The Carthaginian commander of New Carthage, Mago by name, had only a thousand soldiers to defend the city, and most of them were mercenaries. Unlike Rome, Carthage never had its own citizen army.
He decided to keep them at their posts because he judged he couldn’t trust them very far.
He planned to use the two thousand native townsmen, who were ready to fight to the death to defend themselves, their families and property, in a desperate tactic. As soon as he heard the Roman bugles give their signal to attack, he opened the city gates and sent them out to charge the Romans and disorganize their attack. This worked for awhile. The Romans were in fact taken by surprise. The armies met at some distance from the city walls and the fighting was fierce. There were two important drawbacks to Mago’s tactic, however. One, that the townsmen were far from their base and the Romans near theirs. As the fighting went on and the soldiers tired, the townsmen had no place to retire and could not be relieved, while the Roman army was easily replenished with fresh troops coming from its camp.
And the other flaw turned out to be a near-fatal one. When the townsmen DID turn to run home, they all had to pass through the narrow city gate, which admitted only a few at a time. So when the panicky retreat came, they trampled on each other while trying to enter. Hundreds were crushed to death at the gate even before the enemy arrived. Though the Romans were not able to enter the city that day, the victory was clearly theirs.
Roman siegecraft and works (public domain photo)
The next day Scipio sent his men to scale the walls.
Though there were few defenders this was no easy matter because the walls were so incredibly high. “Few ladders were long enough to reach the top,” writes Livy, “and the longer the ladders the less secure they were. The first man up would find himself unable to get over, others would be mounting behind him, and the ladder would break under their weight. Sometimes the ladders stood the strain, but the height made the climbers dizzy, and they fell. When everywhere ladders were breaking and men falling, and success was bringing added keenness and courage to the enemy, the recall was sounded.” (Livy, The War with Hannibal, Book XXVI)
Fishermen had told Scipio that when the tide was out the lagoon on the north side of the city was so shallow his men could wade all the way to the city and attack where the defences were weak. So he personally led 500 men through the lagoon and managed to scale the walls and get inside New Carthage while his main attack was proceeding at the gate. When the defenders heard the fighting behind them, from somewhere inside their own defences, they left the walls and hurried to the citadel to make a last stand there. The Roman soldiers broke down the main gate and burst into the city, killing everyone they met. The Carthaginians fought desperately. At last their commander Mago surrendered.
Scipio knew that a good battle plan was only half his job. He had to collect allies from the Iberians or he would never have enough soldiers to meet the enemy armies out there waiting for him. He thought ahead. He knew just what to do when he conquered New Carthage.
He could have sold all the townsmen as slaves but he freed them and gave them back what was left of their houses and other possessions. The artisans he wisely kept around too. He made them Roman slaves but promised to free them in time if they helped to provide him with war materials. And after he had freed his loyal Spanish allies from their prisons, he loaded them with gold and other gifts in gratitude for their loyalty to Rome and sent them back to their tribes to whip up support and send him warriors.
The booty was one of the largest ever won from a city in ancient times. The money obtained from the sale of slaves was distributed among Scipio’s soldiers. The gold and silver was sent to Rome. The captured war material was a great help to the Roman army in Spain. By the capture of that single city Scipio had changed the course of the war and given Rome new hope.
There is a famous story Livy tells and painters like Poussin painted.
Scipio’s Noble Deed (1640) by Poussin (public domain photo)
Livy meant to illustrate Scipio’s self-control. He was always looking for models of virtue. But this is a very well-applied virtue. The story is another example of Scipio’s astuteness in making friends (and getting allies to fight for him).
A girl was brought to him after the surrender of New Carthage. She was dazzlingly beautiful: everyone turned to look at her when she passed. Yet she had remained untouched by the Roman soldiers. According to war custom, she now belonged to Scipio. He was told that she was from a noble Celtiberian family and was engaged to a chieftain named Allucius. Scipio called for him. “You are in love with this girl,” he said, “as I can well understand. If I weren’t who I am, caught up now in the service of my country, I would probably indulge my desires like other young men.. But as things are, I am going to give this love of yours my blessing. Under my orders the girl has been kept inviolate, worthy of myself and you, and she is yours. In return I ask only that you become a friend of Rome. You respected my father and my uncle. Perhaps now you can feel respect for me. I want you to know that there are many men like us in Rome and there’s nothing we’d like better than to be your friend.”
The parents of the girl had come to Scipio with a ransom for their daughter and when they heard that he would give her back to them free, they begged him to take the treasure as a gift. He told them to lay it at his feet. Then he called Allucius. “Here is my wedding present to you.”
Of course Allucius ran home purring with love for Rome and came back a few weeks later with a small army of his tribesmen to fight in Scipio’s army.
Here is another painting of the story by Nicolas-Guy Brenet:
Continence of Scipio, Nicolas-Guy Brenet, oil on canvas, 1788 (CeCILL license photo by Rama)
See Scipio Takes Command (Part 3) and learn more about the great Roman general.
Return to Scipio Takes Command (part 1)