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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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THE ROMANS SET FIRE TO THE CAMP OF THE NUMIDIANS

[223] NO sooner did Scipio land in Africa, than he was joined by his ally Masinissa, with about two hundred of his famous Numidian cavalry.

Masinissa had been expelled from his lands by Syphax, and he was glad to throw in his fortune with the Romans. To Scipio he was a valuable ally, for he knew the war tactics and habits both of the Numidians and Carthaginians.

The Carthaginians had gathered a large army to oppose the invaders. It was led by Hasdrubal, the son of Gisco. King Syphax with his Numidian troops had joined Hasdrubal, and the two armies were encamped near Utica, to which town Scipio had laid siege.

The Roman general, pretending that it might be possible to arrange terms of peace, sent ambassadors, during a short truce, to the camp of Syphax. But his true reason for doing so was that they might find out something of the numbers of the enemy and of the position of its camp.

As was therefore to be expected, the negotiations were of no use, and were soon broken off.

The Punic army believed that the attack on Utica would at once be renewed. It did not dream that its camp was in danger.

But Masinissa knew that the camp was guarded carelessly. He also knew that the tents in the camp were huts, built of wood, and covered with branches of trees or with [224] rushes. So he advised Scipio to plan a night attack on the camp, and to set fire to the huts.

One night Scipio resolved to do as Masinissa had suggested. He ordered his men to have supper early. The bugles sounded at the hour usual for the evening meal, that the enemy's attention might not be attracted by any departure from the daily routine. But on this night the bugle was not the signal for supper, but the call to march.

It was cold and dark when, soon after midnight, the whole Roman army drew near to the camp of the Carthaginians, having marched a distance of seven miles.

Masinissa at once ordered every exit to be closely guarded, then he stealthily set fire to the huts on the edge of the camp.

The flames spread rapidly from one wooden hut to another until, before the Carthaginians were aware, their whole camp was in a blaze.

Late as it was, some of the officers were still feasting when the smoke and the noise of crackling wood roused them to a sense of danger.

They rushed out, still carrying in their hands the cups out of which they had been drinking, to see the tents blazing fiercely.

Others sprang out of bed and hastened toward the tents, and although all were startled and dismayed, none of them seemed to think that an enemy had done this thing. They simply imagined that the fire was an accident, caused perhaps by some careless soldier.

The whole camp was now in confusion. Many perished in the flames, while many others were trampled to death in the crowd.

Those who tried to escape were seized by Masinissa and his men and were slain, almost before they realised that they were in the hand of the enemy.

Hasdrubal and Syphax saw that it was hopeless to try to save the camp or the soldiers. Accompanied by a few [225] horsemen, they succeeded in slipping away unnoticed by Masinissa or his soldiers.

Carthage was angry with Hasdrubal when she heard of the loss of her army, and condemned him to death. But he had ridden into the neighbouring districts, and was already enrolling volunteers, for he was determined still to serve his country. In thirty days another army, under the same leaders, was ready to meet the enemy.

Scipio, leaving troops to support the fleet, which was now blockading Utica, at once marched against Hasdrubal and Syphax. On the Great Plains a terrible battle was fought, in which the Romans were victorious. Hasdrubal escaped from the field, and Syphax hastened away to his own kingdom of Numidia.

When Hasdrubal at length ventured to enter Carthage, his enemies tried to take him prisoner. But he hid himself in the mausoleum or tomb of his family. Then, determined never to be taken alive, he took poison and died.

The people, in their rage at being thus cheated of their victim, dragged Hasdrubal's body into the street and placed his head in triumph on the top of a pole.

King Syphax was followed to Numidia by Masinissa and a detachment of Roman soldiers.

The king again faced his enemies, but once more he was defeated, and being captured he was taken to the Roman camp. Masinissa now recovered his own dominions, as well as part of the kingdom that had belonged to Syphax.

From this time the African prince grew more and more powerful. Led by him, the Numidians now fought for the Romans, so that Carthage found herself left alone to fight against two powerful enemies.


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