Scipio Africanus : Africa (204 - 201 BCE)

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Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus : Youth (236 - 211 BCE)
Scipio Africanus : Spain (210 - 206 BCE)
Scipio Africanus : Consul (205 BCE)
Scipio Africanus : Africa (204 - 201 BCE)
Scipio Africanus : Princeps (200 - 190 BCE)
Scipio Africanus : Final Act (187 - 184 BCE)
Scipio Africanus : Epilogue
Scipio Africanus : References
Scipio Africanus : Reading
...give to me and to the Roman people means to inflict upon the Carthaginian state the sufferings which the Carthaginians have labored to inflict upon us.
Prayer of Scipio Africanus at the embarkation from Sicily.
- Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXIX.27

The Arrival

The forces that Scipio embarked for his African campaign were small indeed; his fleet no more than 40 warships and 400 transports. Estimates of the initial size of his army vary; but the lowest number of 16,000 infantry and 1,600 cavalry given in Livy would seem to tally well with the number of transports quoted in the initial invasion. Very likely, additional reinforcements from the garrison in Sicily arrived later in the year.

He arrived to an Africa in turmoil; his carefully laid alliances sabotaged by the activities of the Carthaginians. His Numidian allies, Syphax and Massinissa, had gone to war against each other in the succession struggles after the death of Gala, King of the Maesulii Numidians, and Massinissa's father (Syphax was the King of the Masaesulii tribe). At the same time, Syphax had been turned by Carthaginian diplomacy to abandon his alliance with Scipio, and had married the daughter of Hasdrubal Gisgon, Sophonisba. With Carthaginian help, Syphax had succeeded in decisively defeating Massinissa, and Scipio's sole ally in Africa was now a King without a Kingdom.

As a result of this, Massinissa could bring only a small troop with him to join Scipio when the latter landed at Cap Farina; not far from the city of Utica. His arrival caused widespread panic and great alarm in Carthage, as the population of the country-side fled into the Cities. A small reconnaisance force sent out by the Carthaginians was easily trapped and destroyed by Scipio, and as the Roman army ravaged the country-side, they were able to gather considerable booty and captives.

The Carthaginians now sent a force of 4,000 cavalry to keep a watch on Scipio, while their General Hadsrubal Gisgo assembled an army to oppose the Romans. Scipio ordered Massinissa to attack the Carthaginian force and then lure the enemy into the ambush laid by Scipio. The plan worked perfectly, and the enemy force was destroyed 3,000 men killed and captured, while the rest fled into the countryside.

Unopposed, Scipio's forces ravaged the country-side, and then laid siege to the city of Utica. Utica could provide him with a port, thus easing the supply situation for the Roman army. However, the Punic city defended itself stoutly, and soon help arrived from Carthage in the armies of Hasdrubal Giscon and Syphax. According to Livy, Hasdrubal had 30,000 foot and 3,000 cavalry while Syphax had 50,000 foot and 10,000 cavalry. This is probably an exaggeration. However, given Scipio's unwillingness to engage the Carthaginians, it is probably safe to assume that Scipio's forces were heavily outnumbered. After forty days in front of Utica, Scipio withdrew his army into winter quarters close to Utica.

Castra Cornelia

Scipio chose for his winter camp a small promonotory, well-protected due to a narrow ridge where it joined land. Now Scipio's careful preparations paid off, and his army was kept well-supplied as they wintered in their secure camp, a site which earned the name Castra Cornelia - the Castle of Cornelius (it retained the name for more than 200 years).

Heavily outnumbered and isolated, the Romans were literally under siege. In the standstill in operations during the winter, Syphax attempted to initiate a dialogue with the Romans to attempt to broke an end to the war. After initially refusing the approach, Scipio appeared to change his opinion. His envoys had noticed that the Numidian camp was poorly defended, and almost entirely made of highly combustible wood and thatch, and Scipio now made sure the entire camp was completely scouted by experienced Roman Centurions.

With Syphax lulled into a sense that peace was a possibility, Scipio asked the Carthaginians to offer terms; seemingly anxious to have peace. This led the Carthaginians to make exorbitant demands, and Scipio could then, with clear conscience, break off negotiations.

Scipio's design was now brought to fruition. Sending Laelius and Massinnisa with part of the army to set fire to the Numidian camp, he himself took the other half of the army to the Carthaginian camp. The first half of the plan went perfectly, and soon the badly constructed Numidian camp was blazing lustily. The Carthaginian sentries, thinking that the blaze was accidental, rushed to assist the Numidians. Unprepared, Carthaginians poured out of the camp with buckets and blankets, only to be cut down by the Roman force. Scipio's troop seized the gates of the camp, forced their way into the Carthaginian camp, and set fire to the Carthaginian camp as well.

A scene from apocalypse now presented itself. Intermixed, Numidian, Carthaginian, horses, cattle, and all the other living beings within the two encampments, roused in the deep of night to the horror of the flames. Thousands perished in the flames; many of the survivors escaping the conflagration only to cut down in their flight by the Roman soldiers waiting outside in the darkness.

The Carthaginian losses were severe; 40,000 dead according to Livy, with five thousand prisoners being taken, including 11 Carthaginian senators. Both Hasdrubal and Syphax escaped, with a small number of infantry and foot. In one fell stroke, Scipio had destroyed the combined Carthago-Numidian army.

Free from the worry of the enemy presence, Scipio prepared to resume his objective of securing the all-important port of Utica. Ever cautious, however, he soon learned that Hasdrubal and Syphax had regrouped in the interior, and were assembling and training a new army based around a recently arrived mercenary contigent of Celtiberians. Leaving a token force to garrison the Castra Cornelia and keep up the appearance of a siege against Utica, Scipio immediately marched with the main part of his force against Syphax.

After a few days of skirmishing, Hasdrubal and Syphax accepted battle. The inexperienced Carthaginian and Numidian cavalry (most of the experienced troops had died in the previous battles) were almost immediately routed and soon the entire army was in flight. The Celtiberians alone stood firm, were surrounded and slaughtered to a man.

Scipio now sent Laelius and Massinissa at the head of flying columns, to pursue the fleeing Syphax, while he himself at the head of the major part of the army subjugated the area surrounding Carthage. Many towns surrendered upon his approach, and shortly his army was so impeded by plunder and prisoners that these had to be sent back to the Castra Cornelia. He then occuppied the fortress of Tunis, barely twenty-five kilometers from Carthage.

In an attempt to strike back, the Carthaginians had prepared their navy, and launched it to attempt a surprise attack against the Castra Cornelia, convinced that with Scipio and the majority of the army gone, they would be able to relieve Utica. The Romans at Tunis however, saw the Carthaginian fleet set out, and realizing the vulnerability of the unmanned warships and transports, Scipio immediately ordered his troops back to Utica, while he rode ahead.

Rather than try to man his warships and attempt to fight a superior enemy at sea, Scipio instead drew his ships in as close to the shore as possible (taking care to protect the vitally important warships) and lashed them together. In this way he made a fighting platform for his army, and when the Carthaginians fleet arrived, they found themselves faced by a wall of ships manned by Roman soldiers. Planning to surprise the enemy, the Carthaginians had been too cautious in their approach, and thus allowed Scipio's troops to return in time. Nevertheless, the Carthaginians attacked valiantly, and after a long indecisive fight, managed to cut out and tow off sixty of the empty Roman transports. By his prompt action, Scipio had succeeded in preventing unnecesarry loss of troops, supplies, or the warships that were vital to maintaining his position in Africa.

The Carthaginian force was to suffer a further blow though; for Massinissa and Laelius had caught up with Syphax and forced the latter's hastily reformed army to battle. Syphax had lost once again, fallen from his horse during the rout, and been taken captive by Laelius. Along with Syphax, Massinissa had captured the beautiful Sophonisba, Syphax's wife and (or so Syphax claimed) the reason for the betrayal of his treaty with Scipio. Somehow, she convinced Massinissa to marry her, to prevent her being taken as a prisoner. This act worried Scipio, and he therefore summonned Massinissa and convinced the Numidian prince of the error of his ways. Withdrawing from the audience, Massinissa after long deliberations, sent Sophonisba a gift of poison, which she drank with the sarcastic remark:

I should have died a better death, if I had not married on the day of my funeral.
- Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXX.15

The Truce

Scipio, true to his nature, scolded Massinissa for the fatal results of his hasty acts, but at the same time praised both him and Laelius for their achievements in completing the defeat of Syphax. Laelius, he sent with Syphax as prisoner to Rome in order to report on his successes, while Massinissa was acclaimed as King of all Numidia before the army. Without any remaining Carthaginian armies in the field, Scipio's forces could range at will through the African country-side, and Scipio returned with parts of his forces to abandoned fortress of Tunis and thus threatened the City of Carthage with siege.

Although the Carthaginians had sent envoys to the surviving Barca brothers, Hannibal and Mago, to return to Carthage, the latest events had robbed the Carthaginian people of hope. Thus the Council of Thirty (an inner Cabal in the Carthaginian government) went to Scipio and prostrated themselves before him to sue for peace.

Scipio's terms were comparatively lenient; and the Carthaginians immediately agreed to these terms, concluding an armistice with Scipio, and sending envoys to Rome to ratify the treaty. The subsequent events could indicate that the armistice proposed by the Carthaginians was a ruse from the start, intended to buy time until Hannibal and Mago could return from Italy, and the Carthaginians could pit two new armies against Scipio. At the same time, Carthaginian recruiting officers were busy hiring mercenaries in Spain, and a number of these were captured by the Romans near Saguntum.

At the same time, Scipio's political opponents (minus Fabius Maximus, who had died of old age during the year) were putting pressure on the Senate to try and replace him in command of the African army, with the peace so near. The Roman Consul Servilius Caepio, in fact, transferred himself to Sicily with the intention of travelling to Africa and superseding Scipio. Scipio's support, both in the Senate and among the people remained strong, however, and the move was blocked. At the same time, the Roman Senate considered the peace treaty suggested by Scipio; Livy claims the treaty was refused, grounded on the suspicions of the Senate, whereas Polybius claims it was ratified. Regardless of the actual decision, events where taken out of the hands of the diplomats by the act of the Carthaginian people.

A Roman convoy of 200 transports had been caught in a storm, and the ships scattered and driven ashore in the area surrounding Carthage. Excited by this windfall of supplies, the People of Carthage had put pressure on the Senate to take the ships thus offered, and any appeals to stand by the armistice were drowned in the popular outcry. The seizing of the ships constituted a clear breach of the armistice, and subsequently, the Carthaginians allegedly compounded their crimes by attempting to kill the envoys sent by Scipio to request the return of the seized ships.

So with Scipio's army settling into wintercamp in 203 BCE, the war resumed. A renewed attempt in the Roman senate to supersede him in command of the African army was easily foiled, by Scipio's huge popularity among the people. Thus politically, Scipio's position was secure.

On the military front, however, events were significantly more bleak. Hannibal Barca had at last landed at Hadrumentum with the hardened veterans of his Italian army. These men, some of them veterans of 16 years of warfare, provided a formidable core to the new army being formed at Carthage, in every respect equivalent to Scipio's own veterans. To augment these troops, Hannibal could add the well-disciplined troops of Mago's Ligurian army (Mago had died of a wound during the crossing). Finally, Hannibal could supplement these troops with a considerable force of new recruits from the Carthaginian cities and whatever mercenaries the Carthaginian recruiting officers had been able to muster. The crowning achievement of this massive, last-ditch recruiting attempt was the collection of 80 war elephants.

Prelude to Battle

Winter had reduced operations to a low pitch, a pause that Hannibal no doubt appreciated, as it gave him the opportunity to drill his new recruits, and acclimatize his vererans - many of whom would be native Italians - to their new theater of operations. Hannibal's army would now have bulked large with troops; in addition to the 80 war elephants, his army would seem to have numbered somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 men, at least one third, and possible one half of them might be the elite force of his veterans. His main problem was a lack of quality cavalry, and although he no doubt had a proportion of cavalry among his veterans (who could be provided new horses), the devastating losses suffered by the Carthaginians in the previous years, would have reduced the quantity, and above all the quality of the cavalry he could muster. His position was however significantly strengthened when Tychaeus, a relative of Syphax, joined him with a body of 2,000 Numidian horsemen.

With Massinissa off campaigning in the West to bring all of Numidia to heel, Scipio himself was encamped close to Carthage. The stream of petitions that his activities before Carthage caused to be sent to Hannibal apparently left him unmoved, but when Scipio began a devastating marching west through the African heart-lands, Hannibal at last bestirred himself.

Scipio's action at this point would seem a coldly calculated act of genius, at one stroke, he was drawing his opponent ever closer to the pitched battle that he required, while closing the distance between himself and Massinissa. Because at this point in time, Scipio's forces were without a doubt significantly less than Hannibal. His handling of the situation was masterful, and he not only managed to avoid a battle until Massinissa could arrive, but also succeeded in outmaneouvering the Carthaginian master-general. Placing his camp in a favorable position near Naraggarra, Scipio forced Hannibal to encamp his forces in a position far from water.

During the course of these operations, a couple of Hannibalic spies were captured close to the Roman encampments. Rather than execute them, however, Scipio treated them leniently, and showed them round his camp. This act of confidence so aroused Hannibal's curiousity, that he requested a meeting with Scipio. Though the particulars of this meeting has been doubted, the fact that Polybius (who personally interviewed both Laelius and Massinissa) testifies to its truthfulness are strong arguements for the truth of this occurence.

Hannibal opened the meeting as follows:

"Would that neither the Romans had ever coveted any possessions outside Italy, nor the Carthaginians any outside Africa; for both these were very fine empires and empires of which it might be said on the whole that Nature herself had fixed their limits. But now that in the first place we went to war with each other for the possession of Sicily and next for that of Spain, now that, finally refusing to listen to the admonition of Fortune, we have gone so far that your native solil was once in imminent danger and our own still is, what remains but to consider by what means we can avert the anger of the gods and compose our present contentino? I myself am ready to do so as I learnt by actual experience how fickle Fortune is, and how by a slight turn of the scale either way she brings about changes of the greatest moment, as if she were sporting with little children. But I fear that you, Publius, both because you are very young and because success has constantly attended you both in Spain and in Africa, and you have never up to now at least fallen into the counter-current of Fortune, will not be convinced by my words, however worthy of credit they may be......If you conquer you will add but little to the fame of your country and your own, but if you suffer defeat you will utterly efface the memory of all that was grand and glorious in your past. What then is the end I would gain by this interview? I propose the all the countries the were formerly a subject of dispute between us, that is Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain, shall belong to Rome and that Carthage shall never make war upon Rome on account of them. Likewise that the other islands lying between Italy and Africa shall belong to Rome. Such terms of peace would, I am convinced, be most secure for the Carthaginians and most honourable to you and to all the Romans.
-Polybius, The Histories XV.6-7

These terms were unacceptable, as Hannibal must have known, and Scipio wasted no time in turning them down. With the situation thus remaining unresolved, the two commanders returned to their respective camps. Shortly after this, Massinissa arrived at the Roman camp with 6,000 foot and 4,000 horse. The scene was now set for the final show-down.


It is impossible to accurately assess the size of Scipio's army before Zama, but considering that Massinissa had earlier taken with him 10 cohorts of Roman infantry (a Legion), we may conclude that Scipio's army probably did not exceed 24,000 infantry (plus perhaps a small contigent of lightly armed Numidians), while his cavalry would have been no more than 6,400 (the 2,400 cavalry of the Legions plus Massinissa's 4,000). These numbers assume that the Roman army was significantly over it's normal strength strength, and that any losses to the cavalry (who had been very active in the fighting so far) had been replaced up to full strength. Appian's numbers of 23,000 foot, and 1,500 Roman cavalry in additions to Massinissa's 4,000 Numidian horse on the whole seems to be a very reasonable estimate (we note that many commentators mistakenly add to this number the 6,000 infantry brought in by Massinissa, ignoring the clear testimony of Polybius that most -- if not all -- of these would have been the Roman legionaries detached with the Prince).

Against this force, Hannibal could mass a significantly larger army. In the front-line, he deployed his 80 war elephants, a greater number than had been used at any other time during the war. Behind these, he deployed 12,000 mercenaries, Ligurians, Celts, Moors, and Balearics. Many of these would have been from Mago's army; troops that had made a good showing against Roman armies in Liguria. Behind this force was deployed the Carthaginian citizen levy and Libyan infantry; most probably amounting to another 12,000 troops. Far behind these first two lines, Hannibal had stationed his crack force of veterans in reserve. Given the subsequent events during the battle, it is highly likely that this force numbered at least 20,000 troops, and one reason for deploying them so far behind the two other battlelines was no doubt to mask their deployment. On either flank, Hannibal had deployed his cavalry. In addition to the 2,000 Numidians horse brought in by Tychaeus, Hannibal also had at his service the rest of the once-proud Carthaginian citizen cavalry, whatever troopers he had brought with him from Italy, and any Numidian mercenaries that might still be in the service of Carthage. A reasonable estimate would probably place the number of his cavalry between 3,000 to 5,000 horse, with a lower number seeming more probable. In favor of a higher number, is the fact that Hannibal seemingly took no precautions to remedy the disrepancy in cavalry numbers; a role in which elephants were often deployed. On the whole, though, we may conclude that Hannibal must have felt confident in his forces, and his chances of success (as is also demonstrated by his decision to venture a battle at once).

Scipio, with his customary high confidence, did not fear the battle either. Despite their smaller numbers, his army was superbly disciplined, with two years of victories behind them. They probably had an edge in cavalry, and to the troops of Cannae, this would have been a welcome knowledge. Scipio's main worry would have been the large number of elephants in Hannibal's army, and to counter this, he deployed his army in a most unorthodox manner. Rather than the traditional triplex acies (checkerboard formation), he formed up the three lines of his army with the maniples one behind the other, thus forming corridors in the gaps between the maniples.

After some indecisive skirmishing, Hannibal ordered his elephants to charge, but Scipio immediately turned the tables by ordering his trumpeteers and buglers to blow their instruments, while the soldiers let out a loud shout. The cacophony of noise unsettled the beast - most of whom were barely trained - and created a panic. Harassed by the Roman velites, some charged in between the gaps in the Legions, killing many of the light infantry and passing through the Roman lines to escape, while others turned around and in trying to escape collided with their own cavalry. Taking advantage of the confusion, Laelius and Massinissa, stationed on each their wing with the cavalry charged their opponents and drove them off. Hannibal had lost all his cavalry, but the Roman cavalry pursued the enemy, leaving their own infantry unsupported and outnumbered.

Undeterred, the Romans charged the first line of the Carthaginians, and though the mercenaries put up a good fight, they were eventually forced to fall back. The second line, however, was not prepared to permit this, and fighting broke out between some of the mercenaries and the second Carthaginian line, even as the Romans pressed in upon them. The confusion and spirited resistance of the Carthaginians threatened to disrupt the Roman hastati, but by moving the Principes (Roman second line) up to support the fighting, the Carthaginians were eventually broken and fled.

The fighting had been fierce and bloody,and the ground over which the Romans were now moving was littered with bodies and broken weaponry; a slippery, blood-soaked mess. But the Roman's had yet to face Hannibal, and his crack force of veterans, and their front ranks were in wild dissarray as they pursued the carthaginian levy. This was the point when Scipio demonstrated his mastery of the arts of war. Recalling the Hastati from their pursuit, Scipio reformed his battle line. Since Hannibal's reserves were numerous enough to outflank Scipio's men, Scipio extended his lines by moving his second and third lines up on the flanks of his front line to form one single line to match that of Hannibal. That Scipio could achieve such a maneuvre in the face of an enemy formation and during the chaos of a pursuit speaks volumes about the cast-iron discipline that Scipio had instilled in his troops, and his tactical skill.

Finally, the two forces clashed - Hannibal's all-conquoring veterans against the extended Roman lines. The forces were evenly matched, and for a while the battle hung in the balance. Hannibal's tactic to blunt the Roman troops with the first two lines of expendable troops and then crush them with his veterans might yet win the day. But suddenly Massinissa and Laelius returned from their pursuits and fell on the rear of the Carthaginian formation, and it was all over. The Carthaginian formation crumpled under the attack, and by evening the Romans had stormed and plundered the Carthaginian camp. More than half of Hannibal's army lay on the field of battle, along with 1500 Roman dead.


Unlike Hannibal after Cannae, Scipio seized the moment to lay maximal pressure on the beaten Carthaginians by marching on the city. It is unlikely that he intended to besiege it - he did not have the ressources for such a task - but the threat alone was a potent weapon. The Carthaginians caved in; and Scipio set forth his terms: Carthage was no longer to have an independent foreign policy; their navy and elephant corps were to be destroyed (Livy says that more than 500 ships were burned), and for the next 50 years, Carthage would have to pay indemnities to the Romans. The terms were harsh, and left Carthage as little more than yet another Roman vassal.

Some Carthaginians balked at submitting to these terms, but Hannibal - seeing the inevitable - convinced the Carthaginians to accept the terms, even physically dragging a senator from the speaker's podium to shut him up. The war was over.

Scipio spent the rest of the year putting affairs in Africa in order, installing Massinissa as King of all Numidia and a powerful watchdog on the much-reduced Carthaginian state. By 201 BCE, the treaty had been ratified by the Senate, their decisions implemented, and Scipio could at last set sail for the Sicily again. From there he sent the majority of his army by sea to Rome, while he himself made his way through Italy in an extended triumphal progression.

Everywhere he found rejoicing as much on account of the peace as for victory, when the towns poured out to do him honor and crowds of peasants too held up his progress along the roads. He reached Rome and rode into the city in triumph -- triumph such as had never been seen before. To the treasury he brought 123,000 pounds weight of silver; to his soldiers he distributed 400 asses apiece.
As for the surname Africanus, I have not been able to find out how it became current -- through the army's devotion to their general, or from popular favor; or it may have started with the flattery of his close friends, in the way, in our fathers' time, Sulla was called "Fortunate" and Pompey "the Great". What is certain is that Scipio was the first general to be celebrated by the name of the people he conquored, though subsequently there were men fra less renowned for the victorieswho took him as a precedent, and acquired titles of honour for their family portraits and distinguished surnames for their descendants.
- Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXX.45
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