The Battle of Ilipa
Rome Strikes Back

From the original article on August 10, 2021. Author: Aquila.


Publius Cornelius Scipio launched his stratospheric military career at 18, nearly the same age as Alexander at Chaeronea and Caesar when he won corona civica. Scipio's father, one of that year's consuls, was the first Roman to confront Hannibal after the latter crossed the Alps. They met in Cisalpine Gaul at battle at Ticinus (218 BC). His father granted him a small bodyguard and stationed him on a hill behind and overlooking the battlefield. Upon seeing the battle turn against his father, Scipio pled in vain with his chaperones to aid him in turning the tide. asked by the consul with preserving their young ward's life, they refused. Scipio, upon seeing his father surrounded and in mortal danger, was seized by Dionysian surge of madness and valor!

Gaius Laelius says (via Polybius 10.3) that Scipio

...plunged by himself with reckless courage into the midst of the enemy: whereupon, his comrades being forced to charge also, the enemy were overawed and divided their ranks to let them pass; and Publius the elder, being thus unexpectedly saved, was the first to address his son as his preserver in the hearing of the whole army. Having gained an acknowledged reputation for bravery by this exploit, he ever afterwards freely exposed himself to every sort of personal danger whenever his country rested its hope of safety on him.

After his saving his father's life, Scipio would go on to save his Republic's.

But first, Hannibal would smash four legions at River Trebbia and massacre another four on the shores of Lake Trasimene. His campaign climaxed on August 2, 216 BC, near the village of Cannae in southeast Italia, where he annihilated eight consular legions in a single afternoon. The ignominy of this defeat is studied in-depth to this day at military academies worldwide.

This is the story of Rome's revenge.

The perfect battle: Long have I sought it in the annals of history. I have traversed the well-worn pages of many a dusty tome questing for this: the holy grail of combat. Given human imperfection and the infinite variability of circumstance, contenders are few and far between. Thermopylae is the most famous of Pyrrhic victories. Caesar's bicircumvallation at Alesia remains one of the greatest feats of engineering and siege warfare. And by what magic Davout prevailed at Auerstedt, I can't fathom.

By perfection at every level and against great odds, Ilipa surpasses all of these, suffering from only one mitigating factor: Scipio was a copycat. He studied at the school of hard knocks under history's greatest tactical instructor: a Carthaginian polymath named Hannibal Barca. At the Battles of Ticinus, Trebbia, and Cannae, Scipio absorbed doctrine with the eager intellect of a teenager.

Scipio learned the infamous double envelopment from Hannibal on the ill-fated plain of Cannae. But the student was destined to surpass the master. Whereas Hannibal received the legions into the warm embrace of his Liby-Phonecian veterans, Scipio went on the attack, advancing in oblique order. Echoes of Pelopidas are seen here, for by such methods did the Theban general break the Spartan myth of invincibility at Leuctra. Perhaps Scipio had studied this? Unlike Pelopidas, however, Scipio performed this maneuver simultaneously on both flanks, placing himself on the right and assigning trusted subordinates to lead the left.

Far from being a mitigating factor, however, I believe Scipio's emulation of Hannibal demonstrates a peculiarly Roman virtue. Scipio's virtue was the same as his City's: Adaptability, obtained through the accumulated wisdom of one's forebears and one's noble enemies. Hannibal swore an oath of eternal enmity to Rome in Temple of Ba'al at nine, yet Rome simply thanked him for his tactical innovation, incorporated it into its own system, and produced a man of equal acumen. Appreciation of the finer qualities of one's foe marks the dignified Roman.

The strength of Roman cosmopolitan empire—the only true heir to Alexander's dream, moreso even than his own successors—lies in its ability to adapt to circumstance without dogmatic adherence to outmoded rules or customs. Among their greatest virtues was the seamless adoption and integration of superior, foreign practices. The most famous example of this is Christianity. Rome took a Hebrew sect antithetical to mos maiorum in so many ways and made it uniquely Roman. Many millions still hold pontifex maximus their spiritual sovereign.

Therein lie the strength of its system. For while Rome may never have produced an Alexander, it produced many mini-Alexanders. And, when crisis reached such crescendo as post-Cannae or late Republic, men of power such as Scipio,or Caesar would appear. Rome persisted by will of the gods, not petty ambitions of man. We see this association, says Evola, in the Roman ceremony of the triumph, which had a more religious than military character, and wherein the personality of the victor was in the closest relation with Jupiter, the Aryan god of cosmic order and law.

In 206 BC, this manifestation took the form of Publius Cornelius Scipio, an unconstitutionally young proconsul granted extraordinary, independent command by the acclaim of the people rather than senatorial appointment. Under his command marched and fought fifty thousand Romans and Italian and Spanish allies. Opposite him were the combined armies of Hasdrubal Gisco (with supreme command) and Mago Barca (brother of Hannibal Barca), as well as several thousand Numidian cavalry under Masinissa. Each side apparently shared an equal ratio of infantry to cavalry and ethnic ingroup-to-outgroup infantry (Roman-Italian or Liby-Phonecians to fritzy Iberians). Hasdrubal also had a number of elephants which proved typically counterproductive.

The opposing armies clashed not far from the town of Ilipa on a broad, open plain with hills to the north and south, upon which the Carthaginians and Romans camped, respectively. Scipio surveyed the terrain and realized the opportunity for enemy cavalry to harass the Romans as they set up camp and erected fortifications. Furthermore, he observed a slight hill off and to the side, behind which—and out of sight—might be placed a portion of his own cavalry. Thus, when Mago and Massanissa showed up, he sprung his trap and fell upon the enemy in the flank. Startled, many fled immediately, but others charged at them and engaged with great gallantry. These found themselves at disadvantage and attempted withdraw in good order, only to be hounded so relentlessly they broke into a rout. This engagement cost Hasdrubal a great many of his most valuable horsemen, and, says Polybius (our primary source along with Livy), gave the Romans better spirits for engaging in a pitched battle (11.21).

Having already rigged the game in his favor by keen observation of terrain and anticipation of any and all possibilities of enemy operation thereupon, he immediately set about sowing the seeds of his next obfuscation. Every day the two sides would emerge from camp and deploy for battle, but neither side took the initiative, and by late afternoon each would retire to camp, unscathed. During this period, Scipio conspicuously deployed his unreliable native Iberians on his flanks and his legions in the center—as was custom for all Roman commanders. Hasdrubal mirrored him, placing his own Iberians on the flanks and stronger Livb-Phonecians infantry in the center. However on they day of intended attack, he reversed this deployment, positioning his strongest troops on his flanks.

Thus, by sticking precisely to strict Roman discipline, habit, and custom and then suddenly reversing it upon the morn of battle, Scipio caught Hasdrubal completely off guard. By the time the latter realized he had been duped, the enemy were deployed in line and close at hand, making any reorganization on the scale required to mirror Roman deployment a far too risky endeavor. Scipio, not content at all to pursue warfare in the traditional, straightforwardly manner proper to a Roman consul of the era, took another page from Hannibal's playbook at Trebbia. Having awoken his army before dawn, he had them eat a hearty breakfast and hydrate. Meanwhile, he sent skirmishers and cavalry out to harass the enemy camp and pull them out at dawn, depriving them of the opportunity to breakfast themselves and otherwise perform preparatory functions so crucial to an army on the morn of battle.

Surely, he had done enough, and would now fall upon the foe with great haste. What further stratagems could this sly fox contrive? It turns out he had one more left up his sleeve: Patience. Scipio further deteriorated the morale and stamina of the Carthaginian forces by waiting until afternoon to attack, after they had been standing out in the sun, starving and sweating, for most of the day. Only then, having gained every possible advantage, did the Romans signal attack.

The battle began with skirmishing, as was custom. The Roman skirmishers discharged their javelins and retreated between gaps in the maniples before dispersing to either flank, in support of the Roman infantry. It was time for Scipio's masterstroke: The Double-envelopment. Not only was this the first Roman use of this maneuver, it was also the first recorded use of the cohort, which Scipio formed by combining 3 maniples with a detachment of skirmishers. These operated not as Hasdrubal's infantry—a contiguous line—but rather in discrete units. These advanced at great speed outward and around the flanks of Hasdrubal's Iberian allied infantry so as to outflank them. Scipio's Iberians, meanwhile, advanced ponderously in a straight line, perpendicular to the Carthaginian Iberian allies.

The legions formed up and fell into column as they wheeled around each respective Carthaginian flank, the Roman left exposing its right flank and the right its left as they proceeded, at an interval of six-hundred feet and closing from the foe. The mental fortitude needed to conduct precise and complicated marches in such close proximity to the foe cannot be understated, for it entails the risk that, at any time, the foe might fall upon them. This same ability marked the Spartans as unique among Greeks, and above all else helped promote the myth of their invincibility. Many armies, upon seeing the Spartans set up and advance, would flee before contact was even made, or stand but offer only token resistance. Only by the tactic employed by Scipio here today were the mighty Spartiates finally humbled.

Scipio, moreover, carried out this advanced maneuver not with professional soldiers, but with militia. How much greater must his generalship be, then, not only as battlefield commander, but as drillmaster, to instill farmers and tradesmen with such élan! The confidence in their commander's competence and their own sword arms—the latter also a consequence of the discipline and drill, and thus redounding in further complement to their commander. The Carthaginians looked on, stunned and amazed that such a feat was even possible, or dared to be done in close proximity to a fresh, intact enemy line pregnant with violence.

The Roman cavalry and skirmishers engaged the enemy elephants, panicking them with a barrage of lances, thrown and thrust. These drove the creatures back into the ranks of their own infantry in great cacophony of thundering hooves and mortal screams. Many unsuspecting allies fell underfoot stampeding beasts. The Roman cohorts, meanwhile, turned to face Hasdrubal's Iberians on Scipio's order, now suddenly out of column, perpendicular to the Carthaginian line, and in line themselves. Any student of military theory will immediately recognize the extremely precarious state in which this astonishing maneuver had placed Hasdrubal's line. The cohorts now engaged and well in advance of the main body of Iberians which constituted Scipio's precarious center. Had the center advanced too quickly, or had Hasdrubal launched a daring charge against it, the battle could have gone differently. Perhaps this was a calculated gamble on Scipio's part—knowing Hasdrubal's conservatism and unwillingness to abandon superior defensive position for the sake of routing tribal levies.

How helpless Hasdrubal must've felt! His best troops pinned down by enemy chaff and thoroughly refused, yet denied the opportunity to aid their flanks, lest the Iberians should fall upon their flank as they turn to aid their distressed allies. Moreover, as the Liby-Phonecians fought in phalanx, they were unable to carry out independent maneuver in small, discrete units, as the Romans could. Due to the offensive nature of Scipio's rendition of Cannae, no mistakes were required from the foe, simply the deer-in-the-headlights passivity of a lesser mind outplayed at every turn. Had Paullus been in command at Cannae, Hannibal's plan would've been in vain. The arrogant aggressiveness of Consul Varro was a necessary prerequisite to his defensive posture, which welcomed the legions into its fold with feminine passivity, whereas Scipio bore down upon his foe, seizing the initiative and controlling the outcome.

What was Hasdrubal to do, short of charging straight into the encirclement as the Romans had at Cannae? I suppose he could've denied his flanks, pulling the Iberians back into a convex formation. But this position simply places him in the position Scipio wanted him in—semi-encirclement—without a fight. Given Scipio's flawless execution of the preceding moves, Hasdrubal must've felt much like Sempronius Longus at Trebbia. By the time he fully appreciated the situation he was in, it was too late. Grandmaster Scipio was at least one move ahead at every turn.

One may execute textbook maneuvers automatically in response to circumstance dictating they be used, but it's important to understand the underlying psychological rationale for them. In war, very few men do the killing. The vast majority seek almost any out possible. The most basic methods are simple: desertion or mutiny. More sophisticated include simply exhibiting risk aversion in combat. The average soldier is no Homeric hero, seeking out duals with mighty foes so that he might die a glorious death and win eternal fame among mortals. Far from it, the average soldier has almost always wanted simply to collect his paycheck and go home alive to his family.

At Ilipa, the killers would be found among the ranks of the African and Roman infantry. Iberia possessed some of the best cavalry in the world and their gladius became the legionary standard-issue, primary weapon. (At Ilipa, fully half of Romans likely wielded this brutally efficient weapon.) Their warriors, then, were no pushovers. Political concerns, however, made them a fickle ally. Indeed, Scipio's Uncle, Gnaeus, met his untimely demise as a consequence of Hasdrubal buying his native auxiliaries off. Thus, each commander correctly understood theirs suffered from a morale (and quite possibly moral) deficit and deployed them where combat was expected to be the lightest.

Token effort—marching in formation, exhibiting posture of warlikeness or gamesmanship without courageous essence, etc.—is required of in armies like Rome's where centurions and optios walk up and down the line with sturdy olive branch in hand, smacking legionaries who step out of line. Actual killing seems to have been been mostly avoidable, as two officers per hundred men isn't sufficient to compel murder unless outside circumstance intervenes—most notably the charisma of the commander himself.

Doubtless Scipio could harness his men's inner-killer instinct with much greater efficacy than your standard proconsul. Tales of his sway over hearts of men abound, but, alas, are outside the scope of this essay. Ultimately, men learn virtue by observing a parent, mentor, or authority figure and emulating, not contemplation of abstract concepts or platonic forms of the good somewhere out in the aether. In Scipio, the legionaries had the virtues of Cinncinatus in the youthful form of Alexander. But whereas those men suffered no rival, Scipio had in Hannibal an equal in ability to stir men's hearts to controlled slaughter. With victory at Ilipa, the way was paved for showdown between these two titans of tactical talent.

Look at me, hurling my pilum before I have it. The Roman and Italian cohorts of heavy infantry advanced in echelon, making contact with outermost Iberians first from two or three points of contact, routing this and turning inward. Proceeding progressively down the line and rolling it up like a carpet, the Romans achieved the principle of concentration of force with supreme efficacy. For whereas Rome's best troops—it's real killers—were busy engaging the enemy's weakest, Carthage's most motivated soldiers were rendered useless, being fixed—yet denied—from the front, even as doom encroached from all sides!

With the complete destruction of the entire Carthaginian army at hand, Ba'al Hammon heard their cries of despair and intervened to protect his children, sending a massive downpour to slicken and muddy the earth, covering Hasdrubal's retreat to camp and rendering pursuit difficult. Thereby was the Carthaginian army saved from annihilation and the triumphant imperator denied the crown jewel of his victory. Polybius describes circumstances quite straightforwardly:

Had not Providence interfered to save them, they would promptly have been driven from their camp too; but a sudden storm gathered in the air, and a violent and prolonged torrent of rain descended, under which the Romans with difficulty effected a return to their own camp... (11.24).

Thwarted of ultimate victory by the weather, Scipio sent a detachment to block Hasdrubal's preferred eastern line of retreat. The latter managed to escape his captor's clutches, sneaking out that evening to the west, sans his mutinied Iberian allies. Scipio's intelligence network informed him of this development and he effected immediate pursuit. The cavalry and skirmishers caught up and harassed the enemy columns, forcing frequent halts. The swift-marching Roman column overtook them quickly, and dispatched the survivors with extreme prejudice. In total, some fifty thousand Carthaginian soldiers were casualties—comparable to Roman losses at Cannae. The Eagle had had its revenge. Hasdrubal and Mago, however, managed to slip away and fled by ship to Africa.

Unlike Hannibal, Scipio knew both how to obtain a victory and how to use it; how to win a battle and a war; how to convert tactical gain to strategic advantage. With Ilipa, he drove Carthage out of Iberia permanently and cemented Roman hegemony in the region for nearly a thousand years. Second, he proved the efficacy of well-drilled, professionalized cohorts operating in much the same fashion as modern corps, i.e., independently and with detachments of supporting troops. Finally, he showed what such an army was capable under a charismatic general possessing that numinous quality of the soul (the quality of command) by which one man may compel another to carry out his will voluntarily and with enthusiasm and effort proportionate to the glory of the task and dignitas of the taskmaster.

This new element Scipio had introduced would be expanded upon his recruitment of the disgraced ghosts of Cannae—who, as if 206, were banished to Sicily—into his legions for his coming invasion of Africa. Reliant upon him for their sociopolitical salvation, they would eventually find themselves back in Rome, marching behind their general, in triumph. But Scipio would never avail himself of this childlike, republican virtue for personal benefit, whereas I feel quite confident a Caesar or Napoleon would have. I find it curious how historians and patriarchs of great nations consider this dogmatic republicanism virtue, when their accounts of Roman history invariably render noble Scipio the most underrated and under-discussed Roman ever to have lived (taking into account the magnitude of his achievements, and how without him there would've been no Caesars), with focus falling upon men of ambition.

When every one complimented Scipio after he had driven the Carthaginians from Iberia, and advised him straightway to take some rest and ease, as having put a period to the war, he answered that he congratulated them on their sanguine hopes; for himself he was now more than ever revolving in his mind how to begin the war with Carthage. Up to that time the Carthaginians had waged war upon the Romans; but that now fortune put it in the power of the Romans to make war upon them (11.24).

Thus does Polybius convey Scipio's desire to initiate campaign in Africa. Here again we see the eager restlessness so reminiscent of Alexander, Pyrrhus, Caesar, and Napoleon, who, being full of that primitive quality that knows no confinement but only the boundless expanse of the steppe, project their will into every facet, nook and cranny of society around them, dominating and enriching the lives of all affected by infusing them with the commander's vital essence. Perhaps they were all possessed by the same daemon? I know not.

Our hero had avenged Cannae and set the stage for his coup de grace in Africa—for him to capitalize strategically on his battlefield victory in a way Hannibal had not. But that's a story for another day.

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