Scipio Takes Command

Scipio was the man who finally beat Hannibal on the battlefield.

800px-escipion_africano Bronze bust of Scipio Africanus in the the Naples National Archaeological Museum (Inv. No. 5634), dated mid 1st century BC, from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, modern Ercolano, Italy (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licensed photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta). Scipio earned the surname Africanus after his victory at the Battle of Zama

He was only twenty-seven when the Roman senate gave him command of the armies in Spain.
His dad and his uncle had just been killed and their armies annihilated.
The young Scipio somehow convinced the Roman leaders that he could go over there and win Spain for Rome. They gave him 35,000 soldiers, a small navy, and their blessing. At the time, Hannibal was still ravaging Italy. Things looked very bad.

map_of_rome_and_carthage_at_the_start_of_the_second_punic_war-svgMap of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War (218 BC)
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licensed photo by William Robert Shepherd derivative work: Grandiose

Scipio had been following the Spanish wars very closely. There were three Carthaginian armies in the peninsula. How was he going to beat them? The obvious plan was to take on one army at a time. The danger was their joining up. There is mystery about how a senate of old men, however desperate, could give a young man, however sure of himself, such responsibility. But right from the beginning Scipio showed great leadership ability, independence of mind, boldness. His older officers urged him to engage the nearest Carthaginian army. He didn’t listen to them.

He had been working up a plan on his way over to Spain and when he arrived and got more information he decided to go ahead with it. He never told a soul about it until it was time to act. Then he called for Laelius, the commander of his navy. “Sail the ships down the coast toward New Carthage.”
“New Carthage?” It was the most important Carthaginian city in Spain. It had been founded by Hannibal’s brother-in-law.
“I’m going to march the army down there. Hug the coast and stay with us. We must keep in touch.”

Map of Spain showing the location of Cartagena (Hannibal’s New Carthage), still an important naval base.

Scipio’s army reached New Carthage (the modern Cartagena) in seven days, according to Livy. Even twice that long would be like flying. While the soldiers marched they could sometimes see Laelius’ warships out on the water. Of course they didn’t know where the devil their new general was taking them.
No one, Carthaginian or Roman, would have guessed what Scipio was up to. He had three armies to fight and he was moving away from all of them.

His army took up a position north of the city and threw up a dirt wall behind it. Finally General Scipio addressed his puzzled soldiers.
“Comrades, we’re going to take New Carthage! (Cheers)
“No one expects us here and the garrison is down to a few men, who are now scared to death as they watch us from their walls. (Laughter)
“I have ordered Admiral Laelius to move into the harbor with his ships tonight and secure the port. Tomorrow you men will storm the city from the points I have shown your captains.
“Maybe you think: what’s one more city? Well, comrades, New Carthage is not just another city. We take New Carthage and we take Hispania itself. It is the richest city in Spain and the best port. It is our enemy’s arsenal, his granary, his warehouse. The treasury up there on that rock holds the money Carthage needs to pay her mercenaries. From here our ships will control the routes to Gades and the Pyrenees, and to Africa. In addition, the prisons of New Carthage hold hundreds of our friends—Celtiberian kings and princes and their families—and we will free them.”

This is the New Carthage that Scipio proposed to take, though here it is reconstructed as a Roman city, 250 years later.

Cartago Nova, from the guide book of the Museo Arqueológico Municipal de Cartagena “Enrique Escudero de Castro”

Its citadel stands on the highest hill of a rugged peninsula. The beautiful gulf ( south of this map) is two and a half miles long and a mile wide. An islet at its entrance acts as a breakwater and keeps the winds out of the bay. A lagoon protects the city on the north and northwest side. Between the land masses there was a small strip of land in Scipio’s time. The Romans later removed it to join the sea to the lagoon and make it navigable; and they built a bridge and an aqueduct.

See Scipio Takes Command (Part 2) and learn how he took New Carthage and behaved himself when they offered him the most beautiful girl in the city.


Posted in archaeology, books, Hannibal, history, Romans, Scipio Africanus, Spain, warfare | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Bishop Chickens Out. Would You?

“The incense is in that bowl, Basílides,” said the Roman official. “When you are finished making your offering to the emperor, I will give you this certificate with my signature. Keep it with you and show it to any Roman official who might ask to see it and you will not be bothered further.”

Basílides looked at the bronze tripod with the fire burning, and the bust of the Emperor Decius. He had only to put his hand in the bowl of incense, bring out a few grains, and sprinkle them onto the fire. It was nothing. The official sitting at his desk would then sign his name to the little parchment strip and stamp it.

The official pretended not to pay much attention but he was curious. What would this Basílides do? He was an intelligent and well-educated man in his fifties. If he did not sacrifice to the emperor he would be thrown into prison and then fed to the lions in the amphitheater once the next group of rebels had been rounded up. He was known to be a leader of the illegal Christian community. They called him a bishop.

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Wikimedia public domain photo)

“Please,” said the official. “I don’t have all day.”

Basílides stood taller for a moment, then walked over to the tripod and sacrificed to the emperor Decius.
He was the bishop of the diocese of Leon-Astorga in 250 during the Decian persecution. The bishop of Merida (Emerita) likewise apostated.

Their sin naturally angered their Christian communities, who wrote to the Bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian, to ask for their dismissal.
Why did the Spanish Christians write to an African bishop to deal with this case? There was obviously a special relationship with the African Church. Most scholars believe Christianity came to Spain from Africa. Maybe Carthage was their Mother Church.

Cyprian fired the two apostates and called a synod of bishops. All this appears in the famous letter 65 of his correspondence, and it is the first real news we have of the infant Christian community in Spain (254 AD).

Basílides himself appealed to the bishop of Rome. The pope in Rome had no particular authority over the Spanish Church but Rome was reputed to be more tolerant. And in fact Pope Steven reinstated him. There is no record of the conflict this must have created.

Those bishops had sinned very gravely and needed some exemplary punishment, no doubt. The pile of stones is just over here….all you have to do is pick one up and throw it at them.


libellus This is a certificate like the one given to Basílides after he had offered sacrifice to the emperor as a god. It was called a libellus, and the owner, a libellaticus. Excavators in Egypt have turned up many of these. Every Roman citizen was obliged to possess one and show it on demand. The heavy writing in the middle is the signature of the presiding officer and the writing at the bottom is the date. It was issued in 250 AD, just the year Basílides apostated.

Read an actual letter from a Roman governor asking how to deal with the Christians in his province.



“Origen del cristianismo en Hispania”, pp.185-186, in Historia de la Hispania Romana, by A. Tovar and J. M. Blázquez; Alianza Editorial, S. A., Madrid, 1975

The photo of the libellus is from Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, p. 738, by James Henry Breasted; Ginn and Co., 1944



Posted in books, Christianity, history, literature, Mérida, religion, Romans, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Meeting Hemingway’s Hero

I knew a bar called Las Panderetas where bullfighters went and I had seen Nicanor Villalta sitting at a table in the corner one afternoon.  I could have approached him right then but I wasn´t ready, and by the time I had figured out what I could say to him he had gone to speak to somebody and the occasion was lost.

Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid

Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid (photo from file)

That night and a few other times I rehearsed the conversation I planned to have if I ran into him again.  And about a week later I went back to Las Panderetas and there he was again, sitting at the same table.  I sipped a glass of white wine (chato de vino blanco) at the bar while I went over my questions one more time and built up courage.  You´d have thought I meant to assassinate the guy.
OK.  One last look.  There he is now and looking in my direction.  Here goes.

I walked over to him and spoke just a little too soon, before I had reached him.  “¿Señor Villalta?”
His table was on a kind of podium and he bent way down to try to hear me.  “¿Perdón?”
“Are you Señor Villalta the bullfighter?”
“Sí,” he said dryly and sort of defensively.  Maybe he thought I wanted to sell him something or ask him for a dime.
Opposite him at the table was an old guy who took a deep interest in this interview and made me nervous with his watching.

“I´m American,” I began.
“Sí,” said Villalta again.  He was hard of hearing and listened with a grimace and a squint and one ear towards you.
“Last week the American bullfighter Sidney Franklin died.  Do you remember him?”
He didn´t hear me or understand me but fortunately the old guy with him at the table told him what I had said.
“Yes,” said Villalta, starting to look inside himself while he remembered.  “He was very brave.  Muy valiente.”   I wondered if he meant this as a false compliment.  Bravery was a lot more common than quality fighting.  Maybe he was saying that Franklin was brave but no good.
“He was left-handed,” he went on.  His statements came out one by one, decisively, the way old people often make them.  “He did all the pases the other way around.  It was very curious.  But it worked.  He was all right.  Yes, I remember him.”

I could see that that was about all I was going to get out of him on the subject of Franklin. He hadn’t asked me to sit down: I was still standing at the foot of his table/podium and sweating heavily.  Always so nervous.   But I tried to relax and make this conversation look casual.  “Would you let me buy you a drink?” I asked.
“No.”   Bad luck.      He wasn´t enjoying this conversation much.
“And Hemingway, do you remember him?”   The other guy at the table explained that I wanted to know about Ernest Hemingway, the writer.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo  (public domain)

“I think they introduced me to him once,” said Villalta.  You could see he had something against old Hem.
“You are in his book on bullfighting,” I said.
“Yeah, he called me I don´t know what kind of insect.”   I saw the misunderstanding right off.  Villalta cut a strange figure in the ring (and outside of it).  He was disproportioned: tall as a basketball player, with a wee little head on a long neck.  There was something stilt-like about his legs, something stiff about his way of walking.  Though he performed all the pases competently, he wasn´t pretty to see.  “He has a kind of praying mantis style,” wrote Hemingway.

“But Hemingway admired you, ” I said.
“Do you know he named his son after you?”  This last wasn´t rehearsed.  It may not even be true.  I knew one of Hem´s sons was called Nicanor and deduced.
But Villalta wasn´t appeased.  He had made a judgment on Hemingway years before and that was that.  He went back to Franklin.   “Your Franklin wasn´t around very long,” he said.   “I remember an awfully big cornada (horn wound).”
“Did you get many?”
“No!” He almost shouted it.  He looked exasperated, as though for years he had been fighting a recurrent lie.   “Very few.  None.”
Not every bullfighter sees gorings in the same way.  Some brag about them.  Villalta seemed to think that you got gored out of incompetence, mostly, and poor judgment.  That if you understood bulls you didn´t get gored except now and then from bad luck–the wind, the bull´s distraction.

He was one of the very greatest of bullfighters.  He still has the record for ears in the Madrid ring.  He must have made big money in the early ’30s but by the time I knew him he was so poor he had to ask for help.  I went to a benefit fight for him.  He came down into the ring to take the applause of the crowd and one last time made a trip around the ring and even tried to run a little–sideways like they do, with his arms outstetched.  But his old legs were too stiff and he had to give it up and just bow.  In his old suit which was too big for him he looked like a tall scarecrow, or with his little head, like a …praying mantis.

So that’s how I begged an old guy for change.  What he had he gave in the ring to the people who paid for it then.  I  won´t be such an ass as to complain that what I made him give me out of his old  pocket wasn´t worth much.

(photo source)

Here is some of what Hemingway says about him in Death in the Afternoon:

“…When he does a great faena [performance, the torero’s work] it is all valour; valour and that magic wrist, and it makes you put up with the greatest awkwardness…You are certain to see him looking as awkward as a praying-mantis any time he draws a difficult bull, but remember that his awkwardness is caused by his physical structure, not cowardliness.

photo of Nicanor Villalta y Serrés (1897-1980) from Death in the Afternoon

“Because of the way he is built he can only be graceful if he can put his feet together, and where awkwardness on the part of a naturally graceful bullfighter is a sign of panic, in Villalta it only means that he has drawn a bull which he must spread his legs apart to work with. But if you ever see him when he can put his feet together…then you will forgive him the neck God gave him, the muleta the size of a bed-sheet that he uses, and his telephone-pole legs, because his strange mixture of a body contains enough valour and pundonor [moral imperative, sense of honor and responsibility] to make a dozen bullfighters.”

Though I only guessed about it at the time, it is a fact that Hemingway named his first son after Villalta. (“If the baby had been a girl we would have named her Sylvia. Being a boy we could not call him Shakespeare.  John Hadley Nicanor is the name. Nicanor Villalta the bullfighter.” Letter to Syvia Beach, Nov. 6, 1923)

Hemingway put in a long afterward about Sidney Franklin in Death in the Afternoon.  He says things like this:

“Franklin is one of the most skilful, graceful, and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today…He is a better, more scientific, more intelligent, and more finished matador than all but about six of the full matadors in Spain today, and the bullfighters know it and have the utmost respect for him.”

Sidney Franklin (1903-1976) public domain photo by Carl Van Vechten

Hemingway was proud of his friendship with Franklin, who taught him much about bullfighting. Franklin died in a New York nursing home in 1976.


Posted in 1, bullfight, fighting bull, Madrid, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments