The art of generalship does not age, and it is because Scipio’s battles are richer in stratagems and ruses—many still feasible today—than those of any other commander in history that they are an unfailing object-lesson to soldiers.
—B. H. Liddell Hart
As with Hannibal, details of Scipio’s early years are extremely sketchy. He was born into Rome’s upper crust, descended on both his father’s and mother’s side from the Cornellii, a family from whom consuls had been elected for 150 years. Other than that, little can be confirmed. Even Polybius, who wrote at length on Scipio’s military career, glossed over his youth. He was well educated and admired Greek culture, which in his day was not a respectable characteristic, as the Greeks were viewed as a declining and somewhat profligate society; he must, however, have absorbed some of the Greek rationality in thinking, given the innovations he brought to the battlefield.
Also as with Hannibal, the first anecdote of Scipio’s life concerns his relationship with his father, also named Publius Cornelius Scipio. At age seventeen or eighteen, Scipio the younger accompanied his father into northern Italy to confront Hannibal’s invasion in 218 BC. At the Ticinus River, Carthaginian and Roman cavalry units unexpectedly collided. Scipio the elder led the charge, leaving his son in the care of a unit of veteran cavalry. As the battle began to turn against the Romans, Polybius tells of the younger Scipio rushing to his father’s aid when the elder was wounded and surrounded: “[H]e at first endeavoured to urge those with him to go to the rescue, but when they hung back for a time owing to the large numbers of the enemy round them, he is said with reckless daring to have charged the encircling force alone. Upon the rest being now forced to attack, the enemy were terror-struck and broke up, and Publius Scipio, thus unexpectedly delivered, was the first to salute his son in the hearing of all as his preserver.” This episode may have proved his bravery but it was likely not his only combat experience. He may have been at the Battle of the Trebia and was almost certainly at Cannae, after which he rallied many of the disheartened officers. He therefore had firsthand knowledge of how Hannibal fought.
There is also some debate on Scipio’s religious views. Livy recounts a story strongly reminiscent of Alexander. Since the age of fourteen Scipio had gone to the temple daily and stayed there in seclusion for some time, “and it generated the belief in the story—perhaps deliberately put out, perhaps spontaneous—that Scipio was a man of divine origin. It also brought back into currency the rumor that earlier circulated about Alexander the Great, a rumor as fatuous as it was presumptuous. It was said that his conception was the result of sexual union with a snake.” Livy also quotes Scipio’s prayer to the gods prior to his expedition to Africa. Before the Roman attack on Novo Carthago, on Spain’s southeastern coast, Scipio told his men that he had had a dream assuring the army of Neptune’s aid in the upcoming operation.
Polybius, writing a century earlier, dismisses such notions. “As for all other writers, they represent him as a man favored by fortune, who always owed the most part of his success to the unexpected and to mere chance … whereas what is praiseworthy belongs alone to men of sound judgment and mental ability, whom we should consider to be the most divine and most beloved by the gods.” It has also been suggested that the story is false because a Roman temple was not a place for prayer and meditation but for sacrifice. Hence, the regular worship is implausible, though not impossible.
Thus the same question regarding Alexander arises concerning Scipio: did he believe himself of divine heritage, or at least divine inspiration? Basil Liddell Hart supposes that Scipio, like Alexander, used such beliefs among his men to his own advantage: “Such supernatural claims only appear occasionally in Scipio’s recorded utterances, and he, a supreme artist in handling human nature, would realise the value of reserving them for critical moments.” Appian takes Scipio’s acceptance of divinity as a given. After Scipio’s quick victory at Nova Carthago, Appian says, “He himself thought this, and said so both then and throughout the rest of his life, beginning from this moment.” Why not be both religious and practical? After all, it is no more or less likely that he combined rational calculation with religious conviction than did Stonewall Jackson.
Whatever his parentage, it was saving his father at the Ticino River battle that first brought young Scipio fame; it was his father’s death that led him to his destiny. After recovering from his wounds at the Ticino, the elder Scipio joined his brother Gnaeus in Spain to carry on the war against the Carthaginians in their supply base. The brothers enjoyed some success in battle and in gaining allies among the Spanish tribes, but they were both killed in separate battles in 212 BC. The remnants of their army retreated to the north bank of the Ebro, where they regrouped under the leadership of Lucius Marcius. He was soon superseded by C. Claudius Nero, who arrived with reinforcements late in 211. Nero seemed to be regarded as a temporary commander, for the Roman government was soon looking for his successor. They found him in Publius Cornelius Scipio, the younger.
Too young at twenty-four to officially hold a command rank, Scipio had it bestowed on him by public acclamation, which the Senate confirmed. There has been much debate why this occurred. Certainly there were men with more combat experience, but the government might have deemed them too valuable to spare while Hannibal was rampaging through northeast Italy. Possibly, they hoped the Scipio name, which had been so valuable in gaining allies in Spain, would generate loyalty. Scipio certainly had support within the Senate through his family connections. He seemed to have it all: family, political connections, bravery, ambition, and the charisma with which to sway the crowd.
Perhaps the Senate withheld the names of other candidates, to give the public the impression they were confirming the only man who would actually volunteer for the job. It certainly would have deflected later criticism had Scipio failed in his mission. What seems most likely, however, is that the Senate recalled Nero because of the need for experienced commanders at home. Had the there been a greater number of qualified men, it would probably have sent someone else instead. Scipio was thus the best of the second string. No matter the political circumstances involved, Scipio certainly wanted the job in order to avenge the deaths of his father and uncle.