Roman Andalusia: The Rise and Fall of Empires

Andalusia, the large autonomous community in the Iberian Peninsular has plenty of Roman history.
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Roman Andalusia: The Rise and Fall of Empires

Andalusia, the large Autonomous Community in the Iberian Peninsular has plenty of Roman history. Writer Alistair Tosh has examined the 3rd century BC and the personalities who fought there including Scipio and the great Hannibal.


When we hear the name Andalusia we may conjure up images of its golden beaches and resorts like Marbella, Fuengirola and Benalmadena whose populations are swollen during the summer months with northern Europeans seeking its guaranteed sunshine and large fruit-filled jugs of sangria. But if you choose to scratch below the surface and explore a little further you will find a rich and ancient history that over the centuries had a hand in the expansion of empires and the destruction of others. Even its name derived from the Arabic word Al-Andalus is the result of the gradual conquest of the region by the Moors.

I have been visiting this beautiful region for more than twenty years and have come to know it well. I have explored many of its historic sites too, but it was not until I began my research for ‘Warrior’, the third book in my Edge of Empire series, did I come to understand its importance in the evolution of ancient Rome. Not only did it see critical events that oversaw the defeat of its greatest rival in the western mediterranean, Carthage and the expansion of the republic’s overseas territories but also 155 years later saw its destruction and the rise of Imperial Rome. It is the former that I will focus on here.

The Second Punic War

 In 218 BC the Second Punic War erupted into life after Hannibal Barca sacked Saguntum (Segunto near present day Valencia), an ally of Rome, in the previous year. To seize the initiative Hannibal set off with his army from Cartagena (Carthago Nova), crossing the Pyrenees and Alps and entering Italy. He spent the next fifteen years there harassing the state and armies of Rome. But Carthage’s lands in southern Spain were too important to leave undefended. They held great wealth in terms of gold and silver and various food crops. But it also gave them control of the western Mediterranean. Therefore Hannibal left his brother Hasdrubal behind with significant forces to defend them.

The Romans, too, understood its strategic value and in 218 BC dispatched two generals Publius Cornelius Scipio and his brother Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio. Their forces quickly captured Tarraco (Tarragona) in the north, establishing a permanent base there. But progress was slow and their forces limited. Their most notable success came in 215 BC when Publius defeated the Carthaginian fleet at the mouth of the river Ebro.

In 212 BC the brother’s decided they could no longer wait for fresh forces and advanced south, besieging and retaking Saguntum. The town that Hannibal had taken in 218 BC and had the effect of preventing his brother Hasdrubal from reinforcing him. But in turn Hannibal’s campaign in Italy also prevented the senate from reinforcing the Scipio’s.

The Scipio brothers continued south towards the Guadalquivir valley (that marks the border of modern day Andalusia), capturing Castulo (near Jaen), a major mining town and the home of Hannibal’s wife Imilce. Wintering in the town. But the Carthaginians had not been idle and had reinforced Hasdrubal with two new armies under his brother Mago and Hasdrubal Gisco. To bolster their army of 30,000 Publius and Gnaeus hired 20,000 Celtiberian mercenaries which had been reduced by losses and the need to garrison Tarraco. Observing that the Carthaginian armies were deployed separately from each other, with Hasdrubal Barca near Amtorgis and, further to the west, Mago Barca with 13,500 men alongside Gisco’s army, the Scipio brothers decided to divide their forces. Publius led his to attack Mago near Castulo, while Gnaeus took a third of the Roman army in Spain and the mercenaries to attack Hasdrubal Barca. 

Gnaeus arrived at his objective first. However, Hasdrubal had already ordered the armies of his Iberian allies and Gisco to join Mago near Castulo, and, following a grim battle, defeated Publius. He, meanwhile, held his ground against Gnaeus, staying within a fortified camp, and somehow managed to bribe the Celtiberian mercenaries to desert Gnaeus Scipio. This meant that Hasdrubal’s army now outnumbered his Roman adversary. The Carthaginian bided his time, avoiding battle with his Roman adversary.

Gnaeus Scipio had lost the advantage of numbers with the desertion of the mercenaries. When Mago and Gisco arrived with their victorious armies, Gnaeus was forced to withdraw, still unaware of his brother’s fate. The Romans moved out of their camp at night, leaving campfires burning, and made for the Ebro. Hasdrubal’s Numidian allies located them the following day and attacked, forcing the Romans to take position for the night on a hilltop near Ilorca. The main Carthaginian army, which now comprised the forces of Hasdrubal Barca, Gisco, and Mago and quickly overcame a desperate Roman defence and Gnaeus was killed in the fighting along with most of his army, the remnants fleeing north to Tarraco.

The Next Generation Of Scipio

But this was not the end of the Scipio family in Hispania. Publius Cornelius Scipio had a son, also called Publius Cornelius. He too was a general in the Roman Army, and it was the 25-year-old that was tasked with recovering the dire situation. In 209 BC Scipio junior set off for Hispania.

Scipio, as it turned out, was a great tactician. Rather than confront a large Carthaginian force immediately he chose to land at Carthago Nova with 25,000 men and 30 ships. The three Carthaginian generals at this time were dispersed. Hasdrubal Barca was in central Spain, Mago near present-day Cádiz (Gades), and Gisco was near the Tagus river estuary (in present day Portugal).

Within two weeks Scipio controlled the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Next he consolidated his forces and augment them with Celtiberian mercenaries. In 208 BC, Scipio was ready. He marched his forces that consisted of between 40 and 50,000 Romans and Celtiberians, from Cartagena, west and north to Baecula, now Bailen near Jaen. At Bailen, in the upper reaches of the river Baetis (Guadalquivir), Scipio was confronted by a 30,000 strong Carthaginian army led by Hasdrubal Barca. Hasdrubal was defeated, thereafter leaving Spain to join up with his brother, Hannibal, in Italy. Most of the Spanish tribes in what is now eastern and central Andalucia allied themselves with Rome.

In 207 BC Scipio was firmly established in the upper part of the Guadalquivir river valley. Mago advanced eastwards to meet him from his encampment at Cádiz, and Gisco moved his forces south. Carthaginian reinforcements had arrived from Africa in the shape of a Numidian force. The four armies met near Carmo, now Carmona, a small town in the Guadalquivir valley, east of Seville. The combined Carthaginian army consisted of 70,000 infantry, 5,000 horse-mounted cavalry and 36 war elephants. Scipio had about 20,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry. The Carthaginians were crushed. It was a humiliating defeat, losing 15,000 of their men against only 800 Roman casualties. The Carthaginians retreated west towards Cádiz and holed up in a stronghold (possibly Carmona). The Romans eventually withdrew to Cartagena.

206 BC Battle Of Ilipa

Following the Carthaginian retreat to Cádiz, and the Roman army withdrawal, the Carthaginian force was augmented by reinforcements from North Africa under general Hanno and another influx of Celtiberian mercenaries creating a combined force of between 54,000 and 74,000. Scipio likely started the 206 BC campaign season with between 48,000 and 70,000 men.

In the spring, the Carthaginian’s made a last-ditch attempt to retake territory that they had lost to the Romans over the previous four years. Mago and Hanno marched from Cádiz to Ilipa, now Alcalá del Rio near Seville, where Gisco and his army joined them.

The battle started as a series of skirmishes as the two sides probed each other’s defences. After two days, Scipio ordered his men fed early and then launched them against the Carthaginians before they had time to eat their breakfast.

Over the day the Roman armies maintained constant pressure on their enemy allowing hunger and fatigue to wear them down. The Carthaginian flanks collapsed late in the day, and Scipio ordered a general advance. As a result only about 6,000 of the Carthaginian troops survived. Gisco and Mago escaped, but they were never again in a position to challenge Roman supremacy in Spain.

Following the battle, Rome controlled the lands south of the mineral-rich Sierra Morena, a mountain system that runs from Badajoz in the west to the northern edge of the Cordilleras Betica in the east. The territory included the fertile valley of the Rio Guadalquivir and encompassed present-day Andalucia, naming it Hispania Ulterior.

It is not difficult to see why Hispania Ulterior was so attractive. The mineral reserves in the Huelva and Cartagena regions, primarily lead, gold, silver, and copper were worth unimaginable amounts. The fertile strip of land on the coast and up the valleys of the Guadalquivir produced grain, olives for oil, grapes for wine, honey and figs. The area was also known for its horses and mules, its pottery, sea salt and garum, a fish condiment. Altogether a very valuable new land for Rome.

Scipio’s priority, therefore, was to secure the area he had conquered and create outlets for trade. He established permanent garrisons at Tarragona (Tarraco), Cartagena (Cartago Nova), and in Andalucia, Cádiz (Gades). Cádiz was already a sophisticated city and became a fully-fledged Colonia in 200 BC. Corduba was taken in 206 BC, as was Carteia, the Carthaginian port on the Bay of Algeciras.

Scipio’s second priority was to make the colonies and the standing armies self-sufficient. He did this by collecting food, clothing and other supplies from the local tribes and booty from those tribes that had opposed him. Grain was obtained and exported to Rome to raise money to pay the army in Hispania.

The impact of the loss of Carthage’s lands in present day Andalusia and southern Spain cannot be understated. It ultimately lost control of the western mediterranean and its ability to resupply Hannibal in Italy. Although the Second Punic War dragged on, the action during the last four years took place in Africa, Sicily and Italy. Hannibal was eventually recalled from Italy and was finally defeated by Scipio at the battle of Zama in 202 BC.

This was but the start of Andalusia’s impact on the Roman world with the campaigns that led to the ending of the Carthaginian empire. A century and half later a new empire was begun with the final destruction of the Optimates by Caesar at the battle of Munda, somewhere near modern day Ronda in the region. Effectively ending the power of the senate and giving rise to Imperial Rome.

The influence of Andalusia continued throughout the imperial period giving rise to some great names, including Trajan and Hadrian, two of The Five Good Emperors. Both were born in Italica, the first city built outside of Italy by none other than Scipio. So, one day, rather than heading for the beach or doing running bombs into the pool of your holiday villa (which is brilliant I know), why don’t you jump in the hire car with your family instead and head for one of the many amazing historic locations like; Italica, Baelo Claudia, Malaga, Acinipo, Cordoba. You won’t be disappointed, I promise. The cold sangria will be waiting for you when you return.

Alistair Tosh is a novelist and the author of Warrior, part of the Edge of Empire series.