BMCR 2008.01.20

Scipio Africanus

, Scipio Africanus. New York: iUniverse, Inc, 2007. 179 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780595435456 $16.95.

The Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) has long held the fascination of historiographers, ancient and modern. To be sure, both Polybius (3.1-5) and Livy (21.1.1-3) clearly recognized the crucial significance of the conflict for the growth of the imperium Romanum. Later, at the end of his brief summary of the war, Florus even claimed that praemiumque victoriae Africa fuit et secutus Africam statim terrarum orbis (1.22.61). Indeed, by the time of her final victory over Carthage in the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.), Rome had plainly distinguished herself as the dominant Mediterranean superpower. In many ways, this period of territorial expansion also marked the beginning of Rome’s gradual transition from Republic, or, perhaps more accurately, oligarchy, to Principate. Furthermore, many ancient observers discerned a second transition concomitant with this profound change in the governmental structure. It was Sallust ( Cat. 10-13, Jug. 41-42, and Hist. 1.11-16M) who first codified the idea that the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C. was the key “turning-point” in Roman history, although Scipio Nasica may have initially voiced the sentiment. Paradoxically, Sallust viewed this momentous event as both the pinnacle of the city’s imperial aspirations and the beginning of her (inexorable) moral decline — the famous metus hostilis theme. Many modern scholars have also sought to interpret the era of the Punic Wars in these more complex thematic terms. However, most scholars, as well as most general readers, have instead remained interested primarily either in determining the (often dubious) historical “facts” of the conflict or in assessing the character of the war’s great figures, Hannibal and Scipio. With few, but notable, exceptions, the victus, Hannibal, has been the central focus of this modern biographical tradition. In this study, Alexander Acimovic (A.) helps to redress the balance with a new work on Scipio, the victor.1

Before turning to the book itself, it is worthwhile to consider two basic issues, the relationship between scholarship and books targeted at a wider audience, as well as the relationship between historiography and biography. In recent decades, there has been no shortage of publications on the Punic Wars,2 including several general overviews of the period3 and a large body of work specifically devoted to Hannibal.4 However, most of these titles do not strictly qualify as “scholarship”. For example, both Caven and Goldsworthy explicitly address their histories to a hypothetical “general reader”, not the academic community.5 Moreover, there is a palpable difference in the treatment of the ancient texts themselves between these “popular” works and true scholarship. For many, Polybius remains the only “reliable” source, while Livy continues to inspire doubt, if not ridicule. The emphasis on biography at the expense of historiography has only further underscored this divide. Indeed, the intense interest in Hannibal and his military accomplishments has had the effect both of distorting the true nature of the conflict and of diminishing the impressiveness of Rome’s ultimate triumph. Without question, Hannibal was one of the greatest military leaders in the ancient world — for about five years, between his siege of Saguntum and his monumental victory at Cannae. Thereafter, he won no further engagement in Italy, and he was eventually compelled to return to Africa in disgrace, following Scipio’s invasion in 204 B.C. It must also be conceded, however, that the nature of the ancient sources themselves is largely responsible for the modern obsession with Hannibal and his actions during the early years of the war. And yet, this does not absolve modern scholars from the responsibility of balancing the need to reconstruct the historical “facts” with a well attuned sensitivity to the rhetorical colores of the ancient material. Unfortunately, A. does not address any of these essential issues, and the complete absence of any prefatory matter whatsoever leaves the reader in the dark as to A.’s scholarly disposition, as well as to the intended audience for his book.

The biography itself consists of thirteen short chapters (pp. 1-133). The supplementary matter includes a lengthy compilation of “End Notes”, replete with citations from the ancient sources, as well as the modern secondary literature (pp. 135-168); a brief “Bibliography” (pp. 169-178); and, finally, a series of helpful “Maps” (pp. 179-192). A. has not provided chapter headings, nor has he supplied an index, so it is not possible to ascertain the book’s contents at a glance. In general, he presents a chronological account of Scipio’s life, from his birth in 236 B.C. until his death in exile at Liternum in 183 B.C., with due prominence given to his participation in both the Second Punic War and the war with Antiochus. Essentially, the book is simply another selective retelling of Polybius and Livy, with scattered analytical observations (e.g., borrowing Lily Ross Taylor’s somewhat inapposite comparison of an election in ancient Rome to a modern U.S. presidential convention) and some explanation of the general historical context (e.g., who the Salii were). The most serious flaw throughout is A.’s relatively facile approach to the ancient sources.

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-7, 236-211 B.C.) begins with a review of the early Cornelii Scipiones, and continues with a narrative of Scipio’s role in the first years of the Second Punic War, including the battle of the Ticinus River. Here, A. uncritically accepts the story of Scipio saving his father during the engagement, without any discussion either of the alternate tradition found in Coelius Antipater, which attributed the deed to a Ligurian slave, as also reported by Livy (21.46.10), or of the possible significance of such a tradition for our understanding of Scipio’s polemical presentation in the ancient source material. Next, chapters 2-5 (pp. 8-44, 210-206 B.C.) cover his dashing youthful escapades in Spain, from the siege of New Carthage until the surrender of Gades. Here again, A. shows no inclination to analyze the ancient sources critically: he merely rehearses the usual list of Scipionic miracula, from his sparing of the young Massiva, yet another example of Scipio’s fabled clementia, to his refusal to be hailed as “king” by the native Spaniards. In general, A. fails to acknowledge the detrimental impact of the overwhelming bias which pervades all of the ancient accounts for any modern historical (re)construction.

Chapters 6-9 (pp. 45-88, 205-201 B.C.) cover Scipio’s other major campaign during the Second Punic War, his bold invasion of Africa in order to draw Hannibal out of Italy. In his account of the famous burning of the camps, A. tries desperately, but ultimately unsuccessfully, to defend Scipio against the charges of deception and trickery. He also succumbs once more to the romantic allure of the ancient sources: for example, he lends full credence to the purported conversation between Hannibal and Scipio before Zama, as well as to Hannibal’s supposed behavior during the treaty debate in the Carthaginian Senate. And yet, this lack of due skepticism towards the ancient material is not the most important shortcoming. At no point does A. even mention the literary circumstances behind the sources, for example, Polybius’ devoutly pro-Scipionic outlook, or Livy’s complex relationship with the emergent Augustan principate.

Chapters 10-12 (pp. 89-125, 200-188 B.C.) cover the years after Scipio’s victory in the Second Punic War, as well as his involvement in the war with Antiochus. A. concludes chapter 12 with a rather overzealous, and unnecessary, encomium on Scipio’s “military and diplomatic techniques …, thence [ sic ] [his] methods of leadership, and finally the after-effects of his achievements on Rome and the world” (p. 123). The panegyric reaches its finale only with an approving citation of the succinct character assessment by Machiavelli, who called Scipio “a most extraordinary man not only in his own time but in all recorded history” (p. 125).

Chapter 13 (pp. 126-133, 187-183 B.C.) brings the biography to a close with a discussion about the famous “Trial(s) of the Scipios”, as well as a curtailed, and equally unnecessary, summary of the later Cornelii Scipiones, from the Gracchi to Pompey’s wife Cornelia In describing Scipio’s retirement to Liternum shortly before his death in 183 B.C., A. claims that “Scipio displayed what Liddell Hart called ‘a greatness and purity of soul which we might anticipate, not necessarily find, among the leaders of philosophy or religion, but hardly among the world’s supreme men of action'” (p. 129). This is all simply laudatory hyperbole, irrelevant to any actual analysis of the ancient sources. In truth, A.’s proclivity for effusive praise of Scipio becomes disconcertingly more frequent as the work progresses. Earlier, in chapter 10, A. similarly claims that “[Scipio’s] personality and character, from our somewhat limited knowledge, in this and other ways[,] combined presciently [ sic ] the several qualities that Aristotle identifies as Greatness of Soul” (p. 90). In the end, A. does an extreme disservice to his would-be honorand: Scipio emerges as a rather uninteresting one-dimensional figure, perfect in every way, without fault or blemish. While it is quite understandable that a biographer may develop sympathetic feelings for his subject, this does not justify the transformation of biography into encomium.

In a similar vein, A. also consistently reflects the pro-Roman bias inherent in the source material. For example, in his assessment of the outbreak of the war with Antiochus, he contends that “had [Antiochus] confined himself to Asia and never crossed the Hellespont, he would never have found trouble with Rome” (p. 106). Yet, A. himself contradicts this feeble assertion in his later discussion about the terms of the treaty of Apamea: “the forbidding of any activity west of the Taurus was obviously the most important feature of the treaty; this barrier was the natural limit to Rome’s sphere of influence, beyond which she had no security interests” (p. 119). In fact, throughout the book, A. depicts the Romans as reluctant imperialists (e.g., pp. 111 and 119). This is an important point, since it ultimately shows how little the practice of biography (as well as that of historiography) has progressed: like the ancient writers, this modern writer also still relies primarily on biased inference and argumentation in his construction of historical “truth”.

Unfortunately, in the end, A.’s biography cannot be recommended either for the general reader or for the student of ancient history. On the one hand, the general reader will not find enough (accurate) background information in order to understand Scipio’s place in this crucial era of the res publica. On the other hand, the student of ancient history will sorely miss the absence of any extended and thoughtful treatment of the difficult source material. Furthermore, the bibliography is far too incomplete,6 and minor errors abound, both typographical7 and factual8. Although a modern treatment of Scipio, perhaps the most important general in Roman history, is badly needed, the replacement for Scullard’s biography remains to be written.


1. The title under review is also available on the publisher’s website as an Adobe eBook (ISBN 978-0-595-87872-7) for the reduced price of $6.00. Additionally, it should be noted that the press offers its books under the rubric of “supported self-publishing”. As will be discussed below, this circumstance has had a profound effect on both the general structure and the specific content of A.’s biography. Other major work specifically on Scipio Africanus includes B. H. Liddell Hart, A greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus (Edinburgh and London, 1926); H. H. Scullard, Scipio Africanus in the Second Punic War (Cambridge, 1930); R. M. Haywood, Studies on Scipio Africanus (Baltimore, 1933); and H. H. Scullard, Scipio Africanus: Soldier and politician (London, 1970). In the past decade, several new biographies have also been published, by Tatiana Bobrovnikova (Moskva, 1998, in Russian); Giuseppe Antonelli (Roma, 1999, in Italian); and Javier Cabrero (Madrid, 2000, in Spanish). Finally, three other works deserve mention in this connection: Bernadette Tisé, Imperialismo romano e imitatio Alexandri: Due studi di storia politica (Galatina [Lecce], 2002); Raymond Marks, From Republic to Empire: Scipio Africanus in the Punica of Silius Italicus (Frankfurt am Main, 2005); and, most recently, Giovanni Brizzi, Scipione e Annibale: La guerra per salvare Roma (Roma, 2007).

2. E.g., Tim Cornell, Boris Rankov, and Philip Sabin (eds.), The Second Punic War: A reappraisal (London, 1996), as well as the plethora of recent work on the battle of Cannae.

3. E.g., J. F. Lazenby, Hannibal’s war: A military history of the Second Punic War (Warminster, 1978); Brian Caven, The Punic Wars (London, 1980); Nigel Bagnall, The Punic Wars (London, 1990); J. F. Lazenby, The First Punic War (Stanford, 1996); Adrian Goldsworthy, The Punic Wars (London, 2000); and, most recently, Klaus Zimmermann, Rom und Karthago (Darmstadt, 2005).

4. E.g., Habib Boularès, Hannibal (Paris, 2000); Giovanni Brizzi, Annibale (Roma, 2000); Karl Christ, Hannibal (Darmstadt, 2003); and, most recently, Pedro Barceló, Hannibal: Stratege und Staatsmann (Stuttgart, 2004). Many earlier biographies have also been reprinted, e.g., Leonard Cottrell, Hannibal: Enemy of Rome (New York, 1961, Reprint, New York, 1992) and Theodore Ayrault Dodge, Hannibal (Boston and New York, 1891, Reprint, thrice). In this context, it is also worth mentioning the robust tradition of modern historical fiction on the Second Punic War, including the recent trilogy by Ross Leckie (1996-2000). In truth, given the heavy amount of historical reconstruction found in the various Hannibal biographies, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them from historical fiction.

5. Caven (see n. 3), xi (“This book is intended to offer to the general reader who has a taste for history a detailed narrative of the conflict between Rome and Carthage …”) and Goldsworthy (see n. 3), 10 (“This is a work of military history and is not primarily aimed at an academic audience.”).

6. E.g., for the Cornelii Scipiones, Elena Torregaray Pagola, La elaboración de la tradición sobre los Cornelii Scipiones: Pasado histórico y conformación simbólica (Zaragoza, 1998), and, for Hannibal and Scipio, Andreola Rossi, “Parallel lives: Hannibal and Scipio in Livy’s third decade”, TAPhA 134.2 (2004): 359-381. Furthermore, A. does not include the vast majority of the bibliography cited in this review (see nn. 1-4 above).

7. E.g., “Caius” and “Cnaeus” should always be written in full as “Gaius” and “Gnaeus” ( passim), while the proper name for the legionary soldiers of the second line is principes, not princeps ( passim, see OLD s.v. princeps 2 7a), and the proper translation of princeps senatus is “leader of the Senate”, not “First Senator” (p. 92, see OLD s.v. princeps 2 4a), cf. the morphology of the analogous title princeps iuventutis ( OLD s.v. 4c). In addition, the OED lists both “undoubtably” (p. 11) and “effection” (p. 86) as “obs.”, with only three attestations, none later than 1513, for the former, and ten, none later than 1818, for the latter.

8. E.g., no magistrate was ever “elected pro-consul” (p. 8, cf. p. 10), while the name of Masinissa’s father is “Gala”, not “Gaia” (pp. 26 and 68).