Quora Question: Who in Your Opinion Was the Greatest General in World History

Robin Levin

There are many candidates for the greatest soldier/warrior in world history, but I would choose Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal in the Second Punic War (218 B.C. to 202 B.C.)

Scipio never lost a battle. At the start of his military career, at age 17 he rescued his own father, the Consul Publius Scipio, at the battle of Ticinus, as he was about to be cut down by Hannibal’s soldiers after having been wounded and thrown from his horse. At nineteen, he fought in and survived the battle of Cannae in which 50,000 Roman and allied soldiers died on the battlefield.

At age 25 Scipio took command of the surviving forces in the province of Spain after both his father and his uncle had been defeated by the Carthaginians there and killed. The first thing he did when he arrived was to take 25,000 soldiers down to New Carthage and capture the city. This deprived the Carthaginians of their harbor, their stored armament and grain, their stored gold and silver, and the hostages they kept in order to keep their tribal allies from rebellion. It was an absolutely brilliant maneuver.

There were three Carthaginian generals in Spain when Scipio arrived. Hannibal’s brothers Hasdrubal and Mago, and Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, each with some 25,000 troops. Later the Carthaginians sent another general named Hanno. Scipio defeated Hasdrubal Barca at the Battle of Baecula in 208 B.C. (Hasdrubal Barca then raised and army and crossed the Alps in an unsuccessful attempt to join Hannibal.) He defeated the combined forces of Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Son of Gisco at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 B.C. By the time he left Spain there remained not a single enemy soldier fighting under the Carthaginian standard.

Scipio ran for Consul in 206 B.C. and won despite the fact that he was not yet thirty. Despite opposition by the Roman aristocracy, especially the elder general Fabius Maximus, he was determined to invade Africa and besiege Carthage. He was not allowed to levy troops but assembled 7000 volunteers, and added to them the two legions of soldiers who had survived the battle of Cannae and had been punished with service on Sicily for the duration of the war.

Arriving in Africa, he was opposed by the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Son of Gisco, and by Syphax, the Numidian King of the Masaesyli who had married Hasdrubal’s daughter Sophanisba. Hasdrubal had an army of 30,000 foot and 3000 horse. Syphax had and army of 50,000 foot and 10,000 horse. Scipio spent the winter pretending to conduct negotiations, then after informing them that they could not come to an agreement, he had his troops venture out at night and set fire to both enemy camps. Scarcely 35,000 of their combined forces survived.

Hasdrubal and Syphax both survived and reassembled an army, but Scipio defeated their combined forces at the Battle of the Great Plains in 203 B.C.

As Scipio had predicted, Cathage recalled Hannibal and his brother Mago to Africa. Mago had been wounded and died in transit. Hannibal arrived at Hadrudentum and assembled an army of 45,000 foot and 6000 horse as well as 80 elephants.

At the battle of Zama, Scipio arranged his troops in such a way as to neutralize the elephants, allowing them to pass harmlessly through the maniples. The decisive factor was probably that, unlike at Cannae, the Romans had a superiority of Cavalry, nine thousand as compared to Hannibal’s 6000. Six thousand horse had been brought by Scipio’s Numidian ally Masinissa, King of the Massylii. Moreover, Scipio’s soldiers were well trained and experienced, while some of Hannibal’s were new recruits. Scipio won the battle and forced the Carthaginians into a treaty on Roman terms, ending the 16 year long war.

To learn more about this remarkable Roman general, read Scipio Africanus, Greater than Napoleon by B.F. Liddle-Hart, or read my book The Death of Carthage.

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