Battle of Ilipa, 206 BC

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Scipio Africanus Major versus Hasdrubal Gisco: A Roman army under Scipio and a Carthaginian army under Hasdrubal stare each other down when Scipio makes a bold redeployment. Can Hasdrubal shake off his surprise and recover to defeat Scipio’s smaller army? Also known as the Battle of Silpia and Elinga. .

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Significance
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For the Second Punic War, this battle is overshadowed by Metaurus River in importance and Cannae in brilliance. However, it was still key to the total Roman victory, expelling Carthage from Iberia, gaining valuable allies such as Massinissa, and improving the standing of Scipio, all important factors in the success of the Roman invasion of North Africa and Carthage itself.
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Analysis
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Never has a redeployment achieved victory so handedly than in this battle. What was Hasdrubal to do? Hart greatly admires Scipio’s handling of the battle:

Military history contains no more classic example of generalship than this battle of Ilipa. Rarely has so complete a victory been gained by a weaker over a stronger force, and this result was due to a perfect application of the principles of surprise and concentration, that is an essence an example for all time. How crude does Frederick’s famed oblique order appear beside Scipio’s double oblique maneuver and envelopment, which effected a crushing concentration du fort au faible while the enemy’s center was surely fixed. Scipio left the enemy no chance for the change of front which cost Frederick so dear at Kolin. (1927: 62)

Scullard is a little more skeptical, adding that

there were two weak points in Scipio’s maneuver – the risk that when his main forces marched out they might be outflanked, and, secondly, the isolation of his center and its having to refuse battle. [If the Carthaginian center had charged home, the result might have been like that of Austerlitz.[ The only defence is that Scipio managed to carry it off. Hasdrubal did not dare attack the Roman center, since if his own center advanced, his wings would be still more exposed. Scipio ran the risk, hoping that Hasdrubal would hesitate, which in fact, he did. (1970: 94)

Of course, every maneuver no matter how brilliant carries some risk, and must be shrewdly calculated. Such a complex maneuver requires the uttermost discipline and training of the troops, and many accounts of the battle devote a lot of time trying to sketch out exactly how the troop formations on the ground actually moved to undertake it. The quality of the Roman troops speaks to Scipio’s abilities as a general to develop and improve the army under his command. This is evident if one studies Scipio’s battles chronologically, through the Battle of Baecula 208 BC, the Battle of Ilipa 206 BC, the Battle of the Great Plains 203 BC, the Battle of Zama 202 BC, and the Battle of Magnesia 190 BC.

ilipa preview 2

Notes

This is another one of those battles that I was immediately fascinated by after reading just one vague account of it. When first creating this site, I always intended to animate this battle. This battle did not take long to animate but would win the award for best weather effects.
– Jonathan Webb
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Works Consulted
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Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars. London: Random Century, 1990.Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Hart, B.H. Liddell. Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus. London: W. Blackwood & Sons Ltd., 1927.

Scullard, H.H. Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician. New York: Cornell University, 1970.

“The Battle of Ilipa.” Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. http://www.roman-empire.net/army/ilipa.html (accessed Sep. 5 2008).

Images
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Carthaginian cavalry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/carthaginian_units/index.shtml

Carthaginian infantry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/carthaginian_units/index.shtml

Carthaginian war elephant: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/carthaginian_units/index.shtml

Map of the Mediterranean: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Punic_War

Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections

Roman infantry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/rome/

Roman cavalry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/rome/

Scipio Africanus: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Old_man.JPG

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Readers Comments (4)

  1. This is a very interesting and informative site. Thanks

  2. Scipio’s battles (not just this, but also reading accounts of Baecula and the one he fought against Antiochus, the name of which i can’t remember) are almost like watching ballet. The way he manoeuvres his troops and annihilates Hasdrubals army is really graceful. I wonder if Hasdrubal thought re enforcements must have shown up because there is no way the Romans could have wheeled into position like that…
    Interesting to note that Scipio didn’t try anything this fancy against Hannibal, probably for fear of falling into some trap or exposing some weak point for Hannibal to exploit.

  3. This was one of the most brilliant military victories in history. The way Scipio trained, managed and utilized his troops is truly a work of art. Your account of it matches my interpretation and even my own diagrams. The only issue I have is with your use of the term “decimated,” especially in a matter involving the Roman legions. Decimating used to be a punishment for cowardly legions in which the soldiers got divided into lots of 10, drew straws and the short straw got clubbed to death by the lucky 9, who only got punished through worse food rations and humiliation.
    Note to Ziggy: He didn’t use fancy tactics because he didn’t need to. He had better cavalry and enough infantry to hold the field while the Cavalry handled the wings and came back to give Hannibal a prison-style welcome (a dose of his own medicine, too).

  4. God Of Thunder July 29, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    I don’t see how Ilipa is “overshadowed” by Metaurus in terms of importance. Ilipa shattered Carthaginian power in Spain and paved the way for the invasion of Africa. Metaurus was really a mopping up operation, won against a beaten general and army.

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