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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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THE CAPTURE OF NEW CARTHAGE

[215] FROM the time that Hannibal entered Italy, it seemed as though the Romans needed all their strength to meet so powerful a foe. They did, indeed, have as many as eight legions on the battlefield of Cannæ. Yet, at the same time, they had sent officers and soldiers to Spain, and were fighting against the Carthaginians in that country, as well as in Italy.

Publius Scipio had, you remember, been ordered to march to Spain in 218 B.C. to punish Hannibal for defying the demands of Rome. But as he found that Hannibal was crossing the Alps, he awaited him in the valley of the Po, sending his brother Gnæus to Spain in his stead.

In about twelve months Publius was able to join his brother, and for four years they fought together against the Carthaginians. Then in 213 B.C. the Romans found that the enemy was making a determined effort to push their possessions beyond the river Ebro.

Such presumption must be punished, and Publius with an army set out to repulse the enemy. But in the battle that followed he fell, mortally wounded. Gnæus also was slain about three weeks later.

The loss of the Scipios was a serious blow to Rome, for their influence in Spain had made the Roman name powerful. Nor was it easy to find an officer to send to Spain in the place of the brothers, for every soldier wished to stay in Italy to fight against Hannibal, the arch enemy.

[216] At length Cornelius, the son of Publius Scipio, offered to take up the work that had fallen from his father's hands.

Cornelius Scipio was only twenty-four years of age, but he had already shown that he was brave and skilful. On the battlefield of Ticinus he had by his prompt action saved his father's life, and after the slaughter at Cannæ he had prevented a band of young knights from forsaking their country.

In Rome, Scipio was a favourite with the people, partly, perhaps, because of his good looks, and partly because, although he was so young, he was grave and dignified, and his serious ways became him well.

His offer to serve in Spain was accepted, the people electing him for the post with goodwill. The few who were anxious lest he was too young for so great a charge were soon reassured, for his speech, when he addressed them, was wise as well as confident. And the trust of the people was justified.

Scipio arrived in Spain about 210 B.C., and finding that a town, which the enemy had named New Carthage, was of great importance, he determined to attack it.

Although the Carthaginians had three armies in Spain, each of their camps was at some distance from new Carthage.

So confident, too, were the Punic generals of the strength of the town, that it was guarded by a garrison of only one thousand men. As for the inhabitants, they knew little of the use of arms, being for the most part fishermen and mechanics.

Yet New Carthage was supremely important. She was the nearest port to Carthage, and it was at her harbour that reinforcements and stores from Africa were landed. Here, too, the Carthaginians kept their magazines, their money, and their Spanish hostages.

The city was surrounded by high, strong walls, save at one place, where it was protected by an inland sea or lagoon. [217] Here the walls were low and guarded less vigilantly, for the sea was believed to make the city secure from attack.

But Scipio had been talking in his grave and pleasant way with the fishermen of New Carthage, and he had learned quite simply what he wished to know—that the sea was shallow enough at times to make it possible to reach the low and well-nigh unguarded wall.

When Scipio, his plan determined, ordered his soldiers to march, they knew nothing of what their young leader meant to attempt. Only to Lælius, his most trusted friend, did he confide his scheme, bidding him take the Roman fleet to the harbour of New Carthage on a certain day.

Lælius was to join in the assault upon the city; if it failed, he was to be ready to carry off the troops in his ships.

Scipio's orders were obeyed. The fleet reached the harbour at the same time that the Roman army encamped without the city walls.

Mago, who was in command of the garrison, was surprised when he saw the Roman fleet in the harbour, the Roman army close to his gates. He at once ordered the walls to be manned, and about two thousand of the citizens to be armed.

A party of soldiers then sallied out to drive off the enemy, the armed citizens joining in the attack. They were, however, beaten back by the Romans. In a panic the citizens crowded together in the narrow gateway, each trying to regain the safety of the streets. So foolish was their haste, that many of them were trampled underfoot and wounded, if not killed.

The Roman soldiers all but succeeded in pushing their way into the city, along with the desperate citizens. They did not quite succeed, but they managed to fix the scaling ladders against the walls. This proved, however, of little use, for the ladders, they found, were too short for the height [218] of the walls, while they suffered greatly from the arrows and missiles which fell in their midst.

It was afternoon when the Romans withdrew, and the garrison believed that they were safe for another day. But a few hours later the besiegers again attacked the walls.

This second attack was only a ruse to distract the defenders of the city from a more serious undertaking.

Scipio had seen that the water in the lagoon was ebbing, and would soon be shallow. So he now ordered his men to step boldly into the water and carry their ladders to the low and carelessly guarded wall.

His order was speedily carried out. The ladders were soon in position, and the next moment the Roman soldiers were climbing up into the city.

Meanwhile the garrison was busy repulsing the attack upon her high and strongly guarded walls.

But the Roman soldiers, having scaled their ladders, leaped into the city, killing the few guards whom they encountered. Quickly they made their way toward the gate, which was being assaulted from without. When they reached it they flung it open, and their comrades poured into the city, the garrison was overcome, and New Carthage was in the hands of Scipio.

The young general was modest, and refused to claim all the glory of the victory. Part of it, at least, was due to Neptune, the god of the sea, for he, said Scipio, had come to him as he slept and bidden him enter the city by the lagoon.

There was much booty to be gathered in the conquered city, and in the harbour a fleet of both warships and merchant vessels was captured.

But the chief value of the victory was that the Romans had now possession of a town in the very centre of the enemy's country, as well as of its best port.

In 206 B.C. Scipio returned to Rome, able to say that he had left no Carthaginian soldier in Spain.

[219] But Scipio had done more than drive the enemy out of Spain. He had tried to win two powerful allies for his country, in Africa, and he had succeeded in gaining one.

Syphax, King of Western Numidia, had been now on the side of Rome, now on that of Carthage. Scipio sailed to Africa to visit Syphax, and before he left him he believed that he had secured his fidelity to Rome.

But although the king was charmed with the Roman, and said of him that he was "even more admirable in conversation than in war," when Scipio's influence was removed he proved fickle as ever. In the end he went over to, and remained on, the side of the Carthaginians.

The ally whom Scipio gained was an African prince named Masinissa. He had come to Spain with a body of Numidian cavalry, and promised that it should be at the service of Scipio when he landed in Africa.

For this was now the young general's great ambition—to carry the war with the Carthaginians into their own country.


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