Scipio in Africa


202 BCE: Hannibal Barca, leader of the Carthaginian army, is defeated by the invading Roman legions under Scipio Africanus in the Battle of Zama. (Painting: Zama’s aftermath, preliminary version of Giuseppe Rava, research of Raffaele D’Amato, from Roman Centurions, 753-31 BC, Oxford, 2011)

Scipio was in no hurry. In all probability he did not even arrive in Sicily until the late spring of 205, and would not push off to Africa for another year.

There certainly would have been pressure to make his move sooner. Up north, Mago Barca had already crossed over to Liguria with an army and would soon stir up sufficient trouble that the authorities in Carthage would send him reinforcements and Rome would bolster their blocking force in Etruria with more troops and the reliable M. Livius Salinator. However, this probably didn’t satisfy nervous souls along the Tiber. Meanwhile, in North Africa, Masinissa, in the midst of fighting and losing a civil war with Syphax over his father’s kingdom, grumbled about the delay in the Roman invasion. Yet Scipio’s only concession was to send his trusted wingman, Laelius, off on a raid of the African coast, which provided nothing more tangible than a spate of panic in Carthage, some booty, and contact with Masinissa, who met him with a few horsemen and many complaints.

Scipio’s consulship lasted only a year, as did technically his African imperium. Still, Scipio seems to have understood that his support was sufficient to extend his imperium indefinitely. The New Carthage raid in Spain had removed all doubt that he could move quickly if the situation demanded it. However, he did not move swiftly against Africa. It seems he had his own internal clock, in this case paced by the need to lay his plans carefully, to ensure logistical support for what promised to be a vast operation, and above all to build a winning army out of what amounted to scraps.

Livy (29.1.1–11) opens his description of Scipio’s sojourn in Sicily with an anecdote that may or may not be apocryphal but certainly exemplifies Scipio’s ingenuity in putting together a fighting force. Upon arriving with his volunteers, who apparently were just in the process of being divided into centuries, he withheld three hundred of the most strapping young men, who were neither armed nor assigned to units, and were probably pretty puzzled. He then conscripted an equivalent number of Sicilian horsemen, all of them from the local nobility and none too willing to serve on what was likely to be a long and dangerous expedition. When a nobleman, appropriately coaxed, expressed his reservations, Scipio posed an alternative: house, feed, train, mount, and arm one of the unassigned youths; a proposition all of the remaining Sicilians jumped at, thereby creating an enthusiastic nucleus for his cavalry out of a recalcitrant pack, what amounted to something out of nothing. True or untrue, Scipio was about to attempt something comparable on a much larger scale.

Upon inspecting the troops stationed in Sicily he had inherited, Livy tells us, Scipio selected the men with the longest service records, particularly those who had served under Marcellus and who were skilled in siege and assault operations. Plainly, Livy was referring to the legiones Cannenses—now called the 5th and 6th legions, made up of the survivors of Cannae and the two battles of Herdonea. Scipio did not have any reservations about their record, for he understood, Livy adds, that “the defeat at Cannae had not been due to their cowardice, and that there were no other equally experienced soldiers in the Roman army.”

Winter found Scipio cut off from his supply base in Sicily and camped around his beached fleet on a barren promontory (castra Cornelia) about two miles east of Utica, which he had earlier tried and failed to take. Parked in front of him about seven miles away in two separate encampments were the armies of Syphax and Hasdrubal Gisgo, which both Polybius (who is back in another fragment) and Livy maintain totaled eighty thousand infantry and thirteen thousand cavalry—numbers most modern sources reject as too large to feed in the winter, but still probably exceeding those of the Romans.

Other commanders might have been depressed; Scipio took to scheming. First, Scipio plotted to win over Syphax, whom he hoped might be weaned from the Carthaginians once he had tired of Sophonisba, Hasdrubal Gisgo’s daughter, to whom he was now wed. But the spell she had cast over the Massaesylian king proved stronger than merely the pleasures of the flesh; so the Roman commander began playing a deeper and, as it turned out, more infernal game.

He deceitfully accepted Syphax’s good offices in negotiating a peace treaty. Then he sent centurions disguised as servants in his delegations to the enemy camps, and the centurions accordingly scouted the camps’ configuration. The Numidians, Scipio’s spies reported back, were housed in huts made of nothing more than reeds, while the Carthaginians’ were not much better, being put together with branches and available pieces of wood. Like the first two of the Three Little Pigs, they were fatally vulnerable. The talks intensified, framed around the basic principle of mutual withdrawals—the Carthaginians from Italy and the Romans from Africa—and Scipio’s agents continued piling up details on the camps, especially the entrances. Scipio even made it look as though any military plans he had were related to renewing the siege of Utica. For their part, the Numidians and Carthaginians increasingly let their guard down around their camps as the negotiations seemed to mature. Finally, and tellingly in terms of Punic motivation, Syphax was able to send a message that the Carthaginians had accepted terms. Scipio played for time and set about preparing for his real intention—a night attack on the two camps.

It was a barn burner of an operation. Scipio divided his force in halves, and marched them over a carefully surveyed route, timing it so they reached their targets around midnight. The first group, under Laelius and Masinissa, hit the Numidian encampment first, breaking in and torching the reed huts so that within minutes the whole place was engulfed in flames. Many of the men were incinerated in their beds, others were trampled at the gates, and those who managed to get out were cut down by waiting Romans. For the horribly burned, death must have been a form of mercy.

When the Carthaginians saw the conflagration in the other camp, a number concluded it was an accident and rushed out unarmed to help the Numidians—only to fall prey to the other half of Scipio’s legionaries, already lurking in the shadows. The Romans then forced their way into the Carthaginian camp and set fire to the place, which burned just as furiously and with the same deadly consequences. Both Hasdrubal and Syphax managed to escape, the former with around four hundred horse and two thousand foot soldiers, but we can be sure that fire and sword took a terrible toll on those who remained. Livy puts the dead at forty thousand, but this is based on his exaggerated estimation of the size of the force. Polybius provides no numbers, but does say of the attack that “it exceed[ed] in horror all previous events.” But then, putting aside the morality of broiling thousands of human beings in their sleep, Polybius adds, “of all the brilliant exploits performed by Scipio this seems to me the most splendid and most adventurous.” It certainly was a trick worthy of the master; if nothing else, it demonstrated that he was ready for Hannibal.

Back in Carthage, news of the disaster was greeted with dismay and dejection. Many citizens, including a number of notables, had been killed, and there was a general fear that Scipio would immediately lay siege to the city. When the suffetes called the council of elders into session, three positions emerged. There were those who wanted to treat for peace with Scipio immediately (probably a nonstarter, given the results of recent negotiations). The second position was held by those who were for recalling Hannibal to “save his country.” (This could be interpreted as an intermediate position, since it would not only help Carthage defend itself, but might also mollify Rome by removing him and presumably Mago from Italy.) And then there were those who wanted to rebuild the army and continue the war. (Livy tells us that Hasdrubal Gisgo, who was back in the city, plus the whole of the Barcid faction, combined to push this proposition, which “showed a Roman steadfastness.” Hasdrubal retained overall command and took to recruiting Carthaginians, whose enthusiasm probably increased when Scipio failed to show up but instead seemed intent on taking Utica. Meanwhile, envoys were sent to Syphax, who was inland at a place called Abba, to encourage him to stay the course.

But another Carthaginian already had the Massaesylian king well in hand, stiffening, this time, his resolve. Sophonisba had delivered such a passionate plea not to desert her father and the city of her birth that Syphax was now fully in tune with the Punic program and was busy arming every Numidian peasant he could round up. Almost simultaneously further good tidings arrived in the form of four thousand newly enlisted Celtiberian mercenaries, whose presence was something of a trenchant commentary on Scipio’s lack of thoroughness in subduing Spain. Syphax soon marched with these forces to join Hasdrubal’s, so that within thirty days (late April to early May 203) there gathered an army of around thirty thousand at a place known as “Great Plains”—likely the modern Souk el Kremis.

When Scipio heard of this concentration—good intelligence was another advantage of having Masinissa on your side—he reacted immediately. Leaving his fleet and part of his army to maintain the impression that the siege of Utica continued as his primary objective, he headed inland with the remainder of his force—all the cavalry and perhaps most of his infantry, though he may have brought along only the legiones Cannenses, since allied contingents are not specifically mentioned. Traveling light, they arrived at the Great Plains after a march of five days.

Scipio’s objective was clear, to nip this new threat in the bud—to engage posthaste what was obviously an inexperienced and disjointed force, and obliterate it. This should have been equally apparent to his adversaries. The Romans were deep inland, far from their base of supply, without visible means of support. The Punic strategy should have been avoidance, harassment, and then, when Scipio was forced to withdraw, attrition. Instead, within four days they allowed themselves to be drawn into a set-piece battle. The outcome was never in doubt.

Hasdrubal Gisgo placed his best troops, the Celtiberians, in the center, with the Carthaginian infantry (those salvaged from the camp fire, plus new recruits) flanked by the Punic cavalry on the right, and Syphax’s Numidians—infantry, then cavalry—positioned on the left. The Romans lined up their own legionaries in the center—possibly but not necessarily covered on each side by an ala—with the Italian cavalry occupying the right wing and Masinissa’s Numidian horse on the extreme left.

According to both Polybius and Livy the battle was over almost as soon as it began, the first charge of each of Scipio’s cavalry wings scattering the Carthaginians and Syphax’s troops, horse and foot soldiers alike. It has been argued that Scipio’s cavalry, which would have numbered fewer than four thousand, was simply not numerous enough to break up such a large body of men (around twenty-six thousand) and that there must have been an intervening infantry engagement. Nevertheless, Livy is pretty clear that both the Carthaginian and Numidian components of the Punic force were largely untrained and that it was Scipio’s cavalry specifically that drove them from the field, so this intermediate stage may not have been necessary. At any rate, nobody disputes the result—the Celtiberians were left very much alone.

Even if it was only the legiones Cannenses facing them, the Celtiberians would have been decisively outnumbered. However, they had no choice but to fight. Africa was alien territory if they ran, and they could expect no mercy from Scipio if they surrendered, since he undoubtedly remembered it was Celtiberian desertions that had led to the death of his father and uncle, not to mention their joining the Punic cause after he had supposedly pacified Spain.

The Celtiberians would have been roughly equal in number to the two legions’ worth of hastati facing them. But rather than feeding the remaining elements of the triplex acies directly ahead, Scipio resorted to his now-characteristic maneuver, turning the principes and triarii into columns and marching them right and left out from behind the front line to attack the Celtiberians on the flanks. Pinned by the forces ahead, and beset on each side, the Spaniards met death obstinately. In the end, Livy tells us, the butchery lasted longer than the fighting. The ghosts of Cannae, on the other hand, were very much alive, and, having exacted a measure of revenge for their commander, they were plainly ready for more.

Yet, the sacrifice of the Celtiberians, by keeping the Romans preoccupied until nightfall, had allowed the escape of Hasdrubal Gisgo, who eventually made it back to Carthage with some survivors and Syphax, who headed inland with his cavalry. Determined to retain the initiative, Scipio called a war council the next day and explained his plan. He would keep the main body of the army and work his way back from the Great Plains toward the coast, plundering and sowing rebellion among Carthage’s subject communities as he went, while he sent Laelius and Masinissa with the cavalry and velites after Syphax.

Both Polybius (14.9.6–11) and Livy (20.9.3–9) provide similar but internally contradictory descriptions of Carthage’s reaction to the defeat. On the one hand, they say the news was greeted with utter panic and loss of confidence; but then go on to describe the citizenry’s determined preparation for a siege, plans for manning and equipping the fleet for a naval offensive against Scipio’s armada gathered around Utica, and the recall of Hannibal as the only general capable of defending the city. As always, we can catch only glimpses of the true nature of Punic politics. One possible explanation for Carthage’s apparently contradictory reactions is that the intermediate position of the three courses cited above was now dominant. Livy states clearly that “peace was seldom mentioned,” and it is also probable that the Barcid faction (not to mention the general himself) did not want Hannibal (and presumably Mago) brought back, since it was tantamount to admitting that their great scheme had failed. In the interim, the Punic mainstream seems to have fallen back on the city’s traditional naval shield of war galleys as a way out of their troubles.

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