Meeting at Siga. In 206, Scipio had sailed from Cartagena in Spain to Africa, to meet Syphax in his capital Siga. He arrived there at the same time as Hasdrubal Gisco, who was travelling from Gades to Carthage and also wanted to meet the king.
Hasdrubal Gisco was not one of Hannibal’s generals. In 215, he was appointed by the Senate to bring reinforcements to Hannibal. Consequently, unlike officers under Hannibal’s orders, Hasdrubal Gisco obeyed the Carthaginian authorities.
Was the arrival of the two enemy generals in Siga at the same time fortuitous ? Livy reported that Scipio had sent Laelius to prepare for the meeting.
Livy related that Hasdrubal Gisco arrived at the port of Siga with seven triremes, while two enemy quinqueremes (Scipio’s) appeared off the harbor. The historiographer accounted for the surprising lack of reaction of the Carthaginian, in the following way : «…hit by a freshening breeze from the sea, which filled the sails of the quinqueremes and carried them into port before the Carthaginians could get up their anchors. As they were now in the king’s harbour, no one ventured to make any further attempt to molest them.»
Would a quinquereme having 300 oarsmen keep its sails up with a tailwind blowing, when nearing a port ? We should leave the answer to this question to the experts. It should be noted that even after having left Siga harbor, Hasdrubal Gisco did not take any offensive action against his enemy.
According to Livy, Hasdrubal Gisco and Scipio empathized to a great degree at their host Syphax’ court. They were even said to have shared a same «triclinium» or couch on which they lounged to eat. «… they dined together in the king’s house. On the same couch even, since the king would have it so, Scipio and Hasdrubal reclined.»
Undeniably strange relationship one must admit, for two belligerants in one of the most terrible conflicts of Antiquity. Could we even imagine Irwin Rommel and Bernard Montgomery reclining on a same sofa to share food in the midst of the Second World War, thus spurning a rare and unhoped for opportunity of dealing a fatal blow to the enemy ?
Livy recounted that Hasdrubal Gisco was overwhelmed with admiration for Scipio, «… he plainly showed that when he met him face-to-face, Scipio seemed even more marvellous than in his achievements in war» and declared that «it was not so essential for the Carthaginians to inquire how their Spanish provinces had been lost as to consider how they were still to hold Africa. […]» and that Scipio was in Siga because «he was cherishing a hope of conquering Africa.» Livy added that the Carthaginian was obsessed by one question, during this meal : «It had long been (his) constant reflexion, his open complaint, (…) that he (Scipio) was not waging war in Africa, as Hannibal was in Italy.»
Hasdrubal Gisco, a Carthaginian general, was thus indignant that the Roman Scipio was not waging war in Africa. Livy’s insistence on this subject leaves little room for doubt as to the main topic of conversation, as well as to Hasdrubal Gisco’s implication in a shady deal. Had he informed Scipio of the willingness of Carthaginian oligarchs to end the war ?
Had he not, in 215, at the behest of the oligarchs, diverted to Spain the expeditionary corps intended for Hannibal, at the moment when the latter was within an inch of winning the war ? At that time, it was already a clear sign of the strategic priorities of the Carthaginian authorities. Now that Spain was lost to them, and that the oligarchs no longer considered this war as their prime concern, did they have new objectives of which Hasdrubal Gisco was the spokesperson ? Such an extrapolation is admittedly tenuous, but the numerous mentions made by Livy at the moment of the meeting of the two enemy generals, of a landing of Scipio’s in Carthage, two years before it actually happened is unsettling. Particularly, Hasdrubal’s umbrage that Scipio «…was not waging war in Africa…», bears resemblance to a proposition, especially since it came from an officer at the orders of the Senate of Carthage.
Hasdrubal Gisco, described by Livy as the most cowardly of generals «…a general very swift in flight», would later be confronted to Scipio on Carthaginian territory. He would make it through all military operations unscathed and would never be mentioned at Hannibal’s side, after his landing in Africa. Yet, we know Hannibal’s interest in obtaining intelligence about his enemies, and Hasdrubal Gisco was in the best position to inform him about Scipio.
Having been introduced into the private sphere of the Carthaginian oligarchs’ secret tactics, thanks to Hasdrubal Gisco, we can conjecture that Scipio was henceforth well informed of their political game, and the extreme strain in relations between the Carthaginian government and Hannibal.
Hannibal’s exclamation after having received the order from the Carthaginian Senate to leave Italy, is enlightening in this regard : «… it is not the Roman people who have been so often routed and cut to pieces that have vanquished Hannibal, but the Carthaginian Senate by their detraction and envy. It is not Scipio who will pride himself and exult over the disgrace of my return so much as Hanno who has crushed my house, since he could do it in no other way, beneath the ruins of Carthage.»
Did Scipio immediately grasp the personal advantage that he could capitalize on from the information supplied — and perhaps even the proposition — made to him by Hasdrubal Gisco ?
Scipio, crafty political strategist that he was, must have thenceforth concocted the plan that he would present a little time later to Rome. His scheme consisted in landing on Carthaginian territory to defeat a few armies — which were opportunely led by Hasdrubal Gisco and Syphax — thus giving Carthaginian senators the opportunity they had been waiting for so impatiently of signing a peace treaty.
Was this the reason why Scipio settled for a second-rate army that Cato castigated for its lack of preparation ? Did he view his African campaign as not being very hazardous, since he shared the same objective as Carthaginian authorities and had probably even already agreed upon it with their spokesman, as the meeting at Siga strongly suggests ?
From this same logic probably derived the fact that Carthaginian senators had not called Hannibal back. Why were oligarchs so anxious to sign a peace treaty ? Why not summon back Hannibal to fight the Romans in Carthage, rather than sign an armistice ?
Syphax’s Banquet, fresco. Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano 1578-82, ALLORI, Alessandro (Florence, 1535-1607)
Allori’s Banquet of Syphax is on display on the long wall of the « Salone » near Franciabigio’s « Return of Cicero to Rome. » Allori placed the event in a large hall with columns which opens onto a landscape.
Syphax was the king of the Masaesily kingdom of western Numidia during the last quarter of the 3rd century BC.
In book XXVIII Livy reported a surprise encounter between Scipio and Hasdrubal Gisco (who had left Spain before the Romans) at the court of the Numidian King Syphax.
Their host was flattered that the two generals had asked for his support and insisted that his guests share a meal. The two enemies reclined on the same triclinium (eating couch) to enjoy the banquet.