The Siege

The consuls accordingly had by no means an easy task to perform, when they now found themselves compelled to commence a regular siege. Manius Manilius, who commanded the land army, pitched his camp opposite the wall of the citadel, while Lucius Censorinus stationed himself with the fleet on the lake and there began operations on the tongue of land. The Carthaginian army, under Hasdrubal, encamped on the other side of the lake near the fortress of Nepheris, whence it obstructed the labours of the Roman soldiers despatched to cut timber for constructing machines, and the able cavalry-leader in particular, Himilco Phameas, slew many of the Romans. Censorinus fitted up two large battering-rams on the tongue, and made a breach with them at this weakest place of the wall; but, as evening had set in, the assault had to be postponed. During the night the besieged succeeded in filling up a great part of the breach, and in so damaging the Roman machines by a sortie that they could not work next day. Nevertheless the Romans ventured on the assault; but they found the breach and the portions of the wall and houses in the neighbourhood so strongly occupied, and advanced with such imprudence, that they were repulsed with severe loss and would have suffered still greater damage, had not the military tribune Scipio Aemilianus, foreseeing the issue of the foolhardy attack, kept together his men in front of the walls and with them intercepted the fugitives. Manilius accomplished still less against the impregnable wall of the citadel. The siege thus lingered on. The diseases engendered in the camp by the heat of summer, the departure of Censorinus the abler general, the ill-humour and inaction of Massinissa who was naturally far from pleased to see the Romans taking for themselves the booty which he had long coveted, and the death of the king at the age of ninety which ensued soon after (end of 605), utterly arrested the offensive operations of the Romans. They had enough to do in protecting their ships against the Carthaginian incendiaries and their camp against nocturnal surprises, and in securing food for their men and horses by the construction of a harbour-fort and by forays in the neighbourhood. Two expeditions directed against Hasdrubal remained without success; and in fact the first, badly led over difficult ground, had almost terminated in a formal defeat. But, while the course of the war was inglorious for the general and the army, the military tribune Scipio achieved in it brilliant distinction. It was he who, on occasion of a nocturnal attack by the enemy on the Roman camp, starting with some squadrons of horse and taking the enemy in rear, compelled him to retreat. On the first expedition to Nepheris, when the passage of the river had taken place in opposition to his advice and had almost occasioned the destruction of the army, by a bold attack in flank he relieved the pressure on the retreating troops, and by his devoted and heroic courage rescued a division which had been given up as lost While the other officers, and the consul in particular, by their perfidy deterred the towns and party-leaders that were inclined to negotiate, Scipio succeeded in inducing one of the ablest of the latter, Himilco Phameas, to pass over to the Romans with 2200 cavalry. Lastly, after he had in fulfilment of the charge of the dying Massinissa divided his kingdom among his three sons, Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastanabal, he brought to the Roman army in Gulussa a cavalry-leader worthy of his father, and thereby remedied the want, which had hitherto been seriously felt, of light cavalry. His refined and yet simple demeanour, which recalled rather his own father than him whose name he bore, overcame even envy, and in the camp as in the capital the name of Scipio was on the lips of all. Even Cato, who was not liberal with his praise, a few months before his death--he died at the end of 605 without having seen the wish of his life, the destruction of Carthage, accomplished--applied to the young officer and to his incapable comrades the Homeric line:--

He only is a living man, the rest are gliding shades.(15)

While these events were passing, the close of the year had come and with it a change of commanders; the consul Lucius Piso (606) was somewhat late in appearing and took the command of the land army, while Lucius Mancinus took charge of the fleet. But, if their predecessors had done little, these did nothing at all. Instead of prosecuting the siege of Carthage or subduing the army of Hasdrubal, Piso employed himself in attacking the small maritime towns of the Phoenicians, and that mostly without success. Clupea, for example, repulsed him, and he was obliged to retire in disgrace from Hippo Diarrhytus, after having lost the whole summer in front of it and having had his besieging apparatus twice burnt. Neapolis was no doubt taken; but the pillage of the town in opposition to his pledged word of honour was not specially favourable to the progress of the Roman arms. The courage of the Carthaginians rose. Bithyas, a Numidian sheik, passed over to them with 800 horse; Carthaginian envoys were enabled to attempt negotiations with the kings of Numidia and Mauretania and even with Philip the Macedonian pretender. It was perhaps internal intrigues--Hasdrubal the emigrant brought the general of the same name, who commanded in the city, into suspicion on account of his relationship with Massinissa, and caused him to be put to death in the senate-house--rather than the activity of the Romans, that prevented things from assuming a turn still more favourable for Carthage.

Scipio Aemilianus

With the view of producing a change in the state of African affairs, which excited uneasiness, the Romans resorted to the extraordinary measure of entrusting the conduct of the war to the only man who had as yet brought home honour from the Libyan plains, and who was recommended for this war by his very name. Instead of calling Scipio to the aedileship for which he was a candidate, they gave to him the consulship before the usual time, setting aside the laws to the contrary effect, and committed to him by special decree the conduct of the African war.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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