From the sun rising above the marshes of Maeotia
There is no one who may be equal in deeds.
If is it right for anyone to rise into the regions of the gods, For me alone the greatest gate of heaven stands open.
- Quintus Ennius, Epitaph for Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon
by B. H. Liddell Hart
Da Capo Press, 281 pages
Captain Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart was one of the foremost military thinkers of the 20th century and he wrote several biographical books on various men whom he considered to be the Great Captains throughout history. At the top of his list was the man who never lost a battle he directed; a man whose strategic thinking was hundreds of years ahead of its time: Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, Conquerer of Iberia and Carthage.
Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon chronicles the life, successes, and disappointments of arguably the greatest general who ever commanded Roman Legions. From the death of his father in the First Punic War to the myriad political fights toward the end of his life from the people he had saved, hardly a beat is missed. Liddell Hart draws heavily from Livy and Polybius, but the list of his sources are many. As a result, this is likely the finest treatment yet written of the man and his life.
In Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon, Liddell Hart claims to present an unbiasaed account of the life of Scipio Africanus. This isn't quite true at all, as at times the book borders on outright hero-worship. While reading it, it's not difficult to imagine Liddell Hart thinking "Why couldn't this man have led us in the trenches in 1917?" Nonetheless, the sometimes heavy-handed opinions never shadow the facts and the facts alone make it hard not to think of Scipio Africanus as some kind of mythical superman akin to Heracles or Achilles.
The sad truth is that even with the modern decline of classical education, Hannibal Barca remains a household name. Many people may not know exactly what he did, or when, but they usually know it had something to do with elephants and mountains. Why Scipio Africanus, the man whose armies defeated Hannibal and his brothers and routed Carthage as a Mediterranean power until long past his death, is not remembered in the same way is uncertain.
The one constant problem in the book is the heavy leaning on certain ethical stances which may or may not have been true. There are no primary sources of Scipio's life. Therefore, all of his chroniclers whose works have survived wrote about him post mortem, and this about a legendary hero, so any ethical or moral qualities that can not be inferred directly from specific actions he is known to have taken are probably speculative at best. Captain Liddell Hart's use of these as historical fact is fairly questionable, although it never really derails the telling.
The final chapter is mostly an argument with the author's contemporaries thinly veiled as a chapter, as it is mostly used to compare Scipio's achievements to those of Napoleon and Alexander, but it makes for interesting reading.
None of the faults manage to ruin the book, however, and it remains very accessible even to those unfamiliar with classical or military history. There are plenty of maps, and the battle descriptions are verbose enough to please military readers, yet non-technical enough to be understood by others. The politics that were thrust upon Scipio later in his life make Fahrenheit 9/11 look like a Teletubbies movie (although I suppose some might argue that resemblance without the comparison).
In closing, Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napleon is a book that will greatly appeal to fans of classical and/or military history, but is told in a very entertaining and descriptive way which makes it quite accessible to other readers, as well. It details the life of one of the greatest generals of all time, the obstacles he faced, and the enemies he made. It's reasonably short book, too, so even if you're unfamiliar with the period, you might do well to give this a try and you might even find you like reading about those crazy Romans.