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!

19 Responses to Rome’s Craftiest General: Scipio Africanus

  1. WongHoongHooi says:

    There’s something I can’t figure after reading the article and another account of Zama: If Scipio went out of his way to cultivate the Numidians just to have superiority in cavalry for that flanking option on which so much depended, did he just leave it to chance that his cavalry would return on time ? Could he have instructed at least his roman cavalry commander that his job was to turn and flank after seeing the enemy horse off the field ?

    • john harrison says:

      The enemy cavalry had to be not just driven from the field, but broken to ensure that it stayed off of the field. In addition, cavalry is notoriously difficult to reform after a charge. Finally, Scipio was not just looking to have superiority in cavalry, he wanted to deny Hannibal the use of his favorite striking arm. He achieved these goals.

      There was no reliable way to recall the cavalry after the charge given the technology of the day. One must assume that the two cavalry leaders were well aware that the second most effective use of cavalry at that time was to attack an infantry formation from the rear. The most effective use of cavalry was the pursuit of broken infantry.

      Scipio’s goal was victory and it is fair to assume that he discussed with his cavalry commanders what he wanted them to do after they had driven their opponents from the field.

  2. Robert Griffiths says:

    Once cavalry had been ‘fired’ at the enemy, commanders in the ancient world had great trouble getting them back for another shot. This would particularly apply to Rome where the cavalry were likely to be auxiliaries from some distant province and not Romans. The normal event saw cavalry charge through their enemy and then, in its rear, lay into the enemy’s baggage train for booty. William the Conqueror could work cavalry so as to regroup them for repeated charges but he was unusually talented, but his cavalry were knights with a stake in the outcome.

  3. jason taylor says:

    “There’s something I can’t figure after reading the article and another account of Zama: If Scipio went out of his way to cultivate the Numidians just to have superiority in cavalry for that flanking option on which so much depended, did he just leave it to chance that his cavalry would return on time ? Could he have instructed at least his roman cavalry commander that his job was to turn and flank after seeing the enemy horse off the field ?”

    There are several answers to that question. One is simply that war is largely about luck and an experienced commander knows that. Another is that the cavalry’s job was in fact not to turn and flank. Rome never had a cavalry tradition and the best that could be hoped for was to chase away the enemy horse. Scipio could count on his infantry to win against enemy infantry one way or another but the enemy cavalry was a wild card that Romans had long found difficult. The Numidians returning and blindsiding the Cartheginians was in fact a bonus. Furthermore for him to tell the Numidian prince how to command cavalry or that his primary mission was to help Romans would go quite a ways against cultivating him. We do not in fact know what he told him along that line but it would have likly had all the awkward compromises involved in coalition warfare. Scipios Numidians in fact likly thought of Hannibals Numidians as their primary enemy and thought of the punic wars as a background for their local power struggles. Furthermore cavalry is notoriously hard to control and there are many instances of it charging to far.
    I suspect that Scipio thought of his cavalry primarily as a counter to enemy cavalry which had been so deadly earlier in the war and relied primarily on his infantry which he was familiar with.

  4. Alan says:

    this is obly about one problem

  5. warmoviebuff says:

    I agree with Jason and Robert. To me the remarkable thing about the cavalry was that it returned for the coup de grace. That was highly unusual in Ancient and Medieval warfare. I would not classify this as luck nor would I call it planned – I would classify it as another example of that vaunted Roman discipline (which apparently translated itself to the Numidians).
    I am a huge fan of Scipio, but I must say that the article neglects to mention that the night attack was done during a truce and that Scipio’s men set fire to the Numidian camp and then ambushed the Carthaginians coming to help fight what they thought was an accidental fire. Not exactly sporting behavior and tactics the Romans would have decried the Carthaginians for.

    • Mr Stadden says:

      Good article. However, the last paragraph makes some assumptions about Scipio wanting “power” that are suspect. It falls into the modern pitfall of espousing the concept that Romans were all power hungry men. From what I’ve read, Scipio may have been the noblest Roman of them all and I’ve never read anything that pointed to him seeking “power” per se in any significant way. After all he turned down requests to make him supreme leader or King after his return from Carthage. One of the characteristics that Romans considered noble (and also 18th century men such as George Washington by the way) was to shun power after saving their country, i.e. follow the example of Cincinnatus . Most of what I’ve read about Scipio implies that he wanted dignatis more than political power, but unfortunately the industrious jealousy of his enemies caused the opposite and left him to die a broken hearted man for the lack of appreciation.

      One other comment, the use of the work Empire is anachronistic – Rome was a Republic at this time.

  6. justin posnik says:

    I’m doing a report on scipio and this article has a lot about him but not a ton so if your doing a report this is good but not great

    • john harrison says:

      There is not a lot of historical material available about Scipio. Most of it disappeared over the years. This is well written and accurate as far as I know, so you should be happy, not ecstatic, but happy.

  7. […] where the term Fabian Strategy comes from, and how the charismatic, long-haired rock-star/general Scipio Africanus sowed the seeds of the fall of the […]

  8. […] where the term Fabian Strategy comes from, and how the charismatic, long-haired rock-star/general Scipio Africanus sowed the seeds of the fall of the […]

  9. cameron says:

    I found this to be quite helpful towards my independent study on Scipio Africanus; however, I’m having trouble finding enough information to explain
    how he himself was influenced by his society?
    Also how his actions and thoughts shaped society?
    If anyone could help that would be appreciated

    • Mr Stadden says:

      you should get the book, Scipio Africanus, Soldier and Politician, by HH Scullard. Probably the most scholarly book on him and may help with your questions.

  10. greg says:

    Though Hannibal looses in the end most people recognize him as the superior tactician I feel like this article downplayed his genius, prior to him to outsmarting the Romans in battle was unheard of.
    quotes like On the other side, Hannibal was being handed a lesson in Roman perseverance seem rather odd as it implies that the Romans had Hannibal in check during this period contrary to the reality that he was running rampant in roman territory and gaining political support by showing that he could defeat Rome on the battle field. I doubt the Romans felt they where showing Hannibal a lesson in anything. Hannibal’s military accomplishments in Cannae and throughout his campaign far outweigh the accomplishments of Scipio he is generally recognized as the greater tactician.

  11. […] BC – Scipio Africanus, Roman statesman and general of the Second Punic War (d. 183 […]

  12. Cwon14 says:

    Scipio would never have asked loyalty to the \empire\ after Cannae, it was a Republic that hated kings at the time.

  13. […] about the layout of these camps, Africanus pretended to negotiate with the Carthaginians and so sent envoys to each camp. Each envoy was accompanied by a group of servants who were really Roman centurions in disguise. On […]

  14. […] about the layout of these camps, Africanus pretended to negotiate with the Carthaginians and so sent envoys to each camp. Each envoy was accompanied by a group of servants who were really Roman centurions in disguise. On […]

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