Ancient History & Civilisation



IN the spring of 206 B.C. the Carthaginians made their last great effort. Hasdrubal, encouraged by Mago, Hannibal’s brother, raised and armed fresh levies, and with an army of seventy thousand foot, four thousand horse, and thirty-two elephants moved north to Ilipa (or Silpia), which was not far from where Seville stands to-day. Scipio advanced south from Tarraco to meet the Carthaginians, collecting auxiliaries at Bæcula on his way. When he drew near the Bætis and got fuller information of the opposing force, he appreciated the formidable nature of the problem. He felt convinced that with the Roman legions only he would not be a match for so large an enemy army, yet to use a large proportion of allies and rely on their support was to risk the fate of his father and uncle, whose downfall was due to the sudden desertion of their allies. Therefore he decided to use them for the purpose of impressing and misleading the enemy “ by an imposing show,” but leave the main fighting role to his own legions. He had learnt, like Wellington two thousand years later, that it was wiser not to place reliance on the co-operation of his Spanish allies. The French in Morocco have imbibed it afresh. Advancing towards Ilipa with a total force, Romans and allies, of forty-five thousand foot and three thousand horse, he came in sight of the Carthaginians, and encamped on certain low hills opposite them. It deserves notice that his advance was on a line which, in the event of victory, would cut them off from the nearest road to Gades, this road running along the south bank of the Bætis river.

Mago, thinking this a favourable chance for a sudden disorganising blow, took most of his cavalry as well as Masinissa with his Numidian horse, and attacked those engaged in forming the camp. But Scipio, as usual, imbued with the principle of security, had foreseen such a possibility, and had posted his own cavalry ready in concealment under shelter of a hill. These charged the forward part of the Carthaginian horse in flank and threw them into disorder, and though the rear echelons, coming up to reinforce the attack, restored the balance for a time, the issue was settled by the sortie of a large body of legionaries from the Roman camp. At first the Carthaginians fell back in good order; but as the pursuit was vigorously pressed, they broke up and fled to the shelter of their own camp. The result gave Scipio an initial moral advantage.

The two camps lay facing each other across a valley between the two low ridges. For several successive days Hasdrubal led his army out and offered battle. On each occasion Scipio waited until the Carthaginians were moving out before he followed suit. Neither side, however, began the attack, and towards sundown the two armies, weary of standing, retired to their camps—the Carthaginians always first. One cannot doubt, in view of the upshot, that on Scipio’s side the delay had a special motive. On each occasion also the legions were placed in the Roman centre opposite to the Carthaginian and African regulars, with the Spanish allies on the wings of each army. It became common talk in the camps that this order of battle was definite, and Scipio waited until this belief had taken firm hold.

Then he acted. He had observed that the Carthaginians made their daily advance at a late hour, and had himself purposely waited still later, to fix this habit on his opponent’s mind. Late in the evening he sent orders through the camp that the troops should be fed and armed before daylight, and the cavalry have their horses saddled. Then, while it was scarcely yet daylight, he sent on the cavalry and light troops to attack the enemy’s outposts, and himself followed with the legions. This was the first surprise change, and its effect was that the Carthaginians, caught napping by the onset of the Roman cavalry and light troops, had to arm themselves and sally forth without a meal. It further ensured that Hasdrubal would have no time to alter his normal dispositions, even should the idea occur to him. For the second surprise change was that Scipio reversed his former order of battle, and placed the Spanish in his centre and the legions on the wings.

The Roman infantry made no attempt to advance for some hours, the reason for this being Scipio’s desire and design to let his hungry opponents feel the effects of their lost breakfast. There was no risk to his other surprise change by so doing, for once drawn up in order of battle the Carthaginians dared not alter their array in face of a watchful and ready opponent. The skirmishing fight between the opposing cavalry and light troops remained indecisive, each when hard-pressed able to take shelter behind their own infantry. Eventually, when Scipio judged the time ripe, he sounded a retreat, and received his skirmishers back through the intervals between the cohorts, then placing them in reserve behind each wing, the velites behind the heavy infantry and the cavalry behind the velites.

It was about the seventh hour3 when he ordered the line to advance, but the Spanish centre only at a slow pace. On arriving within eight hundred yards of the enemy, Scipio, with the right wing, turned to the right and, wheeling left, made an oblique advance outwards by successive cohorts—in column. He had previously sent a messenger to Silanus and Marcius, commanding the left wing, to manoeuvre similarly. Advancing rapidly, so that the slow moving centre was well refused, the Roman infantry cohorts wheeled successively inwards into line as they neared the enemy, and fell directly on the enemy’s flanks, which but for this manœuvre would have overlapped them. While the heavy infantry thus pressed the enemy’s wings in front, the cavalry and the velites, under orders, wheeled outwards, and sweeping round the enemy’s flanks took them in enfilade. This convergent blow on each wing, sufficiently disruptive because it forced the defenders to face attack from two directions simultaneously, was made more decisive in that it fell on the Spanish irregulars. To add to Hasdrubal’s troubles the cavalry flank attacks drove his elephants, mad with fright, in upon the Carthaginian centre, spreading confusion.


All this time the Carthaginian centre was standing helplessly inactive, unable to help the wings for fear of attack by Scipio’s Spaniards, who threatened it without coming to close quarters. Scipio’s calculation had enabled him to “ fix ” the enemy’s centre with a minimum expenditure of force, and thus to effect the maximum concentration for his decisive double manoeuvre.

Hasdrubal’s wings destroyed, the centre, worn out by hunger and fatigue, fell back, at first in good order, but gradually under relentless pressure they broke up, fleeing to their entrenched camp. A drenching downpour, churning the ground in mud under the soldiers’ feet, gave them a temporary respite, and prevented the Romans storming the camp on their heels. During the night Hasdrubal evacuated his camp, but as Scipio’s strategic advance had placed the Romans across the line of retreat to Gades, he was forced to retire down the western bank towards the Atlantic. Nearly all his Spanish Allies deserted him.

Scipio’s light troops were evidently alive to the duty of maintaining contact with the enemy, for he got word from them as soon as it was light of Hasdrabal’s departure. He at once followed them up, sending the cavalry ahead, and so rapid was the pursuit that, despite being misled by guides in attempting a short cut to get across Hasdrubal’s new line of retreat, the cavalry and velites caught him up. Harassing him continuously, by attacks in flank or in rear, they forced such frequent halts that the legions were able to come up. “ After this it was no longer a fight, but a butchering as of cattle,” till only Hasdrubal and six thousand half-armed men escaped to the neighbouring hills, out of seventy odd thousand who had fought at Ilipa. The Carthaginians hastily fortified a camp on the highest summit, but though its inaccessibility hindered assault, lack of food caused a constant stream of deserters. At last Hasdrubal left his troops by night, and reaching the sea, not far distant, took ship to Gades, and Mago soon followed him.

Scipio thereupon left Silanus with a force to await the inevitable surrender of the camp, and returned to Tarraco.

Military history contains no more classic example of generalship than this battle of Ilipa. Rarely has so complete a victory been gained by a weaker over a stronger force, and this result was due to a perfect application of the principles of surprise andconcentration, that is in essence an example for all time. How crude does Frederick’s famed oblique order appear beside Scipio’s double oblique manoeuvre and envelopment, which effected a crushing concentration du fort au faible while the enemy’s centre was surely fixed. Scipio left the enemy no chance for the change of front which cost Frederick so dear at Kolin. Masterly as were his battle tactics, still more remarkable perhaps were the decisiveness and rapidity of their exploitation, which found no parallel in military history until Napoleon came to develop the pursuit as the vital complement of battle, and one of the supreme tests of generalship. To Scipio no cavalry leader could have complained as Maharbal, whether justly or not, to Hannibal, “ You know, indeed, how to win a victory, Hannibal, but you know not how to use one ! ”

But Scipio, in whom the idea of strategic exploitation was as inborn as the tactical, was not content to rest on his laurels. Already he was looking to the future, directing his view on Africa. As he had seen that Cartagena was the key to Spain, that Spain was the key to the situation in Italy, so he saw that Africa was the key to the whole struggle. Strike at Africa, and he would not only relieve Italy of Hannibal’s ever-menacing presence—a menace which he had already reduced by paralysing Hannibal’s source of reinforcement,—but would undermine the foundations of Carthaginian power, until the edifice itself collapsed in ruin.

To the congratulations of his friends, who entreated him to take a rest, he replied “ that he had now to consider how he should begin the war against Carthage ; for up to now the Carthaginians had been making war on the Romans, but now fortune had given the Romans the opportunity of making war on the Carthaginians.”

Although it must still be some time before he could convert the Roman Senate to his strategy, he set about preparing the ground. Masinissa, after the defeat at Ilipa, had come over to the Roman side, and was despatched to Africa to induce the Numidians to follow his lead. Further, Scipio sent Lælius on an embassy to sound Syphax, King of the Massæsylians, whose territory embraced most of what is to-day Algeria. Syphax, while expressing his willingness to break with Carthage, refused to ratify any treaty except with Scipio in person.

Though promised a safe conduct, the hazard of such a journey was immense. Diplomatic privileges were then in infancy, and an envoy ran risks, and not infrequently suffered a fate that was enough to chill the stoutest heart. How much greater, too, when the envoy was Rome’s one victorious leader, the man whose existence was an ever-growing menace to Carthage and her allies, and who was now asked to entrust himself, far from his army, to the care of a dubious neutral. Yet this risk Scipio, calculating the risk against the prize; took, considering that the winning over of Syphax was an essential step to the further development of his policy. After making the necessary dispositions for the protection of Spain, he sailed from Cartagena with two quinqueremes. The risk, as it proved, was even greater than he calculated. Indeed, it may be that the history of the ancient world turned on a puff of wind. For he arrived off the harbour just after Hasdrubal, driven out of Spain, had cast anchor there on his way back to Carthage. Hasdrubal had with him seven triremes, and sighting the approach of what were obviously Roman ships, he hurriedly attempted to prepare his own ships and weigh anchor, in order to overpower the two quinqueremes before they could enter the neutral harbour. But a freshening breeze helped the Roman ships to enter before Hasdrubal’s fleet could sail forth, and once Scipio was inside the harbour the Carthaginians did not dare to interfere.

Hasdrubal and Scipio both then sought audience of Syphax, who was much flattered by this recognition of his importance. He invited them both to be his guests, and after some demur they overcame their scruples, and supped together at Syphax’s table. In such a delicate situation, Scipio’s personal charm and diplomatic gifts effected a brilliant coup. Not only Syphax but Hasdrubal succumbed to his charm, the Carthaginian openly avowing that Scipio “ appeared to him more to be admired for the qualities he displayed on a personal interview with him than for his exploits in war, and that he had no doubt that Syphax and his kingdom were already at the disposal of the Romans, such was the knack that man possessed for gaining the esteem of others.” Hasdrubal was a true prophet, for Scipio sailed back with the treaty ratified.

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