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Lords of the World by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

SCIPIO SETS TO WORK

CLEANOR, though he had no proofs of Hasdrubal's complicity in the crime just committed, could not rid himself of the suspicion that he had had something to do with it. No one profited by it more; he had been present when the deed was done, and had not spoken a word or lifted a finger to hinder it. Such a suspicion was enough in itself to make any post which brought him into close contact with the [139] general distasteful to the young man. And Hasdrubal's personal habits were revolting to his taste. The man was given over to gluttony. He had a sufficiently clear intelligence and some military skill, but the enormous meals in which he indulged produced a condition of torpor which disabled him during a great part of the day.

Cleanor, therefore, was not a little pleased when, through the good offices of Gisco, he was attached to the staff of one of Hasdrubal's lieutenants, Himilco by name. Himilco had charge of a portion of the wall looking towards the sea, about four stadia in length. Cleanor had the duty, which he shared with another officer, of seeing that the sentinels were properly vigilant during the night. Each was responsible for two of the four watches, their practice being for one to take the first and fourth, the other the second and third.

At this time the chief interest of the siege was centred at this point, where it seemed not improbable that the Romans would have to suffer a very serious check. The second-in-command of the besieging force, who had a special charge of the fleet, an officer of more enterprise than judgment, had seen, as he thought, a chance of greatly distinguishing himself. Having taken advantage of a long spell of settled weather to stand-in more closely than usual to the shore, he had observed, or rather, it had been pointed [140] out to him by a sharp-sighted young officer, a portion of the ramparts which appeared to be insufficiently guarded. The wall here ran along the top of a precipice, so steep and inaccessible that it might almost seem unnecessary to supplement by art the provision of nature. Such spots, however, while they seem to be the strongest, are often in fact the weakest part of a fortification. A fortunate chance put Mancinus—this was the Roman admiral's name—in possession of the fact that the cliffs were not by any means so difficult of access as they seemed. One of the fishermen who plied their trade along the coast had come on board the admiral's ship with a cargo of fish for sale. He was asked whether there was any way of scaling the cliffs, and replied that there was, and promised, in consideration of a couple of gold pieces, to act as guide. Mancinus accordingly, having waited for a dull night, landed a force of about a thousand men. The guide fulfilled his promise and showed them the path, which, thanks to the negligence of the besieged, they found entirely unguarded.

For a time everything went well. The sentinels had come to regard this beat as one which might be neglected without risk. When they chanced to be told off to this duty they were accustomed to sleep as unconcernedly as if they had been in their beds [141] at home. About fifty or sixty of the assailants had mounted the walls by help of scaling-ladders when the alarm was given. The besieged had organized a flying detachment of five hundred men, whose business it was to be ready for any emergency, and to hurry at once to any spot where they might be wanted.

This force now came up at full speed, and the few who had mounted the wall were promptly dislodged. This done, the officer in command ordered the nearest gate to be opened, and sallied out at the head of his men. But he had not expected to find so formidable a force opposed to him. His division was completely overmatched, and was driven back within the walls, the Romans making their way through the gate—which there had been no time to shut—along with the retreating enemy.

Both sides were now reinforced, the Carthaginians by fresh detachments from the garrison, the Romans by Mancinus himself with another contingent from the fleet. The result of the fighting, which was continued throughout the night, was that the Romans retired from within the walls, but occupied a fairly strong position outside.

In earlier days, when the idea that Carthaginian territory could be successfully invaded had not occurred to anyone, a wealthy merchant of the city had built himself a mansion on a space of level [142] ground between the wall and the cliff. The mansion was surrounded with spacious gardens and orchards, and these again were protected from trespassers by a deep ditch and a wall of unusual height. Here Mancinus intrenched himself. He still cherished the hope that he might make good his footing, and use the position as a starting-point for successful operations against the city. What a splendid achievement it would be if he could falsify what had come to be a commonly accepted belief, if it was to turn out that a Mancinus, not a Scipio, was the conqueror of Carthage! And indeed he was so far right that he always had the credit of having been the first to effect a lodgment within the boundaries of Carthage itself.

For the present, however, his position was precarious. He had no stock of provisions with him, except that the men had been ordered to carry rations for three days. Supplies could, of course, be obtained from the ships, but only so long as [143] the weather continued fine. A week of strong wind from the sea would reduce him to absolute starvation. Of water there was already a scarcity. The builder of the mansion had provided an ample supply for a large household, but there was nothing like enough for between two and three thousand men. And, apart from the difficulties about food and drink, the position was not one which could be permanently held. The wall round the mansion, for instance, was not a military fortification. It was meant to keep out trespassers, not to resist battering-rams.

This, then, was the state of affairs when Cleanor took up his command. Two days had passed since Mancinus had occupied the position outside the walls, and he was already in distress. The contingency for which he had made no provision had occurred. The wind was blowing strongly from the sea, and the captains of the fleet had thought it prudent to stand off from the shore. The Carthaginians were perfectly well aware of the condition of affairs. They had intercepted a messenger carrying an urgent appeal for help to head-quarters, and knew that, unless there was a change of weather, the Romans must be reduced to extremities. Their policy was, of course, to sit still and wait. There was, indeed, a good chance that if the battering-rams were vigorously applied to the walls, a breach [144] might be made, and an assault successfully made. But an assault, whatever the result, would cost many lives. And of all men no one is more bound to be economical of life than he who commands the garrison of a besieged town; and this for the simple reason that he cannot hope to get recruits. In the course of two or three days more the Romans would have to capitulate, or fight at a terrible disadvantage. Scipio, it was true, was now daily expected, and, if he arrived in time, would be sure to make a vigorous effort to save his countrymen. But that he should arrive in time seemed almost impossible.

But the Carthaginians did not know Scipio. Cleanor himself—who, as has been seen, had had opportunities of estimating the remarkable qualities of the man—was taken by surprise, such were the energy and the promptitude with which the Roman acted. With that remarkable foresight which he did not scruple himself to attribute to divine prompting, and which we may anyhow describe as genius, he had made special preparation for such a contingency as had actually occurred. He had selected the ten swiftest ships out of the fleet which accompanied him from Italy, and had put on board them a picked force of five hundred men. With this squadron he had outstripped the slower sailers by not less than forty-eight hours, an invaluable saving of time as it turned out.

[145] He reached Utica, which was about twenty-seven miles west of Carthage, at sunset on the day on which Mancinus had sent his appeal for help. Two ''of the three messengers who had been despatched on this errand had been captured, but one had contrived to elude the Carthaginian watchmen, and had reached Utica at midnight. Scipio did not lose a moment. His own men were ready for instant action, but they were scarcely numerous enough for the work which they might have to do.

He found abundance of help in Utica. At an earlier period of the war he had spent seven months in this town in command of a detachment quartered there. The influence of his extraordinary personality had made itself felt in Utica as it did everywhere else. Old and young in the city were devoted to him. What we should now call a battalion of volunteers had been raised, of which he had consented to be the honorary tribune. Late as it was, he sent a herald through the streets with notice that this force was to muster immediately at the harbour. In the course of little more than an hour the battalion had assembled at the place indicated for a rendezvous in full strength, not a single member, except some half-dozen incapacitated by sickness, being absent. A requisition also was made for lads and elderly men, and of these there was such a throng that the task for which they were [146] wanted, carrying provisions and stores on board the squadron, might have been clone five times over. All worked with such a will that before sunrise everything was actually ready, and the squadron was able to make a start.

Scipio's arrival had been observed at Carthage, the harbour of Utica being distinctly visible, not-withstanding the distance, through the clear atmosphere of the north African coast. He had himself taken pains to assure its being known, for he was not above utilizing to the utmost the impression made, as he was well aware, by his name. He had no sooner reached Utica than he ordered that some seamen, who were among the Carthaginian prisoners, should be set free, supplied with a fast-sailing pinnace, and commissioned to deliver at Carthage the message, "Scipio is come".

That he would hasten to the relief of Mancinus everyone in Carthage knew, and orders were issued accordingly that the position of that general should be attacked as soon as possible after dawn. This was prompt, but it was not prompt enough.

The night, indeed, was not lost. Battering-rams were brought to bear upon the wall surrounding the mansion, and several breaches were made, ready for the storming parties to enter as soon as it was light. Before morning, indeed, the wall was so shattered that it became practically indefensible, [147] and Mancinus abandoned the idea of holding it against the assailants. He formed his men into a square, with the heavy-armed, who numbered about five hundred, outside, and the light troops, who had no protection beyond a steel cap and small target, within.

Himilco, who personally directed the attack, ordered a charge on a corner of the square, where the lines had been made up with Numidian auxiliaries. He hoped to find them less sturdy in resistance than the regular legionaries, who were all Italians. Cleanor, who was having his first experience of serious fighting, was in the front rank of the charge, and had the satisfaction of seeing the Roman line waver. But it wavered without breaking.

The Numidians were under the command of a deputy centurion, a Picenian mountaineer of huge stature and herculean strength. Springing to the front he killed a heavily-armed Carthaginian out-right with one thrust of his pike. Then he struck Cleanor full in the breast. The finely-wrought cuirass of steel, a gift from the old king, withstood the blow, but the wearer was hurled backward with irresistible force and came to the ground with a shock which partially stunned him. When Himilco ordered a retreat he had to be supported by his companions.

But though the charge had been repulsed, the [148] position of the Roman force was full of peril. The heavily-armed men in the front ranks were no protection to their less fully equipped comrades against the incessant showers of missiles which the archers, javelin-throwers, and slingers rained upon the helpless men inside the square. Their own armour was not always proof against them, still less against the stones which the catapults, now put in position on the city walls, discharged into their ranks. The whole body continued to edge away out of range of the walls, heedless of the fact that every step brought them nearer to the cliffs.

A catastrophe was imminent when Scipio's squadron cam in sight. The decks were crowded, every available man putting himself as much in evidence as possible. This was Scipio's command, given in order to create an impression of greater numbers than he really possessed. The effect on the contending forces was instantaneous and great. The Carthaginian leaders felt themselves to be in the presence of a formidable antagonist, and stood on the defensive. The forces of Mancinus recovered the confidence which they had lost. Scipio's arrival was soon followed by the appearance of Mancinus' own ships. For it was one of the many instances of the extraordinary good fortune which seemed to attend on Scipio throughout his career, that no sooner had he appeared on the scene than the [149] weather changed. The wind veered round, and now blew with moderate strength from the shore. It was still a couple of hours from noon when the whole force under Mancinus had reembarked.

"We must never lose a moment," said Gisco to out hero, when they were talking over the events of the day, "if we are to keep up with this wonderful man. As to being beforehand with him that seems impossible. Who would have thought that, after coming all the way from Italy, he would have started again almost without giving himself time to sup! This is a very different thing from Piso's way of doing business."


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