In the summer of 210 BC, Publius Cornelius Scipio ‘the Younger’ sailed from the mouth of the Tiber to take command of the remnant of the Roman armies left in Iberia (Spain). He was young when elected by popular assembly to the post, according to Polybius, around 27, with real but limited military experience. He served with his father, consul, in 218 BC and fought at the Ticinus, Trebia, and Cannae. His father, Publius Cornelius Scipio ‘the Elder’, and his uncle Gnaeus commanded the Roman forces in Iberia when the Second Punic War began in 218 BC. During their last offensive, the army separated into two columns to cover more ground, but each was isolated and defeated piecemeal. Both generals were killed, and the remnants, around 9000, escaped under the command of Lucius Marcius. (Gabriel, 83)

Map of Spain during the Second Punic War showing the sites of major engagements. From “The Past.”

Scipio sailed with ten thousand infantry, a thousand cavalry, and a fleet of thirty quinquereme warships. He hugged the coast and made port at Emporiae (Ampurias), just inside the Spanish frontier, where he assembled the army and marched them south to Tarraco (Tarragona), the central Roman base north of the Ebro River. (Gabriel, 83) Scipio understood the political dimension of war. To move anywhere on the peninsula, he had to secure his rear and line of communication back to Tarraco, and that was difficult with various tribes allied to the Carthaginians. He needed loyal tribal allies.

Scipio had a competent intelligence arm that sought information from the friendly tribes. They told him that Carthaginian forces were divided into three separate armies, in different locations along the peninsula. Mago was posted on the Iberian side of the pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) in the territory of the Conii. Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, was in Lusitania (Portugal) near the mouth of the Tagus. A second Hasdrubal was busy sieging a city in the territory of the Carpetani. (Polybius 10, 7) None of the three were within ten days march from the town of Carthago Nova or New Carthage. Scipio knew he couldn’t engage all three armies simultaneously like his predecessors had attempted and determined New Carthage ripe for the picking.

New Carthage was a wealthy town with rich citizens about halfway down the east coast of Spain, in a gulf facing the sea southwest. The entrance to the gulf was about twenty stades (1 Roman mile = 8 stades) long and ten stades broad, with an island in the middle that left a narrow passage on either side. The island provided a breakwater that kept the gulf calm. New Carthage was tucked away in the innermost nook of the gulf on a peninsula that jutted out to the west. New Carthage was accessed from the mainland by a thin isthmus, about 250 yards wide, leading to its eastern gate. The peninsula was surrounded by sea on the south, west, and east, with a lagoon extending north. New Carthage was low at the center of the peninsula and at sea level on the southern approach. Hills dotted the north, with the temple of Aesculapius dominating the highest. (Polybius 10, 10)

Plan of Scipio’s assault on Nova Carthago (New Carthage) in 209 BC
Plan of Scipio’s assault on Nova Carthago (New Carthage) in 209 BC. Map by Ian Bull.

Taking New Carthage would seriously challenge the Carthaginians’ ability to feed supplies and reinforcements to Hannibal at the Italian front and maintain tribal loyalties in Iberia. At this time, Hannibal is wreaking havoc on mainland Italy, and Scipio’s mandate is to eliminate the source of his supply and manpower. The Carthaginians kept the bulk of their money and war materiel in the town and hostages from tribes all over Spain. The city acted as the headquarters of the Iberian Peninsula and the only city on the east coast fit for a proper naval fleet. The town also provided a direct sea crossing from Africa. Most importantly, the city was garrisoned by only a thousand trained soldiers, with the rest of the population made up of artisans, tradesmen, and sailors, men lacking in military experience. (Polybius 10, 8)

Polybian legionaries and an officer at the time of the Punic War
Polybian legionaries and an officer at the time of the Punic War. (Graham Sumner)

Scipio made winter quarters in Tarraco, where he spent considerable time fortifying the town as his main base of operations for the coming campaign. According to Polybius, it was here that Scipio learned from fishermen that the lagoon north of New Carthage was fordable in some parts when the water receded with the tide. (Polybius, 10, 8) This was actionable intelligence that Scipio used to his advantage.

In the meantime, Scipio needed to forge his army group into a unified fighting force. He dedicated time to training, conducting inspections, and getting to know his troops. The soldiers grew accustomed to his methods of command, built up their confidence and morale, and ensured their equipment and supplies were in good repair for the spring campaign. (Gabriel, 83) Scipio formed his plan over the winter and shared his intentions only with his friend and commander of the fleet, Gaius Laelius. Laelius and the fleet would shadow Scipio and the army as they force marched south along the coastal route to New Carthage. Scipio wanted the army and fleet to converge simultaneously on the town. And if the assault on New Carthage failed, or the three Carthaginian armies began to move on the location, the army could easily extract via the fleet.

Theatre, Cathago Nova
Theatre, Carthago Nova. From: Rafael (CC BY-NC-SA).

Early in the spring, Scipio marched south. He made forty miles a day trailing twenty-five thousand infantry and twenty-five hundred cavalry. New Carthage was more than three hundred miles from Tarraco and they completed the forced march in seven days. They arrived on the seventh day and encamped to the north of the town. The army built defenses along the outer side of the camp with a palisade and double trench that extended to the sea. The middle of Scipio’s camp was positioned directly across the isthmus and the approach from New Carthage’s eastern gate. However, Scipio ordered no defenses on the side facing the town. He judged the ground sufficient to secure his position and wanted to tempt the Carthaginians to sortie from behind their walls. (Polybius 10, 9)

Once the camp and defenses were built, Scipio called an assembly to address his troops. He promised gold crowns to whoever scaled the walls first, informed them that Neptune appeared in his dreams, and promised that when the time came for action, the god would intervene to render aid. (Polybius 10, 9) Scipio effortlessly convinced Romans that their destiny were intertwined with the divine.

Scipio Africanus and his troops capture the city of Cartagena
Scipio Africanus and his troops capture the city of Cartagena; at left Scipio’s troops are launching lances, while at centre, soldiers engage in combat, and at right, soldiers scale the walls of the fortified city. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The next day, Laelius and the fleet entered the gulf and encircled the city, bombarding the walls with all types of missiles. Mago, in charge of New Carthage, divided his 2,000-man militia and sent half to the citadel and the other half to the eastern hill. He armed another 2,000 citizens with whatever weapons could be found in the town and posted them opposite the gate leading to the isthmus and the Roman camp. At the third hour (9 am), Scipio signaled the assault with a bugle call, and two thousand of his strongest fighters with ladder-bearers advanced. Mago planned a counterattack and sent his armed citizens through the gate. They clashed with the Romans drawn up at the base of the isthmus in a vigorous assault. The clash produced a cacophony of iron on iron, “accompanied by vehement shouts of encouragement from both sides, those in the camp and those in the town respectively cheering on their own men.” (Polybius 10, 12)

The battle was unequal as the distance from the single gate was nearly two stades (360 meters) for the Carthaginians as opposed to the Romans, who attacked from nearby and at several points. (Polybius 10, 9) The weight of the Romans attack forced the Carthaginians back to the gate and caused panic amongst the defenders, and the Romans nearly seized the gate. The wall defenders withdrew to defend the gate and plugged the breach. But the Roman advance guard took advantage of the lull from the walls and emplaced ladders without dodging missiles.

The Battle of Cartagena via The British Museum
The Battle of Cartagena. Roman soldiers in foreground storming a large military fortification with rounded towers, at left using ladders. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Scipio reorganized his line and ordered his front rank to mount the ladders, but the defenders re-took their positions on the great walls. The legionnaires were taken aback by the height of the walls and struggled to make progress. Some ladders broke because too many men mounted at once. Other legionnaires got dizzy due to the height and just fell. The defenders didn’t help matters by throwing down beams and similar objects that swept the Romans off the ladders. But while men fell from ladders left and right, Scipio steadily fed reinforcements to fill the voids. The young general advanced a little behind the line on elevated ground, protected by three men carrying large shields. He could see what was happening, react, and inspire his men. But Scipio watched dusk approach from the east over the Mediterranean and saw the fatigue in his soldiers. With a blast from the bugle, he ordered a tactical withdrawal and returned to their encampment. (Polybius, 10, 12)

The defenders took comfort in the withdrawal of Roman troops. But Scipio was just waiting for the tide to recede. He selected five hundred men with ladders to move stealthily north and west along the lagoon’s shore. His main force attacked the eastern wall and gate providing the diversion he needed for his assault element to flank to the north, breach the north wall, and penetrate through the rear. He addressed his soldiers, distributed more ladders, and signaled the attack. This time, the Romans set up ladders everywhere along the wall, which threw the defenders into great confusion. They thought the battle was over, but now it was even worse. The defenders were out of ammunition, and their losses were severe, but still offered a stubborn resistance. (Polybius 10, 12)

At the height of the attack, the tide began to ebb, and the water in the lagoon gradually receded. There was a strong current in the channel to the sea and to nonlocals; it would seem like the work of the divine, just like Scipio told them. The legionnaires sent north entered the lagoon and were shocked that they were walking through shallow water. They remembered Scipio’s reference to Neptune and the promise he made. The recollection redoubled their courage. They reached the wall and found the battlements deserted, so they set up their ladders at leisure as the defenders had been diverted to the eastern gate. The legionnaires occupied the north wall without a blow, secured their position, and swept along the east and west branches until they converged at the eastern gate and the rear of the remaining defenders. The arrival of the assault element at the east gate delivered the coup de grace. (Polybius 10, 12)

General Scipio Finds A Way Into The Stronghold Of Carthage Nova
Scipio finds a way into the stronghold of Carthage Nova. From: Severino Baraldi.

Once the gate was breached, the Roman vanguard advanced and occupied the hill to the east after a quick fight with light defenders. More Romans poured into the gate, killing every living thing they encountered. Scipio and a thousand men broke off to attack the citadel where Mago was barricaded. He resisted at first but realized it was over and sent a message to Scipio that he wanted to surrender. Scipio gave the signal, and the massacre ceased, and the soldiers went to pillaging.

After securing the town, Scipio sent most of his soldiers back to their camp but kept a thousand bivouacked in the citadel with him. The tribunes (Staff Officers) of the legions divided the booty according to legion tradition. The baggage of the Carthaginians, household stuff of the townsmen and working classes, and booty collected from the pillage was gathered in the market. A maniple (120 legionnaires) and a tribune were placed as guards. Polybius says this was routine. Typically, after the Romans captured a city, they would assign a certain number of men from each maniple, and at other times, whole maniples to collect booty while the rest remained in their ranks inside the city or patrolled outside, ready to respond. (Polybius 10, 16)

Scipio counted ten thousand prisoners and divided them between women, children, and working men. He let the women and children return to their homes but told the working men that they were public slaves of Rome. However, if they showed goodwill and industry in their different crafts, he promised freedom at war’s end. He had them enroll with the questor (the legion’s financial officer) and assigned a Roman superintendent over every thirty men. Scipio selected the strongest of the other prisoners and incorporated them into the crews of the fleet. He captured eighteen ships in the harbor and likewise used these men to reinforce their crews. (Polybius 10, 16)

When Scipio distributed the public funds captured at New Carthage, it amounted to more than six hundred talents. He sent distinguished prisoners like Mago, members of the council of elders, and fifteen members of the Senate with Laelius on a quinquereme back to Rome. Rome needed a boost, and this victory would fortify their spirit in her darkest hour.

The Battle of New Carthage
Scipio sits at the left under a tent, surrounded by soldiers with shields, a woman is taken to him by other soldiers. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Within the first week after launching his first campaign, Scipio had upset the balance of power in Iberia. He deprived the Carthaginians of their main supply base, captured almost 20 war galleys, and held a large part of the Carthaginian treasury. He recovered more than 300 noble hostages the Carthaginians had taken and held from Iberia’s most powerful tribes to guarantee good behavior. Some of the hostages hailed from tribes that had betrayed his father. But Scipio still treated them honorably and allowed them to return home. Polybius tells the story of one of the captive women, the wife of the king of the Ilergetes, who pleaded with Scipio to protect her daughters. When he received the translation, he wept and took the family under his protection. He learned of another beautiful woman engaged to a Celtiberian noble named Aluccius, who was deeply attached to her. Scipio reunited the pair, and Aluccius turned up outside New Carthage days later with now-allied horsemen. Scipio’s wisdom and leadership drew more and more Iberian allies to himself at the expense of Carthaginian authority. That’s how you win hearts and minds in the third century BC. (Polybius 10, 18)


Elliot, Simon. Romans at War. Casemate Publishers, 2020.

Polybius. The Histories of Polybius. Volume 4, Loeb Classical Library, 1925.

Gabriel, Richard A. Scipio Africanus: Rome’s Greatest General. Washington: Potomac Books, 2008.

Goodlad, Graham. “Scipio Africanus.” The Past. May 6, 2020.

The Continence of Scipio. 462474001. The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Battle of Cartagena. 144799001. The Trustees of the British Museum.

Scipio Africanus and his troops capture the city of Cartagena. 1613477359. The Trustees of the British Museum.

Theatre, Carthago Nova. World History Encyclopedia.

Categories: Punic Wars


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