Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major (Latin: P·CORNELIVS·P·F·L·N·SCIPIO·AFRICANVS¹) (236–183 BC) was a general in the Second Punic War and statesman of the Roman Republic. He was best known for defeating Hannibal at the Battle of Zama, a feat that earned him the agnomen Africanus, the nickname the Roman Hannibal and recognition as one of the finest commanders in military history.
Scipio (meaning "rod" or "staff" in Latin) was born in 236 BC in Rome into the Scipio branch of the Cornelii family. Several ancestors had been consuls successively, and his great-grandfather, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, had been patrician censor in 280 BC. The Cornelii were counted among the six major patrician families—the others being the Manlii, the Fabii, the Aemilii, the Claudii, and the Valerii—and at the time Scipio Africanus lived, the Scipiones were probably its most prominent branch.
Scipio was the elder son of Publius Cornelius Scipio, praetor and consul by his wife Pomponia, who was apparently of a prominently knightly and plebeian family. Scipio was known to have visited the temple daily as he took dreams about gods and omens seriously. He is also thought to have consulted with, or at least informed his mother before deciding to run for curule aedile, the most junior magistrate who was entitled to enter the Senate. Scipio ran for this office at the age of 24 and offered in 211 BC to then take over command in Hispania where he found the enemy west of the Ebro river.
His younger brother was Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus. Little else is known about his childhood.
The young Scipio survived the disastrous battles at Ticinus, Trebia, and Cannae. According to one anecdote, he saved his father's life when he was 18, at the Battle of Ticinus. Scipio's would-be father-in-law Lucius Aemilius Paullus was killed in 216 BC at the third of these battles, the Battle of Cannae. Despite these defeats at the hands of the Carthaginians, Scipio remained focused on securing Roman victory.
On hearing that Lucius Caecilius Metellus and other politicians were at the point of surrender, Scipio gathered with his followers and stormed into the meeting, where at sword-point he forced all present to swear that they would continue in faithful service to Rome. Fortunately, the Roman Senate was of like mind and refused to entertain thoughts of peace despite the great losses Rome had taken in the war—approximately one-fifth of the men of military age had died within a few years.
Scipio offered himself as a candidate for the curule aedileship in the year 213 BC, apparently to assist his less popular cousin, Lucius Cornelius, who was also standing for election. The Tribunes of the Plebs (elected representatives from the Plebeian Assembly) objected to his candidacy, saying that he could not be allowed to stand because he had not yet reached the legal age (curule aediles were automatically entitled to enter the Senate and the legal age for Senate membership was 30). Scipio, already known for his bravery and patriotism, was elected unanimously and the Tribunes abandoned their opposition.
Scipio landed at the mouth of the Ebro and was able to surprise and capture Carthago Nova, the headquarters of the Carthaginian power in Hispania. He obtained a rich cache of war stores and supplies, and an excellent harbor and base of operations. Scipio's humanitarian conduct toward prisoners and hostages in Hispania helped in portraying the Romans as liberators as opposed to conquerors. Livy tells the story of the capture of a beautiful woman by his troops, who offered her to Scipio as a prize of war. Scipio was astonished by her beauty, but discovered that the woman was betrothed to a Celtiberian chieftain named Allucius. He returned her to her fiancé, along with the money that had been offered by her parents to ransom her. While Scipio was long known for his great chivalry, Scipio doubtless also realized that the Senate's first priority was the war in Italy, and in the midst of the Carthaginian base in Hispania, he was to be outnumbered without much hope of reinforcement. It was paramount therefore that Scipio cooperate with local chieftains to both supply and reinforce his small army. The woman's fiance, who soon married her, naturally brought over his tribe to support the Roman armies. [Livy XXVI 50]
In 209 BC, Scipio fought his first set piece battle, driving back Hasdrubal Barca from his position at Baecula on the upper Guadalquivir. Scipio feared that the armies of Mago and Gisco would enter the field and surround his small army. Scipio's objective was, therefore, to quickly eliminate one of the armies to give him the luxury of dealing with the other two piecemeal. The battle was decided by a determined Roman infantry charge up the center of the Carthaginian position. Roman losses are uncertain but may have been considerable in light of an effort by the infantry to scale an elevation defended by Carthaginian light infantry. Scipio then orchestrated a frontal attack by the rest of his infantry to draw out the remainder of the Carthaginian forces.
Hasdrubal had not noticed Scipio's hidden reserves of cavalry moving behind enemy lines, and a Roman cavalry charge created a double envelopment on either flank led by cavalry commander Gaius Laelius and Scipio himself. This broke the back of Hasdrubal's army and routed his forces — an impressive feat for the young Roman versus the veteran Carthaginian general. Despite a Roman victory, Scipio was unable to hinder the Carthaginian march to Italy. Much historical criticism has been leveled at his inability to effectively pursue Hasdrubal, who would eventually cross the Alps only to be defeated by Gaius Claudius Nero at the Battle of the Metaurus.
One popular theory for Scipio's failure to pursue Hasdrubal is that Scipio merely wanted the glory of securing Hispania, and an extended mountain campaign would have endangered that. Others cite the Roman soldiers' appetite for plunder as preventing him from rallying in pursuit. The most probable explanation from a strategic standpoint is Scipio's unwillingness to risk being trapped between Hasdrubal's army on one side and one or both of Gisgo's and Mago's armies, both of superior numerical strength. Mere days after Hasdrubal's defeat, Mago and Gisgo were able to converge in front of the Roman positions, bringing into question what would have happened had Scipio pursued Hasdrubal.
After winning over a number of Hispanian chiefs, Scipio achieved a decisive victory in 206 BC over the full Carthaginian levy at Ilipa (now the city of Alcalá del Río, near Hispalis, now called Seville), which resulted in the evacuation of Hispania by the Punic commanders.
After his rapid success in conquering Hispania, and with the idea of striking a blow at Carthage in Africa, Scipio paid a short visit to the Numidian princes Syphax and Massinissa. Numidia was of vital importance to Carthage, supplying both mercenaries and allied forces. In addition to supplying the Numidian cavalry (on which see the Battle of Cannae), Numidia operated as a buffer for vulnerable Carthage. Scipio managed to receive support from both Syphax and Massinissa. Syphax later changed his mind, married the beautiful Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba, daughter of Hasdrubal the son of Gisco, and fought alongside his Carthaginian in-laws against Massinissa and Scipio in Africa.
On his return to Hispania, Scipio had to quell a mutiny which had broken out among his troops. Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal had meanwhile marched for Italy, and in 206 BC Scipio himself, having secured the Roman occupation of Hispania by the capture of Gades, gave up his command and returned to Rome.
By this time, Hannibal's movements were restricted to the southwestern toe of Italy. Scipio was intent on transferring the war to Africa, and his great name drew to him a number of volunteers from all parts of Italy. Interestingly, among these volunteers were the shamed survivors of the fiasco at the Battle of Cannae, eager to once again prove their worth as soldiers. Scipio began turning Sicily into a training camp and a staging point for his planned invasion.
Scipio realized that the Carthaginian, and especially Numidian superiority in cavalry would prove decisive against the largely infantry forces of the Roman legions. In addition, a large portion of Rome's cavalry were allies of questionable loyalty, or noble equites exempting themselves from being lowly foot soldiers. One anecdote tells of how Scipio pressed into service several hundred Sicilian nobles to create a cavalry force. The Sicilians were quite opposed to this servitude to a foreign occupier (Sicily being under Roman control only since the First Punic War), and protested vigorously. Scipio assented to their exemption from service providing they pay for a horse, equipment, and a replacement rider for the Roman Army. In this way, Scipio created a trained nucleus of cavalry for his African campaign.
The Roman Senate sent a commission of inquiry to Sicily and found Scipio at the head of a well-equipped and trained fleet and army. Scipio pressed the Senate for permission to cross into Africa. The conservative branch of the Roman Senate, championed by Fabius Maximus, the Cunctator (Delayer), opposed the mission. Fabius still feared Hannibal's power, and viewed any mission to Africa as dangerous and wasteful to the war effort. Scipio was also harmed by some senators' disdain of his Hellenophile tastes in art, luxuries, and philosophies. The introduction (205 BC) of the Phrygian worship of Cybele and the transference of the image of the goddess herself from Pessinus to Rome to bless the expedition may have affected public opinion against Scipio as well. All Scipio could obtain was permission to cross over from Sicily to Africa if it appeared to be in the interests of Rome, but not financial or military support.
At the commissioners' bidding, Scipio sailed in 204 BC and landed near Utica. Carthage, meanwhile, had secured the friendship of the Numidian Syphax, whose advance compelled Scipio to abandon the siege of Utica and dig in on the shore between there and Carthage. The following year, he destroyed the combined armies of the Carthaginians and Numidians by approaching by stealth and setting fire to their camp, where the combined army panicked and fled, only to be destroyed by Scipio's army. Though not a "battle," both Polybius and Livy estimate that the death toll in this single attack exceeded 40,000 Carthaginian and Numidian dead, and more captured.
Historians are roughly equal in their praise and condemnation for this act. Polybius said, "of all the brilliant exploits performed by Scipio this seems to me the most brilliant and more adventurous." On the other hand, one of Hannibal's principal biographers, Theodore Ayrault Dodge, goes so far to suggest that this attack was out of cowardice and spares no more than a page upon the event in total, despite the fact that it secured the siege of Utica and effectively put Syphax out of the war. The irony of Dodge's accusations of Scipio's cowardice is that the attack showed traces of Hannibal's penchant for ambush.
Scipio quickly dispatched his two lieutenants, Laelius and Masinissa, to pursue Syphax. They ultimately dethroned Syphax, and ensured Prince Masinissa's coronation as King of the Numidians. Carthage, and especially Hannibal himself, had long relied upon these superb natural horsemen, who would now fight for Rome against Carthage.
Hannibal did have a trained pool of soldiers who had fought in Italy, as well as eighty war elephants. Hannibal could boast a strength of 58,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, compared to Scipio's 34,000 infantry and 8,700 cavalry. The two generals met on a plain between Carthage and Utica on October 19, 202 BC, at the Battle of Zama. Despite mutual admiration, negotiations floundered due largely to Roman distrust of the Carthaginians as a result of the Carthaginian attack on Saguntum, the breach of protocols which ended the First Punic War (known as Punic Faith), and a perceived breach in contemporary military etiquette, due to Hannibal's numerous ambushes.
Hannibal arranged his infantry in three phalangial lines designed to overlap the Roman lines. His strategy, so oft reliant upon subtle stratagems, was simple: a massive forward attack by the war elephants would create gaps in the Roman lines, which would be exploited by the infantry, supported by the cavalry.
Rather than arranging his forces in the traditional manipular lines, which put the hastati, principes, and triarii in succeeding lines parallel to the enemy's line, Scipio instead put the maniples in lines perpendicular to the enemy,a stratagem designed to counter the war elephants. When the Carthaginian elephants charged, they found well laid traps before the Roman position, and were greeted by Roman trumpeters which drove many back out of confusion and fear. In addition, many elephants were goaded harmlessly through the loose ranks by the velites and other skirmishers. Roman javelins were used to good effect, and the sharp traps caused further disorder among the elephants. Many of them were so distraught that they charged back into their own lines. The Roman infantry was greatly rattled by the elephants, but Massinissa's Numidian and Laelius' Roman cavalry began to drive the opposing cavalry off the field. Both cavalry commanders pursued their routing Carthaginian counterparts, leaving the Carthaginian and Roman infantries to engage one another. The resulting infantry clash was fierce and bloody, with neither side achieving local superiority. The Roman infantry had driven off the two front lines of the Carthaginian army and in the respite, took an opportunity to drink water. The Roman army was then drawn up in one long line (as opposed to the traditional three lines) in order to match the length of Hannibal's line. Scipio's army then marched towards Hannibal's veterans, who had not yet taken part in the battle. The final struggle was bitter, and only won when the allied cavalry rallied and returned to the battle field. Charging the rear of Hannibal's army, they caused what many historians have called the "Roman Cannae".
Many Roman aristocrats, especially Cato, expected Scipio to raze that city to the ground after his victory. However, Scipio dictated extremely moderate terms in contrast to an immoderate Roman Senate. With Scipio's consent, Hannibal was allowed to become the civic leader of Carthage, which the Cato family did not forget. In contrast to his moderation towards the Carthaginians, he was cruel towards Roman and Latin deserters: the Latins were beheaded and the Romans crucified.
In 193 BC, Scipio was one of the commissioners sent to Africa to settle a dispute between Massinissa and the Carthaginians, which the commission did not achieve. This may have been because Hannibal, in the service of Antiochus III of Syria, might have come to Carthage to gather support for a new attack on Italy. In 190 BC, when the Romans declared war against Antiochus III, Publius offered to join his brother Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus if the Senate entrusted the chief command to him. The two brothers brought the war to a conclusion by a decisive victory at Magnesia in the same year.
Africanus himself was subsequently (185 BC) accused of having been bribed by Antiochus. By reminding the people that it was the anniversary of his victory at Zama, he caused an outburst of enthusiasm in his favor. The people crowded round him and followed him to the Capitol, where they offered thanks to the gods and begged them to give Rome more citizens like Africanus. Despite the popular support that Publius commanded, there were renewed attempts to bring Africanus to trial, but these appear to have been deflected by his future son-in-law, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the Elder . It is supposedly in gratitude for this act that Africanus betrothed his youngest daughter Cornelia Africana Minor (then aged about 5) to Gracchus, several decades her senior. (However, no contemporaneous references to this event exist; what is known that Gracchus did marry Cornelia, aged about 18, in 172 BC).
Africanus retired to his country seat at Liternum on the coast of Campania. He lived there for the rest of his life, revealing his great magnanimity by attempting to prevent the ruin of the exiled Hannibal by Rome. He died probably in 183 BC (the actual year and date of his death is unknown) aged about 53. His death is said to have taken place under suspicious circumstances, and it is possible that he either died of the lingering effects of the fever contracted while on campaign in 190 BC, or that he took his own life for causes unknown. He is said to have demanded that his body be buried away from his ungrateful city, and the Emperor Augustus is said to have visited his tomb in Liternum more than 150 years later. However, it is not certain that he was actually buried at Liternum, and no contemporary accounts of his death or funeral exist. It is said that he ordered an inscription on his tomb: "Ingrata patria, ne ossa quidem habebis" - ungrateful fatherland, you will not even have my bones.
Ironically, his great rival Hannibal died in Bithynia in the same year or shortly thereafter, also an exile (albeit far from his native city and not by his own decision), pursued and harassed to the end by Romans such as Titus Quinctius Flamininus.
At his death, Scipio Africanus had two living sons. Both rose to become praetors in 174 BC, but took no further part in public life; both died unmarried, relatively young. Publius, the elder son and heir, adopted his first cousin — Aemilius Paullus (b. 185 BC) as Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (also known as Scipio Aemilianus Africanus) well before the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC.
Scipio and Aemilia Paulla also had two surviving daughters. The elder, Cornelia, married her second cousin Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum (son of the consul of 191 BC who was himself son of Scipio's elder paternal uncle Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus). This son-in-law was a distinguished Roman in his own right. He became consul (abdicating or resigning in 162 BC for religious reasons, then being re-elected in 155 BC), censor in 159 BC, Princeps Senatus, and died as Pontifex Maximus in 141 BC. Scipio Nasica rose to many of the dignities enjoyed by his late father-in-law, and was noted for his staunch (if ultimately futile) opposition to Cato the Censor over the fate of Carthage from about 157 to 149 BC. They had at least one surviving son (of whom more below).
The younger daughter was more famous in history; Cornelia Africana, the young wife of the elderly Tiberius Gracchus Major or Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, tribune of the plebs, praetor, then consul 177 (then censor and consul again), became the mother of 12 children, the only surviving sons being the famous Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus. All three surviving children of this union were ill-fated; the brothers Gracchi died relatively young, murdered or forced to commit suicide by more conservative relatives. The eldest child and only surviving daughter, Sempronia, was married to her mother's first cousin (and her own cousin by adoption) Scipio Aemilianus Africanus. The couple had no children, and Sempronia grew to hate her husband after he condoned the murder of her brother Tiberius in 132 BC. Scipio's mysterious death in 129 BC, at the relatively young age of 56, was blamed by some on his wife, and by others on his political rivals.
Scipio's only descendants living through the late Republican period were the descendants of his two daughters, his sons having died without legitimate surviving issue. His younger daughter's last surviving child Sempronia, wife and then widow of Scipio Aemilianus, was alive as late as 102 BC. Another descendant was his great-great-granddaughter, Fulvia Flacca Bambula, the only grandchild of Gaius Gracchus, best known as the wealthy third wife of Roman Triumvir Mark Antony who abandoned her for Cleopatra. Fulvia left several children, of whom at least one, Iullus Antonius, is known to have left issue surviving into the first century AD.
His other known grandson Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio was far more conservative than his Gracchi cousins. He and his descendants all became increasingly conservative, in stark contrast to the father and grandfathers. Scipio Africanus's eldest grandson Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio became consul in 138, murdered his own cousin Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163–132 BC) in 132. Scipio Nasica Serapio, although Pontifex Maximus was sent to Asia Minor by the Senate to escape the wrath of the Gracchi supporters, and died mysteriously there in Pergamum, and is believed to have been poisoned by an agent of the Gracchi.
Serapio's son, the fourth Scipio Nasica, was even more conservative, and rose to be consul in 111 BC. This Scipio Nasica's sons became praetors only shortly before the Marsic or Social War (starting 91 BC). However, a grandson (adopted into the plebeian-noble Caecilii Metelli) became the Metellus Scipio who allied himself with Pompey the Great and Cato the Younger, and who opposed Julius Caesar. Metellus Scipio was the last Scipio to distinguish himself militarily or politically.
None of Scipio's descendants, apart from Scipio Aemilianus—his wife's nephew who became his adoptive grandson—came close to matching his political career or his military successes.
It is not clear how the consul Publius Cornelius Scipio Salvito (a former husband of Scribonia, second wife of Octavian aka Augustus Caesar, and mother of his only legitimate child Julia the Elder) is related to Scipio Africanus.
To his political opponents, he was often harsh and arrogant, but towards others singularly gracious and sympathetic. According to Gellmus, his life was written by Oppius and Hyginus, and also, it was said, by Plutarch.
His Graecophile lifestyle, and his unconventional way of wearing the Roman toga, raised much opposition among the conservatives of Rome, led by Cato the Elder who felt that Greek influence was destroying old Roman culture and making the Roman men effeminate. Cato, as a loyalist of Fabius Maximus, had been sent out as quaestor to Scipio in Sicily circa 204 BC to investigate charges of military indiscipline, corruption, and other offense against Scipio; none of those charges were found true by the tribunes of the plebs accompanying Cato. (It may or may not be significant that years later, as censor, Cato degraded Scipio's brother Scipio Asiaticus from the Senate. It is certainly true that Romans of the day viewed Cato as a representative of the old Romans, and Scipio and his like as Graecophiles).
He often visited the temple of Jupiter and made offerings there. There was a belief that he was a special favourite of heaven and actually communicated with the gods. It is quite possible that he himself honestly shared this belief. However, the strength of this belief is evident, even a generation later when his adopted grandson, Publius Aemilianus Scipio was elected to the consulship from the office of tribune. His rise was spectacular and letters survive from soldiers under his command in Hispania show that they believed that he possessed the same abilities as his grandfather. The elder Scipio was a spiritual man as well as a soldier and statesman, and was a priest of Mars. The ability which he is supposed to have been possessed of, is called by the old name, "second sight", and he is supposed to have had prescient dreams in which he saw the future.
Livy describes this belief as it was perceived then, without his opinion; however, the Greek historian Polybius who was the friend of Publius Aemilianus Scipio, describes his doubts as to this belief instead saying there is no such thing. But in so doing, he felt it necessary to address this aspect of the popular Scipio legend as he perceived it.
According to Valerius Maximus, Scipio had a dalliance circa 191 BC with one of his own serving girls, which his wife magnanimously overlooked. It is not clear from the account whether the serving girl was in her early teens or younger, or was simply of humble station and younger than the general. The affair, if it lasted from circa 191 BC to Scipio's death 183 BC, might have resulted in issue (not mentioned); what is mentioned is that the girl was freed by Aemilia Paulla after Scipio's death and married to one of his freedmen. This account is only found in Valerius Maximus (Memorable Deeds and Sayings 6.7.1-3. L) writing in the 1st century AD, some decades after Livy. If this is correct, clearly Scipio did not hesitate to sleep with his female slaves, like so many other Roman masters. It should be noted however that Valerius Maximus is hostile to Scipio Africanus in other matters such as his frequent visits to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, which Maximus saw as "fake religion. Plutarch, a Greek historian writing about Roman morality, saw similar conduct not as an example of a husband's immorality, but rather of a husband seeking to spare his wife his debauchery.
Metellus Scipio, a descendant of Scipio, commanded legions against Julius Caesar in Africa until his defeat at the battle of Thapsus in 49 BC. Popular superstition was that only a Scipio could win a battle in Africa, so Julius Caesar assigned a distant relative of Metellus to his staff in order to say that he too had a Scipio fighting for him.
Scipio supported land distribution for his veterans in a tradition harking back to the earliest days of the Republic; yet, his actions were seen as somewhat radical by conservatives. In being a successful general who demanded lands for his soldiers, Scipio may have led the way for later generals such as Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar. Yet, Scipio was no Marius nor Caesar. While he did not always respect the mos maiorum or the decisions of the Senate or certain elected magistrates, he did not seek to use his charisma and reputation to weaken the Republic. (To be fair, the Middle Republic was not as weak as the Late Republic which suffered from massive corruption among the elite, major military threats from the Germans as well as the Gauls and to a lesser extent, Jugurtha, as well as widening social and economic inequities).
Scipio is the hero of Petrarch's Latin epic Africa. 'The Continence [i.e. moderation] of Scipio' was a stock motif in exemplary literature and art , as was the 'Dream of Scipio', portraying his allegorical choice between Virtue and Luxury The Continence of Scipio, depicting his clemency and sexual restraint after the fall of Carthago Nova, was an even more popular subject. Versions of the subject were painted by many artists from the Renaissance through to the 19th century, including Andrea Mantegna and Nicholas Poussin.Scipio is also mentioned in Machiavelli's work "The Prince" (Chapter XVII "Concerning Cruelty And Clemency, And Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared")