Was Scipio a Charlatan?


The Primary Record

Scipio was a legend, even in his own times, when Polybius said of him that he was ‘almost the most famous man of all time’ (Polybius 10.2.2). In his life time he acquired adulation status – elected Consul on a landslide in 205bc and, on his return from Africa in 201bc, awarded the title ‘Africanus’ and offered the posts of Consul-for-Life and Dictator. After he died his death mask was kept, not in a shrine in his own home, but in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill – Scipio had become one of the Lares (household gods) not of his family, but of the Roman empire.

Roman historians reported stories better fitted to Alexander the Great than a Roman general. The second century Roman historian Cassius Dio reported that ‘he acquired the reputation of having sprung from Jupiter, who had taken the form of a serpent on the occasion of intercourse with his mother; and this reputation was responsible in part for the hopes which he caused many to place in him’ (Cassius Dio, 16.57.39).

Even Livy (though he declares the story ‘as silly as it was fabulous’ (Livy 26.19) nevertheless repeated the story for his readers. Most historians are agreed that, for Livy, Scipio was a ‘exemplar’ – a perfect Roman which others should try to copy – and he reports him as serious, to-the-point, honest, patient, empathetic and puritanical.

Secondary historians

Scipio’s reputation has survived down the ages. He became a hero of the Renaissance: ‘As the sun conquers the shining stars with its rays, so Scipio excels all others’, wrote the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch.


Hyperbole?  ‘He stood like a beacon above his contemporaries on the strength of his brilliance’, writes the modern historian Richard Gabriel (2008), who regards it as a ‘cruel paradox’ that it is Scipio who is forgotten today, whilst the man he defeated – Hannibal – has ‘captivated the imagination’.  Gabriel sees on Scipio much more than merely a war-winning general:

Scipio seems to have been the first to grasp a sense of Rome's destiny ... he did not make war to destroy, but to create a new Roman world order in which Rome stood as civiliser of the world.


Scipio is one of the few generals in history who never lost a battle.  The 20th century military historian Liddell Hart (1926) acclaimed Scipio ‘greater than Napoleon’ – the greatest military commander in all antiquity.

Polybius and Mommsen

Not everyone has hero-worshipped Scipio. In his own day, Cato regarded him as a corrupt and very dangerous man, with his new-fangled ideas.


Polybius was a Scipionic client, and anxious to eulogise him – but even he presents a very wooden and unrealistic man, whom he struggles to describe other than in formulaic terms. In particular, Polybius-the-rationalist found it hard to praise Scipio’s superstitious/religious nature – he seems to have come round to the idea that Scipio was just pretending to be religious to win the support of the mob (see also Livy 26.19):

Polybius, Book 10, Chapter 2
Scipio made the men under his command more sanguine and more ready to face perilous enterprises by instilling into them the belief that his projects were divinely inspired. But everything he did was done with calculation and foresight…

Reading this, the 19th century German classicist Theodor Mommsen accused Scipio of hypocrisy … of being a charlatan.

In fact, Mommsen was not very impressed by Scipio at all!  He thought that most of Scipio’s actions were self-serving, said his attack on New Carthage was ‘a foolhardy venture’ done simply to win a reputation back home, and concluded:

‘As an officer, Scipio rendered at least no greater service to his country than Marcellus’.





The following websites will help you complete the task:

It is VITAL that you read the commentary on Livy's account of Scipio's speech at his meeting with Hannibal, here.



1. Look back through your notes  - and, particularly, study the commentary on his speech in Livy - which describe Scipio and his actions. 

Use your notes to make a list of all the POSITIVES about his military and political record.


2. Write an answer to the following question:

''Scipio was the man who saved Rome.' How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?

In your answer you should:

• give a brief account of Scipio's achievements;

• explain why Scipio succeeded;

• show knowledge of the relevant sections of Polybius and Livy;

• consider how reliable you think these sources are.                                                [30]