John David Lewis
Review of Richard A. Gabriel, Scipio
Africanus: Rome's Greatest General. Washington, DC: Potomac
Books, 2008. Pp. xxii, 303. ISBN 978-1-59797-205-5.
Richard Gabriel, a retired U.S. army officer and
a distinguished and prolific military historian,
has set out to correct a historical injustice: the misunderstanding
and neglect that is often the fate of great military commanders.
There is a plethora of books on Hannibal, who launched a war of
conquest and was defeated, but no current scholarly biography of the
genius who defeated him. B.H. Liddell Hart's 1926 Scipio
Africanus: A Greater than Napoleon
was written in defiance of the anti-Scipionic, pro-Hannibalic works
then flooding the market, but as Gabriel notes, that work is neither
scholarly, accurate, nor comprehensive. H.H. Scullard's Scipio
Africanus: Soldier and Politician was designed to counter the
problems in the Liddell Hart's treatment, but it is out of print and
in any case unsuitable for non-expert readers.
Gabriel has crafted an energetic narrative that remains true to the
evidence. He stresses Scipio's stature as "Rome's Greatest General,"
without falling into conjecture or unsupported encomium.
Gabriel tells a compelling story while eschewing
jargon and digressions into academic debates, all the while
synthesizing a broad range of scholarship. The focus is dominantly
strategic--Scipio's status rests on a breathtaking strategic
vision--but Gabriel also delves into tactical innovations,
diplomatic solutions, and political maneuverings. In the process, he
exposes inconsistencies in the major sources--Polybius gets some
dressing down, while the poetic Punica of Silius Italicus is
given a bit more credence than it deserves--and then presents
commonsensical solutions to the problems that arise.
The structure of the account is basically
chronological, with a topical overlay. Gabriel wisely begins with a
chapter, "The Man," that surveys Scipio's life. This concern for
context then extends into two chapters that establish Rome's
strategic position and the state of the army prior to Scipio's
assuming command in Spain (211 B.C.). The events of his life are
marked by notable firsts: Scipio was the first Roman to shave, a
practice that was extended to the entire army; he was the first
commander called imperator (he refused the title "king");
he established the first Roman overseas colony, at Italica, modern
Santiponce, about five miles northwest of Seville in Spain (this
city later gave Rome its emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and probably
Theodosius); and he made the
first land grants to soldiers under a state commission that avoided
extending the authority of the commander to preeminence over Rome
itself (3, 138-9, 205). But most importantly, Gabriel sees Scipio as
the first military thinker to combine wide-ranging strategic insight
with tactical genius as a means to securing specific policy ends.
Scipio's first task was to break Carthaginian power
in Spain. Gabriel's treatment of the "Spanish Campaign" illuminates
the real problems Scipio faced: the division of Roman forces between
two Roman officers, Lucius Marcius and Gaius Claudius Nero; the
fickleness of the Spanish tribes, the difficulties of terrain and
geography, as well as three Carthaginian armies. One of Scipio's
greatest achievements--perhaps embellished in the historical record,
but showing his ability to integrate a range of knowledge into a
single daring action with broad strategic consequences--was his
attack on New Carthage. Polybius says Scipio surprised the
Carthaginians by accomplishing this in seven days. Gabriel
convincingly shows that Scipio could not have traversed 400 miles of
hostile territory in such a time--it would have taken twenty days at
minimum--but also how he did indeed achieve tactical surprise while
an enemy army was actually closer to the goal than he was. Gabriel
is at his best when he sets out such a problem and takes us through
to a solution.
As is often the case in such narrative
treatments, Gabriel at time grants more weight to the sources than a
classicist would. He assumes there were two battles at Herdonia and
then confidently cites figures of those killed (50-1); similarly he
cites the precise figure of 54,200 killed at Cannae (49). He accepts
as uncontroversial the claim that Scipio built the ships he needed
for the invasion of Africa in forty-five days (143). We read "As
Scipio himself tells us ..." in a passage composed by Livy (132).
But these lapses--difficult to avoid in continuous narrative--are
more than outweighed a straightforward willingness to hold Polybius
and Livy accountable for implausible, missing, or contradictory
information and interpretations, and to consider problems military
commander actually faced. Why, for instance, did Hasdrubal engage
Hannibal at Baecula, even though outnumbered and acting contrary to
his own mission?
Though staunchly pro-Scipio, Gabriel does not
ignore Scipio's limits and even failures, like his diversion to
Locri in Italy on the eve of the African invasion, which put him at
risk of both a Carthaginian siege and a clash over authority with
his fellow consul. Similar perplexities accompany Scipio's attack on
Africa, in which he again maintained tactical surprise during an
expedition that could not be hidden, this time by keeping his final
objective secret (like Sherman in his march to the sea). But why did
Scipio besiege Utica, which "seems to have been a strategic error?"
Gabriel reminds us that we may not have the facts right, or may be
misunderstanding Scipio's goals: he was attempting to control
factions in the Carthaginian and Roman senates, the Numidian
leadership, his own men and his allied soldiers, as well as the
people of the African countryside, all the while well aware that a
replacement commander could rob him of credit for his victory.
The deeper question about this narrative is
whether it distorts the nature of Scipio's strategic intentions and
his vision. Of the last battle in Spain, at Ilipa, Gabriel writes:
"There is no better example in military history of a battle in which
a weaker force gained so complete a victory over a stronger one"
(122). But he then raises the stakes to a higher level, granting to
Scipio "a disciplined, strategic mind seeking a long-term solution
to Rome's security problems with Carthage" (125). This frames
Gabriel's account of the final battles on Spain, which were designed
to "eradicate" Carthaginian power by exerting permanent Roman
mastery of the Spanish tribes: "Scipio saw the occupation of Spain
as the beginning of a policy of Roman territorial expansion" (126).
The comprehensiveness of Scipio's final victory over Carthage makes
this plausible--but it is far from certain that Scipio thought
within the kind of strategic framework available to a modern-day
Gabriel risks overestimating the scale of
Scipio's strategic vision. Hannibal's invasion of Italy certainly put Rome
at a crossroads: to defend Italy required military action overseas,
in all four directions. But do the ensuing Roman victories so
clearly attest to the strategic thought processes of their chief
architect in the Republican era? Such conclusions could also be
drawn about Hannibal, who sought a strategic solution to the problem
of Rome (the permanent dissolution of Rome's
political leadership on Italy), pursuing alliances in Greece, Gaul,
Spain, and Africa, even forming an Italian federation, centered on
Capua, to fill the vacuum left by Rome's retreat. By achieving this
wide range of purposes, Hannibal could have returned Carthage to the
forefront of Mediterranean affairs. His ultimate failure may not
demonstrate a lack of strategic thinking, but, as Susan Mattern and
others have shown, our use of strategic categories to begin with may
obfuscate the serious differences between ancient thinking as
regards time and space and our own satellite views today.
This criticism aside, Gabriel does a superb job
of connecting major conclusions to events on the ground, dealing
with load capacities of ships, land battle formations, and the
broader implications of such matters for Roman strategy and policy.
According to Gabriel, for instance, Polybius's interpretation of
Zama--Scipio's final defeat of Hannibal in 202 B.C.--fails to
distinguish between standard phalanx tactics and Scipio's use of
more maneuverable, echeloned formations: Scipio's tactics allowed
his second and third lines to move laterally and create an
envelopments, rather merely push the front line forward. This lends
credibility to Gabriel's claim that at Cynoscephalae in 197--in the
absence of Scipio--one of the military tribunes saved the day by
abandoning the line and swinging around the enemy. Many officers at
Cynoscephalae had trained under Scipio, whose campaigns pioneered
just such methods.
Gabriel stresses Scipio's enormous influence
after the war with Carthage at the higher levels of grand strategy
and policy. His election for a second term as consul in 194 is only
the most visible aspect of a political auctoritas exerted to
support at least six consuls, and to promote colonies and land
reform. His influence on foreign policy did not end with the terms
of the peace with Carthage, but carried into Roman action against
Philip V, arguably business leftover from the Hannibalic war.
Gabriel connects Scipio's support for Flamininus during the Second
Macedonian War (200-196) to philhellenism, a shared awareness of the
value of Greek culture tempered by the need to chastise a tyrant.
But Scipio himself did not get a command, an example, as Gabriel
follows others in pointing out, of how Rome could be manifestly
unfriendly to one of its own saviors.
In the end, one must ask whether the book's
narrative and strongly stated conclusions do justice to the
evidence. Almost every assertion in it may be challenged on some
level--such is ancient history. But to have highlighted such
disagreements would have changed the tenor of the narrative and done
violence to the exciting life of Scipio. Gabriel displays his own
organized train of thought--the product of modern military
training--in subjecting Scipio's life to systematic evaluation. The
product is a vibrant addition to the corpus of materials on the
Second Punic War, focused on its greatest hero and its victor,
 See, e.g., among other books, No More
Heroes: Madness & Psychiatry in War (NY: Hill & Wang, 1987),
The Culture of War: Invention and Early Development (NY:
Greenwood Pr, 1990), The Great Armies of Antiquity
(Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), and Muhammad: Islam's First
Great General (Norman: U Oklahoma Pr, 2007).
 Rpt. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1994.
 Ithaca, NY: Cornell U Pr, 1970. Although not
noted by Gabriel, Alexander Acimovic has released a biography
Scipio Africanus (NY: iUniverse, 2007), reviewed by
John Jacobs in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.01.20 <link>.
 Susan P. Mattern, Rome and the Enemy:
Imperial Strategy in the Principate (Berkeley: U California
--updated 6 Jan 2009