Episode 4 - The Punic wars: Scipio leads Rome to victory

Friday, 26 March 2021 14:32 Written by
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The Battle of Cannae was the most severe disaster suffered by the Romans in the Punic Wars. It seemed that Hannibal could realize his strategic plan, at least in part. Some cities in Puglia and Campania abandoned Rome and passed to Hannibal. Large groups of populations in Southern Italy rebelled against the Romans; in Campania and Magna Graecia, the maritime cities remained loyal to Rome, as they feared the damage that would come from Carthaginian supremacy in Italy. But Capua, the largest centre in Southern Italy, where the integration with Rome seemed already under way, passed to Hannibal.

The Romans feared that Hannibal would march over the city. But Hannibal did not show up, and even today, you may wonder why he did not dare to. He probably knew that he could never conquer the city with his army; it was not his final goal when he decided to come to Italy. He wanted to force Rome to peace, possibly incorporating it into a system of alliances led by Carthage.

However, instead of exploiting his enormous success in Cannae, Hannibal decided to rest, sent home non-Roman prisoners, and offered Rome to return Roman prisoners for a small compensation. But the Senate proudly refused.

The leaders of the popular faction in Rome, led by Quintus Fabius Maximus, took control of the war, and from this moment on, they managed to fight it with the very slow, painful methods, expensive in terms of human lives and material sacrifices, dictated by their leader, the “Cunctator”.

Rome’s ties with her allies in Central Italy, with their representatives sitting in large numbers in the Senate of Rome, fortunately these ties held. Despite the defeat, all the Roman and Latin colonies of Southern Italy continued to remain closed in their fortifications and hinder the movements of Hannibal's army. In Sicily, the city of Syracuse first passed on the side of the Carthaginians; the faction favourable to the Romans returned to power, until Hannibal again managed to recapture the city. However, all in all, the allies who remained faithful and the Roman and Latin colonies which resisted still ensured the Romans the domination of most of the Italian peninsula.

In the following year, Rome could organize a new army of 200,000 men. When it was ready, they gave a part to consul Marcellus to restore order in Sicily and break the resistance of Syracuse down; part of it was held in Rome to defend the city; another part, led by the two elder Scipios, was sent to Spain against Hannibal's brother, Hasdrubal.

Three years passed without any significant clash, and in the year 211 Hannibal attempted what he had not tried five years earlier in the aftermath of Cannae: he presented himself before the walls of Rome. He did not do so to assault and conquer it but in an attempt to loosen the grip that the Roman armies had tightened around the city of Capua. But Romans were unimpressed; they knew the menace was not serious, they remained resolute within their walls while outside in Central Italy, up to 12 legions were chasing Hannibal, a contingent enormously superior to Hannibal’s army. Rome’s armies controlled him without ever offering him a chance to start a battle, he managed to achieve some victories, but he could not prevent the Romans from making scorched earth among his allies. And at the end, Hannibal retreated towards Capua.

The year 211 was also crucial for what happened away from Italy. The two Scipios, Publius and Gnaeus, who commanded the armies in Spain, were defeated separately and fell in combat. It was necessary to replace them in command of the troops. And here comes the great leader who was to avenge all the humiliations of Rome. To replace the 2 Scipios, the Senate sent to Spain their respective son and nephew, Publius Cornelius, only 24 years old, the veteran of Ticino and Cannae.

At the time of the battle of Ticino, Scipio was a young man barely 17 years old, attached to the army, although he was not old enough to fight in the legions. One and a half year later, on the battlefield of Cannae, he was a young 19-year-old military tribune probably commanding a cavalry unit and fighting under consul Lucius Emilius Paulus. Publius Cornelius was a brave soldier and an excellent commander. He was eloquent; he had a great name, he was brave, he was famous. He did not undertake anything, either public or private, without first asking permission from the gods, praying in the temple. His fellow citizens were convinced the gods recommended him. His model was not his father, but that same Carthingnian general who had won all the battles with Rome. Scipio dreamed of matching and even surpassing him in military glory, of confronting him as the qualifying act of his career and life.

As soon as he arrived in Spain for his command, he set out to attempt a feat that seemed impossible: Nova Carthago's conquest. Nova Carthago was the name given to it by the Romans, the Punics called it Carta Dash, i.e. new city, the same name of the motherland. The city stood on a narrow isthmus, on an inland lagoon connected to the sea, apparently impregnable so that the Punics had a garrison of 1000 men only. They guarded the hostages of the Iberian tribes allied to Carthage and the silver extracted from the nearby mining district. To conquer the city, soldiers should cross the lagoon, and water was so deep that they should do it by swimming, impossible for men weighed down by armour, helmet and weapons. Scipio’s extremely ambitious, strategically brilliant project will allow the Romans to take the city practically on the first assault and during the day.

Scipio was a skilled strategist, and in his plans, he carefully evaluated all variables, geophysical and atmospheric. He had learned from some local fishermen that the inland lagoon could be waded in particular wind and sea conditions: that is, with a specific land wind blowing and the low tide, the lagoon emptied and could be crossed on foot. Scipio was also a skilled connoisseur of the human soul and wanted to create a halo of legend around his figure: on the eve of the enterprise, he summoned his soldiers and told them that Neptune, the god of the sea, had just appeared to him in a dream and promised to help him by lowering the level of the pond.

Scipio had the city attacked by land and sea and, while the bulk of the legions kept the defenders engaged on the side of the isthmus, as the waters flowed towards the open sea, 500 Romans with stairs ran through the lagoon from the west and climbed the walls.

At the same time, the Romans managed to get to the top of the fortifications from the seaside. The city could not resist and fell, with all its enormous riches, with its war machines, with 63 cargo ships, many of them with holds still full of the gold and silver accumulated by the Barca family, Hannibal's family.

It was a masterstroke. And Publius was even more skilled when he freed the Iberian hostages held by the Carthaginians; some of them, the most illustrious, he sent them back to their homes with gifts. In essence, he tried to make friends with the local peoples. His luck, his glory and his generosity attracted the Spaniards, who will support him from now on.

Scipio spent the rest of the year 210 and all of 209 organizing and training his army.

The following year, in 208, in the Battle of Baecula, his legions defeated a Carthaginian army led by Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s brother. However, Hasdrubal avoided complete defeat and headed towards Italy with the remainder of his army to rejoin with his brother, and Scipio could not stop him.

Two years later, in 206, Scipio achieved his last major victory in the Iberian Peninsula against the last Carthaginian army in the south near present-day Alcalá del Río. Carthaginian commanders Hasdrubal and Mago fled while their troops were massacred. In only five years, the Roman general had forced the Carthaginians out of Spain; Rome now ruled Iberia, and Scipio was already thinking about his next move: as Hannibal had brought war on the Italian soil, he would do the same, this time in Africa.

Before returning to Italy, Publius met with Massinissa, the Prince of Numidians. He had already shown his generosity by releasing Massiva, Massinissa’s young nephew. Massinissa had seen how the Romans had driven the Carthaginians out of Spain in a few years; he understood that the wind had changed and accepted the offer of an alliance. Scipio had managed to take one of their most precious allies away from the Carthaginians, the leader of the famous Numidian cavalry, which the Romans feared so much, another masterstroke; he was already laying the foundations for his expedition to Africa.

Through France and the Alps, Hasdrubal had managed to escape with his army in his brother's footsteps. But the Romans were waiting for him. One army was sent to keep Hannibal under surveillance, but the Carthaginian did not move because he was unaware of anything. Another army waited for Hasdrubal on the river Metaurus near Senigallia and defeated it. It is said that the general's head was severed from the body and thrown into Hannibal's camp.

Now everything was turning against the Carthaginian general. The Italian cities which had rebelled but were afraid of Rome sympathised but did not help him. Carthage had sent him 100 ships loaded with reinforcements, but 80 had sunk off the coast of Sardinia.

After his return to Rome, Scipio was enormously popular and in 205 was elected consul, and he proposed to bring the war to Africa. But, notwithstanding his fame and successes, not everybody in Rome backed his plan, particularly among aristocrats.

At the end of a complex negotiation, the two sides found a compromise: the Consul could have Sicily as a province and was allowed to bring the war to Africa from there, but he could not make additional levers and could not collect ships and money on behalf of the Res Publica for a possible expedition across the sea; he could only use the troops not employed against Hannibal, essentially the so-called legiones Cannaenses, the legions that had been located in Sicily after their defeat in Cannae. He could also get contributions from citizens and allies, but only voluntarily. A powerful cloak on Scipio.

The so-called “Legiones Cannaenses” were stationed in Sicily; their soldiers were confined there as a punishment for losing the battle of Cannae and other minor battles, soldiers who continued to be kept away from Italy, covered in infamy and humiliated: they could not be discharged, they did not receive licenses, they did not receive spares, they could not stay in the city even during the winter. 10,000 men, deemed infamous by the Roman state.

Scipio had essentially obtained waste troops, and he risked failure. He appealed to private citizens and allies and received unexpected support: almost all central and northern Italy cities spared from the war agreed to help him: money, supplies, weapons, troops came, mainly from those Etruscan states that were traditionally linked to his family.

And in 204, he sailed towards the African coast with this new, powerful army, 23.500 infantrymen and 2500 cavalrymen. For Carthage, now the war from offensive had turned into defensive, and the Punic Senate quickly summoned Hannibal to defend it.

In the year 203, after pretending to enter into peace negotiations, Scipio annihilated 2 Carthaginian armies with a ruse and later defeated a third. Carthage was tired of the war, it began to turn its back on Hannibal's party,  the end of the conflict was not in sight, the enemy had come to camp not far from the city, on its Gulf, and Carthage was now under pressure, most of the population now hoped only for the return of the two armies that still fought in Italy.

Hannibal landed in Africa with his army of veterans. At the same time, another army of mercenaries previously stationed in Northern Italy joined him, and the two armies headed towards the plain of Zama, about 50 miles south of Carthage. Now Hannibal was in command of an imposing force, bigger than the Roman one: about 40,000 men with 4000 cavalrymen and 80 elephants: 15,000 veterans of Italy, legendary but worn out, 11,000 unruly Iberian mercenaries and 10,000 citizens of Carthage, who would need long training.

The army in front of him was smaller but more homogeneous, entirely composed of veterans with skyrocketing morale for recent successes; it also included the powerful Numidian cavalry, which had granted Hannibal many victories. Moreover, it was led by a general who was far superior to all the Roman commanders that Hannibal had faced in Italy, a general who had not only assimilated but even perfected the tactics elaborated by Hannibal himself.

Fate had set the two greatest generals of the time in front of each other. And Roman historians report that Hannibal asked for a meeting before the decisive battle, and Scipio agreed. Hannibal tried to negotiate, but he was probably also curious to see the young rival; he had heard so many stories about him. But it was too late for negotiation, and on the other hand, Publius did not accept conditions: he was finally in front of his opponent, he was convinced that he could win, and he wanted the battle.

For the first time in his life, Hannibal, instead of taking the initiative, had to suffer his opponent's initiative, who used the same pincer technique that the Carthaginian had perfected in many battles. At the end of the fight, 20,000 Carthaginians laid on the ground. Hannibal got on a horse and galloped towards Carthage.

The Romans had won the war, but Scipio was generous. He asked for the fleet and recently conquered territories to be handed over and a war indemnity, but not for Hannibal's life or imprisonment. In 201, he returned to Rome and celebrated a grand triumph, and he took the nickname “Africanus”, the African.

Thus ended the Second Punic War.  

The Second Punic War decided the fate of the Mediterranean and Western Europe for centuries. Rome annexed Spain and became the dominant power over the sea, and increased its wealth immensely. However, the war took its toll: in all, 300,000 men had been killed, they were needed for farming and the army. Four hundred cities had been destroyed, half of the farms looted, especially in southern Italy.

However, from here, Rome will take a new push to head eastwards: in the following years, it will conquer Greece and Syria, shifting the centre of gravity of the Republic towards the East.

And, what about Hannibal? His war on Rome would continue for another 18 years, until its end far from Carthage, on the shores of the Black Sea. But that’s another story.


Read 2130 times Last modified on Monday, 17 May 2021 07:05
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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