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Battle of Baecula

(208 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Carthaginian commander at the head of the army
Carthaginian leader at the head of the army

Battle of Baecula (208 BCE) was another victory of Scipio Africanus over the Carthaginian armies in Spain. The battle was important for the further development of Roman war art. Scipio copied Hannibal’s tactics, placing stronger troops on the wings, leaving the center to the light infantry.

Historical background

The conquest of New Carthage by the Romans was just one of the episodes of fighting in Spain. Although it increased Scipio’s chances of removing the Carthaginians from the Iberian Peninsula, it left open the issue of successful completion of the Spanish campaign by the Romans.

After capturing the city, there were still three Punic armies in Spain and there was still the possibility of their joint action against the young proconsul. It was understood by the Roman commander, who immediately sent Laelius to the capital to inform the Senate about the fall of New Carthage. In this way, he wanted to persuade Roman elites to provide more support for his army. After capturing the city, Scipio remained on the spot for some time, subjecting subordinates to a tedious military exercise. Then he directed his army to Tarraco to billet them for winter, planning to launch a crackdown on one of the Punic armies active in the Iberian Peninsula. The plans of his opponents are difficult to determine. One of the Punic commanders in Spain, Hasdrubal Barka intended to come to aid Hannibal in Italy. He planned to fight with Scipio, although it is hard to trust Polybius’ account that he wanted to enter Italy only in the event of a disaster in this clash.

Battle of Baecula in 208 BCE

Scipio Africanus

In the spring of 208 BCE, Scipio set out from Tarraco to met the Punic army. The clash took place near Baecula in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, where legionaries came across Hasdrubal Barkas’s army. This place, present-day Bailen, was located on uneven, bumpy terrain. The Punic commander occupied a very conveniently located position, which seemed impossible for the Romans to be taken by storm. On the top of the hill, he put up a camp covered by strong troops, its flanks protected by rocky hills, its back by a river. There was a plain stretching in front of the hills, which made cavalry manoeuvres possible. However, Hasdrubal preferred to be on the defensive and to wait for the action of the Romans, counting on a relief force. Scipio’s legionaries were to be tired with the uphill struggle on uneven terrain until Hasdrubal Gisgo or Mago’s army arrived, which was to provide an overwhelming numerical advantage to the Carthaginians. It may be that Hasdrubal hoped that the Roman commander-in-chief afraid of the surrounding would speed up the onslaught on the hills. For two days Scipio was observing the enemy from a position below the hills and realizing the possibility of the Carthaginian relief, actually decided to attack Hasdrubal forces. One part of the army composed of light-armed troops (velites) in the centre moved in the direction of the enemy camp. Climbing the slopes, the Romans were driving Hasdrubal’s guarding detachments back towards the higher mountain ridges. Meanwhile, the heavy infantry and cavalry moved on the enemy flanks. One group, led by Scipio himself, manoeuvred to the right-wing of the enemy’s position, while Laelius with the other group of the army moved to his left flank. The manoeuvres were carried out efficiently, which was the result of excellent army training, carried out before the campaign began. Both groups climbed both sides of the hill to the top and after regrouping attacked Hasdrubal forces there. The Carthaginian was not prepared for such a turn of events, and he did not have enough time to organize defence. One part of the Punic army was just heading towards the battlefield and there was no time to form it into a battle formation. The Roman attack caused Hasdrubal’s troops to collapse and retreat. According to Polybius and Livy, the Punic commander had already withdrawn his elephants and the treasury. After the battle, he gathered the survivors and set off with them towards the Tag valley. Punic losses were significant – Livy estimated the number of soldiers killed during Roman pursuit at 8,000 and according to Polybius, 12,000 Punic soldiers were taken, prisoner.

Plan of battle of Baecula.
Las Legiones Malditas (Santiago Posteguillo 2008)

The importance of the battle

The defeat of Carthage further undermined her authority on the peninsula. More Spanish tribes now turned to the side of Rome and Scipio was hailed as king by the locals. The battle contributed to undermining the morale of Hasdrubal Barka’s soldiers who would soon march into Italy and suffer defeat at the Metaurus River. However, it should be noted that the Punic defeat near Baecula was not devastating, as one part of Hasdrubal’s army managed to break away from the Romans and move towards the Pyrenes. The battle was important for the further development of Roman martial art. Scipio copied Hannibal’s tactics, placing stronger troops on the wings, leaving light infantry in the centre. It was units on both wings consisting of heavy infantry that was to outflank the enemy’s position. It is also worth noting that legions at Baecula did not fight in one combat line, but were divided into smaller groups of three maniples placed one after another. These groupings gave rise to new military units (cohortes) known at a later time.

Author: Marcin Bąk
  • Goldsworthy A., The Fall of Carthage. The Punic Wars 265-146 BC, London 2006
  • Nowaczyk B., Kartagina 149-146 p.n.e., Warszawa 2008
  • Sikorski J., Kanny 216 p.n.e., Warszawa 1984

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