• Benjamin Celver

Rome's Greatest General: Scipio Africanus

In one of the greatest struggles of mankind, character, virtue, and pride produced an unrelenting moral code that turned the tide of history.


Two of the greatest generals in history met on the northern plains of Africa in 202 B.C. The Roman general Scipio maintained his offensive posture and took the war to the Carthaginian homeland. At every point, Scipio pitted his strengths against his enemy's weaknesses. His leadership brought all the elements of military power together in such a way that he achieved a great victory at limited cost. His action ended the threat of Carthaginian power in the Mediterranean and launched the era of Roman domination of the known world.


The Battle of Zama brought a decisive end to the 2nd Punic War and delivered the Mediterranean into the domain of Roman rule. In the late summer of 202 B.C., the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio defeated Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, on the North African plains west of Zama. Publius Scipio became the only Roman general to defeat Hannibal in pitched battle. When Scipio returned to Rome, the Senate bestowed him with the title Scipio Africanus in honor of his victory and its significance to the survival of Rome. The historical sources describing Scipio's military strategy and tactics can be found in Livy's Third Decade and Polybius's chronicles of the Punic wars.


Scipio's great genius was the recognition of the significance of the conflict. The outcome would determine the rise or fall of each nation. In the context of history, 'to the victor go the spoils:' the flow of trade and the payment of tribute, taxes, and slaves. Scipio observed that the moral consequence of victory or defeat was freedom or enslavement of the Roman people. By the interposition of his mind and the sheer force of his will, Scipio martial-ed the moral sentiments of his men and brought together strategic, operational, and tactical necessities throughout his campaign. Through his unwavering conception of the nature of war, gained by experience and study of history, he applied the same principles of action to achieve victory over the Carthaginian people and the naysayers in Rome.


In his book A Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus, Liddell B. Hart analyzes Scipio's character, in the context of his words and action, and describes the importance of the moral objective to the nature of war; and in so doing, a masterstroke in history inspires generations with a model of a man, the nature of man, and the importance of character. We can use this model in everyday battles to overcome our apprehensions and inspire others toward the purpose of thought, character, and action.


The account of Livy Book 28 chapter 42 below presents the words and counsel of the General Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. Q. Fabius counsels Scipio against pressing the war to Africa. His motive for action rests in personal pride over his military strategy that fought Carthage to a military stalemate in the First Punic War. Using a strategy of attrition, Q. Fabius refused to meet Hannibal in pitched battle and earned the nickname: "the delayer." Q. Fabius is important to history and military strategy because George Washington employed his strategy of attrition against the superior forces of the British in our fight for Independence. In the context of Scipio, Q. Fabius was a highly respected general because he exhausted the forces of Hannibal in the First Punic war and delayed the final reckoning, which Scipio was determined to effect. Q. Fabius felt the sting of his own weakness in Scipio's unwavering conviction to win the war with bold action, and advised the Senate to deny Scipio's request.


For that reason, Scipio was standing before the Senate pleading his case to take the war to Carthage. In the account below Q. Fabius responds to Scipio:


"Allow us to ascribe all that has gone happily for you and for the dominion of Rome to your wise counsels [referring to Scipio's successful campaign in Spain, Hannibal's base of operations], and all misfortunes to the uncertain chances of war--the more talent and courage you claim for yourself the more will your native country and all Italy desire to keep such a doughty defender at home.

[12] Even you cannot disguise the fact that where Hannibal is, there is the centre and mainstay of the war, for you are giving out that the one reason for your going to Africa is to draw Hannibal there. Whether there then or here, you still have Hannibal to deal with. And will you, I should like to know, be in a stronger position in Africa, single-handed, than here with your own army and your colleague's acting to together?

[13] What a difference that makes is shown by the recent instance of the consuls Claudius and Livius. Where, pray, is Hannibal more likely to be supplied with men and arms?

[14] In the most remote corner of Bruttium [an area of southern Italy] where he has so long been vainly asking for reinforcements from home, or in the country round Carthage and on the soil of Africa which is entirely occupied by his allies? [The enemy was at the gates of Rome so to speak and Hannibal and little support from his base operations, which is on the opposite side of the Mediterranean and where Scipio intended to go.]

[15] What an extraordinary idea that is of yours [mockingly] to fight where your forces are reduced by one-half and those of the enemy largely augmented, rather than in a country where with two armies you would engage only one, and that, too, exhausted by so many battles, and such long and burdensome service.

[16] Just think how different your plan is from your father's. On his election as consul he proceeded to Spain, then left his province and returned to Italy in order to meet Hannibal on his descent from the Alps; you are preparing to leave Italy while Hannibal is actually here, not in the interest of the republic but because you think it a grand and glorious thing to do. Just in the same way you, a general of the Roman people, left your province and your army without any legal authority, without any instructions from the senate, and entrusted to a couple of ships the fortunes of the State and the majesty of the empire which were for the time bound up with your own safety.

[17] I hold the view that P. Cornelius Scipio was elected consul not for his own private ends, but for us and the commonwealth, and that armies are raised to guard this city and the soil of Italy, and not for consuls to transport to any part of the world they please in the arrogant style of kings and despots." [What Scipio asks he asks arrogantly, according Q. Fabius]

Livy Chapter 43 provides context

This speech of Fabius, so appropriate to the circumstances under which it was delivered, and backed up by the weight of his character and his long-established reputation for prudence, produced a great effect upon most of those present, especially upon the seniors. Seeing that the majority approved of the sage counsels of age in preference to the impetuous temper of youth, Scipio is reported to have made the following reply:


"Senators, at the beginning of his speech, Q. Fabius admitted that what he had to say might lay him under a suspicion of jealousy. [Showing that Fabius's reasoning is based on Fabius's self-proclaimed internal conflict, rather than a firm reliance of facts.]

[2] "Personally, I should not dare to accuse so great a man of that weakness, but either through the inadequacy of his defense or the impossibility of making a successful one, he has utterly failed to clear himself of the charge. [The motive for actions clouds Fabius's reasoning]

[3] For in his anxiety to dispel the suspicion, he spoke about his distinctions and his reputation in such exaggerated terms as to give the impression that I was in danger of finding a rival in the lowest of the Romans, not in him who, because he stands above all others-a position which I frankly confess I am striving to attain, denies the possibility of any rivalry between us. [Fabius sees in Scipio only what Fabius knows exists within himself; Fabius is therefore unfit to judge]

[4] He has represented himself as an old man full of honours, and me as a youth not even as old as his son, as if the passion for glory did not extend beyond the span of human life and find its chief satisfaction in the memory of future generations. I am quite certain that it is the lot of all great men to compare themselves not with their contemporaries alone, but also with the illustrious of all ages.

[5] I admit, Quintus Fabius, that I am desirous not only of equaling your renown but-forgive my saying so--of surpassing it, if I can. Let not your feeling towards me, or mine towards my juniors, be such that we would prevent any of our fellow-citizens from reaching our level. That would not only injure the victims of our envy, it would be a loss to the State, and almost to the human race. [If the best of our civilization is in the past, then we are doomed to decay and destruction]

[6] "The speaker dwelt upon the danger to which I should be exposed if I landed in Africa, showing apparently solicitude not only for the commonwealth and its army but even for me. What has led to this sudden anxiety on my account?

[7] When my father and my uncle were killed and their armies all but annihilated; when Spain was lost; when four Carthaginian armies and their generals were holding the whole country down by the terror of their arms [at the start of the War]; when you were looking for a man to take the supreme command in that war and no one appeared, no one came forward to offer himself but me; when the Roman people conferred the supreme command on me before I had reached my twenty-fifth year-why did no one then say anything about my age, the strength of the enemy, the difficulties of the campaign or the recent disaster which had overtaken my father and my uncle?

[8] Has some calamity occurred recently in Africa greater than the one which happened then in Spain? [which he just subdued] Are there larger armies and better and more numerous commanders in Africa now than there were then in Spain? Was I then at a riper age for undertaking a great war than I am today? Is Spain a more convenient field for operations against the Carthaginians than Africa?

[9] Now that I have scattered four Carthaginian armies in flight, reduced so many cities by force or fear, and subjugated every part down to the shores of the ocean, petty kings and savage tribes alike; now that I have reconquered the whole of Spain so completely that no vestige of war anywhere remains, it is an easy task to make light of my services, as easy, in fact, as it will be, when I have returned victorious from Africa, to make light of those very difficulties which are now painted in such dark colours in order to keep me here.

[10] "Fabius says that no part of Africa is accessible, that there are no harbours open to us. He tells us that M. Atilius Regulus was made prisoner in Africa, as though he had met with misfortune as soon as he landed. He forgets that that very commander, unfortunate as he was afterwards, did find some harbours in Africa open to him, and for the first twelve months won some brilliant victories, and as far as the Carthaginian generals were concerned, remained undefeated to the last. You will not, therefore, deter me by quoting that instance. Even if that disaster had occurred in this war instead of in the last one, quite recently and not forty years ago-even, then why should I be prevented from invading Africa because Regulus was made prisoner any more than I was prevented from going to Spain after the two Scipios were killed? [He had also heard the same arguments for not invading Spain--but they were wrong and he was right]

[11] I should be sorry to believe that Xanthippus, the Lacedaemonian, was born to be a greater blessing to Carthage than I am to be to my country, and my confidence is strengthened by seeing what tremendous issues depend upon one man's courage. We have had to listen even to stories about the Athenians, how they neglected the war at their doors in order to go to Sicily.

[12] Well, since you are at leisure to tell us tales about Greece why do you not mention Agathocles, king of Syracuse, who after Sicily had long been wasted by the flames of the Punic War sailed across to this same Africa and turned the tide of war back to the country from which it had started?" [Scipio's knowledge of history gives him ease of command]


Livy, Chapter 43


[1] "But what need is there of instances drawn from other lands and other times to remind us how much depends upon taking the aggressive and removing danger from ourselves by making it recoil upon others? It makes all the difference in the world whether you are devastating the territory of another nation or seeing your own destroyed by fire and sword. It shows more courage to attack than to repel attacks. Then again, the unknown always inspires terror, but when you have entered your enemy's country you have a nearer view of his strength and weakness.

[2] Hannibal never hoped that so many communities would go over to him after Cannae; how much less could the Carthaginians, faithless allies, harsh and tyrannical masters as they are, count upon the firmness and stability of their African empire! So far, even when deserted by our allies, we stood in our own strength, the soldiery of Rome. The Carthaginians have no citizen army, their soldiers are all mercenaries, ready to change sides on the smallest provocation. If only nothing stops me, you will hear that I have landed, that Africa is wrapped in the flames of war, that Hannibal is tearing himself away from Italy, that Carthage is besieged-all at one stroke.

[3] You may look for more cheerful and more frequent news from Africa than you received from Spain. Everything inspires me with hope-the Fortune which waits on Rome, the gods who witnessed the treaty which the enemy has broken, the two princes Syphax and Masinissa, whose fidelity I shall so far trust as to protect myself from any perfidy they may attempt.

[4] Many advantages which at this distance are not apparent will be disclosed as the war goes on. A man proves his capacity for leadership by seizing every opportunity that presents itself, and making every contingency subserve his plans. I shall have the adversary whom you, Q. Fabius assign to me-Hannibal-but I would rather draw him away than that he should keep me here; I would compel him to fight in his own country, and Carthage shall be the prize of victory rather than the half-ruined strongholds of Bruttium.

[5] "And now as to any injury that may befall the republic during my voyage or whilst I am disembarking my men on the shores of Africa or during my advance on Carthage. As the consul, P. Licinius, is also Pontifex Maximus, and cannot be absent from his sacred duties, it is impossible for him to ballot for so distant a province. Would it not be almost an insult to say that he cannot accomplish the task, after Hannibal's power has been shaken and almost shattered, which you, Q. Fabius, were able to accomplish when Hannibal in the hour of victory was flying about in every part of Italy?

[6] And even if the war should not be brought to a more speedy termination by the plan which I suggest, the dignity of Rome and her prestige amongst foreign kings and nations would surely require us to show that we possess sufficient courage not only to defend Italy but to carry our arms even as far as Africa.

[7] We must not let the idea get abroad that no Roman general durst do what Hannibal has done, or that whilst in the First Punic War, when the struggle was for Sicily, Africa was frequently attacked by our fleets and armies, in this war, when the struggle is for Italy, Africa is left in peace.

[8] Let Italy, which has been so long harassed, have some rest at last; let Africa take its turn of fire and ruin; let a Roman camp threaten the gates of Carthage rather than that we should see the enemy's lines from our walls. Let Africa be the seat of war henceforth; let us roll back there all the terror and the flight, all the wasting of our lands and the defection of our allies, all the other miseries of war which have been assailing us for the last fourteen years.

[9] Enough has been said as to the republic and the present war and the allocation of provinces. It would be a long and uninteresting discussion if I were to follow the example of Q. Fabius, and as he has depreciated my services in Spain, so I were to pour ridicule on his glory and extol my own. I will do neither the one nor the other, senators, and if, young as I am, I cannot have the advantage over an old man in anything else, I will at least prove his superior in moderation and restraint of language.

[10] My life and my conduct of affairs have been such that I am quite content to accept in silence the judgment which you have spontaneously formed."


Livy. History of Rome. English Translation by. Rev. Canon Roberts. New York, New York. E. P. Dutton and Co. 1912. 1. Livy. History of Rome. English Translation. Rev. Canon Roberts. New York, New York. E. P. Dutton and Co. 1912. 2.


I hope you are inspired to read Liddel B. Harts analysis in A Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus

Please comment now or after reading the book.

Carthage history

Carthage history

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