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Battle of Great Plains

(203 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)


The fighting of the Second Punic War had been going on for over a decade. The scales of victory were tipping to the Roman side. In Italy, after his first victories, Hannibal became entangled in arduous fights which he could not win. In Spain and Sicily, the Romans defeated the Carthaginians. To successfully end the war, the Sons of the Wolf had to attack Carthage on its territory.

The person who had to face this task was Publius Cornelius Scipio, radiant with the fame of the victor of Baecula and New Carthage, who drove the Carthaginian army from the Iberian Peninsula. Having overcome the resistance of some members of the Senate (including the aged Fabius Maximus), Scipio received Sicily as a province with the possibility of conducting operations in Africa. The core of his army consisted of two “Cannen legions”. After the old and the sick were sent away and supplemented with volunteers, this resulted in two units of 6,200 infantry and 300 cavalries. By adding two units (alae) allies, we get a total of 25-30,000 people. The ratio of cavalry to the rest of the army was no greater than 1 to 10. Scipio did not immediately move to Carthage. He had to train an expeditionary army on the island and prepare supplies for it. When this goal was achieved, the chief sailed from Sicily.

African warfare

The Roman landing party reached the shores of Africa on the second day after leaving Sicily. The legionaries disembarked near Utica. Already at the beginning, Roman outposts clashed with 500 Punic cavalrymen. The Romans easily prevailed over the enemy – the higher commander Hanno and the commander of the Carthaginian cavalry died. Soon, Massynis joined the Romans with his entourage of 200 men. It was not a large group, but the Numidian prince was valuable because of his knowledge of the local areas. When another detachment of enemy cavalry (about 4,000 men) consisting of Numidians and citizens of Carthage challenged the Romans, they set an ambush for him. In accordance with the order of Scipio Massynis, he got involved in the fight with the enemy unit, and then led him to the position where the Roman cavalry was hidden. The Carthaginian commander was killed, 1,000 Punic soldiers were killed or captured during the preliminary fighting, and 2,000 during the pursuit. Then the Romans began the siege of Utica, which also lasted through the winter of 204-203 BCE. Meanwhile, two armies – Hasdrubal Gisgo and Syfax built separate camps 7-8 miles from the Romans. The forces of both allies were definitely more numerous than Scipio’s army, especially because this disproportion was visible in the cavalry. Showing his commitment to besieging the city, Scipio prepared night attacks on both camps. One attack, targeting Syfax’s camp, took the enemy by surprise, as did a second aimed at Hasdrubal’s camp. After this double victory, Scipio directed part of his army against Utica and sent part of it to ravage the area.

Battle of the Great Plains in 203 BCE

This defeat frightened the inhabitants of Carthage. The Punic authorities ordered Syfax to join the forces of Hasdrubal, who brought with him newly enlisted Celtiberian warriors (about 4,000 men). Thirty days later, the two chieftains combined their forces, bringing a total of 30,000 men camped in a fortified position in an area called the Great Plains (today’s Souk el Kremis). The Roman commander, having received a report about these forces, moved against them. Leaving the fleet and part of the army to besiege Utica, he moved towards the enemy’s whereabouts. He reached the slopes of the Great Plains after five days.

The size of his army is difficult to determine, but it was probably smaller than the combined army of Syfax and Hasdrubal. Scipio set up camp 4 miles from the enemy and on the first day let his soldiers rest. The next day the Romans marched towards the enemy on the plain, forming a formation less than a mile from the enemy. Initially, there were customary skirmishes from both sides with the participation of cavalry and light-armed men from both sides, However, on that day and probably for the next two days there was no major battle. Only on the fourth day did the two chieftains bring their armies so close that a fight became inevitable. The centre of the Punic formation was occupied by the Celtiberians, to the right of the infantry from Hasdrubal’s old army, covered on the right flank by cavalry. To the left of the Celtiberians stood the Numidians of Syfax. The Roman formation took the traditional form – with two legions in the centre and alae formations on either side. The right flank of the Roman formation was occupied by the Roman and Italian cavalry, the left by the Numidians of Massinis. The battle was quickly settled.

In the beginning, the Italian cavalry and the Numidian infantry of Massinissa defeated their opponents. Most of the Punic and Numidian infantry in Carthage’s service were scattered by the alae soldiers. For they were the same warriors, demoralized by recent defeats, facing the same soldiers who had taken their toll in previous clashes. The abandoned Celtiberians remained on the battlefield and stood firm against the Roman legionaries. According to Livy, these brave warriors were unfamiliar with the local areas, which prevented them from joining the escape. In numbers, the Celtiberians were at least roughly equal to the hastati of Scipio’s two legions fighting in the centre of the Roman formation. The Romans, lined up in triplex acies formed a column of principes and triarii which marched out from behind the hastati and attacked the Celtiberians from both flanks. Those surrounded on all sides ceased to exist as a unit, Of the entire group of these warriors only a few survived.

The meaning of the battle

Battle of the Great Plains was another blow to the morale of the flagging Carthaginian forces. After these defeats, the Council in Carthage came to the conclusion that the only survivor could be Hannibal, who had victories over Rome on his account. In 203 BCE so Barcida left Italy to defend his African homeland. The culmination of these events was the defeat of the Battle of Zama, which practically ended the Second Punic War.

Battle of the Great Plains was another personal success of Scipio Africanus, who, like at Baecula and Ilipa, used bold manoeuvres with columns of troops on the enemy’s flanks. So it was like a repetition of Hannibal’s manoeuvres at Trebia and Cannae. The weakness of the opponent also enabled him to win. In the battle, the Punicians operated forces that were not coordinated with each other, but their demoralization after previous defeats also had a large impact on the outcome of the battle.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Goldsworthy A., The Fall of Carthage. The Punic Wars 265-146 BC, London 2006
  • Sikorski J., Kanny 216 p.n.e., Warszawa 1984

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