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SCIPIO AFRICANUS – A MILITARY BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
By Jim Bloom
An early draft of a work in progress being prepared for an encyclopedia of military biography.
Publius Cornelius Scipio (later, Africanus) was born 236 BC (518 AUC by Roman reckoning) to a father of the same name. Early in life he distinguished himself militarily, especially in the battles of Ticinus and Cannae. Ticinus was the first battle with Hannibal's invading forces as they crossed into Italy proper. Scipio Africanus (hereafter S.A.) first earned his reputation for brilliant military leadership at this battle. S.A.'s wounded father, along with a handful of his men, had been surrounded by a mass of Carthaginian cavalry. S.A. entreated the troops at his side to join him in a rescue attempt. When none would move, obviously thinking the prospects hopeless, S.A. charged into the midst of the enemy alone. This move embarrassed his men into following and by some very able horsemanship and audacity, they retrieved S.A. senior, and got him safely to where his injuries could be treated. Liddell Hart makes much of this incident as marking S.A. for distinction at a young age.
Cannae, it will be remembered, is where Hannibal crushed a much superior Roman force by a model stratagem. He feinted a withdrawal in a deliberately weakened center so as to form a concave killing ground wherein the mobile units are clandestinely positioned on the flanks of the unwitting enemy thus drawn into the trap. There were 4000 Roman survivors who escaped to the Roman encampment of Canusium, where S.A., then a mere tribune, rallied them. Several other commanders wanted to escape to Sicily, as their troops were panicking, feeling that Hannibal's way to Rome was now wide open. S.A.'s adroit maneuvering staved off a mutiny by these defeatists. Perhaps it's the customary hyperbole attributed to ancient historians, but it's said that it was S.A.s' stiffening of the resolve of the other commanders that thwarted Hannibal's imminent march on Rome at that time. Modern commentators tend to believe that Hannibal's strategy rendered a lengthy siege of Rome unnecessary and undesirable.
APPOINTMENT AS PROCUNSUL FOR SPAIN
At the age of 26 S.A. was given proconsular imperium by the People rather than the Senate, and was dispatched to fight against the Carthaginians in Spain. S.A. had wanted to go there to avenge his father's death (S.A.'s father had been killed in the attempt to subdue rebellious Spanish tribes who were defecting to the Carthaginians). No senior general would accept this assignment, which seemed to invite failure and resultant opprobrium. However, it was vital to eliminate Hannibal's logistics and recruitment center, something quite apparent to the upstart S.A., who was technically a privatus rather than a magistrate … too junior an officer to be awarded an extra-territorial command. He appealed directly to the populi , an unprecedented step. A constitutional precedent was established: granting a command outside of Italy to a man who had been neither a praetor nor a consul.
Though the senatorial mandate had been simply to hold the Carthaginian forces at bay in Spain and prevent them from sending reinforcements to Hannibal in Italy, S.A. saw his mission as carrying on his father's offensive strategy and driving Carthaginian forces from Spain. A commander named Nero, who had been sent to Spain after the deaths of S.A.'s father and uncle, had merely harried the Carthaginians while trying to wean away their Spanish allies.
As soon as he arrived in Spain, S.A. began training his men in tactics he derived from his study of Hannibal's battles in Italy. He explored maneuvering with a smaller infantry unit, the cohort. This allowed greater flexibility of maneuver than with the legion. Additionally, S.A. armed his men with short Spanish swords (the gladius hispaniensis), replacing the unwieldy weapons used in the past.
In 210 BC, S.A. 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, S.A. 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. S.A. had correctly estimated that each Carthaginian force was at least 10 days march from his objective. During a short, brutal siege, S.A. 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 (now Cadiz) as a base. S.A. shrewdly encouraged the rumor that he had prayed for, and predicted, the shift of tide that allowed him passage, whereas he had learned that this phenomenon was a nightly occurrence.
After New Carthage, Scipio succeeded in having a number of Carthaginian allies desert for the Roman side. This deteriorating situation pushed Hasdrubal Barca to do battle poste haste, figuring that if he did not prevail, then he'd gather around him and the remains of his army the largest possible number of Iberian Celts to go and join his brother in Italy.
For his part, Scipio was also looking for battle, He left his Tarrogona quarters in early spring of the year 209. S.A. was reinforced by all those who had rallied to him in the wake of the victory at New Carthage. The next year, S.A. attacked the army of Hannibal's brother, Hasdrubal Barca, near Baecula (now Bailen), near modern Cordova on the right bank of the river Guadalquivir. That is where Hasdrubal had taken up a position on a steep ridge, the rear of which was defended by a river, so as to bar the Roman's access to Baetica (present-day Andalusia).
The solidity of the position held by the Carthaginian at first gave Scipio pause. Then, fearing that if he simply marked time, it would give Mago and the other Hasdrubal, Gisco's son, the opportunity to come to the rescue, he decided to offer battle. In a departure from standard Roman practice, S.A. 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. Thus he adapted the second and third lines of the formation as an optional mobile reserve, a function formerly accorded to a special body of troops held tentatively in the rear for that purpose. His velites (skirmishers, or light infantry) engaged their Carthaginian counterparts on the lower slopes, and while the main Punic force was still deploying from their entrenched positions, Scipio and Laelius attempted to envelop it by pushing uphill on the wings. Hasdrubal, however, was quick to notice the developing pincers and disengaged before fully committing his forces.
Hasdrubal abandoned his doomed skirmishers and moved off with his elephants, war booty, funds and elephants. Severely beaten, Hasdrubal slipped away with the remainder of his army and marched into Italy, hoping to join Hannibal. S.A. was tempted to pursue the fleeing Hasdrubal, since a junction of the Barca brothers in Italy would surely have spelled catastrophe, with so many of Rome's crack troops in Spain. However, S.A.'s decision to maintain his troops in Spain was prudent, as he was wary of the arrival of the two other Carthaginian armies. In any event, Hasdrubal's force was 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.
The victory at Baecula laid open to Scipio the route of the lower valley of the Guadalquivir, which he would take two years later. The Iberian tribes were so impressed by this victory that they continued to rally to Scipio and took allegiance to him, pronouncing him their "king ." This did not sit well with the senate back in Rome, although S.A. had neither requested nor accepted this title—he was simply a "victim" of the Celts customary homage to a conquering hero. Thereafter, despite determined opposition from Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco, Scipio rapidly spread his control over most of Spain.
With Hasdrubal Barca's army out of Iberia, S.A. completed his conquest by crushing the last Carthaginian forces under the command of another Hasdrubal (son of Gisgo) at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 bc. Scipio took up a defensive position with 48,000 men at Ilipa, 60 miles north of modern Seville. For several days he refused battle, then suddenly he launched a dawn attack against the camp of the 75,000 Carthaginians who faced him. Deploying his local Iberian troops in the center—the Celtic allies were not the most steadfast among his troops when the action became desperate—Scipio used his Roman cavalry and infantry to drive back the Carthaginian wings and so oblige the exposed enemy center to also withdraw. The method by which this was executed demonstrates, once again, S.A.'s tactical ingenuity. Spreading out the center of his army in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Hannibal's formation at Cannae, Scipio employed it in an entirely different manner. The center was refused, while the Roman general undertook a successful double envelopment with his wings. This ended Carthaginian rule in Spain. This decisive victory ended Carthaginian domination in Spain.
The success at Ilipa was followed by the capture of the last Carthaginian stronghold at Gades (now Cadiz) ensuring the Roman occupation of Iberia for the next seven centuries and winning S.A. the Roman consulship for 205 BC at the early age of 31 and, despite senatorial opposition, leverage with which to achieve his cherished objective—the invasion of Africa
GOING FOR BROKE: PLANS AND PREPARATIONS FOR AFRICA
Fired up by his conquests in Spain, S.A. had lobbied the Senate for consent to invade the Carthaginian homeland. The senators were reluctant, but S.A. was convinced that such an expedition would either force the Carthaginians to recall Hannibal or at least leave him isolated in Italy. Even though the Carthaginian government's desperate efforts to reinforce Hannibal in Italy were failing miserably, S.A. still maintained that nothing short of crushing Carthage itself would render Rome secure. Among those opposed both to S.A.s consulship and his African strategy, besides the ever-hostile Cato, was Fabius, who probably envied S.A.'s "easy glory" thus far, when his own patient, cautious sparring with Hannibal after the Cannae disaster earned had earned him the contemptuous sobriquet "Cunctator" (delayer). When S.A. threatened to appeal directly to the Roman people if the Senate failed to support him, the latter voted to give him command of Sicily, which he could use as a base of operations against Carthage. In 204 BC, a Roman expeditionary force of 30,000 sailed for North Africa, with Hannibal still in Italy.
DIPLOMACY AND OPENING GAMBITS IN AFRICA
S.A. spent 205 BC preparing for his campaign in the teeth of senatorial dawdling in authorizing the additional forces he required for an overseas expedition. He sent his trusted lieutenant Gaius Laelius (later an informant to the historian Polybius), into Africa to seek an alliance with the Numidian chiefs Syphax and Masinissa. Both were on the verge of revolt against their Carthaginian overlords. Syphax, however, decided to stay with the Carthaginians. Accordingly, he drove Masinissa into the desert. When S.A. attacked Utica on the African coast in 204 BC, under cover of a bid for truce negotiations, 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 vestiges of his once-proud army, returned to Africa where he persuaded the Carthaginian government that all was not yet lost. Hannibal's presence inspired the war party in Carthage to break the truce and go for broke. In 202 BC, Hannibal enjoyed several initial victories against the Numidians. Notwithstanding, S.A. tried to link up with Masinissa to increase his own cavalry strength. Responding to that threat, Hannibal left his base at Hadrumatum in an attempt to cut S.A. off.
ZAMA: THE COUP DE MAIN
In spite of Hannibal's concerted efforts, S.A. finally linked with Masinissa near the town of Zama, about a five days' march from Carthage. When Hannibal learned of the position of the Roman camp, he commissioned three spies to obtain information. The three were captured, but instead of putting them to death, as was customary, S.A. selected a tribune to take all three men on an inspection tour of the camp.
S.A.'s unusually charitable treatment of his spies so pleased Hannibal that he arranged to meet the young Roman commander a few days later—alone except for two interpreters. Their meeting was cordial, but they failed to negotiate a peaceful agreement—17 years of warfare between the Romans and Carthaginians had left wounds that could not be healed in a single afternoon's parley. S.A. would nearly come to regret rejecting the offer—Hannibal showed that he was a much more formidable opponent than his colleagues in the Spanish theater of war.
On the day of battle, S.A. drew his legions into a classic Roman formation of three lines. However, in another deviation from the conventional practice of the time, he arranged the maniples of each line to form directly to the rear of 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 (velites), so that the Roman army looked as if it were a solid mass. The Italian cavalry, under the command of Laelius, was positioned on the left wing of the infantry lines, and S.A.'s Numidian cavalry, commanded by Masinissa, was stationed on the right wing.
Hannibal likewise 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 S.A., 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, dangerously exposing his left flank. Any elephants not stampeded by the Roman musicians passed harmlessly down the lanes running through S.A.'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 thrust forward into S.A.'s line. Superior Roman equipment and discipline soon overwhelmed Hannibal's mercenary troops, who found themselves trapped between the advancing Roman army and their own Carthaginian allies. The latter would not open ranks to let them pass. As the infantry lines closed for combat, Laelius' and Masinissa's cavalry unexpectedly appeared in the rear of Hannibal's army. 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. Hannibal's stratagems and battlefield maneuvers in this battle were to inspire tank battles on nearly the same ground over 2,000 years later. [George Patton, in the famous 1972 movie, mystically sensed the presence of the fallen Roman and Carthaginian troops].
S.A. granted relatively lenient peace terms to Carthage, which irritated his traditional enemies in the senate. In recognition of his victory, S.A. was invited to assume the cognomen Africanus (meaning of Africa). This was the first recorded instance of the Roman practice of awarding victors with a title relating to the region they conquered or pacified.
ARMED DIPLOMACY IN THE EAST AND DECLINE OF FORTUNE
S.A. was elected censor and appointed Princeps Senatus in 199 BC, and was consul again in 194 BC. Although, due to his cosmopolitan proclivities, he urged a philhellenic foreign policy, he argued during his second proconsulship (194) against completely evacuating Greece even after Philip V of Macedon had been ejected. He warned Rome that Antiochus III of Syria, a petty tyrant seeking dominion in Asia Minor, would invade Greece. When it happened, he became his younger brother Lucius' legate, and accompanied the Roman army to the war against Antiochus in 190. Lucius was in command. However, S.A. was too ill to personally take part in Lucius' victory over Antiochus at Magnesia.
At some point in time, S.A. had incurred the enmity of Cato the Censor (famous for ending every speech to the Senate, on whatever subject, with Karthago delenda est, … Carthage must be destroyed). Cato embarked on a persecution of all the Cornelii Scipiones, particularly S.A. and his brother. The two upstart Scipios offered generous peace terms, outraging Cato and his collaborators. The terms were harshly modified and the "trials of the Scipios" followed shortly.
The ancient accounts are somewhat confusing here, but it appears that Lucius was accused of pocketing 500 talents of the war indemnity extorted from Antiochus, and S.A. was accused of complicity in this act. It would appear that Cato won, for Lucius (his cognomen was Asiagenus) was stripped of his status as equites (the political order between senatus and plebs) in 184 BC. S.A., although he was not personally condemned, was enraged, imprudently ripping up the books of account on the senate floor.
S.A., forlorn, and still suffering from the illness contracted in Asia Minor, retired to his country estate at Liternum. He died there soon afterward, in 184. Embittered, he had directed that his body not be taken to the Scipio family tomb in Rome, but instead be buried at Liternum.
S.A. was married to Aemilia Paulla, the sister of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, conqueror of Macedonia. Apparently she enjoyed purchasing tasteful though lavish objets d' art, a taste that the worldly S.A. indulged, much to the disgust of Cato and his friends who shunned opulence and believed firmly in pater familias… wherein women were not much more than chattels in the household. In that sense, S.A. had a quite 21st century attitude towards women. S.A. had two sons, neither of whom distinguished himself, and two daughters. The elder daughter married her cousin, P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum, and the younger Cornelia was the mother of the brothers Gracchi.
Copyright Jim Bloom © 2000
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