Scipio Africanus

D. Kent Fonner, published in Military History Magazine

March 1996.

Scipio In Spain   Scipio In Africa   Scipio At Zama   Scipio On Trail   Scipio Conversation With hannibal

 

 

After avidly studying the tactics of Hannibal, Scipio Africanus eventually bested his Carthaginian adversary.

In 219 bc, when Hannibal Barca first led his Carthaginian army against the Iberian city of Saguntum, a Roman ally located south of the Ebro River, in the opening campaign of
the Second Punic War, Publius Cornelius Scipio was 17 or 18 years old. His father, also named Publius Cornelius Scipio, was elected a Roman consul in 218 bc, and the young Scipio accompanied him in a confrontation with Hannibal's invasion force near the Ticinus River in Northern Italy shortly after the Carthaginian commander had completed his famous crossing of the Alps.

In the melee that ensued, the elder Scipio became surrounded and was seriously wounded. Perceiving his father's danger, Scipio the younger urged his troops into the thick of the fighting. When they hung back, the boy rode into the enemy cavalry alone, compelling his men to follow. That attack broke the Carthaginian formation, and the elder Scipio later saluted his son before the army as his rescuer.

As Hannibal continued to ravage Roman armies sent to meet him in Italy, the elder Scipio became convinced that the key to Roman victory lay in Spain. Accordingly, as soon as his wounds would permit it, he left Rome to join his brother Gnaeus Scipio, who had been holding a defensive line at the Ebro River. From there, the two brothers pursued a guerrilla war against the Carthaginians, who were based at New Carthage on the Spanish coast. In 212 bc, however, both elder Scipios were killed in the course of a series of battles in the Baetis Valley, and by 211 bc, only 9,000 legionaries held the Ebro line against three Carthaginian armies totaling more than 45,000 men. Back in Rome, experienced generals shrank from taking command in Spain. Almost by default, therefore, the Senate bestowed the rank of proconsul upon the dead Scipios' son and nephew. Although not quite 25, he unhesitantly left Rome with 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry to take control of the beleaguered legions on the Ebro.

Upon his arrival in Spain, Scipio began to train his men in tactics he had learned by studying Hannibal's battles in Italy. He experimented with a smaller infantry unit, the cohort, which allowed greater flexibility of maneuver than the legion. In addition, Scipio armed his men with short Spanish swords (the gladius hispaniensis), replacing the unwieldy weapons used in the past.

In 210 bc, Scipio crossed the Ebro with 25,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry, leaving Marcus Silanus to hold the river defenses with 3,500 men. Sending a portion of his army by sea along the Spanish coast toward New Carthage, Scipio led the remainder of his troops on a march of 325 miles in seven days to reach the walls of the enemy stronghold before the Carthaginian field commanders had time to react.

During a short, vicious siege, Scipio led a breaching column through a supposedly impregnable lagoon located on the landward side of the city; a strong northerly wind combined with the natural ebb of the tide left the lagoon shallow enough for the Roman infantry to wade through. New Carthage was soon taken, forcing the Carthaginians to fall back upon Gades as a base.

The next year, Scipio attacked the army of Hannibal's brother, Hasdrubal Barca, near Baecula. In a departure from standard Roman practice, Scipio divided his army in the face of the Carthaginian force and employed his lighter armed troops as a screen in the center while the main force fell upon the enemy flanks. Hasdrubal, severely beaten, slipped away with the remainder of his army and marched into Italy, hoping to join Hannibal, only to be intercepted and destroyed by a Roman army at the Metaurus River. Hannibal learned of his brother's death when Hasdrubal's head was thrown into his camp.

In the meantime, with Hasdrubal Barca's army out of Iberia, Scipio completed his conquest by crushing the last Carthaginian forces under the command of Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 bc. That success was followed by the capture of the last Carthaginian stronghold at Gades, ensuring the Roman occupation of Iberia for the next seven centuries and winning Scipio the Roman con-
sulship for 205 bc.

Scipio next lobbied the Senate for permission to invade the Carthaginian homeland in North Africa. The senators were reluctant, but Scipio was convinced that such an expedition would either force the Carthaginians to recall Hannibal or at least leave him isolated in Italy. When Scipio threatened to appeal directly to the Roman people if the Senate failed to support him, it voted to give him command of Sicily, which he could use as a base of operations against Carthage.

Scipio spent 205 bc preparing for his campaign. He sent Gaius Laelius into Africa to seek an alliance with the Numidian chiefs Syphax and Masinissa, who were on the verge of revolt against their Carthaginian overlords. Syphax, however, decided to stay with the Carthaginians, and drove Masinissa into the desert. When Scipio attacked Utica on the African
coast in 204 bc, the Numidian cavalry harassed his own line of communications and forced him to abandon the siege. In the next year, however, the Romans defeated Syphax and his Carthaginian allies in two battles, convincing Masinissa to join with Rome.

The Carthaginians panicked and sued for peace. While negotiations were under way, Hannibal slipped out of Italy with the remnants of his once-proud army, returned to Africa and convinced the Carthaginian government that all was not yet lost. In 202 bc, Hannibal had several initial successes against the Numidians, but Scipio still tried to link up with Masinissa to augment his own cavalry strength. Responding to that threat, Hannibal left his base at Hadrumatum in an attempt to cut Scipio off.

Despite Hannibal's concerted efforts, Scipio finally joined Masinissa near the town of Zama, about a five days' march from Carthage. When Hannibal learned of the location of the Roman camp, he detailed three spies to obtain information. The three were captured, but instead of putting them to death, as was customary, Scipio appointed a tribune to take all three men on an inspection tour of the camp.

Scipio's unusually generous treatment of his spies so impressed Hannibal that he arranged to meet the young Roman commander a few days later--alone except
for two interpreters. Their parley was cordial, but they failed to negotiate a peaceful settlement--17 years of warfare between the Romans and Carthaginians had left wounds that could not be healed in an afternoon's discussion.

On the day of battle, Scipio drew his legions into a classic Roman formation of three lines, but in another departure from the conventional practice of the time, he arranged the maniples of each line to form directly behind those of the line in front, creating lanes that passed vertically through his infantry formations. He then had each of those lanes masked behind a formation of lightly armed skirmishers, or velites, so that the Roman army appeared as a solid mass. The Italian cavalry, under the command of Laelius, was positioned on the left wing of the infantry lines, and Scipio's Numidian cavalry, commanded by Masinissa, was stationed on the right wing.

Hannibal also drew his battle formation into three lines. His first line consisted of about 12,000 Ligurian, Celtic and Moorish mercenaries. Masking this front line was a corps of 80 elephants supported by lightly armed skirmishers. In his second line, Hannibal placed the majority of his native Carthaginian forces, with his "Old Guard" troops from Italy forming a reserve force in the third line. Like Scipio, Hannibal placed his cavalry on the wings.

As soon as the last of the Carthaginian forces were in formation, Hannibal ordered his elephants to charge the Roman infantry. The sound of bugles and trumpets piercing the air from the Roman front line, however, caused the elephants to panic. Most of them turned tail and drove straight into Hannibal's own Numidian cavalry, leaving his left flank dangerously exposed. Any elephants not stampeded by the Roman musicians passed harmlessly down the lanes in Scipio's formation. Taking advantage of the confusion, Laelius launched a charge against the Carthaginian cavalry on Hannibal's right wing, driving them off in headlong retreat.

At that point, the front two lines of Hannibal's infantry pressed forward into Scipio's line. Superior Roman equipment and discipline soon overcame Hannibal's mercenary troops, who found themselves trapped between the advancing Roman army and their own Carthaginian allies, who would not open ranks to let them pass. As the infantry lines closed for combat, Laelius' and Masinissa's cavalry suddenly appeared in the rear of Hannibal's army, and in the ensuing struggle, the remaining Carthaginian force was destroyed. Hannibal and a few of his men escaped to their base at Hadrumatum, but nearly 20,000 Carthaginians and their allies were slaughtered, compared to Roman losses of 1,500 men.

Following his triumphal return to Rome, Scipio presented the Senate with 123,000 pounds of silver. In return, he became the first Roman general to be honorarily bestowed with the name of the land he conquered, as Scipio Africanus.

Scipio's popularity soon came to be marred by controversial behavior. His love of Greek customs, literature and art soon brought him into direct conflict with the traditional Roman party, led by the Censor (senior magistrate) Marcus Porcius Cato. In 187 bc, his brother Lucius Scipio was accused of accepting bribes, to which Africanus responded by tearing up the incriminating documents before the tribunal. Later, Scipio Africanus himself was called to the Senate to answer corruption charges--a summons that he simply refused to obey. Retiring to his estate outside Rome at Liternum, Scipio spent his final years complaining of his countrymen's ingratitude, until his death in 184 bc.

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