The story of Scipio the African, a brilliant Roman general from his youth, heralds the dual transformation of Rome into a world power and a military monarchy.

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When Fascist power was busy establishing an authoritarian regime and projecting Italy's domination over new territories in Europe and Africa, re-enacting the glorious epic of ancient Rome 2,000 years later, Mussolini's propagandists made him one of their leader's models. In a sense, the Duce was indeed the buffoonish avatar of the tragic hero that Roman legend presents as one of the main protagonists in the transformation of the City into an Empire: Scipio the African (235-183), conqueror of Rome's main rivals in the Mediterranean  – the Carthaginian and Seleucid empires  – and harbinger of the personal, military and charismatic power that would soon be erected on the ruins of the Republic.

If legend magnifies history and composes roles conducive to narrative and meditation, the one it makes Scipio play is not unrelated to the historical moment whose name he bears. His military and political activity crystallized the dynamics that made the Second Punic War (218-201) and its immediate aftermath a time of profound transformation for Rome, and consequently for the Mediterranean world that came under its direct or indirect control. Struggle between noble factions, the Hellenization of Roman culture, the Romanization of the Mediterranean and the reconfiguration of the model of political authority are the fundamental movements through which Scipio traces his course. In writing his biography, Laurent Gohary brings to life a pivotal moment in the history of Rome, and thus of Western humanity shaped by its legacy.

Birth: in oligarchic Italian Rome

When this story begins, Rome is an oligarchic republic, conceived as a negative of the royal regime of the city's first centuries: power is now shared within a senatorial oligarchy, whose collective monopoly of public office is conditional on relative equality between senators. The threatening alternative, which must be averted, is that of an alliance between personal power and popular force - what Greek political thought describes as "tyranny". In fact, the members of the senatorial group have a complex relationship with each other, based on class solidarity and competition for positions. When, in the near future, the equality between peers will be broken down, and certain competitors will be in a position to take all the spoils, the memory of Scipio will embody an aristocratic hope: that of the popular leader who, at the height of power, renounces the possibility of personal power.

Born of a prestigious patrician line   , he came to life in the aftermath of the First War against Carthage, which gave Rome control of its first territories outside Italian soil (Sardinia, Corsica, soon Sicily) and in which his father played an active part   . As befits a Roman upbringing, the young Lucius Cornelius Scipio's political training made him the imitator, then the continuator, of his father and forebears: he inherited the program and political style of the Scipios, of which he was for a time the avatar, before making a name for himself (or, in this case, a nickname).

To raise the profile of the teenager who was destined for a political career, and therefore for election, those close to him soon obtained for him a public priesthood, which was to guarantee him visibility in the public arena: he became a member of the sodality of the Salians, who once a year celebrated a warrior rite in the form of a procession. It was outside Rome, however, and thanks to the war, that Scipio was soon recognized by the electorate.

Youth: the turning point of the Second Punic War

In 219, the power politics of Rome and Carthage reached a new breaking point, as Scipio's father was one of the year's two consuls, responsible for leading the armies in the event of conflict   . By this time, Carthage's domination had spread to Iberia, i.e. the Spanish coast, which was the focus of the imperialist ambitions of Hannibal's Barcid clan. In defense of Sagonte, a city allied to Rome threatened by the geopolitical ambitions of this Punic prince   , Scipio the father led a fleet towards Iberia, one-third of which was Roman and two-thirds Italian allies   . He was accompanied by his brother Cnaeus and his son, then aged 17.

From the outset, Hannibal distinguished himself by his diplomatic and military genius. He succeeded in provoking a rebellion among the peoples of northern Italy   which delayed the Romans' departure. Assisted by his brother Magon, he recruited an army as powerful as it was heterogeneous   , which immediately charged into Italy through the Pyrenees and the Alps. The Scipios, father and son, left Cnaeus to lead the offensive into Spain; they returned to Italy, where they recruited an army of inexperienced soldiers and confronted Hannibal.

For eight years, powerless in the face of the strategic skill and stubbornness of the Punic command   , the Roman troops suffered a series of defeats and disasters, at the battles of Ticino, Trebia, Trasimene   and Cannes   . Laurent Gohary describes the fightings with meticulous sensitivity. Not since the Samnite Wars and the famous ambush at the Caudine Forks in 321 had Rome suffered such bitter defeats. Not since the sack of Rome by Brennus' Gauls, when the Capitoline geese sounded the alarm in 390 or 387, has the city been directly threatened. The gods of Rome seemed to have abandoned the city to its fate, and it strove to regain their protection through rites and celebrations that were exceptional in their scope and, at times, cruelty   . Faced with the urgency of the situation, the city questioned the very principles of recruitment for its citizen army, and envisaged recruiting soldiers from among the slaves   .

Young Scipio witnessed these failures with his father, wounded in Ticino, and then with his stepfather Paullus, the consul killed at Cannes. Associated with their commands, he also learned Hannibal's tricks   . When his father and uncle perished at the hands of the Carthaginians, within a few days of each other in 211, he became the new leader of the powerful Scipio clan. Heir to their economic and social resources, he was also the guardian of their reputation. He soon took command of their troops and their new network of Spanish allies, thanks to an extraordinary election that broke with custom and made him head of the Spanish armies, despite his young age and a public career still in its infancy   . In the face of urgency, vox populi took precedence over constitutional usage, whose oral and customary nature did not impose the full force of written law.

Spain: the birth of an Imperator

In Spain, Scipio relied not only on experienced troops and leadership, but also on the support of Greek science and scholars. He trained his conscripts, citizen-soldiers, to become war experts, almost professionals, according to a custom perhaps inherited from classical Greece. Breaking with the elementary rules of aristocratic dignity, he even took part himself in the exercises, sweating with the legionaries of the ranks. With as much ingenuity as brutality, the Roman army took the impregnable New Carthage, Cartagena, the keystone of Hannibal's enterprise (209). Adopting the Punic tactic of encirclement, Scipio then won a victory at Baecula against Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal, becoming the first Roman to receive the glorious title of Imperator (208). At Ilipa, the Roman armies won a decisive victory that reversed the balance of power to their advantage (207). In 206, the Carthaginians left Cadiz, their last stronghold on the peninsula.

In parallel with his military actions, Scipio carried out intense diplomatic activity, which was initially adapted to the political conceptions of the Iberians, shaped by the model of the Hellenistic monarchies. He presented himself as a liberator, detached their chiefs from the Carthaginian alliance and rallied them, earning himself the title of "supreme leader" (stratēgos autokratōr) and "king" (rex), before convincing his new friends to prefer the title of imperator, consecrated by his soldiers and less likely to upset republican tradition.

To deter future betrayals, he also used terror. As punishment for his perjury at the start of the war, the city of Iliturgis, although rallied to Rome, was finally destroyed along with all its inhabitants. And to showcase Rome's sovereignty, Scipio organizes gladiatorial games pitting Iberian chieftains against each other   .

Beyond the brutal realities of war, the historical accounts of Scipio's glory reinforce his authority through a staging of his virtues that resonates with traditional Roman morality as much as with Stoic ethics of Greek origin. These scenes also shape a portrait in the image of Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great, whose authority rests on an ideal of temperance (in republican parlance), or philanthropy (in Hellenistic parlance), or clemency (in the imperial language to come). At the cost of euphemizing violence, Scipio embodied the introduction of a new kind of Helleno-Persian charisma into Roman politics.

After final acts of resistance by the Iberian peoples, which provided an opportunity to showcase this model of authority combining the legitimacies of victory, firmness and wisdom   , Scipio left Spanish soil, enriched by immense gold and silver treasures and numerous clienteles, further enhanced by the foundation of Italica, the first Roman colony outside Italy.

In Africa: the conquest of an empire

On his return to Rome at the age of 31, Scipio was easily elected consul   . His first initiative was to exalt the memory of his father, and hence his clan, with an extraordinary sacrifice of 100 oxen   and public games. In so doing, he also strengthened his bond with the people of Rome, the plebs, who were invited to share the meat and attend the spectacle. Despite the obstacles put in the way of his plans by the conservative faction of the Senate, he then mobilized his private resources to gather the material and human resources needed for an offensive against Carthage on African soil   . Officially given power over rich Sicily, he exploited its resources to the full, raising both an efficient cavalry and an infantry of legionaries defeated at Cannes, automatically retired and relegated to the island to atone for their defeat   . In Sicily, a brilliant hotbed of Greek culture, Scipio was busy preparing for the battles to come, cultivating his body and mind, embracing the diversity of Hellenic culture whose taste distinguished the aristocratic style of the Scipios.

The army, proletarian, battle-hardened and supported by meticulous logistics, landed in the summer of 204 where it was least expected: near Utica, very close to Carthage, just as Scipio's role model, the Hellenistic tyrant Agathocles of Syracuse, had done. Playing on the internal conflicts of African geopolitics, he enlisted the help of the light cavalrymen of the Numidian king Massinissa. Spies and counter-spies, ships and siege weapons, cunning and perjury: Scipio used every means at his disposal to defeat – or, according to the rules of ancient warfare, annihilate – the Carthaginian enemy and its African allies. After a series of Roman victories and the abortive negotiation of a peace agreement in Rome's favor, the final confrontation with Hannibal, back from Italy, took place in October 202 at Zama, inland. Although outnumbered, the Carthaginian troops were overwhelmed by the Roman legions   . After the surrender of the African city, its 500 warships were set ablaze at sea: the Punic thalassocracy had come to an end. At the age of 35, Scipio gave Rome uncontested dominion over the entire western Mediterranean, in addition to Carthage's gold, his war elephants and thousands of slaves.

In Rome: charisma in politics

In return, Scipio was offered a triumph by the Senate and the people: a solemn procession from the armies' square (the Field of Mars) to the sacred hill (the Capitol), via the city's sacred boundary (the pomerium) and the City Gates. The parade displays booty and prisoners, and glorifies the troops and their imperator, for a time clothed in the attributes of Jupiter and the ancient kings of Rome. The one offered to Scipio ushered in a new political era in Rome, one of charisma and hegemony: his victories endowed the imperator with a divine aura and numerous supporters among his allies and soldiers, placing him far above the other senators who shared power in the Republic. In 199, he was awarded the most prestigious magistracy of all: censorship, which included drawing up the list of senators and appointing the president of their assembly (the princeps senatus). His political clout was such that, for the next five years, he assumed this eminent office, which his allies would later renew for a second term, until 188! From these positions, however, Scipio was content to distribute land to his veterans, involving his former rivals in the distribution of this reward   .

Scipio's communication never ceases to emphasize that he played the leading role in the events that, at the beginning of the 2nd century, elevated Rome to the status of mistress of the western Mediterranean. Now one of the leading powers in the Mediterranean world, the Republic became involved in the conflict-ridden geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean, divided between the Greek cities, the Kingdom of Macedonia, the Seleucid Empire (in Anatolia and Syria) and the Lagid Empire (centered on Egypt). When the Senate decided to push Macedonia out of Greece, its president maneuvered to entrust the leadership of the operations to one of his clients, the young Flamininus. Then when the Senate decided to liberate Mediterranean Anatolia from the Seleucid Empire, Scipio managed to unofficially take command of the Roman troops, under the official command of his brother Lucius. Although illness prevented him from taking part in the final victory at Magnesia, he brought back from this final expedition to Asia the image of a new Alexander. Indeed, Rome would dominate the entire Mediterranean for centuries to come.

Back in Rome, the brother of the African received the title of Asiatic, as well as a dazzling triumph that exalted both imperatores. But the clouds soon began to gather: in 187, the two Scipios were taken to court on charges of bribery by the enemy, and even treason, during the peace negotiations in Asia, because of the millions of sesterces offered to them by the Seleucid king after his defeat, in accordance with Hellenistic custom. Asiaticus was fined more than he could afford. The African left the city in the middle of the trial, never to return. The Senate thus succeeded in averting the risk of a monarchical restoration, feared rightly or wrongly. The following year, a gigantic trial against followers of the cult of Dionysus, known as the "Bacchanalia scandal", expressed with unprecedented brutality the rejection of the culture of the Greek world, of which Scipio the African was one of the most ardent promoters and whose political aspect he embodied. He died shortly afterwards in his rustic retreat, his reputation tarnished by suspicions of embezzlement and the abandonment of his brother.

Beyond his death, however, Scipio left a decisive legacy to the Republic. Through his style and methods, he inaugurated a new political model, that of charismatic domination, which would later be embraced by a whole series of great imperatores (Marius, Sylla, Pompey, Caesar), until the definitive establishment of the imperial regime by the last of them, Augustus. At the time of Scipio, this model was confronted by an anti-model embodied by Cato the Elder: that of tradition coupled with the charisma of frugality, which was to provide lasting inspiration to opponents of monarchical power. In recounting this decisive moment, Laurent Gohary offers a lively, subtle war story that will enthrall even the most casual military historian, and a history book that reads like a breathless novel.