If Scipio actually was at the Ticinus, he must have been at the battle of the Trebia as well, (also in 218 BCE), but there is no mention in any of the sources indicating either his presence or his participation in the first major engagement of the war, where Hannibal crushed the combined armies of Scipio’s wounded father and of Sempronius Longus, the other consul of that fateful year. Clearly, if the young Scipio was there, he did nothing to distinguish himself.
Scipio, supposedly, was also at Cannae, but, as Ridley (1975) points out, he is not mentioned by either Livy or Polybius in their descriptions of the battle. Nevertheless, Livy (22:50-52) lists his name as one of four military tribunes among the survivors who escaped from the debacle. Livy, but not Polybius, includes also an anecdote consistent with the hagiography of the hero, in which allegedly Scipio confronts M. Caecilius Metellus, who, together with others, is planning to leave Italy altogether, believing the situation to be hopeless, and forces him and his followers, at sword point, to take an oath to Jupiter invoking their personal destruction should they abandon Rome (22:54). The incident is suspect as a further fiction to enhance the growing legend. Scullard (1930) argues that “this story is probably a late invention, otherwise Polybius would hardly have omitted it.”
It is interesting to note that the Romans disdained those who allowed themselves to be captured at Cannae, whom they branded as cowards, and refused to ransom them; as a consequence they were sold into slavery. Disdain was only slightly less for those who had survived the battle by escaping, and they were also disgraced and labeled cowards, since to save themselves they had fled the battlefield rather than dying with honor (Livy 22:49-60). They were punished by being forced to serve indefinitely in Sicily without pay. On the other hand, escape from the Roman camp to avoid capture, rather than from the battlefield, was not similarly stigmatized. Naturally, if Scipio was at Cannae, as Livy implies, had he survived by escaping from the battlefield, by Roman standards he should also have been regarded as a coward and his reputation tainted accordingly—but no mention is made of it. If he was in the camp and did not see action other than escaping in the middle of the night, there was also no glory in that alternative. Similarly, Ridley (1975) argues that “if, as seems likely, Scipio actually fought at Cannae, then here indeed is a hitherto neglected, albeit negative, element in the Scipionic legend: the studious avoidance of any direct statement by any of our sources to this effect. The dramatic contrast of Scipio’s presence at Rome’s greatest humiliation at Hannibal’s hands with his ultimate turning of the tables at Zama, would seem to have been appealing […] Scipio’s part in [the battle of Cannae], apparently undistinguished, has been expunged from history.”
It is clear that Scipio’s involvement in the three Roman defeats at which he was probably present—Ticinus, Trebia, Cannae—was undistinguished at best. However, there is little doubt that he carefully studied Hannibal’s tactics, and that he was a good student, as demonstrated by his Iberian campaign, where his victories against less competent Carthaginian commanders were made possible by tactical maneuvers derived from Hannibal.
The brazen attack on Cartagena in 209 BCE, while the Punic armies were away, was successful largely due to luck and Scipio’s discovery of the shallowness of the ebbing waters protecting one side of the city (Livy 26:41-51). As Polybius (10:2) reports, he tried to exploit the situation to convince his soldiers that he was under divine protection and had a special connection to the gods, especially Neptune. There is no doubt that he was a shrewd and clever manipulator of people, and in this and other instances did not hesitate to use the opportunity to build up his own image. He later allowed himself to be seen as a mystic and a favorite of Jupiter, fomenting the growth of his own legend.
Although as a politician he may have approached greatness—at least in a Machiavellian sense—as a military commander he was competent but not brilliant, certainly not a genius of the caliber of Alexander or Hannibal, Liddell Hart (1927) to the contrary. His main victories in Spain—at Baecula in 208 and Ilipa in 206 BCE—reflect his adoption of Hannibalic tactics, especially the withdrawn center, which is not to say that his maneuvers showed a complete lack of originality.
The battle of Baecula, despite being hailed as a great victory by pro-Roman historians, was actually a disaster, if the intention was to block Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, from continuing north to cross the Alps and join the latter’s forces in Italy. Scipio failed, and although he “won” the battle, Hasdrubal was able to escape with most of his army intact and proceed north for his rendezvous with destiny (Polybius 10:38; Livy 27:18). This failure could have cost the Romans the war, for had Hasdrubal succeeded in reinforcing Hannibal in Italy, the combined Punic forces under the command of the undefeated Carthaginian maverick would in all likelihood have proven unstoppable. Hasdrubal’s defeat at the Metaurus before he could reach his brother saved the city on the Tiber from certain disaster, an event which owed nothing to Scipio and a lot to luck: the interception of Hasdrubal’s messengers attempting to reach Hannibal to arrange for the meeting of the two Carthaginian armies (Livy 27:43).
Nevertheless, since the following battle, at Ilipa (206 BCE), effectively ended Carthaginian control of Spain, Scipio returned to Rome a hero, was elected consul in 205, and became proconsul the following year, retaining his command in Sicily. Hannibal, although remaining undefeated after 14 years of war, by 204 was limited in his operations to Bruttium, the tip of the Italian peninsula. The Fabians (one of the main families of the Roman nobility, the others being the Cornelians and the Claudians) in the Roman senate urged action, including the venerable Fabius Maximus, who had exhibited the wisdom of not engaging Hannibal after the Roman debacle at Lake Trasimene in 217 BCE, waging instead a war of attrition, a tactic which, when discontinued after the conclusion of his term in office, led to Cannae. With Hannibal’s weary and much diminished army hemmed in at the tip of the peninsula, Scipio was urged to lead the Roman legions on a final battle to defeat the Carthaginian general once and for all (Livy 28:38-45). Scipio refused, insisting instead on taking the war to Carthage, and the invasion of Africa started in 204 BCE.
Although he would have to face Carthaginian armies on their own land, where they could be resupplied without difficulties and would outnumber him, Scipio knew that they did not have another Hannibal among them, and judging from his experience with the less than gifted Carthaginian commanders in Spain he expected to have a better chance of success than facing the remnants of the army of the formidable Hannibal in Italy. Moreover, if he were to achieve success in Africa, he might accomplish the recall of Hannibal from Italy to defend his home city, in which case the great Barcid would arrive without a substantial part of his current forces, especially his much-feared cavalry, due to Roman control of the Mediterranean impeding easy transport of supplies and reinforcements by the enemy. Dodge (1891) perceptively comments: “Scipio did no more for Italy than Marcellus [conqueror of Syracuse], less than Nero [victor at the Metaurus], but he has descended into history as a greater character than either. Less able in many respects, his work was supplemented by opportunities not awarded them, and what he did bore fruit which all men could see. Scipio never hid his light under a bushel. Had Scipio faced Hannibal when Marcellus or Nero was called on to do so, he would probably have failed. Fortune saved him for Zama, when Hannibal had no longer an army and he himself had inherited the best of its size Rome had put into the field.”
- Hannibal: Victories of the Great Hero from Ancient Carthage - December 19, 2018
- Alexander the Great and Hannibal Barca: A comparison - March 9, 2017
- A Note on Hannibal’s Losses During the Crossing of the Alps - July 18, 2016