Ancient History & Civilisation


The Last Age of Heroes


By 204, after having his proconsular command extended for another year, Scipio was ready to take the war to North Africa. He had spent his time on Sicily carefully preparing for the invasion. As well as undertaking the important task of training and drilling his expeditionary force, he had also found the time to cross back to Italy in 205 and had recaptured the Calabrian town of Locri, thus keeping up the pressure on Hannibal. He had also travelled to North Africa, in order to visit Syphax, the king of the powerful Massaesylian Numidian kingdom, at his capital of Siga. Mindful that they would need friends in North Africa if the invasion was to be a success, the Romans had been assiduously courting this wily political operator since as early as 213. However, Syphax, although continuing to maintain friendly relations with Rome, had clearly calculated that for the time being it was safer to stay in an alliance with Carthage, which was still better placed to have a direct impact on his realm. Now, as the time for the great Roman invasion approached, Scipio made another attempt to detach the king from the Carthaginians. By an extraordinary coincidence, his old Punic opponent from Spain, Hasdrubal Gisco, was also at Siga, having arrived there on his way back to Carthage. Syphax, juggling the competing claims of these two great powers as skilfully as ever, managed to persuade both the Roman general and his Carthaginian adversary to enjoy his hospitality together. Hasdrubal was reportedly so impressed by his Roman counterpart that he left for Carthage in fear for the future of his homeland.1

Scipio had nonetheless made the same miscalculation as his predecessors (including his late father and uncle) when he departed from Siga thinking that he had secured Syphax’s support in the upcoming North African campaign. Hasdrubal Gisco, aware of the temptation the Roman overture would present to the Numidian king, had recemented the bonds between Carthage and Syphax by offering his daughter Sophonisba in marriage. Desire would succeed where diplomacy had failed, for the old king fell passionately in love with his lively, intelligent and beautiful young queen. A new alliance between the Massaesylians and Carthage was subsequently signed, after which Hasdrubal persuaded the king to send a message to Scipio in Sicily informing him of the new pact.2

Even after this disappointment, the odds were still very much stacked in Scipio’s favour. While the Carthaginians had no real standing army in North Africa, and Hannibal’s force was languishing in Bruttium, the invasion force of 35,000 men that Scipio had mobilized was a formidable proposition. At its heart were two legions of battle-hardened veterans who had spent the previous decade in exile, fighting in Sicily as a punishment for fleeing the field at Cannae. This group, we are told, were particularly eager to make amends for their previous transgression. In the spring of 204 the expeditionary force left Lilybaeum to make the crossing to North Africa in a flotilla of 400 transport carriers with a guard of 20 warships. However, unfavourable weather forced Scipio to land the force near the city of Utica, to the north of Carthage, rather than at Syrtis Minor to the south, which would have exposed the fertile region of Cap Bon.3

The Carthaginians, although they must have predicted an imminent invasion, were still unprepared and, in an attempt to stall the Roman army while they mustered their own forces and awaited Syphax’s Numidian contingents, they sent out two separate cavalry detachments to engage the enemy. Both forces were easily defeated. The Carthaginians were nevertheless saved by the close of the campaigning season, and Scipio, after failing to take the well-fortified Utica and conscious that the Carthaginian army was now finally assembled, withdrew and set up camp for the winter.4

Realizing that the Carthaginian army would be a much weaker proposition without its Numidian cavalry, Scipio used the lull in fighting to make another attempt at luring Syphax over to the Roman side. The king, clearly concerned about the instability that a war in North Africa could bring to his own realm, was by this time far more anxious to broker a truce between Carthage and Rome (based on mutual withdrawal from the other’s homeland). But Scipio, anxious for more personal glory and sensing that a definitive victory could be won, merely feigned interest in this proposition while secretly having an officer reconnoitre the enemy camps. From the information gleaned from this scouting operation, he resolved to launch a surprise attack on the Carthaginian and Numidian positions. One night, after setting up a diversion, Scipio attacked the camps by setting fire to the huts–made out of extremely flammable wood and foliage or reeds–where the Carthaginian and Numidian troops lived, with the result that much of the enemy army of 50,000 infantry and 13,000 cavalry was killed. This disastrous blow to the Carthaginian cause was followed several months later, in 203, by another major defeat at the hands of Scipio, this time in open battle on the great plains south of Utica. The Carthaginian Council of Elders now had little option but to play their final card, and summoned Hannibal back from Italy.5

The Carthaginians stalled for time while they awaited Hannibal’s arrival. They sent a thirty-man commission to Scipio at Tunes with a mandate to discuss treaty terms. After first prostrating themselves in front him in the Levantine tradition, the envoys proceeded to accept full responsibility for their present predicament, before then laying much of the blame for Carthage’s actions on the Barcid clan and their supporters. In response, Scipio offered the following terms: the Carthaginians were to hand over all their prisoners of war as well as any deserters and refugees; they were to withdraw their armies from Italy, Gaul and Spain, and evacuate all the islands between Italy and Africa; they were to surrender their entire navy with the exception of twenty vessels, and provide huge quantities of wheat and barley to the Roman army; and finally they were to pay an indemnity of 5,000 talents of silver. These strictures were undoubtedly harsh, but previously Scipio had been determined to reject any peace proposals and destroy the city of Carthage itself. He had probably changed his mind only after his failure to take Utica, when he had realized that any siege of Carthage would be time-consuming and expensive in terms of both lives and material resources. And a long-drawn-out siege also presented the danger that Scipio himself might be replaced by another magistrate before final victory.6

The Carthaginian Council of Elders accepted the terms, and in the late summer of 203 a delegation was sent to Rome to conclude the treaty with the Senate. The ambassadors, apparently following an agreed strategy, once more blamed the Barcids for their present woes: ‘He [Hannibal] had no orders from their Senate to cross the Hiberus, much less the Alps. It was on his own authority that he had made war not only on Rome but even on Saguntum; anyone who took a just view would recognize that the treaty with Rome remained unbroken to that day.’7 After absolving the Carthaginian Council of Elders of any responsibility for the war, the envoys argued that it was not Carthage but in fact Hannibal who had first broken the terms of 241. The purpose of this rhetoric became clear when they proceeded to request that it should be only that treaty that was recognized–a far more advantageous arrangement, because it would have left the Carthaginians free to continue in the Balearic Islands and perhaps even southern Spain. Having ensured that the Roman offensive would be suspended while negotiations were ongoing, therefore, the envoys were now attempting to secure a better deal. Even if that deal was rejected, the longer their discussions continued, the more time Hannibal and Mago would have to return to North Africa.

The Roman senators were no fools, however, and poured scorn on the transparent Carthaginian tactics (not least because it soon became clear that the Carthaginian delegation were too young to remember the actual terms of the 241 treaty). But, incredibly, motivated perhaps by suspicion both of Hannibal and of the ever-successful Scipio, the Senate grudgingly ratified the new treaty, with the proviso that it should come into force only when the armies of Mago and Hannibal had finally left Italy.8

Hannibal reacted to the command to evacuate bitterly. The blame game had long since begun in the Council of Elders, but Hannibal quickly showed that he too was not averse to finding an appropriate scapegoat. According to Livy:

It is said that he gnashed his teeth, groaned, and almost shed tears when he heard what the delegates had to say. After they had delivered their instructions, he exclaimed, ‘The men who tried to drag me back by cutting off my supplies of men and money are now recalling me not by crooked means but plainly and openly. So you see, it is not the Roman people who have been so often routed and cut to pieces that have vanquished Hannibal, but the Carthaginian Senate by their detraction and envy. It is not Scipio who will pride himself and exult over the disgrace of my return so much as Hanno who has crushed my house, since he could do it in no other way, beneath the ruins of Carthage.’9

Mutual recriminations continued to fly between the Barcids and their opponents as the fragile accord built on Hannibal’s previous success began to fracture. Yet the Council of Elders had never been simply split between pro- and anti-Barcid factions, for many of the latter had been willing to support Hannibal while his aggressive strategy had brought prestige, booty and conquered territory. Once the bad news had started to arrive from the various Carthaginian fronts, the euphoria had quickly been replaced by growing concern and then anger. By 203, many who had previously been content to bask in the glory of Hannibal’s achievements had now joined the ever-louder chorus of disapproval emanating from Hanno and his supporters.

Hannibal nevertheless obeyed the command to return. His brother Mago, however, never reached his homeland, for, though he successfully embarked his troops in Liguria, he himself died of battle wounds as the fleet passed Sardinia, and a significant number of his ships were captured by the Romans.10 Hannibal landed in North Africa with an army composed of 15,000–20,000 experienced veterans. He had left some troops behind to garrison the few towns and cities that still remained loyal to him, and had released others entirely from his service.

The Romans now moved to undermine the memory of Hannibal’s considerable support in Italy, as well as the divine favouritism which his cause had claimed. A story was circulated which told how he had massacred his Italian troops when, refusing to embark for Africa, they had sought refuge in the temple of Juno at Cape Lacinium.11 Although the story was surely apocryphal, it is likely that its setting was carefully chosen by those who sought to blacken Hannibal’s name, for it had been at that temple, just 10 kilometres away from his last base at Croton, that the Carthaginian general had sought to secure his Italian legacy by erecting a bronze tablet listing his achievements on the peninsula, in both Latin and Greek. Polybius, a visitor to the temple, proclaimed his trust in the accuracy of the troop and animal numbers that it presented. However, he also intimated that other information it contained, which he did not include, was of a more dubious nature.12

This is not the only clue that Hannibal and his advisers, as they whiled away the days in their last stronghold at Bruttium, had come to see this famous sanctuary of Juno as a useful prop in their attempts to secure the lasting legacy of their campaign in Italy.13 The site was well known for the supernatural happenings that took place: there was, for example, an altar in the entrance court where the ashes were never stirred by the wind.14 Yet it was also an extremely pleasant spot, with an enclosure surrounded by dense woodland, and its centre blessed with rich pasture on which a variety of different breeds of cattle, sacred to the goddess, grazed. Such was the security and seclusion of the place that the cattle had no need of a cowherd, but simply took themselves back to their stalls at the end of the day. A portion of the huge profits made from the sale of these beasts had been used to pay for the making of a column of solid gold which was then dedicated to Juno.

A story, attributed to the Roman historian Coelius, but thought by most scholars to have originated from Silenus, told of how Hannibal had wanted to carry off the gold column, but first he had a hole bored into it to ascertain whether it was hollow or not. Juno, however, appeared to Hannibal in a dream and warned that she would blind him in his one good eye if he carried out the theft. On waking, not only did Hannibal heed the warning, but he also had a statuette of a heifer fashioned out of the swarf created when the column had been drilled, which was then set upon the top of the column.15

Like the other surviving stories detailing Hannibal’s dialogue with the gods, it is almost impossible to separate the original sense and aim of this tale from the hostile intepretations subsequently made by Roman and Greek historians.16 However, as with the other stories, it is most likely that its purpose was to highlight Hannibal’s sense of duty and devotion to the gods–in this case Juno/Hera, a goddess already with a reputation for hostility towards the Romans. Once the Carthaginian general was aware of the grave sacrilege that he was about to commit, he not only desisted but also sought to make good the slight that he had afforded the goddess.17 It was only subsequently that Roman historians turned it into a parable highlighting Hannibal’s supposed impiety. In addition, the Cape Lacinium sanctuary may not have appealed to Hannibal only because of its connections with Juno. One tradition had it that the temple had been built by none other than Heracles.18

The details of the story also hold other clues as to its Hannibalic provenance. Scholars have long recognized the close parallels between this tale and the claim made by the Greek philosopher Euhemerus, whose ideas had been such a key element of Hannibal’s association with Heracles–Melqart, that on an island in the Indian Ocean he had discovered a golden column on which was carved the most ancient history of the world, and particularly an account of the origins of humankind through the earliest Greek gods.19 The story of the golden heifer, as a final evocation of the euhemeristic creed through which the Carthaginian general had tried to reach out to the Greek world, was as much a testament to the Hannibalic legacy as the inscription that detailed his troop numbers and military campaigns. However, one must imagine that later, under Silenus’ skilful pen as he wrote up his account of Hannibal’s expedition after its final failure, it became a mournful eulogy to the last great champion of the syncretistic realm of Heracles–Melqart.

Long after Hannibal’s departure, the Romans remained wary of the sanctuary and the goddess. When the censor Quintus Fulvius Flaccus removed the tiles from the roof of the temple in 174/173 for use on a temple to Fortune that he was building in Rome, the Senate quickly moved to counter this perceived impiety. During a severe carpeting by his senatorial peers, Flaccus was asked, ‘Had he considered that he had insufficiently violated the temple, the most revered in that region, one which neither Pyrrhus nor Hannibal had violated, unless he had foully removed its roof and almost torn it down?’ After a careful expiation had been carried out, the tiles were returned to the temple–where they were placed in the building, because none of the masons could master how to secure them back on the roof.20

Roman accounts of a massacre of Italian troops at the sanctuary may well have been aimed at countering Hannibalic claims that the temple of Juno at Cape Lacinium represented the final coordinate of the heroic journey that the Carthaginian general had made over the previous fifteen years. Yet even if the accusation was false, what could not be denied was that, in departing from Italy, Hannibal had left his Italian allies to an uncertain future. Indeed, the extraordinary number of coin hoards found in Bruttium, clearly buried by their owners until better times returned, bear mute but tragic testament to the ominous position of those left behind.21

In an indication of his lack of trust in the Council of Elders, Hannibal did not proceed directly to Carthage, but camped at the port of Hadrumetum, some 120 kilometres south of the metropolis. He had arrived just in time, because by the spring of 202 the fragile truce with Rome had been broken. When the Carthaginians looted and requisitioned some Roman supply vessels driven ashore by a storm, the Roman envoys sent to demand reparations had been given short shrift, for the Council of Elders had clearly been buoyed by the nearby presence of Hannibal and his troops. The envoys, furthermore, were nearly lynched by a mob and saved only by the timely intervention of the leaders of the anti-Barcid faction, Hasdrubal Haedus and Hanno. The more extreme elements within the Council of Elders nevertheless then attempted an ambush, and while the envoys’ ship managed to escape, several fatalities were inflicted.22

This deliberate provocation now led Scipio to act decisively. First he summoned his ally the Numidian king Masinissa to join him with his forces, and then, in a clear attempt to force Hannibal into open battle, he started a brutal campaign of attacking and razing to the ground a number of towns situated in the populous and fertile Medjerda valley, selling their populations into slavery. This ruthless tactic soon bore fruit, and representatives from the Carthaginian Council of Elders implored Hannibal to attack Scipio as soon as possible.23

Hannibal thus marched north-westward, perhaps with the intention of cutting off Masinissa and his troops before they could join up with Scipio’s army. In October 202 he eventually caught up with the Romans at Zama, about five days’ march to the south-west of Carthage. Scipio, in a marvellous display of morale-boosting bravado, invited captured Carthaginian scouts sent to reconnoitre the Roman positions to walk freely around his camp and take back their discoveries to their general. This gesture may have been less carefree than it first appears, however, for Scipio relocated his camp to a new position soon after. With the two armies now making the necessary preparations for combat, Hannibal requested a meeting with Scipio. The Carthaginian, whose enormous experience perhaps already told him that military victory against Scipio’s forces was unlikely, tried to negotiate new, milder, terms for a treaty. Scipio, however, confident of a victory on the battlefield, refused.24

The next morning battle was joined. Although Hannibal’s army was more numerous, with now around 50,000 men to Scipio’s 29,000, the 6,000 well-trained Numidian cavalry provided by Masinissa gave the Romans a significant advantage. With little cavalry of his own and an untested infantry, Hannibal’s battle strategy reflected his rather limited options. Unlike in Italy, where he had often been able to use his advantage in cavalry to encircle the enemy at the wings, at Zama he lined his men up in three lines, with the remnants of his brother Mago’s mercenary army in the front rank, a force of Libyan levies and Carthaginian citizens in the second, and his own force of heavily armoured veterans in reserve. His tactics would be simple: he would use brute force to drive a way through the centre of the Roman army, drawn up in a similar formation of three lines (with the most experienced troops at the rear). This was certainly not the most sophisticated battle plan, but considering the resources at Hannibal’s disposal it probably represented the most realistic option.

The lack of coherence within the Carthaginian army was highlighted from the beginning of the battle, for Hannibal merely exhorted and encouraged his own veterans in the third row, and the responsibility for rousing the other groups fell to the captains.

In order to make the initial break through the Roman front line, Hannibal relied on a troop of eighty elephants. However, Scipio had already prepared his force for that particular challenge by creating broad corridors through the three massed ranks of his troops. When at last the battle began and the elephants charged, most of those beasts that did not panic and rampage back into their own lines were easily channelled down the lanes that cut through the Roman ranks. Taking advantage of the turmoil, Masinissa’s horsemen and the Roman cavalry charged their opposite numbers and drove them from the battlefield.

Among the infantry, the fight was far more even-handed, with both sides standing their ground and inflicting heavy losses on the other before eventually the Carthaginian first and second lines were forced back. After Scipio had reordered his troops into one single massed line, the struggle began against Hannibal’s 20,000 battle-hardened veterans, who had been kept in reserve by their commander. The two forces proved evenly matched until the returning Roman cavalry attacked the rear of the Carthaginian lines. Many of Hannibal’s famed soldiers were killed, with around the same number captured.25 It was a crippling blow, both for Hannibal himself, who had managed to escape the battleground, and for Carthage. Zama effectively brought the second great war between Rome and Carthage to an end.26

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