How Good a General Was Scipio Africanus?

How good of a general was Scipio Africanus? Was he truly one of the greats, or did he simply benefit from the fame of defeating Hannibal at Zama?

 Robin Levin

  • Scipio Africanus was definitely one of the greatest generals in history. The Battle of Zama, where he defeated Hannibal wasn’t even his most brilliant accomplishment.

In 211 B.C. Scipio’s father Publius and his uncle Gneius were killed at the Battles of the Upper Baetis. Some three fourths of the 32,000 Romans and Italians stationed in Spain were killed, leaving some 8000 who took refuge in the north-eastern corner of Spain under the command of Lucius Marcius Septimus..

In 210 B.C. Scipio volunteered to take his deceased father and uncle’s command in Spain. Although he was only 25 years old at the time, the centuries voted in his favor because no one else wanted the job. At the time he had been a soldier for seven years, and had gained fame by saving his father’s life at the Battle of Ticinus, leading a charge of his cavalry turma to rescue his father, the Consul, who had been unhorsed and wounded.

What he accomplished in Spain was astounding. The Carthaginians had about 75,000 men under arms under three generals, Hasdrubal the brother of Hannibal, Mago the brother of Hannibal, and Hasdrubal, son of Gisco. Scipio had about 35,000 Roman and Italian troops under his command, including the 8000 survivors of the Battles of the Upper Baetis.

The first thing Scipio did was to undertake the conquest of New Carthage, something that his predecessors never thought to do. His sources informed him that none of the three Carthaginian armies were less than ten days march from the city, so Scipio marched 25,000 men down to the city and sent a fleet under his lieutenant Gaius Laelius and besieged the city. He had ascertained that the city had a weakness, walls on the side facing the lagoon were not very high and could be scaled with ladders. When the tide was low, one could walk right up to them as the water was only up to the thigh. He occupied the defenders on the west and east ends of the city and sent 500 men over the wall which was on the north side. They easily scaled the wall and proceeded to the main gate where they opened the gates to the Romans. After some slaughter the commander of the Carthaginian garrison surrendered and Scipio treated the city with clemency.

What was the significance of capturing New Carthage? As Livy quotes Scipio “Our conquest of New Carthage will have profound advantages to our cause. The conquest of this city holds the key to the conquest of Hispania and, ultimately to Roman victory in this war against Carthage.

“Here in New Carthage, are the hostages from the most distinguished kings and states of Hispania. As soon as you shall have gained possession of these they will immediately deliver into your hands everything which is now subject to the Carthaginians.

“Here is the whole of the enemy’s treasure, without which they can not carry on the war, and which will be most serviceable to us in conciliating the affections of the barbarians. Here are their engines, their arms, their tackle and every requisite in war; which will at once supply you and leave the enemy destitute.”

The return of the hostages caused many of the tribes of Spain to desert the Carthaginian cause and join the Romans.

As you can see from this quotation, Scipio had a keen understanding of the logistics of war. The subsequent battles of Baecula and Ilipa also show that he had a keen sense of strategy and tactics as well. In four years Scipio removed all Carthaginian forces from Spain although he had been outnumbered more than two to one. Scipio was a general who never lost a battle, and was certainly the match for any general of ancient times.

If interested in the Second Punic War, read my historical novels The Death of Carthage and In the Wake of Hannibal, both available on Amazon and Kindle.


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