The Road to Zama: The Heroization of Scipio and the Betrayal of Massinissa

Scipio had another reason to avoid fighting Hannibal in Italy, in addition to fear of suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of the master. He had been courting Massinissa, a Numidian prince and master of the horse, son of Gaia, king of the Maessylii, whose help and cavalry would be available to him in Africa, but not in Italy. Earlier, Syphax, Numidian king of the Masaessylii, had been persuaded by Scipio’s father and uncle to join the Roman cause, while the brothers were commanding the Roman forces in Spain. His defection hurt Carthaginian efforts, dependent as they were on Numidian cavalry. Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, had combined his forces with those of King Gaia, under the command of Massinissa, who had remained loyal to Carthage, and inflicted two crushing defeats on Syphax. Massinissa was also cavalry commander for the Carthaginian army that in 211 BCE defeated the army of Scipio’s father, Publius Cornelius Scipio the Elder, who was killed in the engagement (Polybius 9:22; Livy 25:32-34).

After Baecula, in 208 BCE, Massinissa, still loyal to the Carthaginians, retreated south toward Gades. Scipio had crossed to Africa to visit the court of King Syphax and negotiate his continued support of Rome, and apparently charmed the king with his eloquence, despite the presence of the enemy Carthaginian general, Hasdrubal Gisgo. Back in Gades, he wooed Massinissa, who, as de Beer (1969) puts it, “also fell under the spell of Scipio’s charm” and signed a treaty with him (Livy 28:35). This act of Massinissa, amounting to a betrayal of his loyalty to Hannibal and Carthage, would have a momentous effect on the outcome of the war. Clearly, Scipio’s skill as politician surpassed his talent as battlefield commander.

While Massinissa was still in Spain, his father died, and the succession to the throne of the Maessylii resulted in conflict and civil war, with Mazaetullus usurping power and marrying the Carthaginian widow of the dead king in order to ally himself with Carthage. Massinissa returned to Africa and fought successfully to regain his kingdom, but this put him at odds with Syphax, the king of the Masaessylii, who had supported his rivals for the throne. This time Massinissa was defeated in battle, but managed to escape and hide in the mountains to avoid capture and death. He was able to raise a new army from his supporters, but was defeated once more by his enemy. Massinissa was expecting Scipio’s arrival in Africa, planning to use the opportunity to defeat his adversary, but Scipio’s delays with the invasion cost him dearly (Livy 29).

To seal Syphax’s support of Carthage, Hasdrubal Gisgo gave the aging king, in marriage, his beautiful daughter Sophonisba, who had also been courted by Massinissa, upon which Syphax sent Scipio a message warning him not to invade Africa, for the king would now be on the Carthaginian side.

Scipio proceeded with the invasion anyway, and landed at Cape Farina, near Utica, in the spring of 204 (Livy 29:27, 5-12), with an army of at least 30,000 men. He was joined there by the Numidian horse under Massinissa, who defeated a small cavalry force under Hanno that had been sent from Carthage to meet the invaders, Hanno himself being killed in the engagement.

Scipio laid siege to Utica (Ityke), but was unable to take it. Meanwhile, Hasdrubal Gisgo, together with his ally Syphax, assembled an army and marched against Scipio’s position. It is important to note that Carthage, unlike Rome, had no confederation of allies, and that there was no standing army at the Punic city. As de Beer (1969) suggests, the hastily assembled force of Hasdrubal Gisgo and Syphax, although large in number, was probably “only a rabble of miserable quality” that would be “quite unable to stand up to veteran Roman legionnaires,” and even more importantly, had no Hannibal to lead them.

Scipio discontinued the siege of Utica and prepared a defensive camp on the peninsula, in what later became known as the Castra Cornelia, going into winter quarters. Probably still hopeful of being able once again to charm Syphax with his silver tongue, he sent many envoys to the Numidian camp, as well as to the Carthaginian, to offer a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Believing the overture to be in good faith, Hasdrubal Gisgo and Syphax started negotiations with Scipio aimed at ending the conflict. It was obvious that the Carthaginians wanted the long war to end, and for peace to be achieved. The Roman commander, who had no desire for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, since it would have deprived him of glory and the spoils of victory, pretended to go along, and skillfully gave the impression that he was in agreement with the proposals of his reluctant opponents, and that peace would be reached as soon as he received confirmation and approval from Rome. The peace proposal he was offered was not frivolous; it was an agreement stipulating that the Carthaginian forces would withdraw from Italy and the Romans from Africa, and that for the territories between Africa and Italy the status quo would prevail (Livy 30:3-4).

Having deceived the Carthaginians with the false negotiations—Scipio had not asked for any verification from Rome, it was all a sham—he engaged next in one of the most treacherous attacks recorded in human history. Since his delegates had repeatedly visited the Punic camps and had secretly mapped them in close detail, once he had the Carthaginians convinced that an agreement and peace were imminent, he launched a sneak attack in the middle of the night. Massinissa and Laelius were in charge of setting fire to the Numidian quarters, while Scipio himself supervised the torching of the Carthaginian camp (Polybius 14:2; Livy 30:5-6). The temporary structures housing Hasdrubal’s and Syphax’s men went up in flames, and the soldiers, thinking the fire accidental, emerged without their weapons to put out the blaze, and were cut down without mercy. So much for good faith and “Roman fides.” Through fire and sword, the unarmed and defenseless Numidians and Carthaginians were slaughtered by the thousands. No honor could be attached to such treachery, but Roman historiography tries to justify the actions of their hero by stating that he feared some Punic trick, and that he had indicated that the negotiations were off prior to the sneak attack, both highly unlikely. Hasdrubal Gisgo and Syphax were able to flee from the macabre scene, the former returning to Carthage and the latter going to Abba (Livy 30:7).

The Carthaginian senators were horrified and demanded action. Hasdrubal was able to persuade Syphax to continue the struggle, and the forces of the Numidian king and the Carthaginians, mostly raw recruits rather than soldiers, congregated at the Great Plains to give battle. Livy characterizes the army of Hasdrubal Gisgo at the Great Plains as an “irregular army suddenly raised from a half-armed mob of rustics” (30:28, 3). Not surprisingly, they were defeated by Scipio, with the help of the Numidian cavalry under Massinissa. Hasdrubal fled to Carthage and Syphax to his capital, Cirta, with Massinissa and Laelius in hot pursuit.

The Death of Sophonisba by Giambattista Pittoni

Syphax was defeated and captured. In the same day, Massinissa married Sophonisba, the wife of the captured monarch. The well-known anecdote that follows throws some light on the characters of both Massinissa and Scipio. The latter regarded all prisoners as Roman property, and was outraged at Massinissa, demanding that he surrender Sophonisba to be sent in chains to Rome. Massinissa failed to stand up to Scipio, although he had the leverage of being commander of the Numidian cavalry, without which Scipio’s previous victories in Africa might not have happened, and whose help would be essential to face Hannibal when, as was inevitable, he was recalled from Italy. Despite professing ardent love for the beautiful Carthaginian princess, he could think of nothing better to offer her than a cup of poison. Scipio had seduced him with a promise of recognition as Numidian king, and clearly greed trumped love. She accepted her wedding “gift,” and her suicide at least spared her the indignity and humiliation of being paraded through the streets of Rome, as Syphax himself later was, prior to his incarceration and death at Tibur in 201 (Livy 30:13-15).

Scipio offered Carthage peace conditions as follows: unconditional return of war prisoners and deserters, withdrawal of all forces from Italy, concession of Spain to Rome, withdrawal from all Mediterranean islands between Italy and Africa, surrender of all but 20 Carthaginian warships, payment of 5,000 silver talents, delivery of citizens to serve as hostages, and the supply of a huge amount of grain to feed the Roman army (Livy 30:16). Carthage accepted and sent delegates, both to Rome, to sign the agreement, and to Scipio, to achieve the cessation of hostilities.

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 20 years. His Hannibal Library contains over 10,000 items.

2 thoughts on “The Road to Zama: The Heroization of Scipio and the Betrayal of Massinissa

  • May 2, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    Mr. Mosig, of your on top of an elephant that is charging or inning amuck it is going to be very difficult to kill it or make it move left or right! Moreover, Hannibal fed his elephants wine and stabbed them in their ankles before battle. An inebriated enraged elephant is virtually impossibility for its rider to control!

  • May 2, 2022 at 9:54 pm

    Mr. Mosig, if you’re on top of an elephant that is charging or running amuck it is going to be very difficult to kill it or make it move left or right! These are six ton animals ! Moreover, Hannibal fed his elephants wine and stabbed them in their ankles before battle. An inebriated enraged elephant is virtually impossibility for its rider to control!


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