Scipio Africanus, Rome’s Greatest General

Richard Gabriel is a military historian and his strength lies in his thorough understanding of military history, strategy, tactics and logistics. In Scipio Africanus Gabriel thoroughly analyses Scipio’s military campaigns in Spain and Africa and gets into details that will fascinate students of military history. For example he shows that, based on logistics it would have been impossible for Scipio to have marched his army from Taracco to New Carthage in seven days as Polybius and Livy assert. He also provides an excellent analysis of the larger context of the Second Punic war, its aftermath and its significance in Roman history.
To claim Scipio Africanus as Rome’s greatest general one must compare him with Julius Caesar, for whom many would claim that title.I happen to share this belief but it is certainly controversial. He states “The ability of a great general can be measured by the quality of his opponents, and in this regard Scipio fought and defeated some of history’s best-trained and brilliant commanders, Hasdrubal Barca, Hasdrubal, son of Gisco; and Hannibal were the best field generals Carthage produced. Products of the Barcid military family dynasty, they were heirs to a half-century tradition of combat experience and possessed a tactical flexibility unheard of in other armies that Roman commanders had ever faced. No Roman general after Scipio faced enemy commanders of this caliber again except, perhaps, when they fought each other during the civil wars. Even then their professional armies fought in mostly identical ways, so tactical brilliance and innovation was not evident. Both Alexander and Caesar fought mostly poorly trained armies led by mediocre commanders.” He points out that Scipio had to deal with citizen soldiers whom he had to form into something resembling a professional army while later Roman commanders had professional armies at their disposal from the beginning.(By this stage in the Second Punic War, however most of Scipio’s legionaries would have been pretty well seasoned, so I’m not sure this argument holds much water.) Comparing Scipio’s and Caesar’s logistical abilities (keeping their armies supplied and fed) Scipio was superior.
Gabriel’s accounts of the battles of Ilipa and Zama are detailed and fascinating.
Unfortunately, Gabriel is careless in places, making statements that someone well-grounded in the history of the era can deny or refute. For example he says that Hannibal never attacked Rome. Hannibal besieged Rome in 210 B.C. , quitting the siege due to bad weather which impeded his battles and due to the fact that besieging Rome did not accomplish his strategic aim of relieving the siege of Capua.
He also states that once Scipio arrived in Spain in 209 BC “The road to Italy was blocked and would never reopen again.” How does he explain how Hasdrubal Barca left Spain in 207 with an army and crossed over the Pyrenees and the Alps? (This army was annihilated at the battle of the Metaurus.)
He states that Scipio Aemilianus was adopted by Aemilius Paullus. Aemilianus was the natural son of Aemilius Paullus, he was adopted by the eldest son of Scipio Africanus.
A brief look at the list of Roman Consuls would have told Gabriel that Quintus Fabius Maximus did not acquire the title Maximus due to his accomplishments during the Second Punic war. The name Maximus had been in the family for generations.
Other than these quibbles, the book is well worth reading for both the student of military history and the student of Roman history.

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