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Capture of New Carthage

(209 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman soldiers in the Second Punic War
Roman soldiers in the Second Punic War.

Capture of New Carthage (209 BCE) was a great success of the Roman army under the command of African Scipio, during the Second Punic War. Rome after a series of defeats regained faith in his own strength and proved determination.

Historical background

Launched by the attack on Italy, the Second Punic War spilt over into the territory of the Iberian Peninsula, Africa and Hellas. The Romans, despite their involvement in Italy, did not hesitate to send legions to other parts of the Mediterranean. This allowed for the dismemberment of Carthaginian forces and made it easier for Rome to deal with individual enemy armies. It was the situation on the Iberian Peninsula that was crucial for the outcome of the war, where many clashes between both sides in the conflict took place.

Scipio Africanus

The war started in 218 BCE was at first a series of Roman disasters, who suffered huge losses at Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and especially at Cannae. At the battle of Cannae over 80 senators died, volunteering for war against Hannibal. More than half of all the military tribunes and consul Aemilius Paulus died on the battlefield. Huge personal losses forced the entry of the younger generation of commanders into politics. A classic example of this is Scipio Africanus, a son of consul in 218. According to Polybius, Scipio distinguished himself on the battlefield of Ticinus, where he was in charge of a horse unit set in reserve. When his father was surrounded by a group of enemy riders, Scipio decided to help him with his men. When they hesitated, the young aristocrat himself moved towards the enemy. Embarrassed Roman riders only followed him. As a tribune of the Second Legio, Scipio took part in the battle of Cannae, and after its completion, he found himself in a group of survivors who gathered together in the city of Canusium. Some of the young aristocrats who survived the massacre tended to escape from the Republic, which according to them was already lost. Sources describe how the young man came to the quarters, where the officers were discussing and made an oath in public that he would never leave the country, that he would not let others do the same and that he would kill them if they tried to leave their homeland. This attitude changed the mood among the gathered, who now moved towards the continuation of the fight.

Little is known about the further stages of Scipio’s career, except that since 213 BCE he held the function of curule aedile. More information appears after 210 BCE i.e. after taking over the supreme command in Spain. The very circumstances of the nomination are unclear. The huge losses in the army and the death of many experienced commanders caused the Roman elites not to take bold military action. It was during this period that the situation of the Roman army was dramatic. The father and uncle of Scipio, commanders in Spain, suffered defeat and died. At the end of their campaign, they enrolled 20 000 Celtiberians, who left both consuls and went over to the Carthaginians after the entire force was divided into two parts. The Romans who survived led by L. Marcius gathered on the north-east of the peninsula. Consul Nero, who was sent to Spain, returned to Italy after some minor successes were achieved. When nobody was willing to take over, Scipio came forward and Centurial Committees voted for him. The newly elected commander went with his army to Spain as a proconsul.

Scipio’s plans

The new commander landed at the allied Greek colony of Emporion with the forces of about 10 000 people. Marcius’ troops joined his army, increasing the number of Scipio’s troops to 28 000 infantry and 3 000 cavalry. At the time of the new general’s arrival, three Carthaginian armies were operating in the peninsula, each equaling in number to or even exceeding the newly formed army of the proconsul in this respect. Remembering the mistakes of his predecessors, Scipio decided not to divide his forces and decided on offensive actions. From the information he collected, Scipio learned that the enemy armies were far away from each other. In the area of Lusitania, near the mouth of the Tagus river, Hasdrubal Gisgo group was located. In the centre of the peninsula, Hasdrubal Barca besieged the city of Carpetani. Their brother Mago was in the south-west of Spain. Scipio knew about the quarrels between these commanders and ill-treatment of local tribes by the Carthaginians. After the defeat of the Romans on the Iberian Peninsula, the Carthaginians, feeling confident, began to exploit them ruthlessly. The answer was the revolts Punic armies had to suppress by force. Thus the locals did not feel sympathy towards Carthage, but for the time being they respected the strength of her arms.

The proconsul understood that he could not get involved in the fight against any of the enemy’s columns because after his presence in Spain was revealed, another Punic army could get in touch with that army to help them. The Carthaginians struggling with Scipio’s army could avoid fighting in the open field and postpone the battle until the relief arrived. Then, legions could be defeated by much more numerous Punic forces. Thus Scipio decided to strike at the main base of the Carthaginian Spain – New Carthage on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula. This fortress had a symbolic meaning, because it was the place from which Hannibal’s army set out for war. In addition, the capture of the city provided for the possibility of striking at the military potential of Carthage on the peninsula. In the city there was a lot of war equipment, there were many workshops producing weapons and craftsmen serving them. The city had a treasury and hostages coming from Spanish tribes. However, the acquisition of the New Carthage was not an easy thing, because the frontal attack meant a lot of damage among the attackers and the possible encirclement of the city with a rampart would take too much time and result in the danger of enemy relief. However, from the information received Scipio got to know about a small number of New Carthage‘s defenders and a lagoon adjoining the city from the east, through which it was easy to reach its walls after the water level dropped. Scipio spent the winter training his subordinates, inspecting the soldiers’ exercises and touring the tribes allied with Rome. The decision to attack the city was kept a secret, only the closest collaborator of the leader, Laelius knew about it. For the time being, Scipio praised the soldiers in his speeches, deprecating the previous activities of Punic people and told his subordinates that he intended to take the offensive next spring.

The battle of New Carthage

At the beginning of the campaign, Scipio concentrated the entire army near the mouth of Ebro. Out of the total number of all his soldiers 3, 000 infantry and 500 cavalry were to protect areas loyal to the Republic. Taking 25, 000 infantry and 2, 500 cavalry, Scipio set off on a forced march towards New Cartage, while his henchman Laelius sailed with a fleet of 35 ships along the coast of the peninsula in order to attack the city walls from the west. After reaching his destination, Scipio put up a camp in front of the city’s main gate, at the exit from the isthmus, connecting the mainland with the promontory on which the city was located. The hill on which his camp was founded was secured with an earth rampart and a ditch at the back. Explaining his plan of attack on the fortress, Scipio promised rewards for heroism in the coming battle. To encourage soldiers to the endeavour, he described his plan as the god Neptune’s work. The defenders’ forces consisted of 1, 000 mercenaries who were split into two parts – one of them occupying the hill with the temple of Aesculapius by the walls from the west and the rest guarding a hill with a citadel near the lagoon. They were supported by 2, 000 armed residents of the city, most of whom were ordered to take a detour through the main gate, the rest deployed along the walls with the supply of missiles.

Plan of siege and subsequent phases of attack on the New Carthage.
Cristiano64 | Na licencji Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The first assault on the city came from two directions: Laelius’ sailors attacked its walls from the west, while 2, 000 legionaries with ladders moved from the front. To delay the attack on the walls 2, 000 defenders sallied out through the main gate. In the beginning, Roman soldiers were unable to break the resistance they encountered because the defenders fought fiercely and with great enthusiasm. Following Scipio’s orders, the Roman lines were retreating towards their own camp, as if they encouraged the Carthaginians to advance boldly. The Roman commander, watching closely this battle, sent new reinforcements every now and again, which eventually led to the break of Carthaginian line. The defenders rushed to escape, during which many of them were killed or wounded. Losses of the fleeing also increased due to the fact that they wanted to enter the city through a narrow gate, which combined with common panic caused widespread chaos. Roman legionaries immediately reached the walls, leaning siege ladders against them. However, climbing after them they suffered heavy losses, exposed to a hail of missiles hurled down by defenders. In addition, some ladders broke under the burden of people descending them and others were repelled by defenders. Scipio, who realized poor effects of the assault, ordered his people to retreat. The commander of the defence felt satisfied with the course of the fight, because his subordinates, despite their losses, stopped the Roman war machine for a while. The hope was that thanks to this, relief would soon come, especially that Scipio’s soldiers rested for the next seven days. After this time, the Romans moved to the walls for the second time holding even more ladders. This attack was repulsed by the defenders with hardship because the number of their missiles had already declined during the previous assault. Meanwhile, to the east of the city, on the edge of a wide lagoon, Scipio prepared 500 soldiers with ladders, supported by guides – fishermen from Tarraco, who indicated a safe crossing place.

Taking advantage of the outflow of water, a group of legionaries easily waded through the lake and leaned the ladders against the walls enclosing the fortress at this point. They were not too high and did not have defenders guarding them, because the attack seemed unlikely at this place to the Carthaginians. After climbing onto the walls, the Romans advanced along with them towards the main gate. Fighting with short swords and protected with large shields, they easily defeated few opponents who stood their way. Legionaries attacking from the front, seeing these actions, gained even more enthusiasm for the fight. They formed into a turtle (testudo) and protected with their shields, came to the main gate, chopping it with axes. Meanwhile, the attack from the rear completely smashed the defence of the Carthaginians who rushed to escape. A group of the Romans attacking from this direction reached the main gate and opened it for their comrades. Meanwhile, legionaries attacking from the front and Laelius’ sailors easily climbed with the ladders onto walls stripped of defenders. One group of the Roman legionaries was given the order to kill every inhabitant encountered and went to the small streets of the city to spread terror. This was aimed to prevent further resistance from the population and mercenaries still occupying both hills. Scipio formed a column from other legionaries and led it through the main street to the urban market, where he divided it into two parts. One group moved towards the hill with the temple of Asclepios, and the general with the rest towards the hill with the citadel. The legionaries did not encounter much resistance from the mercenaries occupying both positions who laid down their arms after a short time. After the resistance stopped in the city, the Roman soldiers were allowed to plunder. The Romans’ trademark was the good organization of the division of spoils, which were carried on the main square where, under the control of quaestors, were offered for sale to merchants and Roman businessmen. The sums obtained in this way were distributed among legionaries depending on the rank. Another attraction was army parade and soldiers’ decoration standing out in battle. In this respect, there was even a dispute between the representatives of the fleet and the land army, who should be given a corona muralis – a decoration for the soldier who first climbed the walls. A quarrel that could turn into a fight was overcome by Scipio himself, who decided that both Sextus Digitius from the fleet and centurion Quintus Trebellius from the 4th Legion deserved to be rewarded.

The importance of the battle

The capture of the city was a personal success of Scipio, who had commanded such a large army for a short time. Taking up the attack on New Carthage, the young commander acted with typical Roman bravado, common among other leaders of this period. However, it is worth paying attention to precise planning and execution of the attack. Scipio threw all land forces in the direction of the main gate, engaging the defenders’ attention at this point. It was only when the Carthaginians expected it the least that he attacked through the lagoon on the unoccupied city walls. When his people crushed the defence and finally broke into the city, Scipio wisely kept a part of the army in reserve, which he led to the citadel and temple of Asclepios.

The Continence of Scipio, Nicolas Poussin.
After conquering Carthago Nova Scipio received a beautiful girl as a booty. Having learned that she was engaged, he returned her, intact, to her parents with generous gifts for her fiancé.

On conquering the city, the Romans took 10, 000 prisoners and a lot of war equipment and war machines. It was also a Punic treasury which got in the hand of the winners, its value estimated by questor Flaminius. Citizens of the city were set free, 2 000 artisans who did not have this status were turned into slaves of the Roman state and received the promise of freedom after the end of the war. Out of the remaining prisoners who were already slaves, Scipio selected candidates for service in his own fleet. Thus, he gained the base and resources for further warfare, becoming self-sufficient and independent from Italian supply. To gain the support of the local population, Scipio freed Spanish hostages held in the city. Thanks to this, many leaders of the local tribes directed their sympathy towards Rome, and new troops made up of natives stood at the side of the Romans.

Author: Marcin Bąk
  • Goldsworthy A., In the Name of Rome. The men, who won the Roman Empire, London 2006
  • Goldsworthy A., The Fall of Carthage. The Punic Wars 265- 146 BC, London 2006

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