Ancient History & Civilisation




Scipio was in no hurry. In all probability he did not even arrive in Sicily until the late spring of 205, and would not push off to Africa for another year.

There certainly would have been pressure to make his move sooner. Up north, Mago Barca had already crossed over to Liguria with an army and would soon stir up sufficient trouble that the authorities in Carthage would send him reinforcements and Rome would bolster their blocking force in Etruria with more troops and the reliable M. Livius Salinator. However, this probably didn’t satisfy nervous souls along the Tiber.1 Meanwhile, in North Africa, Masinissa, in the midst of fighting and losing a civil war with Syphax over his father’s kingdom, grumbled about the delay in the Roman invasion. Yet Scipio’s only concession was to send his trusted wingman, Laelius, off on a raid of the African coast, which provided nothing more tangible than a spate of panic in Carthage, some booty, and contact with Masinissa, who met him with a few horsemen and many complaints.

Scipio’s consulship lasted only a year, as did technically his African imperium. Still, Scipio seems to have understood that his support was sufficient to extend his imperium indefinitely (though not without controversy, as we shall see). The New Carthage raid in Spain had removed all doubt that he could move quickly if the situation demanded it. However, he did not move swiftly against Africa. It seems he had his own internal clock, in this case paced by the need to lay his plans carefully, to ensure logistical support for what promised to be a vast operation, and above all to build a winning army out of what amounted to scraps.

Livy (29.1.1–11) opens his description of Scipio’s sojourn in Sicily with an anecdote that may or may not be apocryphal but certainly exemplifies Scipio’s ingenuity in putting together a fighting force.2 Upon arriving with his volunteers, who apparently were just in the process of being divided into centuries, he withheld three hundred of the most strapping young men, who were neither armed nor assigned to units, and were probably pretty puzzled. He then conscripted an equivalent number of Sicilian horsemen, all of them from the local nobility and none too willing to serve on what was likely to be a long and dangerous expedition. When a nobleman, appropriately coaxed, expressed his reservations, Scipio posed an alternative: house, feed, train, mount, and arm one of the unassigned youths; a proposition all of the remaining Sicilians jumped at, thereby creating an enthusiastic nucleus for his cavalry out of a recalcitrant pack, what amounted to something out of nothing. True or untrue, Scipio was about to attempt something comparable on a much larger scale.

Upon inspecting the troops stationed in Sicily he had inherited, Livy tells us, Scipio selected the men with the longest service records, particularly those who had served under Marcellus and who were skilled in siege and assault operations.3 Plainly, Livy was referring to the legiones Cannenses—now called the 5th and 6th legions, made up of the survivors of Cannae and the two battles of Herdonea. Scipio did not have any reservations about their record, for he understood, Livy adds, that “the defeat at Cannae had not been due to their cowardice, and that there were no other equally experienced soldiers in the Roman army.”4

Yet at this point the military disaster was eleven years in the past, and many would have reached the age of marginal military utility; hence Scipio inspected the men individually, replacing those he thought unfit with the volunteers he had brought from Italy. This process generated two exceptionally large legions, which Livy sizes at sixty-two hundred foot soldiers and three hundred horse apiece—a figure that is open to debate by modern historians but that probably reflected the general’s innovative approach and the danger he faced.5 It also left him with units that would have been to some degree heterogeneous, and certainly unacquainted with his tactical innovations. In all probability, then, he began training them early, and this process consumed much of the time it took to get ready for the invasion.6

Livy also adds that upon selecting the veterans “he then billeted his troops in various towns,” which was significant, since earlier the Cannenses—when they’d been joined by the survivors of the First Battle of Herdonea—had been burdened by the senate with the additional indignity of not being allowed to winter in any settled area.7 In countermanding this prohibition, Scipio not only thumbed his nose at the establishment along the Tiber, but demonstrated yet again his keen understanding of how to build loyalty. Livy describes the Cannenses ready to depart for Africa as “sure under Scipio and no other general, they would be able … to put an end to their ignominious condition.”8 For these men understood what they would be up against with Hannibal—had already been served a bitter draft of his trickery—and therefore must have seen Scipio and his new model for fighting as their vehicle to revenge and rehabilitation.9 Unexpectedly, though, they would have the opportunity of returning the favor, of saving their commander from disgrace, long before they had the chance to confront their Carthaginian tormentor.

It all began with a target of opportunity. Late in 205 a group of prisoners in Scipio’s camp, a group from Locri—deep in Bruttium on Italy’s toe and one of the last cities loyal to Hannibal—offered to betray its citadel to the Romans. Scipio jumped at the opportunity, sending a force of three thousand from nearby Rhegium under two military tribunes, with one Quintus Pleminius acting as legate and overall commander. After some complications, Locri was taken, with the physical abuse and looting proceeding in a particularly brutal fashion, including even the plunder of the famous shrine of Persephone. But that was just the beginning. The Roman garrison formed two rival gangs, one loyal to the tribunes and the other to Pleminius, and began openly fighting over booty. As a result, Pleminius had the tribunes flogged—highly unusual for men of their rank—and was in turn beaten nearly to death by the other side.10

When Scipio got wind of the situation, he hopped a galley to the mainland and sought to slap a tourniquet on what at this point was merely a distraction, acquitting Pleminius and having the tribunes arrested. He’d made a bad choice. After the general returned to Sicily, Pleminius had both tribunes tortured and then executed, and did the same thing to the Locrian nobles who had complained to Scipio in the first place.11

Word of these outrages reached the senate in early 204, and Scipio’s enemies, led by Fabius Maximus, leapt at the chance to exploit the situation. Compounding matters, the senate had been primed by a string of scandalous rumors pertaining to Scipio’s conduct, the source being the quaestor in Sicily, Marcus Porcius Cato, destined to become Scipio’s lifelong enemy. Cato is known to history as a stern embodiment of austere Roman virtues and as an inveterate hater of things Greek, and of Carthage and Carthaginians. According to Cato, Scipio had been cavorting in Syracuse like a Hellenistic dandy—dressed in effete cloaks and sandals, spending way too much time in the gym, and lavishing money on his soldiers, who were using it to wallow in corrupting activities.12

In his denunciation of Scipio, Fabius fastened onto this last aspect. Reminding his colleagues of the mutiny in Spain, which he maintained had cost Rome more troops than had been killed in battle, Fabius argued that Scipio “was born for the corruption of military discipline” and therefore should be relieved of his command forthwith. Pleminius and the situation in Locri were bad enough, but claiming the discipline of the entire expeditionary force had been undermined by indulgence, when that force was largely made up of suspect Cannenses, would not be overlooked.13 Scipio’s ally Metellus did what he could in the way of damage limitation, but in the end the senate took a very senatorial tack, sending a commission of ten to Sicily to judge Scipio’s culpability and, more to the point, to examine the readiness of his forces. Ready or not, now was the time for the ghosts to step into the limelight.

They did not disappoint. After settling matters in Locri, the commissioners crossed over to Syracuse, where Scipio had assembled his entire army and fleet in a state of readiness sufficient to conduct an immediate amphibious operation. The commission was then treated to a rigorous series of maneuvers, not simply parades but actual tactical evolutions and even a mock sea battle in the harbor. After a further inspection of war materiel, the commissioners were convinced that if Scipio and his army could not defeat Carthage, then nobody could. They left in a mood more reflective of victory than simply of good preparations—a view they impressed upon the senate, which promptly authorized the invasion at the earliest opportunity using whatever troops in Sicily the general desired.14The Cannenses had vindicated their commander and were at least partway down the road to redemption.

Probably sometime in the late spring of 20415 the invasion force assembled at Lilybaeum on the western tip of Sicily approximately 140 miles across open water from Carthage. Livy’s (29.25.1–2) estimates of the force’s size range widely from around twelve thousand men up to thirty-five thousand, so it’s impossible to say with any precision how big the army really was. But two legions of six thousand, plus two alae of equal size, along with cavalry numbering around 2400—basically a pumped-up consular army totaling approximately 26,400—is a ballpark figure. With considerable ceremony—suitable sacrifices, speechifying, and throngs of spectators lining the harbor—the army, along with forty-five days’ worth of food and water, were stuffed into four hundred transports guarded by only forty war galleys. (Scipio may have been short of oarsmen. Besides, the Carthaginian navy had not proved much of a threat.) Then the fleet headed out to sea in the general direction of Africa.

Without navigational equipment, such a voyage was always something of a leap of faith, but after a foggy night, land was sighted early the next day. Scipio’s pilot declared the spot to be the Promontory of Mercury (modern Cape Bon). But rather than head for what Livy says was his original destination—the Emporia, a rich area far to the south16—Scipio allowed the wind to take him forty miles west to the “Cape of the Beautiful One” (modern Cape Farina), where he landed. This put him in the vicinity of the city of Utica and about twenty-five miles north of Carthage, which lay at the base of the semicircular Gulf of Tunis bounded by the two capes. It was a good location, close enough to throw a scare into the Carthaginians but far enough off to allow the Romans some breathing room to get unpacked. It worked.

The sight of the Romans, who set up camp on some nearby hills, panicked the entire countryside, sending a stream of inhabitants and their livestock back toward the safety of fortified places, particularly Carthage. Livy tells us that a thrill of dread spread through the city, which spent a night without sleep and prepared for an immediate siege.17 The next morning a force of five hundred cavalry under Hanno, a young nobleman, was sent up the coast to reconnoiter and if possible disrupt the Romans before they could fully establish themselves.

They arrived too late. Scipio had already posted cavalry pickets, who easily repelled the Carthaginians, killing a good many in the ensuing pursuit, including Hanno himself. Meanwhile, Roman marauders were already abroad gathering up who and what had not managed to flee. This was a substantial haul, including eight thousand captives, which the savvy Scipio promptly shipped back to Sicily as the first fruits of war paying for war.

More good news for the Romans appeared shortly in the form of Masinissa, who arrived, Livy says, with either two thousand or two hundred horsemen. It was probably the latter, since the Numidian prince was basically on the lam from Syphax, but Scipio understood that when it came to Masinissa, numbers meant nothing; he was a veritable “army of one.”

Back in Carthage, plans to resist were plainly in disarray. Hasdrubal Gisgo, the city’s most experienced available soldier, had been sent elsewhere. He’d belatedly been charged with putting together an army, and was camped about twenty-five miles inland with his hastily formed force, waiting to be joined by Syphax’s Numidians before attempting to engage the Romans.18 In his absence, the Carthaginians almost reflexively threw together another cavalry force under yet another Hanno—this force composed of a core of Punic nobility and apparently just about any local tribesman who could ride a horse and was available for hire—for a total of around four thousand men.19

It was summer, and when Scipio heard the cavalry were quartered in a town rather than camped out in the countryside, he marked them as a bunch of potential victims and planned accordingly. Masinissa would act as the bait, riding up to the gates of the place—Livy calls it Salaeca, about fifteen miles from the Roman position—to draw the Punic riders out with his small detachment. Masinissa would then gradually lure them into a chase, which would end with the main body of Scipio’s cavalry advancing under the cover of hills to cut them off. As it turned out, the enemy was so sluggish that Masinissa had to ride up to the place repeatedly before they would even come out, and he spent additional time in mock resistance and retreat before they took up the pursuit toward the line of hills where the Romans were hiding. But in the end the Punic riders went for it and were surrounded by the Romans and Masinissa’s men for their troubles, losing Hanno plus nearly a thousand men in the initial engagement, and another two thousand in the ensuing thirty-mile chase, two hundred of the Punic nobles being among the victims.20 Another bad day for Carthage.

It would be hard to maintain that the city reacted promptly or well to the crisis. They must have known it was coming; many Carthaginians remained in Sicily, and Lilybaeum was reputedly swarming with spies.21 Nevertheless, there seems to have been no attempt by the Carthaginian navy to intercept the Roman armada or contest its landing, nor, Livy tells us, had an army of any strength been prepared in advance.22

This is hard to explain, and the explaining is not made easier by history having been written by friends of Rome. Carthage’s fortifications were formidable—Scipio would not even attempt a siege—so it is possible to argue this as a source of negligence and overconfidence. But the invasions of Agathocles and Regulus had already shown just how vulnerable the surrounding areas were, and how much of a danger this vulnerability was to the entire city. Nor does Carthage’s presumed overconfidence explain the obvious terror of the city’s population once Scipio arrived. Arguably the Carthaginians were never very good at war, only persistent, and this could help account for their lack of planning.

A lack of support for this particular war would have been more telling. The political environment within Carthage during the Second Punic War is impossible to reconstruct, but we know from the statements of Hanno the Great that there was opposition to the conflict. Also, a Punic peace delegation would later lay the blame for the war at the feet of Hannibal and his faction. Whether true, partially true, or not true at all, the Romans were not about to accept such excuses from Carthage. Like the proverbial accomplice to the crime, perpetrators or not, the Carthaginians were now caught in the clutches of blame and would suffer the penalty for their weakness.


But they were far from finished. Winter found Scipio cut off from his supply base in Sicily and camped around his beached fleet on a barren promontory (castra Cornelia) about two miles east of Utica, which he had earlier tried and failed to take. Parked in front of him about seven miles away in two separate encampments were the armies of Syphax and Hasdrubal Gisgo, which both Polybius (who is back in another fragment) and Livy maintain totaled eighty thousand infantry and thirteen thousand cavalry—numbers most modern sources reject as too large to feed in the winter, but still probably exceeding those of the Romans.23

Other commanders might have been depressed; Scipio took to scheming. First, Scipio plotted to win over Syphax, whom he hoped might be weaned from the Carthaginians once he had tired of Sophonisba, Hasdrubal Gisgo’s daughter, to whom he was now wed.24 But the spell she had cast over the Massaesylian king proved stronger than merely the pleasures of the flesh; so the Roman commander began playing a deeper and, as it turned out, more infernal game.

He deceitfully accepted Syphax’s good offices in negotiating a peace treaty. Then he sent centurions disguised as servants in his delegations to the enemy camps, and the centurions accordingly scouted the camps’ configuration. The Numidians, Scipio’s spies reported back, were housed in huts made of nothing more than reeds, while the Carthaginians’ were not much better, being put together with branches and available pieces of wood. Like the first two of the Three Little Pigs, they were fatally vulnerable. The talks intensified, framed around the basic principle of mutual withdrawals—the Carthaginians from Italy and the Romans from Africa—and Scipio’s agents continued piling up details on the camps, especially the entrances.25 Scipio even made it look as though any military plans he had were related to renewing the siege of Utica. For their part, the Numidians and Carthaginians increasingly let their guard down around their camps as the negotiations seemed to mature.26 Finally, and tellingly in terms of Punic motivation, Syphax was able to send a message that the Carthaginians had accepted terms. Scipio played for time and set about preparing for his real intention—a night attack on the two camps.

It was a barn burner of an operation. Scipio divided his force in halves, and marched them over a carefully surveyed route, timing it so they reached their targets around midnight. The first group, under Laelius and Masinissa, hit the Numidian encampment first, breaking in and torching the reed huts so that within minutes the whole place was engulfed in flames. Many of the men were incinerated in their beds, others were trampled at the gates, and those who managed to get out were cut down by waiting Romans. For the horribly burned, death must have been a form of mercy.27

When the Carthaginians saw the conflagration in the other camp, a number concluded it was an accident and rushed out unarmed to help the Numidians—only to fall prey to the other half of Scipio’s legionaries, already lurking in the shadows. The Romans then forced their way into the Carthaginian camp and set fire to the place, which burned just as furiously and with the same deadly consequences. Both Hasdrubal and Syphax managed to escape, the former with around four hundred horse and two thousand foot soldiers, but we can be sure that fire and sword took a terrible toll on those who remained. Livy puts the dead at forty thousand, but this is based on his exaggerated estimation of the size of the force.28 Polybius provides no numbers, but does say of the attack that “it exceed[ed] in horror all previous events.” But then, putting aside the morality of broiling thousands of human beings in their sleep, Polybius adds, “of all the brilliant exploits performed by Scipio this seems to me the most splendid and most adventurous.”29 It certainly was a trick worthy of the master; if nothing else, it demonstrated that he was ready for Hannibal.

Back in Carthage, news of the disaster was greeted with dismay and dejection. Many citizens, including a number of notables, had been killed, and there was a general fear that Scipio would immediately lay siege to the city. When the suffetes called the council of elders into session, three positions emerged. There were those who wanted to treat for peace with Scipio immediately (probably a nonstarter, given the results of recent negotiations). The second position was held by those who were for recalling Hannibal to “save his country.” (This could be interpreted as an intermediate position, since it would not only help Carthage defend itself, but might also mollify Rome by removing him and presumably Mago from Italy.) And then there were those who wanted to rebuild the army and continue the war. (Livy tells us that Hasdrubal Gisgo, who was back in the city, plus the whole of the Barcid faction, combined to push this proposition, which “showed a Roman steadfastness.”30 Hasdrubal retained overall command and took to recruiting Carthaginians, whose enthusiasm probably increased when Scipio failed to show up but instead seemed intent on taking Utica. Meanwhile, envoys were sent to Syphax, who was inland at a place called Abba, to encourage him to stay the course.

But another Carthaginian already had the Massaesylian king well in hand, stiffening, this time, his resolve. Sophonisba had delivered such a passionate plea not to desert her father and the city of her birth that Syphax was now fully in tune with the Punic program and was busy arming every Numidian peasant he could round up.31 Almost simultaneously further good tidings arrived in the form of four thousand newly enlisted Celtiberian mercenaries, whose presence was something of a trenchant commentary on Scipio’s lack of thoroughness in subduing Spain.32 Syphax soon marched with these forces to join Hasdrubal’s, so that within thirty days (late April to early May 203) there gathered an army of around thirty thousand at a place known as “Great Plains”—likely the modern Souk el Kremis.33

When Scipio heard of this concentration—good intelligence was another advantage of having Masinissa on your side—he reacted immediately. Leaving his fleet and part of his army to maintain the impression that the siege of Utica continued as his primary objective, he headed inland with the remainder of his force—all the cavalry and perhaps most of his infantry, though he may have brought along only the legiones Cannenses, since allied contingents are not specifically mentioned.34 Traveling light, they arrived at the Great Plains after a march of five days.

Scipio’s objective was clear, to nip this new threat in the bud—to engage posthaste what was obviously an inexperienced and disjointed force, and obliterate it. This should have been equally apparent to his adversaries. The Romans were deep inland, far from their base of supply, without visible means of support. The Punic strategy should have been avoidance, harassment, and then, when Scipio was forced to withdraw, attrition.35 Instead, within four days they allowed themselves to be drawn into a set-piece battle. The outcome was never in doubt.

Hasdrubal Gisgo placed his best troops, the Celtiberians, in the center, with the Carthaginian infantry (those salvaged from the camp fire, plus new recruits) flanked by the Punic cavalry on the right, and Syphax’s Numidians—infantry, then cavalry—positioned on the left. The Romans lined up their own legionaries in the center—possibly but not necessarily covered on each side by an ala—with the Italian cavalry occupying the right wing and Masinissa’s Numidian horse on the extreme left.

According to both Polybius and Livy the battle was over almost as soon as it began, the first charge of each of Scipio’s cavalry wings scattering the Carthaginians and Syphax’s troops, horse and foot soldiers alike.36 It has been argued that Scipio’s cavalry, which would have numbered fewer than four thousand, was simply not numerous enough to break up such a large body of men (around twenty-six thousand) and that there must have been an intervening infantry engagement.37 Nevertheless, Livy is pretty clear that both the Carthaginian and Numidian components of the Punic force were largely untrained and that it was Scipio’s cavalry specifically that drove them from the field,38 so this intermediate stage may not have been necessary. At any rate, nobody disputes the result—the Celtiberians were left very much alone.

Even if it was only the legiones Cannenses facing them, the Celtiberians would have been decisively outnumbered. However, they had no choice but to fight. Africa was alien territory if they ran, and they could expect no mercy from Scipio if they surrendered, since he undoubtedly remembered it was Celtiberian desertions that had led to the death of his father and uncle, not to mention their joining the Punic cause after he had supposedly pacified Spain.

The Celtiberians would have been roughly equal in number to the two legions’ worth of hastati facing them.39 But rather than feeding the remaining elements of the triplex acies directly ahead, Scipio resorted to his now-characteristic maneuver, turning theprincipes and triarii into columns and marching them right and left out from behind the front line to attack the Celtiberians on the flanks. Pinned by the forces ahead, and beset on each side, the Spaniards met death obstinately. In the end, Livy tells us, the butchery lasted longer than the fighting.40 The ghosts of Cannae, on the other hand, were very much alive, and, having exacted a measure of revenge for their commander, they were plainly ready for more.

Yet, the sacrifice of the Celtiberians, by keeping the Romans preoccupied until nightfall, had allowed the escape of Hasdrubal Gisgo, who eventually made it back to Carthage with some survivors and Syphax, who headed inland with his cavalry. Determined to retain the initiative, Scipio called a war council the next day and explained his plan. He would keep the main body of the army and work his way back from the Great Plains toward the coast, plundering and sowing rebellion among Carthage’s subject communities as he went, while he sent Laelius and Masinissa with the cavalry and velites after Syphax.

Both Polybius (14.9.6–11) and Livy (20.9.3–9) provide similar but internally contradictory descriptions of Carthage’s reaction to the defeat. On the one hand, they say the news was greeted with utter panic and loss of confidence; but then go on to describe the citizenry’s determined preparation for a siege, plans for manning and equipping the fleet for a naval offensive against Scipio’s armada gathered around Utica, and the recall of Hannibal as the only general capable of defending the city. As always, we can catch only glimpses of the true nature of Punic politics. One possible explanation for Carthage’s apparently contradictory reactions is that the intermediate position of the three courses cited above was now dominant. Livy states clearly that “peace was seldom mentioned,” and it is also probable that the Barcid faction (not to mention the general himself) did not want Hannibal (and presumably Mago) brought back, since it was tantamount to admitting that their great scheme had failed. In the interim, the Punic mainstream seems to have fallen back on the city’s traditional naval shield of war galleys as a way out of their troubles.

It was certainly an audacious scheme, with the fleet and the delegation to Hannibal being launched simultaneously the day after the resolution passed. Scipio, now less than thirteen miles away, having just taken over the abandoned town of Tunis, observed the launch with horror. For he understood that the descent of the Carthaginian flotilla would come as an utter surprise to the Romans at Utica. He also understood that his warships, burdened with all manner of siege equipment, were in no condition to maneuver in a naval engagement.41 The offensive would have worked had not the Punic battle squadron, which likely was manned mostly by inexperienced oarsmen, dawdled, taking most of the day to arrive and then anchoring for the night before forming up to attack at dawn.42

This gave Scipio at least some time to prepare, and as usual he responded ingeniously to what could have been a very bad situation. Rather than have his warships protect his transports, he did the reverse. Polybius tells us just before his narrative breaks off that Scipio abandoned any idea of advancing into battle, drew the ships together near shore, and girded the whole mass with three or four layers of merchant vessels, lashed together with their masts and yards to form a wooden coat of armor.43

The next morning the Punic force waited in vain for the Romans to come out, only belatedly moving in to attack Scipio’s transport-encrusted force. What followed bore no resemblance to a sea fight, Livy says, but instead “looked like ships attacking walls,” since the transports’ much greater freeboard enabled the thousand or so picked fighters Scipio had stationed on board to cast their ample supply of javelins directly down at the low-slung Punic galleys, effectively stymieing the attack.44 It was only when the Carthaginians began using grappling hooks that they achieved a measure of success. They managed to haul away sixty transports, which were greeted back home with more joy than the episode deserved—a small ray of sun shining through an unmitigated series of setbacks. Meanwhile, Scipio’s fleet was saved, and he would soon receive news from the hinterlands that would send Carthage reeling to the brink of surrender.

After a fifteen-day march Laelius and Masinissa were in the heart of Numidia, reaching first the eastern kingdom of Massylia, where the natives joyfully accepted the young prince as their ruler. But there was still the matter of Syphax, who had withdrawn to the home territory of Massaesylia and was again busy reconstituting his army. Yet again he managed to cobble together a force basically as large as its predecessors, but with each iteration the quality had dropped, now to the point where the army consisted of little more than the rawest of recruits.45 Nonetheless, he brought them forward to confront the advancing Romans in what turned out to be a ragged cavalry engagement, which was eventually decided when the velites stabilized their line to the point where Syphax’s men refused to advance and instead began to flee. Either to shame them or out of desperation, the king charged the Romans, whereupon his horse was wounded and he was captured—and was now very much a sinner in the hands of an angry Masinissa.

But also a shrewd one. Masinissa told Laelius that if he would let him ride ahead with Syphax to Cirta, the eastern capital of the Massaesylians, the psychological impact might cause a complete collapse. It did. Upon arriving, Masinissa arranged a conclave with the city fathers, who remained adamant until he dragged Syphax before them in chains, at which point they opened the gates.

Once inside, Masinissa headed for the palace. Here Livy turns cinematic, staging one of the more romantic, though not necessarily implausible,46 confrontations in all of historical literature. For at the threshold, “in the full flower of her youthful beauty” and with the mind of a true temptress, was Sophonisba. She clasped Masinissa’s knees, congratulated him on having better luck than Syphax, and told him she had really only one request: “choose my fate as your heart may prompt you, but whatever you do, even if it means my death, don’t surrender me to the arrogant and brutal whim of any Roman…. What a woman of Carthage—what the daughter of Hasdrubal—has to fear from a Roman is all too clear.” As she spoke, Livy adds perhaps unnecessarily, “her words were now more nearly those of a charmer than of a suppliant.”47

Masinissa was a goner—probably after the first sentence—and upon further reflection, doubtless from within a cloud of lust, a solution came to mind—marriage … marriage so fast that it would become a fait accompli.48 (“That’s no Punic subverter of Rome’s allies; that’s my wife!”)

Predictably, the Romans didn’t buy it. When Laelius arrived at the palace, he was ready to drag her out of her marriage bed and send her back immediately to Scipio with Syphax and the other prisoners. Masinissa prevailed upon him to leave her in Cirta while the two of them conducted mopping-up operations. This would give Scipio more time to decide what to do with this veritable man magnet.

Sophonisba’s future was probably a foregone conclusion, but Syphax may have sealed her fate. When Syphax was delivered back to castra Cornelia, Scipio asked his former guest-friend what had possessed him to refuse that amity and instead wage war. It’s not surprising that Syphax fell back on the femme fatale defense. Sophonisba was the venom in his blood, the avenging Fury, who with her plying words and caresses had addled his mind. He then turned the knife by adding that his sole consolation was that this monster of treachery was now his worst enemy’s wife.49

When Laelius and Masinissa returned from the hinterlands, Scipio took the latter aside and, recalling his own forbearance in the face of the beauteous captive back in New Carthage, made it clear that political expediency demanded that the young man give up his new wife, either as a prisoner or … He left the alternative unsaid. Masinissa extemporized and had a slave bring Sophonisba a cup of poison as his means of delivering her from the Romans. She drank without flinching, remarking that if this was the best he could do in the way of a wedding present, she would accept it, but she also instructed the slave to tell her wannabe widower that she would have died a better death had she not married him in the first place.50

So perished Sophonisba, still another in a long line of aristocratic Punic suicides. Yet she likely had done more in bed to keep her city safe than Hannibal had accomplished on the battlefield. Nor is this meant as a backhanded compliment. Because of her, Syphax had given Scipio far more trouble than he’d bargained for, and a marriage alliance with Masinissa had held out the promise of neutralizing an adversary who would later prove highly instrumental in the city’s ultimate destruction. The match had probably been doomed from the beginning, and she paid for it with her life. But it is hard to deny she died a hero’s death.

Back in Carthage, this sort of resolve was fast becoming a diminishing quantity. The narratives of both Polybius and Livy make it pretty clear that Carthaginian resistance had become increasingly dependent on Numidian support, and news of Syphax’s capture had tilted the political balance, at least in the council of elders, in the direction of the anti-Barcid proprietors of the vast inland food factory, who were sick of seeing their properties ravaged by Romans and now wanted peace.51

Sometime in late 203 the inner council of thirty key elders was dispatched to Scipio’s camp to negotiate an end to the war. As Livy tells it, the elders’ inclination was immediately betrayed by their prostrating themselves.52 Essentially, they begged Rome for mercy, blaming Hannibal and the Barcid party as the instigators of the war. This was plainly self-serving, but it was also likely to have been true.

As it happened, Scipio was ready to deal. He could see the strength of Carthage’s fortifications, and understood that an unacceptably protracted and costly siege was the only option if he wanted to continue fighting.53 He was also well aware of Rome’s war-weariness and desire to end this terrible conflict. Finally, he must have been aware that there were those back home who wanted his command, so victory on his watch must have had its attractions.

The terms he offered were not unreasonable but were certainly calculated to remove Carthage permanently as a military competitor with Rome. According to Livy, Scipio proposed that the Punic side hand over all war prisoners, deserters, and runaway slaves; withdraw the armies of both Hannibal and Mago; cease interfering in Spain; evacuate all the islands between Italy and Africa; supply large quantities of grain to feed his army and animals; and surrender all but twenty of their warships.54 As far as a war indemnity, the historian tells us that his sources differed, some saying five thousand talents, others five thousand pounds of silver, and still others double pay for Scipio’s troops.55 Appian also adds several clauses that, if true, make the terms considerably harsher (e.g., forbidding Carthaginians from hiring mercenaries, restricting their territory to the so-called “Phoenician trenches”—an area inland roughly between the east coast of modern Tunisia and its border with Algeria—and giving Masinissa dominion over his home kingdom and all he could take of Syphax’s).56 Finally, Scipio gave the Carthaginians three days to accept, whereupon a truce would take hold while they sent envoys to Rome for final negotiations. The council of elders agreed, and envoys were dispatched, but Livy maintains it was all a ruse to give Hannibal time to return to Africa.57 This is debatable.


In Italy the war actually seemed to be winding down. Laelius’s arrival in Rome with Syphax and a number of other important prisoners was greeted with joy, and the senate promptly ratified Scipio’s crowning of Masinissa as king in Numidia.

Shortly after, the delegation from Carthage arrived and was greeted outside the walls by the senate sitting in the temple of Bellona. We have only Livy’s version (30.22 ff) of what transpired here, and according to him the Carthaginians did little to make their case, trying to shift the blame for the war on Hannibal, just as they had before. Hannibal, they maintained, had crossed the Ebro and the Alps on his own initiative and had made war on Saguntum and then Rome without sanction from Carthage. Further, since their government had never broken the treaty that had ended the First Punic War, they asked that it be reinstated! This was cheeky, to say the least—just another example of characteristic Carthaginian trickery, if you believe Livy, who concludes that the Punic suit for peace was rejected.

But Livy’s recounting is far from credible, and seems designed to remove any suspicion that later, when the hostilities resumed, Rome would be violating a legal treaty. Whereas Appian (The Punic Wars, 31–2) maintains that the authorities on the Tiber left it entirely to Scipio to negotiate peace, Polybius (15.1.3) very clearly states that the senate and the people ratified the treaty. Moreover, Dio Cassius (frag. 17.74) provides further insight by adding that the senate would not treat with the Carthaginians until Hannibal and Mago evacuated Italy, but once this had been done, the senate agreed to peace according to the terms Scipio had arranged. Pretty clearly there was a treaty; it was drawn along the lines originally negotiated in Africa, and it was broken by events that transpired after the Punic armies were ordered to withdraw from Italy. Which brings us back to the Barcid boys.

Up north, for most of the nearly two years after he landed near Genoa in 205, Mago did little beyond recruiting Gauls and Ligurians. Finally, in the summer of 203 he felt strong enough to make his move, and advanced toward Milan, where he accepted battle with four Roman legions, under proconsul Marcus Cornelius Cethegus.58 While Livy’s description (30.18) has been questioned, it is clear that the Punic side was losing.59 Then Mago was badly wounded by a javelin in the thigh while trying to rally his troops, who, seeing him carried from the field, lost all resolve and bolted, turning a fighting retreat into a rout. But most seem to have made it back to camp, and Mago, despite injury, and ever the Barcid, managed to slip them away in the dead of night and reach the coast with the force largely intact.

Here he met up with the delegation from Carthage summoning him to return to Africa and telling him that his brother was being given a similar order. Neither he nor his army was in any condition to object. Rumor had it that his Ligurian allies were changing sides, and at the very least a sea voyage would be easier on his hurt leg than constant jolting along the road.60 So, probably sometime in the autumn of 203, he packed up his force and set sail. He didn’t make it past Sardinia before the wound killed him, but most of his troops seem to have reached Africa alive and in some sort of fighting condition. But there would be only one Barcid brother left to lead them.

Around the same time, the Carthaginian envoys reached Hannibal in Bruttium at Croton, a Greek town known for its beautiful women. He had settled into a kind of gentlemanly semi-retirement, at one point summering on the grounds of the famous temple of Hera, which he had been sorely tempted to plunder until the goddess had come to him in a dream and threatened to take his good eye if he tried it.61 He greeted the summons home with anything but enthusiasm. “Gnashing his teeth and groaning,” Livy reports (30.201ff), “and scarcely keeping back the tears, he listened to the words of the emissaries…. ‘I am being recalled by men who, in forbidding the sending of reinforcements and money, were long ago trying to drag me back. The conqueror of Hannibal is therefore not the Roman people … but the Carthaginian council of elders…. And over this inglorious return of mine it will not be Publius Scipio who wildly exults, so much as Hanno, who, unable to do so by any other means, has ruined our family by the downfall of Carthage.’”

There could be no clearer statement of the divergent political agendas of the Barcids and the commercial classes of the metropolis. Hannibal’s statement was a virtual admission that the conflict in Italy was a familial enterprise—truly Hannibal’s fight—and that he did not appreciate being drawn away to save Carthage from the fight’s consequences. But he had been boxed in if not defeated by Rome’s armies; he had no future in Italy. So, nearly two years after Scipio had first landed in Africa, Hannibal began packing up his army to “defend” home turf.62 For he had become, in the words of modern historian Dexter Hoyos, “a Punic Micawber hoping something would turn up.”63 Once, Hannibal had dominated events; now the reverse was true.

Before he left, however, he had a bronze tablet carved that recounted his exploits, and he had it placed in Hera’s temple. This was the tablet Polybius had seen and used to record the size of the force Hannibal had brought to Italy. The text has been lost, but we know it was inscribed not just in Punic but in Greek, the international language of the day, which implies that the tablet was carved less in the spirit of a general on a mission than in the spirit of a Hellenistic hegemon anxious to advertise his exploits.64 Appian reports that during Hannibal’s sixteen years in Italy, he destroyed four hundred towns and killed three hundred thousand of Italy’s men in battle—perhaps figures derived from Hannibal’s list of accomplishments.65 If so, this list would have been very much in character, for he left little in his wake besides destruction. Aboard ship, Livy tells us, “he repeatedly looked back upon the shores of Italy and, accusing gods and men, called down a curse upon himself … because he had not led his soldiers, bloodstained from the victory of Cannae, straight to Rome.”66 If Maharbal was within earshot, he would have been sorely tempted, but wise not to add, “I told you so.”


The truce held during the winter months despite Hannibal’s return, but then in the spring of 202 it collapsed.67 A Roman convoy of two hundred transports escorted by thirty war galleys was struck by adverse winds as it approached the African coast. The warships managed to row to their intended landfall, but the purely sail-driven merchant vessels were scattered, with many being blown into the bay directly overlooked by Carthage. Seeing the ships abandoned by their crews and knowing they were filled with grain, the Carthaginian people started something like a food riot, and the council of elders felt compelled to send Hasdrubal Gisgo out with fifty ships to salvage the tempting prizes. The vessels were towed back to the city and their contents were added to Carthage’s flagging grain supplies. To make matters worse, the three representatives Scipio sent to protest this confiscation apparently had to be rescued from a mob. (Appian says by Hanno the Great.68) The representatives were then dismissed without an answer by the assembly of the people and were attacked by ships from Hasdrubal’s fleet near Utica, which forced their vessel to be beached. For Scipio this was the last straw; the war was on again.69

Why did the Punic side break the armistice? Had the peace negotiations really been just a stalling tactic to provide Hannibal time to return, as Livy maintains? If that was the case, why had the negotiations been necessary in the first place? The Carthaginians had already been secure behind their walls and could have waited. Now they were plainly hungry, so the armistice does not seem to have given them any better access to food. In fact, the original terms of the truce could be interpreted to imply that the Carthaginians had some obligation to supply Scipio’s army.

Polybius (15.2.2–3) wants us to believe that it was Hannibal’s arrival that had caused a political shift in the city, and there were now few who any longer wanted to adhere to the treaty, placing their trust instead in the Barcid’s military skills. But if it was that simple, how are we to interpret Hannibal’s choice of landing points, not nearby, placing himself as a shield between Carthage and the Romans, but at Hadrumetum (modern Sousse), nearly 150 miles down the coast to the southeast.70 It should not be forgotten that our sources are all pro-Roman. We will never know exactly what went on inside Carthage at this critical juncture, but a case can be made that there had always been a sincere desire for peace but in a climate of hunger and desperation, events—possibly orchestrated by Hasdrubal Gisgo and his faction—simply got out of hand. In any case, Carthage made a bad mistake.

Scipio now went after the countryside with a vengeance, sacking town after town in the interior—refusing offers of surrender and then enslaving the towns’ populations.71 Hannibal did nothing. When a delegation from Carthage, overwrought by the devastation, begged him to march on the enemy immediately, he told them to mind their own business, he would decide when the time was right.72 This hardly looks like Punic solidarity.

Nevertheless, Hannibal did move soon, marching to a place five days southwest of Carthage known as Zama. There were at least three, maybe four, Zamas in ancient Tunisia, so this Zama’s exact location eludes us.73 The impetus for Hannibal’s move in this direction seems to have been all about cavalry—actually, a shortage of cavalry, and on both sides. Appian reports that before leaving Italy, Hannibal had been forced to slaughter four thousand of his horses for lack of transports.74 To make up for the shortfall, he had contacted a relative of Syphax named Tychaeus, who now brought him two thousand horsemen and also brought Syphax’s son Vermina, whom Hannibal may have hoped had been going to join him inland with still more horsemen.75 But most critically, Hannibal wanted to keep Masinissa away from Scipio.

While Scipio was ravaging Carthaginian territory, the young prince was busy consolidating control over his own kingdom and as much of Syphax’s as he could gobble. Realizing a showdown was imminent, Scipio sent Masinissa a series of messages telling the prince to join him, and Scipio began moving to shorten the distance between them, eventually ending up in the vicinity of Zama. It was this juncture that Hannibal wanted to prevent.

Anxious to know if Masinissa and his Numidians were already at Zama, the Barcid sent out spies to reconnoiter the Roman camp, three of whom were captured. Rather than put them to the sword, Scipio gave them a guided tour, knowing they would see no Numidians, but also knowing that Masinissa was set to arrive the next day with six thousand foot soldiers and four thousand horse.76 After hearing from his spies and then witnessing Masinissa’s arrival the next day, Hannibal was so struck by the cleverness of the ruse that he conceived an urge to get to know the young Roman general, and sent a herald to arrange a meeting.

That the conference actually took place few modern historians doubt. But what was said is another thing entirely, since Polybius and Livy—both of whom provide elaborate dialogues77—agree that the meeting was attended solely by the principals and their interpreters, which makes it highly unlikely that anything of the actual conversation was preserved.

Supposedly they made a stab at negotiating peace terms, but in reality Scipio and Hannibal each must have realized that this was but a prelude to a sanguinary showdown. And on these grounds it is safe to say each valued the meeting as a means of sizing up the other as an opponent. Scipio cannot have forgotten an adolescence spent suffering at the other interlocutor’s hands—Ticinus, Trebia, and above all Cannae, when Hannibal’s tricks had nearly put an end to his young life, had killed his father-in-law, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, and had brought nearly fifteen years of shame down on the men with whom he now planned to even the score.

Hannibal must have known something of Scipio’s biography, perhaps enough to have wished that he had killed the Roman when he had had the chance. Now Hannibal might well have wondered if he was facing his nemesis. He was forty-six years old, at a time when men aged fast. He had lived a hard life, knowing nothing but war since youth. The wily mind of the fox remained unimpaired, but the body must have been tired, no longer the “Thunderbolt” it had once been. Hannibal had always beaten the Romans, or at least slipped from their grasp. But it could well have crossed his mind that this time the opponent and the circumstances were different. Though he was technically in his own country, he was far from support or shelter; if he lost, he was finished.

Back in their camps the respective armies must have been equivalently aware of the stakes and aware that combat, probably decisive combat, loomed. The Roman and Italian infantry contingent was relatively small—around twenty-three thousand (plus six thousand of Masinissa’s Numidians), compared to Hannibal’s thirty-six thousand to forty-six thousand. In cavalry, though, with the addition of the Numidians, the Roman and Italian force outnumbered its Punic equivalent perhaps about six thousand to four thousand.78 Although there must have been substitutes and other volunteers, the heart of the Roman force, its soul, was made up of survivors of Cannae and the two battles of Herdonea—all of them prior victims of Hannibal and his veterans. They must have understood that they were about to face these enemies one last time, that in all probability they would either die here at Zama still in disgrace or find redemption at last.

They were in no sense losers; they could look back on a record of fighting well in Sicily, and now in Africa, where they had known nothing but victory. They also must have understood that their previous misfortunes had largely been due to the mistakes of their commanders and the unyielding stereotypical nature of their tactics. Now they had Publius Scipio, who not only had shown them how to exploit battlefield opportunities, but possessed the guile and ruthlessness to truly match wits with their Punic tormentor. Scipio must have been a god to them, by now the repository of all their faith. Still, as they restlessly awaited the final outcome—sharpening their weapons, polishing their armor, and searching for the forgetfulness of sleep—doubts surely remained. For most had reached—as had so many others on this battlefield—middle age and had long since shed the optimism of youth. Things did not have to turn out well; fate might not after all commute their sentence to live as ghosts.

Certainly not if Hannibal had anything to say about it. But he was plainly operating under some unaccustomed constraints. Not only was he short on cavalry, his favorite arm for unhinging adversaries, but his camp contained really three armies, not one. First there were around twelve thousand Ligurians, Gauls, Balearic Islanders, and Moors, the remnants of Mago’s mercenary force that had continued on to Africa after he’d died of his wound.79 Next came a contingent of Libyans and Carthaginian citizens, probably consisting of survivors of the Great Plains and those recently recruited by the ever resilient Hasdrubal Gisgo. (Livy claims a “legion of Macedonians” was also among them, but most contemporary sources reject this.80) Finally, there were Hannibal’s own veterans, a force whose makeup constituted a virtual biography of their commander—Africans, Numidians, and Spaniards who had marched with him out of New Carthage and crossed the Alps; Gauls who had joined up in the Po valley; and numerous Bruttians from his later days in the south of Italy—a grizzled force of some of the most experienced soldiers in history. Through thick and thin they had remained steadfastly loyal, and he in turn had led them so cleverly and carefully that they had never yet tasted significant defeat. But they were now part of a composite force, two components of which were strangers not only to themselves and Hannibal, but to each other. Hannibal’s army was even more mismatched than the great Frankenstein of an army the Romans had cobbled together to fight at Cannae.81

Since there had been no time to fuse these elements into a whole, Hannibal would seek to fight them as three separate forces—plausible-sounding but basically a gimmick. There was also a camp full of elephants, more than eighty of them82—so many that it suggests that the bulk had been recently rounded up from the bush and were half-wild. In retrospect, the only thing on the ancient battlefield more dangerously unpredictable than a well-trained elephant was an ill-trained elephant. Yet Hannibal at Zama was all about making the best of the cards dealt to him, creating the illusion of strength, and employing tricks to cover his weaknesses. Unfortunately for him, his opponent held a better hand and was not easily fooled.

At dawn the morning after their conference, both commanders marched their forces out of camp intent on battle. Hannibal placed his elephants out front, apparently hoping for a devastating charge. Next he lined up what had been Mago’s force, and in back of them he placed the Carthaginians and Libyans. Finally, several hundred yards to the rear, as a reserve and safeguard against what he probably knew was Scipio’s proclivity for flanking attacks, he deployed his own veterans.83 On his wings he placed his cavalry, Carthaginians on the right and Numidians to the left.

For his part, Scipio had Masinissa’s riders covering his right, and the Italian horse under Laelius on the left, with his infantry deployed in the triplex acieshastati, principes, and then triarii—but not in the normal checkerboard pattern. Instead the maniples were placed directly in back of one another, with corridors between the different units which would be filled with velites.84 Of all the elements of Scipio’s army, these light troops may have been the most improved since Cannae. Scipio’s experience in Spain with irregulars and these velites’ own exploits in taking down Syphax both indicate that these were now hardened veterans, capable of slinging missiles on equal terms with anybody that Hannibal had available at Zama, without—this was critical—panicking in the face of his elephants.

The action opened with pachyderm pandemonium. Once the harangues were over (Polybius’s version [15.11.11], for what it’s worth, has Hannibal reminding his veterans that they were facing some of the “wretched remnants” of the legions they had smashed at Cannae), bugles sounded from all sides, freaking the elephants and causing them to attack prematurely. Those on the left veered off and stampeded back into the Punic Numidian cavalry. Seeing his opening, Masinissa charged and quickly chased them off the battlefield. The beasts in the middle did hit the Roman infantry formations, but chose to follow the velites, who were enraging them with javelin fire, up the corridors, out the back, and also off the battlefield. It was much the same story with the behemoths on the right. They did swerve toward the Italian horse, but when greeted with a hail of javelins, they reversed field and crashed into the Carthaginian cavalry, prompting Laelius to charge in hot pursuit of this retreating wing.

The battle had barely begun and Hannibal was without cavalry, but then again so were the Romans, which raises an interesting possibility. It has been suggested that it was a trick, that Hannibal, knowing he was weaker in this arm, had ordered his riders to give ground and draw their equivalents off the field.85 The plan may have been complicated by pachyderm panic, but the effect was the same…. It was now Hannibal’s infantry against Scipio’s, and crunch time for his ghosts.

The foot soldiers on both sides moved forward, with the exception of Hannibal’s veterans, who stayed put. As the two sides closed, the Romans commenced banging their shields with pila, and let out a collective war whoop that eclipsed the discordant Babel of cries from the multiethnic Punic force.86 Nevertheless, Mago’s mercenaries fought bravely and aggressively, wounding many Romans among the hastati. But the legionaries were undeterred and moved relentlessly forward, driving their opponents back, Livy notes, with characteristic scutum punches.87 As the Punic front tired and looked to support in back of them, the Carthaginians and Libyans initially hesitated, untrained as they were to fight as a coordinated whole. And when Mago’s mercenaries eventually broke, fighting appears to have erupted between the two Punic groups, as the Carthaginians refused to let the refugees retreat through their ranks, perhaps on Hannibal’s orders, or, as one later historian sarcastically suggests, unconsciously emulating war elephants by turning on their own.88

Once confronted by Romans, though, the Punic troops of the second line fought with what Polybius calls “frantic and extraordinary courage,” throwing the hastati into confusion and checking their forward momentum.89 At this point the officers of theprincipesbegan feeding their legionaries into the fight, which got the line moving again and ultimately broke the Carthaginians, Libyans, and the remaining mercenaries, all of whom began to flee, with the Romans in hot pursuit.

But rather than break ranks, the veterans to the rear, on Hannibal’s orders, leveled their spears as the Punic fugitives approached, a sure sign they were not going to let them through. Those who were not cut down veered to either side of the Punic line, where they began to congregate and re-form.

A critical moment had arrived. The space between the two forces was now covered with dead and dying men, the ground made slippery by their blood.90 On the Roman side the hastati were in complete disorder from the chase, and the maniples of principeswere probably somewhat disheveled from their short fight. Only the triarii were fully ready to confront the much more numerous Carthaginian veterans, lined up in perfect battle array. It may well have crossed Scipio’s mind that he had been tricked by the master into committing too many units too soon, just another Roman commander led cluelessly into the abattoir. His horns sounded the retreat, and he set about attempting one of the most difficult of military maneuvers, reconstituting his formations in the midst of a battle. The ghosts were up to the task, reversing their field, reconnecting with their centurions, re-forming their maniples, and lining up again, this time along a single front, hastati in the center and the principes and triarii on either flank.

For as long as it took, they were dangerously vulnerable. Yet Hannibal with his fresh veterans in perfect order simply watched as the Romans scurried about, brought their wounded to the rear, and above all rested. Opportunity beckoned, and the supreme opportunist marked time. Maybe he was worried about keeping good order while attacking across the corpse-strewn battlefield. Perhaps he was wary of one of Scipio’s flanking maneuvers. Whatever the reason, he waited and let the Romans come to him. It would be his undoing.

If fate were a dramatist, there could not have been a better place for an intermission. The issue had been reduced to a fight of soldiers, not generals. The supreme rematch was at hand; after fourteen long years, the ghosts of Cannae would meet their vanquishers again in mortal combat. When they were ready, the Romans marched directly at the Carthaginians and the fight began. As far as we know there were no military sleights of hand, no feints, no hidden reserves, no centers extended or withheld. It was to be a straight-up clash between two supremely experienced hosts of murderously inclined experts with sharp instruments. Polybius (15.14.6) reports, “As they were nearly equal in numbers as well as in spirit and bravery, and were equally well armed, the contest was for long doubtful, the men falling where they stood out of determination.”

But then when it seemed perhaps both forces would wear each other away into nothing, the tiebreaker arrived in the form of Laelius and Masinissa back from the chase. The combined Roman cavalry hit the Punic formation in the rear, and the slaughter was on. Most were killed in formation; those who bolted were run down by the horsemen, as the ground was flat and there was nowhere to go. Before it was over, twenty thousand Punic soldiers were killed—with most of the rest captured—at a cost of fifteen hundred Romans.91 But numbers barely tell the story of Zama. The ghosts of Cannae had achieved a revenge probably unmatched in all of military history. Perhaps the most victorious army in human memory essentially lay dead at their feet, and Hannibal, one of the greatest captains of all time, had hesitated and lost just about everything. He fled with just a few horsemen back to Hadrumetum. He would live almost two decades longer, occupying a place in Rome’s nightmares and a place on the fringes of high politics, but in reality it was now his turn to play the ghost.


The Second Punic War was over. Its instigator knew it. A military oxymoron—Hannibal without an army—he returned to Carthage thirty-six years after he had left on the summons of the council of elders, warily, no doubt, given that so many failed Punic commanders had ended up on the cross. But his reception was polite, and he stated frankly that there was no hope unless Carthage sued for peace.

Later, when an elder named Gisgo (the same Gisgo who had marveled at the size of the Roman army at Cannae?) objected to Scipio’s preliminary demands, Hannibal knocked him off the rostrum and argued passionately that it was inconceivable that any citizen of Carthage did “not bless his stars that, now that he was at the mercy of the Romans, he has obtained such lenient terms.”92 Or so the terms seemed.

The final peace treaty was deceptively mild, largely along the lines of Scipio’s original armistice agreement. Carthage would continue to be self-governed following its own laws and customs, and would retain all prewar possessions in Africa. It would surrender its entire navy save ten triremes, and all its elephants, promising to train no more (arguably a benefit for Carthage). The war indemnity was raised to ten thousand talents, to be paid in annual installments over fifty years. This was a huge amount in the ancient world, equating to 572,000 pounds of silver worth more than $120,000,000 at today’s prices.93

More onerous—sinister even—was the Carthaginians’ designation as “friends and allies” of Rome, the same terminology used to subordinate dependencies in Italy, a designation that prohibited Carthage from going to war with anyone unless it had the Roman senate’s permission. Appian even maintains they were specifically forbidden to wage war against Masinissa, an inveterate enemy.94 This proved to be a demon protocol, a pretext for future intervention by Rome, and ultimately the city’s doom.95 But the Carthaginians would try to make the best of it, and for a while it seemed that the new relationship was actually to their advantage.

But beneath a cloak of legalism, Rome, and in particular conservative elements in the senate, remained traumatized by the events of the war and would pursue a course that must be interpreted as deeply vindictive toward those deemed responsible. This agenda of retribution would dominate Roman foreign policy in the opening decades of the second century and more subtly far beyond.

Given their distinctive fear-scape, it was utterly in character for Romans to remember the Second Punic War as “the war against the Carthaginians and Gauls.” Now that the Barcid menace had been removed, it was the turn of the Celtic tribes inhabiting the Po basin to suffer the wrath of those along the Tiber. The assault was relentless; during the decade after the year 200, more legions and consuls were sent to Cisalpine Gaul than to anywhere else.96 Pincered by Roman forces moving both east and west from the coasts, the results were inevitable. The Boii in particular were singled out for a pounding, and by 191 they had been crushed, with half their lands expropriated. The other local tribes—Insubres and Cenomani—were treated better but with the understanding that, at last, they were now Rome’s subordinates. Nor had the Romans forgotten that the region’s other inhabitants, the Ligurians, had lined up with Mago Barca when he’d arrived in their vicinity. Though it took longer because of mountainous terrain, by 155 they too had been steamrolled.97

Philip V of Macedon, whose alliance with Hannibal after Cannae had probably sealed his fate, was also marked for a payback. Philip would protest that he had done nothing to transgress the Peace of Phoinike, and the Roman people were plainly tired—Livy (31.6.3) claims that a motion for war was initially rejected by the Comitia Centuriata—but the senate was implacable and in the end had its way.

Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, included in Rome’s military instrument of retribution was a substantial contingent from the legiones Cannenses. They were supposedly volunteers, but after a year, two thousand of them mutinied, bitterly maintaining that from Africa they had been transported back to Sicily and then put on ships to Macedonia contrary to their wishes.98 The consul P. Villius Tappulus persuaded them to remain under arms, and they were still serving two years later in 197, when under the thirty-year-old Titus Quinctius Flaminius they blundered into Philip’s army in the fog-enshrouded hills of Cynoscephalae. The armies seemed well matched, until an unnamed tribune, availing himself of the flexibility Scipio had engineered into his ghosts, peeled off twenty maniples and led them around to the flank and rear of the heretofore successful Macedonian right.99 Unable to turn to meet the Romans with their long pikes, the Macedonian phalangites were hacked to pieces by a buzz saw of Roman short swords.

His army destroyed, Philip accepted peace terms very much like those that had been imposed on Carthage. Now he too was no longer permitted to wage war outside home territory without Rome’s blessing.100 In linking himself to Hannibal after Cannae, Philip had only been playing according to the rules of the Mediterranean basin’s “great game,” but now he learned that Rome played for keeps.

The war’s end also meant that the Cannenses could get some rest. Although the two victorious legions remained in place, the military threat had passed, and presumably the oldest veterans could be shipped back to Italy relatively quickly.101 Then, two years after he had proclaimed “the freedom of the Greeks” at the Isthmian Games of 196, Flaminius, still in the process of arranging the new order, discovered as many as twelve hundred of the original Cannae prisoners in Greece. After the long-ago senatorial refusal to ransom them, Hannibal had sold the prisoners to Achaean owners, and they were now bought back and finally repatriated.102 Six years later, another substantial number of enslaved Cannenses would be found in Crete and sent home, fully twenty-eight years after the battle had occurred.103

Meanwhile, at the insistence of Scipio the senate instructed the praetor urbanus to appoint a commission of ten to allocate some public lands in Samnium and Apulia for Africanus’s soldiers, at the rate of two jugera (about 1.3 acres) per year served in Spain or Africa. But this equation apparently did not account for the ghosts’ time in Sicily.104 If this was rehabilitation, it was not exactly generous, given the pain and humiliation these troops had endured before acquitting themselves so heroically at Zama, and then at Cynoscephalae. But at least the republic had taken some responsibility for their long-suffering soldiers and had not left it to the initiative of their commander, as would occur so frequently late in the republican era, with disastrous consequences for the stability of the state. In any age, countries that fight a lot of wars are well advised to take good care of their veterans.

But just as the requital for the Cannenses seems grudging, so too did the “freedom of the Greeks” prove to be less than it had appeared. Even though Rome did eventually withdraw all forces from the Hellenic mainland, Greece’s implied status as a protectorate made it practically inevitable that Rome would intervene in order to prevent domination by any other element—from within or without. This relationship would ultimately draw the Greeks inescapably into Rome’s imperial orbit. For the moment, though, the question was simply whether “freedom of the Greeks” extended to Hellenes living in Asia Minor, and more particularly in Thrace, the European province next to Macedonia. Thrace was now being claimed by Antiochus, the Seleucid basileus and Hellenistic player of the first order. Things might have been worked out between him and the Romans, but in 195, as Hellenistic players were wont to do, he hired a military consultant. Regrettably, the consultant was Hannibal, and from this point Antiochus became a marked man along the Tiber.

Back in Carthage, Hannibal had morphed temporarily into a politician, having been elected suffete in 196 by apparently leveraging a renascent Barcid faction with a program of popular reforms frankly aimed at the commercial oligarchy. It was not surprising that he made enemies, some of whom went to Rome, where they found a ready audience—though not with Scipio Africanus—for their accusations. Over Scipio’s objections, the senate decided to send three of their number to Carthage, really to indict Hannibal before the council of elders, but under the guise of settling a dispute between Carthage and Masinissa. Hannibal wasn’t fooled; he discreetly left town and made his way to a castle on the coast, where a boat waited to take him to Tyre. It was the beginning of a hegira that would last until his death. But the first sojourn was with Antiochus, and it would not prove an auspicious one for either man.105

Had Antiochus really meant to turn his “cold war”106 with Rome into a winner-take-all contest for dominance of the Mediterranean basin, then the choice of Hannibal as strategist would have been brilliant. The Barcid knew exactly what was necessary for such an effort—an alliance with Philip of Macedon, an invasion of Italy, and if possible persuading Carthage to recommence hostilities.107 But Antiochus’s horizons were limited, and besides, he never trusted Hannibal (despite the latter relating to him the oath he’d taken as a child against Rome) nor took his advice seriously … the worst of both worlds—guilt by association without any of its benefits. So in temporizing—always a mistake against the Romans—Antiochus ended up having his army destroyed at Magnesia in 189, the culmination of a campaign orchestrated by Scipio Africanus. For their troubles, the Romans charged him a fifteen-thousand-talent war indemnity, half again more than they had charged the Carthaginians, and kicked him entirely out of Asia Minor.

Hannibal continued his wandering, eventually ending up in Bithynia along the shores of today’s Sea of Marmara at the court of King Prusias, who employed him as a city planner, certainly one of his more constructive roles.108 Prusias also took advantage of the Carthaginian’s destructive talents. For Prusias was involved in a territorial dispute with Eumenes of Pergamum, which escalated into open warfare in 186. Since both were “friends of the Roman people,” the senate delayed its intervention until 183. In the interim, Hannibal took a turn as Prusias’s admiral, reportedly catapulting pots full of poisonous snakes onto Eumenes’s ships, and nearly capturing the king by sending him a message, seeing which ship accepted it, and then going after the royal vessel.109 Eumenes, “the oriental Masinissa,” sent his brother to complain to the Romans about Prusias’s conduct in general, and specifically that Prusias had used reinforcements sent by Philip of Macedon and also, presumably, had used the services of Hannibal.

The senate dispatched Flaminius, who was good with Greeks, to provide what the Romans probably thought of as adult supervision. Whether it was Flaminius who demanded Hannibal’s head, or Prusias who offered it to propitiate the Roman, is hard to tell. However, the Barcid, even at sixty-three, was alert enough to attempt an escape through an underground passage. Unfortunately, he ran into a detachment of the king’s guards and, realizing the game was over, took poison, remarking, “Let us now put an end to the great anxiety of the Romans, who have thought it too long and hard a task to wait for the death of a hated old man.”110

So passed Hannibal into history and legend; nobody was better at winning battles, but not wars, which is what counts. He died much as he had lived, as a paladin and warlord whose natural environment was the ever shifting stage of Hellenistic personality-based power politics. Rome was emblematic of something much more robust, and that was why he had lost and the Romans could subsequently take over the Mediterranean basin so suddenly. Meanwhile, a case can be made that historians writing from the perspective of the modern monolithic nation-state have too closely equated Hannibal’s acts and those of his clan with the economic and political vector of Carthage. Certainly he was never an entirely independent actor; nor was Carthage an innocent bystander to the Second Punic War. But the pro-Roman sources, if read skeptically, seem to point to the Barcids as instigators and the city as just sort of tagging along. For Carthage too stood for something else, and that was making money.

Poor Carthage—if you can say that about a place that burned its young alive. But if you are willing to overlook this unfortunate custom, the city certainly did seem to mend its ways after the Second Punic War. Most fundamentally it seems to have accepted a subordinate position to Rome, to have taken the term “friend and ally” seriously. Setting aside war and imperial ambition, Carthaginians turned to doing what they did best—not only recovering their former prosperity but growing ever wealthier. After only ten years, they offered to pay off their entire war indemnity, which was supposed to have stretched across five decades, a proposal the Romans huffily rejected.111 Around the same time, envoys from the senate requested very large quantities of grain, including five hundred thousand bushels of barley destined for the army. The Punic side offered it gratis, but the senate insisted on paying.

Factions continued in Carthaginian politics, but no element appears to have been hostile to Rome, and there is no indication that the city was anything but a loyal ally after 201.112 But they were foolish to flaunt their wealth in the face of the authorities on the Tiber, not so much because it provoked jealousy, but because the Romans were not equipped to understand it and were programmed to think of it in terms of a military threat.

It is obviously impossible to say anything definitive about what ordinary Romans thought of Carthage and Carthaginians. The most revealing literary evidence is probably Plautus’s Poenulus (“The Carthaginian”). The leading character is a Punic merchant named—no surprise here—Hanno who exhibits some negative stereotypes (rings in his ears, a fondness for whores, pretending not to understand Latin when he really does). But Hanno is clearly a comic figure, and not a villain designed to draw upon the Roman audiences’ hatred of Carthage when the play was enacted around 190 B.C.113 Still, this was just one play, and Hannibal had killed a lot of Romans.

Among Rome’s leadership class there was certainly still hostility toward Carthage, and although the Africans did have their defenders in the senate (Scipio Nasica, Africanus’s cousin, was one), increasingly the tide turned toward the archconservative Marcus Porcius Cato. In 153 he visited the city as part of a delegation sent to arbitrate a dispute between Carthage and Masinissa, and he returned deeply shaken by the obvious prosperity of the place. To a Roman, especially given Carthage’s penchant for hiring mercenaries, prosperity meant danger, and he took to ending each of his speeches with “Carthage must be destroyed.” At one point he let some fresh figs drop from his toga, maintaining that they had been picked in Carthage just three days earlier and implying that a war fleet could reach Rome just as quickly. Like Freud’s fabled cigar, sometimes a fig is just a fig, but apparently not to a Roman. Appian114 maintains that from the moment Cato’s delegation returned, the senate was resolved upon going to war and was simply waiting for a pretext.

Masinissa, by now nearly ninety but still able to ride a horse and lead men into battle, provided the needed cover through his constant encroachments of Punic territory. In 150 when the Carthaginians decided to fight without asking Roman permission and raised an army—an army they promptly lost in the fight—the senate pounced.

First, three hundred youthful hostages were demanded and given. Then the Carthaginians were ordered to disarm, which they did. Finally, the population was told to vacate the city, at which point they chose resistance. The struggle was desperate, lasting until 146, when the city finally fell in a sea of flames. The surviving population was enslaved, and Carthage as a society and a state was history—a true victim of genocide. When the city fell, Polybius was with the Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus—the grandson of Lucius Aemilius Paullus (who fell at Cannae) and the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus—and saw him weep and recite lines from The Iliad on the fall of Troy as he watched the city burn.115 They may have been crocodile tears.

And what of Rome? How had the experience of the Second Punic War, arguably catalyzed by the defeat at Cannae, affected the Romans’ subsequent path through history? In 1965 the then-prestigious historian Arnold Toynbee published a massive two-volume study, Hannibal’s Legacy. Toynbee argued not only that the Punic invasion had done such grievous harm to southern Italy that it still had not recovered after two thousand years, but also that the invasion had engendered pernicious social forces, such as the replacement of peasant farmers by slave-based commercial agriculture (latifundia), that would persist to the end of ancient civilization.116 In part due to Toynbee’s reputation having declined precipitously, and also because of the grandiosity of claiming damage lasting two millennia, his thesis has been subjected to the most severe sort of criticism, resulting in a tendency to minimize the impact of the Barcid’s depredations.117 Victor Davis Hanson, for example, points out just how hard it is to inflict damage on agricultural assets, particularly crops, by military action.118 It has also been noted that Rome was already becoming a slave society as far back as the fourth century B.C., and latifundia were in existence well before Hannibal ever set foot in Italy.119

Still, the most recent scholarship has moved toward bridging the gap and conceding that Toynbee had a point. Hannibal’s army was in the southern corner of Italy for thirteen years, during which time the area was subjected to the most intense sort of raiding. Land may have been hard to destroy, but farm populations could be terrorized, killed, and driven to shelter elsewhere.120 When farmers and discharged soldiers returned, many lacked the resources to restore their holdings, so they headed for the cities instead. This in turn accelerated the formation of large estates by the wealthy, who had the money to staff them with slaves made plentiful by Rome’s martial successes.

And what of those soldiers, epitomized by the ghosts of Cannae, whose long service kept them away from home and family and spelled financial ruin? These men had not much to return to, argues historian Adrian Goldsworthy, and if the senate refused to take care of them in a meaningful and sustained way, then they would naturally look to their commanders for a future, and become in the process more loyal to generals than to the institutions of the republic.121 The wars in the East would prove very profitable, and would provide the commanders with not only the largesse to take care of their soldiers, but also the wealth to spend on public entertainment, such as the gladiatorial combats that were becoming wildly popular. This not only intensified the nearly mindless competition for office among the nobiles, but it helped add the concept of celebrity into the already heady military brew.

Here again the impact of Hannibal cannot be overlooked. His defeat of three plebeian consuls in succession—Sempronius Longus, Flaminius, and Varro—had made it clear that amateur generals would not do and that long-term commanders were a necessity, thereby upsetting the dogma that rulers were interchangeable.122 Still, better captains, even combined with the strategic approach of Fabius Maximus, had been only good enough to keep the Barcid at bay, not get rid of him. Various stalwarts—Marcellus, T. Sempronius Gracchus, Q. Fulvius Flaccus, C. Claudius Nero, and even Fabius himself—had crossed swords with the Punic incubus, but none had proved his master. Finally, necessity had invented Scipio, a commander whose charisma and resourcefulness had been the match of Hannibal’s, and that had done the trick. Yet this situation also introduced the archetype of Caesar and Pompey into Roman politics. If you were a republican, that proved a poison pill. In the end, then, we are thrown back to the point made earlier about Silius Italicus’s appearing to argue that in the very act of fighting Hannibal, Rome put itself on the road to civil war by coming to rely on charismatic generals for survival. If this is the case, then Hannibal had the last laugh.

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