Sunday, August 22, 2010

Playing At War

Hannibal, Scipio and the Art of War Gaming

"My mother bore a general, not a warrior." - Publius Scipio Africanus

Recently my grandson and I have been playing the war game Commands & Colors designed by Richard Borg and published by GMT Games of California. We actually started playing scenarios from the game two years ago when Mr.K was 7 years old, and while he did understand the mechanics of the game then, his tactical finesse is now, at age nine, much better. No doubt two years hence it will be better still.

Of course we are both avid, if irregular, game players – Risk, Axis & Allies, Conquest Of The Empire, Battle of the Bulge, and Stratego are all favorites. Indeed I started playing war games at about the same age as Mr. K, though I began with Joseph Morchauser’s book How To Play War Games In Miniature. His simple yet well thought out rules brought order and purpose to the chaos that had marked our playing with toy soldiers.

From there I moved on to Map & Counter war games, like Blitzkrieg and The Battle Of The Bulge, then being published by Avalon Hill. In college Panzerblitz was all the rage while at the Armor Officer Basic Course the games of choice, in the evening over beer and pizza, were SPI’s Firefight and Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker (about the War of the Roses). 1

Since then games have taken a back seat to life in general. My family has been courageous over the years, indulging my love of games as they have, and they actually seem to enjoy playing Space Hulk, the Aliens inspired tabletop game from Games Workshop. However, it was the arrival of the grandson that brought games back to the forefront in a big way.

So it was, that last week Mr. K and I were playing Commands & Colors, re-fighting the battles of the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome, when we came upon the scenario for the Battle of Dertosa, in Spain, between Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, and the Scipio brothers Gnaeus and Publius.

To their great credit, GMT includes a brief but detailed description of each battle, giving the historical outcome and challenging the players to do as well as the original generals. Mr. K, who always plays the Romans, was intrigued by the name Scipio, and I mistakenly said, “Oh, Publius Scipio goes on to defeat Hannibal at Zama and take the name Scipio Africanus.”

Actually, this is correct, just the wrong Scipio.

The ancient Romans were a practical and pragmatic people, to a fault, except when it came to naming their children. In this they suddenly displayed a total and frustrating lack of imagination. Sons were often named after their father, still a common practice today, but so too were daughters, all of them. Thus you had families with three daughters all named Julia or Agrippina. This is probably why the Romans had slaves. Imagine asking one of your three daughters to pass the olive oil. You might starve before it was decided just which Julia you were addressing. 2

So it is that historians, both professional and amateur alike, must be careful when it comes to the Romans and figuring out just who is who.

In the case of Dertosa, it was the father and the uncle of the future Africanus that led the Roman army in that particular battle. The younger Publius (and future Africanus) had campaigned at his father’s side several years before this and had actually saved his father’s life at the Battle of Ticinus River in 218 BCE. Seeing his father surrounded by the enemy, the younger Publius ordered his troop of cavalry forward to the rescue – but the legionaries refused to move. Scipio rode alone into the enemy and his troop, thus shamed by his courage, joined him in the charge that saved the elder Scipio. It is said that the elder Scipio offered his son the corona civica (the Civic Crown) one of Rome’s most revered honors, awarded to those who save the life of a fellow citizen, however the younger Scipio declined the honor.

All of this got me to thinking about just what a remarkable fellow Scipio Africanus really was.
The Cornelian family, of which the Scipio are one branch, were perhaps the oldest and most storied family in all of Roman history, a distinction due in no small part to the members of the Scipio house. They believed in the “res publica” or ‘the public thing’ which is to say fulfilling one’s duty to the Republic in both peace and war.

Scipio’s father and uncle were both gifted generals who won several important victories in Spain against the Carthaginians. 

Indeed, the 2nd Punic War was something of a family affair for while the elder Scipio brothers, Publius and Gnaeus, were fighting in Spain against the Hamilcar brothers Mago and Hasdurbal Barca, young Scipio, now just twenty years old, was part of the Consular Army in Italy moving to confront Hannibal, the third Hamilcar brother. Scipio was assigned as a Military Tribune in the 2nd Legion, a typical position for a young Roman aspiring to a career as a Senator.

Although the elder Scipio brothers were enjoying success against the Hamilcar brothers in Spain, the Romans in Italy were being consistently out maneuvered and out fought by Hannibal. After weeks of chasing the Carthaginian army around the country side the Romans finally brought Hannibal to battle, but on ground of Hannibal’s choosing. This proved decisive for although the Romans had a much larger Army, Hannibal inflicted upon the Romans the worst defeat in their history.

In one afternoon, at the Battle of Cannae, the Roman Consular Army of 85,000 legionaries was utterly destroyed. Losses were staggering – over 48,000 dead, including one of the Consuls, a Proconsul and 80 Senators, as well as 18,000 legionaries taken prisoner. The remainder, some 14,000 odd survivors, were scattered about the countryside. Among them was the young Publius Scipio.

Pause, for just a moment, and consider the staggering nature of this defeat. Imagine if we in the United States received word from Iraq or Afghanistan that we had lost 48,000 soldiers killed in a single afternoon. And imagine if those losses included not only 80 members of Congress, along with their sons, but also the current President and the former President. Of course for our modern military the loss of 48,000 soldiers, while grievous would still represent less than 10% of our total military manpower. For the Romans however, this was a loss, in a single afternoon, of more than 25% of their armed forces (not including the casualties among their Latin Allies). Added to the losses suffered in recent previous battles and it seemed that Rome’s days were numbered, and in single digits. Is it any wonder then that many of the surviving officers, all sons of noble families, considered abandoning Rome and seeking safety by fleeing overseas? However, a few officers were not ready to give up. One of them was young Scipio. 3

We do not know anything about Scipio’s movements during the actual battle, but his conduct after the battle is well known and quickly became part of Scipio family lore. Scipio and Appius Claudius, another young Tribune, rallied the survivors and held them together by sheer force of will. At the same time Scipio moved decisively to check the desertion of his demoralized fellow officers. He forced each of them in turn to follow his example by swearing an oath, to Jupiter, that he would never desert the Republic nor allow anyone else to do so on pain of death for himself and his family.

In Spain, Scipio’s father and uncle enjoyed continued success against the Hamilcar brothers until, four years after Cannae, their Spanish allies abandoned the Romans and, now outnumbered, the Scipio brothers were defeated and killed in separate battles. This left the majority of Spain under the control of Carthage. The few survivors hung on for dear life and waited for help from Rome. 4

At the age of 25, Scipio was given command of the Roman Army in Spain with the rank of Proconsul even though he had never been elected Consul. This was an unprecedented move, but Scipio proved worthy of such trust and used his authority wisely. Indeed, Scipio well understood the seemingly modern military concept of “winning the hearts and minds” of the populace as a means to winning the war.

Scipio was in Spain when a captive was brought to him. She was a maiden of noble birth, whose beauty drew all eyes to her. Scipio had this woman returned to her fiancĂ©, and made the couple a marriage gift with the gold, which her parents had brought as a ransom. The tribe was so overwhelmed by his conduct that they gave themselves over to the cause of the Roman people.” – Frontinus, Stratagems 5

As Shakespeare would later write in Henry V, “…for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” Henry V, Act III, sc. 6

Scipio also appreciated the need for good intelligence and meticulous planning. His victories in Spain were the very model of superior planning and the astute application of military intelligence. Scipio defeated Hasdrubal Barca at the Battle of Baecula and, two years later, Mago at the Battle of Ilipa.

Now with Spain firmly under Roman control and his father and uncle avenged, Scipio returned to Rome where he was elected Consul (even though he was still too young at age thirty) by promising the people that he would take the war against Carthage to Africa itself.

In 204, after his year in office and now just 31 years old, Scipio was granted the province of Sicily to govern as Proconsul. Although Sicily was the ideal base from which to strike at Carthage, what the Senate did not give Scipio was an army with which to do so. Thus blocked by his jealous rivals in the Senate, Scipio set about raising an army of volunteers and training then for the invasion of North Africa.

Once again Scipio was meticulous in his planning, gathering intelligence about the enemy and training his army to the peak of readiness. When he at last launched his attack it was with a well-trained, well-armed and well-supplied army against which the Carthaginians had little chance.

Scipio moved quickly, destroying two Carthaginian armies by surprise night attacks. Carthage entreated for a truce, but this was likely just a ruse to buy time so Hannibal could return from Italy and lead the defense of Carthage himself. With Hannibal safely home Carthage resumed the war. True to his nature, Scipio was ready.

In 202 BCE, the Roman Army (including two legions of survivors from Cannae) met the larger Carthaginian Army at Zama. Although Hannibal’s forces included a large contingent of elephants, the Romans for once outnumbered the Carthaginians in cavalry, thanks to Scipio’s Numidian ally Masinissa. This would prove decisive for when the elephant charge failed to break the veteran legionaries, the Roman cavalry chased their Carthaginian counterparts from the field. Now deprived of their cavalry, the Punic infantry proved no match for the Romans. In the end, looking at the number of casualties suffered (which were heavy but not catastrophic) it was not the Carthaginian Army that was destroyed at Zama, but rather the Carthaginian will to resist. Scipio had won his greatest victory and in so doing he had not only avenged the defeat at Cannae but, more importantly, he had restored Roman honor.

Scipio, now called Africanus, returned to Roman where he celebrated a Triumph and, in 194, was elected Consul for the second time. Now just 41 years old Scipio hoped to be named Proconsul of Greece, but it was not to be. His rivals in the Senate led by Cato the Censor, stymied Scipio at every turn.

Scipio had committed the one unforgivable sin – he had risen too high too fast, and if the Romans were a practical people they could also be an extremely jealous people in equal measure. Scipio had achieved more in his 30 plus years than most other Senators would in two or even three lifetimes, and that was something they would not abide.

Scipio did eventually serve in the east with his brother, but he remained mostly in the background lest it be said that any Roman victories were his doing and not that of his brother. There was also the incident of his son, who was taken prisoner by King Antiochus. It was said that Scipio feigned sickness on the day of the battle at Magnesia to avoid taking the field against an enemy who had so recently show him mercy by releasing his son.

Scipio died not long after returning from the East. He had survived Cannae, and out maneuvered all of his battlefield opponents, but in the end he could not out maneuver his rivals in the Senate or survive their machinations against him. He was exiled to Liternum, south of Rome, where he died in 185 BCE.

Scipio’s legacy did survive him, most pointedly in is daughter Cornelia and her sons Tiberius and Gaius, known to history as the Grachii. 6

Of all the stories told about Scipio Africanus, the one I like most is the one about the time Scipio and Hannibal meet in Syria many years after Zama. As told by the Roman historian Livy, I quote it in full:

Africanus asked who, in Hannibal's opinion, was the greatest general of all time. Hannibal replied, "Alexander ... because with a small force he routed armies of countless numbers, and because he traversed the remotest lands"

Asked whom he placed second, Hannibal said, "Pyrrhus. He was the first to teach the art of laying out a camp. Besides that, no one has ever shown nicer judgement in choosing his ground, or in disposing his forces. He also had the art of winning men to his side."

When Africanus followed up by asking whom he ranked third, Hannibal unhesitatingly chose himself. Scipio burst out laughing at this and said, "What would you be saying if you had defeated me?"

"In that case," replied Hannibal, "I should certainly put myself before Alexander and before Pyrrhus -- in fact before all other generals!"

This reply, with its elaborate Punic subtlety, affected Scipio deeply, because Hannibal had set him apart from the general run of commanders, as one whose worth was beyond calculation. (Adrian Goldsworthy, In The Name Of Rome, c2003, page 69)

Perhaps this story isn’t true, but it should be.

Upon hearing this, Mr. K smiled and said, “So, they were friends after all.”
Yes, I replied, in a way they were. And with that, we returned to the game.

1 Map & Counter War Games enjoyed their ‘golden age’ during the 1970’s and 80’s with the leading publishers, Avalon Hill and SPI releasing a dozen or more games each year. However, the hobby fell on hard times in the 90’s (thanks in large part to video games) and it is only now enjoying a modest resurgence in popularity. Hasbro purchased Avalon Hill while SPI’s library went to Decision Games in Bakersfield, California. Avalon Hill’s biggest sellers, Panzerblitz and Squad Leader, ended up at Multiman Publishing in Canada.

2 Roman naming conventions are challenging to say the least. See Adrian Goldsworthy’s 2009 lecture at the Kansas City Public Library for his amusing comments about Roman names and the confusion caused by asking Julia to “pass the salt please.” The Podcast of the lecture may be found here:
3 Ancient Historians are notorious for inflating numbers of both total combatants and casualties in any given battle, so all such numbers must be approached with caution. Losses at Cannae may have been as low as 30,000 dead and as high as 50,000 depending upon who you trust. Goldsworthy in his book, The Complete Roman Army, places Roman dead at 45,500 infantry and 2,700 cavalry.
With regard to what percentage of the Roman Army these losses represent, again the numbers depend upon where they come from and who they are counting. P.A. Brunt estimates the losses at 23% of mobilized Roman manpower, but he is only counting Roman citizens and the Latin allies. In terms of total Roman military might, both citizens and allies, the losses at Cannae might be as high as 40%. As we do not know total manpower reserves for the allies in Italy, Spain and elsewhere it may be a percentage that is impossible to know for certain. I am indebted to Romany Army Talk Forum Member Pompieus for this information.
4 The Celtiberian allies were paid to abandon the Scipio brothers despite their generous and evenhanded treatment of the local tribes. Buying allies, or buying off enemies played to the Carthaginian’s strength as a mercantile empire. It is a technique the Romans themselves would learn to use in later years.

5 See Chronicle Of The Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak, c2003, p102.

6 The story of Cornelia and her two sons is well known. See:
Famous Men Of Rome by John H. Haaren & A.B. Poland, c1904, p126
Also, Chronicle Of The Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak, c2003, p127. The photo caption relates Cornelia’s wish “to be renowned, not as the daughter of Scipio, but as the mother of Tiberius and Gaius.”

Indeed, Cornelia was considered the very epitome of Roman motherhood. The story was told of how one day a close friend of Cornelia’s paid her a visit to show off some newly acquired jewelry. After displaying her finery, the friend asked Cornelia, “Now, let me see your jewels.” At that very moment Cornelia’s two sons returned home. She called them to her and placing her arms around them Cornelia replied to her friend, “Here are my jewels.”

Sources Consulted
In The Name Of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2003 ISBN: 0-297-84666-3
The Complete Roman Army by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2003 ISBN: 0-500-05124-0
Cannae by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2001 ISBN: 0-304-35714-6
Hannibal’s War With Rome by T. Wise & M. Healy, c1999 ISBN: 1-85532-980-8
Famous Men Of Rome by J.H. Haaren & A.B., Poland, c1904 ISBN: 1-59915-046-8
Chronicle Of The Roman Republic by P. Matyszak, c2003 ISBN: 0-500-05121-6
A Dictionary Of The Roman Empire by M. Bunson, c1991 ISBN: 0-19-510233-9
The Art of War Great Commanders of the Ancient & Medieval World 1500BC--AD1600 edited by Andrew Roberts, c2008 ISBN: 978-1-84724-259-4

Links of Interest
Roman Army Talk Forum -- an excellent source for information on the ancient Romans and lively discussions of same.

GMT Games -- The publisher of the Commands & Colors games and one of the better sources for traditional Map & Counter style war games

Commands & Colors: Ancients -- A third party site devoted to the Commands & Colors systems with many scenarios beyond those that come with the game.

Two feature films about Scipio Africanus:

The 1937 version, commissioned by Mussolini, is available on DVD


Anonymous said...

nice pics! and a good read! :)

Gary Corby said...

This a brilliant piece of ancient history blogging. You should write more often!

I used to play lots of board wargames and I rather regret their passing.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent post! I have written books for kids about Alexander the Great and Cleopatra and I really want to write a book about Hannibal (and, of course, Africanus) but few publishers are interested. If I say the name Hannibal, most kids (and adults!) today think of the character from the scary movie, if they know the name at all. Good to know there's at least one kid who is growing up knowing about these great warriors of antiquity!

Narukami said...

Thank you all for the generous comments.

Gary and Vicky, I have added your books to my Amazon list.

I do have my doubts that map & counter war games will ever be as popular as they once were, but thankfully they are still available. The real impediment is time.

That is one reason I like the C&C game system -- most battles can be fought in under an hour, or a little longer if you are, like me, constantly double-checking the rulebook.

Poor Hannibal -- if he is not being mistaken for a modern day cannibal then he is often thought to have led a Green Beret A Team on all sorts of impossible missions.

Actually Vicky, I think your idea for a book on Hannibal is excellent. As you may know the actor Vin Diesel has been working on a film about Hannibal for several years now. If that film ever gets out of Development Hell and actually released, it might spur your publisher to give your book the Green Light. Quite a few authors and publishers took similar advantage of Oliver Stone's film Alexander and there is no reason why you should not do the same.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment.