Scipio and the Maiden of New Carthage

In 209 BC, the Second Punic War was at a precipice. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like the “Sword of Rome,” Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Rome had been spared from suffering any more of Hannibal’s worst. Still, the war was far from won. It needed new, younger leaders, and Scipio, the future Africanus, showed his mettle when he captured the crucial city of New Carthage. It was not only a great military feat, but a diplomatic triumph. This episode is often referred to as “The Clemency of Scipio,” or “The Continence of Scipio,” which we will go over now.


At best, Rome had created a stalemate in Italy while other powers got involved overseas. Now a young general, the son of a former consul who had been defeated by Hannibal at the Ticinus River and then killed at Cannae, was ready. At the age of 27, the younger Scipio would take command of an army of his own and attack Carthage’s main base in Spain. His first major operation was to take the city of New Carthage (Carthago Nova) and so secure a bridgehead for campaigns south of the Ebro.

This operation involved a nighttime crossing of a low-level lake and strategic attacks at weak points in the walls. The city fell with far less trouble than anticipated. It demonstrated Scipio’s skill as a general, which would eventually earn him the title “Africanus,” the conqueror of Africa.

If you’re interested in the military operations, read In the Name of Rome.

The Fall of New Carthage

Once New Carthage fell, the Roman troops took to their usual behavior, which was defined first by massacre and then plunder. This was the standard practice of warfare at the time, as it was very hard for a commander to exercise effective control over his troops in such a confined space. Worse, the narrow streets provided ample room for ambushes and rallies for reserves to drive the invaders back out of the walls.

Polybius describes the practice:

When Scipio thought that a sufficient number of troops had entered he sent most of them, as is the Roman custom, against the inhabitants of the city with orders to kill all they encountered, sparing none, and not to start pillaging until the signal was given. They do this, I think, to inspire terror, so that when towns are taken by the Romans one may often see not only the corpses of human beings, but dogs cut in half, and the dismembered limbs of other animals, and on this occasion such scenes were very many owing to the numbers of those in the place. Scipio himself, with about a thousand men, proceeded to the citadel. On his approach Mago at first attempted to resist, but afterwards, when he saw that the city had undoubtedly been captured, he sent a message begging for his life and surrendered the citadel. After this, upon the signal being given, the massacre ceased and they began pillaging. At nightfall such of the Romans as had received orders to that effect, remained in the camp, while Scipio with his thousand men bivouacked in the citadel, and recalling the rest from the houses ordered them, through the tribunes, to collect the booty in the market, each maniple separately, and sleep there, keeping guard over it.

As for the manner in which the booty was divided, Polybius says:

Next day the booty, both the baggage of the troops in the Carthaginian service and the household stuff of the townsmen and working classes, having been collected in the market, was divided by the tribunes among the legions on the usual system. The Romans after the capture of a city manage matters more or less as follows: according to the size of the town sometimes a certain number of men from each maniple, at other times certain whole maniples are told off to collect booty, but they never thus employ more than half their total force, the rest remaining in their ranks at times outside and at times inside the city, ready for the occasion. As their armies are usually composed of two Roman legions and two legions of allies, the whole four legions being rarely massed, all those who are told off to spoil bring the booty back each man to his own legion, and after it has been sold the tribunes distribute the profits equally among all, including not only those who were left behind in the protecting force, but the men who are guarding the tents, the sick, and those absent on any special service. I have already stated at some length in my chapters on the Roman state how it is that no one appropriates any part of the loot, but that all keep the oath they make when first assembled in camp on setting out for a campaign. So that when half of the army disperse to pillage and the other half keep their ranks and afford them protection, there is never any chance of the Romans suffering disaster owing to individual covetousness. For as all, both the spoilers and those who remain to safeguard them, have equal confidence that they will get their share of the booty, no one leaves the ranks, a thing which usually does injury to other armies.

Roman Sack of Carthage
The Roman sack of Carthage in the later Third Punic War.

The Clemency of Scipio

The Roman practice after taking a city, then, was characteristically well-organized and standardized. It was a practice which left little hope for the well-being of the city’s inhabitants. After this episode, the nobility of New Carthage fell into Scipio’s hands. These people, understandably, must have been terrified. Nevertheless, Scipio vowed that he would not harm them in any way. It is a testament to his character and skill as a general that the inhabitants did not suffer more than they needed to. He would soon demonstrate this in the starkest terms.

During the confusion that accompanied the fall of New Carthage, Scipio’s men found an extraordinarily beautiful girl. Even at that point, Scipio had developed a reputation as a womanizer. Obviously, presenting him with such a gorgeous maiden would bring them gratitude from their commander, and they did so expecting such a reward.

Scipio thanked his men for this, but did not do anything with her. Instead, he restored her to her family with her virtue intact. Livy tells the most dramatic version of the tale, when Scipio presented her to her betrothed. The Roman general supposedly said the following:

A young man myself, I am addressing myself to a young man, so we may lay aside all reserve. When your betrothed had been taken by my soldiers and brought to me, I was informed that she was very dear to you, and her beauty made me believe it. Were I allowed the pleasures suitable to my age, especially those of chaste and lawful love, instead of being preoccupied with affairs of state, I should wish that I might be forgiven for loving too ardently. Now I have the power to indulge another’s love, namely yours. Your betrothed has received the same respectful treatment since she has been in my power that she would have met with from her own parents. She has been reserved for you, in order that she might be given to you as a gift inviolate and worthy of us both. In return for that boon I stipulate for this one reward – that you will be a friend to Rome. If you believe me to be an upright and honorable man such as the nations here found my father and uncle to be, you may rest assured that there are many in Rome like us, and you may be perfectly certain that nowhere in the world can any people be named whom you would less wish to have as a foe to you and yours, or whom you would more desire as a friend.

This man, a Celtiberian nobleman named Aluccius, gratefully thanked Scipio, but the Roman general went further:

The young man was overcome with bashfulness and joy. He grasped Scipio’s hand, and besought all the gods to recompense him, for it was quite impossible for him to make any return adequate to his own feelings, or the kindness Scipio had shown him. Then the girl’s parents and relatives were called. They had brought a large amount of gold for her ransom, and when she was freely given back to them, they begged Scipio to accept it as a gift from them; his doing so, they declared, would evoke as much gratitude as the restoration of the maiden unhurt. As they urged their request with great importunity, Scipio said that he would accept it, and ordered it to be laid at his feet. Calling Aluccius, he said to him: “In addition to the dowry which you are to receive from your future father-in-law you will now receive this from me as a wedding present.” He then told him to take up the gold and keep it. Delighted with the present and the honorable treatment he had received, the young man resumed home, and filled the ears of his countrymen with justly-earned praises of Scipio. A young man had come among them, he declared, in all ways like the gods, winning his way everywhere by his generosity and goodness of heart as much as by the might of his arms. He began to enlist a body of his retainers, and in a few days returned to Scipio with a picked force of 1400 mounted men.

The Clemency Continence of Scipio

The Results of the Clemency of Scipio

The residents of Spain did not forget the way that Scipio had treated this young woman, her betrothed, and the other residents of New Carthage. After the standard brutality had been called off with news of the surrender of New Carthage, Scipio controlled himself and his men. Yes, there were practical political reasons to do this, but this should also make us remark on his conduct all the more. This was an era where greedy generals were the norm and not the exception (one of the main points of holding office in the Roman Republic was so that it could be converted into a governorship where the office-holder could enrich himself – see Caesar: Life of a Colossus). In this context, Scipio showed immense restraint. He was more interested in the success of Rome than in his own success in the matter of New Carthage.

“The Continence or Clemency of Scipio” at New Carthage won Rome many allies in Spain for the rest of the Second Punic War and beyond. The people there would help enormously in Rome’s victory.

In the episode of Scipio and this young maiden of New Carthage, we see that doing the right thing and exercising the virtues (in this case, temperance) is not only convenient, but a path to everlasting glory, because Scipio would soon become Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal, and victor in the Second Punic War. Though he would be forced into a bitter retirement afterward, his fame lasts to this day, for all the right reasons. He is more renowned than almost any other Roman general.

Scipio showed these characteristics early on. He appears in Lives of the Luminaries, after Cannae, where he prevented desertion. That essay and exploration of his character there is exclusive to the book. Click here to get it.

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