In 210 B.C. a young Roman general named Publius Scipio the Younger (later called Scipio Africanus) was sent to northeastern Spain with a simple mission: to hold the Ebro River against the powerful Carthaginian armies that were threatening to cross it and take control of the peninsula. This was Scipio’s first assignment as commander, and as he looked out on the river and plotted his strategy, he felt a strange mix of emotions.
Eight years earlier the great Carthaginian commander Hannibal had crossed this river heading north. Onward he had gone into Gaul and then, catching the Romans by surprise, had crossed the Alps into Italy. Scipio, only eighteen at the time, had fought alongside his father, a general, in the first battles against Hannibal on Italian soil. He had seen the North African’s battlefield skills with his own eyes: Hannibal had maneuvered his small army brilliantly, made maximum use of his superior cavalry, and through inexhaustible creativity had constantly managed to surprise the Romans and inflict on them a series of humiliating defeats, culminating in the virtual annihilation of the Roman legions at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. Matching wits with Hannibal, Scipio knew, was futile. It had seemed back then that Rome itself was doomed.
Scipio also recalled two events after Cannae that had had an overwhelming effect on him. First, a Roman general named Fabius had finally conceived a strategy to keep Hannibal at bay. Keeping his legions in the hills and avoiding direct battle, Fabius had launched hit-and-run raids designed to wear down the Carthaginians, who were fighting far from their home, in what is now Tunisia. The campaign had worked as a holding action, but to Scipio it had seemed equally exhausting for the Romans to fight so long and still have the enemy at their doorstep. Also, since the plan could not lead to any real defeat of Hannibal, it was basically flawed.
Second, a year into Hannibal’s invasion, the Romans had sent Scipio’s father to Spain to try to knock out the Carthaginian bases there. Carthage had had colonies in Spain for many years and earned wealth from Spanish mines. It used Spain as a training ground for its soldiers and as the base for its war on Rome. For six years Scipio’s father had fought the Carthaginians on the Spanish peninsula, but the campaign had ended in his defeat and death in 211 B.C.
As Scipio studied the reports coming in about the situation beyond the Ebro, a plan took root in his mind: with one bold maneuver, he could avenge his father’s death the year before, demonstrate the effectiveness of a strategy he thought far better than Fabius’s, and set in motion the eventual collapse not just of Hannibal but of Carthage itself. Along the coast to the south of him was the city of New Carthage (present-day Cartagena), the Carthaginians’ capital in
Spain. There they stored their vast wealth, their army’s supplies, and the hostages they had taken from different Spanish tribes to be held as ransom in case of rebellion. At this moment the Carthaginian armies-which outnumbered the Romans two to one–were scattered about the country, trying to gain further domination over the Spanish tribes, and were all several days’ march from New Carthage. Their commanders, Scipio learned, had been quarreling among themselves over power and money. Meanwhile New Carthage was garrisoned with only 1,000 men.
Disobeying his orders to take his stand at the Ebro, Scipio advanced south by ship and led a daring raid on New Carthage. This walled city was considered impregnable, but he timed his attack for the ebbing of the tide in a lagoon on the city’s north side; there his men were able to scale the walls relatively easily, and New Carthage was taken. In one move, Scipio had produced a dramatic turnaround. Now the Romans commanded the central position in Spain; they had the money and supplies on which the Carthaginians in Spain depended; and they had Carthage’s hostages, whom they now could use to stir revolt among the conquered tribes. Over the next few years, Scipio exploited this position and slowly brought Spain under Roman control.
In 205 B.C., Scipio returned to Rome a hero–but Hannibal was still a menace in Italy’s interior. Scipio now wanted to take the war to Africa, by marching on Carthage itself. That was the only way to get Hannibal out of Italy and finally erase Carthage as a threat. But out of Italy and finally erase Carthage as a threat. But Fabius was still the commander in charge of Rome’s strategy, and few saw the point of fighting Hannibal by waging war so far from him, and from Rome. Yet Scipio’s prestige was high, and the Roman Senate finally gave him an army–a small, low-quality army–to use for his campaign.
Wasting no time on arguing his case, Scipio proceeded to make an alliance with Masinissa, king of the Massyles, Carthage’s neighbors. Masinissa would supply him with a large and well-trained cavalry. Then, in the spring of 204 B.C., Scipio sailed for Africa and landed near Utica, not far from Carthage. Initially surprised, the Carthaginians rallied and were able to pin Scipio’s troops on a peninsula outside the town. The situation looked bleak. If Scipio could somehow advance past the enemy troops that blocked his path, he would enter the heart of the enemy state and gain control of the situation, but that seemed an impossible task–he could not hope to fight his way past the tight Carthaginian cordon; trapped where he was, his supplies would eventually run out, forcing him to surrender. Scipio bargained for peace but used the negotiations as a way to spy on the Carthaginian army.
Scipio’s ambassadors told him that the enemy had two camps, one for its own army and the other for its main ally, the Numidians, whose camp was rather disorganized, a swarm of reed huts. The Carthaginian camp was more orderly but made of the same combustible materials. Over the next few weeks, Scipio seemed indecisive, first breaking off
negotiations, then reopening them, confusing the Carthaginians. Then one night he made a sneak attack on the Numidian camp and set it on fire. The blaze spread quickly, and the African soldiers panicked, scattering in every direction. Awakened by the hubbub, the Carthaginians opened the gates to their own camp to come to their allies’ rescue–but in the confusion the Romans were able to steal in and set fire to their camp as well. The enemy lost half their army in this battle by night, the rest managing to retreat to Numidia and Carthage.
Suddenly the Carthaginian interior lay open to Scipio’s army. He proceeded to take town after town, advancing much as Hannibal had in Italy. Then he landed a contingent of troops at the port of Tunis, within sight of Carthage’s walls. Now it was the Carthaginians’ turn to panic, and Hannibal, their greatest general, was immediately recalled. In 202 B.C., after sixteen years of fighting on Rome’s doorstep, Hannibal was finally compelled to leave Italy.
Hannibal landed his army to Carthage’s south and made plans to fight Scipio. But the Roman general retreated west, to the Bagradas Valley–the most fertile farmlands of Carthage, its economic base. There he went on a rampage, destroying everything in sight. Hannibal had wanted to fight near Carthage, where he had shelter and material reinforcements. Instead he was compelled to pursue Scipio before Carthage lost its richest territory. But Scipio kept retreating, refusing battle until he had lured Hannibal to the town of Zama, where he secured a solid position and forced Hannibal to camp in a place without water. Now the two armies finally met in battle. Exhausted by their pursuit of Scipio, their cavalry neutralized by Masinissa’s, the Carthaginians were defeated, and with no refuge close enough to retreat to, Hannibal was forced to surrender. Carthage quickly sued for peace, and under the harsh terms imposed by Scipio and the Senate, it was reduced to a client state of Rome. As a Mediterranean power and a threat to Rome, Carthage was finished for good.