Musings on Scipio Africanus and B. H. Liddell Hart

Scipio Africanus, the Roman consul and general who saved the Republic by defeating the supposedly unbeatable Carthaginian, Hannibal, and winning the Second Punic War, is an historical figure whose greatness has been unjustifiably ignored. In 1926, the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart set out to rectify this, and published Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon.

This book was recommended to me in the comments of a previous post and at just over half way done, I can already heartily second the recommendation. It's a thrilling, insightful story of a true hero and military genius, and Liddell Hart draws on a near contemporary of Scipio, the Greek historian Polybius, who was able to interview Scipio's close confidant and direct subordinate, Gaius Laelius, as well as gain access to the Scipio family archives. That events over 2,200 years ago could have such a detailed, objective account is simply amazing (in addition to the work of the Roman, Livy, who Hart references and appreciates but doesn't trust as much, out of concern that Livy was propagandizing the glory of Rome).

Now, on to a few unrelated musings on Liddell Hart's work.

Musing 1: You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. (Inconceivable!)
It wasn't until just last night, half way through the book, that I solved a puzzle that had bothered me until that point, having to do with Hart's use of the word moral. Hart, in describing Scipio, mentions repeatedly that not only was he a military genius, but in the modern terms, he could read people. In other words, he could very effectively rally his troops, and lead them, not with cruelty or overly authoritarian means, but by understanding their motivations and guiding them, and he called this a moral quality. He also describes Scipio as wanting to "strike not at their flesh, but at the moral Achilles heel" of the enemy, and that a delay after the capture of one city "allowed the moral effect" of the city's capture "to sink into the minds" of the enemy.

What the heck does he mean by "moral"? Finally, the particular construction of a sentence gave me the clue I needed. I unfortunately can't find it, but it was essentially like this: "Scipio was able to raise up the moral of the troops to fight even harder." So Hart often, but not always, means morale! Sometimes he means "taking moral actions," sometimes he means esprit de corps, and sometimes a strange mix of the two. This will help as I finish the book.

Musing 2: A Good Historian Is Not Immune From Mistakes Or Sour Grapes
Just because Liddell Hart has written an excellent history of Scipio Africanus does not mean that he, himself, is immune from some significant mistakes in other areas of history. The biggest one that jumped out at me occurred on page 72. Here, Hart describes what happened in Spain after Scipio initially expelled the Carthaginians. Scipio then fell ill and there were rumors of his death. Some of his troops took this as a cue to revolt, and two of the Romans' major Spanish allies, the tribes led by Mandonius and Andobales, also revolted. Here is what Hart wrote about this episode.
Mandonius and Andobales, dissatisfied because after the expulsion of the Carthaginians the Romans had not obligingly walked out and left them in possession, raised the standard of revolt, and began harassing the territory of the tribes faithful to the Roman alliance. As so often in history, the disappearance of the oppressor was the signal for dependencies to find the presence of their protector irksome. Mandonius and Andobales were but the forerunners of the American colonists and the modern Egyptians. There is no bond so irksome as that of gratitude. [bold added]
The context for this sentiment is that B. H. Liddell Hart was British. I can only assume that in comparing the revolt of barbaric tribes of Spanish warriors and the American Revolution, he seems to think that the colonists should have shut up and paid their taxes as "war debt" for the French and Indian War. In other words, the principled American fight for unabridged liberty was unjustified, and they should have been grateful to the crown, showed due deference, and kept quiet.

This, Mr. Liddell Hart, is clearly a case of sour grapes. It's also horribly, drastically wrong, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the conflict. This seemingly offhand comment, added to a few others, makes me think that Hart's evaluation of Scipio, though generally good, may be skewed to be overly negative. I think I'll have to look up the original writings of Polybius and Livy.

Hart also wrote a book on William Tecumseh Sherman, and his view of America as expressed above makes me wonder how he would treat a polarizing hero like Sherman. Has anyone read it? John Lewis made a reference to it in his excellent TOS article, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Moral Impetus for Victory, so I'm curious how Hart viewed the man.

OK, that's it for my random musings on Scipio and his historian. If you've made it this far, hopefully you've learned something, or at least been prompted to look into some of these historical works. After finishing this book, I intend to dig back into "Miracle at Philadelphia," and hope to post more interesting quotations from it.


Brian Fritts said...

I really enjoyed Liddell Hart's Sherman biography. He spends a lot of time talking about Sherman's military experience prior to the Civil War, and how this influenced his strategy. In particular, he discusses the time Sherman was stationed in the South and in California.

Hart emphasizes that Sherman's time in the South gave him some crucial insights into the military culture in the South, and the need for total unconditional victory. Sherman believed that the North would face the same conflict a generation later if the North only achieved a partial victory.

Hart's discussion of Sherman's tactics is adequate, but I think he gives a really good picture of the man. Sherman has been criticized by some, and faced much criticism in his own era.

It has been several years since I have read Hart's Sherman book, so there may have been some criticisms that I had at the time, that I don't remember now. However, I think Hart did a pretty good job.

Also, while I can't always recommend Victor Davis Hanson, I did enjoy his book "The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny". The sections on Epaminondas and Sherman are very good; however, I was not as impressed by the Section on Patton.

Epaminondas is really interesting as he really ended Spartan military dominance. He basically took a bunch of civilian farmers and ended Sparta's military dominance by freeing the slaves(helots) that supported Spartan's military culture.

C. August said...

Thanks, Brian. That's good information to know. I'll put that book on my list.

I only know broad brushstrokes about Epaminondas, but it sounds like an interesting story. The fact that he basically was Theban supremacy and once he died, so did Theban dominance, is quite fascinating. Add to that the fact that he taught young Prince Philip of Macedon everything he knew (when Philip was a Theban hostage), and King Philip later went on to conquer Greece and sire Alexander the Great.

C. August said...

Oh, and have you read Hart's "Scipio"?

madmax said...

C. August,

I'm glad you decided to read Hart's book on the legendary Scipio Africanus! I think that by the time you finish it you will see what a great general and a great man Scipio was. Also, *do* read the Polybius account of Scipio. It is truly inspiring, especially Scipio's speeches!

As for Hart's flaws, yes he has them. I notice that he is critical of Scipio for the night raid he conducted after landing his army in Carthage. Apparently Hart thinks that if Scipio faked the peace treaty to slaughter Carthaginian troops at night this would make him immoral; I guess because he "lied." My guess is that this is Hart's moral intrinsicism.

But just think of that, Scipio basically staged a peace treaty, infiltrated the enemy camps with spies and then while supposedly conducting diplomacy he slaughtered two enemy armies at night while they were sleeping!! He utterly destroyed a 30,000 man army and only lost less than 100 men of his own! Can you imagine if Bush or Obamabi faking negotiations with Iran or North Korea and then bombed the living crap out of them while their attention was diverted? To even suggest it is ludicrous. But that is the kind of man Africanus was. He was not hampered by altruism. He knew Rome was fighting for its life and he pulled no punches. Such men like Africanus could never rise to power today. I often fantasize what the great Scipio would do with pipsqueaks like Amidina-whatever-his-name-is or Baby Kim or Castro or Chavez. Then I realize the world and era I live in and get depressed. But at least one can read the accounts of great men of past eras. The Roman Republic was full of them although IMO Africanus was the greatest.

Enjoy the rest of the book!

C. August said...


Thanks for recommending it. It's great, and I will look for Polybius' works.

Re: the example you gave of Hart's negative view on Scipio, I actually don't agree with you. Hart writes that Scipio "reopened negotiations with Syphax... In these he was disappointed" because though Syphax offered some terms of peace, Scipio "did not hold out any hope that he would abandon the Carthaginian cause if the war continued." For the terms offered by Syphax, "Scipio had no use, but he only rejected them in a qualified manner, in order to maintain a pretext for his emissaries to visit the hostile camp."

Hart then details how Scipio sent a number of other emissaries, often military experts in disguise, to map out the camps.

Perhaps what you're referring to is when Hasdrubal and Syphax eventually accepted peace terms, but Scipio then added more to subtly force them to reject it. "By this means he gained freedom to carry out his plan without breaking his faith, though he undoubtedly went as close to the border between strategical ruse and deliberate craft as was possible without overstepping it."

So, I can see what you're saying, that Hart would have judged openly violating a peace "immoral," but because he doesn't think Scipio did that, he just says he walked a fine line. Later, he doesn't fault the night raids and burning of the camps at all, and even quotes Polybius who says that even though it was a horrific scene, "of all the brilliant exploits performed by Scipio this seems to me the most brilliant and most adventurous."

And later, in describing another bit of psychological warfare when he was starting to confront Hannibal, Hart said (pg. 160):

In this act Scipio revealed his understanding of the ethical object in war, and of its value. Chivalry governed by reason is an asset both in war and in view of its sequel--peace. Sensible chivalry should not be confounded with the quixotism of declining to use a strategical or tactical advantage, of discarding the supreme moral weapon of surprise, of treating ware as if it were a match on the tennis courts... This is merely stupid.

And elsewhere, Hart states that the object of war is to stamp out the hostile will in the enemy so that they will never rise again, and if that means decimating a population, so be it. The exact opposite of Just War Theory.

That said, I agree completely with your points about how Scipio's actions would be judged today in the altruistic world of Just War Theory.

And after you said in a comment on an earlier post that Hollywood, if they could actually make a good movie anymore, should have made 10 movies about Scipio by now, I completely agree. And in reading the detailed accounts of the battles, it's just crying for a movie.

The meeting between Hannibal and Scipio before Zama, the speeches each made, the difference in how Hannibal rallied his troops to how Scipio did, the war elephants and the way Scipio's innovations turned them against Hannibal... so much drama and action. And it would be a stark moral contrast much like was shown in "300," but it could actually be historically correct, unlike showing the collectivist/communist Spartans claiming they were fighting for freedom. They were fighting for Greek independence from the Persians, yes, but they didn't know anything about liberty.

Anyway, great stuff!

Brian Fritts said...

C. August - I haven't read Liddell Hart's Scipio, but will probably be adding it to the list.

Right now I am taking my time with The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories translated by Robert B. Strassler.

madmax said...


Thanks for your reply and I agree with your correction of my comment. Its been about 3 years since I read the book (I'm thinking of reading it again).

You say this: "So, I can see what you're saying, that Hart would have judged openly violating a peace "immoral," but because he doesn't think Scipio did that, he just says he walked a fine line." Yes, this is what I was trying to get at. Namely that I got the feeling that Hart would disagree with the idea of lying to gain advantage in war. Objectivists, of course, understand that honesty is contextual and lying in war could be perfectly just and noble; ie lying to the Nazis, etc. Hart's not an Objectivist obviously so he can't be expected to agree with that, but as you correctly point out, Hart is fair to Scipio and speaks highly of the night raid (as does Polybius).

As for potential movies of this story, I envision a two movie deal as it would be too long for just one. The first movie would showcase Hannibal's invasion of Italy and culminate with Hannibal's double pincer move at Cannae and the destruction of Rome's 100,000 man army. The first movie ends with Scipio ascending to command.

The second movie will showcase Scipio's siege of New Carthage, his victory at Illipa, his battle with the cowards in the Roman senate and then his counter-invasion of North Africa culminating in his ass-whooping of Hannibal at Zama. And like you said, think of what a great director (Peter Jackson?) could do with the whole lead up to Zama and Scipio's speeches! The movie would end with Scipio's self-exile from Rome rather than deal with an ungrateful people. How relevant to modern times!! (How about this, have Ed Cline write the screenplay. Imagine what he could do with the Roman Republic given what he did do in SparrowHawk.)

The American Right and the pro-Western Europeans would love it and, in the hands of a great director, it would make a fortune; more than 300. But could our culture ever do this? I bet the Obama administration would find some way to stop distribution of the movie. It would probably be defined as violating the terms of a newly passed "fairness doctrine."

Anyway I'm so glad you decided to post on this as I love this subject.

C. August said...


I like your idea of the two movies. Wow... just thinking about it. Even with the historical inaccuracies, I get very pumped when watching "300" and can only imagine what a great production of "Scipio: The Rise of Africanus" and "Scipio: Conquest of Hannibal" would be like.

And Ed Cline would indeed be able to turn this into an amazing narrative. I passed your comment onto him, but he didn't bite. :-)

He did say that he didn't think Obama would block such a film because he probably doesn't even know who Scipio is, and associates Hannibal with "Silence of the Lambs."

madmax said...

"...and can only imagine what a great production of "Scipio: The Rise of Africanus" and "Scipio: Conquest of Hannibal" would be like."

Oh wow, what great titles!! I only gave the title a passing thought and came up with Scipio Africanus I and II. But yours are awesome!

Ed is probably right about Obama not knowing who Africanus is. And if he did, I bet he would favor Hannibal anyway because he was a "person of color" (which he wasn't but the multiculturalist left has portrayed him that way). It would be fascinating to watch the leftist media's response to these movies. They hated 300 and that still had a sacrifice theme to it somewhat. Can you imaging what a pro-egoist, pro-kick-the-crap-out-of-your-enemies, pro-offensive-warfare (which 300 was not) movie would trigger in the MSM? I wish it would be made just to witness the spectacle. And if a known Objectivist wrote it? All hell would break loose. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

Madmax and C August

I am a huge fan of Scipio. In fact, he is my favourite commander of all time. However, I was a little concerned by some of your comments which implied that Obama and the American media are somehow left-wing. They are not. Madmax also mentioned ''Pro-Western Europeans'' as if they are a bunch of nice guys. In fact, the majority of them are fascists who subscribe to the ''Gas the Jews and hang the Muslims'' mentality. Surely these are not people who we should like or support.