Rome’s Craftiest General: Scipio Africanus

By James Lacey
6/8/2007 • Military History

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus learned the art of war in the hardest and bloodiest of all forums—on the battlefield against Hannibal. As a 17-year-old, he followed his father, Roman consul Publius Cornelius Scipio, into Northern Italy on Rome’s first engagement against the Carthaginian military genius at the Ticinus River. Though it would be the first of Rome’s many defeats at Hannibal’s hands, Scipio personally distinguished himself by charging a superior force of the Carthaginian cavalry to save his father’s life. Over the next three years Scipio probably fought at both the Battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene, where Hannibal annihilated two more Roman armies, and was certainly present to witness Rome’s greatest defeat at Cannae, where some 60,000 Romans perished in a single day’s fighting.

At the end of that horrific day Scipio found himself amid a body of survivors who had cut their way through the Carthaginian center and regrouped a few miles away at Canusium. Hearing that a group of young Roman patricians was planning to desert, 20-year-old Scipio burst into their meeting place. One by one, he forced the waverers, at sword-point, to swear an oath never to desert Rome. After that he exacted a second oath that they would kill anyone else attempting to forsake the empire.

Scipio had performed exactly as expected of him. Facing defeat, a Roman leader was expected neither to die gloriously with his troops nor to consider surrender. Instead, he was to reconstitute whatever forces could be salvaged from the fiasco and ready them for the next effort. There was no shame in defeat, only in giving up.

On the other side, Hannibal was being handed a lesson in Roman perseverance—one that should have been absorbed by his father during the First Punic War. Despite suffering three successive routs at Hannibal’s hands, Rome never considered surrender or a negotiated end to the Second Punic War. What’s more amazing, though Hannibal’s army continued to rampage through Italy for a dozen years and was to win several more major battles, Rome had the strategic wisdom to send many of its best legions to fight in other theaters. Roman legions’ presence in Macedonia and Sicily, for instance, ensured that Hannibal was unable to draw upon those regions for supplies or reinforcements. It was from Spain that Hannibal drew the core of his strength, so Rome concentrated its major foreign push there. If the legions could strip Spain away from Carthage, Hannibal would be cut off from the mines that financed his army and from his most reliable source of fresh troops.

Though Roman armies made steady progress in Spain for a half-dozen years after Cannae, the strategy ended abruptly  in 211 bc when, on the eve of the Battle of the Upper Baetis, Rome’s Spanish allies deserted and went over to the enemy. The now overwhelming Carthaginian force nearly wiped out the Roman army, commanded by Scipio’s father. Both his father and uncle were killed. A remnant Roman force managed to hold out on a small patch of land in northeast Spain.

At this low ebb, the Roman senate called for a replacement to command the demoralized Roman force in Spain. As it was apart from the main theater facing Hannibal, and because Rome could not afford to send the Spanish legions much in the way of reinforcements, no senior Roman generals stepped forward. Finally, the senate called an assembly of the people to elect a proconsul for the “honor.” As Livy relates, “They [the Roman voters] looked round at the countenances of their most eminent men…and muttered bitterly that their affairs were in so ruinous a state that no one dared take command in Spain.” Spotting a unique opportunity, Scipio declared himself a candidate, though at 24 he was not officially old enough for the post. Age notwithstanding, he was unanimously elected.

Arriving in northern Spain the following year, Scipio learned of three Carthaginian armies operating in various regions, each of them larger than his own. Roman discipline and tactical ability still made it probable Scipio would defeat any single opposing force. But that could involve weeks of careful maneuvering, during which time his opponents would surely put aside their personal differences and join forces. So Scipio seized on the idea of striking at New Carthage, the main Punic base in Spain.

Defenses at New Carthage (modern-day Cartagena) were considered so strong that only a thousand Punic mercenaries had been left to guard the city. The closest reinforcements were two weeks away. It was a plum for the picking, but only if Scipio could keep his intentions secret. As he spent the winter preparing his army, Scipio shared his plans with only one trusted subordinate, Laelius. When he launched his campaign in early spring, neither the army nor its senior commanders had any idea of his plans. By force-marching south 40 miles a day, Scipio’s 25,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry arrived in less than a week to confront the city’s stunned defenders. Simultaneously, Laelius arrived by sea with 35 Roman war galleys to blockade the port.

Just shy of the city walls, Scipio’s army stopped and began digging a fortified camp. While the Romans dug, the Carthaginians manned the walls and hastily armed 2,000 citizens as reinforcements. New Carthage was a natural strongpoint, surrounded on three sides by water, but the defenders knew they needed time to prepare. To stall, they sallied out with 2,000 men to disrupt Roman preparations. Refusing to meet the Carthaginian onrush, Scipio instead withdrew his pickets to lure the defenders closer to his camp. His intention was to isolate the Carthaginians’ best fighters far from the refuge of the city gates.

Scipio met the initial charge with his less experienced soldiers, but steadily fed in reserves to ensure there were fresh troops on the front line. Eventually, the consul sent the Triarii (battle-hardened men of the third line) into action. This proved too much for the Cartha­ginians, who broke in a rout. The Romans pursued and nearly forced the gates before they could be closed. Pressing the attack, the legionnaires began to scale the walls, but the defenders thwarted each attack. By midafternoon, Scipio ordered his exhausted troops back to camp to recoup.

The Carthaginians were at first elated, but as dusk arrived their joy turned to dismay when the legions advanced once again. It was time for Scipio’s masterstroke: He had learned that the ebb tide reduced water levels in the lagoon north of the city, making it fordable. As his main force began its assault, the consul sent 500 chosen men to march across the lagoon and attack an undefended section of the wall. By then, the defenders were hard-pressed to hold off the frontal assault. The chosen 500 scaled the wall unnoticed and quickly made their way to the main gate just as the legionnaires outside began smashing away at it with heavy axes. Attacked from both front and rear, the defenders panicked, and New Carthage fell.

Just one week after launching his first military campaign, Scipio had upset the balance of power in Spain. He had deprived the Carthaginians of their main supply base, captured almost 20 war galleys and now held a large part of the Carthaginian treasury. Just as important, he recovered more than 300 noble hostages the Carthaginians had taken from Spain’s most powerful tribes as a guarantee of good behavior. Despite the fact that many of these hostages had come from tribes that had betrayed his father, Scipio treated them honorably and allowed them to return home. That bit of wisdom, coupled with Scipio’s proven ability to win, brought more Spanish allies into the Roman camp. Scipio used them, but was never so foolish as to trust them.

After consolidating his position at New Carthage, Scipio led his legions against the Carthaginian army under Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, winning a marginal victory at the Battle of Baecula in 208 bc. Either as a result of this battle or according to an earlier plan, Hasdrubal soon left Spain and marched his army into Italy to reinforce his brother. The Carthaginians arrived in Italy only to be destroyed by a Roman force led by the consul Nero. Hannibal learned his reinforcements had been wiped out when his brother’s head was thrown over the wall of his camp.

Back in Spain, Scipio had only two armies to contend with, though by now they had combined forces. In 206 bc, with about 45,000 men—less than half of them well-disciplined legionnaires—Scipio marched against a Punic army nearly double that size, led by a different Hasdrubal and another of Hannibal’s brothers, Mago. The armies met near Ilipa, north of Seville. For the next few days the opponents sized each other up. For each of these demonstrations, Scipio put his best troops, his two legions and Latin allies, in the center, while his Spanish allies held the flanks. To match the Romans, the Carthaginian commanders put their best African troops in the center and their own Spanish allies on the flank.

After several days of such preliminary moves, Scipio suddenly reversed his formation, putting a legion on each flank and the Spaniards in the center. Before Hasdrubal and Mago could adjust their own lines, the legions began to advance, while Scipio held his Spanish allies back. Instead of moving in the more typical line formation, Scipio advanced in columns, which allowed him to close the distance with the Carthaginians at an unheard-of speed. Then, at the last moment, the legions wheeled into line and smashed the Carthaginian flank. The Spaniards soon broke and ran for safety.

Throughout this decisive stage of the battle, Hasdrubal was unable to maneuver his center to help his flanks because Scipio’s Spanish allies still menaced his front. Their flanks ultimately routed, the usually reliable African mercenaries in the center also ran for camp. That night, Hasdrubal’s Spanish allies deserted. What was left of the Carthaginian army tried to escape in darkness during a storm, but was pummeled by Roman pursuers.

With Spain secured, Scipio returned to Rome. After a bitter political battle with jealous rivals, he secured permission to lead a Roman army into Africa and attack the base of Carthaginian power. Permission was only grudgingly granted, however, and the senate refused to allow him to recruit for the expedition, limiting his force to the two legions already in Sicily. But they couldn’t prevent Scipio from enrolling eager volunteers. According to ancient historians, they came because “to fight under so brave and gallant a captain as Scipio was an adventure all good soldiers welcomed.” That said, one suspects the promise of rich plunder was at least as much of a draw.

By allowing him to take Legions V and VI, the senate didn’t think it was doing Scipio a service. These legions comprised survivors of Cannae. Following that rout, the defeated soldiers were sent to serve in exile—a degradation in direct contrast to the praise the senate bestowed on Cannae survivors of noble birth. These men keenly felt the stain of dishonor, and each year they petitioned the senate to allow them to return to Rome and prove their valor in battle against Hannibal. They were ignored.

Scipio understood such men and their desire for redemption. To him they were not simply the losers from Cannae. They were the men who by dint of sheer hard fighting had cut their way through an encircling army and re-formed to protect the Republic. He praised them and honored their service, and they in turn gave him utter devotion. Around this core of combat-hardened veterans Scipio spent a year training his volunteers and preparing the logistics required to support an invasion of Carthage’s home territories.

In 204 bc Scipio’s force sailed for North Africa and laid siege to the Carthaginian stronghold of Utica. The defenders held strong, their resistance buoyed by the promise of a large Carthaginian relief army. In time, Carthage did manage to assemble a large force, under the joint command of Hasdrubal and a local king, Syphax, who had previously pledged his support to Scipio. Despite overwhelming military superiority, however, Hasdrubal was reluctant to attack, perhaps recalling the drubbing he’d received at Ilipa.

Scipio took full advantage of the Carthaginian general’s indecision to suggest peace talks, an offer that was eagerly accepted. Over the next several days, Roman emissaries, accompanied by their slaves, made their way to the two enemy camps. As the emissaries negotiated, the slaves—actually Roman centurions—roved around the camp, noting its layout and defensive works. To maintain the illusion these spies were actually slaves, several of them submitted to public whippings for having wandered off without permission.

Their familiarity with the enemy camp emboldened Scipio to conduct the most dangerous of operations—a nighttime assault on a fortified enemy position. The consul was about to find out whether his faith in the disgraced legions was misplaced. They didn’t disappoint.

In a single night of brutality, Scipio’s army massacred upwards of 40,000 of the enemy (twice their own number) and sent the rest into flight. Incredibly, Hasdrubal managed to raise another army in only a month and marched once again to engage Scipio. But no army so hastily raised and organized was a match for battle-disciplined legions, which made short work of this new army. Faced with these twin disasters and no army left in North Africa that could oppose Scipio, Carthage was forced to recall Hannibal from Italy. For all practical purposes, Rome had won the Second Punic War. But there was still one great battle left to be fought.

At Zama, in 202 bc, Scipio and Hannibal finally met on the field of battle. Each had about 40,000 men at his disposal, but—unlike at Cannae—this time the Romans had the better mounted force, thanks to King Masinissa, who swung his superb Numidian cavalry out of the Carthaginian orbit over to the Roman side. Scipio, like Hannibal, placed this cavalry on the flanks, and each organized his infantry in three lines. But Scipio also made a major tactical change to the standard Roman formation by separating his maniples, opening wide lanes through his lines.

After some initial skirmishing, Hannibal sent his 80 war elephants forward. But this was a different Roman army than the one he had faced at Cannae—tougher and more disciplined, led by men accustomed to Hannibal’s tactics. Faced with the choice of smashing into the heavily armed legionnaires or running unimpeded through the gaps in their formations, most of the elephants took the path of least resistance and passed harmlessly through the Roman army. Others, frightened by the blasts of massed Roman trumpeters, ran down their own cavalry.

Noting the chaos, Laelius and Masinissa took the cavalry on each flank and charged the Carthaginian horsemen. These horsemen quickly retreated, with Roman and Numidian cavalry in close pursuit. As the cavalry departed, the legions crashed into the lead Carthaginian line, pressing the mercenaries hard until they turned to escape. But the second line refused to break formation, and as the Romans continued their advance, the Carthaginians began fighting each other. Ultimately, men in the second line also broke and ran for the rear, where they met a similar reception from the third line.

As the defeated first two lines skirted around the ends of Hannibal’s final line, Scipio recalled his troops to within bow shot of the Carthaginians. Before them stood Hannibal’s seasoned veterans, rested, unbowed and in numbers almost equal to his own. Scipio, rather than replace the exhausted legionnaires in his leading ranks, re-formed them into a tightly packed formation and moved the Triarii to each flank, intending to overlap the enemy line. In a testament to Roman discipline, the legions quickly negotiated these complex maneuvers in the face of an unbeaten enemy.

Given a short breather, the Romans came forward at a quickened pace, until at about 20 paces they let fly their throwing spears and drew their short swords. The advance became a rush as thousands of screaming Romans hurled themselves upon the Carthaginian line. For long minutes the issue remained in doubt, until at the peak of battle the Roman and Numidian cavalry returned to the battlefield and charged into the Carthaginian rear. With cavalry at the rear and the Triarii collapsing their flanks, Hannibal’s veterans finally did the unthinkable—they broke.

Though Hannibal himself escaped, his army was lost and Carthaginian military power broken. Rome was now the uncontested master of the Western Mediterranean. Scipio’s victories earned him tremendous popular support but also numerous enemies, envious of his popularity. Though he later accompanied his brother on a war of conquest in Asia Minor, he was never again to hold real power in Rome. Under constant legal attack, he ultimately went into a bitter retirement, dying at an early age.

How Rome treated its most victorious general was not lost on such future successful commanders as Marius, Sulla and Caesar. For them the overriding lesson of Scipio’s fall from grace was that if you wanted to rule, you needed to return home with your legions.

For further reading, James Lacey recommends: Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon, by B.H. Liddell Hart.

This article by James Lacey was originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of Military History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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