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Scipio Africanus, Greater Than Napoleon , by B.H. Liddel Hart

Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon - B.H. Liddell Hart


Publius Cornelius Scipio (236–183 BC)



Publius Cornelius Scipio, better known to history as Scipio Africanus (the Elder), was very likely the greatest general the Roman Empire ever had, entering the written record at the age of seventeen when he led a cavalry charge that saved his father's life (the commander of the Roman forces) at the battle of Ticinus, the initial encounter of Hannibal's forces with the Roman army on Italian soil. The Romans lost that battle and almost all of the subsequent battles until Scipio was elected commander of the Roman forces in Spain at the age of twenty-four. Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon (1926) is an account of Scipio's life with an interesting twist.


Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895–1970) was a soldier and military theorist and historian who in the 1920's and 30's urged upon the British military establishment a reliance on the air force and navy that relegated to the army a secondary role in which the armored branch was pivotal. In ground actions he argued against direct attacks on well-made defensive positions, preferring what he called the Indirect Approach.


What gives Liddell Hart's Scipio Africanus additional interest above and beyond his careful use and extensive quotation of the Roman sources(*) is that he uses Scipio's strategies and tactics to illustrate his idea of the Indirect Approach, which may be suggested briefly with "Those who exalt the main armed forces of the enemy as the primary objective are apt to lose sight of the fact that the destruction of these is only a means to the end, which is the subjugation of the hostile will." He does not do so overbearingly, for the text is certainly focused on Scipio's career, but again and again he points up what he views as lessons for (then) modern warfare.(**)


As an illustration of this Indirect Approach, consider what Scipio did when he took command of the Roman forces in Spain shortly after both his father and uncle - the previous commanders - had been defeated and killed. The Carthaginian forces were split and active in three different places, and instead of attacking them directly one at a time,(***) Scipio (after carefully collecting information from all kinds of sources and then making thorough preparations) decided to attack Carthago Nova (now Cartagena), which was the Carthaginians' primary port linking to Africa and contained most of their provisions and operating funds. Cartagena fell quickly, along with the goods, ships, treasury and hostages, both Celto-Iberian and Roman, within its walls. By releasing the hostages and treating them well, he soon had the Iberian tribes back on his side. And now the Carthaginian armies were effectively cut off from Carthage.


After grinding up the Carthaginians and their remaining allies in Spain, instead of turning against Hannibal in Italy, whose primary source of reinforcement he had blocked, he chose to attack the Carthaginian homeland, but not without a great deal of resistance from the Roman Senate led by Fabius Cunctator and his pendant, Marcus Porcius Cato (the future Censor and foe of the "degenerate" Hellenization of Roman culture, not to mention the embodiment of conservative self-righteousness who sold his old and sick slaves so they would not be a burden on him and regarded his wife as little better than a servant - see Carl Christoph Burckhardt's  Cato der Censor: Ein akademischer Vortrag).


Leading only volunteers he had carefully trained and outfitted and two legions disgraced at Cannae, he wrought enough havoc in North Africa to make the Carthaginians sue for peace. But they were split into those who truly wanted peace and the rest for whom the peace was, once again, to be a time of preparation for war. They drew their forces out of Italy and Gaul and had already violated the peace treaty as it was being ratified in Rome. Now at an even greater disadvantage, after clever maneuvering (both military and psychological) Scipio faced Hannibal at Zama. Hannibal had the numerical advantage and eighty war elephants - more than he had had in any previous engagement. Fortunately, this part of Polybius' history has survived, and we have many details of the action which are given to us by Liddell Hart with great relish. Suffice it to say here that in this meeting of invincible generals, Scipio triumphed.


Once again his peace terms were generous, but there were many in the Roman Senate who wanted more vindictive terms or who envied the young man's successes. They had no choice but to ratify the treaty, but Scipio had subsequently a contingent of powerful enemies in the Senate. Unlike later famous Roman generals, when the Roman people offered to make Scipio perpetual consul and dictator, he declined. 


Scipio's later career is complicated, but I'll mention that he played a crucial role in Rome's domination of the Greek speaking world, where once again he exercised his far-seeing moderation and generosity after victory. But this was too much for the Senate faction led by Cato, and they went after his family and then him with apparently trumped up charges of corruption and abuse of power. He was acquitted but was so disgusted that he never returned to Rome, soon dying in voluntary exile on his country estate. 


Not satisfied with this, his accusers went after his brother again, and though they managed to damage him, when they confiscated the Scipios' estates they found no money. This caused a revulsion in the public feeling, and, as Livy put it, "the public hatred which had been directed against the Scipios recoiled on the praetor, his advisers and the accusers."  Cato was far from being finished, however, but that is another story...



(*) The most useful is Polybius' history of the Second Punic War, written almost contemporaneously with the events. Polybius personally visited the sites of the major battles with witnesses and was friend to Gaius Laelius, Scipio's right hand man.


(**) Noteworthy is Liddell Hart's emphasis on Scipio's generous peace terms after his victories, for the British author contrasted Scipio's wisdom in that regard with the onerous burden placed upon the German speaking world by the Treaty of Versailles. Liddell Hart understood as early as 1926 that such a peace could not last.


(***) Actually, each of those three contingents was numerically superior to the manpower Scipio had at his disposal, at least at the outset.