Ancient History & Civilisation



ON arrival at Rome Scipio obtained an audience of the Senate outside the city, at the temple of Bellona, and there gave them a formal report of his campaigns. “On account of these services he rather tried his prospect of a triumph than pressed it pertinaciously,” for the honour had never been given except to those whose services were rendered when holders of a magistracy. His tact was wise, for the astonishing success of youth had already inspired envy among his seniors. The Senate did not break with precedent, and at the close of the audience he entered the city in the ordinary way. His reward, however, came without delay. At the assembly for the election of the two consuls for the coming year he was named by all the centuries. The popularity of his election was shown not only by the enthusiasm which greeted it, but by the gathering of a larger number of voters than at any time during the Punic War, crowds swarming to his house and to the Capitol full of curiosity to see the victor of the Spanish wars.

But on the morrow of this personal triumph, compensation for the formal “ triumph ” denied him by a hidebound Senate, the first shoots appeared of that undergrowth of narrow-minded conservatism, reinforced by envy, which was to choke the personal fruits of his work, though happily not before he had garnered for Rome the first-fruits—Hannibal’s overthrow.

Hitherto in Spain he had enjoyed a free hand unfettered by jealous politicians or the compromising counsels of government by committee. If he had to rely on his own local resources, he was at least too far distant for his essential freedom of action to be controlled by any manyheaded guardian of national policy. But from now on he was to suffer, like Marlborough and Wellington some two thousand years later, the curb of political faction and jealousy, and finally, like Marlborough, end his days in embittered retirement. The report got about that he was saying that he had been declared consul not merely to prosecute, but to finish the war; that for this object it was essential for him to move with his army into Africa; and that if the Senate opposed this plan he would carry it through with the people’s backing, overriding the Senate. Perhaps his friends were indiscreet; perhaps Scipio himself, so old beyond his years in other ways, allowed youthful confidence to outride his discretion; perhaps, most probable of all, he knew the Senate’s innate narrowness of vision and had been sounding the people’s opinion.

The upshot was, that when the question was raised in the Senate, Fabius Cunctator voiced the conservative view. The man who had worthily won his name by inaction, his natural caution reinforced by an old man’s jealousy, cleverly if spitefully criticises the plan of a young man whose action threatens to eclipse his fame. First, he points out that neither had the Senate voted nor the people ordered that Africa should be constituted a consul’s province this year, insinuating that if the consul came before them with his mind already made up, such conduct is an insult to them. Next, Fabius seeks to parry any imputation of jealousy by dwelling on his own past achievements as if they were too exalted for any possible feats of Scipio to threaten comparison. How characteristic, too, of age the remark, “ What rivalry can there exist between myself and a man who is not equal in years even to my son?” He urges that Scipio’s duty is to attack Hannibal in Italy. “Why do you not apply yourself to this, and carry the war in a straightforward manner to the place where Hannibal is, rather than pursue that roundabout course, according to which you expect that when you have crossed into Africa Hannibal will follow you thither.” How vivid is the reminder here of Eastern v. Western controversy in the war of 1914-1918. “What if Hannibal should advance against Rome?” How familiar to modern ears is this argument employed against any military heretic who questions the doctrine of Clausewitz that the enemy’s main army is the primary military objective.

Fabius then insinuates that Scipio’s head has been turned by his successes in Spain. These Fabius damns with faint praise and covert sneers —sneers which Mommsen and other modern historians seem to have accepted as literal truth, forgetting how decisively all Fabius’s arguments were refuted by Scipio’s actions. How different, Fabius contends, is the problem Scipio will have to face if he ventures to Africa. Not a harbour open, not even a foothold already secured, not an ally. Does Scipio trust his hold over Masinissa when he could not trust even his own soldiers ?—a jibe at the Sucro mutiny. Land in Africa, and he will rally the whole land against him, all internal disputes forgotten in face of the foreign foe. Even in the unlikely event of forcing Hannibal’s return, how much worse will it be to face him near Carthage, supported by all Africa, instead of with a remnant in Southern Italy? “What sort of policy is that of yours, to prefer fighting where your own forces will be diminished by one-half, and the enemy’s greatly augmented? ”

Fabius finishes with a scathing comparison of Scipio with his father, who, setting out for Spain, returned to Italy to meet Hannibal, “while you are going to leave Italy when Hannibal is there, not because you consider such a course beneficial to the State, but because you think it will redound to your honour and glory ... the armies were enlisted for the protection of the city and of Italy, and not for the consuls, like kings, to carry into whatever part of the world they please from motives of vanity.”

This speech makes a strong impression on the Senators, “especially those advanced in years,” and when Scipio rises to reply the majority are clearly against him. His opening is an apt counter-thrust: “Even Quintus Fabius himself has observed ... that in the opinion he gave a feeling of jealousy might be suspected. And though I dare not myself charge so great a man with harbouring that feeling, yet, whether it is owing to a defect in his phrasing, or to the fact, that suspicion has certainly not been removed. For he has so magnified his own honours and the fame of his exploits, to do away with the imputation of envy, that it would appear I am in danger of being rivalled by every obscure person, but not by himself, because he enjoys an eminence above everybody else....” “He has represented himself as an old man, and as one who has gone through every gradation of honour, and me as below the age even of his son, as if he supposed that the desire of glory did not exceed the span of life, and as if its chief part had no respect to memory and future ages.” Then, with gentle sarcasm Scipio refers to Fabius’s expressed solicitude for his safety, and not only for the army and the State, should he cross over to Africa. Whence has this concern so suddenly sprung ? When his father and uncle were slain, when Spain lay beneath the heel of four victorious Carthaginian armies, when no one except himself would offer themselves for such a forlorn venture, “why was it that no one at that time made any mention of my age, of the strength of the enemy, of the difficulties, of the recent fate of my father and uncle?” “Are there now larger armies in Africa, more and better generals, than were then in Spain? Was my age then more mature for conducting a war than now ...? ” “After having routed four Carthaginian armies ... after having regained possession of the whole of Spain, so that no trace of war remains, it is an easy matter to make light of my services; just as easy as it would be, should I return from Africa, to make light of those very conditions which are now magnified for the purpose of detaining me here.” Then, after demolishing the historical examples which Fabius had quoted as warnings, Scipio makes this appeal to history recoil against Fabius by adducing Hannibal’s example in support of his plan. “He who brings danger upon another has more spirit than he who repels it. Add to this, that the terror excited by the unexpected is increased thereby. When you have entered the territory of an enemy you obtain a near view of his strong and weak points.” After pointing out the moral “ soft spots” in Africa, Scipio continues: “Provided no impediment is caused here, you will hear at once that I have landed, and that Africa is blazing with war; that Hannibal is preparing to depart from this country.” “... Many things which are not now apparent at this distance will develop; and it is the part of a general not to be wanting when opportunity arises, and to bend its events to his designs. I shall, Quintus Fabius, have the opponent you assign me, Hannibal, but I shall rather draw him after me than be kept here by him.” As for the danger of a move by Hannibal on Rome, it is a poor compliment to Crassus, the other consul, to suppose that he will not be able to keep Hannibal’s reduced and shaken forces in check, when Fabius did so with Hannibal at the height of his power and success—an unanswerable master-thrust this!

After emphasising that now is the time and the opportunity to turn the tables on Carthage, to do to Africa what Hannibal did to Italy, Scipio ends on a characteristic note of restraint and exaltation combined: “ Though Fabius has depreciated my services in Spain, I will not attempt to turn his glory into ridicule and magnify my own. If in nothing else, though a young man, I will show my superiority over this old man in modesty and in the government of my tongue. Such has been my life, and such the services I have performed, that I can rest content in silence with that opinion which you have spontaneously formed of me.”

The Senate, however, were more concerned with the preservation of their own privileges than with the military arguments, and demanded to know if Scipio would leave the decision with them, or, if they refused, appeal, over their heads, to the people’s verdict. They refused to give a decision until they had an assurance that he would abide by it. After a consultation with his colleague, Scipio gave way to this demand: Thereupon the Senate, a typical committee, effected a compromise by which the consul to whose lot Sicily fell might have permission to cross into Africa if he judged it to be for the advantage of the State. Curiously, Sicily fell to Scipio!

He took with him thirty warships, which by great energy he had built and launched within forty-five days of the timber being taken from the woods; of these twenty were quinqueremes and ten quadriremes. On board he embarked seven thousand volunteers, as the Senate, afraid to block him but keen to obstruct him, had refused him leave to levy troops.

The story of how, beset with difficulties and hampered by those he was aiming to save, he took this unorganised band of volunteers and trained it to be the nucleus of an effective expeditionary force finds a notable parallel in our own history. Sicily was to be Scipio’s Shorncliffe Camp, the place where he forged the weapon that was to be thrust at the heart of Carthage. But Scipio, unlike Sir John Moore in the Napoleonic War, was himself to handle the weapon his genius had created, and with it to strike the death-blow at Hannibal’s power. His vision penetrating the distant future, a quality in which he perhaps surpasses all other great commanders, enabled him to realise that the tactical key to victory lay in the possession of a superior mobile arm of decision—cavalry. It is not the least tribute to his genius that to appreciate this he had to break loose from the fetters of a great tradition, for Rome’s military greatness was essentially built on the power of her legionary infantry. The long and splendid annals of Roman history are the testimony to its effectiveness, and only in Scipio’s brief passage across the stage do we find a real break with this tradition, a balance between the two arms by which the power of the one for fixing and of the other for decisive manoeuvre are proportioned and combined. It is an object-lesson to modern general staffs, shivering on the brink of mechanicalisation, fearful of the plunge despite the proved ineffectiveness of the older arms in their present form, for no military tradition has been a tithe so enduring and so resplendent as that of the legion. From his arrival in Sicily onwards Scipio bent his energies to developing a superior cavalry, and Zama, where Hannibal’s decisive weapon was turned against himself, is Scipio’s justification.

How unattainable must this goal have seemed when he landed in Sicily with a mere seven thousand heterogeneous volunteers. Yet within a few days the first progress was recorded. At once organising his volunteers into cohorts and centuries, Scipio kept aside three hundred of the pick. One can imagine their perplexed wonder at being left without arms and not told off to centuries like their comrades.

Next he nominated three hundred of the noblest born Sicilian youths to accompany him to Africa, and appointed a day on which they were to present themselves equipped with horses and arms. The honour of nomination for such a hazardous venture affrighted both them and their parents, and they paraded most reluctantly. Addressing them, Scipio remarked that he had heard rumours of their aversion to this arduous service, and rather than take unwilling comrades he would prefer that they would openly avow their feelings. One of them immediately seized this loophole of escape, and Scipio thereupon released him from service and promised to provide a substitute on condition that he handed over his horse and arms and trained his substitute in their handling. The Sicilian joyfully accepted, and the rest, seeing that the general did not take his action amiss, promptly followed his example. By this means Scipio obtained a nucleus of picked Roman cavalry “ at no expense to the State.”

His next measures show not only how his every step tended towards his ultimate object, but also how alive he was to the importance of foresight in securing his future action. He sent Lælius on an advance reconnoitring expedition to Africa, and in order not to impair the resources he was building up repaired his old ships for this expedition, hauling his new ones upon shore for the winter at Panormus, as they had been hastily and inevitably built of unseasoned timber. Further, after distributing his army through the towns, he ordered the Sicilian States to furnish corn for the troops, saving up the corn which he had brought with him from Italy—economy of force even in the details of supply. Scipio knew that strategy depends on supply, that without security of food the most dazzling manoeuvres may come to nought.

Furthermore, an offensive, whether strategical or tactical, must operate from a secure base—this is one of the cardinal axioms of war. “Basis” would perhaps be a better term, for “ base ” is apt to be construed too narrowly, whereas truly it comprises security to the geographical base, both internal and external, as well as security of supply and of movement. Napoleon in 1814, the Germans in 1918, both suffered the dislocation of their offensive action through the insecurity of their base internally. It is thus interesting to note how Scipio sought among his preparatory measures to ensure this security. He found Sicily, and especially Syracuse, suffering from internal discontent and disorder which had arisen out of the war. The property of the Syracusans had been seized after the famous siege by covetous Romans and Italians, and despite the decrees of the Senate for its restitution, had never been handed back. Scipio took an early opportunity of going to Syracuse, and “ deeming it of the first importance to maintain trust in Rome’s plighted word,” restored their property to the citizens, by proclamation and even by direct action against those who still clung fast to the plundered property. This act of justice had a wide effect throughout Sicily, and not only ensured the tranquillity of his base but won the active support of the Sicilians in furnishing his forces for the expedition.

Meanwhile Lælius had landed at Hippo Regius (modern Bona), about 150 miles distant from Carthage. According to Livy the news threw Carthage into a panic, the citizens believing that Scipio himself had landed with his army, and anticipating an immediate march on Carthage. To ward this off seemed hopeless, as their own people were untrained for war, their mercenary troops of doubtful loyalty, and among the African chiefs Syphax was alienated from them since his conference with Scipio, and Masinissa a declared enemy. The panic did not abate until news came that the invader was Lælius, not Scipio, and that his forces were only strong enough for a raid. Livy further tells us that the Carthaginians took advantage of the respite to send embassies to Syphax and others of the African chiefs for the purpose of strengthening their alliance, and envoys were also sent to Hannibal and Mago to urge them to keep Scipio at home by playing on the fears of the Romans. Mago had, earlier, landed at Genoa, but was too weak to act effectively, and to encourage him to move towards Rome and join Hannibal, the Carthaginian Senate sent him seven thousand troops and also money to hire auxiliaries.

If these facts be true, they would on the surface suggest that Scipio lost an opportunity and was unwise to put the Carthaginians on their guard by this raid of Lælius’s, and this impression is strengthened by the words ascribed to Masinissa. For Livy says that Masinissa came, with a small body of horse, to meet Lælius, and complained that “ Scipio had not acted with promptness, in that he had not already passed his army over into Africa, while the Carthaginians were in consternation, and while Syphax was entangled in wars with neighbouring States, and in doubt as to the side he should take; that if Syphax was allowed time to settle his own affairs, he would not keep faith with the Romans.” Masinissa then begged that Lælius would urge Scipio not to delay, promising that he, though driven from his kingdom, would join Scipio with a force of horse and foot.

When, however, we appreciate the situation from a military angle it appears in a different light. Lælius landed at the port which was nearest to Numidia, and which was not only 150 miles distant from Carthage, but with a wide belt of hill country intervening. When Scipio himself landed it was at a spot only some twentyfive miles distant. Hence Lælius’s expedition can have been in no sense a reconnaissance against Carthage, and the clear deduction is that it was a reconnaissance to discover the state and feeling of the African States where Scipio hoped to find allies, and in particular to get in touch with Masinissa. As we have shown, Scipio had realised that a superiority in the cavalry arm was the key to victory over the Carthaginians, and he looked to the Numidian chief for his main source. His appreciation of the latter’s brilliant cavalry leadership on the battlefields of Spain had inspired him to win Masinissa over. Thus the inherent probability is that Lælius’s mission was primarily to discover if the Numidian would actually hold to his new alliance when Roman troops landed on African soil, and if so, what were the resources he could contribute. If the Carthaginians were really panic-stricken at a raid so distant, the fact but helped to confirm Scipio’s view of the moral advantage to be gained from a thrust at Carthage. As for the warning thus given, the danger of putting the Carthaginians on their guard, this had already been given by Scipio’s speeches in the Senate and his preparations. Where consent for his expedition had to be wrung from a reluctant Senate, where the forces and resources for it had to be raised without State help, strategic surprise was out of the question from the outset. Here were exemplified the chronic drawbacks of a constitutional system of government for conducting war. It is one of Scipio’s supreme merits that he obtained completely decisive results, though lacking the tremendous asset of political control. He, the servant of a republic, is the one exception to the rule that throughout the history of war the most successful of the great captains have been despots or autocrats. Countless historians have lavished sympathy on Hannibal for the handicap he suffered through lack of support from home, and laid all his set-backs at the door of the Carthaginian Senate. None seem to have stressed Scipio’s similar handicap. Yet to Rome there was none of the physical difficulty in sending reinforcements that Carthage could plead as an excuse. In this lack of support—nay worse, the active opposition—from the Roman Senate lies unquestionably the reason of Scipio’s delay of a year in Sicily to prepare for the expedition. He had to find unaided his own resources in Sicily and Africa. How groundless as well as irrational was Masinissa’s complaint, if he made it, is shown by the fact that when, in 204 B.C., Scipio landed in Africa, the “ landless prince,” to quote Mommsen, “ brought in the first instance nothing beyond his personal ability to the aid of the Romans.” Few generals have been so bold as Scipio when boldness was the right policy, but he was too imbued with the principle of security to strike before he had armed himself and tempered his weapon by training. The wonder is not at Scipio’s delay of a year, but that he moved so soon, and with a force that in numbers if not in training was still so puny for the scope of his task. But this seeming audacity was made secure by his strategy after the landing, and Zama was its justification. It is an ironical comment on the value of their judgments that the same historians who criticise Scipio for his tardiness in 205 B.C., tax him with rashness for the smallness of the force with which he sailed in 204 B.C.! One of these, Dodge, when dealing with the first year, remarks that “ Scipio does not seem to have been very expeditious about the business. In this he resembled M‘Clellan, as well as in his popularity.” Later, dealing with Scipio’s embarkation, Dodge says: “ Some generals would have declared these means insufficient ; but Scipio possessed an abundance of self-confidence which supplemented material strength in all but severe tests.” Such criticism is a boomerang recoiling on the critic.

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