Ancient History & Civilisation


In Spain there had been some hope of a revival in Carthaginian fortunes with the defeat and deaths of both Publius and Gnaeus Scipio in 211.86 The leaderless Roman forces, however, had rallied strongly under Lucius Marcius Septimus, irregularly proclaimed as leader by the troops. Furthermore, the capture of Capua had meant that many of the troops that had been involved in its siege could now be reassigned to Spain, and a new commander to oversee Roman forces in Spain was subsequently elected. The selection was controversial for a number of reasons. The consuls, unusually, brought their nomination before the Popular Assembly for validation, and their candidate should have been disbarred because he had not previously held the requisite senior senatorial post. Indeed, it appears that the powerful Cornelii clan had arranged things so that no one else would stand against Publius Cornelius Scipio, the 25-year-old son and nephew of the two dead generals. Although this may appear little more than nepotism, Scipio’s appointment was a shrewd move, for there was no doubt that the Roman armies in Spain would welcome a Scipio as their new commander. It was also apparent, even at this early stage of his career, that the young Scipio was an exceptional man.87

Scipio was a member of a younger generation of junior Roman senators who had gained their experience solely against an enemy whose sophisticated use of military and propagandistic strategies was a clear advance on previous opposition. Much of Scipio’s genius came from his capacity to borrow and even improve upon many of the strategies that Hannibal himself had deployed to such great effect. This included not only military but also ideological tactics, for Scipio appears to have believed that the most effective way to counter the widely held belief in Hannibal’s divine sanction was to encourage the idea that he himself enjoyed heroic status and divine favour.88 Stories thus went into circulation which connected Scipio’s conception and subsequent life with the gods:

Scipio was believed to be the son of Jupiter; for before he was conceived a serpent appeared in his mother’s bed, and a snake crawled over him when he was an infant without doing him any harm. When he went back late to the Capitol, the [temple] dogs never barked at him. He never started out on any course of action without first having sat for a long time in the shrine of Jupiter, as if to receive the god’s instruction.89

It is, of course, not difficult to see that these stories, which appear in a number of different ancient authors, were designed to create an association both with Alexander the Great and, primarily, with Heracles/Hercules (himself the son of Zeus/Jupiter). This constituted a direct challenge to a Hannibalic campaign that cast the Carthaginian general in the same light.90

Another story reported that when his elder brother Lucius stood for the aedileship, Scipio managed to secure election both for his sibling and himself by telling his mother that he had twice dreamt that this would come about, prompting Polybius to comment that ‘people now believed that he communed with the gods not only in reality and by day, but still more in his sleep.’91 Scipio’s rumoured quasi-divinity demonstrates the extent to which the Roman people linked political and military success with divine favour (as in the case of Hannibal). While sceptical historians in the mould of Livy or Polybius might dismiss such associations as nothing more than gossip or superstition, it nonetheless seems clear that Scipio himself actively encouraged them.92 Certainly Livy, despite condemning the tales about Scipio’s miraculous birth as nothing more than gossip, strongly suggests that the Roman general did not discourage the impression that he enjoyed divine favour:

He himself never made light of men’s belief in these marvels; on the contrary it was rather promoted by a certain studied practice of neither denying such a thing nor openly asserting it. Many other things of the same sort, some true, some pretended, had passed the limits of admiration for a mere man in the case of this youth. Such were things upon which the citizens relied when they entrusted to any age far from mature the great responsibility of so great a command.93

Scipio’s strategic manipulation of his heroic reputation is aptly demonstrated by events at the siege of New Carthage in 209. After learning that none of the Carthaginian armies operating on the Iberian peninsula was within ten days’ march of the city, Scipio decided to attack. It was a bold but clever move, because if he were successful it would rob the Carthaginian commanders of a strategically important base and, furthermore, seriously weaken the Barcid reputation in Spain. Stationing his fleet opposite New Carthage, Scipio encouraged its defenders to think that an attack was to be mounted from the eastern, landward, side of the city by throwing up earthworks there. In fact the attack would come from the west, for he had learned from local fishermen that the lagoon which bordered that side of the city was fairly shallow, and further that during the ebb of the tide, towards evening, it emptied out through a narrow channel that connected it to the sea.94 Scipio nevertheless told his troops a very different story, for he related how Neptune, the Roman sea god, had appeared to him in a dream and promised his assistance in capturing the city. The next day, after first launching a fierce assault on the city from the east in order to divert the attention of the Carthaginian defenders, Scipio ordered 500 of his men to cross the lagoon with ladders. After wading through the now shallow waters, the men quickly scaled the unguarded western walls. With Roman troops inside the city itself, New Carthage soon fell.95

The Neptune incident at the siege of New Carthage conforms to a now familiar model of myth-making as a strategic weapon. Polybius saw this incident as an example of how Scipio ‘made the men under his command more sanguine and more ready to face dangerous enterprises by instilling in them the belief that his projects were divinely inspired’.96 In Scipio, Hannibal thus found an opponent who not only provided a stiff challenge on the battlefield, but also presented himself as a serious rival for the Carthaginian’s divine/heroic mantle.

In another indication that he had learned much from Hannibal, Scipio showed mercy to the inhabitants of New Carthage and let many of them return home. He also solved his own manpower problems by promising eventual liberty to the Carthaginian soldiers if they served on his warships and on labour details. The Spanish hostages whom he found in New Carthage were assured of their freedom to return home if their peoples became Roman allies.97 And the Roman cause in Spain was further boosted by the enormous amount of captured booty: over 600 talents of silver and a vast quantity of war munitions, as well as a fully operational mint with which Scipio could immediately start issuing coinage.98

With these considerable resources at his disposal, Scipio now turned his attention to the three Carthaginian armies that were operating in Spain. A mass of defections to the Romans had led Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal to the conclusion that he had to attack Scipio as soon as possible. The two armies met in spring 208 at Baecula, in the north-west of the modern Spanish province of Jaén. Scipio, through bold and decisive action, soon got the better of Hasdrubal’s forces, and the Carthaginian consequently put his reserve plan into operation, heading north with the remnants of his army with the intention of joining his brother in Italy.99

After this great and decisive victory, however, an embarrassing and potentially dangerous moment occurred when a number of Spanish chiefs acclaimed Scipio as king.100 This was a title that would not win much favour in Rome, where regal aspirations were hated and feared in equal measure. Scipio, however, responded with characteristic diplomacy: ‘He ordered silence to be proclaimed, and then told them that the title he valued most was the one his soldiers had given him, the title of “Imperator”. “The name of king,” he said, “so great elsewhere, is insupportable to Roman ears. If a kingly mind is in your eyes the noblest thing in human nature, you may attribute it to me in thought, but you must avoid the use of the word.”’101

Despite Scipio’s proclamation (mental or otherwise) as king, the Carthaginians were not yet spent, and had decided on a new course of action. While one army under Hasdrubal Gisco would attempt to hold the only part of the peninsula that remained loyal–the lower Guadalquivir valley and Gades–Mago would travel to the Balearic Islands to recruit fresh troops. Hasdrubal Barca, meanwhile, hurried north with the remainder of the Carthaginian forces, recruiting Gallic mercenaries as he went. After waiting until winter had passed, he and his Carthaginian army crossed the Alps into Italy, taking the easier route through the Durance and Mont Genèvre passes.102

With Hasdrubal departed for Italy, the Carthaginian position in Spain became increasingly desperate. A relief army sent from North Africa had been routed, leaving the remainder of the Carthaginian forces holed up in strongholds around Gades and the lower Guadalquivir valley. In the spring of 206, Hannibal’s brother Mago, now returned from the Balearics, had joined up with Hasdrubal Gisco and decided to stake all in open battle with Scipio at Ilipa. Although the Carthaginian army was numerically greater (with 60,000 troops compared with the Roman 50,000), Scipio proved himself to be every bit as daring and original a general as Hannibal. After first putting pressure on the Carthaginians by drawing his army up for battle at daybreak, Scipio, rather than placing his crack Roman legionaries in the centre as was customary, stationed them on the flanks, with his less reliable Spanish auxiliaries at the centre. Using similar tactics to those of Hannibal at Cannae, therefore, Scipio let his battle line advance before ordering his legionaries on the wings to turn in on the centre. When the Spanish federates on the enemy flanks had been driven back, pressure was then brought to bear on the Carthaginian centre, which, after a hard fight, was eventually overthrown.103

After the final, desperate defeat at Ilipa, Carthaginian resistance in Spain quickly folded, with many of the senior command fleeing to their last real stronghold, Gades.104 Even the subsequent illness of Scipio, a troop mutiny and a revolt against Rome by the powerful Ilergetes tribes could not revive the Carthaginian cause. By the end of 206, Mago, who had already had to put down an insurrection in the previously loyal stronghold of Gades, left the Iberian peninsula to join Hannibal in Italy and the people of Gades surrendered to the Romans. The once glittering imperial possession that had been Barcid Spain was no more, after little more than thirty years of existence.105

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