Scipio Takes Command (Part 3)

How could the Roman Assembly give the command of an army to a boy of twenty-seven (Livy says twenty-four)?

Gold signet ring from Capua with the portrait of Scipio Africanus.  (late 3rd or early 2nd century B.C.)  (public domain photo)

In the first place, Scipio was not an unknown goatherd from the Apennines but a member of one of the great patrician families of Rome. He had served with his father in three battles against Hannibal and his good sense and bravery were known to everyone. His knowledge of warfare was clearly superior to that of most other community leaders, no matter how old.

But those qualities alone may not have convinced people to choose him as their champion. What won him the vote was his skill as an orator and self-promoter.

Livy says that when the Senate called elections to choose a new proconsul for Spain no one offered himself as a candidate. They were all scared. Two Roman armies under two of her best generals had just been annihilated and the Carthaginian armies who did it were camped and waiting to annihilate the third as soon as it showed up.

Scipio had his act ready. At the voting assembly in the Campus Martius, after waiting for the people to become worried, even desperate, he very dramatically stepped forward (actually mounted a little hill) and announced that he was ready to lead the army and face any damn enemy. The relief and joy of the assembly was such that the crowd cheered and every last one of them voted for him.

Yet immediately afterwards, many began to worry that they had done a foolish thing. He was so young! And now that they came to think of it, wasn’t it unwise to count on someone whose father and uncle had just been killed? Remember that the Romans were superstitious. Apparently the Scipio family was jinxed.

Scipio was quick to sense this anxiety of theirs, says Livy; and he talked to them. With wonderful skill he loosened that knot of their worries. He talked about his youth and the victories he was going to achieve; and he did it in such a sure and comforting way that he made them all enthusiastic again. Scipio! Scipio!

He had a golden tongue.

A bust of Scipio Africanus found at Herculaneum (public domain photo)

“Scipio was a remarkable man not only by virtue of his attainments; he had also from his early youth practised their display by certain deliberate devices,” says Livy. Devices?

He had a way of making people wonder whether he was actually divine.
Every single day, already from the time he had first put on the toga virilis, he went to the temple on the Capitol first thing in the morning and sat down alone, waiting, listening, as though in direct communication with the gods. Though this sounds to us like praying in church, the Romans had no such personal relationship with the gods; the temple was a place for prescribed offerings and public prayers, not for “meditation”. So Scipio’s little act was meant to provoke wonder: could he be divine like Alexander the Great, for instance?
To further this myth about himself he used to declare that most of his public actions were inspired by dreams, visions, warnings from heaven. And he saw to it that strange stories were spread which gave him an aura that set him above other men. And when they got back to him he never said a word to diminish belief in them, but skillfully promoted them.
“That,” says Livy, “was the reason why the citizens of Rome entrusted the heavy burden of this important command to a man who had by no means reached full maturity.”

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7 Responses to Scipio Takes Command (Part 3)

  1. lance says:

    This blog is great very enjoyed the history… great Scipio

  2. 100swallows says:

    Csaunders4z: Thanks a lot for your comment. I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I’m no expert but I don’t think there is any contemporary account of that meeting. Polybius is the closest we get. He talked with Masinissa, the Numidian king who fought with Scipio Africanus, and also with Carthaginians who had known Hannibal. Also he became friends with Scipio Aemilianus, who told him a lot of good stories handed down in the Scipio family.
    You will never run out of fascinating places to visit here–at least I haven’t.

  3. csaunders4z says:

    Hi there! Just found your blog and am greatly enjoying it. Scipio was indeed a rare specimen — at least, in terms of leaders since. I, for one, would like to have been there when he and Hannibal finally met, face-to-face: Imagine what the two would have said! It seems you’ve got a great handle on contemporary (or nearly contemporary) sources — any idea if a source exists that describes their meeting?

    In any event, keep up the good work. This has just become one of my favorite blogs, and your About page has inspired me to add Spain to my list of places to visit.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Madame Monet. I have more to say about Scipio and the historians who wrote about him. But I’ll put that in a future post or two on them.

  5. wpm1955 says:

    Very interesting follow-up to the previous two fascinating posts!

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine
    winewriter.wordpress.com

  6. erikatakacs says:

    He also knew how to create an image. Wow. Wonder what would he choose to become today?

  7. Pingback: Scipio Takes Command (Part 2) « Great Names in History

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