The Second Punic War: The Year 209 BCE

Scipio Africanus.


  • The consul Marcus Valerius Laevinus and the Senate bicker about the appointment of a dictator;
  • Quintus Fabius Maximus is nominated princeps senatus;
  • Gaius Mamilius Atellus becomes the first plebeian curio maximus;
  • Exhausted by the war, 12 of the 30 Latin colonies in Italy refuse to provide the Romans with soldiers and money any longer;
  • Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Hannibal fight each other to a draw at the Battle of Canusium;
  • Hannibal forces Laevinus’ army of thugs in Bruttium to surrender;
  • The Romans under Quintus Fabius Maximus recapture Tarentum after the city is betrayed to them;
  • King Philippos V of Macedonia successfully fights against the Aetolians, but suffers a reverse in Elis;
  • In Spain, Publius Cornelius Scipio crosses the Ebro with his army and advances on Carthago Nova;
  • Scipio captures Carthago Nova; the city is thoroughly pillaged, while Spanish hostages are allowed to return to their tribes.

Perhaps it was a sign of a gradual return to normalcy: this year, the Romans spent a lot of their time bickering about constitutional issues. In January or February, new consular elections were to be held and one of the consuls had to be recalled to lead them. Marcellus was chasing Hannibal with his army, so the Senate decided to recall Marcus Valerius Laevinus from Sicily instead. Laevinus delegated command to the praetor Lucius Cincius Alimentus[1] and ordered his namesake Marcus Valerius Messalla to raid the coast of Africa near Utica. He then left for Rome and reported to the Senate about his activities in Sicily. Agricultural production had been restored and the island would be able to provide the Romans with grain in times of both war and peace.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

In the meantime, Messalla had successfully raided the territories of Utica and had taken many prisoners. From these he learned that the Carthaginians were planning to send reinforcements to Spain and were also preparing to send a new invasion fleet to Sicily. All this information was quickly forwarded to the consul and Senate in Rome. The Senate now urged to consul to return to his province and take charge of his forces again. Laevinus was also asked to nominate a dictator to preside over the elections. The consul replied that, once back on Sicily, he would nominate Messalla, the commander of the fleet. However, the Senate pointed out that Messalla was not in Italy and that a citizen had to be on Italian soil in order to be appointed dictator.

A senatus consultum was then passed, ordering the consul to put the question of the appointment of a dictator before the popular assembly and to nominate the person that the people would choose. If he refused, the praetor[2] was to nominate the dictator chosen by the people. Laevinus then simply refused to cooperate, as he believed that his prerogatives were being violated. He also pulled rank on the praetor and prohibited him from appointing anyone. The tribunes then put the question before the concilium plebis[3], and the plebs elected Quintus Fulvius Flaccus – the victor of Capua – as dictator. But Laevinus had already left the city and had gone back to Sicily, so the Senate now had no option but to recall Marcellus. Marcellus duly nominated Flaccus, who chose the young pontifex maximus Publius Licinius Crassus (see 212 BCE) as his magister equitum.

More constitutional issues

Quintus Fulvius Flaccus could now lead the consular elections. The centuria praerogativa – which on this occasion was the century of iuniores of the tribus Galeria – voted for him and for Quintus Fabius Maximus. Both were now fairly certain of the consulship, but suddenly two people’s tribunes threatened to use their power of veto. They protested against the fact that Flaccus was a candidate in an election that he himself presided over. They did not have a strong case, and Flaccus could cite quite a few precedents, for instance the re-election of Fabius Maximus under his own presidency just five years previously. It was ultimately agreed that the Senate would mediate in the conflict. The senators saw the need for experienced commanders and ultimately convinced the tribunes to drop their objections. This they did, and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus and Quintus Fabius Maximus won an easy victory. Flaccus was elected consul for the fourth time, Fabius for the fifth time.

The Forum Romanum today.

New censors were also elected, but these elections proved to be pointless, as Lucius Veturius Philo died soon afterwards. The other censor, Publius Licinius Crassus – the pontifex maximus and former master of horse -, now laid down his office as well, as tradition demanded.[4] New censors were elected later this year and Marcus Cornelius Cethegus and Publius Sempronius Tuditanus quarrelled over which senator was to be named the princeps senatus, the most senior senator of the Roman Republic. Cethegus argued that ancestral tradition required his colleague to nominate Titus Manlius Torquatus, who at that time was the oldest living censor. But Tuditanus wanted to nominate Quintus Fabius Maximus because of his achievements during the war. After a lot of discussion, Fabius was named the princeps senatus, a position he would hold until his death in 203 BCE.

The censors subsequently revised the roll of the senators. Marcus Caecilius Metellus, who after the defeat at Cannae had proposed to abandon the Republic, was struck off the roll, as were seven others.[5] Several equites were also punished, especially those who had served in the cavalry of the “Cannae legions”. They lost their equus publicus and had to serve for another ten years on their own horse. Several citizens were relegated to the aerarii and the censors also let out contracts for the lease of land near Capua and the reconstruction of buildings near the Forum that had been destroyed in a fire the previous year.

A novelty this year was the election of Gaius Mamilius Atellus as the first plebeian curio maximus. The Romans were traditionally divided into thirty curiae. These units must have been important in the Early Republic, but their importance was eclipsed by that of the tribus later on, and by 209 BCE, the role of the curiae seems to have been mostly ceremonial. An official called the curio was in charge of each curia, and the curio maximus was the leader of all the curiones. Although the prestige and political importance of the office were presumably not very high, there was still some controversy over Atellus’ candidacy, as the office had always been held by a patrician. When the patricians protested, the tribunes brought the case before the Senate, which let the people decide. Atellus was then duly elected, the first plebeian to hold the office.


Up until this point in the war, not a single Latin community[6] had defected to Hannibal and most of Rome’s Italian allies had remained loyal as well. This was of immense importance for the Romans, as the Latins and allies provided Rome with over half of the soldiers in her armies. Therefore, it came as a dreadful blow to Rome when 12 of the 30 Latin colonies in Italy[7] declared that they could no longer spare any soldiers or money. The colonies were certainly not motivated by disloyalty and they never seem to have considered joining Hannibal. They were simply exhausted by the war. Their representatives were severely harangued by the consuls, but it was of no use. Fortunately for the Romans, the other Latin colonies[8] reaffirmed their obligations and continued to supply the Romans with men, money and material. These colonies were lauded by the consuls and the Senate, while the others were completely ignored as a punishment.

Cannae and environs (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Fabius now advanced on Tarentum, while Fulvius was sent to Lucania and Bruttium. Marcus Claudius Marcellus was also still in the field as a proconsul. At Canusium, which is just south of Cannae, he fought a two-day battle against Hannibal this year. The Battle of Canusium was ultimately indecisive. Livius tells us that on the first day of battle, the Roman right ala with the extraordinarii was pushed back and the line thrown into confusion. The Romans lost 2.700 men and a few centurions and tribunes, as well as several standards. Marcellus punished the units that had lost their standards by feeding them just barley (hordeum), which was considered animal fodder. On the next day, the Romans performed better. Although the battle ended in a draw, Hannibal chose to break camp the next night. Livius claims his army suffered 8.000 casualties during the battle, but that sounds like a massive exaggeration.

Meanwhile, the army of thugs that Laevinus had sent to Rhegium the previous year had set out to wreak havoc in Bruttium. The size of the bandit army had about doubled with the addition of Bruttian defectors. These thugs were good at pillaging, but that did not make them a professional army. Their attack on Caulonia in the toe of Italy was a failure, but it did draw Hannibal to Bruttium. After the Battle of Canusium, the Carthaginian general force-marched his troops to Bruttium and forced Laevinus’ bandits to surrender. This was not a big loss for the Romans, as the bandits were sword fodder anyway. And what was more, Hannibal’s presence in Bruttium allowed them to recapture the all-important city of Tarentum in Calabria.

Tarentum had been betrayed to Hannibal in 212 BCE and now it was betrayed back to Rome again. Tarentum had a Bruttian garisson. If we are to trust Livius’ account, the garrison commander was head over heels in love with the sister of a man serving under Fabius Maximus in the Roman army. The woman and her brother, who had gone to Tarentum pretending to be a defector, convinced the commander to admit the Romans into the city. During the night, Fabius’ troops were allowed to climb over the eastern walls of the city using ladders and they were subsequently able to open the nearest gate to admit more soldiers. There was little opposition, as the consul had ordered diversionary attacks from the citadel and the sea, which had drawn many of the defenders away. The Romans advanced on the forum in close formation and cut down the Tarentines that resisted. Nikon, one of the men who had betrayed Tarentum to Hannibal, was killed in the fighting. His comrade Philemenos presumably committed suicide by throwing himself down a well.

Bronze liver used by haruspices (soothsayers; Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

The Carthaginian commander of the garrison was murdered by a furious Roman soldier and many more innocent citizens were also killed. Tarentum was thoroughly stripped of its gold, silver, statues and paintings, although Livius claims that Fabius would not touch these artworks, unlike Marcellus at Syracuse. What mattered most, was that Tarentum was back in Roman hands. Hannibal had been at Caulonia and was therefore unable to save his ally. He now tried to set a trap for Fabius by sending two men from Metapontum to the consul. These men claimed that they could betray Metapontum to the Romans. Although he was initially inclined to believe their story, Fabius in the end decided not to march on the city, with Livius claiming it was a haruspex (or soothsayer) who warned him about the Carthaginian trap.


King Philippos of Macedonia was slowly gaining the upper hand in the war against the Aetolians. The Aetolian League was powerful, but its field army of just 12.000-14.000 men hardly impressive. Its actual size was even smaller, as the army had been split up to provide garrisons for all the cities that were League members. Philippos’ army was slightly larger, but he too had many allies to protect and enemies on all sides. The Roman commander in the region, Publius Sulpicius Galba, had been stripped of his land army and now only controlled a fleet with a few thousands marines. Obviously he did not have enough men for large offensive operations and mainly confined himself to raiding and protecting allies. Galba was competent, but achieved only limited success.

Greece, Macedonia and Epirus (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

This year again saw Philippos racing up and down Greece, fighting his enemies everywhere. He twice defeated the Aetolians near Lamia in Phtiotis, even though the Aetolian strategos Pyrrhias received aid from Roman troops and auxiliaries from King Attalos of Pergamum. His success caused some neutral parties – King Ptolemaios IV of Egypt, Rhodos, Athens and Chios – to send envoys to the king to try and end the war between Macedonia and the Aetolian League. It seems likely these parties feared that the Macedonian king would soon come to dominate all of Greece. After a 30 day armistice, Philippos refused to make peace and continued his campaign. He managed to intercept Roman raiding parties that had been sent from Naupaktos to the fields between Sikyon and Corinth. The Romans were taken by surprise and had to run back to their ships.

Elated by his victory, the king marched on to Dyme in Achaea, where the Aetolian garrison was quickly expelled. The Macedonians and Achaeans then joined forces and invaded Elis. The Eleans were allied to Rome, but had so far mostly been idle. Galba nevertheless came to their aid and, unbeknownst to Philippos, put 4.000 men ashore during the night. When the king realised the Roman presence in the Elean army, it was too late to break off the confrontation. Philippos himself fought in the front ranks until his horse was brought down by a javelin. The king and his bodyguards fought on bravely, but in the end he had to flee on another horse. The invasion of Elis had ended in defeat. Philippos retreated to his homelands, while Galba sailed to Aigina where he met King Attalos.


This year, Publius Cornelius Scipio decided to strike deep into Carthaginian territory in Spain. Scipio knew that there were still three Carthaginian armies in the peninsula. Together, these outnumbered him by a large margin, so the Roman commander had to prevent the Carthaginians from ever uniting their forces. Defeating them in turn would take up a lot of time, and the individual Carthaginian armies might try to evade battle and wait for reinforcements. What Scipio needed was a stunning and decisive victory, and he would get it. His target was the rich city of Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena), which was over 450 kilometres south of the Roman camp at Tarraco. This was a large distance, but Scipio learned that the three Carthaginian armies were even further away and spread out across the peninsula. Each of these armies was at least a ten days march away from Carthago Nova by land and none of them were near the coast. Leaving Marcus Junius Silanus behind with a small force, Scipio decided to take the risk and crossed the Ebro with 25.000 infantry and 2.500 cavalry, on his way to everlasting glory. Scipio gave command of the fleet to his friend Gaius Laelius and ordered him to sail along the coast and arrive at Carthago Nova at the same time as the army.

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

Both Polybius and Livius claim that Scipio and Laelius arrived at Carthago Nova on the seventh day after crossing the Ebro. This was quite an achievement, and it is not impossible that the march actually took up some more time. Carthago Nova was not an exceptionally large city. It had perhaps 10.000-15.000 inhabitants and was protected by a 1.000 men strong garrison led by one Mago (not Hannibal’s brother). The city had excellent port facilities and was an important arms and supplies depot. The Carthaginians also kept their treasury for the war in Spain here and dozens of hostages from tribes all over Spain had been brought to Carthago Nova as well. There was no doubt that the city had formidable natural defences. It was located on a peninsula and only connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. On the south and west side, it was surrounded by the sea, and on the north side and part of the east side by a lagoon. Scipio approached the city from the east and made his camp there on the Hill of Mercurius. The general held a speech for his men, offering them lavish rewards if they fought bravely and telling them that it was the god Neptunus himself who had inspired him to undertake this operation. The god had appeared to him in a dream, he said, and would show a sign of his aid during the upcoming battle.[9]

The Battle of Carthago Nova

The next day, the Roman commander advanced on the city and was met by a force of some 2.000 citizens who had been armed by Mago. Apparently the Carthaginian was as yet unwilling to commit troops from the garrison, as he had stationed half of his professional soldiers in the citadel and the other half on a hill in the southern part of the city near the sea, where they would confront the troops from the Roman fleet. Scipio made sure the battle was fought near the Roman camp, so that he could easily send in reinforcements. After some fierce fighting, the Romans got the upper hand and drove their enemies back into the city. They almost succeeded in getting through the gate as well. After this success, the Romans placed their scaling ladders against the walls. All the time, Scipio was close by, directing the fighting while being protected by three young men carrying large shields. The first Roman assault was repulsed. Some of the ladders collapsed under the weight of the soldiers and the defenders put up some determined resistance from the walls. Roman casualties were quickly mounting. Scipio then had the trumpeters sound the retreat. Mago and his men rejoiced, but the Roman commander still had a trick up his sleeve.

Map of Carthago Nova (image: Cristiano64, CC BY-SA 4.0 license).

Fishermen from Tarraco, who often traded in the vicinity of Carthago Nova, had informed Scipio that the lagoon to the north of the city was not very deep and could be forded in most places, especially during low tide. The general selected 500 men and sent them around the lagoon with ladders, telling them that Neptunus himself would be their guide. At the same time he ordered fresh troops to prepare for another assault on the city from the east. When he gave the order to attack, the storming parties surged forward and began scaling the walls again. At the same time, Laelius attacked the southern walls with the marines from the fleet. Now the low tide set in as well, and this was seen by all as the divine intervention promised by Scipio. Led by local guides, the 500 picked men began wading through the lagoon. The water only reached up to their navels and sometimes did not even get above their knees, so the men made steady progress. The Carthaginians were too busy fighting off the Romans in the east and south and never noticed this new threat from the north until it was too late. The Romans easily set up their ladders and climbed up. Soon they began clearing the walls of defenders with their short stabbing swords and large body shields.

The troops fighting near the eastern wall had formed testudo, protecting themselves with their shield from missiles thrown from the walls. Some of them had started hacking away at the gate with axes, while others tried to set up ladders again. The Romans still suffered many casualties, but the defenders for their part were beginning to run low on missiles. Soon the troops from the lagoon had also reached the gate and managed to open it from within. The Romans now poured into the city and over the walls, defeated the defenders everywhere, regrouped and advanced on the forum. As the order had been given to spare no one, many of the city’s inhabitants were killed in the streets, while Scipio himself marched on the citadel with a picked force. Mago knew he had no choice but to surrender. Only then was the order given to stop the bloodshed. Carthago Nova was then thoroughly and systematically pillaged.

Replica of a Roman gladius (left).

The Romans took thousands of citizens prisoner, before releasing them again and giving them back their city. Among the prisoners that were not set free were some high-ranking Carthaginians, including two members of the Council of Elders or gerousia, the Carthaginian senate. Both Polybius and Livius also mention 15 prisoners from another Carthaginian institution, perhaps the Council of 104 that supervised the activities of the Elders.[10] 2.000 non-citizen craftsmen were made public slaves, with Scipio declaring that they would be given their freedom if they worked hard for the Romans. He ordered his quaestor[11] to register them and put a Roman supervisor in charge of groups of 30 craftsmen. Among these men were many sword smiths who started producing fine swords and other arms for the Romans. It had sometimes been argued that this was the moment when the famous Spanish sword or gladius hispaniensis was introduced in the Roman army. However, it seems more likely that this sword had already been in use with the legionaries since the end of the First Punic War, as during that war the Romans had fought against troops from the Spanish peninsula on Sicily.

The capture of Carthago Nova was a decisive Roman victory. The Romans had taken some 600 talents worth of booty, large supplies of wheat and barley and all sorts of artillery. Hundreds of Spanish hostages were released and allowed to return to their families and tribes. This of course created a lot of goodwill among their communities, many of which chose to support the Romans with infantry and horsemen. Scipio had also captured 18 Carthaginian warships, which he added to his fleet. Some of the prisoners of war – probably members of the garrison – were forcibly added to these ships as crews, although Scipio promised them their freedom as soon as the war had been won. Laelius was sent back to Rome on a quinquereme, taking the most important prisoners with him. When Laelius reported to the Senate about the victory, the senators were elated and ordered a day of public thanksgiving.

Scipio himself stayed at Carthago Nova, settling a dispute about which soldier deserved a prestigious award called the corona muralis. This crown was traditionally awarded to the first man over the wall of an enemy city. A centurion and a marine (socius navalis) from Laelius’ fleet both claimed the prize, and after hearing witnesses, Scipio decided to award the crown to them both. The Roman commander now set about first resting and then drilling his army and fleet. The craftsmen were set to work, and Polybius – quoting Xenophon – described Carthago Nova as “a workshop of war.” The loss of Carthago Nova was a blow for the Carthaginians. They were, however, far from defeated. Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, Mago and Hasdrubal Barcas still had large forces at their disposal and Scipio would have to defeat all three of them before the war in Spain was won. After setting things in order in Carthago Nova and leaving behind a garrison, Scipio returned to his winter quarters at Tarraco. The war would continue for a few more years.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse Leger, p. 48-49;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 271-277;
  • Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 117;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 300-301.


[1] One of Rome’s first historians. Like Quintus Fabius Pictor, he wrote in Greek and his work has not survived. However, other historians, such as Titus Livius, had access to his work and used it. Alimentus was taken prisoner by Hannibal in one of the first clashes of the war and apparently had close contact with the Carthaginian general while in captivity. See Livius 21.38.

[2] Presumably the praetor urbanus.

[3] The consul and the praetor would have convened the comitia centuriata, the assembly of the centuries. In the concilium plebis, voting took place in the 35 tribus or tribes, in which the lower classes had more political influence.

[4] Rome had been captured by Celts in 390 or 387 BCE when a suffect censor was in office. The Romans therefore held religious objections against replacing a censor who had died. See Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 117.

[5] Metellus had already been punished by the censors in 214 BCE. Since he had been quaestor and tribune of the plebs, he may have been eligible for a seat in the Senate, but was now struck off the list.

[6] There were cities with Latin status (usually members of the former Latin League) and Latin colonies. The latter were founded by Rome in conquered territories. Like the cities in Latium – such as Praeneste, Tibur and Gabii – their citizens had Latin status.

[7] Ardea, Nepete, Sutrium, Alba, Carseoli, Sora, Suessa, Circei, Setia, Cales, Narnia and Interamna.

[8] Signia, Norba, Saticula, Fregellae, Luceria, Venusia, Brundisium, Hadria, Firmum, Ariminum, Pontiae, Paestum, Cosa, Beneventum, Aesernia, Spoletium, Placentia and Cremona.

[9] Livius portrays Scipio as genuinely devout and perhaps even a little superstitious. He could often be found in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol and usually presented his plans as inspired by nightly visions or instructions from the gods themselves (Livius 26.19). Polybius, on the other hand, was more of a rational skeptic, who believed that Scipio mainly used religion to overawe and control the lower classes (Polybius 10.2).

[10] Alternatively, these men may have been local senators. Carthago Nova probably had its own magistrates, senate and popular assembly.

[11] Gaius Flaminius, son of the consul killed at Lake Trasimene in 217 BCE.



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