He was present at the disastrous battles of the Ticinus (where, according to one tradition, he saved his father's life), the Trebia and Cannae. Even after the last of these defeats at the hands of the Carthagineans, he was resolutely focussed on securing Roman victory, and on hearing that Lucius Caecilius Metellus and other politicians were at the point of giving up the struggle and quitting Italy in despair, he gathered what few followers he could find and stormed upon the meeting, where at sword-point he forced all present to swear that they would continue in faithful service to Rome. The year after his father's death, he offered himself for the command of the new army which the Romans resolved to send to Spain. In spite of his youth, his noble demeanor and enthusiastic language had made so great an impression that he was unanimously elected. All Spain south of the Ebro river in the year of his arrival (210) was under Carthaginian control, but fortunately for him the three Carthaginian generals, Hasdrubal and Mago (Hannibal's brothers), and Hasdrubal the son of Gisgo, were not disposed to act in concert and were preoccupied with revolts in Africa. Scipio, on landing at the mouth of the Ebro, was thus enabled to surprise and capture Carthago Nova, the headquarters of the Carthaginian power in Spain. He thus obtained a rich booty of war stores and supplies, and an excellent harbor. His kindly treatment of the Spanish hostages and prisoners brought many over to his side. In 209 he drove back Hasdrubal from his position at Baecula, on the upper Guadalquivir, but was unable to hinder his march to Italy. After winning over a number of Spanish chiefs he achieved in 206 a decisive victory over the full Carthaginian levy at Ilipa (near Corduba), which resulted in the evacuation of Spain by the Punic commanders.
With the idea of striking a blow at Carthage in Africa, he paid a short visit to the Numidian princes, Syphax and Massinissa, but at the court of Syphax he was foiled by the presence of Hasdrubal, the son of Gisgo, whose daughter Sophonisba was married to the Numidian chief. On his return to Spain, Scipio had to quell a mutiny which had broken out among his troops. Hannibal's brother Mago had meanwhile sailed for Italy, and in 206 Scipio himself, having secured the Roman occupation of Spain by the capture of Gades, gave up his command and returned to Rome. In the following year he was unanimously elected to the consulship, the province of Sicily being assigned to him. By this time Hannibal's movements were restricted to the south-western toe of Italy, and the war was now to be transferred to Africa. Scipio was himself intent on this, and his great name drew to him a number of volunteers from all parts of Italy, but the old-fashioned aristocracy of Rome, who disliked his luxurious tastes and his Greek culture, and still entertained a wholesome dread of Hannibal, opposed the idea; all Scipio could obtain was permission to cross over from Sicily to Africa, if it appeared to be in the interests of Rome. The introduction (205) of the Phrygian worship of Cybele and the transference of the image of the goddess herself from Pessinus to Rome to bless the expedition no doubt had its effect on public opinion. A commission of inquiry was sent over to Sicily, and it found that Scipio was at the head of a well-equipped fleet and army. At the commissioners' bidding he sailed in 204 and landed near Utica. Carthage meanwhile had secured the friendship of the Numidian Syphax whose advance compelled Scipio to raise the siege of Utica and to dig in on the shore between that place and Carthage. Next year he destroyed two combined armies of the Carthaginians and Numidians. After the failure of peace negotiations in which Scipio displayed great moderation, he defeated Hannibal in a decisive battle near Zama (October 19, 202 BC).
In the subsequent settlement with Carthage he upheld with success his comparatively lenient terms against the immoderate demands of many Roman aristocrats. Scipio was welcomed back to Rome with the surname of Africanus, and had the good sense to refuse the many honours which the people would have thrust upon him. For some years he lived quietly and took no part in politics. In 193 he was one of the commissioners sent to Africa to settle a dispute between Massinissa and the Carthaginians. In 190, when the Romans declared war against Antiochus III of Syria, Publius was attached as legate to his brother Lucius, to whom the chief command had been entrusted. The two brothers brought the war to a conclusion by a decisive victory at Magnesia in the same year. Meanwhile Scipio's political enemies had gained ground, and on their return to Rome a prosecution was started (187) by two tribunes against Lucius on the ground of misappropriation of moneys received from Antiochus. As Lucius was in the act of producing his account-books his brother wrested them from his hands, tore them in pieces, and flung them on the floor of the senate-house. This created a bad impression; Lucius was brought to trial, condemned and heavily fined. Africanus himself was subsequently (185) accused of having been bribed by Antiochus, but by reminding the people that it was the anniversary of his victory at Zama he caused an outburst of enthusiasm in his favor. The people crowded round him and followed him to the Capitol, where they offered thanks to the gods and begged them to give Rome more citizens like Africanus. He then retired to his native country seat at Liternum on the coast of Campania where he died. By his wife Aemilia, daughter of the consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus who fell at Cannae, he had a daughter Cornelia Africana, who became the mother of the two famous Gracchi.
Scipio was one of Rome's greatest generals. He never lost a battle. Skillful alike in strategy and in tactics, he had also the faculty of inspiring his soldiers with confidence. According to the story, Hannibal, who regarded Alexander as the first and Pyrrhus as the second among military commanders, confessed that had he beaten Scipio he should have put himself before either of them. He was a man of great intellectual culture and could speak and read Greek, and wrote his own memoirs in Greek. He also enjoyed the reputation of being a graceful orator. There was a belief that he was a special favourite of heaven and held actual communication with the gods. It is quite possible that he himself honestly shared this belief; to his political opponents he was often harsh and arrogant, but towards others singularly gracious and sympathetic. According to Gellmus, his life was written by Oppius and Hyginus, and also, it was said, by Plutarch.
See also: Scipio-Paullus-Gracchus family tree
This article incorporates material from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.