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Character description of Scipio Africanus the Elder

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of African Scipio
Bust of African Scipio

The cynical use of the faith of fellow citizens to achieve their own political goals is not a feature only of today’s politicians. Already in the earliest periods, we find examples of people using similar practices. One such person was the Scipio Africanus the Elder (236-183 BCE), whom we know, thanks to reports from Polybius, that he had at least twice done such operations.

At the age of about 24, Scipio decided to apply for the office of Aedile, which was also sought at the same time by his brother. Because Scipio’s father was absent in Rome at that time, Scipio had to convince his mother of this idea, who agreed after hearing about her son’s dream. In his dream, Scipio was to return with his brother from the Forum, after receiving office, to the house where their mother greets. It actually happened.

Armed with this kind of lens by which he assessed reality, Polybius was sure that Scipio had deliberately deceived his mother and soldiers who were subjected to him a few years later.

Before conquering New Carthage in Spain, Scipio had to experience an extraordinary dream in which Neptune himself promised help. God was to present the plan of the attack on the city and to promise the Romans support in the fight in an open way. Assurance of the commander about divine assistance certainly had a considerable impact on the morale of the soldiers. In practice, Neptune’s interference proved to be a well-prepared battle plan using information received from local people.

New Carthage was on the cape cutting into the sea. An additional obstacle in getting to the walls was a large water reservoir connected to the sea by a channel. Fishermen informed Scipio that the reservoir is shallow, and that the water drains into the sea every day at the same time. Such an empty pool is possible to cross.

The battle plan was planned in such a way that the water level was lowered at a critical moment. Then a small detachment of properly selected soldiers and guides began their assault. The unit imperceptibly reached the city walls and burst inside, thanks to which it was possible to open the city gates and, as a consequence, what to get them. The sight of the unit running through the water gave a stunning impression on the rest of Scipio’s army. It happened as promised by the leader – Neptune assisted the siege.

From our perspective – a 21st-century man – Scipio’s behaviour gives the impression of being cynical, manipulating the environment to achieve his own benefits. It is worth adding, however, that Polybius himself considers this type of play as evidence of sound judgment and great intelligence, and Scipio himself as a person who should be considered the most divine and also the most pleasant gods.

Author: Piotr Pojawa
  • Anna Świderkówna, Bogowie zeszli z Olimpu, Warszawa 2008

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