati, Quintus Pleminius (who is attributed propraetorian rank by Livy, perhaps anachronistically), was detailed to assist in the operation and seems to have assumed overall command. Although not every aspect of the plan went smoothly, the Romans were eventually successful and the Punic garrison retired from the city to rejoin Hannibal. The Carthaginian occupation of the city had been particularly repressive, but Pleminius and his garrison rapidly proved themselves to be worse. Houses and temples, including a famous shrine to Persephone, were plundered, citizens assaulted and their wives and daughters violated. The war in south-west Italy had long consisted of brutal plundering raids by both sides and the troops in the area had degenerated into littie more than bandits. The garrison divided as the tribunes' soldiers and those of Pleminius formed two rival bands. A squabble over booty escalated into open fighting which was won by the tribunes' men. As punishment Pleminius ordered the tribunes flogged, an extremely harsh punishment for men of their rank. He was in turn attacked by their angry soldiers, battered around the head and left unconscious. Hearing of the disturbances, Scipio sailed to the city where he supported his legatus. The tribunes were arrested and put in chains to be sent to Rome for judgement. The consul then returned to Sicily, leaving Pleminius in charge of the city. Angry at what he considered to be the lenient treatment of the tribunes, the legatushad them tortured and then executed, repeating the procedure with any of the city's leaders who dared to oppose him.4

Eventually the Locrians managed, early in 204, to send ten ambassadors to Rome where they reported on their mistreatment. The news caused an uproar and provided valuable ammunition for those senators opposed to Scipio, although fortunately for him this occurred after the provinces for the year had been allocated and his command extended as proconsul. The Locrian emissaries reported that complaint had been made to Scipio in Sicily, but that he was so preoccupied with the final preparations for the invasion and so well disposed to Pleminius that they had received no response. Fabius Maximus was again prominent in his condemnation of Scipio, accusing him of failing to impose proper discipline on his soldiers, who had also mutinied in Spain. Other rumours circulated about the young general's behaviour, claiming that he and his staff wandered about dressed in Greek fashion and lived the leisured lifestyle of Hellenistic aristocrats in the gymnasia of Syracuse, whilst the army and navy fell into neglect. Marcus Porcius Cato, Scipio's quaestor, was one of the equestrians with a good military record who had been enrolled in the Senate to replace the casualties of the early years of the war. Later he would establish a reputation as a stern personification of traditional Roman virtues which were increasingly under threat from the corrupting influence of Greek culture. During these months Cato provided a rich source of stories discrediting his commander. In spite of this, Fabius failed to have Scipio removed from his command. There was, however, a general consensus supporting Fabius' harsh treatment of Pleminius, who was arrested and brought to Rome for trial on capital charges, although Livy records several traditions concerning his precise fate. Faced with a serious problem, the Senate fell back on a very Roman way of dealing with it, sending a Commission of ten to Sicily to judge Scipio's responsibility for the recent crimes. The board was treated to several days of rigorous manoeuvres in which the army and fleet demonstrated the fruits of their months of training. Fully satisfied with this and the other visible signs of the preparations for the coming invasion, the commissioners confirmed the proconsul in his command and returned to Rome. It is impossible to know how impartial a group these men were, but there is no good evidence to portray the majority as close adherents of Scipio and his family. His only fault had been placing too much trust in his own subordinate and not properly investigating the problems at Locri during his brief visit.5

Invasion, 204-203 BC

Early in the campaigning season of204, the Roman invasion fleet left: Sicily, its departure accompanied by much ceremony. The traditional sacrifice was performed, Scipio personally flinging the innards of the slaughtered animal into the sea. Altogether, there were about 400 transports escorted by only forty warships. In addition to the men and animals there was fresh water and food for forty-five days, the food ration for fifteen days pre-cooked the grain probably baked into bread or hard tack - and ready for issue. The fleet sailed in close convoy, lights being hung from their sterns to allow them to keep station at night, each galley carrying one, the transports two and the flagship three. The warships were divided into two squadrons, those sailing to the left of the transports commanded by Laelius and Cato and those on the right under Scipio and his brother Lucius. Their small number suggests that the Romans did not anticipate strong opposition from the Punic navy, whose performance in the war up to this date had been dismal. Alternatively, Scipio may have had insufficient trained rowers to crew more galleys and been forced to gamble on not encountering an enemy fleet. If so, the gamble paid off, for the Romans sighted the African coast without difficulty on the second day out from Sicily.6

Livy claims that the Romans had originally planned to land far to the east of Carthage, near one of numerous trading communities known as Emporia, but that after sighting Cape Bon, his pilots steered to the west and made landfall on the third day at the promontory 'of the Beautiful one' (or god), modern-day Cap Farina or Ras Sidi Ali el Mekki. It is difficult to know what to make of his account, especially since we lack Polybius' narrative at this point, but it seems certain that the Romans did in fact land at Cap Farina not far from the city of Utica. Their arrival prompted a widespread flight by the local villagers who fled with their cattie into the cities, and particularly to Carthage itself. Scipio showed the same skill in deploying outposts to screen his army as he had before Ilipa, for 500 Carthaginian cavalry on a reconnaissance were easily defeated. Both the overall commander, one Hanno, and the cavalry's own leader were killed. Despite the exodus of much of the population, the Romans gathered considerable booty and 8,000 captives to send back to Sicily in the transport ships.7

Soon afterwards Masinissa arrived to join the Romans. His people, the Maesulii, had had a succession of leaders during the civil wars which followed the death of Masinissa's father, Gala. Numidian tribal politics were highly complex, since the throne was not hereditary and disputes were frequently setded by violence. The various protagonists all sought aid from external powers, including other Numidian kings, such as Syphax, the Carthaginians and eventually the Romans. Masinissa's main opponent, one Mazaetullus, had married the widow of another king. She was the granddaughter of Hamilcar Barca, offspring of the daughter he had married to Navaras, emphasizing the often close ties between the Punic aristocracy and the Numidian royal families. Masinissa had defeated this man, but then Syphax intervened, fearing that a strong king of the Maesulii might begin to threaten the power of his own people, the Masaesulii. Although he had dabbled with the idea of an alliance with Rome, Syphax had finally been persuaded to stay loyal to Carthage by Hasdrubal Gisgo, who had given him his daughter Sophonisba in marriage. By all accounts a remarkable woman, she gained great influence over the king and used it for the good of her father and her homeland. Syphax won a victory in which Masinissa was wounded and most of his army dispersed so that by the time he joined Scipio he may have had as few as 200 men still with him, although Livy also mentions that other sources gave him 2,000.8

The Carthaginians sent another cavalry force to probe the Roman positions. It was led by another Hanno, described variously as the son of Hamilcar and the son of Hasdrubal Gisgo. With around 4,000 men, mostly recently raised Numidians but including a contingent of Carthaginian citizens, Hanno moved to the city of Salaeca, around 15 miles from the Roman camp. Scipio is supposed to have commented scornfully on a cavalry commander who kept his men in a city during the summer months when they ought to be active. He ordered Masinissa to attack and then lure the enemy into a rash pursuit to a position where the Roman cavalry would be concealed in ambush. It was the same type of tactic which Numidian cavalry had used in the past against Roman armies and proved just as effective. Hanno fell and 1,000 of his men were killed or captured in the initial fight, 2,000 of the rest in the 30 mile pursuit. The coincidence of names between the two commanders of the Punic cavalry defeated in different skirmishes has led to the suggestion that there was in fact only one action, which our sources have confused, but even Livy was aware of this possibility and believed that there were two distinct encounters. After this success the Romans continued to ravage the surrounding land, sending their plunder and prisoners back to Sicily in the convoys of ships which regularly brought them supplies.9

At this point Scipio began the siege of Utica itself, hoping to capture the city and its port to use as a base. The Roman army established itself on a site which was still known as Castra Cornelia, or the camp of Cornelius (Scipio), in Julius Caesar's day over a century and a half later. As was usual when there was no opportunity to seize the city by stealth or treachery, the siege proved slow going, continuing throughout the winter of 204-203. Observing the Roman army from a distance were the two armies of Hasdrubal Gisgo and Syphax, which had finally moved against the invaders late in the previous summer. Polybius and Livy both claim that Hasdrubal had 30,000 foot and 3,000 horse, and Syphax 50,000 and 10,000 respectively, but this seems unlikely since it would have been very difficult to feed such a large concentration of troops throughout the winter. Even so, it is probable that the Romans were significantly outnumbered and perhaps especially so in cavalry, since Numidian armies traditionally included a high proportion of these. The two armies built separate camps, a little more than a mile apart and around 7-8 miles from the Romans. Knowing that they would be there for some time, the Punic soldiers had built fairly solid timber huts, but the Numidians, perhaps following a native style or merely because there was not enough timber left by their allies, had employed reeds. Syphax's camp was far less organized than Hasdrubal's, many of the men even sleeping outside the rampart.10

During the winter, Scipio tried once again to win Syphax over, hoping that he had by now tired of Sophonisba. The king replied by offering to mediate between Rome and Carthage, suggesting a peace by which the former would leave Africa and Hannibal evacuate Italy. Scipio included centurions disguised as slaves in his delegations to the enemy camps, who assessed in detail the layout and the readily combustible nature of the construction. At the beginning of spring 203, Scipio openly prepared to continue the siege of Utica and made public pronouncements to the soldiers that they were soon to attempt a direct assault. Yet he also suggested to Syphax that he was ready to accept the proposed terms, until at the last minute he reported that his consilium, or council of officers, was opposed to the treaty, so that they needed more time for discussion. In the meantime he prepared a night attack on the two enemy camps. The tightening of the blockade around Utica was intended more to prevent its garrison sallying out and threatening the Romans from the rear than to further the capture of the city. On the day chosen for the assault, Scipio summoned his tribunes at noon and briefed them in detail on the proposed attack. The trumpet fanfare sounded each night in the Roman camp, to mark the end of the day's duties and the beginning of the night watch, was on this night to be the signal for the legions to march out of camp. Information provided by scouts sent to reconnoitre the ground and from Masinissa's local knowledge had been carefully analysed to establish the best route for the attacking columns.

Half of the main force, supported by Masinissa's Numidians, went under Laelius to attack Syphax's camp, whilst Scipio led the remainder against Hasdrubal. Laelius was to attack first, but before doing so Masinissa carefully stationed men to cover all the routes in and out of the Numidian camp. The Romans then attacked, setting light to the rudely constructed huts, which began to burn furiously. Unaware of any enemy threat and assuming that the blaze was accidental, many of the Numidians were cut down as they fled. The confusion spread to the Punic camp, some of the mercenaries rushing out to help their allies fight the fire. Just as suddenly, Scipio sent his men into the attack, putting to the torch the Carthaginians' timber camp. Again men were killed as they fled, or perished in the flames which spread rapidly through the closely packed timber huts. Surprise was complete and the attacks devastatingly successful. By the end of the next day's pursuit, both armies were demoralized and dispersed, Polybius claiming that Hasdrubal had only 500 cavalry and 2,000 infantry still with him. The attempt to relieve the pressure on Utica and hem the Roman army into the narrow peninsula around it had failed utterly.11

Polybius praised the conduct of this night attack as one of Scipio's greatest achievements. A night attack was always difficult, especially a relatively complex one requiring several columns to co-ordinate their movements. The skill with which the Romans undertook this operation provides another indication of Scipio's careful preparation and the high standard of training of his army. Care had been taken to deceive the enemy concerning Roman intentions at Utica, but ultimately the deception plan rested upon convincing Syphax and Hasdrubal that Scipio sincerely wanted peace. Although Polybius believed that Scipio's message to the Numidian king claiming that his officers opposed the treaty made it clear that negotiations were incomplete, and that therefore the two sides remained at war, this was legally questionable by the standards of the day.12

After the victory Scipio divided his forces between the siege of Utica and plundering expeditions in which he threatened the recently defeated enemy. Loot was so plentiful in the Roman camp that the merchants who habitually followed the army were able to buy at abnormally low levels. The army had also gathered herds of cattle and some food, but huge amounts of grain were still being brought by sea from Sicily and also Sardinia. Large granaries were built in Castra Cornelia to preserve the stockpiles of food. In addition Livy mentions supplies of clothing, for instance one batch of 1,200 tunics and 1,200 togas, although perhaps by the latter he meant military cloaks.13

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