Ancient History & Civilisation




Young Publius, son and nephew of the Scipio brothers recently martyred in Spain, was barely twenty-five when he was invested with the proconsular imperium to venture to Iberia as supreme Roman commander. It was without precedent in the republic’s constitutional history.1 Too young to have held either the consulship or praetorship, he was elevated through a special election of the Comitia Centuriata rather than being appointed by the senate, which was the norm. Even considering the deceptive nature of Roman politics, this was all pretty odd.

Some modern historians find the roots of the assignment in factional and familial squabbles over war policy, and just how much emphasis to put on the Spanish theater,2 but Livy (26.18.5–6) provides a simpler explanation that makes a lot of sense—nobody of consequence much wanted the posting. Conventional wisdom found the real glory in Italy and in the prospect of getting rid of Hannibal. This was likely why the grim and gifted Caius Claudius Nero headed back to Italy after only a short, if successful, Iberian interlude.

Still, even if Spain was a dirty job, strategic considerations demanded that somebody had to do it, and making young Scipio that somebody was an attractive if unorthodox solution. The very name Scipio was a known quantity in Iberia, not only among the legionaries remaining there, but also among those tribes who might still be inclined to take the Roman part in the struggle. Then there was the poetic justice of sending a highly motivated young Scipio to avenge other dead Scipios. But most compelling perhaps was the nature of this particular Scipio.

It is pretty apparent that the young man destined to become Africanus was already an impressive figure. Livy himself, who could look back on a succession of late republican demagogues, found Scipio even at this stage astonishingly preoccupied with his own public persona. This was a young man who did little to discourage rumors that his very birth was the result of a congress between his mother and a rather large serpent, that he reached decisions within sacred confines presumably in consultation with Jupiter himself, and that he acted on the basis of divinely inspired dreams.3 Potent stuff for the very superstitious Romans, but this image also required the personal gravitas to pull it off without looking ridiculous.

This he had—the ancient equivalent of “the right stuff.” As was the case with Hannibal, the obvious comparison was between the young Publius Scipio and Alexander, the Mediterranean basin’s beacon of imperial ambition. Livy was frank to admit it—the same youth, good looks, cultural literacy, and penchant toward Pan-Hellenism, an ornate façade beneath which beat the heart of a born soldier—decisive, opportunistic, and ruthless. Of course, Alexander really was a Greek, seemed convinced of his divinity, and was probably crazy; Scipio was a Roman and, as far as we can tell, entirely more down to earth.

In this regard Polybius helps to complete the picture. He declared that if his readers looked beneath the glamour and good fortune, they would find a calculating spirit grounded in careful preparation and attention to detail, a person whose supposed magnanimity masked a shrewd and even cynical eye for the main chance.4 Scipio was a young man capable of the most brutal sort of retribution; yet when it suited his purposes, he would befriend the very Numidian prince, Masinissa, who was so instrumental in the deaths of his father and uncle.

And it was this sort of pragmatism that enabled him to reshape the Roman triplex acies from a serried battering ram into a dynamic battlefield instrument capable of attacking and winning from several directions. This spark of creative genius would prove to be what Rome ultimately needed in a commander to defeat Hannibal.

But it came at a price. From beginning to end Scipio’s career betrayed a restlessness with the norms and constraints imposed by Roman politics and senatorial domination. When confronted, he inevitably—if grudgingly—acceded, but in establishing this pattern he set a precedent of personal ambition that led eventually to Caesar and the collapse of the republic. So, it seems that in order to save the state from Hannibal it was necessary to generate the very type of individual who would ultimately destroy it. This was the true Barcid curse upon Rome.

For the moment, however, Scipio was exactly the commanding presence the situation demanded, particularly in Spain, where he acted with extraordinary self-assurance and sagacity from the moment he arrived in the summer of 210 with approximately eleven thousand fresh troops.5 At Tarraco (modern Tarragona), on safe ground north of the Ebro, he called together local tribal leaders and gave them an enthusiastic pep talk. Then he continued touring the areas under Roman control, congratulating the troops for holding on, and singling out the commander they had elected, L. Marcius Septimus, for special praise, thereby cementing the troops’ loyalty.

The legionaries having settled down into their winter quarters, Scipio began reorganizing them, blending his reinforcements with the various elements remaining from his father’s and uncle’s armies. He was intent on forging them into a homogenous whole, now numbering around twenty-eight thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry.6 Meanwhile, he was incubating an amazingly audacious scheme for the coming campaigning season. We have a good idea what he was thinking, since Polybius bases his account on a letter detailing the plan Scipio wrote once the war was over.7 Even before arriving in Spain, Scipio understood that his relatives’ defeats had resulted from splitting their forces, and from the treachery of the Celtiberians they had hired. Yet by this time he had learned that the Carthaginians were on similarly shaky ground with the tribes to the south, and that they too had divided their forces—Mago was somewhere beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, Hasdrubal Gisgo was far west in Lusitania, and Hasdrubal Barca was around the headwaters of the Tagus River in the vicinity of today’s Toledo. All of them being more than ten days’ march from Barca central, the vital city of New Carthage.8 This was to be Scipio’s target of opportunity.

The scheme he hatched was virtually a mirror of its architect—breathtakingly daring. Yet hedged by meticulous planning and good intelligence. While still in winter quarters, he not only obtained a plan of the city, but had been told by some fishermen that it might be approached from several angles through a shallow lagoon that could be forded at low tide. This was critical, since Scipio had also learned that the city was guarded only by approximately one thousand troops, who could not be everywhere at once. His window of opportunity was a narrow one, defined by the ten or so days it would take for the scattered Carthaginian forces to converge on the city. Polybius tells us that Scipio also understood that in the case of failure he could evacuate his men by ship, since Romans controlled the seas, and if he succeeded, the Romans already would be behind New Carthage’s fortifications.9 His bets were covered.

Just in case, before he crossed the Ebro and headed south in the spring of 209, Scipio left three thousand foot soldiers and five hundred horse with an experienced subordinate to keep an eye on the Tarraco locals, and he told only Gaius Laelius, his boyhood friend and career right-hand man, of his plans. The arrival of Scipio and his army came as an unwelcome surprise to the New Carthaginians, who reacted with an uncharacteristic and ultimately unwise verve for defending the place. Two thousand of them joined the commander—yet another Mago—and his mercenaries with the intent of meeting the Romans outside the city walls. For his part Scipio had gathered the troops and given them the usual exhortations (i.e., “the first one over the wall gets the gold crown”), but with a characteristically Scipionic twist. He told them that the entire plan had been given to him in a dream by the god Neptune, whose help they could all count on.10

The operation might as well have been scripted by divine intervention. The eagerest locals initially sallied out and fought bravely, until they were overwhelmed by Roman reinforcements, thereby culling the most audacious of the defenders as they retreated through the city gates. Still, the locals rallied and were able to throw back the first Roman assault with scaling ladders, and probably took heart that they could hold out until relieved by one of the scattered Carthaginian field forces.

But they hadn’t counted on Scipio’s determination … or his guile. Rather than allowing the normal several days of rest after a failed attack, Scipio waited only until late in the afternoon before throwing his force again at the portion of the wall where the main gate was located; but not before leading a picked contingent around to the other side of the fortifications, the side bordered by the lagoon. Just as the onslaught in front was cresting, the ocean tide turned and began emptying the shallows, giving the legionaries here every reason to believe Neptune himself was busy with his trident, literally bailing them out. The Romans waded across with their ladders and easily mounted the wall there, which was now drained of defenders, who had moved off to meet the primary attack. Racing along the top to the main gate, the Romans forced it open just as their comrades in front gained a foothold on the battlements.11 After that it was a deluge of mayhem, with Scipio ordering his troops to kill anything that moved, before beginning the more methodical pillaging.12

But Scipio was far too practical to simply let his legionaries gorge themselves on a prize this valuable. Rather than merely shatter what was the Barcid piggy bank, the central emporium/treasury/arsenal of the entire enterprise, he would make it work for himself and Rome. The next day he assembled the ten thousand surviving inhabitants and told them of his plans for them. Full citizens were sent home free; artisans were made slaves of the Roman state, to pursue their trades in public workshops on the promise of eventual freedom; and the rest, presumably slaves, Scipio used to man the eighteen ships captured in the harbor and to supplement his own crews.13 Mago the commander, two members of Carthage’s council of elders, and fifteen other captive Carthaginian legislators would be packed on a quinquereme and sent to Rome, along with Laelius and the good news of Scipio’s victory.14

Finally, Scipio turned to the Spanish tribal people who had been held hostage within the city, more than three hundred individuals. Besides giving them gifts, he urged them to write to their relatives at home informing them of their safety and of Scipio’s willingness to repatriate them should their tribes side with Rome. When a Spanish noblewoman begged that the female hostages be treated “with more proper consideration than the Carthaginians had done,” he first missed her meaning, and then assured her he would look after them “as if they were his own sisters and children.” Around this time, his soldiers tried to present Scipio, who was known to like women, with a young girl of surpassing beauty, but instead of bedding her, he delivered her back to her father or her local lover, depending whether you believe Polybius or Livy.15 Whoever it was, this was exactly the sort of gesture that won over a population, and epitomized Scipio’s sagacity and self-control.

The sudden descent on New Carthage, carried out under the noses of three enemy field armies, proved a master stroke. In a single blow Scipio transformed the entire cast of the war in Spain. New Carthage had been the powerhouse of the Barcid Iberian empire, the repository for three decades of looting and confiscations, and their own personal military-industrial complex. Now all this gold and silver and industriousness was Roman. Given this setback to the Barcid family power and prestige, it is also possible to hypothesize a parallel shift among Carthaginians, with the subsequent financing and direction of the war in Spain sliding more toward metropolitan Carthage and relative newcomer Hasdrubal Gisgo, and away from the Barcid brothers in Spain, Mago and Hasdrubal. Whatever the case, it was completely apparent that the initiative now lay with Publius Scipio.

Nor was he about to let it go. He turned New Carthage into a hive of activity, constantly exercising his navy and rigorously training his troops in repeated five-day cycles that combined long marches with sword and javelin practice and weapons maintenance.16He also may have begun instituting the new infantry tactics he would spring on the Carthaginians the following year.17 Meanwhile, under skilled foremen and his own supervision, he set the rest of the population to work in what Polybius (10.20.6–7) called “a workshop of war,” with “everyone busily engaged upon the preparations of weapons.” Yet he was still facing three hostile armies. Putting his own force in the best possible condition addressed the purely military dimension of the problem, but this was Spain, and adroit diplomacy with the tribes might prove equally corrosive to his enemies.

So as the winter of 209–8 approached, he returned to Tarraco, where he called together deputies of Rome’s native allies, both old and new. It proved the beginning of an avalanche of tribal defections from the Carthaginians, sweeping along, not unexpectedly, the ever pliable Indibilis, who made a career of switching sides.18

Watching group after group slip out of his camp with the intent of joining the Romans, Hasdrubal Barca decided to make a fight of it with Scipio before his army entirely melted away. If he won, he would have the time and security to plot his next move. If bested, he was prepared to give up on Spain, head across the Alps with the survivors, fill up on Gallic mercenaries, and then join Hannibal.19

For his part, Scipio not only was ready to rumble, but was ready specifically to fight Hasdrubal, who was closest, before the other two Carthaginian armies could converge on him. He even drew the crews from the fleet into his legions, in an effort to ensure he would not be outnumbered. He left Tarraco in the spring of 208 and, as he moved south, linked up with Indibilis and his contingent, finally locating the Carthaginians at a place called Baecula (the modern town of Bailén).

Upon hearing of Scipio’s approach, Hasdrubal moved to a very strong defensive position on a flat-topped hill protected by steep banks in the front and on the sides, and by a river to the rear. Some have argued that this position indicated that Hasdrubal didn’t really want a fight, but it seems more likely he was hoping Scipio might hesitate long enough for Mago or Hasdrubal Gisgo to arrive. Or perhaps he was hoping to lure the Roman commander into a problematic uphill slog, which was exactly what happened.20

Scipio waited two days, perhaps hoping the Carthaginians would come down off their hill, but then, worried about the imminent arrival of the other Punic armies, Scipio resolved to attack. The choice was hardly as rash as it might seem. The force structure he wielded was a far different instrument from the traditional three-line bulldozer militia of even the recent Roman past. Scipio had raised the training to a much higher level, one sufficient for major components to break apart and maneuver truly as independent units, but still in a coordinated fashion.21

The Romans began the attack with a direct assault in the center by the velites, whose enthusiasm and apparent training set the conditions for success. The velites worked their way up the hill under a barrage of missiles, gained a foothold at the top, and then routed the Punic covering force. This initial move seems to have surprised Hasdrubal, who began to form up his heavy troops near the ridgeline.

It was too late. Scipio had already divided his own heavy forces, leading one half himself and giving the other to Laelius, and set them off on a flanking maneuver on either side of the hill. They raced to the top, deployed from column into line, and then executed a pincer movement against the Carthaginian formation before it was fully formed. It was a rout, but in an almost melodramatic turn of events (think Professor Moriarty, or Dr. Fu-Manchu, or Ming the Merciless slipping through the righteous clutches of Flash Gordon), Hasdrubal managed to exit stage left with his treasure chest, his elephants, and a goodly portion of his heavy troops, heading off toward Italy with the hope of joining his elder brother.

The Barcid’s latest disappearing act caused Scipio biographer H. H. Scullard to label Baecula a tactical victory but a strategic defeat.22 In one sense this is certainly true. It was the singular achievement of Scipio’s father and uncle to have prevented Hannibal’s reinforcement from Spain at a truly parlous time for the state, but they had also ended up dead because of tactical miscues in the face of superior forces. Had Scipio taken off after Hasdrubal, he might have eventually found himself sandwiched between this retreating force and the forces of Mago and Hasdrubal Gisgo. Besides, the situation in Italy was now far more to Rome’s advantage than it had been earlier, when Hannibal had truly been on the loose. Meanwhile, even with the middle Barcid brother gone, Scipio was still outnumbered in Spain and had to be careful.

So he set himself up in the security of the captured Punic camp atop the hill and set about reinforcing his position. First he disposed of his battle prisoners, sending the Spaniards home without ransom, and ordering the Africans to be sold as slaves.23 (Livy tells us that during this process the quaestor came across a particularly handsome youth, who claimed to be of royal Numidian blood. He was sent to Scipio, who discovered him to be the nephew of Masinissa, who had helped run down his father and uncle. Another might have exacted familial revenge, but Scipio, looking to the future, had the boy sent back to his uncle under armed guard.24) Next, Scipio presided over a procession of nearby tribal leaders ready to pay their obeisance to Rome, paving the way for further incursions toward the valley of the Baetis River and the remaining Punic strongholds. The Spaniards, including the shifty Indibilis, could barely contain their enthusiasm, saluting Scipio as “king.” The prudent Scipio replied that while he appreciated the sentiment, such a title was bound to set teeth on edge in Rome, so he suggested instead “imperator,” a title that had already been bestowed upon him by his troops. In fact this was the first chronicled example of such a title being given to a victorious Roman general. It would not be the last.25


Back in Italy, Marcellus was looking to crown his storied career by at last getting rid of the Punic incubus. Plutarch (Marcellus, 28) reports, “No man ever had such a passion for anything as he had for fighting a decisive battle with Hannibal. This was his dream at night, his one subject for deliberation with friends and colleagues, his one appeal to the gods.”

Upon returning to Rome after Sicily, Marcellus was notably more aggressive than the other Roman commander, an approach that was bound to put him somewhat at odds with Fabian II and its namesake. Yet the differences between Marcellus and Fabius should not be exaggerated; for the time being both continued to operate within the context of the overall plan—Fabius acting as Rome’s shield and Marcellus as its sword.26

The year 209 proved to be a watershed for this partnership and also for the Roman confederation, which after nearly a decade of war was showing signs of fraying, and not just at the edges. Apparently, many of the survivors of the Second Battle of Herdonea the year before, those subsequently exiled to join the ghosts of Cannae indefinitely on Sicily, had been Latin.27 Now twelve of the thirty Latin colonies announced to the Roman consuls that they could no longer furnish their quota of fighting men or the money to support them. They were bitter and tapped out. Manpower was at the heart of the Roman military advantage, and Latins were at the heart of the alliance—the next best thing to being a full citizen—so this was a significant warning. Wisely, the senate did nothing beyond refusing to talk to the Latin colonies’ envoys—a Roman version of the “silent treatment”28—but the signal did not go unnoticed. Progress, real progress, had to be made soon.

One key was to recapture Tarentum, the rich Greek port city on the inner side of Italy’s heel and, besides Capua, Hannibal’s most prized acquisition since Cannae. The plan was for Fabius Maximus to besiege the place by land and sea, but to do this safely it was necessary to keep Hannibal off his back. This was where Marcellus came in.

Before he realized what was intended for Tarentum, Hannibal moved up into Apulia as far as Canusium, where he tried to stir up the inhabitants against Rome. But instead he was intercepted by Marcellus with a large army, including the 18th and 20th legions, and Caius Claudius Nero commanding one of the alae, Marcellus having been ordered out of winter quarters with the object of picking a fight with Hannibal.29

After some initial maneuvering, this is exactly what he did. If we are to believe Livy, who may have made the episode sound more decisive than it actually was, the first day ended with the Romans being pushed ingloriously off the battlefield. But Marcellus’s après-combat harangue so humiliated the legionaries, that after a night of rest and contemplation they retook the field determined to prevail. Then, at a key point the Romans managed to stampede Hannibal’s elephants—always the weak link—back into the Punic lines and drive the Carthaginians into their camp.30 Suspiciously, however, when Hannibal characteristically slipped away under the cover of darkness, Livy tells us Marcellus had too many wounded to follow. Whatever the actual tactical outcome, the Roman commander had certainly stood up to Hannibal, as he had done on several occasions previously, and in doing so he had accomplished the strategic purpose of the operation.

For back in Tarentum, Fabius Maximus had succeeded, through a plot with a Bruttian member of the Punic garrison, in gaining entry into the city. Once inside, the Roman troops ran wild, slaughtering Carthaginians, Tarentines, and even some of the Bruttians indiscriminately. Hannibal raced to the scene, marching day and night, but by the time he arrived, it was too late. He then concocted an elaborate plot to draw Fabius into combat, one that Fabius might have fallen for, had it not been for bad auspices.31 Instead the Delayer stayed to concentrate on looting the place, recovering immense quantities of gold and silver and selling some thirty thousand Tarentines into slavery. This was the windfall Rome needed to recoup its public finances, and it was a fleecing so exorbitant that Livy tried to defend Fabius on the grounds that, unlike Marcellus at Syracuse, Fabius at least left some of the statues.32

Meanwhile, as the year drew to a close, Marcellus, “Rome’s sword,” returned home to face critics who charged that after Canusium he had spent too much time licking his wounds. These critics even threatened to take away his imperium. Marcellus not only blunted this effort, but managed to get himself elected to his fifth consulship. The politics and factions behind this maneuvering remain obscure,33 but the overall message seems clear: Marcellus and his consular colleague, T. Quinctius Crispinus, were expected to behave even more aggressively. Rome once again was looking beyond the strategy of Fabius Maximus and contemplating outright victory over Hannibal.34

After some preliminaries, the year 208 found the two consuls and their armies joined in Apulia near Venusia, determined to fight the first full-scale confrontation with Hannibal since Cannae. The Carthaginian commander was stationed a few miles off, and the ground separating the opposing forces was dominated by a large heavily wooded hill. Such an eminence was a likely site for a secure camp, but instead Hannibal, ever the trickster, saw grounds for an ambush. He seeded the hill with concealed Numidians lying in wait. Obligingly, Marcellus and Crispinus decided to take a small mounted force to reconnoiter the place. There is some disagreement between Livy’s version and Polybius’s fragment regarding the details of the event, but the outcome was perfectly clear. Marcellus was run through and died on the spot, and Crispinus was mortally wounded, though he escaped.35

Hannibal gave Marcellus an elaborate funeral, but then used his signet ring to try to get a band of deserters disguised as Romans into Salapia, the place where Hannibal had earlier enjoyed the company of a local prostitute. Crispinus managed to foil this plot before he died by warning the neighboring communities not to trust any message supposedly sent by his colleague. Still, it was pretty obvious that the Punic fox had lost little of his edge and remained full of schemes. It was equally clear that Marcellus, whom Polybius cruelly labeled as having acted “not so much like a general as like a simpleton,”36 had not been up to beating him. Modern historian J. F. Lazenby considers Marcellus a kind of archetype of conventional Roman generals, “brave, hard and competent,” admirable qualities but, when faced with a military genius, plainly not enough.37 Against a force so protean, Rome would have to fight fire with fire.


For the moment things were looking grim, even desperate, along the Tiber. And it was not just a matter of restive Latins; there were ominous reports of unrest in Etruria (Tuscany today), the rich area in the northeast. For reasons beyond historical comprehension, Terentius Varro had been again invested with the imperium and sent to Etruria to bring some hostages back to Rome. Upon his return, he delivered such an alarmist report that he was given a legion and ordered to return. This marked the start of Etrurian troubles that would only grow worse with the arrival of a new Barcid menace.38

Hasdrubal Barca was on the move, and his progress had been monitored with increasing alarm along the Tiber. Envoys from Rome’s friend Massilia reported that Hasdrubal had crossed into coastal Gaul, and later Rome’s own agents sent back word that the Carthaginian intended to traverse the Alps in the spring of 207. Next, the praetor L. Porcius Licinus dispatched news that the Barcid was again mobile, having recruited eight thousand of the northern tribesmen known as Ligurians. Finally, and most shocking, the Romans learned that Hasdrubal had been given a friendly reception by the Alpine Gauls, had slid through the mountains more easily and directly than his brother, and was now in Italy laying siege to Placentia earlier than anyone had thought possible.39

These trip reports were potentially devastating psychologically. The Romans had waged war on their own territory at great cost in casualties and devastation for upward of a decade, and although Hannibal had been effectively cornered in the south, he obviously remained capable of flummoxing even their most experienced commanders. Now the Romans were faced with a second Gaul-fortified Barcid visitation from out of the Alpine mists, one potentially even more disastrous, should Hasdrubal manage to join forces with his diabolical brother, a true nightmare scenario. (“Not even the first invasion caused as much terror and confusion in Italy,” reported the ever hyperbolic Silius Italicus. “Men said that here was a second Hannibal, … and the two generals, gorged with Italian blood … were doubling their strength; the enemy would come in headlong haste to Rome.”)40

Fortunately, those in charge saw through the situation and acted accordingly. In fact, Rome was now battle-hardened, far stronger, and more militarily capable than when Hannibal had first entered Italy. For the year 207, fully twenty-three legions were to be fielded. This was the greatest number in the war and was equaled only in 211 during the relentless siege of Capua. But after Rome lost two consuls simultaneously to Hannibal, the perception must have been that the senate needed to make sure the right men now assumed command. The obvious choice for consul was the very dynamic and experienced C. Claudius Nero. He had been among the conquerors of Capua, had nearly put an end to Hasdrubal in Spain, and had been with Marcellus at Canusium when, at the very least, they had kept Hannibal away from Tarentum.41 Yet his very boldness left a sense of unease and sparked a desire by the leadership to balance him with a more prudent soul as colleague.

Marcus Livius Salinator was hardly a conventional choice. After sharing the consulship in 219 with Lucius Aemilius Paullus and successfully fighting the Illyrian War, Salinator had been convicted for mishandling the booty and had withdrawn in disgrace to his estates for more than a decade, letting his hair and beard grow long, and wearing only shabby clothing. Still, his leadership skills and cool head were not forgotten, and in 209, Marcellus and Laevinus convinced him to return to the senate, where he said very little and remained his unkempt self, at least until the censors forced him to cut his hair and put on a clean toga. Further complicating matters, Salinator and Nero, perhaps for temperamental reasons, were notorious enemies. But the perceived emergency was pressing, and under the auspices of Fabius Maximus the senate reconciled these two strong personalities—fire and ice—and they formed a notably effective consular team.42

Yet, the object of all this attention, Hasdrubal Barca, was once again proving himself to be no Hannibal, not even close. Instead of exploiting his sudden arrival and striking immediately into the heart of Italy, Hasdrubal dawdled around Placentia, which Hannibal himself had judged too well defended to take, apparently to impress the Gauls he wanted to recruit, only belatedly giving up its siege and heading down the peninsula.43 Hasdrubal had a choice of going either west or east of the Apennine mountain spine. On the west, Varro was waiting in unsettled Etruria, and on the east, the capable praetor Licinus was athwart the Adriatic coastal route, with Salinator waiting in Rome, poised to join either one, depending on which way the Barcid turned. Hasdrubal went toward the Adriatic, with Licinus retreating and harassing him all the way, as Salinator raced north to join forces.44 And even worse for the Barcid, his own plea for reinforcements would bring still more Romans down on his head.

After he left Placentia, Hasdrubal dispatched a letter to Hannibal saying he would meet him “in Umbria.” The letter was carried by a party of six horsemen—two Numidians and four Gauls. This was a shot in the dark—sending a bunch of foreign-looking, and presumably not Latin-speaking, horsemen off through a country crawling with enemies and expecting them to find Hannibal, who was always a moving target during campaigning season. It has been suggested that the letter was intended for capture and was meant to mislead the Romans as to Hasdrubal’s projected route,45 but it appears that Hasdrubal was already being closely monitored by Licinus, and if by chance the letter had gotten through, wouldn’t it have confused Hannibal? (“Meet me in Umbria” was hardly specific.)

As it happened, the horsemen made it almost the entire length of the peninsula, arrived at Metapontum (near the arch of the boot) only to find Hannibal gone, and were soon captured by foragers near Tarentum. They brought them for interrogation to Nero. The Roman had been dogging Hannibal back and forth through Bruttium and Apulia in a confusing series of actions that had left the two armies camped in close proximity again near Canusium. Once the predictably rough treatment of the prisoners revealed the truth, Nero decided to stage a vanishing act of his own. He took seven thousand picked troops—six thousand foot soldiers and one thousand horse—from his much larger force and slipped them out of camp under the cover of night, leaving the Carthaginians none the wiser.46

Quite plainly the days of Hannibal the omniscient were over; it was now the Romans who held the intelligence advantage and were capable of strategic maneuvers under the cloak of secrecy.47 Until they were well away from camp, Nero’s men were under the impression they were going to stage a raid on a nearby town. Then he told them the truth; they were heading north to join Salinator.

Messengers fanned out ahead along the 250-mile route requesting provisions as the troops raced north with nothing but their weapons. Livy (27.45) paints a scene of patriotic enthusiasm, with throngs gathered by the side of the road competing with one another to give the soldiers what they needed, and cheering them as they passed. Back in Rome, however, word of the consul’s bold move provoked more anxiety; the voice of the street fretting over Nero’s leaving a hollow army camped in front of the dreaded Hannibal, and remembering the events in Spain, when Hasdrubal had eluded Nero, leaving him “baffled like a little child.”48 Polybius, who was not inclined to exaggerate, agrees, stating in a fragment, “Rome had never been in such a state of excitement and dismay, awaiting the results.”49

The future was in good hands. As Nero neared the combined camps of Salinator and the praetor Licinus at Sena Gallica, he dispatched couriers to ask how the forces should best link up, and was advised to enter secretly by night. The newcomers would be housed in the existing tents, to minimize their footprint and avoid betraying their presence to Hasdrubal, who was just five hundred yards away.50 All went well, and on the following day Salinator and Licinus held a council of war with Nero. Assuming Nero’s men needed rest after their long forced march, Salinator and Licinus suggested postponing a confrontation for several days. Nero objected in no uncertain terms, arguing that delay would only squander the advantage he had gained by his bold move and heighten the danger down south, since it was only a matter of time before Hannibal discovered he was gone and sprang into action. Nero was right, and the others saw it immediately. An order went out for the combined army to move out on the double and begin deploying for battle.51

Hasdrubal stood ready to accept the challenge, lining up his army in front of their camp. But then as he rode forward with his bodyguards, the Barcid smelled—if not a rat, then at least road-hardened Romans, noticing some particularly battered shields, some unusually stringy horses, and a general swelling of the legions facing him. He had his trumpeters sound an immediate retreat and sent out scouts to survey the Romans more carefully. The scouts reported that the encampment itself looked normal, yet the bugles had sounded just once in the praetor’s camp but twice in Salinator’s. Instantly Hasdrubal realized he was facing both consuls, and his mind turned in a fearful direction.52 What bothered him was not so much the apparent reinforcement of the Roman legions here; uppermost, it seems, was the haunting thought that the second consul’s presence meant that Hannibal had suffered a crushing defeat and that Hasdrubal’s assistance had come too late. This at least would best explain his decision to retreat.

He sought refuge under the cover of night and ordered his men to silently collect their baggage and head back toward the Metaurus River, around twelve miles to the northwest, in hopes of finding a ford and safety. Then, being no Hannibal, he lost control of the situation. His guides, unwatched, absconded, and his troops, many of them Gauls, tended to fall out and go to sleep. When the caravan finally blundered into the Metaurus, Hasdrubal told them to follow the bank, but it grew steeper and more circuitous and provided neither a place to cross nor much progress away from the pursuing Romans.53

First Nero rode up leading the cavalry, then Licinus followed with the velites, both of them harassing the Carthaginians to a standstill. At this point Hasdrubal saw his best chance in establishing a camp on a steep hill by the bank of the river. But shortly after he began work, Salinator marched up with the heavy troops in full battle array, ready to deploy. Now Hasdrubal had no choice but to fight.

According to Ovid54 and the Roman calendar, the day was June 22, 207 B.C. As usual the exact location of the climactic battle remains unknown, with at least six sites south of the river having been proposed,55 but at least we have a fragment from Polybius (11.1–3.6) describing the action, which can act as a check on Livy. There are some differences between the two historians’ accounts, but in the main they can be reconciled.

Hasdrubal seems to have anchored his line on the steep hill with the partially constructed camp, leaving his least reliable troops—the Gauls—there, since it was the easiest point to defend. In the center, if we are to believe Livy,56 Hasdrubal placed the Ligurians he had recruited on the way to the Alps. For the moment they were fronted by a screen of ten elephants. Finally, on his right were his most trusted troops, those he had brought with him from Spain; this was his attack force, and as the fighting developed, the elephants would be shifted in front of them with the aim of compounding their momentum.57 That was the hope at least.

For their part the Romans lined up with Salinator on the left facing the Spaniards, Licinus in the center, and Nero on the right looking at an uphill battle against the Gauls. As the action opened, Nero found he could make no progress, not because the Gauls were fighting so hard, but simply because the terrain made advancing nearly impossible. Using his head and his force structure for something besides a battering ram, Nero cut loose the rear ranks of his part of the line and marched them over to the extreme left, setting up for a devastating flank attack on the Punic right.

Here Salinator was engaged in a furious struggle with the troops from Spain, the elephants as usual sowing confusion as they trampled both sides with panicked impartiality. Nero soon broke the stalemate, leaving the Spaniards in a death grip, front and rear, to be cut to pieces. Most were killed at this point, along with six of the elephants; the remaining four elephants wandered off to be recovered later. Meanwhile, the Romans had rolled up the rest of the Carthaginian line and had reached the campsite, where, Polybius reports, they butchered many of the Gauls, whom they found drunk and asleep.58 As for Hasdrubal, Livy and Polybius agree that once he saw that all was lost, he made no effort to escape but died bravely in the midst of the fighting.59

Nero, the architect of the victory, made sure Hasdrubal’s corpse was recovered and that he, Nero, had a full measure of revenge for being given the slip back in Spain. Like Scipio, Nero had plainly been working with his troops and upgrading their tactical capabilities, giving them the capacity to radically shift objectives and exploit opportunities as the situation developed on the battlefield. His secretive advance to the Metaurus stands as one of the most dramatic and successful strategic maneuvers of the entire war. The maneuver was capped off by his leaving the night following the battle and driving his weary legionaries back to their camp near Canusium in six days—almost fifty miles a day, one of the greatest marches in history.60 But as good a general as Nero was, Hannibal remained in Italy through his consulship and beyond. Earlier, Nero had had roughly the same opportunity as Publius Scipio to deal decisively with the Barcid power base in Spain, and he had made very little of it. Twenty-two hundred years is a long way back for definitive personnel judgments, but the facts speak for themselves. Getting rid of Hannibal was a job for somebody else.

Back in Rome, however, getting rid of Hasdrubal was enough … at least for now. Polybius reports that when the news first arrived, the anxious inhabitants refused to believe it, and it was only after more messengers repeated the good tidings that relief and joy swept over the city. All the holy places were decorated and the temples were set to bursting with offerings. Livy would have us believe that “Cannae was avenged” with the death of the Carthaginian general and fifty-six thousand of his troops.61 But the magnitude of the Roman victory was likely more modest, Polybius’s estimate of around ten thousand total Punic casualties, including Gauls, probably being closer to the mark. Except perhaps at its very core, Hasdrubal’s army had in no way been qualitatively the equal of Hannibal’s. Rather, the circumstances of its recruitment indicate it was more akin to the typical Carthaginian rent-a-force, essentially a disposable asset.

Still, the Romans were happy. At summer’s end the generals were brought to Rome. Salinator (who was technically in charge) was given the first triumph of the entire war, and Nero, riding behind him, got an ovation.62 There was reason to celebrate. After almost twelve years of fighting, Rome had at last won decisively on Italian soil. Polybius concludes that “It seemed to everyone that Hannibal, whom they formerly so much dreaded, was not now even in Italy.”63

He still was, but the results from the Metaurus filled him with foreboding. As is so often the case in family matters, among the principals he was the last to know, and it could not have come in a more awful manner. The grim Nero had the carefully preserved head of Hasdrubal delivered to an outpost of Hannibal’s camp in Canusium, along with two captured Africans to tell him what had happened. Upon hearing the news, Hannibal immediately decamped to Bruttium down in the very toe of Italy, where he stayed. It was said that, staring at his brother’s dead features, Hannibal declared that he saw the fate of Carthage.64 He might have been looking at his own reflection. For he, more than anybody else, was responsible for the city’s doom.


With the departure of Hasdrubal Barca, the effort to keep Spain Punic seems to have shifted still more to those representing metropolitan Carthage, though not necessarily with any more success. To fill the void, Hanno, a new general, was sent over from Africa with reinforcements and money to hire recruits in Celtiberia, where he joined Mago, the remaining Barca brother in Spain.65 Scipio, whose spadework with the Spanish tribes was paying off, knew all about this effort and was determined to nip it in the bud. He sent the propraetor M. Iunius Silanus with a flying column after them. Guided by Celtiberian deserters, the Romans arrived without warning, found the enemy split into two camps, and ended up routing first the largely untrained Spaniards and then the Carthaginians who’d come to their support. Hanno was captured, but Mago managed to escape with all of his cavalry and around two thousand veteran infantry. He eventually found refuge with Hasdrubal Gisgo at Gades (modern Cádiz), Hasdrubal having been basically chased there by Scipio after dispersing his army.66 So 207 ended in Spain not much better than it had in Italy for the Punic cause.

Yet Hasdrubal Gisgo, now pretty plainly the generalissimo in Spain, was far from finished. He still had a base at Gades, plenty of money for mercenaries, and the persistence of a true Carthaginian. By the following spring he and Mago had managed to reassemble the scattered Spaniards and hire still more to put together a force that, if you believe Polybius,67 numbered seventy thousand foot soldiers, four thousand horse, and thirty-two elephants—all intended for a decisive blow against Scipio. Whereas he had refused battle the year before, now Hasdrubal Gisgo crossed the Baetis River, marched to the vicinity of a town called Ilipa (around eight miles north of modern Seville), and sat down on high ground backing an open plain—a clear sign he wanted a fight.68

Scipio arrived similarly predisposed, but probably significantly outnumbered. His force consisted of a basic consular army of two legions and two alae, plus an equivalent number of local warriors recently raised from Spanish tribal allies, for a total of around forty-five thousand infantry and three thousand cavalry. As he was setting up camp on the opposite side of the field, Scipio received an unambiguous indication that the Carthaginians meant business: Mago and Masinissa swept toward the legionaries in a coordinated cavalry attack. But the two quickly discovered that this was one hard Roman to catch off guard. Behind a nearby hill Scipio had already concealed an equivalent number of his cavalry, who then galloped out to hit the Punic horsemen in the flank, eventually chasing them back to their lines in considerable disorder.69

And Scipio was hardly through messing with Carthaginian minds. The next several days were repetitious but inconclusive—some desultory skirmishing among the cavalry and light troops, along with the heavy infantry deploying but never advancing to within fighting range. The Punic forces took the field first, lining up with their best troops—the Libyans at the center, flanked by the Spaniards on either side and the cavalry and elephants at the wings. The Romans would then follow in a roughly similar manner—legionaries at the center, the alae on their flanks, and their own Spanish troops to the outside, with cavalry covering each end.

Having gotten the Carthaginians used to this routine, Scipio set about wrong-footing them, ordering his men to eat an early breakfast and to march out of camp at dawn, and just to make sure his wake-up call was not missed, he sent his cavalry and velites right up to the enemy camp to let loose a wave of javelins.70

Hasdrubal Gisgo reacted reflexively, ordering his own cavalry and skirmishers out to meet the Romans, and his infantry to take the field in the same order and formation as usual—all before anybody had a chance to get breakfast, the same trick Hannibal had pulled on Tiberius Sempronius Longus at the River Trebia. And there would be more, a Scipionic bait and switch. Once out on the field, Hasdrubal realized that the Romans were now lined up with the Spaniards in the middle and the two legions and alaeflanking them on either side, facing his weakest troops. Yet if he tried to redeploy, he ran the risk of Scipio’s attacking in the midst of the maneuver and creating havoc; so he waited … and waited.71

For Scipio was in no hurry. He let hunger and the heat of the day have their exhausting way with the Punic troops of the line, while his cavalry and velites continued sporadic skirmishing with their Numidian opposites. Hours probably passed before he sounded the retreat and opened the files to let them pass through, and subsequently stationed them on each wing.72

At this point the real maneuvering began. Scipio ordered his whole line to start moving forward until they closed to approximately five hundred paces, at which point he had the Spaniards continue to march forward slowly, thereby pinning the Africans. Meanwhile, he broke each of his wings off to operate separately, taking command of the right and leaving the left under Silanus and Marcius, the commander the troops themselves had earlier elected. There followed a complicated evolution, which Polybius describes in highly technical language open to multiple interpretations.73 The choreography seems to have consisted of everybody taking a quarter turn to the right or left in order to form two columns (led by the velites and cavalry, and followed by the triplex acies). The commanders then wheeled the columns around and marched toward each Carthaginian flank until, right under the noses of the enemy, they wheeled again, repeated the quarter turn, and re-formed the three-tiered battle line. Since a column of men can move much faster than the same number of men in a line, Scipio managed to very quickly put his cavalry and velites on each Punic flank and allow his legionaries to get at Hasdrubal’s Spaniards, while leaving his own Spaniards unengaged.74 The Carthaginians watched it all happen, beguiled, doing nothing until it was too late.

Modern sources agree that such a move (whatever it exactly constituted) was not only extremely dangerous in such close proximity to the enemy, but testified to the extraordinary training and discipline of the legionaries involved. Ilipa was plainly a step beyond Baecula and far in advance of Varro’s force at Cannae. By first manipulating the formal rituals by which battles were begun, and then through precise and daring maneuvering, Scipio had overcome a significant numerical disadvantage and had put his force in a position to crush their adversaries. It was a feat worthy of Hannibal himself.75

The Roman horsemen and skirmishers made a point of going after the Carthaginian elephants, panicking them under a cloud of javelins and sowing confusion as the elephants ran amok.76 The Spaniards on the Punic wings put up a surprisingly stout resistance, but outflanked by the velites and cavalry and assaulted ahead by the legionary meat grinder, they slowly began to give ground. Meanwhile, the Africans in the middle remained unengaged, unable to force the fight with the Spaniards facing them, or come to the aid of the wings without fatally disrupting the stability of the formation. Their only option it seems was to follow the step-by-step retreat.77 Hasdrubal did what he could to encourage them, but then the Roman pressure caused the Spaniards on the wings to collapse, and everybody seems to have cut and run. The Carthaginian forces appear to have reformed their ranks at the base of the hill backing the battlefield, but the Romans drove them to their camp, which the Romans were about to storm when a sudden and particularly violent cloudburst put an end to the fighting.78

Most of Hasdrubal’s force remained intact, but its spirit was broken. Spanish desertions the next day convinced him that it was hopeless to stay put and try to defend the camp, so he slipped away that night with the remainder of his army. To make it to Gades and safety, he would have had to cross the Baetis, but Scipio with the aid of local guides beat him to the fords. Blocked, Hasdrubal turned in flight toward the Atlantic coast but was quickly brought to bay by Scipio’s cavalry and skirmishers. Once the legionaries arrived, Livy says it was less a battle than “a butchering as of cattle.”79 Hasdrubal escaped with barely six thousand of his men to a nearby hill, which by its very steepness allowed them to defend themselves.

Still, surrounded and without means of supply, their situation was hopeless, the Romans maintaining a blockade apparently aimed at demoralizing rather than annihilating the survivors. Soon enough, Hasdrubal Gisgo fled to Gades, but not before arranging for ships to evacuate him back to Africa. Masinissa also escaped, but only after talking over his options in secret with Silanus, whom Scipio had left in charge while he returned to Tarraco. Mago was the last of the principals to come down off the mountain. He would join Hasdrubal Gisgo briefly in Gades before the latter withdrew; the last of the Barcids in Spain, Mago was also the last to give up the fight there. Abandoned by their leaders, the rest of the army simply evaporated, which allowed Silanus to join Scipio and announce that the war here was over.80 This was premature, but major Carthaginian resistance in Spain was at an end.

Scipio was already concerned with a canvas broader than Iberia—broader, it soon became evident, than that of his colleagues in Italy. For he understood that once Barcid power was broken in Spain, the key to getting rid of Hannibal was the vulnerability of Carthaginian home turf. As war opened in 218, the senate had had every intention of invading Africa, but then Hannibal had brought the fight to them instead, and twelve years later they were still distracted. Not Scipio. The summer of 206 found him already working both sides of the African pressure point—not simply the Numidian prince Masinissa, but also his archenemy, Syphax.

Two rival Numidian kingdoms, both of them unstable, occupied central North Africa at this point. Massaesylia, the larger of the two, lay to the west; the other, Massylia, was much smaller and was sandwiched between its near-namesake and Carthaginian territory to the east.81 Both were dominated and manipulated by Punic power but were also restive and rebellious. Earlier the Carthaginians had used Masinissa’s father, Gala, the Massylian king, to drive Syphax, ruler of the Massaesylians, from power.82 Now, however, Gala was dead and his throne was in dispute, while Syphax was back firmly in charge and was anxious to expand his power. Seeking to take advantage of the situation, Scipio first sent his alter ego, Laelius, to convince Syphax to ally himself with Rome, but when the king proved evasive, Scipio sailed over from New Carthage himself.

As Scipio’s two quinqueremes approached the harbor of Siga, Syphax’s western capital, Scipio found to his horror that none other than Hasdrubal Gisgo, on his way back to Carthage with seven smaller but more nimble triremes, had just made landfall and was now in a position to even the score after the shutout at Ilipa. Making the best of a bad situation, Scipio raced into port before Hasdrubal had time to weigh anchor, and once in port, neither man was willing to offend the king by coming to blows in his very harbor.83

So in an unlikely turn of events, and at Syphax’s insistence, Scipio would dine with his most recent mortal enemy, sharing the same couch, and trading pleasantries. Hasdrubal left deeply impressed, not only finding Scipio even more charming than he was lethal on the battlefield, but also concluding that Syphax, if left to his own devices, would soon be under the spell of the general and in the Roman camp. Scipio thought so too, and sailed away assuming he had a new ally. But Hasdrubal had a daughter; history would know her as Sophonisba (the Punic name was Cafonbaal), just one of a string of North African spellbinders from Elissa to Cleopatra, and she would soon have Syphax wrapped around her little finger.

Back in Spain, Scipio apparently wanted to use the rest of 206 to tie up loose ends so he could return to Rome and stand for the consulship.84 But he got more than he bargained for. The Iberian Peninsula remained a fractious place, and ejecting Punic power and making the peninsula Roman proved to be two very different things.

Initially, Scipio and his lieutenants—Marcius in particular—divided up to conduct a series of punitive expeditions against tribes and localities that had withheld their allegiance. Although these expeditions were generally successful, the resistance proved unexpectedly bitter. (The fighters in a place called Astapa, for instance, slaughtered their own women and children before waging a suicidal sortie.85 This should have been a hint; the Romans in fact were poised atop a volcano.)

The first eruption ensued shortly, when Scipio fell ill and rumors began to circulate that he was near death. Not surprisingly, Indibilis was among the first responders, rallying numerous Iberian and Celtiberian warriors and staging a broad-based rebellion.

Worse still, the news of Scipio’s illness rebounded back on his army. Eight thousand troops garrisoning a town called Sucro, complaining that they hadn’t been paid and had been left to stand idle, mutinied, demanding either to be led into battle or sent home and discharged. This mutiny was both dangerous and symptomatic. The exciting and profitable days of campaigning against booty-laden Carthaginians were plainly near an end in Spain; the future was anti-insurgency with its combination of boredom and terror. Thus far, deployment in Spain had proved to be a one-way ticket, with some of Scipio’s troops having been on station for upward of a decade.86 So the promise of a long and inconclusive counterinsurgency campaign had implications far beyond the Sucro mutineers. These implications may be reflected in Livy’s (28.24.13) apparently phony naming of the chief conspirators, Caius Albius (White) and Caius Atrius (Black), the former being from Cales, one of the Latin towns that had refused to supply men in 209, in part because of interminable overseas service.87

At any rate, Scipio, now recovered, reacted rapidly and decisively. He surrounded the mutinous elements with a larger body of his forces, gave them a long and embittered speech, and then, while the loyal troops pounded their swords against their shields, had thirty-five of the ringleaders brought before them naked and in chains to be beaten and then beheaded. Last, he had each of the remaining mutineers take an individual oath of allegiance before he paid them all and promised that their transgressions would be forgotten.

This constituted a dramatic turn of leadership, to which both Livy and Polybius devote considerable space,88 but it was also pretty plainly a stopgap measure. Nevertheless, Scipio’s actions united the army sufficiently to enable him to conduct a swift and successful campaign against Indibilis, who characteristically escaped, eventually to be killed in still another rebellion after Scipio was gone. Rome was destined to be mired in more than a generation of continuous internecine warfare here, and the final conquest of northwest Spain did not come before the time of Augustus Caesar. But for Scipio, that was somebody else’s problem; he was destined to be remembered as Africanus, not Hispaniensis. He had come to Spain to get rid of Barcid power, not to make the place Roman; now he was interested in getting rid of Hannibal.

Still, before leaving, there remained the matter of Mago Barca holed up at Gades, and also Masinissa, who was with him. Quiet negotiations with the African prince had continued intermittently, and like Syphax, he desired a personal meeting with the Roman general before entering into a compact. Scipio agreed to a secret rendezvous, thinking it important enough to journey all the way from Tarraco to a remote location in the Baetis valley. Masinissa, telling Mago that the horses were wasting away in the confined quarters of Gades, which was on a small island, asked and received permission to cross over and stage some raids inland. Instead, Masinissa headed for the Romans.

If you believe Livy (28.35), who is our only source for the meeting, it was virtually love at first sight. Not a word was said about Masinissa’s role in the death of Scipio’s father and uncle, nor about Scipio’s budding relationship with the Numidian prince’s mortal enemy, Syphax. Instead, Masinissa testified that his long-held desire to serve Rome, though perhaps thwarted in Spain, would come to fruition in Africa. Should Scipio be sent to Africa and Masinissa inherit his father’s vacant throne, then Masinissa was “confident the hours of Carthage will be numbered.” Scipio, who knew a good cavalry commander when he saw one, was delighted. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship between Masinissa and this Scipio, and Scipio’s grandson, even; for the Numidian was destined to live for a very long time. It was also the beginning of the end for Carthage; for the city never had an enemy more persistent than Masinissa. Meanwhile, as the two departed from their initial tryst, Masinissa received permission to raid the territory of some of Rome’s local allies—lest Mago suspect something was amiss.

The youngest Barcid brother was busy with schemes of his own. Discouraged by Scipio’s quelling of the mutiny and his defeat of Indibilis’s rebellion, Mago had just about given up hope of success in Spain and was planning a return to Africa, when he received money and orders from Carthage to take his fleet to Italy instead, recruit an army of Gauls and Ligurians and then try to join Hannibal.89 Being a Barcid, however, he had an alternative agenda, a surprise raid on New Carthage, a mirror image of Scipio’s own, aimed at regaining the family military-industrial complex and turning the Iberian tables on the Romans. Before Mago left, however, he shook down Gades, wringing all the money he could from the inhabitants, which proved a mistake. The foray on New Carthage went badly—the New Carthaginians had been forewarned and were no longer Barcid friendly—and upon returning to Gades, Mago discovered that the gates were barred against him. More than insulted, he invited the city fathers to confer, and promptly crucified them.90He then sailed for Ibiza to begin staging his own invasion of Italy, his departure marking the termination of Barcid and Punic power in Spain. Scipio could go home.


The conquering hero returned to Rome in late 206 with a fleet of ten ships crammed with, among other spoils of war, 14,342 pounds of silver and a great quantity of other coins destined for Rome’s flagging treasury.91 He met the senate on the campus Martiusand, within the sacred confines of the temple of the war goddess Bellona, gave them a rundown of his achievements in Spain. He reminded them that he had faced down four enemy commanders (two Hasdrubals, Hanno, and Mago) and four Carthaginian armies, and that upon his leaving not a single Punic soldier remained in Spain. He added that although a triumph had never before been awarded to a victorious commander who had not held the appropriate magistracy, perhaps, considering his service to the state, he might be the first exception. They turned him down cold.

Still, he got its equivalent from the crowds that gathered in the streets of Rome to catch a glimpse of the man of the hour, Publius Cornelius Scipio. Livy (28.35.6–7) describes him during this period as being in the “bloom of youth,” with long flowing hair and virtually oozing virility. If it had been possible for there to be a rock star in ancient Rome, then he would have been it … and just as incongruous to some of the dour members of the senatorial establishment.

But not to the people. His house just behind the forum was virtually under siege. He was similarly surrounded at the Temple of Jupiter as he sacrificed a hundred oxen—a hecatomb he had promised his patron deity while still in Spain. At the Comitia Centuriata, presided over by outgoing consul and family friend L. Veturius Philo, he was elected consul virtually by acclamation, with most of the other magistracies going to political allies, including his consular colleague P. Licinius Crassus, perhaps the richest man in Rome, and pontifex maximus since 212. More good news for Scipio: the senate had decided that the consular provinces for 205 would be Bruttium at the toe of the peninsula, where Hannibal was, and Sicily; but since Crassus as chief priest could not leave Italian soil, this meant that Scipio would get the island, which was the natural staging ground for an invasion of Africa. It was it seemed a fait accompli, wired by the Cornelii and those others who believed in truly taking the offensive and giving it to Rome’s rising star.

The plan would not go down smoothly. The opposition in the senate would object with a churlishness that reminds us that politics in Rome were always personal and that ambition in the service of the state was still, and very nakedly so, ambition—a corrosive force that would one day tear apart the republic. This sulfuric climate is captured by Livy in two speeches purportedly given by the principals, which, unlike pre-battle harangues, may well reflect what was actually said.

The first speech was given, appropriately enough, by the great Delayer, Fabius Maximus. He opened by arguing that the African strategy was not settled and that Scipio insulted the senate by maintaining it was. Dissembling that he was too old to be jealous, he asked the young general’s pardon “if I do not rate even your glory above the welfare of Rome.” “Hannibal is formidable still,” Fabius said, and it was Scipio’s duty to confront him in Italy, since the state could not afford two separate armies, one for Africa and one on home soil. Fabius remembered Regulus’s ill-fated African expedition during the First Punic War, and also raised the specter of Mago’s sailing to Italy and attempting to join his brother. “My opinion is that Publius Cornelius was elected consul for the republic and for us, not for himself and his personal ends, and that the armies were enlisted for the defense of the city and Italy, not that consuls in the arrogant manner of tyrants may transport them to whatever lands they choose.” This concluding statement encapsulated all that the old guard found dangerous about this charismatic newcomer.92 For, as French historian Serge Lancel notes, in a dim way Fabius sensed the rise of a new class of rulers inclined to appeal to the people, and also to the army, since it is likely the senate had heard of the “imperatorial”—if not “imperial salutation”—the general had been given by his troops in Spain.93

Fabius’s suspicions would not be assuaged by Scipio, who chose to argue his case on its merits alone. Rather than Regulus, he urged the senators to remember that Agathocles of Syracuse, besieged at home by Carthaginians, had successfully diverted the hostilities by invading Africa. But why bother with old stories, he added, when there was no better illustration of taking the offensive than Hannibal himself? Yet the Barcid had far less hope of Rome’s allies joining his cause than Rome did of splitting off Carthage’s oppressed dependencies. The enemy had no citizen soldiers, Scipio reminded the senate, but relied on mercenaries “as fickle as the wind.” As far as the central issue, Scipio assured the senate he was not ducking it: “Yes, Fabius, I shall have the antagonist you give me, Hannibal himself…. I shall draw him after me. I shall force him to fight on his native ground, and the prize of victory will be Carthage, not a handful of dilapidated Bruttian forts…. It is Africa’s turn to be devastated by fire and sword.”94

Stirring words, vengeful words, but Livy tells us the senatorial reaction was only lukewarm, since rumor had it that if Scipio failed to get his colleagues’ approval for the invasion, he intended to bring the plan before the people. Technically legal, this was absolutely without precedent—the Roman political equivalent of dirty pool—exactly the sort of tactic that would eventually tear the republic apart.95 Another old guardsman, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, four times consul and one of the principal conquerors of Capua, took up the interrogation, asking Scipio point-blank if he was ready to accept the senate’s decision in the matter, only to receive the ambiguous reply that “he would do what was in the interest of the state.”

This was plainly unacceptable. But after a day of cooling off and maneuvering, a compromise was reached. Scipio agreed to accept the senate’s decision, but probably with the assurance that he had the votes to give him Sicily as his province and permission to cross to Africa if he thought it was “to the advantage of the state.”96

Yet there was a very significant proviso. As far as the senate was concerned, an invasion was one thing, an army to conduct it was another. Apparently acting on Fabius’s claim that Rome could not afford separate forces for home and Africa, Scipio was denied permission to levy troops in Italy. He could only call for volunteers and aid in the form of ships and supplies from the allies. Some historians think this tradition is either false or exaggerated, but both Livy and Appian affirm it.97 Since his Spanish army had mutinied, it is logical to assume that Scipio viewed those troops as a spent entity, and troops who had returned to Italy after long service were not likely to be subject to further conscription. He did manage to gather seven thousand volunteers, though this was clearly not enough. Still, he must have known that there were potentially useful legionaries still in Sicily, soldiers who, despite all manner of neglect and abuse, had remained loyal. For he had served with them at Cannae.

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