Ancient History & Civilisation



THESE three episodes form the prologue to the real drama of Scipio’s career. On this the curtain rises in 210 B.C., which, if not Rome’s blackest hour in her life and death struggle with Carthage, was at least the greyest. That conflict, which she had entered upon originally in 264 B.C., was the inevitable sequel to the supremacy of the Italian peninsula won by her combination of political genius and military vigour, for this supremacy could never be secure so long as an alien sea power—Carthage—commanded the waters of the peninsula, a continual menace to its seaboard and commerce. But when, after many hazards, the close of the First Punic War in 241 B.C. yielded Rome this maritime security, the vision and ambition of Hamilcar Barca not merely revived, but widened the scope of the struggle between Rome and Carthage into one with world power or downfall as the stakes. During the long interval of outward peace this Carthaginian Bismarck prepared the mental and material means for a stroke at the heart of the Roman power, educating his sons and followers to conceive the conquest of Rome as their goal, and using Spain as the training ground for the Barcine school of war, as well as the base of their forthcoming military effort. In 218 B.C., Hannibal, crossing the Alps, began his invasion of Italy to reap the harvest for which his father had sown the seeds. His victories on the Ticinus, the Trebia, at the Trasimene Lake, grew in scale until they reached their apex on the battlefield of Cannæ. If Roman fortitude, the loyalty of most of the Italian allies, and Hannibal’s strategic caution then gained for Rome a reprieve, the passage of five years’ unceasing warfare so drained her resources and exhausted her allies that by 211 B.C. Roman power, internally if not superficially, was perhaps nearer than ever before to a breakdown. A machine that is new and in good condition can withstand repeated severe shocks, but when badly worn a jar may suffice to cause its collapse. Such a jar came, for while Hannibal was campaigning in Southern Italy, destroying Roman armies if apparently drawing no nearer his object—the destruction of the Roman power,—the Carthaginian arms in Spain had been crowned with a victory that threatened Rome’s footing on the peninsula.

For several years Scipio’s father and uncle, Publius the elder and Gnæus, had been in command of the Roman forces there, winning repeated successes until, caught divided, the two brothers were defeated in turn, both falling on the battlefield. The shattered remnants of the Roman forces were driven north of the Ebro, and only a gallant rally by Marcius prevented the Romans being driven out of Spain. Even so their situation was precarious, for many of the Spanish tribes had forsaken the Romans in their hour of adversity. Though the determination of Rome itself, as before, was unbroken, and the disaster only spurred her to retrieve it, the choice of a successor proved difficult. Finally, it was decided to call an assembly of the people to elect a pro-consul for Spain. But no candidates offered themselves for the dangerous honour. “ The people, at their wits’ end, came down to the Campus Martius on the day of the election, where, turning towards the magistrate, they looked round at the countenances of their most eminent men, who were earnestly gazing at each other, and murmured bitterly that their affairs were in so ruinous a state, and the condition of the commonwealth so desperate, that no one dared undertake the command in Spain. When suddenly Publius Cornelius, son of Publius who had fallen in Spain, who was about twenty-four years of age, declared himself a candidate, and took his station on an eminence by which he could be seen by all ” (Livy). His election was unanimous, not only by every century, but by every man there present. “ But after the business had been concluded, and the ardour and impetuosity of their zeal had subsided, a sudden silence ensued, and a secret reflection on what they had done—whether their partiality had not got the better of their judgment. They chiefly regretted his youth; but some were terrified at the fortune which attended his house and his name, for while the two families to which he belonged were in mourning, he was going into a province where he must carry on his operations amid the tombs of his father and his uncle.”

Realising the prevalence of these second thoughts, these doubts, Scipio sought to offset them by summoning an assembly, at which his sagacious arguments did much to restore confidence. The secret of his sway, extraordinary in one so young, over the crowd mind, especially in times of crisis, was his profound self-confidence, which radiated an influence to which the stories of his divine inspiration were but auxiliary. Self-confidence is a term often used in a derogatory sense, but Scipio’s was not only justified by results but essentially different, a spiritual exaltation which is epitomised by Aulus Gellius as “ conscientia sui subnixus ”—“ lifted high on his consciousness of himself.”

To the remains of the army in Spain ten thousand foot and a thousand horse were added, and taking these reinforcements, Scipio set sail with a fleet of thirty quinqueremes from the mouth of the Tiber. Coasting along the Gulf of Genoa, the Riviera shore, and the Gulf of Lions, he landed his troops just inside the Spanish frontier, and then marched overland to Tarraco—modern Tarragona. Here he received embassies from the various Spanish allies. His appreciation of the moral factor and of the value of personal observation, two vital elements in generalship, was shown in his earliest steps. The rival forces were in winter quarters, and before attempting to formulate any plan he visited the States of his allies and every one of the various parts of his army, seeking always by his attitude, even more than by his words, to rekindle confidence and dissipate the influence of past defeat. His own moral stature could not be better shown than by his treatment of Marcius, the man who had partly retrieved the Roman disasters, and thus one whom an ambitious general might well regard as a rival to his own position and fame. But “ Marcius he kept with him, and treated him with such respect that it was perfectly clear that there was nothing he feared less than lest any one should stand in the way of his own glory.” Napoleon’s jealousy of Moreau, his deliberate overshadowing of his own marshals, is in marked contrast with Scipio’s attitude, and one of the finest of military tributes to him is the abiding affection felt for him by his subordinate generals. “ No man is a hero to his valet,” and but few generals are heroes to their chief staff officers, who see them intimately in their nude qualities beneath the trappings of authority and public reputation. Loyal subordinates will maintain the fiction of infallibility for the good of the army, and so long as is necessary, but they know the man as he is, and in later years the truth leaks out. Thus it is worth remembering that the verdict of Polybius is founded on direct conversations with Gaius Lælius, Scipio’s coadjutor, and the one man to whom he confided his military plans before operations.

To the soldiers suffering under defeat he made no reproaches, but aptly mingled an appeal to their reason and to their spirit, reminding them how often in Roman history early defeat had been the presage to ultimate victory, how the sure tilting of the balance had already begun, the initial disasters found their counterpoise, and in Italy and Sicily everything was going prosperously. Then he pointed out that the Carthaginian victories were not due to superior courage, but “ to the treachery of the Celtiberians and to rashness, the generals having been cut off from each other owing to their trust in the alliance of that people.” Next he showed how their disadvantages had shifted to the other side, the Carthaginian armies “ being encamped a long distance apart,” their allies estranged by tactlessness and tyranny, and, above all, personal ill-feeling between the enemy’s commanders would make them slow to come to each other’s assistance. Finally, he kindled their enthusiasm by touching their affection for their lost leaders : “ I will soon bring it to pass that, as you can now trace in me a likeness to my father and uncle in my features, countenance, and figure, I will so restore a copy of their genius, honour, and courage, that every man of you shall say that his commander, Scipio, has either returned to life, or has been born again.”

His first step was to restore and fortify the confidence of his own troops and allies, his next to attack that of his enemies, to strike not at their flesh but at their moral Achilles heel. His acute strategical insight, in a day when strategy, as distinct from battle tactics, had hardly been born, made him realise that Spain was the real key to the whole struggle. Spain was Hannibal’s real base of operations; there he had trained his armies, and thence he looked for his reinforcements.

Scipio’s first move was to apply his appreciation of the moral objective within the Spanish theatre of war. While others urged him to attack one of the Carthaginian armies, he decided to strike at their base, their life-line. First, he concentrated all his troops at one place, leaving one small but compact detachment of 3000 foot and 300 horse under Marcus Silanus to secure his own essential pivot of operations—Tarraco. Then, with all the rest, 25,000 foot and 2500 horse —here was true economy of force,—he crossed the Ebro, “ revealing his plan to no one.” “ The fact was that he had decided not to do any of the things he had publicly announced, but to invest suddenly ” New Carthage—modern Cartagena. To this end “ he gave secret orders to Gaius Lælius, who commanded the fleet, who alone was aware of the project, to sail to that place, while he himself with his land forces marched rapidly against it.” As Polybius sagely emphasises, calculation marked this youth, for “ he, in the first place, took in hand a situation pronounced by most people as desperate ... and secondly, in dealing with it he put aside the measures obvious to any one, and planned out and decided on a course which neither his enemies nor his friends expected.” “ On his arrival in Spain he ... inquired from every one about the circumstances of the enemy, and learnt that the Carthaginian forces were divided into three bodies,” Mago, near the pillars of Hercules—Gibraltar ; Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, near the mouth of the Tagus ; and Hasdrubal Barca besieging a city in Central Spain not far from modern Madrid. None of them were within less than ten days’ march from New Carthage ; he himself, as the event proved, was within seven days’ forced marches of it. The news of his attack must take several days to reach them, and if he could take it by a surprise coup de main he would forestall any aid, and “ in the event of failure he could, since he was master of the sea, place his troops in a position of safety.” Polybius further tells us how “ during the winter he made detailed inquiries from people acquainted with it.” “ He learnt that it stood almost alone among Spanish cities in possessing harbours fit for a fleet and for naval forces, and also that it was for the Carthaginians the direct sea crossing from Africa. Next he heard that the Carthaginians kept the bulk of their money and their war material in this city, as well as their hostages from the whole of Spain; and, what was of most importance, that the trained soldiers who garrisoned the citadel were only about a thousand strong, because no one dreamt that while the Carthaginians were masters of nearly the whole of Spain it would enter any one’s head to besiege the city, while the remaining population was exceedingly large, but composed of artisans, tradesmen, and sailors, men very far from having any military experience. This he considered to be a thing that would tell against the city if he appeared suddenly before it ”—the moral calculation again. “ Abandoning, therefore, all other projects, he spent his time while in winter quarters in preparing for this,” but “ he concealed the plan from every one except Gaius Lælius.” The account shows that he was master of two more attributes of generalship—the power to keep his intentions secret until their disclosure was necessary for the execution of the plan, and the wisdom to realise that military success depends largely on the thoroughness of the previous preparation.

Polybius’s assertion that Scipio’s move was due to masterly calculation, and not to inspiration or fortune, is confirmed indirectly by the reference to a letter of Scipio’s which he had seen, and directly by Livy’s quotation of Scipio’s speech to the troops before the attack. One phrase epitomises the strategic idea: “ You will in actuality attack the walls of a single city, but in that single city you will have made yourselves masters of all Spain,” and he explains exactly how capture of the hostages, the treasure, and the war stores will be turned to their advantage and react to the enemy’s disadvantage, moral, economic, and material. Even if Livy’s phrase was coined to meet Scipio’s fact, its note is so exactly in accord with Scipio’s actions as to give it a ring of basic truth.

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