"You will in actuality attack the walls of a single city, but in that city you will have made yourselves masters of Spain"
_ Scipio Africanus (Livy)
Rise of Scipio
After the disaster that had struck the Romans, under the command of the Scipio's, in 211 in Spain the remaining Roman armies had dispersed north of the Ebro. Under the command of Lucius Marcius, the self-appointed "propreator", the Carthagenians suffered minor defeats. But lacking in men and supplies he was no longer a threat to them and they set their attentions to the rebel areas of Spain where opposition to Carthaginian control had been pretty deep. The senate, offended by this "self entitlement" by Marcius, had recalled him and replaced him with Nero (victor at Metaurus). After some short and minor victories in Spain, Nero was called back to carry on the war in Italy and was replaced by the younger Scipio.
Publius Cornelius Scipio (later added 'Africanus') took command of the war in Spain and was given the proconsul 'imperium'. While he was young, 25 when given control of the Spanish campaign, Scipio was not new to warfare. He is believed to have distinguished himself at the Battle of Ticinus River when he rushed in the middle of the heat of battle to help his wounded father. However there is a contradictory story saying that his father was saved by his Ligurian slave. Scipio's story became the popular one no doubt due to his already beloved character. He was supposed to have also been a tribune at Tresemino and Cannae. A story of how he rallied routing Roman soldiers, organized them and led them back to battle at the famous battle had made him a favored character in Rome. Although evidence is weak it is assumed that he was present in some of the skirmish battles against Hannibal. He was now also the oldest man and heir to one of the most powerful families of Rome, the Cornelii family. Goldsworthy mentions Scipio as:
"One of the most charismatic figures produced by the Romans during the Punic Wars. In many respects he conformed to the ideal of heroism since Alexander the Great."
This unprecedented event has perplexed historians for a while. It was a unanimous decision, however completely out of the ordinary. Scipio had not held any major magistracies before hand being to young to have held a preatorship or consulship in the past. He had been a curule aedile in 213 but this was a minor role. Livy mentioned how a comitia centuriata for a vote on the next general willing to continue the campaign in Spain was held but nobody was said to have wanted control of the foreign war until Scipio stepped up and was unanimously picked. This is a very strange occurrence as pro-magistracies were not elected but picked by the senate. It is very likely that the intentions of Scipio were already aware in the closed senatorial world and this move was made to completely legalize it. There have been many attempts to try and understand this event. Goldsworthy was not one favoring any speculations. Putting it as:
"Attempts to understand the incident in terms of factional politics once again fail to convince and rely on far too many unjustified assumptions about the 'policies' of different families."
Command in Spain was not all that popular with the people of Rome. It was a foreign land where shortage of supply was common and you faced massive armies. Something the past Scipio's were constantly complaining about. The recent defeats had also heavily demoralized the people. Unlike in Italy where you are in an environment that you are well aware of the surrounding and are in friendly territory. Being in Spain meant being in an enemy's territory. Add to the fact of how the "loyalty" of the Spanish tribes had a habit of switching as things turned bleak. Proven by their shifty movement between Carthage and Rome and by the sudden abandonment of the Scipio's in their time of need. It can be assumed that the Romans now had little trust for these people.
Scipio in Spain
According to Livy, Scipio was given 12,000 infantry, half Roman and half Italian, and 1,200 cavalry, of which 300 were Roman and 800, were Latin. Appian gives a different number; he stated 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. This was to be added to the men in Spain. In total the number of army in which Scipio was to command was about 28,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. A very small number compared to the large armies that the Carthaginian generals in Spain controlled. Scipio simply could not chase one without fear of unexpectedly meeting another one.
After spending the winter in Spain, negotiating alliances between the Spanish tribes in the area, Scipio decided on a very risky idea. His plan was to take New Carthage or Carthago Nova. The center of Carthaginian control in Spain and the holder of much needed and desired supplies. Scipio was confirmed by many of the near inhabitants that the three main Carthaginian armies were well distributed throughout Spain in their fighting against the Spanish tribes. Hasdubral was in present-day Toledo fighting the Carpetani, Mago was near the present day Straits of Gibraltar, and Gisgo was with the Lusitanian's. This allowed Scipio to head to the Barcist founded city unopposed. He already heard from the nearby inhabitants that the city was poorly defended. The general who was defending the city only had about 2,000 citizen fighters and about 1,000 mercenaries. Nevertheless, the size of the city and the relatively small size of the Roman army meant that the city would not be easy to take.
Siege of New Carthage
Scipio took with him 25,000 of his infantry and 2,500 cavalry while Gaius Laelius took on the attack on the coast of the city with 30 ships. He arrived at New Carthage in about seven days and caught the city by surprise with his speed. From the start it can be assumed that Scipio had little interest in besieging and starving the city. He made no attempt to surround it through circumvallation. Starving it out was nearly impossible due to the proximity of the Carthaginian armies and the small size of the Roman force. If Scipio was to take the city, he would have to do it fast and he would do just that.
Mago, the garrison leader at New Carthage not to be confused with Hannibal's brother Mago, had split his mercenary troops in two. He placed one in the citadel of the city and the other on the hillock on the eastern side of the city. He then placed his citizen militia in the gate of the city reading them for a sally. Mago then ordered his militia troops to sally out and meet the Roman force near their camp. Expecting this, Scipio had organized his troops in an area where the advantage would be entirely his. As the two sides met a fierce struggle ensued. However the Roman soldiers soon overwhelmed the small citizen force and routed them, inflicting many casualties as they could barely fit in through the small city gate. Scipio now decided to use this momentum and ordered his men to scale the walls with ladders. Simultaneously Laelius took his fleet and attacked the seaside of the city. Scipio himself took part in the siege. Fighting alongside his men gave them confidence and allowed him to see everything around him. However he took care to properly defend himself placing long shielded men around him to cover him from arrows and other attacks. The first attack failed due to heavy missile fire that took men off their ladder. By noon, Scipio called off the attack. The attack had failed both in damaging the cities defenses and actually putting a dent in the garrison. This definitely gave courage to the Carthaginian army adding to their belief that they would be able to hold until a relief army arrived.
To the cities great shock, Scipio now decided on another attack this time he ordered even more ladders and men setup to storm the walls. Giving many historians the belief that Scipio had simply organized the first attack to survey the defenses and the city. This time though, the cities defenses had nearly depleted their missiles. The defenses could barely hold the Romans off the walls. While this was going on Scipio had organized a group of 500 men that would go around the city lagoon and the north of the cities defenses. It is believed that Scipio waited until later in the day because he had heard from fishermen nearby that the tide of the lagoon would lower. As the attack began the lagoon did just that. Perhaps this was due to wind or a regular occurrence. Either way it exposed the northern city walls. To Scipio's men, this seemed like a divine aid of Neptune, before the siege Scipio had claimed that Neptune had given him the plans for the siege. This gave the entire army a boost of morale and they renewed the battle, which had been going on for most of the day. Mago had abandoned that side of the walls due to the hard fighting on the other side. The group of 500 then proceeded to climb the walls unnoticed and made quick work of the walls defenders, opening them to the outside army. The city was now overrun but not conquered.
The Romans took great care to secure the walls and allow all the men to enter the city before they went after it. This could be due to their lack of knowledge of the city and fear of that Mago could rally the troops and use their knowledge of the internal setup of the city to drive the Romans out. As Scipio's army dispersed throughout the city they were ordered to kill any person they saw. As this happened Scipio moved with his troops to the citadel to secure it. This was one of the special occasions where the Romans were almost uncontrolled in their slaughter and sack of the population. Later Polybius would mention seeing with his own eyes the remains of the sacking. He saw for himself the dismembered bodied. Later excavations would prove this. The sacking was composed of the traditional raping of women and the slaughter of men. The Roman soldiers had been especially cruel in this case, most likely due to the hard defenses they put up with and the high loss of life. This was also done to put down remaining resistance and put fear into the citizens of the city.
The capture of the city silenced Roman doubts of Scipio. He had accomplished what everyone doubted. Access to the city also brought many Spanish tribes in the area to the Roman side. Many Spanish hostages, probably taken to secure their allegiance were returned home. Merchants hostages were temporarily enslaves until the end of the war and the rest of the hostages served in the Roman fleet. The city had vast amount of wealth that was now in Roman control. This included siege engines, material and a large treasury.
There have also been many stories of Scipio being offered a beautiful Spanish girl by the soldiers in the city but was returned by him to her father. This could be nothing more then Romanitization to once again add to Scipio's persona. But it could have also been a great political move by Scipio in a way to make himself and Rome seem better then the Carthagenians, whom had often been especially cruel to the Spanish tribes. New Carthage would now serve as a base of operations in Spain.
This article was written by Forum Member Scanderbeg. Based on online reading (UNRV.com and barca.fsnet.co.uk), personal knowledge and The Punic Wars by Goldsworthy
Did you know...?
Carthago Nova, the most important Carthaginian city in Spain, is now known as Cartagena.