Richard Gabriel has written what must be regarded as the definitive biography of Scipio and, in doing so, argues convincingly that Scipio was Rome's greatest general-was, in fact, one of the greatest captains of antiquity.
Augustin and Elissa de Cartago, however, are not persuaded by Gabriel's arguments. Augustin notes and implicitly agrees with Gabriel's view that "the brilliance of a general depends on the quality of his defeated opponents," but goes on to assert that "the only great opponent Scipio ever defeated was Hannibal at Zama, a victory scored by luck and the fortunate arrival of Massinissa's cavalry at the battlefield in the nick of time." He thus dismisses Gabriel's observation that the Carthaginian generals Scipio faced in Spain were quite competent, citing in particular "the bungling Hasdrupal Gisco" as "surely the sorriest excuse for a commander in the Wars." But how do we know that Gisco and his brethren were incompetent? Because they were beaten by Scipio!
What seems to have escaped Augustin's attention is that the quality of generals can only be assessed after the fact, by the outcome of the battles they fought and by their performance in those battles; or that, relatedly, the supposedly poor quality of Scipio's opponents might be a function of Scipio's talents. In universe of tautological thinking that Augustin inhabits, we know he Carthaginian generals lose because they're incompetent; and we know they're incompetent because they lose.
One imagines that Augustin is perplexed by Scipio's astonishing good luck in facing a succession of Carthage's incompetent generals. Where, one wonders, were the competent Carthaginian generals? Vacationing in the Balearic Islands? Lolling on the sands of Carthage's municipal beaches? Or were the generals beaten by Scipio the best Carthage had to offer? And if that is the case, one how Carthage became a great power in the western Mediterranean. So many incompetent generals--and yet, there she was, contending with Rome for mastery of the Enclosed Sea.
The issue of luck vexes Augustin, and Elissa de Cartago as well. Hence: ". . . the only great opponent Scipio ever defeated was Hannibal at Zama, a victory scored by luck and the fortunate arrival of Massinissa's cavalry at the battlefield in the nick of time. . . ." (Augustin); and "it was Hannibal who was responsible for luring the cavalry of Massinissa and Laelius from the battlefield" and "sheer luck that they returned before Hannibal's veterans cut down the Roman line. . . . [Hannibal]"would have vanquished Scipio in the last battle ,had it not been for the lucky (for the Romans) return of Massinissa."
Attributing Hannibal's loss at Zama to bad luck working in Scipio's favor is reminiscent of a losing football coach blaming his team's loss to bad calls by the referees. Gabriel's critics cannot accept that just as bad calls are a part of every game-integral to them and not anomalus-so too is bad luck integral to warfare. It is what a general makes of the luck presented to him, good or bad, that marks him as a great field captain. Two thousand years later another great captain would remark that he preferred lucky generals over brilliant ones. Unlike Gabriel's critics, Napoleon recognized that some element of luck, and often as not a very large portion of it, is a necessary ingredient of a general's coup d'oeil. If one were to apply the critics' reasoning to all parties, one might fairly conclude that Hannibal's three greatest victories-at the Trebia, Lake Traisemene, and Cannae-were attributable to the incompetence of the Roman generals he faced. And how do we know that they were incompetent? Because Hannibal beat them!
The truth is, Hannibal's reputation for greatness was based largely on his performance in the first three years (218-216) of the sixteen-year Second Punic War. His achievements in that period, although spectacular, did not produce decisive results. His superior practice of the operational art and his tactical brilliance were undeniable, enabling him to outmarch, outmaneuver, and outfight the Romans--but to no ultimate avail. He could defeat Roman armies; he could not defeat Rome. Nor did he achieve any significant (much less decisive) success in the years that followed. After 216 he did not fight, much less win, any major battles on Italian soil even though he remained in Italy for the better part of the fourteen years. His next big battle, fought in North Africa (at Zama, near Carthage, in 202), was also his last; and he lost it, losing the war in the bargain.
Hannibal's invasion of Italy is one of the great military feats of the age, at once a masterpiece of operational maneuver, a textbook case of leadership in adversity, and a triumph of endurance. But the fact that Hannibal had to make the journey at all was evidence of a profound weakness in his, and Carthage's, war-waging capabilities, namely the lack of an effective navy to provide seaborne support for her overseas armies. The Carthaginian navy had been largely destroyed in the First Punic War and in the twenty-three years that followed the city's oligarchy had given shipbuilding priority to merchant carriers over war galleys. In the meantime, the Roman navy had grown to dominate the seas. Hannibal took the land route to Italy because Rome and Carthage's elite left him with no other choice.
Rome's control of the Western Mediterranean prevented Hannibal from receiving meaningful reinforcements from either Spain, his primary source of fighting men, or North Africa. He tried to make good his losses by recruiting among the Celtic tribes of northern Italy. However, there were never enough Celts willing to join him and always too many Italians eager to oppose him; as a result, he always suffered manpower shortages and fought outnumbered.
Hannibal recognized that Rome's numerical advantages would prove insurmountable in the long term, ruling out a lengthy war of attrition. To that end he would strike at the system of alliances that Rome had built with other Italian states and which it dominated. Hannibal understood that the Italian confederation provided Rome with the vast manpower reserves and material resources it needed for a prolonged war with Carthage. It was, in modern parlance, Rome's strategic center of gravity. If Hannibal could break the confederation he could break Rome.
He felt that this was an attainable goal, believing that many if not most of the allied states wished to be free of Roman domination and that they were waiting only on favorable circumstances to break away from Rome. Hannibal determined to create those circumstances by bringing Rome to battle early and often and by winning those battles convincingly. In doing so he would leave Rome too battered to retaliate against disloyal allies, causing them to defect. Eventually the defections would reach a critical mass and Rome's citizens would lose the will to continue the war. The Romans would then sue for peace and in the negotiated settlement that followed Hannibal would impose terms that would restore Carthage to parity with Rome.
Hannibal enjoyed initial success. In two battles, at the River Trebia and Lake Traisemene, his army killed upwards of 60,000 Romans. The Roman Senate responded by appointing Quintus Fabius as temporary dictator, putting him in charge of Rome's armies. The aged Fabius, surely one of the most underrated and effective generals of his (or any) age, avoided open battle with Hannibal, instead implementing a strategy of mobile containment, attrition, and delay (hence the moniker bestowed on him, Cunctator, Latin for "Delayer") whereby several large forces were positioned around the Carthaginian army for the purpose of shadowing its movements, conducting fighting withdrawals when advanced upon, and otherwise harrying its rear and flanks.
Hannibal was completely flummoxed by the so-called Fabian strategy, thereby demonstrating an inability to adapt to new circumstances. Thwarted in his aim to bring the Romans to battle, he ravaged the countryside mercilessly, killing many Italians and perpetrating untold atrocities in the process. When in the spring of 216 Hannibal's army marched from its winter quarters, the Romans sacked Fabius, replaced him with two generals who were eager to fight, and gave them a mighty army numbering over 86,000 men and a mandate to destroy the invaders. Instead, at the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal maneuvered his outnumbered forces to execute a double envelopment of the Roman army. The Roman force was destroyed; more than fifty thousand legionaries were killed.
But Hannibal did not follow up on his victory by marching on Rome: according to Livy he paused for a day and a night to allow his troops, exhausted by the effort required to kill so many Romans, to rest. Marhabal, the Carthaginian cavalry commander, had urged Hannibal to seize the moment and attack the capital; when Hannibal refused Marhabal reproached his commander: "You know how to win victory, Hannibal; you do not how to use it" ("vincere scis, Hannibal; victoria uti nescis").
It was a trenchant criticism. Moving on Rome would have entailed a lengthy siege, and Hannibal had neglected to bring siege equipment and engineers to Italy. He might have conscripted Italians who knew how to build and use such equipment (as, much later, the Mongols would do with the Chinese) but he was evidently too busy massacring the populace to concern himself with properly equipping his army to achieve a decisive city. Nor did he have enough men to garrison his conquests in Italy, which would have made a siege of Rome almost impossibly problematic. And because Rome ruled the sea he could not count on receiving reinforcements via a naval task force from Carthage or Spain. Thus it may be seen that he had failed to formulate any practicable strategy for exploiting his battlefield successes. His plan for winning the war amounted to nothing more than killing lots of Romans and hoping that the Romans would give up. As events were to prove, his strategy was not merely ill-conceived: it was delusional.
After Cannae a number of allied states, notably Capua and Tarentum, did indeed defect; but overall the alliance held and Rome and its citizens remained stalwart in their prosecution of the war. Eventually the Romans returned to the strategy of refusing open battle, electing to merely contain Hannibal in southern Italy, where he moved his army after Cannae, while devoting their principle energies to the conquest of Spain. Hannibal's strategy for defeating Rome had failed and in 202, after spending fourteen fruitless years in Italy, Hannibal returned to North Africa, there to preside over Carthage's downfall.
Augustin admits that Scipio was a military innovator but disdains his innovations on the grounds that he "copied them from the organization of Hannibal's army." But the ability to learn from one's opponent and apply what one has learned to achieve substantive results is a rare quality among military leaders, the product of a keen and supple intellect, and therefore worthy of praise not condemnation. In any case Scipio did not copy the structure and methods of Hannibal's army so much as he identified the most effective elements of Carthaginian warcraft and developed countermeasures tailored to the Roman system. In other words, he adapted to circumstances on the ground, also a rare quality--one that Hannibal manifestly (see above) did not possess. The notion that Scipio's victory at Ilipa "owes more to Hannibal as a model that to any ingenuity on Scipio's part" is rank foolishness, indicative of a failure to recognize that successfully modeling one's enemy to defeat him is in and of itself a manifestation of ingenuity, and no mean feat to boot.
Augustin scorns the notion that Scipio was an honorable man, citing his "butchery of civilians in three cities," without mentioning the many and serial atrocities Hannibal perpetrated on the Italian populace. He approvingly notes that Hannibal's largely mercenary army remained loyal to him but clearly does not understand that the loyalty of his troops was at once a function of external circumstances-they were in a hostile land, with nowhere to go-and, certainly, mindfulness of the horrific fate suffered by mercenaries and Libyan townships that revolted against Carthage after the First Punic War. He accuses Scipio of being an opportunist, as if this were a bad thing in generals, and for being concerned with personal glory, as if Scipio were unique in this respect. He excoriates Scipio refusing peace overtures from a man who invaded his country, occupied and ravaged great swaths of his homeland, and slaughtered his countrymen by the tens of thousands. And then he huffily denounces as "treacherous" a night attack on the camps of his enemies--the same enemies who had spent more than thirteen years marching to and fro through Italy, devastating the land and its people, leaving desolation in their wake. Prior to this episode the Carthaginians had presented Scipio with "very reasonable proposals," as well they might now that they were losing the war; and pretended to consider their very reasonable proposals, whiling plotting to destroy them. The nerve of the man! Augustin cries foul, and it is a sorry thing to hear. He makes no mention of the bouquets the Carthaginians presented to the Romans during their long and ruinous sojourn in Italy--because there were none.
What all really boils down to is that Augustin and Elissa de Cartago simply don't like Scipio and Rome. Both give the game away in this regard in the final sentences of their respective critiques,
where they cite Neil Faulkner's Rome-bashing book, Rome: Empire of the Eagles, in the most laudatory terms.
Of course you don't have to like Scipio or Rome to enjoy Gabriel's book: all that is required is an appreciation of excellent scholarship and a true story well told.