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Lucky Bastard

By (December 1, 2008) 4 Comments

Scipio Africanus: Rome’s Greatest General

By Richard A. Gabriel
Potomac Books, Inc. 2008

Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama and the Fall of Carthage

By Brian Todd Carey
Westholme Publishing, 2008


There’s one in every story, and they’re always slightly irritating: the lucky one, the good-looking guy who seems to stumble into all the credit and acclaim without even trying. In business, he’s the one who can do no wrong in the boss’s eyes, the one who very often has much more senior men reporting to him. In school, he was the pennant-winning sports champion who never seemed to study for the high grades he got. If you’ve spent any time at all in this unmeritorious world of ours, you know the type (and if by some chance you are the type, you should probably leave the room: I have some fairly unpleasant things to say about one of your own, in a little bit).

The climax of the Second Punic War, the greatest armed conflict of the ancient world (indeed, a thing only equaled in the 20th century), features one such lucky bastard, and it’s not who you think – of course you’re going to nominate Hannibal himself, who managed to fight and maul a succession of much bigger Roman armies on Italian soil for 17 years, inflicting such legendary defeats as Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae. But you’d be wrong: Hannibal had it rough, and even given a large amount of Roman tactical stupidity, he had to work hard for everything he achieved during the war (and he suffered for it all too, including losing nearly half his army while crossing the Alps and losing his right eye while crossing the Apennines). Nothing came easy for him, even victory; he’s not the type we’re looking for. In fact, if you’ve glanced at the titles of the books I’m reviewing, you’ll already know who that type is: Publius Cornelius Scipio, whom the grateful Romans honored with the title Africanus when he defeated Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC.

But first, a little background.

Rome first came into conflict with Carthage in 264 BC because both powers wanted possession of Sicily. Actually, they came into conflict because both powers wanted to rule the world and everything in it, but everybody has to start somewhere, and in 264 BC the Carthaginians attacked Messina knowing full well the Campanian mercenaries holding the town would call to Rome for help. They did, and the Romans, seeing what was beginning to be at stake, sent aid. And a twenty-year war involving hundreds of warships and hundreds of thousands of men began.

Through quiet months and massive battles, Rome and Carthage fought on land and sea, until a pivotal naval victory was won by the Roman general Lucius Lutatius Catulus. Carthage was eventually forced to sue for peace and pay a gigantic indemnity, and that humiliation found its way into the hearts, presumably, of many Carthaginians. But the main heart that needs to concern us today belonged to the great Carthaginian general Hamilcar, who led his troops to many victories during the war and made his sons swear that they would devote their lives to driving Roman power from Africa, from Spain, from Sicily – from the face of the Earth, really.

Such an odd act of parenting would ordinarily have meant very little in the larger course of world events, except for one detail: the three sons of Hamilcar, through natural capacity and no doubt lots of training, were all master tacticians and military strategists by the time they were in their 20s. By the time they were in their 30s, they were each long-accustomed to leading men and surveying terrain; in other words, from 241 BC when the First Punic War ended until 219 BC, the sons of Hamilcar – Mago, Hasdrubal, and Hannibal – forged themselves into fierce, broad-talented, single-minded, Rome-hating military experts.

Which turned out to be really bad for Rome, because in 219 BC the Second Punic War started.

The Carthaginians kicked it off again: Hannibal took his vow to drive the Romans from Spain very seriously. He laid siege to the Roman-allied town of Saguntum, knowing they’d call for Roman aid and start the whole process in motion again, and that’s exactly what happened. From Spain, Hannibal invaded Roman-occupied Gaul with an army of some 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 100 specially-trained war-elephants (the famous oliphant scene in Peter Jackson’s movie The Return of the King only begins to give viewers an accurate impression of how awesomely destructive these animals could be – they were not only fast and decked out in extremely thick armor, but they wielded enormous metal flails with their trunks … especially in the initial stages of any encounter, they absolutely scattered all opposition). Rome dispatched Publius Cornelius Scipio (father of the paragon) to intercept Hannibal, but he failed to do so and returned to Italy empty-handed.  

Amazingly, Hannibal gave him the slip and took his army over the Alps in mid-winter in bad weather. His troops (and, needless to say, his elephants) were all very familiar with African weather, so this Alpine crossing went as you’d expect: roughly 20,000 men, 6,000 cavalry, and nearly all the elephants died en route (these and all other numbers are rough estimates only; despite the impression you might get reading either Scipio Africanus or Hannibal’s Last Battle, we simply can’t know the exact sizes of either Roman or Carthaginian forces … our main sources, Livy and Polybius, just aren’t mathematically inclined, although Polybius is sometimes more trustworthy). But as soon as Hannibal got onto more-or-less Italian soil in the Po Valley, he began extensively recruiting from among the tribes and peoples there who had no love for Rome. Despite his huge losses crossing the Alps, he seems to have had little trouble refilling his ranks in time to confront the Romans in their own land.

He bloodied their nose at the Ticinus River (and nearly killed the aforementioned Scipio the Elder in the process), annihilated their army at Trebia, annihilated another army at Lake Trasimene, and on August 2, 216 BC wiped out a force twice the size of Trebia and Trasimene combined, at Cannae, often studied as a picture-perfect military engagement (perfect from Hannibal’s perspective, that is – if you were the third-rate boob Terentius Varro, his opponent, you had never come within slingshot-distance of perfection). And all this was accomplished by Hannibal without re-supply from Spain (where his brothers had their hands full pinning down Roman forces) and with only the smallest trickle of supply from Carthage itself (while in Italy, Hannibal tried constantly to seize and hold a major seaport, without success).

Obviously, this was very bad for the Romans. In the second war against their old foe Carthage, every army they sent out against this marauding general and his rag-tag army of polyglot mercenaries (tramping through Italian territory!) was coming back in bloody rags, if it came back at all. Both Livy and Polybius tell us stories of panic at Rome that are all too easy to believe.

Scipio the Elder (and his brother, also a general) were eventually killed in battle with Carthaginian armies, and although Marcus Claudius Marcellus had some initial success in the field (he actually beat Hannibal, not once but twice), it didn’t last. Hannibal and his army became such a fixed terror in the Roman psyche that he entered popular ballads and children’s bedtime stories. Teenagers couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t out there somewhere in the countryside, threatening Rome’s total destruction. Imagine the terror that spread when word reached Rome that Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal had crossed the Alps (with virtually none of the losses Hannibal had experienced – he likely picked a different pass, he likely bribed the warlike natives, and he certainly had better weather) and was successfully recruiting large numbers of men, his army growing like an avalanche headed south to assault Rome just as Hannibal led his forces north up the Apennines – the city would be caught in an unbeatable pincer-movement and sacked.

Now the stage is set for two key figures in our tale – the paragon, and the man he so rudely overshadowed. The latter was Gaius Claudius Nero, who was elected consul along with a mulish idiot named Marcus Lucius Salinator (think of the office as if there were two American presidents every year, each personally in command of an army). Nobody particularly wanted to be consul that year, for obvious reasons, but nevertheless, Salinator took his legions north to block Hasdrubal’s advance on Rome, and Nero took his forces south to stop Hannibal. This was in 207 BC.

Hasdrubal at first withdrew a small distance (Livy says half a mile, which seems incredibly close) from Salinator’s army, feeling around for the best way to destroy it and simultaneously sending word via messengers to his brother that he was arrived in force, possibly even detailing plans for where and when their armies could meet up. Down south, Nero’s army had Hannibal pinned at a safe distance, and neither side was particularly spoiling for a big fight (there had been a handful of little fights as the two armies jockeyed for position, and in these encounters, Hannibal had got a taste of something sharp he very much disliked in Nero). This is how things stood when something happened that changed everything: some of Nero’s scouts caught Hasdrubal’s messengers. Nero suddenly knew where Hasdrubal was, and he knew that neither Hasdrubal nor Hannibal knew he knew it.

He acted instantly. Firing off a request to the Senate back in Rome that he be allowed to move some of his forces north, he then proceeded to immediately do just that, without waiting for permission. He left his main army right where it was, counterbalancing Hannibal, but he feinted south with a very small detachment in order to fool Hannibal’s pickets into thinking he was planning to move in that direction, then he turned a much larger force north and managed one of the greatest logistical feats ever accomplished in the records of ancient warfare: he marched 6000 infantry and 1000 cavalry and equipment roughly 250 miles in less than a week, arriving at Salinator’s camp in the middle of the night and slipping his men in amongst the existing forces without any fanfare or separate quarters, to fool Hasdrubal into thinking he was still facing only one consul.

(At the summit meeting of the consuls and their lieutenants that evening, it was proposed that the armies do nothing for a while, to give Nero’s men time to recover. Livy gives Nero’s reply thus:

That officer who is for giving time here for my men to rest themselves is for giving time for Hannibal to attack my men, whom I have left in the camp in Apulia. He is for giving time to Hannibal and Hasdrubal to discover my march, and to maneuver for a junction with each other in Cisalpine Gaul at their leisure. We must fight instantly, while both the foe here and the foe in the south are ignorant of our movements. We must destroy this Hasdrubal, and I must be back in Apulia before Hannibal awakes from his torpor.

In reality, his reply only had two words).

Unfortunately for the Romans, Hasdrubal wasn’t easy to fool. He’d been fighting Romans a long time in Spain, after all: he knew what to look for, and he saw lean, exhausted horses and strange, weather-beaten shields and armor in the enemy camp. He also knew what to listen for, and sure enough, in the morning he heard two consular trumpet-calls, not one. All this, plus the Romans suddenly signaling their willingness for battle, was enough: he immediately recalled his scouts and started moving his army away toward the defiles of the Metaurus River.

Hannibal Discovers the Head of Hasdrubal, by Giovanni-Battista Tiepolo

  Whether his guides betrayed him or they genuinely lost their way we’ll never know, but in either case Hasdrubal soon realized his retreat was being rapidly overtaken by the Roman advance. He turned and faced his enemies, making the most of his ground and his few remaining war elephants. When the consuls attacked, Salinator and his men on the left flank encountered fierce fighting, whereas Nero was so bottled up on the right flank his men could scarcely reach their enemies, much less engage them. So for the second time in a week, this ancestor of the mad emperor Nero did something brilliant and unexpected: he withdrew his men from the front, wheeled them around in formation along the Roman rear, and blasted them into the Carthaginians on the opposite flank.

Hasdrubal’s forces promptly collapsed (several of the elephants went berserk and had to be killed by their own riders), and Hasdrubal himself opted to die in battle.

With barely a pause, Nero gathered his men and raced back down south, to rejoin the bulk of his army before Hannibal even knew he’d been gone. It worked perfectly, and once Nero was back with his old command, he sent Hannibal an update on current events: he catapulted Hasdrubal’s head into his brother’s camp.

Both Scipio Africanus by Richard Gabriel and Hannibal’s Last Battle by Brian Todd Carey deign to mention the battle of the Metaurus River. Gabriel’s account is typical of both books and almost comical:

The Romans intercepted a message from Hasdrubal to Hannibal proposing that their two armies link up in Umbria. Two Roman armies under Marcus Livius Salinator and Gaius Claudius Nero caught Hasdrubal on the banks of the Metaurus River and dealt him a terrible defeat. Ten thousand Carthaginians and Gauls were killed compared to Roman losses of two thousand men. Another ten thousand Carthaginians and Gauls were taken prisoner. Hasdrubal himself was killed and beheaded. Hannibal learned of his brother’s death when the Romans threw his head into Hannibal’s camp.

It’s almost a different story entirely, isn’t it? In Gabriel’s account (and Carey’s is little better), the two Roman consuls are equal partners in the defeat of Hasdrubal; the reader must look elsewhere (in this case, to ancient sources, Livy, Polybius, and Suetonius) to learn that in fact Salinator knew nothing of Hasdrubal’s attempts to communicate devastating tactical information with Hannibal, and that Salinator, left to his own devices, might well have lost the battle at Metaurus by sending his men into pitched battle where Hasdrubal’s line was strongest.

Why all this fuss over the Metaurus River? Because the death of Hasdrubal and the loss of his army precipitated a radical Carthaginian rethinking of the war. While these two armies were occupied in Italy, Rome had sent 25-year-old Publius Cornelius Scipio the Younger to Spain, where his legions had had such success that when Carthage got word of Hasdrubal’s death, they recalled Hannibal to Africa to defend Carthage itself. Scipio was only able to take the war to Africa – and eventually defeat Hannibal at the Battle of Zama – because a better general than he first destroyed the Carthaginian hopes of sustaining the war in Italy.

Gabriel at least ought to have sensed the irony in this, since he begins Scipio Africanus this way:

The world often misunderstands its greatest men while neglecting others entirely. Scipio Africanus, surely the greatest soldier that Rome produced, suffered both these fates. The man who stood like a beacon above his contemporaries on the strength of his brilliance and character during the Republic’s darkest hour; who revolutionized Roman military tactics; who set Rome on its imperial course by propounding a wider strategic view of Rome’s mission than the Roman aristocracy of his time was capable of comprehending; who extended Roman power into Spain, Africa, and Asia; who defeated the great Hannibal and won the Second Punic War; who was the central figure of his time.…

It goes on. I think at the end of the paragraph Gabriel also credits Scipio with being the youngest man ever to command the starship Enterprise. With this guy writing his press releases, it’s no surprise that Scipio won the 2008 US presidential election.

Alas, there isn’t much truth to it, and Carey for his part doesn’t help much. Where Gabriel’s book is breathless and sloppy, Carey’s book is terse and bare-bones, and though it’s very informative (its phase-by-phase breakdowns of specific battles are especially helpful in visualizing how things probably developed), it’s not any more helpful on the subject of how slam-bang incredibly awesomely great Scipio Africanus was. Carey laconically puts it this way:

So how do Hannibal and Scipio compare as tacticians and strategists? Polybius concludes that Hannibal did all that a good general could do, but that he was simply bested by a better man. There is something to this appraisal.

There’s something, alright, but it’s not a very pretty word. Polybius made his ridiculous statement because he was the personal friend and flunky of … Scipio Africanus, amazingly enough. Carey echoes it, but when in the next sentence he expands his point, there sure isn’t much that sounds like a good man met a ‘better’ man:

Hannibal was a master tactician, who understood both the combat capabilities and the motivations of his multinational troops. Like Alexander before him, who he no doubt imitated, Hannibal used cavalry as his decisive arm, the hammer to his infantry’s anvil. Infantry, in Hannibal’s art of war, was used defensively and in support of his more mobile and highly-skilled cavalry arm. This can be seen in his defeat of the Romans at Trebia in 218 and Cannae in 216. Hannibal understood the limitations of his forces and created a winning strategy to fit these limitations. Weak in cavalry at Zama, the Punic general was forced to reconsider his usual tactics, opting to use his war elephants and infantry as his effective striking force. And even with inferior foot soldiers, Hannibal nearly carried the day.

This kind of double-dealing may put Carey on the sidelines of the whole who-is-greater question (although that weak, donnish “there is something to this appraisal” still irks), but Gabriel more than makes up the difference. His Scipio practically walks on water; Gabriel is Polybius reincarnated (except that Polybius’ supple use of language washed out in the genes). Campaign by campaign, Gabriel lays the facts before us and then, despite them, asserts that his twentysomething paragon had everything under control.

When Scipio invades Spain and plunges his 27,000 legionaries straight at the stronghold of New Carthage, without knowing the strength of its defenses or the exact whereabouts of the three Carthaginian armies in the vicinity (each numbering at least 25,000), we’re told, “It was the kind of scenario a twenty-six year old might imagine,” and that’s meant to be a compliment. When we’re told of Scipio’s victory at the Battle of Ilipa in 206 BC, when he put Hasdrubal’s army to flight, hardly any mention is made of the fact that immediately prior to the engagement, Scipio’s seasoned lieutenant Marcus Silanus had gutted the bulk of the Carthaginian forces commanded by Hasdrubal’s brother. When Scipio takes a small fraction of his army inland (away from his protracted and pointless siege of Utica) to offer battle to Hasdrubal’s much larger force at Campi Magni, he does so without providing either for his supplies or lines of communication and is saved from destruction only by the fact that Hasdrubal attacks prematurely in order to shore up the morale of his men.  

Scipio Africanus

Scipio couldn’t have foreseen this, but Gabriel doesn’t care, calling it a “further development” of the “tactics” he’d used at Ilipa. Time after time, at Baecula, Tarentum, Asculum and so on, we see Scipio impulsively court disaster only to be saved by more experienced subordinates or blind luck, and the whole time Gabriel is right there, praising him for his genius.

And what about the Battle of Zama itself? Hannibal has been recalled and is now facing the reverse of his usual situation: his country has been invaded, and he’s fighting to defend it. He has roughly 45,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry and a small force of war elephants; Scipio has 34,000 men and 9,000 cavalry. It’s a bright, dry day on a broad, flat plain: infantry will count for much, and so will cavalry.

Except Scipio accepted battle before he knew he had any cavalry. His mounted wings, under the command of local chieftains Dacamas and Masinissa, only showed up just before the battle. Had they not appeared when they did, Hannibal would almost certainly have won the battle, and Scipio would have been responsible for a disaster that would have prolonged the war indefinitely. To the extent that anything can, this puzzles even Gabriel, who’s reduced to doubting the reliability of his alter ego:

Common sense dictates Scipio would not have taken the field with so few cavalry unless he had some reasonable expectation that Masinissa could join him in a reasonable period of time. Polybius’s account that Masinissa joined Scipio in the nick of time, just two day before the battle at Zama, may not be accurate. It is unlikely that Scipio would have permitted Hannibal to get that close to his army while he still lacked a sufficient cavalry arm, especially on the flat, open ground around Zama, where cavalry could be decisive. Scipio was a gambler, but he was no fool.

Unless of course he was a fool, in which case not only Zama but virtually all of his tactical decisions in the field start to make sense.

Hannibal lost at Zama, of course, and the Second Punic War came to a quick and decisive end. Both Scipio and Hannibal went on to political careers in their respective capital cities. Scipio gradually became disillusioned with the city he was credited with saving (the fact that he and his brother were repeatedly brought up on charges of peculation and bribe-taking didn’t help matters), and Hannibal gradually chaffed against the harsh conditions of surrender imposed by victorious Rome, urging King Antiochus III of Syria to go to war with the expanding empire. That didn’t amount to much, and Hannibal eventually ended up in Bithynia, where he fought one last successful campaign (which makes the title of Carey’s book a bit of a mystery) before taking his own life to avoid being handed over to the Romans.

But he got the last laugh: no matter how many ardent enthusiasts like Gabriel and Carey come along, people are still going to remember the name Hannibal and forget the name Scipio.

Gaius Claudius Nero loses either way.

Ascanio Tedeschi is a graduate student in the classics, born and raised in Rome. This is his second publication in English.