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The Second Punic War
In 219BC Hannibal crossed the river Ebro, passing the border between Roman Iberia and Carthaginian Iberia, and sparking the Second Punic War. The Second Punic War would devastate Italia, throwing the Roman Republic into chaos and bringing the fledgling state as close to collapse as it had been since the Gallic sack of the city in 390BC. Hannibal's campaign would shatter the Roman legions and for eighteen years his veteran army would march up and down the Italian Peninsula, sacking towns and waging war against the Romans.
As the Roman Republic expanded across the Italian peninsula and into Sicily it came into conflict with the city of Carthage. Carthage had expanded into Sicily, Sardinia, and Africa constructing colonies, creating tribal vassals, and establishing a trade empire. Carthage commanded the finest navy in the western Mediterranean, and the gold from her trade ships bought a mighty army of mercenaries drawn from all over the Mediterranean.
While Carthage was expanding across the islands of the Mediterranean Rome was securing its hold on central Italy. Taking the helm of the Latin League Rome was able to defeat its many enemies, the Samnites, Umbrians, Gauls and Etruscans. They brought the Greek cities of Magna Graecia under their influence and defeated Pyrrhus of Epirus to secure their position. Pyrrhus had invaded Sicily to defend the Greeks from Carthage, and when he withdrew he left the Greeks without a defender.
In the First Punic War Rome would take the place of defender of Greek liberty, and face off against the Carthaginians. In a series of battles on land and sea, across the hills and mountains of Sicily and Sardinia, Rome defeated Carthage and drove them from the island. In this victory, Rome seeded an eternal enemy in Hannibal Barca.
The Roman Position
At the onset of the Second Punic War Rome was in a preeminent position in Italia and it had taken Sicily and Sardinia. Roman allies in Hispania held cities north of the river Ebro. Carthage was expanding, however. With their losses after the First Punic War, the Carthaginians needed to find new markets and sources of raw materials. Hannibal Barca found those resources in Hispania and forged them into the army that he marched across the Alps.
Hannibal swept down into Italy and wiped out the Roman armies in a series of magnificent battles. Roman allies were attacked, her armies decimated, and the Senate had no clear direction of how to end the war. It was here that Scipio enters the scene. Having survived Cannae, one of the most devastating defeats in Roman history, Scipio had a unique perspective of what Hannibal was capable of. Scipio would take the reigns of the Roman armies and with a stroke of brilliant foresight, he would change the face of the war.
Taking New Carthage
Scipio would change the formula for the Roman war effort and in doing so would bring about a Roman revival. Scipio did not face Hannibal Italy. He saw that the Carthaginian supplies and reinforcements were largely coming from Hispania. Rather than face Hannibal on the field where he was strongest Scipio took his legions to Spain and set about making war on the Carthaginians at the base of their supplies.
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In invading Hispania Scipio would have to use all the tricks of a great general to turn the raw Roman legions into a force capable of upsetting the balance of power. In his first act as supreme leader of the Roman forces in Hispania Scipio set about taking the Carthaginian capital in Hispania, New Carthage. Through the use of spies, diplomacy, and scouting Scipio learned where Hasdrubal and Mago, Carthaginian generals, had their armies encamped. He learned the strength of their garrisons, the disposition of local tribes, and the terrain of the lands he meant to conquer.
Rather than face the Carthaginians head-on, Scipio found where they were weakest. New Carthage was a mighty city, but it was poorly garrisoned. The Carthaginian generals were close enough to break a siege, but Scipio did not plan to besiege the city. In the ancient world storming a city was extremely difficult. A small force could easily outlast a larger force and inflict terrible casualties on an enemy trying to storm the walls. Scipio knew this, but he also knew his enemy. Scipio struck during winter, not the normal war season. When Scipio moved his army against New Carthage they were caught completely unaware.
The Carthaginian garrison tried to sally out against Scipio to delay the siege efforts, but they underestimated the Roman general's foresight. While they were in a panic Scipio launched a two-pronged attack on the city. Launching a feint on the front gate and a second attack by sea with boats and ladders Scipio disoriented and confused the garrison. However, both attacks were a ruse for a third attack.
Leading a small contingent of men Scipio led them in a foot assault across the lagoon. During low tide, the water in the lagoon was shallow enough to be forded on foot. Coming upon the city wall from an unexpected direction the assault force was able to take the wall without any resistance and then forced their way to the gate. In the wake of this third strike, the defenders were scattered. Naval forces landed at the same time that the Roman army stormed the city.
After the army broke through the walls they massacred the population until the garrison agreed to a surrender. They seized the supplies and port to prosecute their own war effort. Scipio gave the Iberian prisoners of war favorable terms, releasing them to their clans with Rome's goodwill. This act of mercy would be the first stone in Scipios plan to divide the Iberians from the Carthaginians. With the city under his control, Scipio was able to receive supplies and men for his war effort against the Carthaginian armies still stationed in Hispania.
The fall of New Carthage had a domino effect on all of Hispania. The Iberians revolted against the Carthaginians. Scipio divided the enemy generals and destroyed them one by one. Hispania was quickly lost to Hannibal, who without supplies was forced to commit to increasing levels of brutality to extract resources from the Italians. Speed, surprise, and a cunning plan allowed Scipio to break the Carthaginian stranglehold on Hispania and gave him the upper hand in preparing to invade Africa.
Sources and Further Reading
Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. The Punic Wars. London: Cassell, 2000.
Henry, Liddell Hart Basil. Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006.
Lowe, Benedict J. “Polybius 10.10.12 and the Existence of Salt-Flats at Carthago Nova.” Phoenix 54, no. 1/2 (2000): 39–52. https://doi.org/10.2307/1089089.
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