by Jefferson P. Webb
When engaged in a discussion of great military leaders of the ancient world, one cannot help but bring up the figure of Roman Consul Scipio Africanus (236 – 183 BCE).1 Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus proved to be exactly what Rome needed to break an ever increasing series of horrifying defeats at the hands of Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, during the Second Punic War, also known as the Hannibalic War. Until the war against Hannibal’s invasion of Roman Italy and Spain, the Roman army had been the masters of the battlefield.
But facing what can only be described as tactical genius in the form of the leadership of Hannibal, Rome was losing tens of thousands of men in single battles like the battles of Lake Trasimine, and Trebia, among others. What was it about the leadership of Scipio that set him apart from his Roman peers, and earned him the honor of being the first Roman titled with a place-name, Africanus, relating to the location of his masterful victory over Hannibal?
Scipio was of one of the most powerful and well respected families in Rome, the Cornelii family. This family had been very influential in Roman politics and military affairs for generations having members of its family serve as consuls and magistrates.2 The first record of Scipio’s military career was while he was in service under his father’s command in Northern Italy, engaged in combat actions against the invading Carthaginian army under Hannibal’s command.3 This action may or may not have been Scipio’s first taste of combat as seventeen year old, but he is recorded and celebrated for his heroic actions. During the battle his father’s position was encircled and his force in grave danger. Scipio’s father, also named Scipio had been wounded and was in danger of being killed or captured by the Carthaginians. Without hesitation Scipio charged the Carthaginians, for a moment alone as the soldiers with him hesitated to attack, and rescued his father.4 Scipio was held in great esteem by the Romans for his act of heroism. This, however, was not be the only contribution that Scipio was to make to the Roman war effort against Hannibal.5
Scipio’s military career, when looking at his early career, can without question be conjectured to have been frustratingly tragic. Without question he lost untold numbers of friends. It has been logically speculated that Scipio more than likely served at the battles of Lake Trasimine, and at Trebia too. But for certain it is known that he was a veteran of the slaughter of Canae where it was recorded that sixty thousand Romans were killed in action in one day’s fighting against Hannibal.6 It is an interesting side note to mention that Hannibal’s actions at Canae resulted in the first record of a successful double envelopment of one force by another force. At Canae Rome fielded an army twice the normal size of a campaigning army. This made it much slower and cumbersome in its movements, and while its force strength was impressive, its maneuverability was severely lacking. One can state with fairness that what Rome accomplished at Canae was to throw once more at Hannibal what had not been working, but on a much larger scale. It was a disaster for Rome. Among the few survivors was Scipio, ranked a Tribune at the time, and about four thousand men that escaped the battle and the area after nightfall.7
Scipio’s experience as a soldier was plagued with defeat after defeat in the service of generals whom were either unable to shake off the use of traditional, but failed tactics, or generals who were simply incompetent. Nevertheless, rather than succumbing to the blows to morale and depression that could have surely come from the defeats he had experienced, he learned from them better than his senior officers. Soon enough though on the heals of another tragedy, Scipio would have his chance and prove himself the savior of Rome. Scipio was in Rome when he received the news that both his father and his uncle had been killed in Spain at the Battle of the Upper Baetis. After this, Rome was having trouble finding willing military leaders to deploy to Spain in an effort against Hannibal’s brother leading the Spanish campaigns against Rome. Scipio stepped forward, volunteering to take his father’s place in Spain and command the Roman forces there. Livinius described the event. Note also Scipio’s age at the time.
At first they waited in expectation that those persons who might think themselves qualified for so momentous a command would give in their names, but this expectation being disappointed, their grief was renewed for the calamity they had suffered, and then regret for the generals they had lost. The people thus afflicted, and almost at their wits’ end, came down, however, to the Campus Martius on the day of the election, where, turning towards the magistrates, 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, declaring himself a candidate, took his station on an eminence from which he could be seen by all. The eyes of the whole assembly were directed towards him, and by acclamations and expressions of approbation, a prosperous and happy command were at once augured to him. Orders were then given that they should proceed to vote, when not only every century, but every individual to a man, decided that Publius Scipio should be invested with the command in Spain.9
Upon taking physical command of the Roman forces in Spain in the year 210, he gathered intelligence on the Carthaginians finding them to be divided into three military forces. Scipio’s force was comprised of around ten thousand infantrymen, and one thousand cavalrymen.10 Outnumbered, Scipio decided on something that caught not only his own officers and men off guard, but more importantly it surprised the Carthaginians. He did not attack the deployed Carthaginian forces, but attacked New Carthage, the Carthaginian capital of Spain.11 Scipio bypassed the enemy forces and lead a successful assault on their capital. The key to his success was in launching one of his attacking forces through a lagoon during low tide, where the Carthaginians were not expecting an attack nor thought it possible, and scaled the walls to unlock the city. Roman troops poured in and captured the capital and all of its resources the include the Carthaginian treasury in Spain and most of its armorers. This was a crushing blow to Carthaginian forces in Spain, and displayed Scipio’s unconventional tactical philosophy.
Scipio’s next tactical achievement through unconventional thinking was at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 against two of Hannibal’s brothers, Mago and Hasdrubal. As the armies formed up against one another for several days in an attempt to impress and intimidate each other, Scipio suddenly reversed the order of arrangement of his troops after several days, placing legions on the flanks and Spanish troops in the center. This was contrary to traditional Roman battle doctrine and it confused Mago and Hasdrubal. Scipio ordered his force to advance in this formation,but with yet another modification. The legions on his flanks were to advance in column formations rather than in battle lines.12 The Roman infantry cleared more ground faster in column formation and then turned to hit the Carthaginian flanks with fierce effectiveness. The Carthaginians were defeated decisively at Ilipa due to the tactical brilliance of Scipio and his non-traditional, innovative thinking. The Carthaginians were routed and Scipio decisively won the Spanish Theater of War for the Romans.
Now that Scipio was victorious in Spain, he had a plan for the next phase of the war against Carthage. But first, he would have to get his plan approved by the Roman Senate. His plan was not to engage Hannibal’s forces in Italy, but to invade the Carthaginian homeland in North Africa while Hannibal was still in Italy. With no resupply coming from Spain for Hannibal, and with his home base under attack across the sea, Scipio theorized correctly that Hannibal would be forced to leave Italy for North Africa. This strategy would be met by the Senate with some level of skepticism. In spite of the reluctance of the Roman Senate, the Senate nevertheless approved Scipio’s plan for the invasion of North Africa. In the eyes of the Senate though, Rome was not willing to send what it deemed to be its best soldiers. Instead as part of Scipio’s force, the Senate ordered Scipio to take the until now exiled survivors of the Canae disaster. The Senate saw those men as more expendable, but Scipio understood the psychology of such men and knew they would jump at the chance to redeem themselves, gaining payback on Hannibal for what he had done to them a decade before. Scipio gladly took these men with him, and the men loved Scipio for his confidence in them. True to Scipio’s theory, Hannibal was recalled by the Carthaginian Senate after Carthage suffered a series of defeats against Scipio. Hannibal left Italy for North Africa. Scipio and Hannibal were about to meet each other face to face in conversation prior to battle, and then army to army in the bloody Battle of Zama.
At Zama, Scipio once again showed his tactical brilliance and innovation. Scipio had to find an effective way of dealing with Hannibal’s eighty elephants still in service to his army. These elephants were used to crash head-long into the formations of Roman infantry, causing gaping holes in the Roman lines and creating great levels of fear and chaos in the Roman ranks.13 Scipio’s answer to these war beasts was a very simple, but again unconventional way of forming up his army for battle. Scipio changed from the traditional quincunx (checkerboard) formation to placing his maniples one behind the other instead.14 This created spaces or lanes between the maniples that allowed the elephants to simply run through without too much damage to the Roman units. Scipio knew that the elephants would rather run through the spaces than engage in bloody combat. Once the elephants were in the rear of the Roman formation and without supporting troops, they were cut down by waiting Romans. Appian records this part of the Battle of Zama.
The elephants began the fight decked out in fearful panoply and urged on with goads by their riders. The Numidian horse flying around them incessantly thrust darts into them. Being wounded and put to flight and having become unmanageable, their drivers took them out of the combat. This is what happened to the elephants on both wings. Those in the center trampled down the Roman infantry, who were not accustomed to that kind of fighting and were not able to avoid or to pursue them easily on account of their heavy armor, until Scipio brought up the Italian cavalry, who were in the rear and more lightly armed, and ordered them to dismount from their frightened horses, and run around and stab the elephants. He was himself the first to dismount and wound the front-tramping elephant. The others were encouraged by his example, and they inflicted so many wounds upon the elephants that these also withdrew. The field being cleared of these beasts the battle was now waged by men and horses only.
Scipio was able to effectively deal with one of Hannibal’s greatest tools of battle, the elephants. But without them Hannibal was still a brilliant leader. Scipio had to do more than this, and he did. Before the battle even started Scipio removed thousands of Hannibal’s forces through diplomacy. Scipio had engaged in a brilliant act of diplomacy and won over a large force of ten thousand Numidian warriors, six thousand light infantry and four thousand cavalry.15 Not only did Scipio manage to take these out of the equation for Hannibal’s effective force strength, but Scipio secured them for his own use against Hannibal in action and the Numidian defectors played a key roll In the defeat of Hannibal at Zama.16 By making some key adjustments to his battle formations, by demonstrating personal bravery, himself attacking one of the elephants, and through his brilliance in diplomatic skills, Roman Consul Scipio Africanus was able to decisively defeat the celebrated Hannibal Barca in Hannibal’s homeland at Zama.
Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus demonstrated all of the key leadership skills to inspire his men, and the innovative thinking to defeat an enemy that had plagued Rome and butchered its legions for years on its own soil. Much much more has been written about Scipio Africanus. In fact entire books have been written about him and his leadership in the Second Punic War. Upon examination of the historical figure, Scipio Africanus, it is clear to see why he was then and is now thousands of years later one of the most celebrated military leaders of all time.
1.Carey, Brian T. Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama and the Fall of Carthage. UK:Westholme. 2008.71
2.Carey, Brian T. Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama.71
3.Webb, Jefferson P. The Innovative Leadership of Scipio Africanus. Waco,TX: J.P. Webb 2009. 1
4.Lacey, James. Rome’s Greatest General: Scipio Africanus. Military History, July/August 2008, 58.
5.Webb, Jefferson P. The Innovative Leadership of Scipio Africanus. 2009. 1
6.Porter, Barry. Perspectives: At Lake Trasimene Hannibal Barca Combined Tactics and psychology to Destroy a Roman Army,Military History, October 2001, 14.
7.Carey, Brian T. Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama and the Fall of Carthage. UK:Westholme. 2008. 72
8.Lacey, James. Rome’s Craftiest General.58
9.Titus, Livinius. The History of Rome. Book 27, verse 18.Trans. Bycyrus Edmonds. Project Gutenberg: 2006.
10.Titus, Livinius. The History of Rome. Book 27, verse 19.
11.Carey, Brian T. Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama and the Fall of Carthage. UK:Westholme. 2008. 78
12.Gabriel, Richard A. Zama: Turning Point in the Desert, Military History, January/February 2008.52
13.Webb, Jefferson P. The Innovative Leadership of Scipio Africanus. Waco,TX: J.P. Webb 2009. 8
14.Carey, Brian T. Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama.102
15.Gabriel, Richard A. Zama: Turning Point in the Desert, Military History, January/February 2008.53
16.Webb, Jefferson P. The Innovative Leadership of Scipio Africanus. 10
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