Ancient History & Civilisation



AFTER being for eight of the most critical years of Rome’s life the central figure, Scipio, for the remainder of his life, comes only at intervals into the limelight of history. He had saved Rome physically, and now by retiring into private citizenship he sought to save her morally. If a man who had attained such unapproachable heights of fame could sink his own ambition and interests, and show that the State was greater than the individual, the example might influence later generations. Supreme self-sacrifice has been one of the greatest moral forces in the civilisation of the world. But the force of Scipio’s example was unhappily to be submerged by the self-seeking of such men as Marius, Sulla, and Caesar.

To trace the latter and longer part of his career is difficult—the curtain is raised only on a series of brief scenes. We hear of him concerned with the resettlement of his soldiers ; to each of his Spanish and African veterans is allotted land in the proportion of two acres for every year’s active service. Then three years after Zama he was elected censor, an office which was not only one of the higher magistracies, but regarded as the crown of a political career. As the title implies, the censors, two in number, conducted the census, which was not merely a registration but an occasion for checking the condition of public and private life. It was then that the censors issued edicts concerning the moral rules they intended to enforce, then that they punished irregularities of conduct, and then that they chose fresh members of the Senate. The censors were immune from responsibility for their acts, and the only limitation was that re-election was forbidden, and that no act was valid without the assent of both censors. Scipio’s period of office seems to have been marked by unusual harmony, and a clean sheet as regards punishments.

We have to wait until 192 B.C. before we hear of him again, and once more the incident is an illuminating example of his generosity and breadth of view. In the seven years since the peace after Zama, Hannibal had been turning his genius into new channels—the restoration of Carthage’s prosperity and the improvement of its administration. But in this labour he incurred the hostility of many of his own countrymen. In his efforts to safeguard the liberty of the people he stopped the abuse of the judicial power—an abuse which recalls the worst days of Venice. Similarly, finding that the revenue could not raise the annual payment to Rome without fresh taxation, he made an investigation into the embezzlement which lay at the root of this faulty administration. Those who had been plundering the public combined with the order of judges to instigate the Romans against Hannibal. The Romans, whose fear of the great Carthaginian had not faded, had been watching with envy and distrust the commercial revival of Carthage. They eagerly seized on such a pretext for intervention. From Livy, however, we learn that “ a strenuous opposition was for long made to this by Scipio Africanus, who thought it highly unbecoming the dignity of the Roman people to make themselves a party to the animosities and charges against Hannibal ; to interpose the public authority in the faction strife of the Carthaginians, not deeming it sufficient to have conquered that commander in the field, but to become as it were his prosecutors in a judicial process....” Scipio’s opposition delayed but it could not stop the lust for revenge of smaller men—Cato was consul,—and an embassy was sent to Carthage to arraign Hannibal. He, realising the futility of standing his trial, decided to escape before it was too late, and sailed for Tyre, lamenting the misfortunes of his country oftener than his own.

At the beginning of the next year Scipio was elected consul for the second time, and his election along with Tiberius Longus afforded a coincidence in that their fathers had been consuls together in the first year of the Hannibalic war. Scipio’s second consulship was comparatively uneventful, at least in a military sense, for the Senate decided that as there was no immediate foreign danger both consuls should remain in Italy. To this decision Scipio was strongly opposed, though he bowed to it, and once again history was to confirm his foresight and rebuke the “ wait and see ” policy of the near-sighted Roman Senators.

During the interval between Zama and his second consulship, Rome had been engaged in a struggle in Greece. The freedom of action which Zama conferred had combined with certain earlier factors to re-orient, or more literally to orient, her foreign policy. Ever since the repulse of Pyrrhus, Rome had been driving towards an inevitable contact with the Near East. Here the three great powers were the empires into which after Alexander the Great’s death his vast dominion had been divided—Macedon, Egypt, and Syria, or, as it was then termed, Asia.

With Egypt, Rome had made an alliance eighty years before, and this alliance had been cemented by commercial ties. But Philip V. of Macedon had allied himself with Hannibal, and though his help was verbal rather than practical, the threat of an attack on Italy had driven the Romans to take the offensive against him, with the aid of a coalition of the Greek States. The drain on her resources elsewhere made Rome seize the first chance, in 205 B.C., for an indecisive peace. Taking advantage of her preoccupation with Hannibal, Philip made a compact with Antiochus of Syria to seize on and share the dominions of Egypt.

But after Zama, Rome was free to respond to the appeal of her ally, and eager also to take revenge for Philip’s unneutral act in sending four thousand Macedonians to aid Hannibal in the final battle. The Senate, however, could only persuade the assembly of the people—anxious to enjoy the fruits of peace—by pretending that Philip was on the point of invading Italy. At Cynoscephalæ the legion conquered the phalanx, and Philip was forced to accept terms which reduced him to a second-rate power—like Carthage, stripped of his foreign possessions, and forbidden to make war without the consent of Rome.

The Roman Senate did not realise, however, that this removal of the Macedonian danger made war inevitable with Antiochus of Syria, for the tide of Roman dominion clearly threatened his own submersion sooner or later. Rome had in effect swallowed first Carthage and then Macedon, and Antiochus had no liking for the role of Jonah. The Mediterranean world was too small to hold them both. Antiochus, inflated with his own grandiloquent title of “ King of Kings,” decided to take the initiative and enlarge his own dominions while the opportunity was good. In 197-196 B.C. he overran the whole of Asia Minor, and even crossed into Thrace.

Greece was obviously his next objective, but the Romans could not see this, though Scipio did. In a prophetic speech he declared “ that there was every reason to apprehend a dangerous war with Antiochus, for he had already, of his own accord, come into Europe ; and how did they suppose he would act in future, when he should be encouraged to a war, on one hand by the Ætolians, avowed enemies of Rome, and stimulated, on the other, by Hannibal, a general famous for his victories over the Romans ? ”—for Hannibal had recently moved to the court of Antiochus. But the Senate, acting like the proverbial ostrich, rejected this advice, and decided that not only should no new army be sent to Macedonia, but that the one which was there should be brought home and disbanded. Had Scipio been allotted Macedonia as his province, the danger from Antiochus might have been nipped in the bud and the subsequent invasion of Greece prevented.

Politically, the main feature of his year of office was a wide extension of the policy of settling colonies of Roman citizens throughout Italy—a safeguard against such a dangerous revolt of the Italian States as had followed the invasion of Hannibal. Scipio himself enjoyed the honour of being nominated by the censors as prince of the Senate, an office which apart from its honour had greater influence than that of president, which it had replaced. For the president’s functions were limited to those of the modern “ Speaker,” whereas the prince of the Senate could express his opinions as well as presiding.

The only serious hostilities during this year were in north-western Italy, where the Insubrian and Ligurian Gauls and the Boii had made one of their periodical risings. Longus, the other consul, whose province it was, moved against the Boii. Finding how strong and determined were their forces, he sent post-haste to Scipio, asking him, if he thought proper, to join him. The Gauls, however, seeing the consul’s defensive attitude and guessing the reason, attacked at once before Scipio could arrive. It is evident that the Romans narrowly escaped a disaster, but the battle was sufficiently indecisive for them to retire unmolested to Placentia on the Po, while the Gauls withdrew to their own country.

The sequel is obscure, though some writers say that Scipio, after he had joined forces with his colleague, overran the country of the Boii and Ligurians as far as the woods and marshes allowed him to proceed. In any case he went there, for it is stated that he returned from Gaul to hold the elections. One other incident of his term of office was that, on his proposal, the Senators were for the first time allotted reserved and separate seats at the Roman games. While many held that this was an honour which ought to have been accorded long before, others opposed it vehemently, contending that “ every addition made to the grandeur of the Senate was a diminution of the dignity of the people,” that it distilled class feeling, and if the ordinary seats had been good enough for five hundred and thirty-eight years, why should a change be made now. “ It is said that even Africanus himself at last became sorry for having proposed that matter in his consulship: so difficult is it to bring people to approve of any alteration of long-standing customs ” (Livy).

All very petty; and yet Scipio’s good-natured consideration for the comfort and dignity of others—it could not enhance his own—may have contributed to weaken his old influence with the people, who had been his support against the short-sighted Senators.

After the election of his successors, Scipio retired once more into private life, instead of taking a foreign province, as retiring consuls so often did. This circumstance has led one or two of the latter Roman historians to search for a motive. Thus Cornelius Nepos, the biographer of Cato, says that Scipio wanted to remove Cato from his province of Spain and become his successor, and that failing to obtain the Senate’s assent, Scipio, to show his displeasure, retired into private life when his consulship was ended. Plutarch also, in his life of Cato, contradicts this, and says that Scipio actually succeeded Cato in Spain. Apart from the known historical inaccuracies of both these later writers, such pettiness would be inconsistent with all the assured facts of Scipio’s character. We know that Cato and Scipio were always at variance, but the animosity, so far as speeches are recorded, was all on the side of Cato, to whom Scipio’s Greek culture was as a red rag to a bull, and not less his moderation towards Carthage. The man whose parrot cry was Delenda est Carthago—fit ancestry of the Yellow Press—could not brook the man whose loftier soul and reputation stood in his way, nor his narrow spirit rest until he had brought about the destruction both of Carthage and Scipio. Their quarrel, if one-sided spite can be so called, dated from Zama, when Cato—serving as quæstor under Scipio, and already hating his Greek habits so much that he would not live in the same quarters—took violent exception to his general’s lavish generosity to the soldiers in the distribution of the spoil.

Fortunately there are external facts which demolish the statements of both Nepos and Plutarch on this matter. A decision to disband Cato’s army in Spain was made by the Senate at the same time as they refused Scipio’s request to allot Macedonia as his consular province, and disbanded that army also. Cato accordingly returned, and received a triumph at the outset of Scipio’s consulship. As there was no army there was obviously no post for a proconsul, which shows the futility of the statement that Scipio desired to go to Spain at the end of his consulship.

His real motive, however, in staying at Rome instead of seeking some other foreign province is not difficult to guess. He had predicted the danger from Antiochus, and as the Senate’s refusal to anticipate it made a struggle inevitable, Scipio would wish to be on hand, ready for the call that he felt sure would come. He was right, for Hannibal was even then proposing to Antiochus an expedition against Italy, maintaining as ever that a campaign in Italy was the only key to Rome’s defeat, because such invasion crippled the full output of Rome’s man-power and resources. As a preliminary Hannibal proposed that he should be given a force to land in Africa and raise the Carthaginians, while Antiochus moved into Greece and stood by, ready for a spring across to Italy when the moment was ripe.

An envoy of Hannibal’s, a Tyrian called Aristo, was denounced by the anti-Hannibalic party at Carthage. Aristo escaped, but the discovery caused such internal dissension that Masinissa thought the moment ripe to encroach on their territory.

The Carthaginians sent to Rome to complain, and he also to justify himself. The embassy of the former aroused uneasiness by their account of Aristo’s mission and escape, and the envoys of Masinissa fanned this flame of suspicion. The Senate decided to send a commission to investigate, and Scipio was nominated one of the three, but after making an inquiry “ left everything in suspense, their opinions inclining neither to one side or the other.” This failure to give a verdict is hardly to the credit of Scipio, who had the knowledge and the influence with both parties to have settled the controversy on the spot. But Livy hints that the commissioners may have been acting on instructions from the Senate to abstain from a settlement, and adds that in view of the general situation “ it was highly expedient to leave the dispute undecided.” By this he presumably means that as Hannibal was meditating an invasion it was policy to keep the Carthaginians too occupied to support him.

At the end of the year an incident occurred that sheds a significant light—rather twilight—on Scipio’s career. The two candidates for the patrician vacancy as consul were Lucius Quinctius Flamininus, brother of the victor of Cynoscephalæ, and Publius Cornelius Scipio, namesake and half-brother to Africanus.

The upshot is aptly told by Livy : “ Above everything else, the brothers of the candidates, the two most illustrious generals of the age, increased the violence of the struggle. Scipio’s fame was the more splendid, and in proportion to its greater splendour, the more obnoxious to envy. That of Quinctius was the most recent, as he had received a ‘triumph’ that same year. Besides, the former had now for almost two years been continually in people’s sight; which circumstance, by the mere effect of satiety, causes great characters to be less revered.” “ All Quinctius’s claims to the favour of the public were fresh and new; since his triumph, he had neither asked nor received anything from the people ; ‘ he solicited votes,’ he said, ‘ in favour of his own brother, not of a half-brother ; in favour of his legatus and partner in the conduct of the war ’ ”—his brother having commanded the fleet against Philip of Macedon. “ By these arguments he carried his point.” Lucius Quinctius was elected, and Scipio Africanus received a further rebuff when Lælius, his old comrade and lieutenant, failed to secure election as plebeian consul despite Scipio’s canvassing. The crowd, eternally fickle and forgetful, preferred the rising star to the setting sun.

Meantime the war clouds were gathering in the East. Antiochus had safeguarded his rear by marrying his daughter to Ptolemy, King of Egypt. He then advanced to Ephesus, but lost time by waging a local campaign with the Pisidians. Across the Ægean, the Ætolians were labouring hard to stir up war against the Romans, and to find allies for Antiochus. Rome, on the contrary, was weary and exhausted with years of struggle, and sought by every means to postpone or avert a conflict with Antiochus. To this end the Senate sent an embassy to him, and Livy states that, according to the history written in Greek by Acilius, Scipio Africanus was employed on this mission. The envoys went to Ephesus, and while halting there on their way “ took pains to procure frequent interviews with Hannibal, in order to sound his intentions, and to remove his fears of danger threatening him from the Romans.” These meetings had the accidental and indirect but important consequence that the report of them made Antiochus suspicious of Hannibal.

But the main interest to us of these interviews, assuming that Acilius’s witness is reliable, is the account of one of the conversations between Scipio and Hannibal. In it Scipio asked Hannibal, “ Whom he thought the greatest captain ? ” The latter answered, “ Alexander ... because with a small force he defeated armies whose numbers were beyond reckoning, and because he had overrun the remotest regions, merely to visit which was a thing above human aspirations.” Scipio then asked, “ To whom he gave the second place ? ” and Hannibal replied, “ To Pyrrhus, for he first taught the method of encamping, and besides no one ever showed such exquisite judgment in choosing his ground and disposing his posts ; while he also possessed the art of conciliating mankind to himself to such a degree that the natives of Italy wished him, though a foreign prince, to hold the sovereignty among them, rather than the Roman people....” On Scipio proceeding to ask, “ Whom he esteemed the third ? ” Hannibal replied, “Myself, beyond doubt.” On this Scipio laughed, and added, “ What would you have said if you had conquered me ? ” “ Then I would have placed Hannibal not only before Alexander and Pyrrhus, but before all other commanders.”

“ This answer, turned with Punic dexterity, and conveying an unexpected kind of flattery, was highly grateful to Scipio, as it set him apart from the crowd of commanders, as one of incomparable eminence.”

From Antiochus this embassy gained no direct result, for the “ king of kings ” was too swollen with pride on account of his Asiatic successes, too sure of his own strength, to profit by the examples of Carthage and Macedon. His standards of military measurement were strictly quantitative.

Realising at last that war was inevitable and imminent, the Roman Senate set about the preparations for this fresh struggle. As a first step they pre-dated the consular election so as to be ready for the coming year ; the new consuls were Publius Scipio, the rejected of the previous year, and Manius Acilius. Next, Bæbius was ordered to cross over with his army from Brundisium (Brindisi) into Epirus, and envoys were sent to all the allied cities to counteract Ætolian propaganda. The Ætolians, nevertheless, gained some success by a mixture of diplomacy and force, and besides causing general commotion throughout Greece, did their best to hasten the arrival of Antiochus. Had his energy approximated to his confidence, he might well have gained command of Greece before the Romans were able to thwart him. Further, to his own undoing, he abandoned Hannibal’s plan and the expedition to Africa, from a jealousy inspired fear that if Hannibal were given an executive role public opinion would regard him as the real commander. Even when he made his belated landing in Greece, with inadequate forces, he missed such opportunity as was left by frittering away his strength and time in petty attacks against the Thessalian towns, and in idle pleasure at Chalcis.

Meantime, at Rome the consuls cast lots for their provinces; Greece fell to Acilius, and the expeditionary force which he was to take assembled at Brundisium. For its supply, commissaries had been sent to Carthage and Numidia to purchase corn. It is a tribute alike to the spirit in which the Carthaginians were seeking to fulfil their treaty with Rome, and to Scipio’s wise policy after Zama, that they not only offered the corn as a present, but offered to fit out a fleet at their own expense, and to pay in a lump sum the annual tribute money for many years ahead. The Romans, however, whether from proud self-reliance or dislike of being under an obligation to Carthage, refused the fleet and the money, and insisted on paying for the corn.

In face of all these preparations, Antiochus awoke to his danger too late. His allies, the Ætolians, provided only four thousand men, his own troops delayed in Asia, and in addition he had alienated Philip of Macedon, who stood firm on the Roman side. With a force only ten thousand strong he took up his position at the pass of Thermopylae, but failed to repeat the heroic resistance of the immortal Spartans, and was routed. Thereupon, forsaking his Ætolian allies to their fate, Antiochus sailed back across the Ægean.

Rome, however, was unwilling to rest content with this decision. She realised that in Greece her army had defeated only the advanced guard and not the main body of Antiochus’s armed strength, and that unless he was subdued he would be a perpetual menace. Further, so long as he dominated Asia Minor from Ephesus, her loyal allies, the Pergamenes and Rhodians, and the Greek cities on the Asiatic side of the Ægean, were at his mercy. All these motives impelled Rome to counter-invasion.

Once more Hannibal’s grand strategical vision proved right, for he declared that “ he rather wondered the Romans were not already in Asia, than had doubts of their coming.” This time Antiochus took heed of his great adviser, and strengthened his garrisons as well as maintaining a constant patrol of the coast.

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