The Second Punic War: The Year 204 BCE

Scipio Africanus.


  • Publius Cornelius Scipio is in deep trouble because of the Pleminius affair;
  • An investigatory committee led by the praetor Marcus Pomponius is set up to investigate Scipio’s role in the affair;
  • Quintus Pleminius is arrested and sent to Rome to stand trial;
  • After managing to save his skin, Scipio gets the green light for his invasion of Africa;
  • The sacred stone representing the Magna Mater arrives in Rome and the Megalensia are celebrated for the first time;
  • Rome punishes the twelve Latin colonies that had refused to provide soldiers in 209 BCE;
  • King Syphax marries Sophonisba, daughter of Hasdrubal, and joins the Carthaginian side;
  • Scipio invades Africa and is joined by Masinissa;
  • When Scipio threatens the city of Utica, the Carthaginians send Hasdrubal and Syphax to confront him;
  • The Romans fight Hannibal in the vicinity of Croton.

Marcus Cornelius Cethegus and Publius Sempronius Tuditanus were elected consuls for this year, the latter in absentia, as he was still in Greece. Cethegus was sent to Etruria to keep an eye on Mago Barcas, while Tuditanus was given Bruttium as his province. The commands of Scipio and Publius Licinius Crassus were prolonged, which meant that the former could remain on Sicily and continue to prepare for the invasion of Africa (even though strictly speaking it was not part of his province). These preparations were obviously very challenging. The previous years, there had been problems with the new war ships and Scipio needed enough transport ships to get his army, horses and pack animals across the sea. The proconsul also basically needed to build up a new army from scratch, as he was no longer in charge of his veterans from the war in Spain. This new army was to be a combination of experienced soldiers and new recruits, chiefly the men who had volunteered the previous year. Drilling all these men into a coherent fighting force was no easy task and obviously took time.

The Pleminius affair

But a much more challenging affair for Scipio was the one regarding his legate Quintus Pleminius. When envoys from Locri arrived in Rome in mourning garb and told the Senate about the legate’s disgraceful behaviour, the senators were rightly angry. But when they heard about Scipio’s role in the affair, they were truly livid and accused the proconsul of partiality and severe negligence. Quintus Fabius Maximus took the lead in the opposition against Scipio. He proposed to arrest Pleminius and bring him back to Rome in chains. Scipio was to be recalled and the people’s tribunes had to table a proposal in the popular assembly to strip him of his command. More harsh criticism and many ad hominems were levelled at Scipio by others. Not only was he held responsible for the misery of the Locrians, he was also criticised and ridiculed for his supposedly un-Roman behaviour and alleged lack of military discipline. Scipio was caricaturised as a man walking around in the gymnasium in a Greek cloak and Greek sandals, enjoying the pleasures of literature and athletics. The accusations of decadence were doubtlessly unfounded, but Scipio’s philhellenism seems to have been genuine.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

In the end, Scipio was saved by a proposal introduced by Quintus Caecilius Metellus, the consul of 206 BCE. Metellus argued that Scipio had not even been present when Pleminius and his men committed their atrocities, so at worst Scipio could be blamed for his leniency and reticence in punishing his legate. The former consul proposed to set up an investigatory committee led by the praetor Marcus Pomponius. The Senate agreed, and ten senators, two people’s tribunes and one plebeian aedile were added to the committee. The committee was sent to Southern Italy and Sicily and charged with investigating whether Pleminius and his men had acted on Scipio’s command or with his consent. If not, then the proconsul would be allowed to stay with his army and continue his preparations. It is quite likely that Pomponius was a relative of Scipio. His mother Pomponia was the daughter of Manius Pomponius Matho, the consul of 233 BCE. Marcus Pomponius may have been the son of Matho’s younger brother, also called Marcus Pomponius, the consul of 231 BCE. But even if Scipio and Pomponius were relatives, we have no clue whether they were on friendly terms or not.

The two people’s tribunes that were added to the committee were Marcus Claudius Marcellus junior (son of the famous consul who had been killed in action in 208 BCE) and Marcus Cincius Alimentus. People’s tribunes were sacrosanct, and they could use their sacrosanctity to arrest people, for instance Scipio if he refused to cooperate. The addition of a plebeian aedile is explained by the fact that this magistrate was traditionally the tribunes’ assistant.[1] Although there is debate about whether a plebeian aedile was sacrosanct himself, he could probably make arrests if the tribunes ordered him to do so.[2] Pleminius was arrested and put under guard in Rhegium. The committee declared him and 32 others guilty of various crimes and sent them to Rome for trial and punishment. Pleminius was thrown into the dungeon there and most probably died before he could be convicted and sentenced by the people.

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

Scipio was more or less saved by the Locrians. They testified that he had done way too little to stop the atrocities in Locri, but in the end, they preferred him as a friend rather than as an enemy. Scipio had never ordered the atrocities or given his consent. This testimony basically meant that the committee did not have to investigate Scipio’s responsibility for the Pleminius affair any further. It did travel to Syracuse to ascertain whether there was any truth in some of the other accusations, for instance that Scipio had forgotten all about the war against Hannibal and that there was a serious lack of discipline in his army. Scipio easily proved that this was an abject lie. He showed the members of the committee his army and fleet, with the soldiers manoeuvring as if in a real battle and the ships fighting a mock battle in the harbour. Scipio was clearly off the hook now. He was praised in the Senate and given permission to select which of the troops on Sicily he wanted to take with him. He now basically had the green light to begin his invasion.

A new goddess in Rome

The sacred stone representing the Magna Mater arrived in Rome on 12 April of this year. The Senate now had to decide who was the very best man among the citizens of Rome (vir optimus Romae). Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica was chosen. He was the son of Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus, the Roman general who had died fighting in Spain in 211 BCE. Scipio Nasica was therefore the proconsul Scipio’s cousin. He was still a very young man, technically not even old enough to be quaestor. Scipio Nasica travelled to Ostia with the married women of Rome to welcome the goddess as she arrived on a ship at the mouth of Tiber. After taking the sacred rock from the priests who had come with her from Phrygia[3], Scipio Nasica passed her on to some of the foremost Roman women, who took the goddess to the temple of Victoria on the Palatine. A lectisternium – a ritual meal of the gods – was held and for the first time, the games of Magna Mater, the Megalensia, were celebrated. Magna Mater soon got a temple of her own on the prestigious Palatine Hill: a contract for the construction of such a temple was let by the censors this year.

The censors in action

Equipment of a warrior from Picenum.

The consuls of 207 BCE, Gaius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius, had been elected censors this year. The two men do not seem to have got along very well, but the historian Livius’ account of how the censors tried to force each other to sell their respective public horses (equi publici) is more than a little incredible. Such punitive measures, like the relegation of citizens to the aerarii or to one of the less prestigious urban tribes, could only be taken if both censors agreed.[4] The censors introduced a tax on salt, and since this measure was widely attributed to Livius, he was henceforth nicknamed Salinator. 214.000 Roman citizens were counted, including the legionaries serving in the field. Just seven senators were given a nota censoria and removed from the senatorial list, but none of them had ever held a curule office.

The censors were also given censorial lists pertaining to the twelve Latin colonies that had refused to provide soldiers for the Roman army in 209 BCE. These colonies were now punished. Their magistrates were ordered to appear in the Senate, and the senators decided that the colonies were to provide the Roman army with more soldiers than ever: they had to send a contingent of men that was twice as large as the largest contingent that they had raised since the start of the war in Italy. They also had to provide 120 horsemen and pay a tribute, and the magistrates and representatives would be detained in Rome if the colonies refused to cooperate. It was a harsh treatment of allies who were exhausted by the war and still loyal, but it also showed how confident this resurgent Rome was. Things were in fact going so well, that the State began paying back the loans that had been agreed in 210 BCE. These would be paid back to the citizens in three terms.

The war in Africa

The Romans needed local allies to fight the war in Africa. They could count on Masinissa, but King Syphax’ attitude had always been ambiguous. Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, now convinced the king to join the Carthaginian side. Even though there may have been some sort of treaty of friendship between Syphax and the Romans, the fact that Hasdrubal offered his daughter Sophonisba in marriage to the king changed everything. The marriage took place, and since Syphax was now married to a citizen of Carthage, he would also fight for Carthage, and against Rome.

Meanwhile, Scipio was planning to launch his invasion from Lilybaeum in the west of Sicily (and closer to Africa than Syracuse). He gathered all his troops, horses and ships there. Laelius was in command of the fleet and a young Marcus Porcius Cato joined the expedition as a quaestor. Scipio had picked the so-called “Cannae legions”, survivors of the slaughter at Cannae in 216 BCE, as the core of his new army. These men were battle-hardened veterans with many years of service on Sicily. Some of them must have been rather elderly and those who were no longer fit for duty were replaced with volunteers from Italy. Two exceptionally large legions of 6.200 infantry and 300 horsemen were formed. If the two alae of Latin and Italian allies that Scipio added to his army were equally large, then he must have taken at least 25.000 men with him to Africa. 400 transport ships were needed to take these men across the sea.

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

Livius claims that the Romans originally planned to sail to the region of Emporia, south of Carthage on the Gulf of Gabès (or Lesser Syrtis). Whether or not this is true, the Romans actually landed on the Cape of Apollo (now Ras Sidi Ali El Mekki), just north of Utica. After disembarking, Scipio quickly set up outposts. The Romans easily defeated the first wave of Carthaginian cavalry that had been sent to the beach to hamper the landing. They were then joined by Masinissa, who was accompanied by either a few hundred or up to 2.000 horsemen. Scipio advanced on Utica and made his camp there about a mile from the city. Some fifteen miles to the west of Utica was a city called Salaeca, where some 4.000 Carthaginian and Numidian horsemen were stationed. Masinissa was sent to Salaeca to try and lure them out of the city. The Numidian knew this game very well and soon the Carthaginians sallied and tried to attack his troopers. Feigning a retreat, Masinissa lured his opponents out into the open. The Roman cavalry had been hidden behind some hills and these men now charged forward on fresh horses and quickly surrounded the enemy. Most of the Carthaginians were captured or killed. The panic in Carthage now began to grow rapidly.

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage.

Scipio took Salaeca and pillaged the surrounding area before returning to Utica for a siege. He wanted to capture it and turn it into a base for future operations. The Carthaginians responded by sending Hasdrubal to Utica with a force of 30.000 infantry and 3.000 cavalry. King Syphax also sent a relief force, which Livius and Polybius claim comprised 50.000 infantry and 10.000 cavalry. Our historians were no doubt exaggerating, but it seems fairly certain that Scipio was outnumbered by the two armies. Although the Carthaginians did not want to force a confrontation, Scipio realised that his siege was getting nowhere. It is not entirely clear whether he completely abandoned the siege. Scipio may have loosened the noose a bit, but he certainly continued to be a threat to Utica. The proconsul retired to a narrow promontory where he built his winter camp. Centuries later, it was still known as the Castra Cornelia. The fighting would continue the next year.

The war in Italy

Now that the focus has shifted to Africa, one would almost forget that there was still a war going on in Italy. Hannibal was contained in a tiny corner in the south of the peninsula, but he was still undefeated and dangerous. A battle was fought near Croton this year, which had probably not been planned. The consul Tuditanus’ army bumped into that of Hannibal and both armies seem to have fought while still deployed in marching columns. The Romans were defeated, but Tuditanus managed to get away and join forces with the proconsul Publius Licinius Crassus, who was operating in the vicinity. Livius claims that a second battle was fought and that the Romans were victorious this time. As with the Battle of Canusium in 209 BCE, in which the Romans also bounced back from an initial defeat, it is quite possible that the second battle near Croton was actually a draw, and that it was rewritten as a victory by Livius. Nevertheless, Hannibal retreated towards Croton and the Romans managed to capture several cities in Bruttium, Consentia among them, before the war season was over.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 289-293;
  • Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 100 and p. 129;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 308-309.


[1] This was no longer the case in Scipio’s days. In fact, most young plebeian noblemen first became people’s tribune and then plebeian aedile. In other words, the tribuneship was considered the more junior office of the two. Since there were ten positions for people’s tribune and just two for plebeian aedile, more plebeians held the former office than the latter.

[2] For this discussion, see Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 129.

[3] These priests were eunuchs. They were called Galli by the Romans.

[4] A censor could, however, perform the lustrum, the ritual purification of the city and the culmination of the census, without the participation of his colleague. In fact, the censors drew lots for this. See Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 100.