The Romans Strike Back!

Hannibal’s allies in Italy.

Publius Cornelius Scipio’s military campaign in Africa (204–203 B.C.)

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 (though not without controversy, as we shall see). 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.”

Yet at this point the military disaster was eleven years in the past, and many would have reached the age of marginal military utility; hence Scipio inspected the men individually, replacing those he thought unfit with the volunteers he had brought from Italy. This process generated two exceptionally large legions, which Livy sizes at sixty-two hundred foot soldiers and three hundred horse apiece—a figure that is open to debate by modern historians but that probably reflected the general’s innovative approach and the danger he faced. It also left him with units that would have been to some degree heterogeneous, and certainly unacquainted with his tactical innovations. In all probability, then, he began training them early, and this process consumed much of the time it took to get ready for the invasion.

Livy also adds that upon selecting the veterans “he then billeted his troops in various towns,” which was significant, since earlier the Cannenses—when they’d been joined by the survivors of the First Battle of Herdonea—had been burdened by the senate with the additional indignity of not being allowed to winter in any settled area. In countermanding this prohibition, Scipio not only thumbed his nose at the establishment along the Tiber, but demonstrated yet again his keen understanding of how to build loyalty. Livy describes the Cannenses ready to depart for Africa as “sure under Scipio and no other general, they would be able … to put an end to their ignominious condition.” For these men understood what they would be up against with Hannibal—had already been served a bitter draft of his trickery—and therefore must have seen Scipio and his new model for fighting as their vehicle to revenge and rehabilitation. Unexpectedly, though, they would have the opportunity of returning the favor, of saving their commander from disgrace, long before they had the chance to confront their Carthaginian tormentor.

It all began with a target of opportunity. Late in 205 a group of prisoners in Scipio’s camp, a group from Locri—deep in Bruttium on Italy’s toe and one of the last cities loyal to Hannibal—offered to betray its citadel to the Romans. Scipio jumped at the opportunity, sending a force of three thousand from nearby Rhegium under two military tribunes, with one Quintus Pleminius acting as legate and overall commander. After some complications, Locri was taken, with the physical abuse and looting proceeding in a particularly brutal fashion, including even the plunder of the famous shrine of Persephone. But that was just the beginning. The Roman garrison formed two rival gangs, one loyal to the tribunes and the other to Pleminius, and began openly fighting over booty. As a result, Pleminius had the tribunes flogged—highly unusual for men of their rank—and was in turn beaten nearly to death by the other side.

When Scipio got wind of the situation, he hopped a galley to the mainland and sought to slap a tourniquet on what at this point was merely a distraction, acquitting Pleminius and having the tribunes arrested. He’d made a bad choice. After the general returned to Sicily, Pleminius had both tribunes tortured and then executed, and did the same thing to the Locrian nobles who had complained to Scipio in the first place.

Word of these outrages reached the senate in early 204, and Scipio’s enemies, led by Fabius Maximus, leapt at the chance to exploit the situation. Compounding matters, the senate had been primed by a string of scandalous rumors pertaining to Scipio’s conduct, the source being the quaestor in Sicily, Marcus Porcius Cato, destined to become Scipio’s lifelong enemy. Cato is known to history as a stern embodiment of austere Roman virtues and as an inveterate hater of things Greek, and of Carthage and Carthaginians. According to Cato, Scipio had been cavorting in Syracuse like a Hellenistic dandy—dressed in effete cloaks and sandals, spending way too much time in the gym, and lavishing money on his soldiers, who were using it to wallow in corrupting activities.

In his denunciation of Scipio, Fabius fastened onto this last aspect. Reminding his colleagues of the mutiny in Spain, which he maintained had cost Rome more troops than had been killed in battle, Fabius argued that Scipio “was born for the corruption of military discipline” and therefore should be relieved of his command forthwith. Pleminius and the situation in Locri were bad enough, but claiming the discipline of the entire expeditionary force had been undermined by indulgence, when that force was largely made up of suspect Cannenses, would not be overlooked. Scipio’s ally Metellus did what he could in the way of damage limitation, but in the end the senate took a very senatorial tack, sending a commission of ten to Sicily to judge Scipio’s culpability and, more to the point, to examine the readiness of his forces. Ready or not, now was the time for the ghosts to step into the limelight.

They did not disappoint. After settling matters in Locri, the commissioners crossed over to Syracuse, where Scipio had assembled his entire army and fleet in a state of readiness sufficient to conduct an immediate amphibious operation. The commission was then treated to a rigorous series of maneuvers, not simply parades but actual tactical evolutions and even a mock sea battle in the harbor. After a further inspection of war materiel, the commissioners were convinced that if Scipio and his army could not defeat Carthage, then nobody could. They left in a mood more reflective of victory than simply of good preparations—a view they impressed upon the senate, which promptly authorized the invasion at the earliest opportunity using whatever troops in Sicily the general desired. The Cannenses had vindicated their commander and were at least partway down the road to redemption.

Probably sometime in the late spring of 204 the invasion force assembled at Lilybaeum on the western tip of Sicily approximately 140 miles across open water from Carthage. Livy’s (29.25.1–2) estimates of the force’s size range widely from around twelve thousand men up to thirty-five thousand, so it’s impossible to say with any precision how big the army really was. But two legions of six thousand, plus two alae of equal size, along with cavalry numbering around 2400—basically a pumped-up consular army totaling approximately 26,400—is a ballpark figure. With considerable ceremony—suitable sacrifices, speechifying, and throngs of spectators lining the harbor—the army, along with forty-five days’ worth of food and water, were stuffed into four hundred transports guarded by only forty war galleys. (Scipio may have been short of oarsmen. Besides, the Carthaginian navy had not proved much of a threat.) Then the fleet headed out to sea in the general direction of Africa.

Without navigational equipment, such a voyage was always something of a leap of faith, but after a foggy night, land was sighted early the next day. Scipio’s pilot declared the spot to be the Promontory of Mercury (modern Cape Bon). But rather than head for what Livy says was his original destination—the Emporia, a rich area far to the south—Scipio allowed the wind to take him forty miles west to the “Cape of the Beautiful One” (modern Cape Farina), where he landed. This put him in the vicinity of the city of Utica and about twenty-five miles north of Carthage, which lay at the base of the semicircular Gulf of Tunis bounded by the two capes. It was a good location, close enough to throw a scare into the Carthaginians but far enough off to allow the Romans some breathing room to get unpacked. It worked.

The sight of the Romans, who set up camp on some nearby hills, panicked the entire countryside, sending a stream of inhabitants and their livestock back toward the safety of fortified places, particularly Carthage. Livy tells us that a thrill of dread spread through the city, which spent a night without sleep and prepared for an immediate siege. The next morning a force of five hundred cavalry under Hanno, a young nobleman, was sent up the coast to reconnoiter and if possible disrupt the Romans before they could fully establish themselves.

They arrived too late. Scipio had already posted cavalry pickets, who easily repelled the Carthaginians, killing a good many in the ensuing pursuit, including Hanno himself. Meanwhile, Roman marauders were already abroad gathering up who and what had not managed to flee. This was a substantial haul, including eight thousand captives, which the savvy Scipio promptly shipped back to Sicily as the first fruits of war paying for war.

More good news for the Romans appeared shortly in the form of Masinissa, who arrived, Livy says, with either two thousand or two hundred horsemen. It was probably the latter, since the Numidian prince was basically on the lam from Syphax, but Scipio understood that when it came to Masinissa, numbers meant nothing; he was a veritable “army of one.”

Back in Carthage, plans to resist were plainly in disarray. Hasdrubal Gisgo, the city’s most experienced available soldier, had been sent elsewhere. He’d belatedly been charged with putting together an army, and was camped about twenty-five miles inland with his hastily formed force, waiting to be joined by Syphax’s Numidians before attempting to engage the Romans. In his absence, the Carthaginians almost reflexively threw together another cavalry force under yet another Hanno—this force composed of a core of Punic nobility and apparently just about any local tribesman who could ride a horse and was available for hire—for a total of around four thousand men.

It was summer, and when Scipio heard the cavalry were quartered in a town rather than camped out in the countryside, he marked them as a bunch of potential victims and planned accordingly. Masinissa would act as the bait, riding up to the gates of the place—Livy calls it Salaeca, about fifteen miles from the Roman position—to draw the Punic riders out with his small detachment. Masinissa would then gradually lure them into a chase, which would end with the main body of Scipio’s cavalry advancing under the cover of hills to cut them off. As it turned out, the enemy was so sluggish that Masinissa had to ride up to the place repeatedly before they would even come out, and he spent additional time in mock resistance and retreat before they took up the pursuit toward the line of hills where the Romans were hiding. But in the end the Punic riders went for it and were surrounded by the Romans and Masinissa’s men for their troubles, losing Hanno plus nearly a thousand men in the initial engagement, and another two thousand in the ensuing thirty-mile chase, two hundred of the Punic nobles being among the victims. Another bad day for Carthage.

It would be hard to maintain that the city reacted promptly or well to the crisis. They must have known it was coming; many Carthaginians remained in Sicily, and Lilybaeum was reputedly swarming with spies. Nevertheless, there seems to have been no attempt by the Carthaginian navy to intercept the Roman armada or contest its landing, nor, Livy tells us, had an army of any strength been prepared in advance.

This is hard to explain, and the explaining is not made easier by history having been written by friends of Rome. Carthage’s fortifications were formidable—Scipio would not even attempt a siege—so it is possible to argue this as a source of negligence and overconfidence. But the invasions of Agathocles and Regulus had already shown just how vulnerable the surrounding areas were, and how much of a danger this vulnerability was to the entire city. Nor does Carthage’s presumed overconfidence explain the obvious terror of the city’s population once Scipio arrived. Arguably the Carthaginians were never very good at war, only persistent, and this could help account for their lack of planning.

A lack of support for this particular war would have been more telling. The political environment within Carthage during the Second Punic War is impossible to reconstruct, but we know from the statements of Hanno the Great that there was opposition to the conflict. Also, a Punic peace delegation would later lay the blame for the war at the feet of Hannibal and his faction. Whether true, partially true, or not true at all, the Romans were not about to accept such excuses from Carthage. Like the proverbial accomplice to the crime, perpetrators or not, the Carthaginians were now caught in the clutches of blame and would suffer the penalty for their weakness.

But they were far from finished. 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.35 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.36 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.

It was certainly an audacious scheme, with the fleet and the delegation to Hannibal being launched simultaneously the day after the resolution passed. Scipio, now less than thirteen miles away, having just taken over the abandoned town of Tunis, observed the launch with horror. For he understood that the descent of the Carthaginian flotilla would come as an utter surprise to the Romans at Utica. He also understood that his warships, burdened with all manner of siege equipment, were in no condition to maneuver in a naval engagement. The offensive would have worked had not the Punic battle squadron, which likely was manned mostly by inexperienced oarsmen, dawdled, taking most of the day to arrive and then anchoring for the night before forming up to attack at dawn.

This gave Scipio at least some time to prepare, and as usual he responded ingeniously to what could have been a very bad situation. Rather than have his warships protect his transports, he did the reverse. Polybius tells us just before his narrative breaks off that Scipio abandoned any idea of advancing into battle, drew the ships together near shore, and girded the whole mass with three or four layers of merchant vessels, lashed together with their masts and yards to form a wooden coat of armor.

The next morning the Punic force waited in vain for the Romans to come out, only belatedly moving in to attack Scipio’s transport-encrusted force. What followed bore no resemblance to a sea fight, Livy says, but instead “looked like ships attacking walls,” since the transports’ much greater freeboard enabled the thousand or so picked fighters Scipio had stationed on board to cast their ample supply of javelins directly down at the low-slung Punic galleys, effectively stymieing the attack. It was only when the Carthaginians began using grappling hooks that they achieved a measure of success. They managed to haul away sixty transports, which were greeted back home with more joy than the episode deserved—a small ray of sun shining through an unmitigated series of setbacks. Meanwhile, Scipio’s fleet was saved, and he would soon receive news from the hinterlands that would send Carthage reeling to the brink of surrender.

After a fifteen-day march Laelius and Masinissa were in the heart of Numidia, reaching first the eastern kingdom of Massylia, where the natives joyfully accepted the young prince as their ruler. But there was still the matter of Syphax, who had withdrawn to the home territory of Massaesylia and was again busy reconstituting his army. Yet again he managed to cobble together a force basically as large as its predecessors, but with each iteration the quality had dropped, now to the point where the army consisted of little more than the rawest of recruits. Nonetheless, he brought them forward to confront the advancing Romans in what turned out to be a ragged cavalry engagement, which was eventually decided when the velites stabilized their line to the point where Syphax’s men refused to advance and instead began to flee. Either to shame them or out of desperation, the king charged the Romans, whereupon his horse was wounded and he was captured—and was now very much a sinner in the hands of an angry Masinissa.

But also a shrewd one. Masinissa told Laelius that if he would let him ride ahead with Syphax to Cirta, the eastern capital of the Massaesylians, the psychological impact might cause a complete collapse. It did. Upon arriving, Masinissa arranged a conclave with the city fathers, who remained adamant until he dragged Syphax before them in chains, at which point they opened the gates.

Once inside, Masinissa headed for the palace. Here Livy turns cinematic, staging one of the more romantic, though not necessarily implausible, confrontations in all of historical literature. For at the threshold, “in the full flower of her youthful beauty” and with the mind of a true temptress, was Sophonisba. She clasped Masinissa’s knees, congratulated him on having better luck than Syphax, and told him she had really only one request: “choose my fate as your heart may prompt you, but whatever you do, even if it means my death, don’t surrender me to the arrogant and brutal whim of any Roman…. What a woman of Carthage—what the daughter of Hasdrubal—has to fear from a Roman is all too clear.” As she spoke, Livy adds perhaps unnecessarily, “her words were now more nearly those of a charmer than of a suppliant.”

Masinissa was a goner—probably after the first sentence—and upon further reflection, doubtless from within a cloud of lust, a solution came to mind—marriage … marriage so fast that it would become a fait accompli. (“That’s no Punic subverter of Rome’s allies; that’s my wife!”)

Predictably, the Romans didn’t buy it. When Laelius arrived at the palace, he was ready to drag her out of her marriage bed and send her back immediately to Scipio with Syphax and the other prisoners. Masinissa prevailed upon him to leave her in Cirta while the two of them conducted mopping-up operations. This would give Scipio more time to decide what to do with this veritable man magnet.

Sophonisba’s future was probably a foregone conclusion, but Syphax may have sealed her fate. When Syphax was delivered back to castra Cornelia, Scipio asked his former guest-friend what had possessed him to refuse that amity and instead wage war. It’s not surprising that Syphax fell back on the femme fatale defense. Sophonisba was the venom in his blood, the avenging Fury, who with her plying words and caresses had addled his mind. He then turned the knife by adding that his sole consolation was that this monster of treachery was now his worst enemy’s wife.

When Laelius and Masinissa returned from the hinterlands, Scipio took the latter aside and, recalling his own forbearance in the face of the beauteous captive back in New Carthage, made it clear that political expediency demanded that the young man give up his new wife, either as a prisoner or … He left the alternative unsaid. Masinissa extemporized and had a slave bring Sophonisba a cup of poison as his means of delivering her from the Romans. She drank without flinching, remarking that if this was the best he could do in the way of a wedding present, she would accept it, but she also instructed the slave to tell her wannabe widower that she would have died a better death had she not married him in the first place.

So perished Sophonisba, still another in a long line of aristocratic Punic suicides. Yet she likely had done more in bed to keep her city safe than Hannibal had accomplished on the battlefield. Nor is this meant as a backhanded compliment. Because of her, Syphax had given Scipio far more trouble than he’d bargained for, and a marriage alliance with Masinissa had held out the promise of neutralizing an adversary who would later prove highly instrumental in the city’s ultimate destruction. The match had probably been doomed from the beginning, and she paid for it with her life. But it is hard to deny she died a hero’s death.

Back in Carthage, this sort of resolve was fast becoming a diminishing quantity. The narratives of both Polybius and Livy make it pretty clear that Carthaginian resistance had become increasingly dependent on Numidian support, and news of Syphax’s capture had tilted the political balance, at least in the council of elders, in the direction of the anti-Barcid proprietors of the vast inland food factory, who were sick of seeing their properties ravaged by Romans and now wanted peace.

Sometime in late 203 the inner council of thirty key elders was dispatched to Scipio’s camp to negotiate an end to the war. As Livy tells it, the elders’ inclination was immediately betrayed by their prostrating themselves. Essentially, they begged Rome for mercy, blaming Hannibal and the Barcid party as the instigators of the war. This was plainly self-serving, but it was also likely to have been true.

As it happened, Scipio was ready to deal. He could see the strength of Carthage’s fortifications, and understood that an unacceptably protracted and costly siege was the only option if he wanted to continue fighting. He was also well aware of Rome’s war-weariness and desire to end this terrible conflict. Finally, he must have been aware that there were those back home who wanted his command, so victory on his watch must have had its attractions.

The terms he offered were not unreasonable but were certainly calculated to remove Carthage permanently as a military competitor with Rome. According to Livy, Scipio proposed that the Punic side hand over all war prisoners, deserters, and runaway slaves; withdraw the armies of both Hannibal and Mago; cease interfering in Spain; evacuate all the islands between Italy and Africa; supply large quantities of grain to feed his army and animals; and surrender all but twenty of their warships. As far as a war indemnity, the historian tells us that his sources differed, some saying five thousand talents, others five thousand pounds of silver, and still others double pay for Scipio’s troops. Appian also adds several clauses that, if true, make the terms considerably harsher (e.g., forbidding Carthaginians from hiring mercenaries, restricting their territory to the so-called “Phoenician trenches”—an area inland roughly between the east coast of modern Tunisia and its border with Algeria—and giving Masinissa dominion over his home kingdom and all he could take of Syphax’s). Finally, Scipio gave the Carthaginians three days to accept, whereupon a truce would take hold while they sent envoys to Rome for final negotiations. The council of elders agreed, and envoys were dispatched, but Livy maintains it was all a ruse to give Hannibal time to return to Africa. This is debatable.


Rome and Carthage at War

Dexter Hoyos

3 thoughts on “The Romans Strike Back!

  1. Excellent stuff! Well written, very entertaining. If you wrote this yourself, I salute you. If not, could please supply the author? I would really like to read more of this story.


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