The Second Punic War: The Year 205 BCE

Scipio Africanus.


  • Publius Cornelius Scipio wins his first consulship and is given the province of Sicily;
  • Scipio suffers a political defeat in the Senate as he is denied the province of Africa;
  • Volunteers from all over Italy flock to Scipio’s army and fleet;
  • Mago Barcas lands in Liguria and sacks Genua;
  • Gaius Laelius raids the coast of Africa, which leads to panic in Carthage;
  • The new proconsuls of Spain, Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Lucius Manlius Acidinus, defeat the troublesome chieftain Indibilis;
  • Rome and Macedonia sign the Peace of Phoinike, ending the First Macedonian War;
  • The Romans recapture Locri in Bruttium;
  • The legate Quintus Pleminius terrorises the Locrians, but loses his nose and ears in a fight with his fellow Romans;
  • Although Pleminius’ guilt is obvious, he is acquitted by Scipio, who again shows poor political judgment;
  • The Romans send a committee to Pessinus in Phrygia to collect the sacred stone representing the Great Mother (Magna Mater).

Publius Cornelius Scipio had returned to Rome where he had met the Senate in the temple of Bellona. Even though his achievements had been extraordinary, he did not press for a triumph, knowing that, after all, he was just a private citizen who had been granted proconsular imperium by popular vote. Scipio then entered the city and deposited a huge amount of minted and unminted silver in the Roman treasury, which was kept at the temple of Saturnus on the Forum Romanum. He then easily won the consulship.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

Publius Licinius Crassus was elected consul as well. As the latter was also the pontifex maximus, he had to stay in Italy to oversee the religious affairs of the state. Crassus was therefore given Bruttium as his province, while Scipio was given Sicily. Scipio then introduced a delegation of grateful Saguntines to the senators, who were eager to thank the Romans for their support during the war. Rather amazingly, they seem to have embarked on a sort of grand tour of Italy afterwards, even though the war there had still not come to an end.

The Great Debate

Scipio had been granted Sicily as his province, but he wanted Africa as well so that he would be allowed to cross the sea and attack the Carthaginian homeland. Scipio brought the matter before the Senate and massively overplayed his hand. It should be remembered that, while Scipio was perhaps the most talented Roman general ever and a gifted diplomat as well, he was still very young (just 30 or 31 years old) and had very limited experience in politics. According to Livius, Scipio had foolishly threatened to bring the matter before the popular assembly if the Senate refused to grant him Africa as well. Experienced senators like Quintus Fabius Maximus and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus knew very well how to neutralise threats like these. Fabius, who was still the princeps senatus, argued that it would be foolish to sail to Africa while Hannibal was still roaming free in Bruttium and – in Livius’ version of events – compared Scipio’s plans to the disastrous Athenian expedition against Syracuse in 415-413 BCE. Fabius’ words made a great impression on the majority of the senators.

Remains of the temple of Saturn on the Forum Romanum, where the Romans kept their treasury.

Flaccus, who had been consul four times, put further pressure on Scipio by demanding to know whether the consul would respect the Senate’s decision about the provinces or whether he would bring the matter before the people anyway. If he chose the latter option, Flaccus would simply refuse to vote and asked the people’s tribunes to support him if he did so. Scipio felt that this would constitute an abuse of the right of intercessio, but the tribunes disagreed. In the end, they decided to let the consul choose: if he chose to abide by the decision of the Senate, that decision would be binding and they would veto any meeting of the popular assembly. But if Scipio refused to let the Senate decide, then they would aid any senator who refused to vote. After consulting his colleague, Scipio left the case to the Senate  As a compromise, he was granted 30 warships – surely not enough for a full-scale invasion – with permission to sail to Africa if it was in the public interest.

Scipio had suffered a political defeat and had learned a valuable lesson. He had also been denied permission to raise new troops, but he was allowed to recruit volunteers and plenty of men wanted to fight for him. The Italian allies also eagerly provided men and materials to strengthen the Roman fleet. Thirty more new ships were built in just 45 days. Order had been restored in Etruria, and many Etruscan cities donated grain and building materials. The Umbrians, Sabines, Marsi, Paeligni and Marrucini all provided soldiers and sailors for the fleet. When the consul left for Sicily, he could take several thousand enthusiastic men with him.

Mago in Italy, Laelius in Africa

In spring, Mago Barcas left Minorca with 30 warships and many transport ships. He took 12.000 infantry and 2.000 cavalry with him and made a surprise landing near Genua in Liguria, which he captured and sacked. He then set about recruiting more Celts and Ligurians for his army, as it was still much too small to engage the Romans. The military situation now was not much different from that in 217 BCE, when the Romans had to guess on which side of the Apennines Hannibal would strike. As they did not know what route his brother Mago would take, they kept armies both in Etruria and in Cisalpine Gaul.

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

At about the same time, Laelius was sent to Africa with the old ships. The new ships turned out to be useless, as they had been built of unseasoned wood. Laelius raided the coast of Africa and took much booty. He also had a meeting with Masinissa, who was displeased that Scipio himself had not landed in Africa yet. Unfortunately Livius’ account of this episode is hopelessly confused. The historian claims that Laelius pillaged the territories of Hippo Regius (now the city of Annaba or Bona in Algeria), but he likely meant Hippo Diarrhytos (modern Bizerte in Tunisia), which is much closer to Carthage.[1] Livius also claims the raids led to great panic in Carthage, as the people there believed that Scipio himself had landed with his army. Such a panic is unlikely to have erupted if the raid was indeed at Hippo Regius, as this city was simply too far away. When the Carthaginians realised their mistake, order was quickly restored and reinforcements were sent to Mago Barcas in Liguria. He received 25 warships, 6.000 infantry, 800 cavalry and 7 elephants.

Numidian cavalry (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Masinissa urged Laelius to encourage Scipio to invade Africa as soon as possible and he promised to send extra troops to him upon his landing. However, Masinissa’s own position was anything but secure at this moment. He had returned to Africa from Spain the previous year, ready to convince his tribe, the Massylii, to join the Roman side. Unfortunately he had found his people in the middle of a succession crisis. His father, King Gala, had died, and his death had led to a civil war which need not be discussed in detail here. Masinissa managed to defeat his chief rival and won his crown, but was then utterly defeated by King Syphax of the Masaesyli, who had been stirred up by the Carthaginians. Masinissa became a refugee in his own kingdom, and at one point may have had no more than two horsemen riding with him. The king managed to raise a new army, but was defeated again by Syphax. Livius claims he fled to the region known as Emporia on the Gulf of Gabès (or Lesser Syrtis). If he did meet Laelius at Hippo Diarrhytos, he must have galloped north again for some 130 kilometres. The king probably had just a few hundred horsemen with him on that occasion.

The Romans in Spain

The proconsuls Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Lucius Manlius Acidinus had taken over command in Spain after Scipio had left. Once again, it was the chieftain Indibilis who gave the Romans trouble. He greatly admired Scipio, but felt nothing but disdain for his successors. Claiming that now was the time for the Spanish tribes to unite and liberate Spain from Roman occupation, Indibilis managed to stir up his own Ilergetes as well as the neighbouring Ausetani and several smaller tribes in Northern Spain. Soon he had raised a considerable force. The Roman proconsuls judged it wise to join forces and together they marched towards the enemy. After a sharp fight, the Spaniards were defeated and their army destroyed.

Indibilis and his bodyguards fought bravely in the front ranks, but they were showered with missiles and most of them died. Indibilis himself was wounded by a javelin. Although Livius does not explicitly mention his fate, Appianus makes it clear that the chieftain was killed. The Romans were prepared to make peace with the tribes again, but they had to extradite Mandonius, Indibilis’ equally troublesome brother, and some of the other rebel leaders. After this was done, the Spanish tribes also had to provide the Romans with hostages. As a punishment, the tribute they used to pay was doubled for that year and they were also required to supply the Roman army with grain and clothing.


King Philippos V (photo: PHGCOM/British Museum).

The Romans gave up the war with Macedonia this year. Their Aetolian allies, exhausted by the war and their mounting casualties, had been forced to make a separate peace with King Philippos V the previous year. The Romans were angry that the Aetolians had acted without their permission, but there was not much they could do. At an unspecified moment, Publius Sulpicius Galba had been recalled to Italy. He successor was the former censor Publius Sempronius Tuditanus, who was given the rank of proconsul in spite of the fact that he had not held the consulship yet. Tuditanus commanded a sizeable army of some 10.000 infantry and 1.000 horsemen, with a fleet of 35 warships.

It was a much larger force than Galba had ever commanded, but since the Romans had no more allies in Greece, all Tuditanus could was protect the Roman allies in Illyria and Epirus. The proconsul landed at Epidamnos and after unsuccessfully besieging Dimale moved to Apollonia further to the south. Philippos devastated the fields in the surrounding area and even offered a formal battle, but his opponent declined, preferring to stay behind Apollonia’s walls. Meanwhile, the Epirotes had had enough of the war and asked the king and proconsul to come to Phoinike. There a peace treaty was signed, basically restoring the status quo ante bellum. A two-month armistice was agreed as the treaty was sent to Rome to be ratified by the popular assembly. The people voted unanimously in favour of the Peace of Phoinike and the First Macedonian War was over.


The most important achievement in Italy this year was the recapture of Locri in Bruttium. The Romans had captured some local craftsmen and sent them to Rhegium, where they were recognised by Locrians living in exile. The prisoners offered to betray the citadel to the Romans and were subsequently released. Since the consul Crassus’ camp seems to have been struck by disease this year, the Locrians travelled to Scipio, who was in Syracuse. When he heard of the opportunity to recapture Locri, Scipio ordered his legate Quintus Pleminius and two tribunes to take 3.000 soldiers and advance on the city. The men were admitted into the citadel, but the operation did not proceed smoothly in every respect and the Carthaginians managed to hold on to the second citadel. Hannibal also marched to the aid of his men. Locri was a port city, and reinforcements sent from Carthage had landed there in 215 BCE. Its loss would be a blow for Hannibal, who needed ports to keep alive his hope of further reinforcements from Africa.

Stater from Locri (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.; CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

In the end, the Locrians, who had become embittered by the harsh Carthaginian rule in their city, sided with the Romans and Hannibal was forced to retreat. It was a decision the Locrians soon began to regret. Scipio, who had arrived at Locri at some point during the siege, left Pleminius in charge of the city, and the legate and his men turned out to be far worse than the Carthaginians had ever been. Pleminius’ soldiers, no more than a band of brigands, soon began pillaging the city and they even stole the treasures in the famous temple of Persephone.[2] Women, girls and young boys were raped. At one point, Pleminius’ men clashed with those of the two tribunes, who had confiscated a silver cup from one of the looters. Pleminius was furious and wanted to flog the tribunes, but they were rescued by some of their own soldiers. These men now charged at Pleminius, roughed up his lictors and mutilated the legate himself by cutting off his nose and ears. Pleminius was left for dead, but survived.

Some Locrians sent word to Scipio in Messana about what had happened. The consul sailed back to Locri on a Syracusan hexareme (a ‘six’) to investigate the affair. Here Scipio made a dreadful mistake, his mind perhaps set too much on preparing for the invasion of Africa. The consul acquitted Pleminius and instead blamed the violence on the tribunes. They were clapped in chains to be sent back to Rome for trial. When Scipio had returned to Sicily, Pleminius had the tribunes dragged before him, tortured, mutilated and murdered. Their bodies were left outside to rot. The Locrians who had dared report his crimes to Scipio also paid for it with their lives.

Magna Mater

Cybele (or Magna Mater; left) and Attys (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia).

In a bout of religious fervour, the decemviri sacris faciundis had consulted the Sibylline Books and had found an oracle that predicted that when a foreign enemy brought war to Italy, he could be defeated if the Mother of the Ida (Mater Idaea) was brought from Pessinus to Rome. The Mater Idaea was the goddess Cybele or Magna Mater (Great Mother), a mother goddess whose cult originated in Phrygia. The Phrygian city of Pessinus was the centre of the cult, and it was a city way outside the Romans’ zone of influence. Fortunately they still had close ties with King Attalos of Pergamum.

The Romans set up a committee of which the former consul Marcus Valerius Laevinus, the former praetor Marcus Caecilius Metellus (disgraced after Cannae, but rehabilitated) and several others were members. The committee travelled east and first stopped at Delphi, where its members consulted the famous Oracle. They were told that if the Great Mother had been taken to Rome, she had to be welcomed by their very best man (vir optimus Romae). The men then continued their voyage to Pergamum, where they received a warm welcome from King Attalos. The king accompanied them to Pessinus and through his good services made sure that they were allowed to take the sacred stone – possibly a meteorite – with them that the Phrygians claimed was the mother goddess.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 286-289;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 306-307.


[1] The former Hippo is some 230 kilometres west of Carthage, the latter just 60 kilometres northwest.

[2] King Pyrrhos of Epirus had looted the temple too. He had come to regret it, and so would Pleminius.


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