How Scipio Africanus destroyed the power of Carthage

More than 2,000 years after his death, the name of Hannibal continues to resonate with modern audiences. Yet today, few recall the commander who finally vanquished him, ending the Second Punic War and making possible Rome’s emergence as a great imperial power. This was Scipio Africanus.

The Battle of the Trebia in 218 BC, which marked the beginning of the Second Punic War. Image: Angus McBride/WIPL
The Battle of the Trebia in 218 BC, which marked the beginning of the Second Punic War. Image: Angus McBride/WIPL

Julius Caesar is generally considered Ancient Rome’s foremost general and politician: ‘the greatest Roman of them all’, as Shakespeare has it.

Yet most of Caesar’s great successes were against second-rate opponents, and even during his struggle with Pompey in Greece in 48 BC, he enjoyed the great advantage of centralised command, while his rival was hamstrung by a bickering political entourage.

Nor was Caesar much of an innovator. He took hold of a first-class military machine and used it to great effect, but his war-making was not notable for significant developments in logistics, strategy, or tactics. He was a great improviser when he needed to be, but he did not devise a new military system.

Publius Cornelius Scipio (236-183 BC), on the other hand, was the first Roman commander to bring the legion to maximum proficiency and employ it in ways that had never before been attempted; in effect, he turned a somewhat clumsy part-time militia into a well-oiled professional machine capable of rapid movement and complex manoeuvre.

A succession of stunning battlefield successes between 209 and 202 BC destroyed the power of Carthage and terminated Hannibal’s long campaign in Italy. Actually, it did more: it set Rome on the path to world empire.

Plan of the Battle of Zama, 202 BC,  showing the initial deployments and  (inset) the final phase.
Plan of the Battle of Zama, 202 BC, showing the initial deployments and (inset) the final phase.

The war with Hannibal runs like a spine through the military career of Scipio. Born in 236 BC, he was 11 years younger than his great adversary. A member of one of Rome’s six leading noble families, the Cornelii, he would have experienced the informal, family-based military training of the time.

Scipio was almost 18 when the Second Punic War broke out – old enough to accompany his father and namesake, who was serving as consul in 218, when Hannibal’s forces invaded northern Italy.

The younger man showed evidence of outstanding qualities as a junior officer, even reputedly saving his father at the Battle of the Ticinus River when he was surrounded by enemy soldiers and in danger of losing his life.

Two years later, Scipio was present at the disastrous encounter with Hannibal at Cannae, where almost 50,000 Roman troops were believed to have been killed in a textbook example of encirclement.

After rallying the survivors, and heading off an attempt to abandon the struggle by a group of aristocratic politicians, Scipio was elected to office as a junior magistrate in Rome, even though he was three years younger than the legal minimum age for the post.

These distinctions help to explain why, still only 25 years old, Scipio was given command of the Roman armies in Spain in 210. This would give him the opportunity to make a name on a wider stage.

The Battle of Zama, 202 BC. Detail from a painting by Cornelis Cort, c.1567.
The Battle of Zama, 202 BC. Detail from a painting by Cornelis Cort, c.1567.

But it was also a risky undertaking. Scipio’s father and uncle had already been killed in Spain, after being betrayed to the Carthaginians by their local allies.

And more senior men were slated for service in Italy, through which Hannibal was still rampaging. Scipio’s latest biographer, Richard Gabriel, describes him as the best qualified of the less experienced candidates.

It is true, though, that he pushed for the appointment, demonstrating the self-confidence which was already apparent as one of his most striking qualities.

When Scipio was first dispatched as the new Roman commander in Spain, the Roman Empire amounted to little more than Italy and Sicily, and much of this was under enemy occupation.

By the time of his death, Rome was fully launched on the campaign of imperial conquest that would, in just over a century, create an empire extending from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, from Germany to the Sahara.

Of all Roman politico-military leaders – and they were invariably both – Scipio Africanus probably has the best claim to be regarded as the true founder of the empire. In this regard, he may be compared with leaders like Alexander and Napoleon – not simply soldiers, but also empire-makers.

So how did Scipio destroy the power of Carthage? Can he really be described as ‘the greatest Roman of them all’?


This is an extract from a 14-paged special feature on the Scipio Africanus, published in the March 2020 issue of Military History Matters.

In our special this time, Graham Goodlad offers an overview of Scipio’s military career, and Neil Faulkner provides a detailed analysis of Zama, the final battle of the Second Punic War.

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