Battle of Utica (203 BC)
The Battle of Utica was fought in 203 BC between armies of Rome and Carthage during the Second Punic War. Through a surprise attack, the Roman commander Scipio Africanus managed to destroy a numerous force of Carthaginians and their Numidian allies not far from the outflow of the Medjerda River in modern Tunisia. Thus he gained a decisive strategic advantage, switched the focus of the war from Italy and Iberia to Carthaginian north Africa, and contributed largely to the final Roman victory.
|Battle of Utica|
|Part of the Second Punic War|
|Commanders and leaders|
Hasdrubal Gisgo (WIA)|
|Casualties and losses|
8 elephants killed
6 elephants captured
The invasion of Africa was a part of the initial Roman plans for the conduct of the Second Punic War. The Carthaginian leader Hannibal thwarted them when he set out from his base in Iberia, went through western southern Gaul and crossed the Alps in 218 BC. The consul to whom the expedition to Carthage was entrusted, decided to transfer his army from Sicily to Cisalpine Gaul to defend the north of Italy. This resulted in the battle of Trebia and a series of other heavy defeats of the Romans by Hannibal, which put the idea of an assault on the Carthaginian homeland out of question. During the following years, the war raged primarily in Italy, Iberia and Sicily, but north Africa was largely spared. The situation changed with the growing fortunes of Rome. By 205 BC, the Romans had effectively dealt with two invasions of Italy – that of Hannibal, who was gradually worn out and stripped of allies, and that of Hasdrubal, son of Hamilcar Barca, who was defeated outright in the battle of the Metaurus river. The various Carthaginian forces had been driven off Sicily and Iberia or hemmed in the far south and northwestern corners of the Apennine peninsula. By the fall of Syracuse and the reconquest of the parts of Sicily that had been temporarily lost after the battle of Cannae, the Romans secured a base for a naval assault on Carthage. They made use of that by carrying out a number of raids on African soil in 208, 207 and 205 BC.
Since 206 BC, when Scipio Africanus finally expelled the Carthaginians from Iberia (see the battle of Ilipa), he was preoccupied with the idea that Africa should be the next target. To this end, he concluded an alliance with Syphax – one of the most powerful Numidian rulers at the time and an old foe of Carthage – even before he got authority from Rome to lead the future invasion. Even though Scipio was elected consul for 205 BC, he had to endure hard political wrangling before the Senate approved his intentions. His main opponent was Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator (the Delayer), who argued that the expedition to Africa was too risky and that the primary objective was to fight Hannibal in Bruttium. Scipio managed to persuade the senators that his plan was the perfect way to force the Carthaginians out of Italy. Nevertheless, he was not given enough resources and had to spend a whole year in preparations.
The Carthaginians were warned of what was coming when Scipio sent his legate C. Laelius with a naval force to plunder the area of Hippo Regius on the African coast west of Carthage (205 BC). They took various measures to prevent a major Roman invasion. However, the attempt to persuade the Macedonian king Philip to invade Sicily was unsuccessful, and the reinforcements sent to their own commanders in Bruttium and Liguria were not sufficient to revive the war in Italy (see the articles about the battle of Croton and the Po valley raid). Nor was Scipio dissuaded by Syphax's defection, who took the side of Carthage thanks to the diplomatic skills of Hasdrubal Gisgo and the charms of his daughter, Sophonisba.
Invasion of Africa
The invasion of Africa began in 204 BC. Several hundred transport ships carried the Roman army of no more than 35,000 soldiers to Cape Farina (Rusucmona), about 35 km northwest of Carthage. By his very arrival, Scipio caused much anxiety and fear, and he used the resulting confusion to capture several towns and plunder the countryside. The main Carthaginian commander who opposed him was Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo. He despatched a significant cavalry force in order to stop the depredation and restrict Scipio's manoeuvres, but the Romans destroyed it near the town of Salaeca. Thus the Roman commander received a temporary advantage, which was strengthened when Scipio was joined by Massinissa, a leader of the Massylians. Hasdrubal was impeded by the wavering of Syphax, who "failed... to render them (the Carthaginians) whole-hearted assistance" and thus allowed the Romans to ravage the country with impunity.
Siege of Utica
Having collected abundant booty and numerous slaves, in the autumn Scipio moved to Utica. His intention was to capture the ancient Phoenician city and make it a base for his further operations. The direct assault on the walls was repulsed even though it was supported by siege engines and the Roman fleet, so that the Romans had to undertake a regular siege of the city. The emergence of two large enemy armies effectively ended the siege very soon. These were the forces of Hasdrubal Gisgo and his son-in-law Syphax, who apparently did not hesitate anymore. Appian stated that Hasdrubal had 20,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry, while according to the tradition passed by ancient authors such as Polybius and Livy, the army of Hasdrubal amounted to 33,000 and that of Syphax was twice the size, but these numbers are considered as exaggerated by modern researchers, who estimate a combined Carthaginian-Numidian strength of 33,000–47,500. The two armies forced Scipio to retreat to a promontory not far from Utica, which was later called Castra Cornelia. He fortified the narrow neck of land and set his winter quarters, relying on supplies of corn and clothing that were being sent to him from Sicily, Sardinia and Iberia. Hasdrubal and Syphax built their separate camps some distance from Castra Cornelia.
Throughout the winter, the Carthaginians continued to build up their forces. They prepared a fleet in order to cut the supply routes and fully blockade the Roman army and were waiting for mercenaries from Iberia and Liguria. The actual hostilities ceased for a time due to the efforts of Syphax to arbitrate for a reconciliation. Hasdrubal accepted the proposed terms, which stipulated that both Rome and Carthage should recall their armies respectively from Africa and Italy, but did not stop the aforementioned military preparations. Peace under such conditions was definitely not the purpose with which Scipio negotiated with Syphax. At first, he used the negotiations as a cover for trying to win over the Numidian to Rome. As these attempts proved to be of no avail, the Roman leader nevertheless continued to send envoys to the Numidian camp. Scipio aimed, firstly, to mislead the enemy that he was insecure and therefore anxious to conclude peace and, secondly, to reconnoitre the position and organization of the enemy. His envoys, who were carefully selected for the latter purpose, informed him that both camps consisted primarily of huts built from wood, reed, and other flammable material.
The burning of the camps
On the basis of this information, Scipio elaborated his plan for the battle. He knew that the Carthaginian preparations to attack Castra Cornelia were continuing, and with the first signs of the spring he launched a preemptive strike. The ancient authors provide two versions of what happened. According to Livy and Polybius, Scipio placed a detachment (2,000 strong) on a hill overlooking Utica so as to deceive the enemy's scouts that he was preparing to attack the city. Another small detachment was left to guard the Roman camp against possible attack from the city's defenders. The main forces marched at night, more than 10 kilometers, and reached the camps of Hasdrubal and Syphax before dawn. Scipio separated the army in two-halves and ordered Laelius and Massinissa's Numidians to set fire to and destroy Syphax's camp. Laelius and Massinissa left Syphax's warriors almost no chance to escape, as they were caught sleeping and utterly unprepared. The flames that started from the huts outside the palisades spread easily and engulfed the whole camp. All the exits were blockaded by the Romans, and numbers of unarmed soldiers were slaughtered; others were caught by the flames, as well as many pack animals, or were trampled to death at the gates. The same happened with the army of Hasdrubal. Its soldiers were awakened by the news that the neighbouring camp was ignited, and some of them rushed to help the Numidians without arms, thinking that the flames were the result of an accident. Scipio waited for this moment of confusion to attack with his part of the Roman army. The Carthaginians could not offer any organized resistance and were crushed. Only their general (as well as Syphax), with a small body of troops, managed to escape.
The version of Livy and Polybius is supported by other ancient historians, such as Florus and Frontinus. In "The Punic Wars", a part of his "Roman History", Appian relates another story of the events. According to Appian, Scipio detached only Massinissa and his horsemen to prevent Syphax from rendering help to Hasdrubal. With the bulk of his legionaries, the Roman commander suddenly attacked Hasdrubal's camp and slaughtered almost all of his soldiers, because those who initially made their escape were rounded up by the Roman cavalry. When Syphax knew what was happening, he sent a cavalry detachment to assist Hasdrubal, but these horsemen were met and routed by Massinissa. Fearing that Scipio would turn on him after dealing with Hasdrubal's army, Syphax abandoned his camp and retreated to safety with his army.
The Carthaginians suffered heavy casualties and their field forces were virtually eliminated for some time. According to Polybius, the combined Carthaginian and Numidian forces lost 91,500 killed or captured, with 2,500 survivors. Livy claims 40,000 killed, 5,000 captured and 2,500 survivors, contradicting Polybius's claim of 93,000 soldiers, while Appian gives 30,000 dead and 3,000 captured. All sources agree that the losses of the Romans were minimal; however Cassius Dio recorded that a “large number“, were lost when a late arriving force of Iberian mercenaries attacked the following morning, catching the Romans off guard.
Polybius wrote: "...it is not possible to find any other disaster which even if exaggerated could be compared with this, so much did it exceed in horror all previous events. Therefore of all the brilliant exploits performed by Scipio this seems to me the most splendid and most adventurous." With one single strike Scipio was able to get rid of the Carthaginian blockade and to renew the offensive operations of the previous summer. What followed shortly afterwards was the battle of the Great Plains, which ended with another crushing defeat of Hasdrubal Gisgo and Syphax. Carthage had to recall its armies from Italy for a last decisive encounter that took place in 202 BC, and resulted in a final defeat and a peace treaty, ending the Second Punic War in 201 BC.
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