Rome Smashes The Carthaginian Blockade “It is not possible to find any other disaster which, even if exaggerated, could be compared with this, so much did it exceed in horror all previous events. Therefore of all the brilliant exploits performed by Scipio this seems to me the most splendid and most adventurous.” (Livy)
Gathering supporters from clients and supporters in Rome among his advocates and Italian supporters, the 31-year-old Consul Scipio was able to spend 205 BC amassing a force of 30 warships and 7,000 men. The Sicilian garrison was the ‘disgraced’ legionaries of Cannae and other Roman debacles from early on in the Second Punic War, who Scipio knew were not responsible for the poor decisions of their commanders who had condemned them to defeat. He also knew that these men had successfully campaigned to drive the Carthaginians off Sicily, and were now itching for a shot of redemption to restore their families’ dignitas.
Scipio knew that the superior Numidian cavalry had been decisive in earlier encounters, and that Rome’s allied cavalry were of questionable loyalty.
When a conscript Sicilian cavalry force complained vociferously, he exempted them from service on condition they each pay for the equipment and horse of another cavalryman. When a Senatorial commission reached Sicily, it found Scipio already had a well trained and provisioned army and fleet. He pressed for permission to invade Africa, only to be opposed by a coalition led by Fabius the Delayer, who still feared the power of the essentially hamstrung Italian occupier, Hannibal. Scipio was further opposed by those who detested his Hellenophile tastes in art, luxury, and philosophy, and thus he only sought permission to cross to Africa if it were “in the interests of Rome” – but financial and military support would not be forthcoming.
Scipio sailed in 204 BC, and after a three-day voyage his force of 35,000 men landed near Cape Farina, 16 miles northeast of Utica. The Punic Senate panicked, with the rural populace swiftly seeking refuge in the cities. Carthage had around 13,000 infantry and 1,200 cavalry available some 25 miles inland under Hasdrubal Gisco, though these were largely raw recruits.
The Carthaginian Senate ordered a general mobilisation and called for aid from the Numidian King Syphax. Hasdrubal acquired more cavalry, and added 4,000 horses from his Numidian allies. Scipio moved inland, capturing a ridgeline and unloading his force to establish a beachhead and reconnoitre the area, razing and pillaging Punic farmland. A thousand-man cavalry squadron under Hanno was sent to monitor and harass Scipio, but they were routed, with Hanno killed. The Romans attacked a nearby town, capturing 8,000 people and sending them to Sicily as hostages.
Moving to besiege Utica, Scipio set his men up on a line of hills a mile away from the city, while his fleet moved to blockade the port. A direct assault on the walls was repulsed, despite the support of siege engines and the fleet, and so the legions dug in for a protracted siege instead. This lasted only 40 days, as two large armies now appeared near Scipio’s force – those of Hasdrubal Giscco, and of King Syphax. Having almost twice as many men as the legions, Scipio retreated to a nearby promontory called Castra Cornelia. He fortified this narrow neck of land and established winter quarters, trusting in the arrival of grain from Sicily, Sardinia and Iberia. Hasdrubal and Syphax built their camps nearby, keeping a watchful gaze on the invaders.
Carthage used the winter to build up its forces, and preparing a fleet to cut off the sea supply lanes for Scipio’s army.
Syphax moved to enact a reconciliation, with Hasdrubal supporting terms that Rome should recall its army to Italy, and Carthage recall Hannibal and Mago to Africa. Such an agreement was not why Scipio had invaded Africa, and he instead used this talks as an opportunity to sway the Numidians over to Rome – to no avail. Roman envoys kept going to the Numidian camps to ostensibly propose terms, though they doubled up as spies taking notes on the enemy’s position, giving Scipio valuable intelligence that their camp was largely huts made from wood and reed.
As the campaigning season for 203 BC began, Scipio launched a surprise night attack – something that was hugely difficult to coordinate in antiquity, where troops could lose their position and lose awareness of who was friend or foe – and set fire to the enemy camp. A small force atop the hill had deceived the Punic scouts, enabling Scipio to march the bulk of his host six miles at night to the enemy camps. The numbers of this huge Punic and Numidian army now worked against them, as more and more huts were consumed by flames as the inferno spread. Scipio arranged his men to blockade the entrances and exits to the camp, where men were now fleeing from the blaze clad in little more than their undergarments, abandoning their weapons, armour and shields.
The Battle of Utica was more of a massacre than a battle, as those who fled out of the camp in panic were swiftly hacked down by the waiting legionaries. As they tried to stem the tide of the escape, this merely caused a crush at the exits as those behind them, who had no idea what was happening outside the camp, still pressed to get out and escape the fire. This was coupled with the panicked pack animals, who added to the chaos by charging into the packed ranks of men at the exits. The ancient sources state that between 40,000 and 93,000 were killed in the ambush.
Scipio had taken Hannibal’s penchant for ambush and deception and turned it against Carthage, to devastating effect.
With one blow he had removed the Punic blockade, and would be free to continue his campaigning against Utica. Despite such heavy losses, Syphax and Hasdrubal managed to escape, determined to raise the forces needed to drive the invader out of Africa. Meanwhile, the arrival of Mago Barca in Italia looked set to open another theatre of war on the peninsula, and the opportunity to reinforce and unite with his beleaguered elder brother, Hannibal.