The Second Punic War: The Year 203 BCE

Scipio Africanus.


  • Publius Cornelius Scipio annihilates the armies of Hasdrubal and Syphax in a night attack near Utica;
  • Scipio again defeats Hasdrubal and Syphax at the Battle of Great Plains;
  • The Carthaginians finally decide to recall Hannibal from Southern Italy;
  • Gaius Laelius and Masinissa defeat King Syphax and capture him;
  • Masinissa captures Cirta and wants to marry Sophonisba, King Syphax’ Carthaginian wife; this is prevented by Scipio;
  • The Romans and Carthaginians agree to a truce; a delegation is sent to Rome to talk about peace and Hannibal lands in Africa near Hadrumetum;
  • The praetor Publius Quinctilius Varus and the proconsul Marcus Cornelius Cethegus defeat Mago Barcas in the territory of the Insubres. Mago is severely wounded and dies while sailing back to Africa;
  • The war in Africa continues after the Carthaginian capture dozens of Roman cargo ships.

The new consuls Gnaeus Servilius Caepio and Gaius Servilius Geminus were granted Bruttium and Etruria as their respective provinces. Although their family names may suggest otherwise, they were at best distant relatives. Caepio was from a patrician branch of the gens Servilia, while Geminus was a plebeian. However, the latter’s grandfather was probably Publius Servilius Geminus, the patrician consul of 252 BCE and 248 BCE. The consul of 217 BCE, Gnaeus Servilius Geminus, possibly an uncle or cousin of Gaius, was also a patrician, so obviously the Servilii Gemini were originally all patricians.

View of the Forum Romanum.

Either Gaius Servilius Geminus himself or his father (also named Gaius) had gone over to the plebs, a procedure known as the transitio ad plebem. By being adopted by a plebeian, a patrician lost his original status. While we have a very famous case from the Late Republic of a patrician going over to the common people, we do not know what Gaius’ or his father’s motives were.[1] Gaius senior had been a member of a Roman senatorial committee sent north to oversee the distribution of land in the new Latin colonies of Placentia and Cremona. He had been captured by the Boii in 218 BCE and was long presumed dead. When it turned out that he was alive after all, this had legal consequences for his son, as we will see below.

But first we must turn to Africa. Although the Romans still had 20 legions in the field and 160 warships in service, all that really counted were the parts of the army and fleet serving in Africa. That is where the war would be decided. Scipio’s proconsular command had been prolonged again, this time until the war had been ended. The proconsul was still threatening Utica and he hoped to bring King Syphax, who perhaps by now had grown tired of his Carthaginian wife, back on the Roman side. Scipio devised a plan that was both legally questionable and morally indefensible. But it worked perfectly, and apparently the end justified the means.

A night attack near Utica

Stater from Carthage, third century BCE (source: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.).

During the winter, there had been some negotiations between the Romans and their enemies. Scipio’s envoys had discovered that the Carthaginians had built timber barracks in their camp, while the Numidians slept in huts made of thatched reeds and straw mats. So in other words, both camps had a lot of combustible material. During the negotiations, Syphax had constantly proposed that the Carthaginians leave Italy and the Romans Africa, and that for the territories in between the status quo would be leading (i.e. they would belong to the party that controlled them). Scipio pretended to be interested, but instead of sending camp servants (calones) with his envoys, he picked some senior centurions[2] and dressed them up as slaves. This gave them an excellent opportunity to thoroughly look around in the enemy camp and gauge the strength of the enemy troops.

At the beginning of spring, Scipio pretended to be preparing for an attack on Utica. He had siege equipment installed aboard his warships, as if he was planning to assault the city from the sea. He also had 2.000 men occupy a hill overlooking Utica. At the same time, he had sent envoys to the Numidian camp again who had asked Syphax whether the Carthaginians would accept the peace terms proposed by the king as well. As it turned out, Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, was prepared to sign a peace treaty. But when Scipio was informed of this news, he immediately ordered his envoys to go back and tell the enemy that the deal was off. He feigned to be personally in favour of the peace terms, but claimed that they had been rejected by his consilium, the war council comprising the tribunes, legates and most senior centurions of the legions (primipili). This was a lie of course, but Scipio needed a pretext to attack the enemy camps. Livius claims that the Carthaginians and Numidians had added some unfavourable terms to the draft treaty, but that sounds like a later invention to justify Scipio’s bad faith. Polybius does not mention such terms at all. On the contrary, he considered the action that was to follow Scipio’s “most splendid and most adventurous”.[3]

Map of North Africa (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

The proconsul decided to stage a daring night attack on both enemy camps. He set out from his camp at the end of the prima vigilia (first watch), possibly around 21:00. The distance to the enemy camps was about 11 kilometres, and Scipio’s army reached them around midnight. Half of the army and all the Numidians were given to Laelius and Masinissa with instructions to attack the Numidian camp. Scipio himself marched on Hasdrubal’s camp with the rest of the army. The Romans managed to take their adversaries completely by surprise. Laelius and Masinissa quickly stormed King Syphax’ camp. The soldiers threw their torches and soon the entire camp was on fire. Many Numidians, most of whom had been asleep when the attack commenced, perished in the flames or were trampled to death by their comrades. The survivors were cut down by Laelius’ and Masinissa’s men.

The Carthaginians had noticed the great fire from their own camp and at first did not suspect any foul play. They assumed the fire had started by accident and some of them rushed out of the gates to provide aid. This was the moment Scipio had been waiting for. He ordered his soldiers to attack and many of the men that had gone out to help were quickly surrounded and killed. Scipio’s soldiers then pursued the survivors into the enemy camp and set it ablaze as well, the flames quickly consuming the timber barracks. Tens of thousands of men died in both attacks, but Syphax and Hasdrubal managed to get away. Scipio’s action had been highly dubious, but there could be no doubt that it had been brilliantly executed and that his night attack was a complete success.

The Battle of Great Plains

After Hasdrubal’s army had been all but wiped out, the shophtim convened the Council of Thirty Elders to discuss the current situation. Some were in favour of sending envoys to Scipio to discuss peace terms, others wanted to recall Hannibal from Italy. But Hasdrubal and members of the pro-Barcid faction supported a third position, i.e. raising a new army and persuading King Syphax not to withdraw from the war. A majority of the Elders ultimately supported this position, and just at that moment, 4.000 Celtiberian mercenaries arrived from Spain.[4] Syphax began arming Numidian peasants, and soon the Carthaginians and their Numidian allies had an army of some 30.000 men in the field again. These numbers may look impressive, but only the Celtiberians seem to have had any battle experience.

Hastatus (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Triarius (source: Europa Barbarorum).

The next confrontation took place at the Great Plains (Magni Campi), a five days march southwest of Utica. On the fourth day after arriving on the plains, both commanders deployed their army in battle order and attacked. The Italian and Masinissa’s Numidian cavalry quickly routed the Carthaginian and Numidian horsemen on both flanks, leaving the infantry exposed. The Carthaginian infantry and Syphax’ Numidian foot soldiers do not seem to have put on much of a fight, leaving the 4.000 Celtiberians isolated in the centre to fight to the death. These men fought well and their resistance allowed much of the Carthaginian army to escape. Ultimately they were pinned down by the Roman hastati. Scipio then had his lines of principes and triarii wheel from line into column formation and march to the flanks. There they turned again, marched forward and began enveloping the Celtiberians. Most of these were killed and the Romans won another victory, but Hasdrubal and Syphax managed to get away.

Carthaginian attack at Utica

Scipio now divided up his army into two parts. Laelius and Masinissa were given ten maniples of infantry and most of the cavalry and ordered to march west and defeat King Syphax, who was clearly reeling after so many defeats. At the same time, Scipio and the rest of the army marched on various African cities, causing many of them to surrender and taking others by storm. Again there was a huge panic in Carthage and again the Elders deliberated on what to do. Many proposals were adopted, combining military and diplomatic actions. It was decided to send the fleet to Utica to attack the Romans there that still had the city under a loose siege. At the same time Hannibal was recalled from Southern Italy and Carthage’s own defences were strengthened. Diplomacy was also given a chance and a new delegation was set up to travel to Scipio for negotiations.

Mosaic from Ostia.

Meanwhile, Scipio had occupied Tunis, a city a mere 20 kilometres from Carthage, but also the site of a serious Roman defeat during the First Punic War. Tunis could be seen very well from Carthage and vice versa, and suddenly the Romans spotted many warships leaving the Carthaginian harbour. Scipio immediately realised that Utica was their target and that his fleet was in serious danger. His ships had been converted into siege engines and were in no condition for a naval battle. The Roman commander hurried back to Utica, perhaps taking his cavalry ahead. He arrived just in time to prepare for the Carthaginian attack, but Scipio knew that he could only fight a defensive battle. He therefore had several transport ships lashed together so that they formed huge platforms from which his soldiers could fight off the Carthaginian attacks. Livius compared the ensuing battle to an attack by ships on solid walls. Although the Romans managed to save their valuable warships, the Carthaginians managed to cut free and tow away some 60 transport ships, constituting about 15% of the entire Roman transport fleet. Surely this was a setback for Scipio, but it could have been far worse.

Syphax defeated and captured

Laelius and Masinissa had marched west for some two weeks. They easily defeated the troops that were still occupying the territories of the Massylii, Masinissa’s tribe. After securing Masinissa’s throne, they advanced further and invaded the lands of the Masaesyli to confront King Syphax. Syphax had raised another army, but it was mostly made up of raw recruits. The Roman infantry and Numidian cavalry worked closely together and easily routed Syphax’ inexperienced army. When the king’s horse was wounded, it threw its rider and Syphax was taken prisoner and brought to Laelius. Masinissa was now given permission to advance on Cirta, the capital of the Masaesyli in present-day Algeria.

Coin with the image of Masinissa or his son Micipsa (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 2.5 license).

Masinissa easily captured Cirta and went to the royal palace. There he met Sophonisba, wife of King Syphax and daughter of Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo. She implored him to protect her against the Romans. Masinissa, perhaps genuinely in love with the woman, decided to marry her and ordered a ceremony to take place that same day. When Laelius arrived in Cirta, he quickly learned what had happened and was not amused. He tried to take Sophonisba away and send her to Scipio with the other prisoners, but Masinissa begged him to let her stay and let Scipio decide about her fate.

Laelius ultimately agreed, unwilling to risk losing a valuable ally over a woman. Only Syphax and some of the other prisoners were sent to the proconsul. When Scipio heard about Masinissa and Sophonisba, he was not amused either. He rebuked his ally and told him that King Syphax had been captured under Roman auspices. His wife therefore belonged to the Romans and Masinissa could not marry her. Masinissa had no option but to accept Scipio’s judgment. Fulfilling his promise to the woman that she would not fall into Roman hands, he brought her a cup of poison. Sophonisba took the cup without hesitation and committed suicide.

Negotiations and Hannibal’s return

Hannibal Barcas

Scipio sent Laelius to Rome with Syphax and some of the other important prisoners. Upon his arrival, the Romans celebrated four days of public thanksgiving. The former king was first imprisoned in Alba Fucens and later in Tibur (now the town of Tivoli). Livius claims that the Carthaginians sent a delegation of 30 senior senators (triginta seniorum principes) to Scipio to negotiate. The Carthaginians had a Council of Thirty Elders and a larger Council of 104, and Livius’ claim suggests that the Carthaginians now sent all their Elders to the Roman commander to discuss peace terms. Scipio knew that his position was strong and the terms that he offered were extremely harsh and humiliating. The Carthaginians decided to accept the terms for the moment, knowing that Hannibal’s return to Africa might still change the situation. A truce (indutiae) was agreed and the Carthaginians sent a delegation to Rome to talk about peace.

By then, another delegation had already reached Hannibal in Southern Italy. The Carthaginian commander had fought one final battle on Italian soil this year, fighting the consul Gnaeus Servilius Caepio to a draw near Croton, but even Livius admits that the details of the battle are not clear. Our historian also claims that Hannibal “gnashed his teeth, groaned, and almost shed tears when he heard what the delegates had to say”, i.e. that he was ordered to return to Africa. All his victories had been good for nothing, but he had no choice but to embark his core troops and sail back to Carthage, the city that the 45-year-old general had last seen when he was a boy of nine. Livius furthermore claims that before leaving Italy, Hannibal massacred many Italians that refused to follow him to Africa. It seems likely, however, that our historian was merely echoing anti-Carthaginian propaganda here.

In autumn, Hannibal landed near Hadrumetum (now the city of Sousse), south of Carthage. Livius claims that the troops that were with him were mostly Bruttians and our historian did not think highly of them. However, it seems much safer to accept that the majority of these men were the highly experienced Spanish and African troops that had fought with Hannibal in Italy for many years. Polybius certainly suggests they were his elite troops. Perhaps with the addition of these veterans the Carthaginians would still be able to turn the tide of the war in their favour.

Mago’s defeat and death

Some Celtic war gear.

It was, however, clear that Hannibal would have to fight the Romans without the aid of his brother Mago. Mago had been roaming free in Liguria for some two years, but this year he was confronted and defeated by two Roman armies led by the praetor Publius Quinctilius Varus[5] and the proconsul Marcus Cornelius Cethegus. The battle took place at an unknown location in the territory of the Insubres, a Celtic tribe. Livius’ account of the battle is confused, but it is clear that it was a bloody fight and by no means an easy Roman victory. 2.300 Romans were killed and 5.000 Carthaginians. Mago was severely wounded, but managed to escape to the Gulf of Genua, where he met with representatives from Carthage that summoned him back to Africa. Sailing back to Africa with the remains of his army, Hannibal’s younger brother died of his wounds near Sardinia.

The consul Gaius Servilius Geminus had not achieved anything on the battlefield, but he did manage to free his father, who had been held prisoner by the Boii for fifteen years (see above). Geminus had been plebeian aedile in 209 BCE.[6] His election to this office had been unsuccessfully challenged by his political opponents, who argued that it violated a very obscure law of an unknown date.[7] This law stipulated that it was forbidden for citizens to hold strictly plebeian offices (i.e. those of people’s tribune and plebeian aedile) if their father had held a curule office (i.e. an office open to members of both classes) and was still alive. The rationale of this law is not entirely clear, but there is no need to discuss it here in detail.[8] Now that his father, who had held a curule office, turned out to be alive, it was established that Geminus had indeed violated the law, so a special bill had to be passed by the popular assembly to absolve him of his ‘crime’.

The war continues

Late in the autumn, the Carthaginian delegation sent to Italy for peace negotiations had reached Rome, but was not allowed to cross the sacred boundary of the city, the pomerium. The envoys were therefore lodged in the Villa Publica, the base of operations for the censors on the Field of Mars, and apparently also used as a sort of hotel for foreign guests. They subsequently met with the senators in the temple of Bellona, but according to Livius, the negotiations came to nothing and the former consul Marcus Valerius Laevinus even accused the envoys of being spies. However, Polybius repeatedly claims that the Senate and popular assembly ratified the peace treaty, so it is not entirely clear what really happened in Rome.

Remains of the temple of Bellona (in the foreground).

In a fiercely competitive environment like that of Rome, many men were eager to take over Scipio’s command in Africa and steal his victory and glory. The consul Caepio, for instance, had left Italy for Sicily and was planning to cross the sea to Africa to join the fight there. He had to be recalled by Publius Sulpicius Galba, who had been nominated dictator specifically for this occasion. Galba then began touring Italy, now free from enemy troops, to investigate the position that various cities had taken during the war.

Even if a peace treaty had been accepted by the Romans, it was soon in tatters anyway when late in the autumn or early in the next year the Carthaginians captured dozens of Roman cargo ships loaded with provisions. These ships had sailed from Sicily to Africa, but had been driven off course and got stranded near Carthage. The crews had fled, and the jubilant Carthaginians had confiscated the ships and provisions. Scipio considered this a violation of the armistice and immediately sent a committee of three men to Carthage to protest. These men were molested by the furious Carthaginians and then ambushed when they sailed back to Utica on their quinquereme. The ship was lost, but the delegates managed to get away with their lives. It was now clear that the war would continue. It was also clear that the great statesman and general Quintus Fabius Maximus would not see the end of the war. He died this year, probably well into his seventies. His son, the consul of 213 BCE, had died the year before.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Rachel Feig Vishnia, The transitio ad plebem of C. Servilius Geminus;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 293-300;
  • Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 117;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 310-312.


[1] For a discussion, see this excellent article by Rachel Feig Vishnia.

[2] Livius uses the term primi ordines (Liv. 30.4), but does so anachronistically. The primi ordines were the (five) centurions of the first cohort of a legion. They were not known in the manipular legions of Scipio’s days.

[3] Polybius 14.5. The historian was heavily biased towards members of the gens Cornelia, such as Scipio. He tended to be blind to the latter’s sometimes questionable behaviour.

[4] “An interesting indication of the minimal control the Romans exercised over the greater part of the Spanish Peninsula” (Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 295).

[5] A distant ancestor of the Publius Quinctilius Varus who was defeated by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE.

[6] He had also been curule aedile a year later.

[7] Livius 27.21.

[8] Once again, I refer to this excellent article by Rachel Feig Vishnia.


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