Scipio Africanus

Graham Goodlad examines the career of the general who finally overcame Rome’s most formidable foe.


Julius Caesar is generally considered Ancient Rome’s foremost general and politician: ‘the greatest Roman of them all’, as Shakespeare has it. Yet most of Caesar’s great successes were against second-rate opponents, and even during his struggle with Pompey in Greece in 48 BC, he enjoyed the great advantage of centralised command, while his rival was hamstrung by a bickering political entourage.

Nor was Caesar much of an innovator. He took hold of a first-class military machine and used it to great effect, but his war-making was not notable for significant developments in logistics, strategy, or tactics. He was a great improviser when he needed to be, but he did not devise a new military system.

Publius Cornelius Scipio (236-183 BC), on the other hand, was the first Roman commander to bring the legion to maximum proficiency and employ it in ways that had never before been attempted; in effect, he turned a somewhat clumsy part-time militia into a well-oiled professional machine capable of rapid movement and complex manoeuvre.

A succession of stunning battlefield successes between 209 and 202 BC destroyed the power of Carthage and terminated Hannibal’s long campaign in Italy. Actually, it did more: it set Rome on the path to world empire.

Image: Angus McBride/WIPL.

When Scipio was first dispatched as the new Roman commander in Spain in 210, the Roman Empire amounted to little more than Italy and Sicily, and much of this was under enemy occupation. By the time of his death, Rome was fully launched on the campaign of imperial conquest that would, in just over a century, create an empire extending from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, from Germany to the Sahara.

Of all Roman politico-military leaders – and they were invariably both – Scipio Africanus probably has the best claim to be regarded as the true founder of the empire. In this regard, he may be compared with leaders like Alexander and Napoleon – not simply soldiers, but also empire-makers.

Yet, in other ways, Scipio was very different from other empire-makers, in that he served a constitutional government, and was constrained, resisted, and finally brought down by political enemies inside the Roman aristocracy.

In this regard, Marlborough is perhaps a parallel. If one man can be said to have launched Britain on the struggle for global empire, it is he; but he eventually lost his command and was removed from public life through the manoeuvres of political enemies.

In our special this time, Graham Goodlad offers an overview of Scipio’s military career, and Neil Faulkner provides a detailed analysis of Zama, the final battle of the Second Punic War.

The Vanquisher of Hannibal

More than 2,000 years after his death, the name of Hannibal continues to resonate with modern audiences. This is not surprising: Hannibal was the most successful general produced by the North African state of Carthage, which waged three wars against Rome in the course of a century.

This was a life-and-death struggle for control of the Western Mediterranean. Hannibal led an invasion force across the Alps, then ravaged central Italy and inflicted several stunning defeats on what was fast becoming the most renowned fighting force of the ancient world.

Scipio Africanus. The bust is Roman, but the portrait is not contemporary, so we cannot be certain it is a true likeness.

Yet today, few people recall the commander who finally vanquished Hannibal in pitched battle, triumphantly ending the Second Punic War and making possible Rome’s emergence as a great imperial power.

This was Publius Cornelius Scipio, known as ‘Africanus’ after his crowning victory, and described with pardonable exaggeration by military historian Basil Liddell Hart as ‘greater than Napoleon’.

This article reviews the career and achievements of the man who has a strong claim to have been Rome’s greatest general.

The making of a supreme commander

The war with Hannibal runs like a spine through the military career of Scipio. Born in 236 BC, he was 11 years younger than his great adversary. A member of one of Rome’s six leading noble families, the Cornelii, he would have experienced the informal, family-based military training of the time.

Scipio was almost 18 when the Second Punic War broke out – old enough to accompany his father and namesake, who was serving as consul in 218, when Hannibal’s forces invaded northern Italy.

The younger man showed evidence of outstanding qualities as a junior officer, even reputedly saving his father at the Battle of the Ticinus River when he was surrounded by enemy soldiers and in danger of losing his life.

Two years later, Scipio was present at the disastrous encounter with Hannibal at Cannae, where almost 50,000 Roman troops were believed to have been killed in a textbook example of encirclement.

Opposite Scipio Africanus. The bust is Roman, but the portrait is not contemporary, so we cannot be certain it is a true likeness. BELOW Map of Spain during the Second Punic War showing the sites of major engagements.
Map of Spain during the Second Punic War showing the sites of major engagements.

After rallying the survivors, and heading off an attempt to abandon the struggle by a group of aristocratic politicians, Scipio was elected to office as a junior magistrate in Rome, even though he was three years younger than the legal minimum age for the post.

These distinctions help to explain why, still only 25 years old, Scipio was given command of the Roman armies in Spain in 210. This would give him the opportunity to make a name on a wider stage.

But it was also a risky undertaking. Scipio’s father and uncle had already been killed in Spain, after being betrayed to the Carthaginians by their local allies. And more senior men were slated for service in Italy, through which Hannibal was still rampaging. Scipio’s latest biographer, Richard Gabriel, describes him as the best qualified of the less experienced candidates. It is true, though, that he pushed for the appointment, demonstrating the self-confidence which was already apparent as one of his most striking qualities.

The Spanish theatre

Spain was no unimportant sideshow. It was a crucial source of manpower for the Carthaginian forces in Italy. It was essential for them to retain control of Spain, so that Hannibal could receive reinforcements as his invasion turned into a grinding war of attrition. A Roman victory there would cut off a vital taproot for the invaders.

After arriving in northern Spain in the summer of 210, Scipio spent time securing his base. Unlike the Carthaginians, whose habitual brutality alienated the local population, he was careful to win over the Spanish tribes.

After one of his victories, for example, he returned unharmed to her fiancé a beautiful woman who had been captured by his troops and presented to him as a prize of war. The young man’s gratitude at this act of magnanimity led him to bring his tribe over to the Roman side.

Scipio was also in advance of his contemporaries in making effective use of military intelligence, assigning a special cavalry unit to gather information in advance of his troop movements.

In the spring of 209, Scipio made his first decisive move, down Spain’s eastern coast to take the vitally important Carthaginian supply base of Carthago Nova (New Carthage; modern Cartagena). Its natural harbour provided an indispensable link between Spain and North Africa.

New Carthage 209 BC

The operation was fraught with danger, for his opponents outnumbered him, even if they were divided between three widely dispersed armies. To reach his objective, Scipio had to make a journey of some 400 miles along poor roads, crossed by swollen rivers, with infantry who are unlikely to have managed more than 20 miles a day.

Yet for reasons that are not completely clear, the enemy armies did not move quickly, either to engage him en route or to reinforce the undermanned garrison.

The high-walled fortress occupied an elevated position on a narrow peninsula, surrounded by the sea on two sides and a lagoon on the other. The shallowness of the latter, which Scipio learned about from local fishermen, proved to be the key to taking the city.

Plan of Scipio’s assault on Nova Carthago (New Carthage) in 209 BC. Map: Ian Bull.

With the defenders distracted by a frontal assault, a group of some 500 soldiers crossed the lagoon undetected and scaled the walls, taking the garrison from behind. The defenders then retreated into the inner citadel, a strongpoint which it would have taken too long to starve into submission. A lengthy siege would have risked the arrival of relieving forces.

Scipio therefore – in a rare show of extreme harshness – ordered the massacre of civilians in sight of the Carthaginian commander until he was obliged to surrender. Even the animals of the city were cut to pieces in this calculated display of violence.

Baecula 208 BC

The capture of Carthago Nova gave Scipio several important assets, including prisoners of war who served as rowers in the Roman war fleet, and Spanish hostages taken as security for their tribes’ good conduct. He also acquired quantities of weapons and supplies, control of the local silver mines, and an important base from which to launch offensives further south.

He now reformed his army in readiness for the next phase. A key innovation was his decision to increase the strength of his legions, from roughly 4,000 to 5,000 infantrymen, and to reorganise them in new combat formations known as ‘cohorts’, which were better placed to withstand assaults by heavy infantry and cavalry.

He also trained each 120-man maniple, the army’s basic fighting unit, to manoeuvre and engage independently, increasing the tactical flexibility of the legion.

He then gained a further outstanding victory at Baecula (Bailen) in south-west Spain in 208. Here his opponent was Hasdrubal Barca, younger brother of Hannibal.

Opposite Plan of Scipio’s assault on Nova Carthago (New Carthage) in 209 BC. left Plan of the Battle of Baecula, 208 BC.
Plan of the Battle of Baecula, 208 BC.

The Carthaginian had the advantage of higher ground, on a ridged plateau, but he had not yet completed his deployment when the battle began. Crucially, Scipio launched his attack before the other Carthaginian armies were able to arrive on the scene, sending two cohorts to block their possible approach routes. Fighting uphill, the Roman commander boldly divided his forces behind a screen of light infantry, falling on the enemy’s flanks with devastating effect.

The victory owed a great deal to Hasdrubal’s lack of preparedness. He had failed to position his war elephants at the front, where they might have blocked the Roman assault. But it was also the result of Scipio’s greater tactical flexibility and his intensive troop training.

Wisely, with the other Carthaginian armies in the vicinity, he allowed Hasdrubal to escape northwards with his surviving forces, rather than risking a clash with their combined forces in open country.

Ilipa 206 BC

The decisive battle, which ended Carthaginian power in Spain, took place two years later at Ilipa, near modern Seville. Although Scipio now faced a Carthaginian army which outnumbered his own three to two, the quality of his generalship compensated for this.

For several days, he engaged the enemy in skirmishing according to a set pattern. Having lulled the enemy into a false sense of security, on the fourth day he ordered his troops to rise early, forcing the Carthaginians to fight without having eaten breakfast.

He further disorientated his opponents by deploying in a different order from previously, placing his heavy infantry on the wings, his light infantry behind and his potentially less reliable Spanish allies in the centre. This meant that his strongest troops faced the weaker points in the Carthaginian lines.

Scipio skilfully delayed his main assault, allowing hunger and fatigue to wear down the Carthaginian resistance. His best soldiers then engaged the enemy flanks, causing them to collapse, whilst his Spanish allies held the centre.

Above Plan of the Battle of Ilipa, 206 BC. BELOW Plan of Utica area showing the ambush of Hanno and the attack on the camps of Hasdrubal and Syphax, 203 BC.
Plan of the Battle of Ilipa, 206 BC.

Then, as the exhausted Carthaginians withdrew, Scipio ordered a cavalry pursuit that ended in ferocious slaughter. Of a Carthaginian army of some 70,000, only one-tenth escaped.

Roman dominance was completed with the suppression of a Spanish tribal revolt and the fall of Gades (Cadiz). The Iberian Peninsula ceased to be a base from which Carthage might have launched a fresh invasion of Italy.

On to Africa 204 BC

Scipio was not prepared to rest after his success in Spain. He was convinced that the best way to defeat Hannibal and achieve long-term security for Rome was to invade his home territory.

He figured that a direct attack on Carthage would oblige Hannibal to abandon his Italian campaign in order to save his capital city. In Scipio’s thinking, a head-to-head confrontation in North Africa was unavoidable.

This was an ambitious strategy, which drew Scipio into conflict with more cautious elements in the Roman establishment. His critics preferred the patient, attritional approach associated with the general Quintus Fabius Maximus – known as ‘Cunctator’ or ‘The Delayer’ – which sought to expel Hannibal from Italy and then to focus on repairing the damage done by more than a decade of warfare.

Scipio received only qualified support for his bold plan to take an army across to Sicily and then to use this as a springboard for an assault on the Carthaginian homeland. He was granted a force of some 32,000 troops, which was scarcely sufficient for an expedition of such scope.

A direct bid to seize Carthage was hardly feasible. The city occupied an elevated position on a narrow peninsula, protected by three lines of fortifications. Only a prolonged blockade by both land and sea was likely to undermine its formidable defences.

Local politics complicated the situation. There were two rivals for power in the neighbouring kingdom of Numidia. One of these, Syphax, had defected to the Carthaginians. On the other hand, his rival Masinissa came over to the Roman side, bringing with him his light cavalry, a significant asset on the flat, open terrain of North Africa.

Arriving in Africa in the spring of 204, initially Scipio made limited headway. In a rare error of judgement, he wasted resources on an unsuccessful siege of the second Carthaginian city, Utica, which he had hoped to turn into an operational base. In reality, he could have safely bypassed Utica, and the unwise delay allowed his opponents to reinforce their position.

The Camps and the Great Plains 203 BC

Scipio turned the situation around the following year by burning the enemy camps in a daring night attack. The inhabitants were taken by surprise, since the signal for the raid was the trumpet fanfare which routinely signalled the end of the day in the Roman camp.

Plan of Utica area showing the ambush of Hanno and the attack on the camps of Hasdrubal and Syphax, 203 BC.

The Carthaginian huts were wooden, those of their Numidian allies of reeds, so the fire spread rapidly. The inferno caused panic and alarm, with many of the fugitives cut down by soldiers positioned on the outskirts of the camps.

Scipio followed with a rapid march inland to confront the Carthaginians at the Great Plains, where they had regrouped. Scipio was taking a great risk: he was outnumbered, with limited food and supplies, and he was 75 miles from his base outside Utica.

The Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo (not to be confused with Hannibal’s brother of the same name), might have done better to have waited until the Romans were obliged to return to base and then harassed them in retreat. By giving battle, he played into Scipio’s hands.

The manoeuvrability instilled by regular training paid off. Scipio’s cavalry drove their counterparts back. In the centre, his legions engaged Hasdrubal’s Celtiberian contingent, the Carthaginian’s most reliable troops, drawn from north-central Spain. These soldiers stood their ground, but were then caught in a double flanking movement as Scipio’s elite infantry emerged from behind the Roman front line.

The Great Plains was a disaster for the Carthaginians. It was soon followed by the defeat and capture of Syphax.

Scipio’s strategy had succeeded brilliantly. As he had hoped, the Carthaginian leaders responded by recalling Hannibal from Italy. The result, in October 202, was a decisive clash between the latter and the combined forces of Scipio and Masinissa, on the plains some 70 miles west of Carthage. The Battle of Zama was one of the most decisive engagements of the ancient world; in our companion article on p.34, Neil Faulkner explores it in depth.

Above Map showing Roman imperial expansion under the Scipios. Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus has the strongest claim to having been the true founder of the Roman Empire.
Map showing Roman imperial expansion under the Scipios. Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus has the strongest claim to having been the true founder of the Roman Empire.

Victory and Decline

Defeat at Zama forced Carthage to sue for peace. The victors imposed a sizeable indemnity and insisted on the destruction of most of the Carthaginian war fleet. Carthage was compelled to cede control of its foreign relations to Rome, and Masinissa was restored to his territories as a reward for his assistance.

These were harsh terms, but they could have been worse. There was to be no Roman occupation, and the city remained intact. Nor was there any attempt to punish Hannibal.

Military success made Scipio Rome’s leading citizen for the next decade. But it is hard not to see this phase of his career as an anti-climax after his great achievements.

In 190, Scipio accompanied his brother Lucius on campaign against a new opponent, Antiochus III of Syria. Illness, however, was to prevent him from taking part in the decisive battle at Magnesia, in modern Turkey.

Scipio’s enemies in Rome remained jealous of his prominence. His affinity for Greek culture, and his generosity towards defeated foes, aroused the suspicion of more traditional Romans.

Scipio was no doubt the real target when charges of corruption were brought against his brother in the Senate. Although he was never formally condemned, his position had been damaged, and in 184 he withdrew from the capital to live quietly on his farm. On his death, Scipio gave orders that he was not to be buried with his family at Rome, where his opponents were in the ascendant. It was a sad close to a distinguished career.

Scipio’s strategic insight, grasp of logistics, and battlefield virtuosity give him a strong claim to have been the most outstanding commander of the Roman world. His only close competitor, Julius Caesar, lacked his talent for tactical innovation, and, unlike Scipio, he never confronted an opponent as skilful as Hannibal.

A traditional story has Scipio meeting Hannibal, long after their careers had ended, and debating who were history’s greatest generals. Hannibal gave the first three places to Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus of Epirus (who had defeated the Romans a century before), and himself.

Scipio is supposed to have asked him how he would have ranked himself had he been victorious at Zama. Hannibal replied, ‘In that case, I would certainly put myself before Alexander and before Pyrrhus, in fact before all other generals.’

The story may be fictional, but the message is clear: the great Carthaginian placed Scipio in a class of his own. •

Graham Goodlad is a regular contributor to MHM. He teaches History and Politics at St John’s College, Southsea.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.

In Part Two, Neil Faulkner analyses Scipio’s greatest victory.