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War of two Scipio. Warfare in Spain in 218-211 BCE

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Carthaginian army consisted of various nationalities. In the picture we can see Iberian, Celt and Numidan
The Carthaginian army consisted of various nationalities. In the picture we can see Iberian, Celt and Numidan

In the second half of the third century BCE, the Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by three peoples divided into tribes. In the west, in the areas roughly equivalent to today’s Portugal, the Lusitannians lived. In the north were the lands of the Celtybers – a people created by the mixing of migrating Celts with the Iberians. The Celtybers created a culture distinct from both the Celts and the Iberians. The latter inhabited the south and middle of the peninsula.

The population of Spain was even more divided than the people of Gaul. The loyalty of most tribesmen was centred on individual urban centres. They were always fortified and usually situated on the tops of hills. Some cities in the south, such as Sagunt, became very prosperous in competition with the Greek and Punic colonies there. Power on the peninsula belonged to the chiefs of tribes, whose prestige depended on military success. Each of them could conquer the lands of neighbouring peoples by conquest, but even smaller defeats in battles could mean more frequent invasions by their neighbours and, consequently, the fall of power and prestige. Such a political situation was encountered by Carthaginians in Spain when after the First Punic War they began conquering these lands. The indigenous Punic territories were centred only around a core encompassing the lands around New Carthage and Gades. The rest of the lands will be the territories of mercenaries or, more often, allies of the warring parties. In the Second Punic War individual tribes will support Rome or Hannibal, based on the current advantage of one of the parties. When an ally weakens, they will join forces with the side gaining the advantage.

Warfare in Spain 218-211 BCE

In 218 BCE, after an unsuccessful attempt to detain Hannibal on the Rhône, Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio (father of Scipio the Africanus) set off for Cisalpine Gaul, sending his brother Gnaeus with his army to Spain. Gnaeus’ army consisted of two legions and a strong contingent of allies, totalling 20-25,000 men. Sailing along the shores, the army landed on the territory of the allied Greek colony of Emporion. The Carthaginian army that Hannibal left behind in Spain numbered 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalries. Gnaeus moved against this force and defeated it near Cissa, near modern Tarragona. The commander of the Ilergets Indibilis and the Carthaginian commander Hannon with the luggage of the Punic army were taken captive in Rome.

Soon most of the tribes and cities north of the Ebro fell under Roman rule. Meanwhile, Hasdrubal Barka, commanding all the Carthaginian troops on the peninsula, set off against the Roman enclave, led by 8,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalries. He crossed the Ebro and launched an attack on the soldiers of the Roman fleet scattered in the coastal zone. Roman sailors, who had not expected the attack, were defeated. Gnaeus punished several officers for this defeat. Hasdrubal, however, did not take advantage of this success, not wanting to risk a longer campaign or a clash with the main Roman army. Meanwhile, the Romans secured the support of not only Greek cities on the coast, but also tribes in the interior of the peninsula. They delegated some of the troops to defend the captured and allied territories and withdrew the main army to the area of ​​Tarraco for the winter.

In the spring of 217 BCE, Hasdrubal assembled greater forces to attack the Roman enclave again. The Punics collected 40 ships (mostly five-row ships), which, under the command of Hamilcar, left the new Carthage, moving along the shore, parallel with Hasdrubal’s land forces. The Romans dispatched 35 ships against this fleet, sending legionaries to them as sailors. Some of the Roman ships were delivered by the citizens of Massilia, known as good sailors. Gnaeus sailed south, stopping the fleet ten miles ahead of enemy squadrons and sending two ships from Massilia as reconnaissance. When their crews informed the commander that the Punics had deployed their fleet near the mouth of the Ebro, the Roman commander decided to attack it. However, Punic scouts warned their own of Gnaeus’ movements, allowing the Carthaginian crews to prepare for battle. The battle did not last long and ended with the victory of the Romans. The Punics lost 2 ships, 4 lost their oars and crews, and 25 fell prey to the Romans. The defeat of Carthage was due to the poor training of the crews of Punic ships. About a quarter of them have recently been commissioned, and the remaining ship crews may not have been adequately trained.

After this victory, the Roman fleet made several raids along the enemy-controlled coast, as a result of which more communities on the peninsula decided to make an alliance with Rome. The successes of Gnaeus Scipio encouraged the Senate to send him reinforcements to Spain under the command of his brother Publius. The latter at the end of 217 BCE came to the peninsula with 8,000 people, food and supplies. He was accompanied by 20 or 30 warships. The task of the two brothers who received the imperium proconsulare was to the offensive against the Punics on the peninsula and prevent Punic troops, money and supplies from being transported from Spain to Italy. At the head of their combined forces, Publius and Gnaeus crossed the Ebro and approached Sagunt, where, with the help of the local aristocrat Abilyx, they succeeded. Abilyx led to the release of the Spanish hostages in the power of the Carthaginian garrison and handed them over to the Romans. They gained the support of the local tribes by freeing them.

Meanwhile, Hasdrubal in 216 BCE received small military reinforcements from Carthage and the order to march to Italy to help his brother. At the end of 216 BCE or the beginning of the war season 215 BCE, the Romans regrouped and faced Hasdrubal near the village of Ibera south of the Ebro. For several days, the two armies camped opposite each other, with no intention of engaging in a major battle. Eventually, the Romans and the Carthaginians advanced in battle formation. The subordinates of Publius and Gnaeus stood in a traditional triple formation with cavalry on their wings. Hasdrubal placed the infantry of the Spanish allies in the centre, the right flank was taken by the Carthaginians, and the left flank was taken by the mercenary and Libyan infantry. It is possible that right-wing Carthaginians came from Phoenician colonies in Spain. The right flank was covered by a Numidian cavalry, the army was supported by 21 elephants. Historians believe that the forces of both sides were rather balanced. The battle quickly took a favourable turn for the Romans, whose triplex acies quickly broke through the enemy’s resistance in the centre. The reserve Roman lines took advantage of the breach and headed for the flanks of the enemy army, but the Libyans and Punics put up more stiff resistance to the Roman troops on the flanks. On the other hand, Hasdrubal’s cavalry offered little resistance and fled, seeing the pogroms of their own infantry. The Romans then captured and plundered the Punic camp. The victory at Ibera allowed them to gain even more allies among the tribes of the peninsula. However, after the famous defeat at Cannae, they had fewer opportunities to strengthen their troops with reinforcements from Italy. Meanwhile, the Carthaginians, concerned about Hasdrubal’s failures, sent him reinforcements in the form of Magon Barka’s troops, originally intended for operations in Italy. However, the Punic forces were divided among the individual chiefs, who were in conflict with each other, and spread over a large area (they had to protect their allies and suppress the revolts of the local population). All this made it difficult to coordinate Punic activities in the Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, the period after 215 BCE is the time of the Roman successes of war, their bolder attacks on the territory under Carthage, their victories and successful sieges.

Iberian Infantry

In 211 BCE, Roman leaders decided to launch another offensive in Spain. Meanwhile, the Punic armies under the command of Magon and Hasdrubal Gish joined together and found themselves 5 days’ march from the Romans, while Hasdrubal Barka was even closer to them – near the city of Amtorgis. Roman commanders had previously been reinforced with a contingent of 20,000 Celtybers, which made them feel ready to fight both enemy groups at the same time. They moved to Amtorgis and split the army into two parts: Publius led two-thirds of the army (legions and Italian allies) against Magon and Hasdrubal Gisgo, and Gnaeus with one-third of the old army and Celtyber troops turned against Hasdrubal Barka. The latter entered into confidential negotiations with Celtyber leaders, whom he paid for the withdrawal of the Romans and returning home. The Celtiberian apostasy came as a surprise to Gnaeus, who had to hastily retreat with the rest of the army. Meanwhile, Publius was also lucky earlier. As his army approached the Magon and Gisgo camps, he was disturbed several times by the Numidian horsemen under the command of the young prince Massynisy. The forage-collecting soldiers and Roman outposts suffered a lot from these attacks, and this insistence of the Punics increased the general nervousness in the Roman ranks. Publius, not wanting to allow the Punic forces to join the forces of leader Indibilis, decided to attack the latter. Leaving a small squad to guard the camp, he set out at night with the rest of the army. When Publius clashed with Indibilis at night, neither side was able to form a battle formation. The Romans of Publius, however, were spotted and attacked from the flank by Massynissa’s men. When the main Punic army appeared on the battlefield, the outcome of the fight was doomed. Publius was killed by a spear strike while driving along the front line and giving orders. The death of the leader led to the complete deposition of the Roman ranks and the escape of the legionaries, during which they were massacred by the Numid and the light Carthaginian infantry. After the three Punic chieftains joined their forces, Gnaeus decided to continue his retreat. And he was caught up by the Numids, who began to tear at the Roman column, forced to constantly reformat to resist the attackers. Around evening, Gnaeus took his position on the hill where the Romans had formed a ring around the luggage and the sparse cavalry. The area was not suitable for building a dike and digging a trench for the camp, so the Romans surrounded themselves with saddles and luggage, which initially delayed the progress of the Punic army. However, the advantage was on the side of the Carthaginians, who easily defeated their enemies. Some Romans managed to escape the slaughter at night and take refuge in Publius’ camp. Their commander, Gnaeus Scipio, was killed in combat or died in a chase. The remnants of the brothers’ army were gathered by a certain Marcius, a tribune or a centurion, who decided to stay with them in the areas north of the Ebro.


The defeat of both Scipio was a surprise to his contemporaries. For several years, the armies of the brothers were more or less successfully held in check by the Punic troops in Spain, preventing Hannibal from sending reinforcements to Italy. This contributed to the final defeat of Barkida on the Apennine Peninsula. The question remains, could both Scipio avoid defeat? Self-confidence and over-trust in local tribes contributed to their defeat. If they had not decided to fragment their large army, perhaps the Celtybers would not have departed and they could have fought longer in Spain. Meanwhile, the Scipios operated too briefly on the peninsula to learn about the specifics of the local population to an extent equal to that of Carthaginian chiefs.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • A. Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage. The Punic Wars 265-146 BC., London 2006

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