There are times in life for calm reflection, and there are also times for ruthless and decisive action. When a man is faced with external danger and is being pressed by a crisis, he must act with speed and decision. The following anecdote, described in Appian’s Spanish Wars (VI.7), demonstrates why Scipio Africanus is eminently deserving of the accolades that historians have accorded him. For he was not only a commander of prudence and wise judgment; he knew how to draw the sword when the situation called for it.
Military mutinies in the pre-modern era were serious affairs. Armies or naval vessels did not have the advantages enjoyed by contemporary communications and transport; isolated in remote parts of the world, they were dependent on iron discipline and vigorous leadership to maintain their cohesion. A commander who tolerated insubordination could very well be putting his mission in jeopardy, to say nothing of his own life. Scipio was in Spain to evict the Carthaginians and bring the region under Roman rule. Around 206 B.C., he became sick and temporarily assigned his command responsibilities to a colleague named Marcius. As sometimes happens in armies, troublemakers in the ranks saw this as an opportunity to revolt. Scipio’s men had not been paid in some months; grumbling had increased, and there was a sense that things were approaching a crisis point. Many expected Scipio to die soon, and this no doubt stoked the fires of rebellion; for traitors love nothing more than to take advantage of opportunities. Some of the men seceded from Marcius and went off on their own; they were soon joined by other units of Scipio’s army. A full-fledged mutiny was now underway. These events took place near a fort called Sucro along the Spanish coast; its most likely location is the modern town of Alzira.
Word of these happenings reached the Carthaginian commander, Mago. Anxious to exploit this situation, he sent the mutineers money and gifts, and asked them to join him. The rebels elected their own generals and centurions, and began to act as independent units. Scipio, still sick, got word of these events and resolved to take speedy action to deal with the crisis. But he knew he had to tread cautiously and proceed with stealth. His first move was to conciliate the rebels; he issued an apology to his men, acknowledging that he had been unable to pay them due to logistical difficulties. He asked his loyal unit commanders to try to win back the secessionists. He then issued a proclamation to the entire army, telling everything that he would now be able to pay them; they had only to come to come to the city of New Carthage on the Spanish coast.
The rebels were surprised at this sudden good fortune. Some believed that Scipio was playing for time; some thought he had a trick up his sleeve; others decided he was dealing in good faith. In any case, the rebels decided to go as a group to New Carthage and collect from Scipio what was owed to them. Scipio had senators who were in his army fighting with him. For in those days, legislators did not just sit in conference halls and talk, as they do now; they took to the field to match deeds with words. Scipio told his senators that when the rebel leaders arrived at the appointed meeting-hall in New Carthage, they should try to get close to the secessionists, remain alongside them, and try to befriend them. He instructed his military tribunes, his most trusted men, to position themselves at various points in the meeting-hall with their weapons at the ready; their instructions were to kill anyone who made a disturbance.
On the appointed day in New Carthage, Scipio arose early and sent messengers to the rebels that he was ready to meet them. This was at an earlier time than expected, so many were caught off-guard; and Appian says that many of them arrived at the forum marketplace dressed in a haphazard way without their weapons, as if they had just thrown on their clothing. Their understanding was that they were there to collect their money, and there were about eight thousand mutineers present. They were about to receive a rude awakening. Scipio began to chastise them for their disloyalty and insubordination, but promised that he would only hold the ringleaders responsible for what had happened. He then ordered his lictors to separate the crowd into two parts; his senators then hauled the rebel leaders to the center of the assembly hall.
When these rebel leaders began to shout out to their friends to help them, Scipio’s men immediately killed anyone who responded. The crowd fell silent. He then had the secessionist leaders stripped and beaten with canes. When this was completed, he ordered their necks to be pressed to the ground, and then had them decapitated. The bodies of the traitors were dragged off, and all present were forced to witness this spectacle. The rest of the secessionists he pardoned, with strict admonitions that they were not to misbehave again. “In this way,” says Appian, “was the mutiny in Scipio’s camp put down.” He continued with his campaign, and went on to conquer Spain.
Read more about command decisions in the new and innovative translation of Sallust: