Battle of Utica (203 BC)
|Battle of Utica|
|Part of the Second Punic War|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo
|Publius Cornelius Scipio|
The Battle of Utica was fought in 203 BC between armies of Rome and Carthage during their second war for dominance over the Western Mediterranean. By a sudden attack the Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio managed to destroy a numerous force of the Carthaginians and their Numidian allies not far from the outflow of the Medjerda River in modern Tunisia. Thus he gained a decisive strategic advantage, switched the focus of the war from Italy and Iberia to the Carthaginian northern Africa and contributed largely for the final victory of Rome.
The lead-up to the Roman invasion of Africa in 204 BC
The invasion of Africa was a part of the initial Roman plans for the conduct of the Second Punic War. The Carthaginian leader Hannibal thwarted them when he set out from his base in Iberia, went through western southern Gaul and crossed the Alps in 218 BC. The consul, to whom the expedition to Carthage was entrusted, decided to transfer his army from Sicily to Cisalpine Gaul to defend the north of Italy. This resulted in the battle of Trebia and a series of other heavy defeats of the Romans by Hannibal which put the idea of an assault on the Carthaginian homeland out of question. During the following years the war raged primarily in Italy, Iberia and Sicily, but north Africa was largely spared. The situation changed with the growing fortunes of Rome. By 205 BC the Romans had effectively dealt with two invasions of Italy – that of Hannibal, who was gradually worn out and stripped of allies, and that of Hasdrubal, son of Hamilcar Barca, who was defeated outright in the battle of the Metaurus river. The various Carthaginian forces had been driven off Sicily and Iberia or hemmed in the far south and northwestern corners of the Apennine peninsula. By the fall of Syracuse and the reconquest of the parts of Sicily which had been temporarily lost after the battle of Cannae, the Romans secured a base for naval assault on Carthage. They made use of that by carrying out a number of raids on African soil in 208, 207 and 205 BC.
Since 206 BC, when Publius Cornelius Scipio finally expelled the Carthaginians from Iberia (see the battle of Ilipa), he was preoccupied with the idea that Africa should be the next target. To this end he concluded an alliance with Syphax – one of the most powerful Numidian rulers at the time and an old foe of Carthage – even before he got authority from Rome to lead the future invasion. Even though Scipio was elected consul for 205 BC, he had to endure hard political wrangling before the Senate approved his intentions. His main opponent was Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator (the Delayer), who argued that the expedition to Africa was too risky and that the primary objective was to fight Hannibal in Bruttium. Scipio managed to persuade the senators that his plan was the perfect way to force the Carthaginians out of Italy. Nevertheless, he was not given enough resources and had to spend a whole year in preparations.
The Carthaginians were warned of what was coming when Scipio sent his legate C. Laelius with a naval force to plunder the area of Hippo Regius on the African coast west of Carthage (205 BC). They took various measures to prevent a major Roman invasion. However, the attempt to persuade the Macedonian king Philip to invade Sicily was unsuccessful, and the reinforcements sent to their own commanders in Bruttium and Liguria were not sufficient to revive the war in Italy (see the articles about the battle of Croton and the Po valley raid). Nor was Scipio dissuaded by the defection of Syphax, who took the side of Carthage thanks to the diplomatic skills of Hasdrubal Gisgo and the charms of his daughter, Sophonisba.
The beginning of the invasion and the battle of Utica
Scipio brings the war upon Carthage
The invasion of Africa began in 204 BC. Several hundred transport ships carried the Roman army of no more than 35,000 soldiers to Cape Farina, about 35 km west of Carthage (or Pulcrum, see the map). By his very arrival Scipio caused much anxiety and fear, and he used the resulting confusion to capture several towns and plunder the countryside. The main Carthaginian commander who opposed him was Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo. He despatched a significant cavalry force in order to stop the depredation and restrict Scipio’s manoeuvres, but the Romans destroyed it near the town of Salaeca. Thus the Roman commander received a temporary advantage, which was strengthened when Scipio was joined by Massinissa, a leader of the Massylians (a Numidian tribe). Hasdrubal was impeded by the wavering of Syphax, who “failed... to render them (the Carthaginians) whole-hearted assistance” and thus allowed the Romans to ravage the country with impunity.
The siege of Utica
Having collected abundant booty and numerous slaves, in the autumn Scipio moved to Utica. His intention was to capture the ancient Phoenician city and make it a base for his further operations. The direct assault on the walls was repulsed even though it was supported by siege engines and the Roman fleet, so that the Romans had to undertake a regular siege of the city. The emergence of two large armies of the enemy effectively ended the siege very soon. These were the forces of Hasdrubal Gisgo and his son-in-law Syphax, who apparently did not hesitate anymore. Their numerical superiority (according to the tradition passed by ancient authors such as Polybius and Livy, the army of Hasdrubal amounted to more than 30,000 and that of Syphax was twice as many, but these numbers are considered as exaggerated by modern researchers) forced Scipio to retreat to a promontory not far from Utica, which was later called Castra Cornelia. He fortified the narrow neck of land and set his winter quarters, relying on supplies of corn and clothing that were being sent to him from Sicily, Sardinia and Iberia. Hasdrubal and Syphax built their separate camps some distance from Castra Cornelia.
Throughout the winter the Carthaginians continued to build up their forces. They prepared a fleet in order to cut the supply routes and blockade fully the Roman army and were awaiting for mercenaries from Iberia and Liguria. The actual hostilities ceased for a time due to the efforts of Syphax to arbitrate for a reconciliation. Hasdrubal accepted the proposed terms, which stipulated that both Rome and Carthage should recall their armies respectively from Africa and Italy, but did not stop the aforementioned military preparations. Peace under such conditions was definitely not the purpose, with which Scipio negotiated with Syphax. At first he used the negotiations as a cover for trying to win over the Numidian to Rome. As these attempts proved to be of no avail, the Roman leader nevertheless continued to send envoys to the Numidian camp. Scipio aimed, firstly, to mislead the enemy that he was insecure and therefore anxious to conclude peace and, secondly, to reconnoitre the position and organization of the enemy. His envoys, who were carefully selected for the latter purpose, informed him that the both camps consisted primarily of huts built from wood, reed and other flammable material.
The burning of the camps
On the basis of this information Scipio elaborated his plan for the battle. He knew that the Carthaginian preparations to attack Castra Cornelia were continuing, and with the first signs of the spring he launched a preemptive strike. The ancient authors provide two versions of what happened. According to Livy and Polybius Scipio placed a detachment (2,000 strong) on a hill overlooking Utica so as to deceive the enemy’s scouts that he was preparing to attack the city. Another small detachment was left to guard the Roman camp against possible attack from the city’s defenders. The main forces marched at night, more than 10 kilometers, and reached the camps of Hasdrubal and Syphax before dawn. Scipio separated the army in two halves and ordered Laelius and Massinissa’s Numidians to set fire and destroy the camp of Syphax. Laelius and Massinissa left almost no chances for escape of Syphax’s warriors, who were caught sleeping and utterly unprepared. The flames that started from the huts outside the palisades spread easily and engulfed the whole camp. All the exits were blockaded by the Romans, and numbers of unarmed soldiers were slaughtered; others were caught by the flames, as well as many pack animals, or trampled themselves to death at the gates. The same happened with the army of Hasdrubal. Its soldiers were awakened by the news that the neighbouring camp was ignited, and some of them rushed to help the Numidians without arms, thinking that the flames were result of an accident. Scipio waited for this moment of confusion to attack with his part of the Roman army. The Carthaginians could not offer any organized resistance and were crushed. Only their general (as well as Syphax), with a small body of troops, managed to escape.
The version of Livy and Polybius is supported by other ancient historians, such as Florus and Frontinus. In “The Punic Wars”, a part of his “Roman History”, Appian relates another story of the events. According to Appian, Scipio detached only Massinissa and his horsemen to prevent Syphax from rendering help to Hasdrubal. With the bulk of his legionaries the Roman commander attacked suddenly the camp of Hasdrubal and slaughtered almost all of his soldiers, because those who initially made their escape were rounded up by the Roman cavalry. When Syphax knew what was happening, he sent a cavalry detachment to assist Hasdrubal, but these horsemen were met and routed by Massinissa. Fearing that Scipio would turn on him after dealing with Hasdrubal’s army, Syphax abandoned his camp and retreated to safety with his army.
The Carthaginians suffered heavy casualties and their field forces were virtually eliminated for some time. Some ancient authorities refrain from giving specific numbers, but others give figures between 30,000 and 40,000 for the men who were killed, and up to 5,000 for those taken alive. Almost all sources (except Cassius Dio) agree that the losses of the Romans were minimal. Polybius wrote: "...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." With one single strike Scipio was able to get rid of the Carthaginian blockade and to renew the offensive operations of the previous summer. What followed shortly afterwards was the battle of the Great Plains, which ended with another crushing defeat of Hasdrubal Gisgo and Syphax. Carthage had to recall its armies from Italy for a last decisive encounter that took place in 202 BC, and resulted in a final defeat and a peace treaty, ending the Second Punic War in 201 BC.
Note: All links were active on October 9, 2007
- Livius, Titus, The History of Rome, Vol. IV (ed. E. Rhys, translated by C. Roberts), University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center (see also a Russian translation )
- Polybius, The Histories, Bill Thayer's Web Site, LacusCurtius: A Gateway to Ancient Rome (alternative English translation at The Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University)
- Cassius Dio, Roman History, Bill Thayer's Web Site, LacusCurtius: A Gateway to Ancient Rome
- Appian, Roman History, The Punic Wars, Livius Articles on Ancient History
- Frontinus, Stratagems, LacusCurtius: A Gateway to Ancient Rome (see also in Russian )
- Barceló, Pedro, Hannibal, München, Beck, 1998, ISBN 3-406-43292-1
- Caven, Brian, The Punic Wars, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1980, ISBN 0-297-77633-9
- Connolly, Peter, Greece and Rome at War, Greenhill Books, 1998, ISBN 1-85367-303-X (see excerpts in Russian )
- Delbrück, Hans, History of the Art of War, Vol. I: Warfare in Antiquity (translated by W. Renfroe), University of Nebraska Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8032-9199-X (see excerpts in Russian )
- Fournie, Daniel, Second Punic War: The Battle of Zama , , retrieved from HistoryNet.com on October 22, 2007
- Mommsen, Theodor, The History of Rome, Book III, The Gutenberg Project eBook (see also in German )
- Scullard, H. H., Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician, New York, Cornell University Press, 1970, Standard Book Number 8014-0549-1
- Smith, William (ed.), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, University of Michigan
- Кораблев, Илья, Ганнибал, Москва, "Наука", 1976, , Студенческое научное общество
A comprehensive history of the Second Punic war for German readers:
- Gottwein, Egon, Politische und kulturelle Entwicklung Roms: Der 2. Punische (Hannibalische) Krieg (on Navicula Bacchi)
A concise online description of Scipio's expedition to Africa:
- Akinde, Michael, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, Scipio Africanus : Africa (204 - 201 BCE)
A detailed map of a part of northern Africa in Roman times:
- Mommsen, Theodor, The History of Rome, Book III, Chapter VI
- Delbrück, Hans, Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte, I Teil: Das Altertum, Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin 1964, S. 358-361, 386
- Creasy, Edward, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World From Marathon to Waterloo, The Project Gutenberg Etext
- Livy, History of Rome, XXVII.9; XVIII.4
- Livy, XXIX.3
- Livy, XXVIII, 17-18; Appian, Roman History, The Punic Wars, Section 2.10; Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. 3, pp. 964-965
- Livy, XXVIII.40-45
- Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: Fabius
- Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book XVII
- Livy, XXIX, 23-24
- Livy, XXIX.25
- Scullard, Scipio Africanus, p. 115
- Коннолли, П., Греция и Рим. Энциклопедия военной истории, «Эксмо-Пресс», Москва, 2000 
- Scullard, Scipio Africanus, p. 120
- Livy, XXIX, 28-29; Cassius Dio, XVII, 63-64
- Livy, XXIX.34; Cassius Dio XVII, 65-66
- Livy, XXIX.29; Appian, The Punic Wars, 3.14
- Cassius Dio, XVII, 64, 67-68
- Livy, XXIX.35
- Cassius Dio, XVII, 68
- Appian, The Punic Wars, 3.16; Caven, The Punic Wars, pp. 238-239
- Cassius Dio, XVII, 69
- Polybius, The Histories, XIV, 1.14
- According to Scullard (Scipio Africanus, p. 124) Hasdrubal and Syphax could not muster more than 35,000 soldiers. Fournie (TheHistoryNet|Ancient and Medieval Wars|Second Punic War: Battle of Zama, p. 1) is on the same opinion. Caven (Punic Wars, p. 240) suggests that the Livy's figure of 93,000 is undoubtedly inflated, but nevertheless the Carthaginians and their Numidian allies had a significant numerical advantage that forced Scipio to retreat.
- Scullard, Scipio Africanus, pp. 124-125
- Polybius, XIV, 1.1-2, 6.7; Livy, XXX.3
- Appian, The Punic Wars, 3.17
- Cassius Dio, XVII, 72; Polybius, XIV, 2.10
- Livy, XXX.3-4; Polybius, XIV, 2.5-14; Frontinus, Stratagems, I, 2.1
- Scullard, Scipio Africanus, pp. 125-126
- Livy, XXX.5-6; Polybius, XIV, 4.1-10; XIV, 5.1-3
- Caven, Punic Wars, p. 241; Scullard, Scipio Africanus, pp. 126-127
- Florus, Epitome of Roman History, Book I, Section 22
- Frontinus, Stratagems, II, 5.29
- Appian, History of Rome, The Punic Wars, 4.20
- Appian, History of Rome, The Punic Wars, 4.21-22
- Caven, Punic Wars, pp. 241-242
- Appian, The Punic Wars, 4.23
- Livy, XXX.6
- Polybius, XIV, 5.14-15
- Barceló, Hannibal, S. 84-85; Scullard, Scipio Africanus, p. 127
- Caven, Punic Wars, pp. 242-243; Scullard, Scipio Africanus, pp. 128-131