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.
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
“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.”