Ancient History & Civilisation



Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus (185/4–129 BC)

It is foolish to incur danger for small results. He must be considered a reckless general who would fight before there is any need, while a good one takes risks only in cases of necessity.1

THE WARS FOUGHT AGAINST THE GREAT HELLENISTIC POWERS WERE important, intensely dramatic, and highly lucrative to the victors, but they were also comparatively rare events. Throughout the second century BC the bulk of Rome’s war effort was devoted to campaigns against the tribal peoples of Spain, Northern Italy and Southern Gaul, and, to a lesser extent, Illyria and Thrace. These campaigns were fought against peoples with – to the Greeks and Romans at least – obscure and uncouth names, who fielded armies of brave, but often ill-disciplined and poorly equipped warriors. Politically they were divided into many tribes, which in turn were often enough split between the followers of various chieftains. The defeat of one tribe or clan did not necessarily mean that their neighbours would capitulate, in the way that a single decisive battle ended each of the wars with Macedonia and the Seleucids. Therefore warfare in these provinces tended to consist of lots of individual campaigns to defeat each community or leader in turn.

A triumph over the Arevaci or Boii did not provide the same prestige as one over a famous kingdom such as Macedonia, nor was it likely to enrich an army and commander on a comparable scale. Frequent warfare in the Spanish and Gallic provinces meant that victories won in these theatres were common. Senators eager to gain the maximum advantage from such a success liked to claim that this was the first time a particular people had been encountered by a Roman army, along with the familiar catalogues of numbers – men killed and captured and towns and villages stormed. Concerned that triumphs were being won too often and too easily, the Senate decided that a minimum of 5,000 enemies needed to have been killed in battle before a magistrate could claim the honour. The details of this measure are obscure, though it probably occurred at some point during the second century BC, and it is impossible to know just how rigorously it was implemented.

Such restrictions should not lead us to the conclusion that all Roman campaigns against tribal opponents were one-sided affairs or in any way ‘cheap’ victories. A few were, but the majority were difficult operations against an enemy who was brave, often numerous, and well used to exploiting the natural strength of their homeland. Battles against Gauls, Ligurians and the various Spanish peoples were usually hard-fought encounters and Roman success was never inevitable. Many generals suffered heavy defeats at the hands of these tribesmen. Gauls had sacked Rome in 390 BC and threatened it again in 225 BC, until sheer good fortune rather than design had allowed both of that year’s consuls to attack their army, one from either side, at Telamon. In 216 the appalling catastrophe of Cannae only in part obscured a disaster in the Po valley where the tribes had ambushed and all but wiped out an army of two legions and two alae. Amongst the dead was the Roman commander, the praetor Lucius Postumius Albinus, a highly experienced man who had already held two consulships and had just been elected in his absence to a third term for the following year. This was probably the most spectacular Roman defeat in this region, although it was certainly not the only one. Reverses in the Spanish peninsula tended to be on a smaller scale, but were even more frequent.2

A properly trained, supplied and competently led Roman army could under most circumstances be expected to prevail over tribal opponents. At the start of the second century BC these conditions usually applied, since all ranks were composed predominantly of veterans of the Hannibalic war. In these years the legions on the frontiers in Northern Italy and the Spanish provinces demonstrated the same high levels of discipline, confidence and tactical flexibility which had smashed the professional armies of the Hellenistic powers. Often enough they were composed of the same men, for most of the officers and soldiers who fought at Cynoscephalae and Magnesia had already served in one of the western provinces. Aemilius Paullus, for instance, had led armies in Spain and Liguria before taking up command in the Pydna campaign. Cato, the man who subsequently led the outflanking column at Thermopylae in 191 and whose son distinguished himself at Pydna, had been sent as consul in 195 to Nearer Spain. After a period of training and small-scale operations intended to give the troops practical experience and build up their confidence, he fought a pitched battle with the main Iberian army outside the city of Emporion. A night march went undetected by the Spaniards and brought the Roman army to a position with the enemy between them and their own camp, for Cato was determined that his men should have no chance of survival other than through victory.

The Iberians were jostled into a hasty deployment, as the battle developed at a time and in the fashion chosen by the Roman commander. Throughout the fighting Cato made careful use of his reserves, sending two cohorts – probably of the extraordinarii – to feint against the enemy rear, and breaking the stalemate between the main battle lines by adding the weight of fresh units to the Roman attack. Finally, he brought up the Second Legion, which had to this point played no part in the fighting, to storm the Spanish camp. The Roman commander was also ready to intervene personally in the action, moving to rally his troops when the retreat of some cavalry caused a panic on his right, and physically grabbing and stopping some of the soldiers as they fled. Later he led the Second Legion in its advance, and made sure that the men moved in good order and did not let their enthusiasm get out of control. Cato rode up and down in front of the line, striking with a hunting spear at any legionary who broke formation and ordering the nearest centurion or tribune to mark the man down for future punishment.3

In the first quarter of the second century BC the resistance of the tribes of Cisalpine Gaul was permanently broken. South of the Po, the Boii lost much of their land to Roman colonists and were virtually destroyed as a significant political unit. Further north peoples like the Cenomani and Insubres fared better and over time their aristocrats gained citizenship and were absorbed into the Roman system. The Ligurians were a mountain people, with a loose social organization and few leaders recognized outside their own villages. Primarily pastoralists, their flocks were vulnerable to attack at the very beginning of spring before they moved away from the winter pastures to higher and more dispersed grazing areas. Yet campaigning in such difficult terrain was always a risky business, whilst the defeat of one village rarely did much to persuade others to stop raiding the nearest Roman colonies and allied communities. Fighting continued to the middle of the century and it was only after extensive transplantation of the population to settlements in Southern Italy that the Ligurians were pacified. In Spain warfare was almost constant until in 177 the consul Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus employed a mixture of military force and skillful diplomacy to establish a peace that would last for more than twenty years.4

By the time that Gracchus’ settlement broke down in the 150s, the Roman army had declined. The Second Punic War generation was either dead or too elderly for active service and much of its accumulated experience had been forgotten. The impermanence of the militia system made it difficult to preserve knowledge in any institutional way and the problem was exacerbated by the comparative infrequency of warfare in the second quarter of the century. By 157 BC the Senate was especially eager to send an expedition to Dalmatia because it was feared that prolonged peace might make the men of Italy effeminate.5 Inexperience was compounded by complacency as many persuaded themselves that Rome’s long run of successful warfare had occurred inevitably and not as the product of careful preparation and training. The performance of Roman armies in the field throughout the remainder of the century was often dismal. At a time when very few commanders performed creditably, Scipio Aemilianus’ considerable ability stood out in even higher relief than it might otherwise have done.


The adoption of an heir or heirs to continue the family name was common amongst the senatorial aristocracy and an adopted son was considered no different from an actual son. That he became in every legal and emotional sense a member of a new family did not exclude the preservation of a strong link with his blood family. Although adopted at an early age by Africanus’ son, Scipio Aemilianus spent most of his early life in the household of Aemilius Paullus and, as we have seen, served with him in Macedonia and rode with him in his subsequent triumph. The second son, as a youth Scipio showed no particular signs of exceptional promise and, like his father, he was cautious and somewhat reserved. Unlike most young men embarking on a public career, he did not practise forensic oratory and seek to make a name for himself as a legal advocate. Instead he preferred sports and military training, preparing himself to fight for the Republic in war. At Pydna he fought well, if a little overenthusiastically, and during the months in Greece following the victory discovered what would prove to be a lifelong love of hunting as he, along with his older brother and their friends, went on many expeditions in Perseus’ wide estates. Paullus permitted his sons to take very little from the king’s treasures, but did allow them to take their pick of his extensive library. Greek literature and culture would play a major part in Scipio’s life, his interests encouraged and fostered by a long friendship with Polybius, who arrived in Rome as a hostage in the aftermath of the war.

In time Scipio and his circle of friends, which included Laelius, the son of Africanus’ old confederate, would be seen as representatives of the best sort of philhellenism. They were true Romans, possessed of all the traditional virtus expected from a member of a senatorial family, but had added to this a sophistication and wisdom derived from a knowledge of all that was good about Greek culture. Cicero would present his philosophical discussion of the nature of the Roman State, De Re Publica, as an imagined debate between Scipio, Laelius and their associates in 129 BC. Scipio was a rational man, educated in both Greek and Roman traditions and interested in philosophy, and none of the stories about him contain any of the elements of mysticism associated with Africanus.6

The series of conflicts which was to end with Scipio Aemilianus’ destruction of Numantia began in 153 BC. A Celtiberian tribe, the Belli, determined to enlarge their main city of Segeda by expanding its circuit walls and bringing in, willing or not, the population from neighbouring communities. Reluctant to permit the emergence of such a large stronghold well placed to raid into the province of Nearer Spain, the Senate dispatched the consul Quintus Fulvius Nobilior with a strong consular army of some 30,000 men to move against the tribe. The fortifications of Segeda were still incomplete when the Roman force began to advance, so the Belli abandoned the work and fled to the territory of the neighbouring Arevaci, whose main city was Numantia. Uniting with their Celtiberian kindred under an elected leader, the combined army ambushed Nobilior and inflicted heavy losses on the Roman column before being driven off. The consul moved on to assault Numantia itself, but the attack ended in disaster when one of the Romans’ war elephants was struck on the head by a stone and panicked. Soon all ten elephants were stampeding to the rear, trampling any troops who got in their way. The Celtiberians exploited the disorder to counter-attack and completed the Roman rout. In 152 Nobilior was succeeded by Marcus Claudius Marcellus, grandson of ‘the Sword of Rome’ and now holding his third consulship. The more experienced commander captured a few minor towns and, by granting them favourable terms, encouraged the Arevaci and Belli to seek peace. Like Flamininus in 198, Marcellus was eager to gain the credit for ending the war before his year of office expired and the Senate sent out a man to succeed him. Therefore he encouraged the Celtiberian ambassadors in their belief that the Senate might grant them the same terms as had been given to them by Gracchus decades before.7

Although delegations from the tribes had arrived in Rome and it was still uncertain whether or not the war was over, the Senate resolved that Lucius Licinius Lucullus, one of the new consuls for 151, should anyway go to Nearer Spain with a new army. Recruiting this army proved unexpectedly difficult as, for once, Roman citizens of all classes were reluctant to serve in the legions. Rumours of the ferocity of the Celtiberians had been encouraged by Nobilior and his officers on their return to Rome and the current war was seen as likely to be arduous and bring little reward. Few men came forward on the day appointed for the levy and there were complaints that in recent years this had fallen too heavily on a small section of the population, as new commanders tended to prefer experienced men. Therefore, the levy was conducted by lot. Few young senators had put their names forward for election or appointment to the rank of tribune, posts which were usually hotly contested as good opportunities for gaining a reputation for courage and ability. Lucullus also appears to have been having trouble finding men to serve as his senior subordinates or legati (representatives). A number of young senators are supposed to have feigned illness to excuse their cowardice. According to Polybius, it was only when the 33-year-old Scipio Aemilianus made a public statement of his willingness to serve in either capacity that others were shamed into volunteering. The historian probably exaggerated his friend and patron’s influence, but nevertheless the incident certainly earned him a degree of popularity. It is uncertain whether Scipio went to Spain as a legate or as a tribune, but the latter seems more probable.8

Lucullus’ Spanish campaign was to be shrouded in controversy. By the time he reached his province a peace had been concluded with the Arevaci. Most magistrates were eager to win glory before their term of office expired, but Lucullus had especially strong reasons for desiring a successful and lucrative war to pay off his large personal debts. Therefore he led his army against another Celtiberian tribe, the Vaccaei, attacking several of their towns under the pretext that they had been supplying the Arevaci with food. Whether or not the campaign was justified on strategic grounds, the performance of the army was undistinguished and Lucullus’ own actions provoked outrage at Rome. At Cauca he accepted the surrender of the city but, once he had brought large numbers of his troops within its walls, ordered the massacre of the entire adult male population. On the whole the Romans were willing to accept the need for savagery in war when it achieved a useful purpose, but disapproved of any act which struck against Rome’s reputation for good faith (fides) in its relations with other states.

To make matters worse, a similar atrocity was carried out by the praetor Servius Sulpicius Galba in Further Spain at almost the same time. A large number of Lusitanians and their families had surrendered to Galba after he had promised to provide them with land on which to settle – a practice which had proved very successful in Liguria. Instead, Galba divided the tribesmen into three groups, disarmed them, and then ordered his soldiers to slaughter them all. The new brutality of Roman war-making in Spain can perhaps be seen as the sign of a generation of tougher commanders determined to provide a permanent solution to the military problems posed by warlike tribes. More probably it was a product of desperation as the declining quality of Roman armies made it more difficult, especially for inexperienced commanders, to win a clear military victory. For all the outrage produced by the behaviour of Lucullus and Galba, neither man was actually punished on his return to Rome. Although brought to trial, Galba secured his acquittal through a mixture of massive bribery and emotional showmanship, bringing his weeping children into court to move the jury to pity.9

Only a little is known about Scipio Aemilianus’ part in the campaign. When the Romans advanced on the town of Intercatia, a large and splendidly armoured Celtiberian warrior repeatedly rode between the two armies offering to meet any Roman in single combat. Eventually, Scipio went forward to meet him, displaying something of the same impetuous spirit he had shown at Pydna. His career was nearly cut short when the enemy champion wounded his horse and he was thrown, but, landing on his feet, he continued the fight and in the end prevailed. Later he acted as guarantor of Roman good faith when the townsfolk wanted to surrender but were reluctant to trust Lucullus.10

In 149 the Romans deliberately provoked a war with Carthage with the intention of destroying a city which was now beginning once again to prosper. In spite of this cynical premeditation, they proved woefully unprepared for actually fighting the war. The expeditionary force sent to Africa was poorly led and badly trained, so that the war opened with a catalogue of failure and incompetence. Scipio was serving as a tribune in the Fourth Legion,11 and repeatedly demonstrated the leadership, skill and courage that was so lacking in the rest of the army. His own troops were kept under tight control and on several occasions managed to prevent botched operations from descending into total disaster. A growing reputation, combined with a strong sense amongst the electorate that it was appropriate to send a grandson of Scipio Africanus to defeat Carthage, resulted in his election to the consulship in 147. The fact that Aemilianus was about 36 or 37 and so below the minimum legal age for holding this office provided another similarity with his illustrious ancestor and strengthened the feeling that this was the right thing to do. Scipio had originally been standing for the more junior post of aedile, but was chosen as consul by the Comitia Centuriata. After some opposition, the law which stipulated minimum ages for each magistracy, the lex Villia annalis, was annulled and re-enacted at the beginning of the next year. Intervention by one of the tribunes of the plebs then ensured that Scipio, rather than his consular colleague, was given Africa as his province.

The election of Aemilianus and his appointment to the African command were certainly irregular, though far less so than the career of his ancestor by adoption during the Second Punic War. In both cases the choice proved a happy one for the Republic. Once in Africa Scipio Aemilianus set about restoring the army’s discipline and morale and ensuring that from now on the troops were properly supplied, something which neither of his predecessors had managed. The operations of the army were marked by the same careful preparation, close supervision and controlled boldness which he had displayed in more junior roles. First the Carthaginian forces outside the city were defeated or persuaded to defect, and then a series of assaults launched on Carthage itself. After considerable feats of engineering and much bitter fighting in the narrow streets of the city’s quarters, Carthage was captured. Its people were moved and the city itself formally slighted. Scipio wept and quoted a passage from the Iliad foretelling the destruction of Troy. According to Polybius he wondered whether the same fate would one day engulf his own homeland. In spite of these melancholy thoughts, he returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph which, like that of his own father decades before, was more lavish than any earlier procession.


Before the end of the Third Punic War, a serious conflict had broken out in Further Spain. One of the few survivors of Galba’s massacre was a certain Viriathus. In the aftermath he gathered a band of warriors and by 147 was strong enough to ambush the army of the praetor Caius Vetilius. The Romans suffered heavy losses – 4,000 according to Appian – and Vetilius himself was captured and promptly killed by a warrior who did not recognize him and doubted that such an elderly and fat prisoner would be worth anything. Viriathus’ power grew rapidly after this success, as more and more communities decided that it was better to pay him tribute than to be raided by his warriors. In 145 Scipio’s older brother Fabius Maximus Aemilianus went as consul and campaigned against the Lusitanian leader. He had a newly recruited army under his command and his reluctance to attempt a complex or bold operation with such troops meant that he achieved little more than a few minor victories during his year of office. In 142 his brother by adoption, Fabius Maximus Servilianus, had more success, taking several strongholds loyal to Viriathus. His methods were brutal, but at first effective, until he was defeated in a major battle and offered the bandit leader extremely generous peace terms, by which he would become a ‘Friend of the Roman People’. In 140 his actual brother, Quintus Servilius Caepio, gained the consulship and was sent to replace him in Further Spain. Caepio swiftly broke the treaty, but the Romans only achieved victory after bribing some of Viriathus’ senior chieftains to murder him in his sleep.12

Viriathus’ success had encouraged the Arevaci to renew their own war against Rome in 143. The first army sent against them was led by the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus. He attacked suddenly, driving into the tribes’ territory before they had carried out the harvest. Most of the Arevaci surrendered and, after handing over considerable tribute, they were once more restored to allied status. Only Numantia and a few smaller walled towns continued to hold out by the time that Metellus was replaced by Quintus Pompeius Aulus, a ‘new man’ eager to win glory. At his disposal was a strong consular army of some 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, most of whom were now in their sixth year of continuous service and were therefore very experienced by the standards of these decades. Pompeius won a few minor victories, but suffered rather more small-scale defeats. He decided to maintain a blockade of Numantia throughout the winter months, in spite of the fact that his experienced troops had been discharged and replaced by new recruits. Unused to campaigning, the newly arrived legionaries suffered badly in the cold Spanish winter. However, the blockade did put pressure on the Numantines, who accepted Pompeius’ offer of peace. Appian claims that he was so eager to gain credit for finishing the war that he secretly promised the Celtiberians very favourable terms. Amidst bitter recriminations at Rome, the Senate rejected the new settlement and in 137 the consul Caius Hostilius Mancinus was sent against Numantia.

The campaign was a long catalogue of disasters. After losing several skirmishes outside Numantia, the consul panicked at a rumour that neighbouring tribes were planning to join the Numantines. A confused night-time retreat brought the Roman column to the site of one of Nobilior’s camps from the 153 campaign. They were surrounded by Celtiberian warriors, who firmly controlled all escape routes. Mancinus surrendered, the details of the truce being negotiated by his quaestor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, son of the man who had brought peace to Spain decades before. The terms were humiliating, for although the army was permitted to leave, the soldiers were forced to leave all their baggage behind. The treaty saved more than 20,000 lives but was not the way that a Roman war was supposed to end. Men who led armies to disaster, but stubbornly refused to admit defeat, often received praise. A commander who admitted that he had been beaten and negotiated with the enemy from this weak position was treated with contempt. On receiving a report of the campaign, the Senate immediately rejected the peace terms. Mancinus was held responsible and taken back to Numantia. There, naked and bound, he was deposited outside the walls for the Celtiberians to treat as they pleased. In the event they did not want him, and Mancinus was allowed to return to Rome where he commissioned a statue of himself, naked and in chains, which he proudly displayed in his house as a reminder of his willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the Republic. He was never again to be granted a command in the field. His successor in the command did little better, failing to take Pallantia after a long siege and being forced into a disordered and costly retreat.13

In 134 Scipio Aemilianus was elected to a second consulship and given the province of Nearer Spain. A decade had passed since he had first held the senior magistracy and he was by now old enough to be eligible without any need to suspend the law, but recent legislation had banned men from holding a second term as consul. However, it seems certain that the recent disasters in Spain created a strong feeling that Rome’s most distinguished commander should be sent against the Celtiberians and once again law was suspended on his behalf. Scipio did not raise a new army for the campaign, taking only a contingent of 4,000 volunteers to reinforce the troops already in the province. Included amongst these were 500 of his own clients, a unit known as the ‘squadron of friends’. At a higher level there was also to be a strong family element to this campaign. Fabius Maximus Aemilianus accompanied the consul as his senior legate, and the latter’s son, Fabius Maximus Buteo, was given the task of organizing and transporting the volunteers to the province after the two brothers hurried on to Spain. It is probable that Polybius went with them, although it is uncertain whether or not he wrote an account of this campaign amongst the lost sections of his History. The tribune Publius Rutilius Rufus certainly did produce a detailed narrative of the army’s operations which was used by Appian, but has not itself survived. All the sources for the Numantine War seem to have been highly favourable to Scipio, which probably reflects his skilful handling of publicity.14

On arrival in the province Scipio discovered a demoralized and undisciplined army. Virtually his first act was to order the expulsion from the camp of the horde of prostitutes, merchants, diviners and soothsayers. From now on, he ordered the soldiers to eat only their simple ration, and forbade them from supplementing this with locally purchased delicacies. No Roman army at any period could function without a significant number of slaves (lixae), who relieved the fighting soldiers from such tasks as foraging, drawing water and supervising the baggage train, but Scipio reduced their numbers to an absolute minimum. The vast majority of personal slaves, whose only task was to cook or assist in their master’s grooming, were barred from the camp. Officers in particular were inclined to take a large part of their private household with them on campaign in order to ensure a degree of comfort and, when this trend went unchecked, the extra mouths to feed and the non-essential personal baggage seriously encumbered a campaigning army. Scipio ruthlessly purged the train of all unnecessary loads, cutting the number of pack animals, and especially wagons, which were permitted to march with the column and selling off the rest. In the camp itself a fixed routine was introduced and rigorously maintained. The general granted very few exemptions to any of his new rules and set a strong personal lead. When he banned all ranks from sleeping on camp beds – probably in part to reduce the amount of equipment being carried in the train – Scipio was the first to sleep on a simple straw palliasse. He deliberately made himself inaccessible to petitioners, seeking obedience from his men rather than affection. According to Appian:

He often said that those generals who were severe and strict in the observance of the law were serviceable to their own men, while those who were easy-going and bountiful were useful only to the enemy. The soldiers of the latter…were joyous but insubordinate, while those of the former, although downcast, were obedient and ready for all emergencies.15

His inspections were frequent, extremely thorough and often critical. On these occasions it was not unknown for him to smash any vessel he considered too luxurious for active service. One soldier who had an especially well-decorated shield provoked the barbed comment that it was no wonder he lavished such attention on it when he evidently ‘placed more faith in this than his sword’. Rank was no defence against the consul’s scathing and public denunciations and the tribune Caius Memmius came in for particular criticism. At one point Scipio announced that at least Memmius ‘would only be useless to him for a short time, but that he would remain useless to himself and the Republic forever’.16

Alongside these disciplinary measures, Scipio put the army through an intensive period of training, which was made as realistic as possible. A lot of time was spent marching, the troops carrying rations for several days and formed into three parallel columns which could readily be transformed into battle order. The baggage train was kept in between the columns to protect it from sudden attack. Always the emphasis was on very tight march discipline and both units and individuals were forbidden to move away from their assigned place. In past campaigns many of his soldiers had provided themselves with mules or donkeys and ridden at their leisure, but Scipio banned this and demanded that all infantrymen should march on their own two feet. Once again he set a personal example, marching with his officers and eating ration bread as he went, and moving around the army to observe each section. Particular attention was paid to men who had difficulty keeping up, and cavalrymen were ordered to dismount and allow the weary to ride until they had recovered. Scipio also tried to take care of the army’s beasts of burden, and when he discovered any pack mules which had been overburdened, he had infantrymen carry part of the loads. At the end of each day’s march the army constructed a temporary camp as if in enemy territory. The procedure was always the same. The units which had formed the vanguard for that day took up positions around the chosen campsite and remained in formation and under arms to act as a covering force. Every other part of the army had its allotted task, marking out the camp with its tent lines and roads, or excavating the ditch and building the defensive rampart. There were many similarities between Scipio’s training programme and his father’s standing orders during the Third Macedonian War. Both reflected best practice learned over many campaigns by the militia army.17

Scipio supplemented his Roman and Italian troops with strong contingents of local allies. According to Appian this raised the number of soldiers under his command to 60,000. Once the consul decided that the soldiers were ready, he advanced on Numantia, the army moving with the same discipline and caution which he had enforced during training. Instead of attacking the Celtiberian stronghold directly, he bypassed it and ravaged the fields of the neighbouring Vaccaei, cutting the Numantines off from this source of supply. It was a region in which he had served under Lucullus and, in recompense for the atrocity committed by that general, Scipio issued an official proclamation permitting any of the surviving inhabitants of Cauca to return to and rebuild their community.

Outside Pallantia a force of cavalry under the command of Rutilius Rufus pursued a retreating enemy overeagerly and was lured into an ambush. Scipio personally led more horsemen to the rescue and, by alternately attacking and retiring on each flank, managed to cover the retreat of Rufus’ men and escape himself. In many ways the action was reminiscent of his skilful leadership of his legion’s cavalry whilst serving as a tribune in the Third Punic War. On another occasion he discovered that the Celtiberians had laid an ambush for his army at the point where the route they were following crossed a river. Scipio instead took the army in a night march over an alternative, and much more difficult route. Training paid off as the soldiers accomplished this arduous journey, in spite of shortages of water which became all the more pressing as the hot summer sun rose on the next day. The army escaped with the loss of a few cavalry mounts and pack animals. Soon afterwards the cavalry screening a Roman raiding party was attacked whilst the main force was plundering a village. Scipio had a trumpet call sounded to recall the plunderers and, when he felt that as many as were likely to arrive quickly had done so, formed them into units. With just under 1,000 men, he went to the aid of the Roman cavalry. After a while the Celtiberians were driven back, permitting the Romans to withdraw.18

Scipio had done much to deprive the Numantines of aid and support from the other Celtiberian communities. He had also tested the army’s training in actual operations and given the soldiers the encouragement of some minor victories. Now it was time to turn against Numantia itself. Scipio split the army into two and camped both divisions near the town, retaining command of one himself and placing the other under his brother. Soon after the Romans arrived, the Numantines left the protection of their fortifications and came out, challenging the Romans to battle. There were no more than 8,000 warriors facing the much larger Roman army and it may well be that they were expecting to contest the approaches to the town walls as Mago’s men had done at New Carthage rather than to fight a pitched battle. Scipio had no intention of risking either a battle or a direct assault. The overwhelming bulk of his army consisted of men who were used to being defeated by the Celtiberians. Storming a well defended city was always an extremely difficult operation and even a minor check might result in widespread demoralization, destroying all of his efforts to rebuild the army. One of Scipio’s maxims was that a wise commander should never take an avoidable risk. It is probable that from the beginning of the campaign he planned to blockade Numantia into submission, so, ignoring the Numantines’ challenge, he set his army to constructing a line of fortifications surrounding the town.

Traces of Scipio’s siege works around Numantia survived above ground and were excavated in the early twentieth century by the German archaeologist Schulten. Although unfortunately there has been no extensive modern work on the site to confirm some of his conclusions, there is certainly a reasonably close correspondence between the remains and Appian’s description of the siege. Scipio’s men constructed seven forts, which were then joined together with a ditch and rampart. The latter eventually stretched for 6 miles or so, and was built of stone 8 feet wide and 10 feet high, and strengthened by wooden towers at 100-foot intervals. The forts also had stone walls and soon acquired large numbers of internal stone buildings, allowing the troops to live in reasonably healthy and comfortable conditions during the long siege. Interestingly enough, these temporary camps, and indeed other Republican camps discovered in Spain, have walls which exploit the natural contours of the ground, unlike the ideal marching camp described by Polybius, which was supposed to be constructed on a perfectly flat plain. At first there was a gap in the circuit at Numantia where it was broken by the River Durius (modern Duero) and the Numantines were able to bring in supplies and send out men by boat. To counter this, Scipio ordered a tower built on either bank and had a boom, the timbers studded with knife blades and spearheads, put across the river.19

The Roman army was organized into divisions, each of which was allotted a specific task in the construction of the siege lines. Scipio and Fabius kept reserve troops under arms ready to come to the aid of any division under attack, who were to signal their need by raising a red flag in daytime or lighting a beacon at night. Once the lines were completed the organization was extended so that around 30,000 men were divided between the sections of wall. Many catapults and ballistae were installed in the towers, whilst slingers and archers were attached to each individual century to increase its firepower.20 Another 20,000 men were placed to move up and reinforce each sector whenever there was an attack, with the remaining 10,000 kept back as a reserve which could be sent anywhere. Any signal was to be repeated by each tower in turn so that it might more swiftly reach the commander and bring aid.

The strength of the walls and the effectiveness of Scipio’s organization was proved when each Celtiberian attack was repulsed. One Celtiberian nobleman, named Rhetogenes Caraunius, managed with a few friends to climb the wall one dark night. After killing the sentries, they used a folding wooden bridge to bring their horses across and rode around to other communities in their tribe, hoping to persuade them to raise an army and break the siege. Some of the younger warriors at the town of Lutia were sympathetic, but the town elders sent a warning to Scipio, who rushed with a force of light troops to the spot, surrounding the town and threatening to sack the place if the culprits were not immediately handed over to him. The Celtiberians swiftly complied with his demands. Scipio ordered that the 400 prisoners should have their hands cut off as a dreadful warning of the penalty for resisting Rome, and then hurried back to Numantia.

By this time the Numantines were running desperately short of food and decided to send ambassadors to Scipio requesting peace terms. His only response was to demand unconditional surrender, and Appian claims that this so enraged the tribesmen that the ambassadors were lynched on their return to the town. As things grew worse it was claimed that there were outbreaks of cannibalism, but in the end the defenders were forced to capitulate. Some committed suicide to avoid this disgrace. The remainder, emaciated and filthy, marched out and laid down their arms. Scipio kept fifty to march in his triumph and sold the others as slaves. Numantia itself was razed to the ground and the remains visible there today date to a later period when it became a Roman settlement.

Scipio returned to celebrate his second triumph and, if this lacked the spectacle of the procession commemorating the destruction of Carthage, there was considerable relief that the war with the Celtiberians was finally over. For a while he was extremely popular, but during his absence on campaign Roman politics had turned increasingly bitter and violent and he was soon to become involved in controversy. In 133 Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus – the man who had negotiated the surrender of Mancinus’ army – had been elected a tribune of the people and had used this post to pass a law calling for a widespread redistribution of publicly owned land throughout Italy. Much of this had been incorporated into large estates owned by the wealthy and Gracchus’ intention was to take this land and grant it to poorer citizens, in this way making them eligible for military service and so swelling Rome’s reserves of military manpower. He faced widespread opposition from other senators, both because many were landowners and also because all feared that Gracchus would win himself so many clients (citizens indebted to him and therefore likely to support him with their vote) by this act that he would be difficult to oppose in any future election. Fears that he was aiming at permanent personal power – the one thing which the Republican constitution was supposed to prevent – seemed confirmed when he announced his intention to stand for a second consecutive tribunate. In an apparently spontaneous riot, Gracchus was lynched by a band of senators led by his cousin, Scipio Nasica (son of the man who had served at Pydna).

Scipio Aemilianus was in Spain when this occurred and his own attitude to these events is unclear. Gracchus’ mother was Cornelia, daughter of Africanus and he himself was married to Tiberius’ sister, although the marriage had proved childless and there was little affection between the couple. In addition, his associate Laelius had proposed a similar piece of legislation during his consulship in 140, but had backed down in the face of such strong opposition, earning himself the nickname ‘the Wise’ (Sapiens) in the process. On his return to Rome he accepted appeals to champion the cause of Italian noblemen who complained that the Commission established to enforce the Gracchan Land Law was treating them too harshly. This willingness to speak up for allied peoples angered many of Gracchus’ supporters in Rome, especially amongst those who hoped to escape from their poverty by being sent to colonize public land. In 129 Scipio was found dead in his house. He had not been ill and there was no trace of injury on the corpse. Soon, rumours abounded that he had been poisoned, perhaps by his wife Sempronia, or his mother-in-law and aunt, Cornelia. The truth will never be known.21

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