Ancient History & Civilisation



HIS political base in Africa secured, Scipio moved back to Tunis, and this time the moral threat, strengthened by recent events, was successful. It tilted the scales against the war party, and the Carthaginians sent thirty of their principal elders—the Council of Elders being superior even to the Senate—to beg for terms of peace. According to Livy, they prostrated themselves in Eastern manner on entering Scipio’s presence, and their pleas showed equal humility. They implored pardon for their State, saying that it had been twice brought to the brink of ruin by the rashness of its citizens, and they hoped it would again owe its safety to the indulgence of its enemies. This hope was based on their knowledge that the Roman people’s aim was dominion, and not destruction, and they declared that they would accept whatever terms he saw fit to grant. Scipio replied “ that he had come to Africa with the hope, which had been increased by his success, that he should carry home victory and not terms of peace. Still, though he had victory in a manner within his grasp, he would not refuse accommodation, that all the nations might know that the Roman people both undertake and conclude wars with justice.”

The terms which he laid down were: the restoration of all prisoners and deserters, the withdrawal of the Carthaginian armies from Italy and Gaul and all the Mediterranean islands, the giving up of all claim to Spain, the surrender of all their warships except twenty. A considerable, but not heavy, indemnity in grain and money was also demanded. He gave them three days’ grace to decide whether to accept these terms, adding that if they accepted they were to make a truce with him and send envoys to the Senate at Rome.

The moderation of these terms is remarkable, especially considering the completeness of Scipio’s military success. It is a testimony not only to Scipio’s greatness of soul, but to his transcendent political vision. Viewed in conjunction with his similar moderation after Zama, it is not too much to say that Scipio had a clear grasp of what is just dawning on the mind of the world to-day—that the true national object in war, as in peace, is a more perfect peace. War is the result of a menace to this policy, and is undertaken in order to remove the menace, and by the subjugation of the will of the hostile State“ to change this adverse will into a compliance with our own policy, and the sooner and more cheaply in lives and in money we can do this, the better chance is there of a continuance of national prosperity in the widest sense. The aim of a nation in war is, therefore, to subdue the enemy’s will to resist with the least possible human and economic loss to itself.” 4 The lesson of history, of very recent history moreover, enables us to deduce this axiom, that“ A military victory is not in itself equivalent to success in war.” 5 Further, as regards the peace terms, “the contract must be reasonable; for to compel a beaten foe to agree to terms which cannot be fulfilled is to sow the seeds of a war which one day will be declared in order to cancel the contract.” 5 There is only one alternative—annihilation. Mommsen’s comment on Scipio’s moderation over these terms is that they“ seemed so singularly favourable to Carthage, that the question obtrudes itself whether they were offered by Scipio more in his own interest or in that of Rome.” A self-centred seeker after popularity would surely have prolonged the war to end it with a spectacular military decision, rather than accept the paler glory of a peace by agreement. But Mommsen’s insinuation, as also his judgment, is contradicted by Scipio’s similar moderation after Zama, despite the extreme provocation of a broken treaty.

These terms the Carthaginians accepted, and complied with the first provision by sending envoys to Scipio to conclude a truce and also to Rome to ask for peace, the latter taking with them a few prisoners and deserters, as a diplomatic promissory note. But the war party had again prevailed, and though ready to accept the peace negotiations as a cloak and a means of gaining time, they sent an urgent summons to Hannibal and Mago to return to Africa. The latter was not destined to see his homeland, for wounded just previously in an indecisive battle, he died of his injuries as his fleet of transports was passing Sardinia.

Hannibal, anticipating such a recall, had already prepared ships and withdrawn the main strength of his army to the port, keeping only his worst troops as garrisons for the Bruttian towns. It is said that no exile leaving his own land ever showed deeper sorrow than Hannibal on quitting the land of his enemies, and that he cursed himself that he had not led his troops on Rome when fresh from the victory of Cannæ. “ Scipio,” he said, “ who had not looked at a Carthaginian enemy in Italy, had dared to go and attack Carthage, while he, after slaying a hundred thousand men at Trasimene and Cannæ, had suffered his strength to wear away around Casilinum, Cannæ, and Nola.”

The news of his departure was received in Rome with mingled joy and apprehension, for the commanders in southern Italy had been ordered by the Senate to keep Hannibal in play, and so fix him while Scipio was securing the decision in Africa. Now, they felt that his presence in Carthage might rekindle the dying embers of the war and endanger Scipio, on whose single army the whole weight of the war would fall.

On the arrival of Lælius in Rome, amid uproarious scenes of jubilation, the Senate had decided that he should remain there until the Carthaginians’ envoys arrived. With the envoys of Masinissa mutual congratulations were exchanged, and the Senate not only confirmed him in the title of King conferred by Scipio, but presented him by proxy with further presents of honour and the military trappings usually provided for a consul. They also acceded to his request to release their Numidian captives, a politic step by which he hoped to strengthen his hold on his countrymen.

When the envoys from Carthage arrived, they addressed the Senate in terms similar to those they had used to Scipio, putting the whole blame on Hannibal, and arguing that so far as Carthage was concerned the peace which closed the First Punic War remained unbroken. This being so they craved to continue the same peace terms. A debate followed in the Senate, which revealed a wide conflict of opinion, some advocating that no decision should be taken without the advice of Scipio, others that the war should at once be renewed, as Hannibal’s departure suggested that the request for peace was a subterfuge. Lælius, called on for his opinion, said that Scipio had grounded his hopes of effecting a peace on the assurance that Hannibal and Mago would not be recalled from Italy. The Senate failed to come to a definite decision, and the debate was adjourned, though it would appear from Polybius that it was renewed later, and a settlement reached.

Meanwhile, however, the war had already restarted in Africa by a violation of the truce. While the embassy was on its way to Rome, fresh reinforcements and stores had been sent from Sardinia and Sicily to Scipio. The former arrived safely, but the convoy of two hundred transports from Sicily encountered a freshening gale when almost within sight of Africa, and though the warships struggled into harbour, the transports were blown towards Carthage; the greater part to the island of Ægimurus—thirty miles distant at the mouth of the Bay of Carthage,—and the rest were driven on to the shore near the city. The sight caused great popular excitement, the people clamouring that such immense booty should not be missed. At a hasty assembly, into which the mob penetrated, it was agreed that Hasdrubal should cross over to Ægimurus with a fleet and seize the transports. After they had been brought in, those that had been driven ashore near Carthage were refloated and brought into harbour.

Directly Scipio heard of this breach of the truce he despatched three envoys to Carthage to take up the question of this incident, and also to inform the Carthaginians that the Roman people had ratified the treaty; for despatches had just arrived for Scipio with this news. The envoys, after a strong speech of protest, delivered the message that while“ the Romans would be justified in inflicting punishment, they entreated them in the name of the common fortune of mankind not to push the matter to an issue, but rather let their folly afford a proof of the generosity of the Romans.” The envoys then retired for the Senate to debate. Resentment at the bold language of the envoys, reluctance to give up the ships and their supplies, new confidence from Hannibal’s imminent help, combined to turn the scales against the peace party. It was decided simply to dismiss the envoys without a reply. The latter, who had barely escaped from mob violence on arrival, requested an escort on their return journey, and two triremes were assigned them. This fact gave some of the leaders of the war party an idea whereby to detonate a fresh explosion which should make the breach irreparable. They sent to Hasdrubal, whose fleet was then anchored off the coast near Utica, to have some ships lying in wait near the Roman camp to attack and sink the envoys’ ship. Under orders, the commanders of the escort quitted the Roman quinquereme when within sight of the Roman camp. Before it could make the harbour it was attacked by three Carthaginian quadriremes despatched for the purpose. The attempt to board her was beaten off, but the crew, or rather the survivors, only saved themselves by running the ship ashore.

This dastardly action drove Scipio to renew operations for the final trial of strength. An immediate move direct on Carthage was impossible, for this would have meant a long siege, and to settle down to siege operations in face of the imminent arrival of Hannibal, who might menace his rear and cut his communications, would have been madness. Nor was his own situation pleasant, for not only had he suffered the heavy loss of the supplies and reinforcements from Sicily, but Masinissa was absent with his own and part of the Roman force—ten cohorts. Immediately on the conclusion of the provisional treaty Masinissa had set out for Numidia to recover his own kingdom, and, with the assistance of the Romans, add that of Syphax to it.

When the truce was broken, Scipio sent urgent and repeated messages to Masinissa, telling him to raise as strong a force as possible and rejoin him with all speed. Then, having taken measures for the security of his fleet, he deputed the command of the Roman base to his legate Bæbius, and started on a march up the valley of the Bagradas, aiming to isolate Carthage, and by cutting off all supplies and reinforcements from the interior undermine its strength as a preliminary to its direct subjugation—the principle of security once more. On his march, he no longer consented to receive the submission of towns which offered to surrender, but took them all by assault, and sold the inhabitants as slaves—to show his anger and impress the moral of the Carthaginians’ violation of the treaty.

During this“ approach” march—for such it was in fact if not in semblance—the envoys returning from Rome reached the naval camp. Bæbius at once despatched the Roman envoys to Scipio, but detained the Carthaginians, who, hearing of what had befallen, were naturally distressed as to their own fate. But Scipio, to his credit, refused to avenge on them the maltreatment of his own envoys. “For, aware as he was of the value attached by his own nation to keeping faith with ambassadors, he took into consideration not so much the deserts of the Carthaginians as the duty of the Romans. Therefore restraining his own anger and the bitter resentment he felt, he did his best to preserve ‘the glorious record of our fathers,’ as the saying is.” He sent orders to Bæbius to treat the Carthaginian envoys with all courtesy and send them home. “The consequence was that he humiliated all the people of Carthage and Hannibal himself, by thus requiting in ampler measure their baseness by his generosity.” (Polybius.)

In this act Scipio revealed his understanding of the ethical object in war, and of its value. Chivalry governed by reason is an asset both in war and in view of its sequel—peace. Sensible chivalry should not be confounded with the quixotism of declining to use a strategical or tactical advantage, of discarding the supreme moral weapon of surprise, of treating war as if it were a match on the tennis court—such quixotism as is typified by the burlesque of Fontenoy, “Gentlemen of France, fire first.” This is merely stupid. So also is the traditional tendency to regard the use of a new weapon as “hitting below the belt,” regardless of whether it is inhuman or not in comparison with existing weapons. So the Germans called the use of tanks an atrocity, and so did we term gas—so also the mediaeval knight spoke of firearms when they came to interfere with his safe slaughter of unarmoured peasants. Yet the proportion of combatants slain in any battle decreased as much when firearms superseded the battleaxe and sword as when gas came to replace shell and the bullet. This antagonism to new weapons is mere conservatism, not chivalry.

But chivalry, as in this example of Scipio’s, is both rational and far-sighted, for it endows the side which shows it with a sense of superiority, and the side which falls short with a sense of inferiority. The advantage in the moral sphere reacts on the physical.

If this chivalrous act of Scipio’s was partly the fruit of such psychological calculation, it was clearly in accord also with his natural character, for his attitude earlier in Spain shows that it was no single theatrical gesture. Just as in war we cannot separate the moral from the mental or physical spheres, so also in assessing character. We cannot separate the nobility of Scipio’s moral conduct, throughout his career, from the transcendent clearness of his mental vision—they blended to form not only a great general but a great man.

Some time before this, probably during the episode which broke the truce, Hannibal had landed at Leptis—in what to-day is the Gulf of Hammamet—with twenty-four thousand men, and had moved to Hadrumetum. Stopping here 6 to refresh his troops, he sent an urgent appeal to the Numidian chief Tychæus, who “ was thought to have the best cavalry in Africa,” to join him in saving the situation. He sought to play on the fears of Tychæus, who was a relative of Syphax, by the argument that if the Romans won he would risk losing his dominion, and his life too, through Masinissa’s greed of power. As a result, Tychæus responded, and came with a body of two thousand horse. This was a welcome accession, for Hannibal had lost his old superiority in cavalry, his masterweapon. In addition Hannibal could expect, and shortly received, the twelve thousand troops of Mago’s force from Liguria, composed of Gauls who had shown their fine quality in the last battle before the recall; also a large body of new levies raised in Africa, whose quality would be less assuring. Further—according to Livy,—four thousand Macedonians had recently come to the aid of Carthage, sent by King Philip.

Let this force once reach Carthage and be able to base its operations on such a fortress, and source of reinforcement, and the situation would turn strongly in favour of Hannibal. In contrast, Scipio had been robbed of the bulk of his supplies and reinforcements, he was isolated on hostile soil, part of his force was detached with Masinissa, and the strength the latter could recruit was still uncertain.

It is well to weigh these conditions, for they correct common but false historical impressions. At this moment the odds were with Hannibal, and the feeling in the rival capitals, as recorded by Livy and Polybius, is a true reflection of the fact.

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