The fall of Carthage and Numantia

Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Elder.

In 157 BCE the senator Marcus Porcius Cato was part of a group sent to negotiate a peaceful settlement to a dispute between the Carthaginians and Massinissa, King of Numidia. The boarders of Carthage were constantly being eroded by the Numidian king, and in desperation, Carthage asked for an aspiring 35 year-old man to mediate for them with the Numidians. Publious Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus had a glorious lineage, and was to have an even more glorious name in Rome. He was the adopted grandson of the great Africanus, who had defeated the Carthaginian army at Zama, and the biological son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, who shattered the Macedonians’ power at the battle of Pydna in 158 BCE.


The negotiations failed to reach a compromise, but Cato was alarmed by the rapid recovery of Carthage after the defeat of Hannibal.  The city’s prosperity was undiminished, and it possessed an army that was growing in strength.  The Roman army was beset with recruiting problems, a seemingly endless war in Iberia, and low morale. When he returned to Rome, he began a relentless campaign to wage a war of total annihilation against Carthage. Regardless of the topic, every speech that he gave to the senate ended with the words “Carthago delenda est;” Carthage must be destroyed.


His rhetoric swayed the senate and with the backing of Massinissa the power plays led to a conclusion in 149 BCE, when Rome declared war on Carthage for the final time and sent an army to invade the city.

At first, the Romans suffered repeated defeats, but during these early stages Scipio, who was then a military tribune, (senior officer) distinguished himself repeatedly in battle. In 147 BC he was elected consul, even though he was under the minimum age required by law to hold the office. During the year it took to defeat the Carthaginian army, Scipio had risen through the ranks, and at the end of the war he was in command of Rome’s forces when they captured a city as old as Rome itself.

The fighting had been desperate and heroic, and only 50,000 survivors, one tenth of the population of the city, remained at the end. Scipio’s orders were to evacuate the city and raze it to the ground. The land that it stood on was ploughed under, and all trace of one of the earliest cities in the world was erased. One historian recorded that Scipio wept as Carthage was destroyed. On his return to Rome, Scipio received a Triumph, and a personal claim to his grandfather’s title of Africanus. 

The Siege of Numantia

Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africus

The defeat of Carthage left only one problem on Rome’s agenda. The painful thorn in its side called Celtiberia. Everybody in Rome knew that something would have to be done about the problems in Iberia, but few were willing to deal with it. Scipio could have chosen his own cosy posting. There were some quiet little rebellions in Macedonia which would have barely used Scipio’s enormous talents, but he surprised the senate by asking to be sent to Iberia to deal with the Celts. After two heartbeats of shock, they gladly handed the decades-long disaster to him. In 134 BCE he left for Iberia, and what he found when he joined his army appalled him. Many of the troops had been fighting for over a decade and were demoralised by the constant attrition of the Celtiberian’s guerrilla warfare. Morale was not the only problem. The health and fitness of the men was far below that needed for a soldier to march and fight. Scipio set them a tough physical training regime and stopped all the luxuries that they had allowed themselves to become accustomed to. He enforced a new rule for the Roman army that required each man to carry his own equipment and arms.

With him on this expedition was a young Gaius Marius, who was destined to become a reformer of the Roman army in later years. It is possible that what he saw serving with Scipio may have influenced his reforms. The idea that a soldier should carry his all his own equipment meant that the hundred or so mules that usually followed an army on the move could be dispensed with. In later years, a soldier would carry around 70 lbs. of equipment and earned the new style of soldier the name of a Marion Mule.

When Scipio was satisfied with his army, he marched it north into the lands of the Celtiberians. The walled city of Numantia had resisted all attempts by the Romans to subdue it for nine years, and had cost thousands of Roman lives. This was the focal point for the rebellion by the tribes, and he knew that he must break Numantia or fail.

He was attacked several times by the Celtiberians, who had learned to be masters of debilitating hit-and-run tactics, but he finally made camp near the city and gathered his forces to attack. He made peace with the Caucaei, who had broken their treaty with Rome, and assured them that there would be no reprisals later if they stayed out of the fight with Numantia. He marched on the Vaccaei, who were selling food to the Numantines, defeating them after several arduous battles. Then he led his men back to his camp beside Numantia and was joined by Jugurtha, the son of the king of Numidia, with cavalry, archers, slingers, and twelve elephants. Scipio toured the area and asked the other allied Rome-friendly tribes in Hispania to donate troops for the coming siege.

He ordered his men to construct a palisade around the city that was nine kilometres long and three meters high. He built towers on either side of the River Douro to stop the Numantians from paddling boats or swimming through covertly.

His men built another embankment and dammed the river to create a moat around his palisade to stop the Numantians from sending out raiding parties and he split his first camp into two, one on either side of the city. Seven towers were erected along the palisade, from where his archers could fire into the city. He had no intention of fighting the Numantians; his plan was to starve them into submission.

The Celts sent a force by night to try to escape and bring help, but they were captured and executed. Rhetogenes, their fiercest and bravest warrior, led a second group which successfully escaped by the river and reached the nearby Arevaci tribe who wanted nothing to do with the Numantians. He next tried the Lutians, whose young men were fired up by the pleas of their fellow tribesmen, and 400 of them pledged to fight the Romans. The elders of the tribe feared reprisals and betrayed their own sons. They sent a message to Scipio who dispatched his soldiers to intercept them. All 400 had their hands cut off. 

This painting is by Alejo Vera y Estaca who studied at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Later in life he held a position in the Academia de España en Roma, where he painted this picture entitled, The last day of Numantia, which won him the first prize in the National exhibition of 1881. 

When Scipio came back to his camp, the Numantine leader Avarus, asked for terms for surrender. His negotiator was allowed to talk to Scipio and pleaded for the liberty of the city in return for complete surrender. Scipio refused and sent the delegation back to Avarus. The population believed that they had made a deal with the Romans to guarantee their own safety and promptly killed them. The population refused to surrender to the Romans and during the coming months starvation reached the point where cannibalism began, and many Numantians took poison or killed their own families and then themselves. Those who were left alive at the end set fire to the city so that Scipio and his men would have nothing to loot but ashes. Scipio took what was left of the city in the summer of 133 BC. Like Carthage, he had the city levelled and ploughed into the soil.

The fierce defiance that had cost so many Roman lives over decades was never forgotten. Even Roman historians praised the spirit and courage of the Numantians, who were outclassed and outnumbered, yet faced down the most sophisticated army in the world. For his success, Scipio Aemilianus received the additional agnomen of "Numantius." 


Another legacy of Numantia is a play by Spain’s most famous author, Miguel de Cervantes. In four acts it dramatizes the events leading to the mass suicides and final collapse of Numantia. There is much more about Cervantes and his works on Page 19