Scipio Africanus: The Roman General who defeated Hannibal of Carthage
Scipio Africanus was a Roman general who defended the Roman Republic from complete destruction after it was invaded by his lifelong enemy, Hannibal of Carthage. His eventual victory over Hannibal after suffering a string of defeats helped him become one of Rome’s most celebrated army generals and set the way for other future influential army generals like Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar.
Despite restoring the Republic to its glory, Africanus fell out with the state and its top officials. But what events could have accounted for this brave and humble patriot to become so disillusioned? Read on to find out:
Early Life of Scipio Africanus: Birth, Ancestry, and Marriage
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was a member of the gens Cornelii, one of Rome’s wealthiest six patrician families. According to the historians, Polybius and Livy, not much is known about Africanus’s childhood, but it is assumed that as a child raised in nobility, he received the best upbringing and education at the time. He also likely received military training, a skill that would help him become one of Rome’s best generals.
It’s also not known when Africanus married Aemilia, who was the daughter of Lucius Aemilius Paullus. It’s been said that through his marriage he had two sons, Publius Cornelius Scipio and Lucius Cornelius Scipio, as well as two daughters both called Cornelia.
Many of his ancestors, as well as his father, held high positions in public offices. His father, also called Publius Cornelius Scipio, was a consul during a very crucial moment in the Roman Republic’s history.
Military Career: Campaigns & Encounter with Hannibal
During Publius’s time as consul, the Roman Republic was deeply embroiled in the Second Punic War and its strength and stability was heavily threatened by Carthage, a naval power (located in modern Tunisia) that dominated the western Mediterranean.
It all began in 219 BC when Hannibal of Carthage launched an attack on Saguntum. At that time, Saguntum was an independent city that had formed an alliance with Rome. This attack was seen as an invasion, effectively birthing the Second Punic War. Hannibal’s army was massive and they successfully traveled across the Pyrenees and the Alps into central Italy before heading for Rome.
Hannibal’s invasion shocked the Romans, as the path he had used had once been deemed impassable. It was during this period that Scipio burst onto the scene, military-wise. The first battle between Carthage and the Roman Republic was the Battle of Ticinus. This was Scipio’s first recorded battle in history.
During the battle, Scipio served with Publius, his father. When Publius’s life was threatened, it was Scipio who stepped forward and saved the day, as well as his father’s life. He gathered the Roman troops and charged towards the Carthaginian soldiers until their enemies fled for their lives. For his heroics, he was rewarded an oak wreath, which he turned down.
Despite his bravery and ability to send the enemy away, the Battle of Ticinus was the first of many defeats that the Romans encountered against Hannibal. The Cartheginean army commander was simply too smart and strategic and for three years, he confounded the Roman army. Hannibal’s victories helped him get a strong hold of much of Southern Italy, however, he decided to bide his time when it came to attacking Rome.
It seemed Hannibal was waiting for the perfect time to completely rattle the Roman army. In 216 BC, the two sides fought in the Battle of Cannae, which resulted in the deaths of over 50,000 Roman soldiers in one day while many others fled. Scipio served as a military tribune during that battle. Sadly, he lost his father-in-law Lucius Aemillius in that battle.
It was a bloody battle, one of the worst military disasters in the history of the Roman Republic. Scipio barely survived the battle and was one of the few high-ranking army officers to remain alive. Still, that didn’t deter him and he worked tirelessly to ensure that the rest of the survivors were led to safety.
The Battle of Cannae stunned the Roman Republic and it seemed the Romans couldn’t defeat their intelligent enemy. But not Scipio.
The Spanish Campaign
Scipio suffered another blow in 211 BC when his father, Publius, and his uncle, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus died during the Battle of the Upper Baetis in Spain. Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal Barca led Carthage in this battle.
Publius’s death led to a new election for a proconsul, an official who would serve as the commander of the Roman army. Several candidates refused to participate in the election and assume the position, seeing it as a death sentence. Scipio was the only one ready to take on that role.
He was 25 years old when he became proconsul, a role typically made for older Romans. However, his background and charisma made him a very suitable candidate. While Scipio wanted to defeat Hannibal once and for all, he was also on a mission to avenge his father and uncle’s deaths.
Scipio arrived in Spain later that year. At that time, Carthage had taken control over most of southern Spain, and aside from Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s other brothers, Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco, were also serving as army generals in the region. With Carthage’s invasion of North Africa and Hannibal’s brothers failing to act in unison, Scipio took advantage of these weaknesses.
Scipio’s arrival in Spain started off on a good note. Immediately after settling, he seized Carthago Nova, which served as Carthage’s Spanish headquarters. This move helped him secure weapons and supplies and he established Carthago Nova as his army base. The Roman general also showed mercy to many of the local prisoners and freed them.
According to Livy, the Roman troops gifted Scipio with a beautiful woman as a reward for his efforts. While he was taken away by her beauty, he discovered that she was engaged to be married to a chief called Allucius. He returned her to the chief, including the money that her family had sent for her ransom. The local chiefs were touched by his gesture and lent their support to the Roman army, supplying them with more men.
With a stronger army, Scipio led an attack against Hasdrubal and defeated his opponent’s army. It was a great feat, especially since Hasdrubal was a seasoned army general and Scipio was more or less still inexperienced. However, his victory against his enemies did nothing to prevent Carthage from invading Italy even further. Hasdrubal survived the defeat and continued crossing the Alps until he was killed by another Roman general Gaius Claudius Nero during the Battle of Metaurus.
After conquering much of Spain, Scipio started planning towards his next campaign in Africa. In northern Africa, he visited Numidia to seek support from its princes, Syphax and Masinissa. At that time, Numidia was Carthage’s ally and had supplied Rome’s enemies with weapons and men. Nonetheless, Africanus was able to gain the support of both princes, even though Syphax later switched his alliance and married Sophonisba, who was Hasdrubal Gisco’s daughter. They would later fight against each other during the African campaign.
Around 206 BC, he founded settlement of Italica in Spain. This settlement would eventually become the birthplace of future Roman emperors, including Trajan and Hadrian. Africanus decided to leave the army and return to Rome after experiencing a mutiny.
The African Campaign:
Defeat of Syphax & Hasdrubal Gisco
It seemed Scipio’s retirement didn’t last for long because the following year, he was elected consul. This time, he planned to go to Africa with his troops. However, he faced some political opposition from the Roman Senate. Still, that did not deter him as the Senate only provided him with men from the Sicilian garrison. During that time, the Sicilian forces were not taken seriously and most of the men that served there were from failed military campaigns like the Battle of Cannae.
But Scipio knew those men and how capable they were. He also relied on his relationships with clients and supporters and was able to gather more volunteer forces. Together with his troops, Scipio arrived near Utica in 204 BC and led a siege of the city, defeating about 40,000 Carthaginians and Numidians.
The Roman general also burnt down Hasdrubal Gisco’s camp. He sent his two generals, Gaius Laelius and Masinissa, the latter was Syphax’s brother, to chase after Syphax. The two generals were successful and dethroned Syphax. With Masinissa now on the throne, Numidia lent its support to the Roman Republic and cleared any enemies they encountered.
Now the tables had turned for Hannibal and Carthage. Having lost most of its allies, Carthage was now surrounded by the powerful Roman army, and Hannibal was forced to return to Carthage from Italy. The two men finally met face to face privately, where Hannibal asked Scipio for peace but the latter refused. Perhaps, Scipio was still fueled by his quest to avenge the loss of his family members and was determined to see this to the end.
The Battle of Zama
With no peace accord struck, Scipio and Hannibal were forced to fight it out at the Battle of Zama. This battle was nothing like Cannae. Both army generals had roughly the same number of troops, although the Roman Republic had more allies.
Hannibal planned on sending about 80 war elephants, believing that it would stun the Romans. However, Scipio, who had spent years figuring out Hannibal’s tactics, rather surprised them and the elephants failed to do as much damage as intended.
The Battle of Zama provided the previously defeated soldiers who fought in Cannae the extra motivation to go out there and avenge their failure. Eventually, they completely destroyed the Carthaginians, and by the end of the battle, about 20,000 Carthaginian soldiers were dead. Hannibal fled to Carthage but was eventually encouraged to surrender, bringing an end to the Second Punic War and further strengthening the Roman Republic.
The Later Years of Scipio Africanus: King Antiochus III, Bribery Accusation, and Death
Carthage lost most of its power after the Battle of Zama. It was now a client state of Rome and could only declare war in Africa with the permission of the Roman Republic. The Republic also seized most of the North African state’s war supplies and weapons, including the war elephants. Carthage had no other allies.
Scipio returned to Rome after the battle, where he was celebrated and earned the additional name “Africanus” for his victory over Carthage, which means “the African” or “Conqueror of Africa.”
Ever the humble army general, he refused any other titles and was simply known as Scipio Africanus. He was still very young, still in his thirties, and he had the rest of his life ahead of him. Aside from that, Africanus was loved by the citizens, the army, and was rich. But during that time, Rome had no place for such people, especially since giving them too much power could become detrimental to the state.
He embarked on one last mission on behalf of the Republic with his brother, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus. The two brothers were sent on a military campaign against King Antiochus III, who was the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. Ironically, the king’s chief military advisor was none other than Hannibal! Eventually the Romans entered into a war with the Seleucids in 190 BC, securing victory that same year.
When the two brothers returned to Rome, Cato the Elder, accused them of accepting bribes from Antiochus III. Africanus’s brother, Lucius Asiaticus was prosecuted and attempted to present his account books to the Senate in his defense. However, Africanus took the books and destroyed them. He queried the Senate on why they were so worried about how they spent 3,000 talents yet not questioning how the 15,000 (sent by Antiochus III after his defeat) had entered the state’s coffers. Africanus’s defense brought shame to their accusers and the case was dismissed. However, the case was revisited and Lucius was prosecuted after Africanus’s death.
Later, the former Roman general himself was accused of accepting bribes from Antiochus III. However, with the support he received the public, including that of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, he was able to avoid standing trial. citizens. The politician Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was Scipio’s son-in-law.
Africanus’s love for Rome dwindled following how he’d been treated after saving the Republic. He self-exiled at Liternum and demanded that his body be buried far from Rome.
The Roman general died around 183 BC at the age of 53. It’s likely that he might have died from the effects of a fever he had contracted during his campaign against Antiochus III or that he committed suicide. He was buried in Liternum.
Around that same period, Scipio’s archenemy Hannibal took his life while living in exile. It seemed the two men had something in common after all.
Scipio Africanus transformed the Roman Republic and came to its aid when it was on the brink of near collapse. After his death, he was still greatly remembered.
As a Roman army general, Scipio Africanus never lost a battle, making him one of Rome’s most successful and greatest generals of all time. He transformed the state of the Republic’s military and strengthened it, employing smart tactics and strategies much like his rival, Hannibal.
Many of descendants, although never rising to his status, were also successful military officers in their regard. Metellus Scipio, one of his descendants, fought extensively against Julius Caesar. However, he was defeated by the latter in the Battle of Thapsus.
There was a popular belief or superstition that only a descendant of Africanus could win battles in Africa. During Caesar’s reign, he hired one of Metellus’s distant relatives in a bid to claim that he had one of Africanus’s descendants fighting for him.
Africanus was also the first Roman army general to expand the Roman Republic beyond Italy. Throughout his life, he conquered Spain and Carthage, paving the way for future generals like Julius Caesar.
It’s been widely believed that the African continent was named after Africanus, but other schools of thought suggest that they rather got their names from the continent.
Did you know?
Africanus has featured in classical literature, including “De Republica” and “De Amicitia”, all works of the Roman statesman, Cicero. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, his name was mentioned four times. He was also the hero in the epic novel “Africa” written by Petrarch.
Africanus was also depicted in the Renaissance artwork “The Continence of Scipio”, detailing certain aspects of his life after he captured Carthago Nova.
In music, he has been portrayed in several Italian operas and he is referenced in the modern Italian national anthem.
Before the Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935, then Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini endorsed the production of the film “Scipione l’africano”, which won the Mussolini Cup at the 1937 Venice Film Festival. Africanus has also been featured in other films and series, such as “The Cleopatras”, “Gladiator”, and “Hannibal.”
Africanus is also a playable character in the video game, “Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome” and has also appeared in other games like “Imperivm III: The Great Battles of Rome” and “Centurion: Defender of Rome.”