Oh-ho! No Boble today, because I’ve spent the last week and a half being sick and pathetic. So, instead, we’ll talk about why Scipio was a lousy general.
Scipio, along with Cato, led the last of the Optimates (conservatives) against Caesar’s legions during the civil war. Pompey Magnus was gone, and all the others had fallen apart, so this was the death blow. Cato and Scipio ran to Thapsus in Africa, seeking the aid of the Senate’s client-king and ally Juba in Numidia. Between them, they threw together about 10 legions – roughly 40,000 men – and about half that again from Juba’s people, including the dreaded war elephants. Well…the once dreaded war elephants.
Caesar had about 30,000 soldiers and, when he arrived, he found Thapsus to be a well defended spot. But Cato and Scipio didn’t want to just lie around and tolerate a siege, and they knew Caesar had all the time in the world. It was really a brilliant little civil war. When Caesar went off to obliterate Pompey and his followers, he left Mark Antony behind in Rome to keep everyone in line. Having Mark Antony in Rome was pretty much the equivalent of turning the entire Republic into a cabin in the woods, full of quaking teenagers being brutally stalked by a weird hybrid of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.
This was necessary, of course, as Caesar was the kind of guy who showed mercy to everybody. So Rome was festering with Republicans and former Optimates who had surrendered after Pompey’s embarrassing defeat at Pharsalus – which is a great battle. Thapsus is not a great battle. At Pharsalus, Pompey’s far superior force attacked the remnant of Caesar’s army, which was starving and had been on the run for almost a year. I could have defeated Caesar with a handful of co-workers, given the right conditions. But the conditions were not right, and Pompey knew that and tried to avoid battle… But his idiot Senatorial advisors (who all deserved what they got, because Caesar was right – they were useless oligarchs) pushed for a battle, seeing an easy victory. And all it took was for a well disciplined cohort to turn a cavalry charge back into Pompey’s line. The end.
Scipio and Cato, who were not skilled at seeing endings, I guess, then fled to Thapsus and had little choice but to fight. Caesar wanted them to surrender, and would have let them live on, but, you know, it’s all about the glory of the Republic. We will not bow to tyrants, blah blah. So be it.
Caesar’s men killed 30,000 and only lost 1000 of their own. It was a vicious bloodletting. Hardly a fight at all. More of those 30,000 were killed by accident. 10,000 were executed while surrendering at the end of the battle (Caesar had an epileptic fit and was out of commission, so his army was basically running wild). The other 20,000 were, pretty much, picked off by artillery and friendly fire.
Here’s why Scipio sucks – he was all excited about the war elephants that Juba provided because, hey, remember Hannibal and all that shit? Man, elephants defeated Rome! Odd that nobody bothered to say, uh, Scipio, that was 200 years ago. The Romans learned how to deal with elephants… And, if anyone could do it, it would be the most stunning military leader to emerge in their generation.
So Scipio lined up his army outside of Thapsus and was thrilled to see that Caesar approached in his very standard formation, which had been made famous during the Gallic Wars. It was Patton against Rommel – I read your book, you bastard! And Scipio had read Caesar’s writings on tactics. Easy. Plus – elephants! They’re big! Gosh!
It was the elephants that Caesar used in his favor. Traditionally, the elephants would be used to charge the flanks and fold the army into itself. Caesar, knowing this, reinforced his cavalry flanks with heavy infantry. Even then, Scipio wasn’t too worried. Then Caesar had his archers target the elephants on Scipio’s right flank and, of course, this panicked the animals. They turned and trampled their own men in a wild charge to get away from the volleys of arrows and, in an instant, Scipio’s army was in tatters. He still ordered his charge – the left flank elephants – and they plowed into Caesar’s reinforced line, which simply cut them to pieces. With that threat over, and Scipio’s forces in confusion and panic, that was that. It was a turkey shoot.
Scipio fled, dying at an inconsequential naval battle as nothing more than a pirate, and Cato killed himself at nearby Utica. For all intents and purposes, the civil war was over. There was one more big battle looming in Spain, where Pompey’s sons and a few others gathered about 70,000 men. But, by then, the writing was on the wall and the soldiers were green, or untrustworthy and undisciplined. When Caesar met them in battle, the results were roughly the same as at Thapsus – tens of thousands died compared to only a handful lost from Caesar’s side.
I’ve often wondered what the problem was with Thapsus. Why’d the last of the old guard fail so spectacularly? The answer is with the elephants, and the earlier insistence to fight at Pharsalus. These people were old and out of touch. Caesar was a young man, a new generation, and the old guard didn’t take the threat seriously. They never took it seriously. Pompey had almost single-handedly delivered the eastern provinces to Rome. He was a great general and leader, but, by the time Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he was really just an old man lounging around Rome.
The Triumvirate was balanced out by Crassus, who was a sort of eastern Caesar. He was very much the leader of the group – one of Sulla’s old generals, and the guy who crushed Spartacus.
Crassus and Pompey were a couple of old coots who decided to run Rome secretly, and both had amassed fortunes from the east that were really just obscene. But Crassus took a liking to young Caesar and mentored him in the ways of war, politics…and sniffing out gold. Caesar looked to the lands north and west of Rome and, because Rome had been trading with the tribes in Gaul for hundreds of years, they knew that there was money to be had. The conquest of Gaul was not about land, or building an empire. It was about gold. The oil of ancient Rome. Gaul was Rome’s Iraq, as well – a brutal, weird, decade long conquest. Unlike Americans today, though, the Roman people rather liked the spoils of war. Caesar believed in the people, and knew how to play that up. It was the Juan Peron school of leadership. Take off the shirt, flex a muscle, and declare (from the palace balcony) that you are “one of the people.”
Pompey didn’t really pay attention to this young upstart, even when Crassus brought him into the secret pact controlling the Republic. Whatever. Then things went wrong for Crassus. He had been awarded all of Syria as a province, which he brutally squeezed for every ounce of gold. Then the Parthians rode in and, you know, fucked shit up. So Crassus went after them, but was oddly a little confused when it came to managing his men. He gave jumbled orders, he locked up when there was a crisis, he angrily refused anything his lieutenants suggested, and ended up getting surrounded. He so mismanaged the battle – and there is no clear reason why – that his troops were about to turn on him. Seeing this, he asked for a parlay and went to talk to the Parthians. Under the flag of truth, they captured and tortured him. Rumor has it he was killed by having molten gold poured down his throat but, most likely, he was just tortured to death.
(The root of the defeat was that the Parthians used 9000 light horse archers. Those evil fuckers were no fun to play with, especially for the heavy infantry-focused Roman legions. But Crassus knew this. He had options to deal with the threat. The easiest option came from the client-king of Armenia, who not only warned Crassus with accurate intel but also offered his own troops, trained to fight the Parthians, to bolster the Roman forces. Crassus refused him.)
Now the Triumvirate was just Caesar and Pompey, and the latter had to figure out what to do with the young upstart who answered only to Crassus…Ignoring Caesar for a decade meant that the boy was now a skilled general, with blindly loyal legions, and had acquired all the riches of Gaul.
The Republic died with Sulla, really. That was four decades before, and Crassus and Pompey represented that old military guard. In a way, Caesar’s claims to restore the Republic made sense. The son eats the father. Caesar didn’t approve of what Crassus and Pompey had done, and the ultra-conservative Senate that backed them. Rome had been dying, and Caesar saw himself as a benevolent dictator that could wash all that out and remake the Republic. Even after the civil war, as he became dictator for life, there was still a sense of trying to make things work. And, really, that sort of iron grip was needed to restore peace, law, and prosperity. Augustus saw this as well, and delivered what Caesar could not. Though the lessons had been learned the hard way and, with Augustus, Republic became empire.
Pompey and the conservatives consistently underestimated Caesar. They pushed and prodded at him and, even after he marched on Rome, they continued to underestimate him. Frankly, they just couldn’t see someone defeating the great Pompey. And, still, when he did defeat Pompey, Scipio and Cato and the rest refused to see Caesar as any more than a lucky fool.
You see mistake after mistake where the Optimates are concerned. And they’re common, idiot mistakes. They leave the treasury behind when they flee Rome, they encourage Pompey to attack when conditions are not favorable. They pull out elephants for battle! What the fuck are you old guys doing?
By the way, this is where we talk about parallels with McCain and Obama: The out of touch old war veteran versus the upstart populist (who is possibly a scary tyrant).