Scipio Africanus

Battle of Ticinus

Figure 1. 218 BC: Battle of Ticinus. Scipio defends his wounded father.

Map of Spain and the Mediterranean region at the time of Scipio

Figure 2. Map of Spain and the Mediterranean region at the time of Scipio.

Publius Cornelius Scipio, surnamed "Africanus', was the greatest of the famous Roman family of the Scipios. He conquered Spain for the Romans; and by finally defeating the great Hannibal at the battle of Zama in Africa, he saved Rome from the menace of the Carthaginians, and made his city the greatest power in the Mediterranean.


He was born in 236 BC. He achieved distinction when he was only 18 years old by his bravery in the skirmish between the Romans and Hannibal at the River Ticinus, where he defended his wounded father with his own body (Figure 1).


Why Spain was important

After the battle of the Ticinus came the crushing Roman defeats at the River Trebia and at Lake Trasimene. But the Romans still controlled the sea. The Senate realized they must not allow any reinforcements to reach Hannibal by land from Spain. They therefore sent young Scipio's father, Publius, to join his uncle Gnaeus in command of the Roman troops in Spain.


At first the elder Scipios were successful, recapturing Saguntum; but in 211 BC the Carthaginians managed to defeat and kill them both.


A bold stroke

The Senate had been so impressed by young Scipio's outstanding character that they appointed him to the vacant command, although he was barely 25 years old. Scipio soon justified their confidence in him. His enthusiasm and personality, together with his meticulous military planning, were the secrets of his success.


Scipio decided to make a lightning military swoop on Nova Carthago (New Carthage), the most important Carthaginian fortress in Spain (Figure 2). He arrived unexpectedly, while the three Carthaginian armies then in Spain were widely separated. He had discovered from fishermen that the lagoon to the north of the city was shallow enough to wade across, so while the defenders were occupied with his main attack from the eastern side, he secretly sent a small band of men to surprise a weaker part of the walls from the north.


His plan was brilliantly successful. In taking the city, the Romans captured not only a large supply of weapons but also the hostages whom the Carthaginians had taken from the warlike Spanish tribes. Many of these now changed sides, and began to support the Romans.


Conquest of Spain


Bust of Scipio Africanus
Bust of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus


Scipio now attacked the forces of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal at Baecula, but was not able to prevent him from marching towards Italy. (Hasdrubal was defeated by another Roman army before he could join Hannibal.)


Then Scipio marched southwest to meet the remaining Carthaginian forces at Ilipa. Here he adopted Hannibal's own tactics from the Trebia and Cannae. He ordered his troops to have breakfast before dawn, and then attacked the Carthaginians before they had had their breakfast, with his center weak and his wings overwhelmingly strong. The result was a crushing defeat for the Carthaginians, and (except for a few fortified strongholds) the end of their empire in Spain.


The battle of Zama

Scipio now returned to Rome, where he was elected consul for 205 BC. Despite some opposition in the Senate, he was authorized to land troops in Africa itself. By besieging Utica, he forced the Carthaginians to recall Hannibal from Italy.


At last, at Zama in 202 BC, Scipio and Hannibal faced each other. Hannibal kept his veteran army in reserve behind the Carthaginian center. The Roman center routed the Carthaginian troops, and then while in disorder had to face Hannibal. But with excellent discipline the Romans reformed, and held Hannibal until the Roman cavalry could return and surround him.


This brilliant victory ended the war. Scipio was given the title 'Africanus', because he had conquered Africa.