Why is Scipio Africanus Considered a Military Genius for Clearing a Path for Hannibal’s Elephants? Isn’t that the Obvious Thing to Do?

Elephants were known to wreak havoc in ancient warfare. In the case of Zama, it wasn’t a simple matter of stepping out of way and clearing a path for the elephants. Scipio wanted Hannibal to think that his elephants would be effective in disrupting the Roman lines, so he disguised the paths he was planning to make by having his velites occupying them. (velites were the youngest, least trained, and most expendable soldiers in the Roman army.) The velites were instructed to move into the ranks of the maniples to clear a path for the elephants when they charged. Elephants prefer to proceed unobstructed so they charged through the paths that the velites had created. Thus Scipio neutralized one of the most serious threats to his army. It was a deceptively simple solution-with the emphasis on DECEPTIVE.

But that is not the only reason Scipio is hailed as a military genius. When he was sent to Spain in 209 B.C. at the age of 25 he had about 35,000 legionaries at his disposal. Carthaginian forces in Spain numbered at least 75,000. His father and uncle had both recently been killed there in the battles of the Upper Baetis, and no one thought that he would even survive, let alone conquer Spain.

The first thing that Scipio did was to bring his legions and fleet to the Carthaginian stronghold of New Carthage (Cartagena) and conquer it. He had interviewed fishermen and learned that the sea wall on the lagoon side of the city was not very high and, unlike the rest of the city wall it could be easily scaled by ladders. He also learned that, at low tide, the water was very shallow and could be easily crossed on foot. He kept the Carthaginians busy at the city gates and sent 500 legionaries over the sea wall at low tide. They attacked the defenders inside the city and opened the gates to his soldiers. The city was taken. Again a deceptively simple solution with the emphasis on DECEPTIVE.

Then there was the battle of Ilipa in 206 B.C.. According to Polybius his 48,000 men were facing 74,000 Carthaginian forces under Hasdrubal Son of Gisco and Hannibal’s brother Mago. Once again Scipio used deceptive tactics. He brought his troops out late in the morning for several days, and lined them up with his strong heavy armed Roman legionaries in the van and his weak light armed Spanish troops on the flanks. (This, of course, was the opposite of the way it should be done if you want to perform an envelopment maneuver.) Hasdrubal copied his troop dispositions. On the day of the battle he roused his troops before dawn and had them eat breakfast, then brought them out to the field at dawn. This time his strong troops were on the flanks and the weak ones in the van. Hasdrubal hastily assembled his unfed troops and he didn’t realize that Scipio had changed his troop dispositions. He still had his strong troops in the van and his weak ones on the flanks. Scipio was in no hurry to engage, he wanted the unfed enemy troops weakened by hunger and thirst. Once again a deceptively simple solution with the emphasis on DECEPTIVE.

When he was ready he carried out a classic double envelopment maneuver. The entire Carthaginian Army was destroyed and both Hasdrubal Son of Gisco and Mago fled the country. In four years Scipio had cleared Spain of all Carthaginian forces. Only a true military genius could have done that.

Scipio was not only a genius when it came to military tactics, but he was also a genius at logistics. Nearly everything he did smacked of genius, from returning a beautiful Celtiberian hostage to her betrothed, to freeing Spanish prisoners without ransom, to returning Masinissa’s nephew to his uncle. Everything he did was calculated to benefit him in his war efforts, even if it didn’t seem obvious to others at the time that it was the right thing to do.

To better understand Scipio’s strategy and tactics, read Africanus, Greater than Napoleon, by B.F. Liddle-Hart.

Sometimes genius is deceptively simple-with the emphasis on DECEPTIVE.


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