Support this website - buy books!

Youth (236-211)







Final Act




Publius Cornelius Scipio was born at Rome either in 236 or 235 (all dates are BC), a scion of the Cornelii, one of the most illustrious and ancient Roman patrician families. Practically nothing is known about his childhood - even before his death, his birth and youth had already become legend. He may have been pieous by nature, as Livius states that from the day he reached manhood (14 years of age), he had made a practice of never engaging in any business, private or public, without paying a visit to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. It is also likely that he was somewhat weakly from youth, as he was plagued by ill-health thoughout most of his life.

The father of Scipio, himself named Publius Cornelius Scipio, would have entertained great ambitions for his son. For the past 150 years, the Scipio family had regularly been elected Consuls, and young Publius would have been expected to uphold the family honor by becoming Consul in turn.The Corneli Scipionii had become particularly powerful during the later part of the first Illyrian Wars (229-219 BCE). Of ten consuls elected in the years 222-218, 3 consuls came from the Scipio family, and at least 4 of the others would appear to have had close political ties to the Scipio family (most notably Lucius Aemilius Paullus).

The First Campaigns: Ticinus to Cannae (218-216)

Scipio's father was elected Consul for 218 BCE on the outbreak of the Hannibalic or Second Punic War. The Scipionic faction would appear to have been strongly in favour of the war and their strategy called for a two-pronged attack on the Carthaginian possession in Africa and Spain, the attack on Spain to be led by Scipio's father. Being 17 or 18 years of age, Scipio was by now eligible to serve in the army; he would join his father's army for his first tour of duty (a roman citizen was expected to serve at least 10 campaigns (years)). Along with his father came also his uncle, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio.

The Scipios, with the army destined for Spain, reached Massilia sometime in September of 218, at the same time as Hannibal reached the Rhone. A troop of cavalry sent out to scout the whereabouts of Hannibal met and defeated a smaller troop of Numidians, but the Romans where too late to prevent Hannibal from crossing the Alps. Ordering his army to continue on to Spain under the command of his brother, Scipio's father returned to Italy to take command of the Roman forces in the Po Valley (Cisalpine Gaul), taking his son with him.

The young Hannibal Barca
A bust, possibly of the young Hannibal Barca; alternately identified as the portrait of King Juba of Mauretania. The first battle of the war took place at the River Ticinus, between the cavalry and light troops of the armies. Hannibal outnumbered the romans by at least two to one but, deluded by the success of his cavalry on the Rhone, Scipio hazarded to offer battle. The young Scipio was stationed with a bodyguard on a small hill to the rear, to keep him out of harms way. The battle went badly - the light troops of the Romans fled almost immediately, and then Hannibal's Numidian cavalry encircled the Romans from behind. Scipio's father was himself wounded and fell from his horse. The Roman forces were fleeing, only a small bodyguard of two or three horsemen remained to defend the Consul, and they were soon surrounded and cut off by the enemy.

Seeing this, the young Scipio at once urged his bodyguards to charge the enemy. Seeing that the battle was lost, and frightened by the large numbers of the enemy closing in on the Consul, the bodyguards would appear to have hung back. Seeing that they would not obey him, the young Scipio spurred his own horse and instead recklessly charged the enemies encircling his father alone. Shamed by this act, the young Scipio's bodyguards rode after him, and the sudden attack so unnerved the enemies surrounding the Consul that they broke away. Scipio's father was the first in praising the young Scipio for saving his life, and after the battle, he ordered the corona civica - the highest Roman military commendation, to be presented to his son. The young Scipio refused, stating that "the action was one that rewarded itself".

After the defeat, the Romans retreated and waited for the arrival of reinforcements, the other Consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus. Longus arrived in december and decided to offer battle. He was soundly beaten at the battle of the Trebbia, though a large portion of the Roman army actually succeeded in breaking through the Carthaginian centre and return to Placentia. Upon recovering from his wounds, Scipio's father left for Spain to join his brother who had already scored several succeses against the Carthaginians in Spain. Of Scipio's activities in 217 we know absolutely nothing, but in the course of the year, Hannibal destroyed the Roman army of Gaius Flaminius at Lake Trasimene.

For a time the Scipiones rival, Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator ("the Delayer") was in command as Dictator, but his policy of avoiding battle was unpopular with the people, and at the start of the new year, the Scipionic faction succeeded in getting Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Caius Terentius Varro elected as Consuls. There is no doubt about the close affiliations between the Aemilii and the Cornelii Scipiones - it is also very likely that they supported the election of Varro as someone who would support an offensive policy - something that the Scipiones favored throughout the war.

At the same time, Scipio was elected as a military tribune, no doubt helped by the fame he had won at Ticinus. It is likely that he was already at this time engaged to Aemilia, the daughter of Aemilius Paullus and thus he would be serving under his coming father-in-law. The Roman battle plan was simple - to use the superior quality of their legionaries to smash through the enemy's centre as they had successfully done at the Trebbia. To do this, the Romans had assembled the greatest Roman army ever, 80,000 men. The claims of Roman historians that Varro acted contrary to the wishes of Paullus and the Roman Senate are likely later fiction designed to protect the reputation of Paullus and the Senate - the Senate had specifically given the Consuls permission to engage Hannibal. Furthermore, on the day of battle, Paullus took up position on the right - traditionally the position reserved for the senior commander of the Roman army.

The Roman plan failed - trapped on a narrow plain of Cannae, the Roman army was virtually annihilated. Paullus chose to stay and die, but Varro escaped from the battle. Scipio too escaped with about 10,000 refugees who fled to the large Roman encampment. Many of the survivors would seem to have been stunned by the scale of the defeat and waited tamely in the camp to surrender, but about 4,000 - among them Scipio left the camp after nightfall, evaded Hannibal's cavalry patrols and made their way to Canusium. They were still in great peril. Only about 6-7 kilometres from the battlefield, Hannibal's forces could at any moment come marching down the road to attack them. The remnant of the army takes council, and by common consent, they decide to appoint as commanders Scipio - at this time no more than 20 years of age, and one Appius Claudius.

As the leaders of this little force took council, word was brought to them of a mutiny being plotted. Some young nobles, led by Lucius Caecilius Metellus, were contemplating to flee Italy and take service overseas with foreign kings. While the rest of the leaders were in dismay by these bad tidings and wanted to call a council, Scipio acted at once, declaring:

"This is not a proper subject for deliberation; courage and action, not deliberation, are necesarry in such a calamity. Let those who desire the safety of the state attend me in arms forthwith; for in no place is the camp of the enemy more truly than were such designs are contemplated."

With only a few companions, he headed for the house where Metellus was lodged, and surprised the plotters in council. Catching the plotters in council, Scipio drew his sword and proclaimed:

"I swear that I will neither desert the cause of Rome, nor allow any other citizen of Rome to desert it. If knowingly I violate this oath, may Jupiter visit with the most horrible perdition my house, my family, and my fortune. I Insist tha you Lucius Caecilius, and the rest of you present, take this oath; and let the man who demurs be assured that this sword is drawn against him."

Terrified, the plotters swore the oath and surrendered themselves into Scipio's custody. With the danger thus quelled, Scipio and Appius, learning that Varro was rallying the rest of the army at Venusia, placed themselves under his command. In light of the latter charges by historians against Varro, it is worth noting that the Senate latter extended a vote of thanks to Varro (no doubt for rallying and saving what was left of the army - some 14,000 men), and that they continued to use him in a military capacity at other times during the war.

The Darkest Hour (215-211)

The story of Scipio during the battle, was perhaps the only ray of sunlight in the darkest chapter of Roman history. As a result, Scipio's reputation for bravery, and his popularity with the people reached uncommon heights. This was probably not diminished by the news of the successes of his father and uncle in Spain: in 216 or 215. they defeated the army of Hadsrubal Barca (brother of Hannibal) at Ibera. During the following two years, a revolt by Syphax of Numidia forced the Carthaginians to devote considerable forces in Carthage, leaving the Scipios almost a free hand in Spain.

      Celtic Warrior
The bulk of Hannibal's infantry were celts. While some fought naked, the majority would have added trousers and the large celtic shield.Despite these successes of the Scipios, the policies of the Scipionic faction had been severely discredited by Cannae. Serious defections had followed, both of Capua - probably the richest town in Italy - and later by Syracuse in Sicily. Many of the Southern Italian tribes had also changed sides, though the Etruscans and the Latins (the true backbone of the Roman federation), stayed loyal. The Roman armies had gone on the defensive, steadfastly following the "Fabian" strategy proposed by Fabius Maximus.

So when one Lucius Cornelius, a cousin of Scipio (note: sources usually call him a brother, as Romans did not distinguish cousins from brothers), tried to stand for curule aedile in 213, his chances looked bleak. Taking note of this as the election approached, and knowing that he himself was very popular, Scipio realized that the only way by which his cousin would get elected was if they both attempted it. There was just one problem with such a plan, and that was that Scipio was underage.

His mother had long been concerned with the upcoming elections, visiting the different temples to sacrifice. In this atmosphere, he went to her and told her that he had twice had the same dream: he and his "brother" had both been elected to the aedileship, and were returning to the forum when she met them at the door and fell on their necks and kissed them. Hearing this wishful thinking, his mother exclaimed: "Would I might see that day." Seizing the opportunity, Scipio asked, "Then would you like us to try, mother?" Thinking that he was joking, as he was far too young to competer for the office, his mother assented. Even when he asked her to get a white toga, the traditional dress of a candidate, ready for him, she did not take him seriously.

While his mother was still sleeping, Scipio appeared at the forum with his cousin to stand for election. Surprised to see him, the people greeted his candidature with universal acclaim. Outraged by the impropiety of his youth, two of the People's Tribunes tried to prevent him from submitting his candidature, a charge to which Scipio replied: "If all the Roman people want to make me aedile, I am old enough."

He and his cousin subsequently won the election. The news of their success ran ahead of them as they returned home, and as Scipio had predicted, his mother met them at the door to embrace and kiss them. From this episode began the legends that Scipio communed with the Gods, not only in his dreams, but also by day. No doubt his pieous nature (noted above), would have added additional fuel to fire. Polybius claims that this was merely an artifice to impress superstitious minds, but he wrote in a latter, more aetheistic hellenized age. Scipio's conduct in life leaves no reason to suggest that he was as coldly calculationg as Polybius believes. In his wish to help his brother (and knowing the means by which it could be accomplished), he may very well have had the dreams he claimed.

The following years saw an amazing resurgence of the Roman state, and vindication for the Fabian strategy. In 212, Marcus Claudius Marcellus captured and sacked Syracuse, and in the same year the Romans began to besiege Capua. Hannibal however also scored a significant success by capturing the major port Tarentum be stealth, though as a Roman garrison held out in the citadel, much of the advantage was negated. Hannibal attempted to march on Rome in order to relieve the siege at Capua, but the Romans were impeturbable, and and soon after, the city of Capua was recaptured.

The revolt of Syphax, which had prevented the Carthaginians from sending reinforcements to Hannibal and drained the armies of Spain, was put down in 213 with the help of Massinissa. This freed up considerable forces, and the Carthaginians could now send forces to Spain under the command of Hadsrubal and Mago Barca to halt the advance of the Scipios. The Scipios, who had received no reinforcements since 217, their forces depleted by the need to garrisson their conquests, where forced to rely on Celtiberian mercenaries hired from friendly spanish tribes. Perhaps growing overconfident due to their unbroken string of successes in Spain, the Scipios divided their forces to deal with the dispersed Carthaginian armies in 212, Publius Scipio going to attack Mago Barca and Hadsrubal Gisgon, and Gnaeus Scipio, with the 20,000 Celtiberians, going to meet Hadsrubal Barca.

When Publius Scipio arrived near Castulo, he discovered that Mago's Carthaginians were shortly to be reinforced by 7,500 Iberian mercenaries. Harrassed by the effective Numidian cavalry of Massinissa, able neither to advance nor retreat, Publius Scipio slipped out of camp at night in an attempt to cut of the Iberians. The Numidians were not fooled for long though, and while the Romans engaged the Iberians, Mago and Massinissa arrived on the battlefield and attacked the Romans from the rear. For a while the Romans held out, but when Publius Scipio fell, the Romans broke and fled. Meanwhile, Hadsrubal Barca had bribed the Celtiberians to desert. Suddenly heavily outnumbered, Gnaeus Scipio tried to retreat. However, when Mago and the Numidians arrived, the harrassed Romans were forced to dig in on top a hill. Gnaeus Scipio was killed when the Carthaginians charged the improvised barricade; and the rest of the army dissolved.

The Roman armies fled north - only the work of a eques Romanus, Lucius Marcius Septimus, prevented the Roman armies from being driven entirely out of Spain. Regrouping on the Ebro (in the far North), he managed to keep the Carthaginians at bay. Gaius Claudius Nero was sent from Rome as a temporary commander, and he managed to stabilize the situation of the Ebro. But the situation was bleak; in two inglorious battles, seven years of campaigning had been undone, and the Roman hold on Spain was all but broken.

Author: Michael O. Akinde.
Created: May, 2000.    Last Modified: July 2, 2000.
Copyright © 2000 Michael O. Akinde. All rights reserved. 
Previous     Next