Scipio Africanus : Final Act (187 - 184 BCE)
- The two greatest cities in the world, they said, were at almost the same time shown to be ungrateful to their leading citizens; but Rome was the more ungrateful of the two, in that conquored Carthage had expelled the conquored Hannibal, whereas victorious Rome was driving out the victorious Scipio.
- - Livy, The History of Rome from its Founding XXXVIII.50
The First Trial
The end of the career of Scipio Africanus - like so many other aspects of his life - are clouded by legend, a lack of reliable sources, and historical controversy for more than 2000 years. The version we shall present here is just one possible interpretation of many, and could be challenged on just about every detail.
The Scipios had returned from Asia triumphant over Antiochus, but their political domination was about to come to and end. No doubt the Scipio's were already looking forward to the Censorship election of 184 BCE, for which post the Scipio's had two prominent candidates; Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus. But competition was keen, and part of that competition was the inseperable team of Lucius Valerius Flaccus and Marcus Porcius Cato.
Cato had been an outspoken critic of Scipio throughout their careers, but the picture often drawn of him as the small-minded conservative constantly hounding the broad-minded Scipio, is probably untrue. Cato was, quite simply, a controversial figure,whose outspokenness, sharp tongue, and insignificant lineage made him an object of animosity for the nobility of Rome. He was constantly under threat of being prosecuted by his many enemies, and constantly on the lookout for opportunities to prosecute - Plutarch and Livy recount that even at the age of 86 he was brought to court by his enemies, while he himself prosecuted Servilius Galba four years later at the age of 90!
The seven other candidates for the Censorship seem early on to have formed an alliance for the express purpose of keeping Flaccus and Cato from office. Faced with such opposition, Cato and Flaccus must have looked for ways to weaken the opposition, the most dangerous of whom was clearly Scipio Asiaticus, with his recent victory in Asia, and his powerful brother. There are some indications that Cato's prosecution of Manius Acilius Glabrio, another potential rival for the Censorship, may have been primarily motivated by rivalry for the Censorship. It seems very likely, given that Cato is reputed to have been behind the attacks on the Scipios, that these following trials should be seen as an extension of an electoral strategy aimed at discrediting the Scipio's and thus removing two dangerous rivals from the runnings.
Charges seem to have been raised against Lucius Cornelius Scipio first, accusing him of embezzling part of the 3000 talents of the first installment of the tribute collected from Antiochus. The charge seems clearly to have been a mere technicality; inasmuch as a Roman army commander had full jurisdiction over the booty he received for the maintenance of his army. Scipio's opponents, however, claimed that the money collected belonged entirely to the state treasury.
Africanus appears to have been on a mission in Etruria when he heard of the charges, but immediately returned to Rome. It is said that, finding his brother being taken away he drove the Government officials from his brother's person, and that when the Tribunes - whose persons were inviolate and sacrosanct by law - tried to restrain them, he did violence to them. Later during the trials, when it was demanded that the accounts of the army in Asia was presented to the Senate, Africanus asked for the accounts from his brother and:
- When the book was brought to him, he held it out and tore it to bits in the sights of every one, telling the man who had asked for it to search among the pieces for the account. At the same time he asked the rest of the house why they demanded an account of how and by whom the three thousand talents had been spent, while they had not inquired how and by whose hands the fifteen thousand talents they were receiving from Antiochus were coming into the treasury, nor how they had become masters of Asia, Africa, and Spain. So not only were all abashed, but he who had demanded the account kept silence.
- -Polybius, The Histories XXIII.14
It seems possible -- indeed likely -- that Africanus was by this time already suffering from the illness that would take his life. Certainly his acts, while they seem to have had short-term positive effects, differ markedly from his behavior in earlier years, and strongly transmit the impression of a man too tired to be diplomatic.
Certainly, his acts added fuel to the fire, and the Scipios opponents now attempted to bring Africanus himself to trial. Perhaps it is from just such an attempt that Polybius recounts:
- ...he (Africanus) said nothing more when he came forward to defend himself, but that it was not proper for the Roman people to listen to anyone who accused Publius Cornelius Scipio, to whom his accusers owed it that they had the power of speech at all. All the people on hearing this at once dispersed, leaving the accuser alone.
- -Polybius, The Histories XXIII.14
However, accusations against the Scipios - and in particular Africanus - seem to have persisted, and their opponents - spearheaded by two Tribunes of the Plebs of the Petelii clan - eventually succeeded in forcing Africanus to meet up in court. They accused him of peculation; of having had his son restored by Antiochus without a ransom, and of having usurped the powers of the Consul and thereby the Roman people during the campaign in Asia. The old charges of extravagance, un-Roman behavior, and corruption of the army's discipline may have been brought up again and the accusations lasted all day. On the second day of the trial, Scipio Africanus walked up to the rostra, upon which a silence fell upon the huge assembly of people that had flocked to Rome to watch the spectacle. Into this silence, Scipio spoke:
- "Tribunes of the plebs, and citizens of Rome, this is the day on which I fought with good success in a pitched battle against Hannibal and the Carthaginians in Africa. Therefore, since it is proper on this day that lawsuits and quarrels should be set aside, I shall straightaway go from here to the Capitol, to offer salutation to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, to Juno, to Minerva, and to the other gods who preside over the Capitol and the citadel. And I shall render thanks to them because on this very day, as also on many another occasion, they gave me the will, and the ability to do outstanding service to the state. I also invite you, citizens of Rome, all of you for whom it is convenient, to come with me and to pray the gods that you may have leaders like me; but I invite you on this assumption, that if from my seventeenth year up to my old age you have always been in advance of my years in promoting me to posts of honour, I on my part have anticipated those honours of yours by my achievements."
- From the Rostra he climbed up to the Capitol. At the same time the assembled crowd with one accord left the Forum and followed Scipio, so that in the end even the clerks and messengers abandoned the tribunes and no one stayed with them except their retinue of slaves and the herald who from the Rostra summoned the defendant.
- - Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXXVIII.51
Having had his moment of triumph over the tribunes, Scipio retired to his villa in Liternum and refused to return to Rome to stand trial. His health was in decline, and he had no wish to participate further in such petty political squabbles as these trials represented; the sole aim of which was mud-slinging. The Petelii tried to bring forward a motion to have Scipio arrested and brought to Rome, but this was defeated by the unanimous consent of the other tribunes, and Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus - a political opponent of Scipio - rose in his defence:
- "Tribunes", he went on, "is Scipio, the conquoror of Africa, to stand humbly at your feet? Was it for this that in Spain he routed and put to flight four of the most renowned Carthaginian commanders, and four Carthaginian armies? Was it for this that he captured Syphax, crushed Hannibal, made Carthage our tributary, banished Antiochus (for Lucius Scipio welcomes his brother to a share of this glory) beyond the Taurus Ridges? Was it for this end, that he should bow before the two Petilii? Will you allow anyone to seek the palm of victory over Publius Africanus? Shall no service of their own, no honours conferred by you, enable men of mark to reach a safe and, as one may say, a holy citadel, where their old age may find repose; where it may be, if not reverenced, at least immune from harm?"
- - Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXXVIII.53
The Petilii were censured by the Senate. So Scipio was left to himself; which was precisely what Scipio wished. Cicero, in one of his treatises, passes on the following anecdote about Scipio:
- Publius Cornelius Scipio, the first of that family to be called Africanus, used to remark that he was never less idle than when he had nothing to do, and never less lonely than when he was by himself. We have this on the authority of Marcus Porcius Cato the Censor, who was almost his contemporary. It is a fine sentiment as - as you would expect from so great and wise a man.
- -Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Duties III.1
Scipio Africanus spent the rest of his life at Liturnum; by all accounts content and satisfied with managing his estate and the simple pleasures of country life. He died either late in 184 BCE or early in 183 BCE. According to some accounts he requested to be buried there; preferring to be laid to rest there rather than in the soil of his ungrateful nation. However even this is obscured by legend; Livy reporting that tombstones to Scipio Africanus existed in both Rome and Liturnum during his own time.
Scipio the Man
The personality of Scipio is almost impossible to divest from the legend that surrounds him. It is clear from the ancient accounts that Scipio was regarded in his own and latter times as the supreme hero; a great man, unblemished with the character flaws that blacken the greatness of Alexander the Great or the ambitions of a Marius, Sulla, or Caesar. Plutarch, in his biographies, compared Scipio Africanus and Epaminondas (the liberator of Thebes and military genius who broke Sparta's power) as the two supreme personalities of the Roman and Greek worlds respectively.
One of the overriding traits of Scipio Africanus would seem to have been one of generosity. This kindliness was often politically motivated, but it remains a consistent feature of all Scipio's dealings throughout his life. While he could clearly be ruthless when required, his dealings with his enemies was never harsh or vengeful, and always appears to have dealt as fairly as he could with everyone; whether it was Roman mutineers, the rebellious tribes of Spain, or defeated Carthage. It is clear that - like his great antagonist Hannibal - Scipio had a powerful charisma that left everyone, including Hannibal, profoundly affected. In addition to this, he was fiercely patriotic and modest - refusing honors both in Spain and Rome that would have turned the head of a lesser man. Both Livy and Polybius pay homage to this aspect of his personality, noting Scipio's greatness of mind.
Of the few character-flaws that have come down to us, only two seem to have had any substance. He may have been somewhat high-handed - certainly he was considered so by his contemporaries. Both Lidell-Hart and Scullard comment that this impression could easily have arisen if - as they believe - Scipio was a rather reserved person, willing only to confide in his closest friends. The charge of being high-handed does not fit well with the known facts of Scipio's career, and on balance, it seems likely that if Scipio appeared arrogant to his contemporaries, it was an appearance caused by his position, achievements, and fame, rather than a result of an arrogant personality.
The other charge against him is that of being fond of beautiful women; a mention of Scipio being unfaithful to his wife exists in Valerius Maximus in addition to Livy's story of the Spanish princess. Whether Scipio was in fact unfaithful to his wife is hard to say (though the evidence points to it). By all accounts though, Scipio and Aemilia would appear to have had a happy and fruitful marriage, despite Scipio's weakness for other women.
In an age of brutality, Scipio shines through in the historical accounts as a truly great - almost superhuman - man, remarkable for his character, achievements and abilities. While we should not ignore the effects of later romanticisation and the growth of the legend around Scipio, there is no reason to doubt that Scipio Africanus was a genuinly great-minded man, patriotic, morally sound, and generous.
Scipio the Father
Scipio was early on bethrothed to Aemilia, daughter of the Lucius Aemilius Paullus killed at Cannae. It is uncertain when they were married; most probably during his Consulship or shortly after his return from Africa. The couple had at least four children together; two sons and two daughters.
The eldest son - also called Publius Cornelius Scipio - inherited the poor health of his father (a typical problem of the Roman aristocracy), as a result of which he was unable to pursue a military or political career. He grew up to be a man of great intelligence, greatly respected for his wisdom, and the author of a history book (which hasn't survived). It would appear that his illness also kept him from marrying. In any case, he adopted his cousin - the younger son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, his mother's brother - as his own son. The boy was given the name Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus - and would in his own time earn the additional names of Africanus (for his destruction of Carthage) and Numantius (for his conquests in Spain).
The younger son Lucius rose to be Praetor, but is otherwise unremarked upon in the history books. It seems likely that he died during or shortly after his year as praetor, as his non-appearance in the annals is otherwise inexplicable. As a Scipio - even after the trials - he would have been a virtually assured of his rise to Consul, had he been alive. His death would also explain the need for the elder son to adopt Scipio Aemilianus.
Scipio's eldest daughter Cornelia the elder was married to Scipio's nephew Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum - son of the Consul of 191 BCE. His youngest daughter, known to posterity as Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, was married after Scipio's death to Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the Tribune who had defended her father. Loosing her much older husband before her sons were full grown, she would raise them up on her own. She allegedly had 12 children - only three of whom reached adulthood, only to have both her sons cut down at the prime of their life. Her exemplary composure, wisdom and beauty (she was courted by one of the Egyptian Kings - whose offer she turned down) earned her legendary status as the perfect Roman matron.
Scipio's attitude towards his family appears to have been a liberal one. All of his children were certainly well-educated. His wife Aemilia was a trend-setter and a leading woman. Breaking with the traditional Roman values espoused by men like Cato, she had no compunctions about flaunting her freedom or her wealth, while at the same time being a devoted Roman wife and mother. There can be little doubt that she offered a powerful example to the Roman women of her own generation, just as her daughter would latter offer an example to the Romans of latter generations. Like her daughter Cornelia, Aemilia was considered a role model for Roman women by latter generations; fiercely loyal to her husband, gentle and kind.
Scipio the General
In an age of war, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus led the Roman army for 8 years in two campaigns, fighting six major battles and numerous skirmishes, without loosing any. In his final battle he faced one of the greatest generals of all time, Hannibal, with a numerically inferior army, and won. It seems incredible, in the light of his achievements, that there can be any question about Scipio's status as one of the greatest Generals of his age (or indeed any age). And yet modern history has refused to give Scipio Africanus his dues.
The motive for this is in many cases not hard to find. Fascinated by the brilliant exploits and wonderful tale of Hannibal, one finds that many people appear unable to forgive Scipio for his crowning glory - his defeat of Hannibal at Zama. This unscholarly bias has led more than one historian into unsagacious and ridiculous comments on Scipio's abilities, seemingly afraid that admitting Scipio as Hannibal's equal is somehow demeaning to the Carthaginian. Such an attitude is absurd - obviously it can never lessen the glory of a great man to have been defeated by an equal or better.
A common assertion against Scipio rests on the perceived idea that he copied the tactics of Hannibal. This is a ridiculous charge, inasmuch as Hannibal himself had copied his successful tactics from previous Carthaginian generals (Xanthippos at Bagradas had used the enveloping tactics later used at Cannae, and Hamilcar Barca is recorded as using many of the stratagems Hannibal used in his own battles). If copying tactics from others does not lessen the reputation of Hannibal; how can such a charge be used to argue that Scipio was a lesser General? In addition, the charge is basically false, as anyone who has studied Scipio's battles should realize. Scipio never had the same tools to work with as Hannibal, and thus we find the tactics he deploys very different from those of Hannibal. Where Hannibal relied on his superbly drilled cavalry, Scipio relied instead on the legions, and the superb drill and flexibility that he instilled into his troops.
Scipio's battles, like those of Hannibal, are studies in brilliant tactics and astute generalship - from his brilliant assault on Nova Carthago, to his split columns at Baecula, the ruse and double envelopment of Ilipa, the burning of the camps at Castra Cornelia, and finally the glorious victory at Zama. Commentators who claim that Scipio's genius was a copy of Hannibal's not only betray themselves as small-minded men incapable of recognizing greatness due to their narrow glorification of Hannibal, but also an astonishing lack of historical insight. It is sad that so many historians find themselves unable to give credit where credit is due, and admit that Hannibal and Scipio Africanus share the honor of being the two greatest Generals of their own, and perhaps any, age.
Comparisons between these two great Generals are pointless, but if any are to be made, the most reliable would be the one reportedly made by Hannibal himself, at the second meeting of Africanus and Hannibal while Scipio was a delegate to the court of Antiochus.
- Africanus asked who, in Hannibal's opinion, was the greatest general of all time. Hannibal replied: 'Alexander, King of the Macedonians, because with a small force he routed armies of countless numbers, and because he traversed the remotest lands. Merely to visit such lands transcended human expectation.' Asked whom he would place second, Hannibal said: 'Pyrrhus. He was the first to teach the art of laying out a camp. Besides that, no one has ever shown nicer judgement in choosing his ground, or in disposing his forces. He also had the art of winning men to his side; so that the Italian peoples preferred the overlordship of a foreign king to that of the Roman people, who for so long had been the chief power in that country.' When Africanus followed up by asking whom he ranked third, Hannibal unhesitatingly chose himself. Scipio burst out laughing at this, and said: 'What would you have said if you had defeated me?' 'In that case', replied Hannibal, 'I should certainly put myself before Alexander and before Pyrrhus - in fact, before all other generals!' This reply, with its elaborate Punic subtlety, and this unexpected kind of flattery...affected Scipio deeply, because Hannibal had set him (Scipio) apart from the general run of commanders, as one whose worth was beyond calculation.
- - Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXXV.14