Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 – 183 BC), so named because of his military victories in Africa, was one of Rome’s greatest generals and strategists, best known for his conquest of Carthage’s territories in Iberia during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), and for defeating Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC to close out the conflict with victory.
His first mention in the historic record dates to 218 BC, when he led a cavalry charge that saved his father, one of that year’s consuls, from encirclement by Carthaginians. He survived the disaster at Cannae two years later, when Hannibal nearly wiped out a Roman army 87,000 strong. Scipio was one of the few Roman officers to keep their wits about them and cut their way to safety with 10,000 men – the sole survivors, who would form the nucleus of a reconstituted Roman army.
In 211, Scipio’s father and uncle were defeated and killed fighting Hannibal’s brother in Hispania, and in elections for a new proconsul to lead an army to avenge the defeat, Scipio was the only Roman to seek the position, which others eschewed as a death sentence. Only 25 at the time, he was underage to be elected a magistrate, but a special law was enacted to give him command. He opened the campaign with a surprise attack in 209 BC that captured New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the Carthaginian seat of power in Hispania, securing at a stroke ample supplies, as well as a great harbor and base for further operations. He then campaigned across Hispania, winning a series of victories, and by 206 BC had wrested all of Hispania from the enemy.
He then returned to Rome as its most successful general to date, and was elected consul in 205 BC. By then, Hannibal was isolated in southern Italy, cutoff from supplies and reinforcements. Dismissing him, Scipio boldly took the war directly against Carthage by invading North Africa in 204 BC. The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy to take command of their armies at home, setting the stage for a climactic showdown between Rome’s and Carthage’s greatest generals. It came at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, in which Scipio won a complete victory that end the war.
Scipio returned to a hero’s welcome, but while lionized by the general public, he was hated by fellow patricians who persecuted him with trumped-up charges of treason, bribery, and general corruption in order to sully his reputation. The ingratitude left him disillusioned and bitter and led to his withdrawal from public life and retirement to his estates in Campania, where he remained until his death in 183 BC.