Scipio Africanus

Greater Than Napoleon


By B.h. Liddell Hart

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Scipio Africanus (236-183 B.C.) was one of the most exciting and dynamic leaders in history. As commander he never lost a battle. Yet it is his adversary, Hannibal, who has lived on in the public memory, due mostly to his daring march through the Alps with his elephants. At the Battle of the Ticinus, Hannibal’s initial encounter with Roman arms, young Scipio first tasted warfare, rescuing his dangerously wounded, encircled father, who was also the Roman commander. By nineteen Scipio was the equivalent of a staff colonel and in 210 B.C. he was placed in supreme command. In three years he destroyed Carthaginian power in Spain and, after being made consul, took his forces to Africa, where he conquered Carthage’s great ally, Syphax. Two years later he clashed with Hannibal himself, annihilating his army in the decisive Battle of Zama. For this triumph and his other exploits in the Punic Wars, Scipio was awarded the title Africanus.In his fascinating portrait of this extraordinary commander, B. H. Liddell Hart writes, “The age of generalship does not age, and it is because Scipio’s battles are richer in stratagems and ruses — many still feasible today — than those of any other commander in history that they are an unfailing object lesson.” Not only military enthusiasts and historians but all those interested in outstanding men will find this magnificent study absorbing and gripping.




THE excuse for this book is that no recent biography of Scipio exists; the first and last in English appeared in 1817, and is the work of a country clergyman, who omits any study of Scipio as a soldier ! The reason for this book is that, apart from the romance of Scipio's personality and his political importance as the founder of Rome's world-dominion, his military work has a greater value to modern students of war than that of any other great captain of the past. A bold claim, and yet its truth will, I hope, be substantiated in the following pages.
For the study of tactical methods the campaigns of Napoleon or of 1870, even of 1914-1918 perhaps, are as dead as those of the third century B.C. But the art of generalship does not age, and it is because Scipio's battles are richer in stratagems and ruses—many still feasible to-day—than those of any other commander in history that they are an unfailing object-lesson to soldiers.
Strategically Scipio is still more " modern." The present is a time of disillusionment, when we are realising that slaughter is not synonymous with victory, that the " destruction of the enemy's main armed forces on the battlefield " is at best but a means to the end, and not an end in itself, as the purblind apostles of Clausewitz had deceived themselves—and the world, unhappily. In the future, even more than in the past, the need is to study and understand the interplay of the military, economic, and political forces, which are inseparable in strategy. Because Scipio more than any other great captain understood and combined these forces in his strategy, despite the very " modern " handicap of being the servant of a republic—not, like Alexander, Frederick, Napoleon, a despot,—the study of his life is peculiarly apposite to-day. Above all, because the moral objective was the aim of all his plans, whether political, strategical, or tactical.
My grateful thanks are due to Sir Geoffrey Butler, K.B.E., M.P., Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; to Mr W. E. Heitland, M.A., Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge ; and to Mr E. G. Hawke, M.A., Lecturer at Queen's College, London, for their kindness in reading the proofs and for helpful comments.
B. H. L. H.

THE road to failure is the road to fame—such apparently must be the verdict on posterity's estimate of the world's greatest figures. The flash of the meteor impresses the human imagination more than the remoter splendour of the star, fixed immutably in the high heavens. Is it that final swoop earthwards, the unearthly radiance ending in the common dust, that, by its evidence of the tangible or the finite, gives to the meteor a more human appeal? So with the luminaries of the human system, provided that the ultimate fall has a dramatic note, the memory of spectacular failure eclipses that of enduring success. Again, it may be that the completeness of his course lends individual emphasis to the great failure, throwing his work into clearer relief, whereas the man whose efforts are crowned with permanent success builds a stepping-stone by which others may advance still farther, and so merges his own fame in that of his successors.
The theory at least finds ample confirmation in the realm of action. A Napoleon and a Lee are enshrined in drama, in novel, and in memoir by the hundred. A Wellington and a Grant are almost forgotten by the writers of the nations they brought through peril intact and victorious. Even a Lincoln may only have been saved from comparative oblivion by the bullet of an assassin, a Nelson by death in the hour of victory, which relieved by emotion-awakening tragedy the disrepute of a successful end. It would seem likely that a century hence the name of Ludendorff will be emblazoned as the heroic figure of the European War, while that of Foch sinks into obscurity; there are signs already of this tendency to exalt the defeated.
For permanence of reputation a man of action must appeal to emotion, not merely to the mind ; and since the living man himself no longer can kindle the emotions of posterity, the dramatic human touch of ultimate failure is essential. This truth would seem to hold in most branches of human effort. Scott's gallant but unavailing attempt to reach the South Pole lives in the world's memory, while the successful ventures of Amundsen and Peary are fading. In sport, Dorando's Marathon is an enduring memory; but who among the general public could recall the name of Hayes, the actual victor, or, indeed, that of any subsequent Marathon winner.
For this irrational, this sentimental verdict, it is fashionable to fix the blame on modern journalism, yet the barest survey of history shows that its origins lie far back in the mists of time. On the historian, in fact—who of all men should by training and outlook put his trust in reason—falls the major responsibility for this eternal tendency—the glorification of dramatic failure at the expense of enduring achievement. The history of the ancient confirms that of the modern world, and in no example more strikingly than that of Scipio Africanus, the subject of this brief study, which is an attempt to redress the " historical " balance by throwing further weights of knowledge and military appreciation on Scipio's side, not as commonly by detraction from his rivals. Gradually, progressively, the belittlement of Scipio has been pressed by historians anxious to enhance the fame of Hannibal. It is the more unreasonable, the less excusable, because here there are no mass of conflicting sources and contemporary opinions. The reliable data on which to base a study and a judgment are practically limited to the works of Polybius and Livy, with but a few grains from other, and admittedly less trustworthy, ancient authorities. And of these two, Polybius, the earlier, is almost contemporary with events, the friend of Gaius Lælius, Scipio's constant subordinate, from whom he could get first-hand evidence and judgments. He had the family archives of the Scipios at his disposal for research, and he had been over the actual battlefields while many of the combatants were still alive. Thus he gained an almost unique base upon which to form his estimate.
Further, being a Greek, his views are less suspect than those of Livy of being coloured by Roman patriotic bias, while modern historical criticism is unanimous in its tribute alike to his impartiality, his thoroughness of research, and the soundness of his critical insight.
The verdict of Polybius is clear, and his facts still more so.
That there were divergent judgments of Scipio among the Romans of succeeding generations is true; but Polybius explains the reasons so convincingly, their truth borne out by the known facts of Scipio's strategical and tactical plans, that there is no vestige of excuse for modern writers to regard as due to luck what superstition led the ancients to ascribe to divine aid. " The fact that he was almost the most famous man of all time makes every one desirous to know what sort of man he was, and what were the natural gifts and the training which enabled him to accomplish so many great actions. But none can help falling into error and acquiring a mistaken impression of him, as the estimate of those who have given us their views about him is very wide of the truth." "... They represent him as a man favoured by fortune ... such men being, in their opinion, more divine and more worthy of admiration than those who always act by calculation. They are not aware that the one deserves praise and the other only congratulation, being common to ordinary men, whereas what is praiseworthy belongs only to men of sound judgment and mental ability, whom we should consider to be the most divine and most beloved by the gods. To me it seems that the character and principles of Scipio much resembled those of Lycurgus, the Lacedæmonian legislator. For neither must we suppose that Lycurgus drew up the constitution of Sparta under the influence of superstition and solely prompted by the Pythia, nor that Scipio won such an empire for his country by following the suggestion of dreams and omens. But since both of them saw that most men neither readily accept anything unfamiliar to them, nor venture on great risks without the hope of divine help, Lycurgus made his own scheme more acceptable and more easily believed in by invoking the oracles of the Pythia in support of projects due to himself, while Scipio similarly made the men under his command more sanguine and more ready to face perilous enterprises by instilling into them the belief that his projects were divinely inspired. But that he invariably acted on calculation and foresight, and that the successful issue of his plans was always in accord with rational expectation, will be evident."
To the mind of to-day not only does such an explanation appear inherently probable, but affords a key to the understanding of a man whose triumphs, whether military, political, or diplomatic, were, above all, due to his supreme insight into the psychology of men. Who, moreover, applied this gift like the conductor of a great orchestra to the production of a world harmony. In conducting policy, through war to peace, he indeed attained a concord which aptly fulfilled the musical definition : "A combination which both by its ... smoothness and by its logical origin and purpose in the scheme can form a point of repose." As a conductor of the human orchestra he had, however, two weaknesses, one inborn and one developing with years. He could not comprehend the low notes —the narrowness and baseness to which men can descend,—and the exaltation of spirit born of his power over men prevented him from hearing the first warnings of that discord which was to impair the glorious symphony so nearly completed.

PUBLIUS CORNELIUS SCIPIO was born at Rome in the 517th year from the city's foundation—235 B.C. Though a member of one of the most illustrious and ancient families, the Cornelii, of his early years and education no record, not even an anecdote, has come down to us. Indeed, not until he is chosen, through a combination of circumstances and his own initiative, to command the army in Spain at the age of twenty-four, does history give us more than an occasional fleeting glimpse of his progress. Yet bare and brief as these are, each is significant. The first is at the battle of the Ticinus, Hannibal's initial encounter with the Roman arms on Italian soil, after his famous passage of the Alps. Here the youthful Scipio, a lad of seventeen, accompanied his father, the Roman commander. If his first experience of battle was on the losing side, he at least emerged with enviable distinction. Let the story be told in Polybius's words : " His father had placed him in command of a picked troop of horse " (in reserve on a small hill) " in order to ensure his safety ; but when he caught sight of his father in the battle, surrounded by the enemy and escorted only by two or three horsemen and dangerously wounded, he at first endeavoured to urge those with him to go to the rescue, but when they hung back for a time owing to the large numbers of the enemy round them, he is said with reckless daring to have charged the encircling force alone. Upon the rest being now forced to attack, the enemy were terror-struck and broke up, and Publius Scipio, thus unexpectedly rescued, was the first to salute his son as his deliverer." It is said that the consul ordered a civic crown, the Roman V.C., to be presented to his son, who refused it, saying that "the action was one that rewarded itself." The exploit does credit to the young Scipio's gallantry, but the outcome, as emphasised by Polybius, does still more credit to his psychological insight. " Having by this service won a universally acknowledged reputation for bravery, he in subsequent times refrained from exposing his person without sufficient reason when his country reposed her hopes of success on him—conduct characteristic not of a commander who relies on luck, but on one gifted with intelligence."
To the present generation, with personal experience of war, the point may have greater force than to the closeted historians. To the former, the higher commander who aspires to be a platoon leader, thrusting himself into the fight at the expense of his proper duty of direction, is not the heroic or inspired figure that he appears to the civilian. To some too, not natural lovers of danger for its own sake—and these are rare in any army,—the point will touch a chord of memory, reminding them of how by the moral hold on their men given by one such exploit they were thereafter enabled to take the personal precautions which better befit the officer entrusted with the lives of others. The civilian at home poured scorn on the German officer "leading" his men from behind; not so the fighting soldier, for he knew that when the occasion called, his officer enemy did not hesitate to risk, nay throw away his life, as an example. The story still lives of the German officer who led a forlorn hope mounted on a white horse.
The exploit, and the popular fame it brought, launched Scipio's military career so auspiciously as to earn him rapid advancement. For, less than two years later, 216 B.C., Livy's account speaks of him as one of the military tribunes, from whom the commanders of the legions were nominated, and in itself a post that made him one of the deputies or staff officers of the legion commander. If a parallel is desired, the nearest modern equivalent is a staff colonel.
This second glimpse of Scipio comes on the morrow of Cannæ, Rome's darkest hour, and it is curious that the future general, who, like Marlborough, was never to fight a battle that he did not win, should in his subordinate days have been witness of unrelieved disaster. There is no record of Scipio's share in the battle, but from Livy's account it seems clear that he was among the ten thousand survivors who escaped to the greater Roman camp across the River Aufidus, and further, one of the undaunted four thousand who, rather than surrender with their fellows, quitted the camp after nightfall, and eluding the Carthaginian horse, made their way to Canusium. Their situation was still perilous, for this place lay only some four miles distant, and why Hannibal did not follow up his success by the destruction of this remnant, isolated from succour, remains one of the enigmas of history, to all appearance a blemish on his generalship.
With the four thousand at Canusium were four military tribunes, and, as Livy tells us, " by the consent of all, the supreme command was vested in Publius Scipio, then a very young man, and Appius Claudius." Once more Scipio shines amid the darkness of defeat ; once more a time of general disaster is the opportunity of youth backed by character. Disruption, if not mutiny, threatens. Word is brought that men are saying that Rome is doomed, and that certain of the younger patricians, headed by Lucius Cæcilius Metellus, are proposing to leave Rome to its fate and escape overseas to seek service with some foreign king. These fresh tidings of ill-fortune dismay and almost paralyse the assembled leaders. But while the others urge that a council be called to deliberate upon the situation, Scipio acts. He declares " that it is not a proper subject for deliberation ; that courage and action, and not deliberation, were necessary in such a calamity. That those who desired the safety of the state would attend him in arms forthwith; that in no place was the camp of the enemy more truly than where such designs were meditated." Then, with only a few companions, he goes straight to the lodging of Metellus, surprising the plotters in council. Drawing his sword, Scipio proclaims his purpose : "I swear that I will neither desert the cause of Rome, nor allow any other citizen of Rome to desert it. If knowingly I violate this oath, may Jupiter visit with the most horrible perdition my house, my family, and my fortune. I insist that you, Lucius Cæcilius, and the rest of you present, take this oath ; and let the man who demurs be assured that this sword is drawn against him." The upshot is that, " terrified, as though they were beholding the victoriòus Hannibal, they all take the oath, and surrender themselves to Scipio to be kept in custody. "
This danger quelled, Scipio and Appius, hearing that Varro, the surviving consul, had reached Venusia, sent a messenger there, placing themselves under his orders.
Scipio's next brief entry on the stage of history is in a different scene. His elder brother, Lucius, was a candidate for the ædileship,1 and the younger Publius " for long did not venture to stand for the same office as his brother. But on the approach of the election, judging from the disposition of the people that his brother had a poor chance of being elected, and seeing that he himself was exceedingly popular, he came to the conclusion that the only means by which his brother would attain his object would be by their coming to an agreement and both of them making the attempt, and so he hit on the following plan. Seeing that his mother was visiting the different temples and sacrificing to the gods on behalf of his brother and generally showing great concern about the result, he told her, as a fact, that he had twice had the same dream. He had dreamt that both he and his brother had been elected to the ædileship, and were going up from the Forum to their house when she met them at the door and fell on their necks and kissed them. She was affected by this, as a woman would be, and exclaimed, 'Would I might see that day,' or something similar. 'Then would you like us to try, mother ? ' he said. Upon her consenting, as she never dreamt he would venture on it, but thought it was merely a casual joke—for he was exceedingly young,—he begged her to get a white toga ready for him at once, this being the dress that candidates are in the habit of wearing. What she had said had entirely gone out of her head, and Scipio, waiting until he received the white toga, appeared in the Forum while his mother was still asleep. The people, owing to the unexpectedness of the sight, and owing to his previous popularity, received him with enthusiastic surprise ; and afterwards, when he went on to the station appointed for candidates and stood by his brother, they not only conferred the office on Publius but on his brother too for his sake, and both appeared at their home elected ædiles. When the news suddenly reached his mother's ears, she, overjoyed, met them at the door and embraced the young men with deep emotion, so that from this circumstance all who had heard of the dreams believed that Publius communed with the gods not only in his sleep, but still more in reality and by day."
" Now, it was not a matter of a dream at all ; but as he was kind, munificent, and agreeable in his address, he reckoned on his popularity with the people, and so by cleverly adapting his action to the actual sentiment of the people and of his mother, he not only attained his object, but was believed to have acted under a sort of divine inspiration. For those who are incapable of taking an accurate view of opportunities, causes, and dispositions, attribute to the gods and to fortune the causes of what is accomplished by shrewdness and with calculation and foresight."
To some the deception, even though for a worthy end, may seem out of tune with the higher Roman virtues ; and Livy, to whom as a Roman the artifice would appear less admirable than to Polybius, a Greek, leaves in doubt the origin of this habit of Scipio's, developed in his after career either by reason of its success or practice. Here is Livy's appreciation: " Scipio was undoubtedly the possessor of striking gifts ; but besides that he had from childhood studied the art of their effective display. Whether there was some vein of superstition in his own temperament, or whether it was with the aim of securing for his commands the authority of inspired utterances, he rarely spoke in public without pretending to some nocturnal vision or supernatural suggestion." Livy may exaggerate the frequency, for he wrote at a later date, and legends grow round the characteristics of the great. Such supernatural claims only appear occasionally in Scipio's recorded utterances, and he, a supreme artist in handling human nature, would realise the value of reserving them for critical moments.
Livy continues : " In order to impress public opinion in this direction, he had made a practice from the day he reached manhood of never engaging in any business, public or private, without first paying a visit to the Capitol. There he would enter the sanctuary and pass some time, generally in solitude and seclusion. This habit ... made converts to a belief, to which accident or design had given wide currency, that his origin was other than human. There was a story once widely believed about Alexander the Great, that his male parent had been a huge serpent, often seen in his mother's chamber, but vanishing directly men appeared. This miracle was told again of Scipio ... but he himself never cast ridicule upon it; indeed, he rather lent it countenance by the course which he adopted of neither wholly disclaiming such tales nor openly asserting their truth." This last tale, incidentally, is repeated by several of the ancient writers and enshrined in ' Paradise Lost,' where Milton writes :—
" He with Olympias, this with her that bore
Scipio, the height of Rome."
The view that this claim to divine inspiration had a religious and not merely an intellectual basis gains some support from Scipio's conduct in the Syrian War of 190 B.C., when, because he was a member of the college of the priests of Mars, known as Salian priests, he stayed behind the army and indirectly kept it waiting at the Hellespont, as the rule bound him to stay where he was until the month ended.
Again, modern psychologists may suggest that his dreams were true and not invented, such is known to be the power of strong desire to fulfil itself in dreams. Whatever the explanation and the source of his " visions," there can be no doubt as to the skill with which he turned them to practical account. And it is a supreme moral tribute to Scipio that this power was exerted by him purely to further his country's good, never his own. When trouble and accusation came in later days, and an ungrateful State forgot its saviour, Scipio did not invoke any divine vision in his defence. That he so refrained is the more definite and the more significant, because, with other psychological means, he showed himself still the supreme " organist " of the human instrument.
Scipio's election to the ædileship is historically important, not only because it illumines the sources of his success and influence over men, but also for its light on the causes of his political decline, the self-imposed exile from an ungrateful country, which saw a marvellously brilliant career close in shadow. It is Livy who shows that his election was not so unopposed as Polybius's account would suggest; that the tribunes of the people opposed his pretensions to the office because he had not attained the legal age for candidature. Whereupon Scipio retorted that " if the citizens in general are desirous of appointing me ædile, I am old enough "—an appeal over the heads of the tribunes which was instantly successful, but which by its triumphant defiance of tradition and rule was likely to add resentment to the jealousy which inevitably accompanies the precocious success of youth.

THESE three episodes form the prologue to the real drama of Scipio's career. On this the curtain rises in 210 B.C., which, if not Rome's blackest hour in her life and death struggle with Carthage, was at least the greyest. That conflict, which she had entered upon originally in 264 B.C., was the inevitable sequel to the supremacy of the Italian peninsula won by her combination of political genius and military vigour, for this supremacy could never be secure so long as an alien sea power—Carthage—commanded the waters of the peninsula, a continual menace to its seaboard and commerce. But when, after many hazards, the close of the First Punic War in 241 B.C. yielded Rome this maritime security, the vision and ambition of Hamilcar Barca not merely revived, but widened the scope of the struggle between Rome and Carthage into one with world power or downfall as the stakes. During the long interval of outward peace this Carthaginian Bismarck prepared the mental and material means for a stroke at the heart of the Roman power, educating his sons and followers to conceive the conquest of Rome as their goal, and using Spain as the training ground for the Barcine school of war, as well as the base of their forthcoming military effort. In 218 B.C., Hannibal, crossing the Alps, began his invasion of Italy to reap the harvest for which his father had sown the seeds. His victories on the Ticinus, the Trebia, at the Trasimene Lake, grew in scale until they reached their apex on the battlefield of Cannæ. If Roman fortitude, the loyalty of most of the Italian allies, and Hannibal's strategic caution then gained for Rome a reprieve, the passage of five years' unceasing warfare so drained her resources and exhausted her allies that by 211 B.C. Roman power, internally if not superficially, was perhaps nearer than ever before to a breakdown. A machine that is new and in good condition can withstand repeated severe shocks, but when badly worn a jar may suffice to cause its collapse. Such a jar came, for while Hannibal was campaigning in Southern Italy, destroying Roman armies if apparently drawing no nearer his object—the destruction of the Roman power,—the Carthaginian arms in Spain had been crowned with a victory that threatened Rome's footing on the peninsula.


On Sale
Mar 31, 2004
Page Count
312 pages
Da Capo Press

B.h. Liddell Hart

About the Author

Captain Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was one of the foremost military theorists of our time. His many books include Scipio Africanus, Lawrence of Arabia, The Rommel Papers, and Sherman (all available from Da Capo Press).

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