The Annalist: The Year 206 BCE

(photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Marcus Livius could have presided over the elections as the outgoing consul, but for some reason he was nominated dictator first by his colleague Gaius Claudius Nero. Quintus Caecilius Metellus became his master of horse. Lucius Veturius Philo and Quintus Caecilius Metellus were subsequently elected as the new consuls. Both men had served as legates in the army that had defeated Hasdrubal at the Metaurus the previous year. They had been highly praised by the equites and this had helped them win the highest office of the Republic. Marcus Caecilius Metellus – perhaps a kinsman of the consul-elect – was elected praetor. He had been disgraced after the defeat at Cannae and had been punished twice by the censors, in 214 and again in 209 BCE. Nevertheless, he seems to have been somewhat rehabilitated and now won the prestigious post of praetor urbanus. This was the final station for him though: he would not go on and win the consulship.

Italy

Little action took place in Italy this year. Both consuls were first of all charged with restoring agricultural production in Latium and other parts of Italy. Because of the war and the widespread destruction in rural areas, many farmers had fled to Rome and the fields were untilled. The consuls persuaded many of the refugees to return to their farms. Citizens of Placentia and Cremona were ordered to return to these two colonies in Cisalpine Gaul and a praetor was sent north to protect them.

Map of Southern Italy (copyright: Landsat/Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Google).

Both consuls were given Bruttium as their province. Hannibal was now contained in an ever shrinking corner of the peninsula. The Carthaginian general, still undefeated, was mourning the death of his brother and, more importantly, had been reorganising the territories under his control to protect his allies more efficiently. The entire population of Metapontum had been moved to Bruttium and many Lucanians had been settled there too. As a result, much of Lucania was occupied by the consuls again. Philo and Metellus also thoroughly pillaged the territories of Consentia in Bruttium, but they almost lost their booty when their column was surprised in a narrow mountain pass by Bruttians and Numidian slingers. In the end, however, the army managed to escape unscathed.

The Battle of Ilipa

Many important battles were fought in Spain this year. In fact, Scipio ended both the war and several centuries of Carthaginian presence in the peninsula. The first decisive battle took place at a town called Ilipa near the river Baetis (now the Guadalquivir). Scipio had amassed an army of some 45.000 infantry and 3.000 horsemen. He was up against the combined armies of Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, and Mago Barcas. The Carthaginians had at least 50.000 and perhaps even 70.000 infantry, as well as between 4.000 and 4.500 cavalry and 32 war elephants. Scipio was almost certainly outnumbered, but by what margin is not clear. What is clear is that about half of his forces were made up of Spanish allies. The defection of Spanish allies had caused the death of his father and uncle, so the Roman commander would obviously want to rely on his experienced Roman and Italian soldiers.

Map of Spain (copyright: see bottom right corner).

Hasdrubal seems to have been in overall command of the Carthaginian army. He had made his camp on a hill with a plain in front of it. When the Romans were still busy making their own camp, he sent out Mago with the Carthaginian cavalry and prince Masinissa with his Numidians to attack the enemy column. But Scipio had anticipated this move. He had hidden his own cavalry behind a hill, and when the Carthaginians attacked the pickets and the men constructing the camp, the Roman horsemen charged them in the flank. Mago, Masinissa and their horsemen were taken by surprise, but did put up some stiff resistance. However, the Romans kept feeding in fresh troops and in the end the Carthaginians and Numidians had to flee the battlefield. The Romans had dealt the first blow.

Veles (source: Europa Barbarorum)

Roman horseman (eques) of a Republican legion (source: Europa Barbarorum).

The next couple of days, the Roman and Carthaginian cavalry and light troops skirmished in the open space between the two camps. Every day, Hasdrubal led his men out of camp late in the day and deployed them in battle order, followed by Scipio. But the two sides did not engage. This was all part of Scipio’s plan it seems. Hasdrubal always deployed his forces with the North Africans – his best troops – in the centre and the Spanish allies on the flanks. Scipio placed his Roman legions and the allied alae in the centre and his Spanish auxiliaries on the wings. But on the day of the Battle of Ilipa, Scipio shuffled things around. He ordered his men to eat their breakfasts early and then began executing his plan. First, he sent out the cavalry and velites to skirmish with the enemy near Hasdrubal’s camp. Then he led the rest of his forces out of camp and placed the Spanish troops in the centre and the Romans and Italians on the flanks. Hasdrubal was surprised by Scipio’s move, as it had always been the Carthaginian who had taken the initiative. Hasdrubal responded by sending out his own cavalry and light troops and by deploying his infantry near the camp. His men had not even eaten yet.

The cavalry and light troops of both sides advanced, skirmished, charged, pursued and retreated again. This whirling combat must have taken several hours. Then Scipio recalled his horsemen and velites and let them retire through the intervals in the Roman line. They were subsequently positioned with the Roman and Italian infantry on the two flanks. Scipio gave the order to advance, but had instructed the Spanish in the centre to advance just slowly. The general himself commanded the right flank, while Marcus Junius Silanus and Lucius Marcius were in charge of the left flank. The Romans and Italians were highly experienced as a result of years of campaigning. They now began executing a series of complex manoeuvres, first wheeling from line into column, with the right flank marching off to the right and the left flank off to the left. On both flanks, the entire column then wheeled forward again and started marching towards the enemy line. When they were in sight of the Carthaginians, the two columns wheeled into a battle line again and attacked.

Some of the equipment of a triarius. His spear (hasta) is missing. He would have used the large shield at the back, not the small round shield. His sword is on the wrong side. It was worn on the right.

The Spanish in the Roman centre had executed their orders well and were still at a considerable distance from the North Africans. Hasdrubal had no idea how to respond. His flanks were under attack by the Romans’ most experienced troops and the cavalry and velites had already outflanked his line. If he sent his Africans forward to flank the Romans, these troops would themselves be attacked in the flank by the Romans’ Spanish allies in the centre. The velites and Roman cavalry already caused mayhem among the Carthaginian elephants with their javelins. Although the Spanish on the flanks fought well, they were gradually pushed back and suffered many casualties. The fact that they had not had their breakfasts yet certainly did not help. The Spanish allies were beginning to give more and more ground, and in the end, Hasdrubal ordered a retreat. At first, the Carthaginian retreat was orderly, but when the Romans kept putting relentless pressure on their line, the Carthaginians ultimately broke ranks and fled in confusion. The Romans pursued, but had to break off the chase because of heavy thunder and a violent rainstorm.

Although the Battle of Ilipa is rightly considered Scipio’s finest victory, it seems likely that Carthaginian casualties were fairly moderate and that much of the army managed to reach the relative safety of the camp. However, the Spanish allies soon began to defect and Hasdrubal thought it safer to break camp and retreat. Scipio sent his cavalry and light troops after him and these managed to block what remained of the Carthaginian army when it tried to cross the Baetis. Hasdrubal was then forced to change his direction, but the Romans mercilessly kept attacking the Carthaginian column. Hasdrubal managed to escape into the hills with just 6.000 men. According to Livius, the rest were killed or captured. Hasdrubal occupied a hill with the survivors, but it was barely defensible. He then deserted his men and fled to the coast, where ships took him to Gades. Mago managed to reach Gades as well, but Masinissa defected to the Romans after a private conversation with Silanus, the man sent by Scipio to defeat the last defenders on the hill.

To Africa

Silanus returned to Tarraco and declared that the war was over. Scipio then sent his brother Lucius back to Rome with several important prisoners of war to report that Spain had been subjugated. Scipio’s conclusion would prove to be premature, but he already had his mind set on moving the war to Africa.

Roman ship on a tomb from Classe, near Ravenna (Archaeological Museum of Ravenna).

The Romans had been raiding the African coast since early in the conflict. The consul Gnaeus Servilius Geminus had done so in 217 BCE,  and so had the propraetor Titus Otacilius in 215 BCE and again in 212 BCE. These raids had achieved only limited success. Marcus Valerius Messalla’s raids in the territories of Utica in 209 BCE had been more successful and he had collected many prisoners. The next year, Marcus Valerius Laevinus had taken 100 ships to Aspis (Clupea in Latin), where the Romans had landed during their disastrous invasion of Africa in 256-255 BCE. He had caused widespread destruction and had defeated a Carthaginian fleet of 83 ships sent to intercept him. Laevinus repeated this success in 208 BCE, when he had first raided the territories of Utica and Carthage and then smashed a Carthaginian fleet of 70 ships on his return to Lilybaeum.

So the Romans were definitely creeping closer to Carthage, but raiding enemy territory was easy compared to a full-scale invasion of Africa. For this the Romans needed more local allies. Scipio therefore sent Laelius to the court of King Syphax of the Masaesyli in Numidia. Syphax had been allied to Rome before, but after suffering a sharp defeat against Carthage and King Gala of the Massylii, father of Masinissa, he had switched sides. When Laelius arrived in Numidia, he was told that the king would only negotiate with Scipio in person. Scipio was granted a safeguard and left Carthago Nova with just two quinqueremes. He crossed the sea to Numidia and arrived there at about the same time as Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, who had fled Spain. And so in a slightly bizarre incident, Scipio, Laelius and Hasdrubal found themselves dining together at the table of King Syphax. Livius claims that Scipio managed to make a treaty with the king, but it seems safer to accept that Syphax’s attitude was still quite ambiguous.

And back to Spain

Mosaic of gladiators in combat.

Once back in Spain, Scipio launched punitive expeditions against Iliturgis and Castulo, two cities that had defected to Carthage after the defeat of Gnaeus and Publius Scipio in 211 BCE. There was some very grim and heavy fighting at Iliturgis before the Romans finally managed to scale the walls and take the city. Eager for revenge, Scipio’s men massacred most of the men, women and children and set the city to the torch. There was much less bloodshed at Castulo, as the city was betrayed to the Romans by a local commander. Scipio then returned to Carthago Nova to hold gladiatorial games in honour of his late father and uncle.

Lucius Marcius was sent south to reduce several more pro-Carthaginian Spanish cities. While some of these surrendered without any fighting, there was another massacre at a town called Astapa. Most of the defenders sallied out of the gates and flung themselves at the Romans in a furious banzai charge. While the fighting raged outside the walls, some 50 young men left behind killed all the women and children. They had built a great funerary pyre, set it ablaze and flung the bodies of the women and children upon it before killing themselves as well. All of the town’s gold and silver had been placed on the pyre too. Many Romans got hurt or even killed when they tried to snatch the valuable objects out of the fire.

There was a setback for the Romans when Scipio fell seriously ill. As the news about his illness spread, it was also distorted and many began to believe that the Roman general was dead or dying. This led to much unrest in Spain. Indibilis and Mandonius, the not-so-reliable chieftains of the Ilergetes, rebelled and stirred up the Lacetani and some Celtiberian tribes to raid the territories of Rome’s allies. It is quite possible that the Ilergetes resented the presence of the Romans, fearing that their rule would become just as harsh and unfair as that of Carthage. Indeed, it was probably in this year that the Romans founded their first permanent colony in the Spanish peninsula, the town of Italica (birthplace of the emperor Trajanus and perhaps of his successor Hadrianus as well). However, it is more likely that the two chieftains simply felt a personal loyalty towards Scipio, and not to the Roman Republic. The alleged death of the Roman general released them from their obligations.

Mutiny

Even more serious was a mutiny of some 8.000 Roman soldiers at Sucro (modern Cullera), south of Saguntum. These troops had been idle for quite a while and this had contributed to the men’s restlessness. They wanted to either see some action and gather booty, or else be sent back to Italy. The soldiers also demanded their back pay. When the soldiers began to rebel, the tribunes tried to intervene, but they were soon chased out of the camp. Two ordinary soldiers were elected as the new commanders. These men quickly began behaving as Roman magistrates, and they even had the impertinence of having lictors carry the bundles of rods and axes (fasces) in front of them.

Roman princeps (source: Europa Barbarorum).

When Scipio, who had by now recovered, heard of the mutiny, he sent seven tribunes to the camp to listen to the men’s grievances. Their chief complaint was that they had not been paid for a long time. Scipio then ordered the soldiers to march to Carthago Nova where they would receive their back pay. He sent tax collectors to the allied Spanish communities so that all of the men could be paid at the same time. Scipio then consulted his consilium on how to deal with the mutiny. Ultimately, it was decided to only punish the 35 ringleaders and to merely reprimand the rest of the men. The tribunes that had been sent to Sucro were instructed to single out the leaders, invite them to dinner and then arrest them when they were drunk. When the thousands of soldiers began arriving at Carthago Nova, the tribunes did as they had been told, and soon the ringleaders were all in chains.

The next day, the mutinous soldiers were assembled in front of Scipio’s tribunal. Scipio had pretended that his loyal troops had been sent off to fight against Spanish rebels, but they had instead surrounded the mutineers fully armed. The Roman general now severely harangued the rebellious soldiers, who soon lost all confidence. When Scipio had finished speaking, the loyal soldiers began banging their shields with their swords. This clamour must have been very intimidating for the mutineers. Then the convicted ringleaders were brought in naked. They were tied to the stake, flogged and beheaded. All the while, their fellow mutineers were forced to watch this horrible spectacle. When it was all over and the bodies of the ringleaders were dragged away, the others were called forward one by one to renew their oath of loyalty to the Republic and to its commander. When they had done so, they received their pay. The mutiny was over.

Vengeance

Having restored order, Scipio marched north to confront the Ilergetes. On the tenth day after leaving Carthago Nova, he had reached the Ebro. After three more days, he met up with Indibilis’ and Mandonius’ army in a valley surrounded by hills. Scipio first sent some cattle into the valley and quickly the Spaniards tried to confiscate the animals. They were then attacked by the Roman velites, who first showered them with javelins and then drew their side arms for hand-to-hand combat. Laelius subsequently charged in with his cavalry and most of the enemy were killed. The next day, a formal battle took place in the valley. The valley was very narrow and seemed to offer no opportunities for flanking attacks. But Scipio gave Laelius orders to ride around the hills with his cavalry and attack the enemy in the rear. Laelius first defeated the Spanish horsemen and then charged their infantry from behind. About two thirds of the Spanish army was destroyed. The remaining third had not been engaged and managed to flee. Indibilis got away as well.

Balearic slinger (image by Johnny Shumate (jjjshumate@earthlink.net)).

Meanwhile, Carthaginian territory in Spain had been reduced to just Gades and environs. The city had almost been betrayed to the Romans, but the conspiracy was discovered and Mago had had the conspirators arrested and sent to Carthage. Mago then received orders from the Council of Thirty Elders in Carthage to abandon Gades and to sail to Italy to raise troops there among the Celts and Ligurians and to try and link up with Hannibal. Mago complied, but first tried to recapture Carthago Nova by surprise. The Romans were well-prepared and sallied out of the gates as the Carthaginians approached the city walls. Mago’s men were chased back to their ships and a few hundred of them were killed. The Carthaginian commander then sailed back to Gades, but the citizens refused to admit him, forcing him to sail to the Balearic Islands. His forces received a hostile reception on Majorca, so Mago ultimately decided to winter on Minorca instead. There he levied some 2.000 local troops, including the famous Balearic slingers.

Now that Mago had left, the citizens of Gades surrendered to the Romans, thus ending several hundred years of Carthaginian rule in Spain.[1] Scipio had already had a conversation with Masinissa near this city. The Numidian prince was then allowed to go back to Numidia to persuade his tribesmen, the Massylii, to join the Romans. Now that the war in Spain was over, Scipio delegated command of the army to his legates and returned to Rome. He would be a candidate in next year’s consular elections, and the shoo-in to boot.

Sources

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 277-285;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 302-303.

Note

[1] Or, as Richard Miles puts it: “The once glittering imperial possession that had been Barcid Spain was no more, after little more than thirty years of existence.” (Carthage must be destroyed, p. 303)

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