Nobody probably in the Roman senate doubted either that the war on the part of Carthage against Rome was at an end, or that the war on the part of Rome against Carthage must now be begun; but unavoidable as was the expedition to Africa, they were afraid to enter on its preparation. They required for it, above all, an able and beloved leader; and they had none. Their best generals had either fallen in the field of battle, or they were, like Quintus Fabius and Quintus Fulvius, too old for such an entirely new and probably tedious war.
The victors of Sena, Gaius Nero and Marcus Livius, would perhaps have been equal to the task, but they were both in the highest degree unpopular aristocrats; it was doubtful whether they would succeed in procuring the command matters had already reached such a pass that ability, as such, determined the popular choice only in times of grave anxiety, and it was more than doubtful whether these were the men to stimulate the exhausted people to fresh exertions. At length Publius Scipio returned from Spain, and the favourite of the multitude, who had so brilliantly fulfilled, or at any rate seemed to have fulfilled, the task with which it had entrusted him, was immediately chosen consul for the next year.
He entered on office (549) with the firm determination of now realizing that African expedition which he had projected in Spain. In the senate, however, not only was the party favourable to a methodical conduct of the war unwilling to entertain the project of an African expedition so long as Hannibal remained in Italy, but the majority was by no means favourably disposed towards the young general himself.
His Greek refinement and his modern culture and tone of thought were but little agreeable to the austere and somewhat boorish fathers of the city; and serious doubts existed both as to his conduct of the Spanish war and as to his military discipline. How much ground there was for the objection that he showed too great indulgence towards his officers of division, was very soon demonstrated by the disgraceful proceedings of Gaius Pleminius at Locri, the blame of which certainly was indirectly chargeable to the scandalous negligence which marked Scipio’s supervision.
In the proceedings in the senate regarding the organization of the African expedition and the appointment of a general for it, the new consul, wherever usage or the constitution came into conflict with his private views, showed no great reluctance to set such obstacles aside, and very clearly indicated that in case of need he was disposed to rely for support against the governing board on his fame and his popularity with the people.
These things could not but annoy the senate and awaken, moreover, serious apprehension as to whether, in the impending decisive war and the eventual negotiations for peace with Carthage, such a general would hold himself bound by the instructions which he received an apprehension which his arbitrary management of the Spanish expedition was by no means fitted to allay. Both sides, however, displayed wisdom enough not to push matters too far. The senate itself could not fail to see that the African expedition was necessary, and that it was not wise indefinitely to postpone it; it could not fail to see that Scipio was an extremely able officer and so far well adapted to be the leader in such a war, and that he, if any one, could prevail on the people to protract his command as long as was necessary and to put forth their last energies. The majority came to the resolution not to refuse to Scipio the desired commission, after he had previously observed, at least in form, the respect due to the supreme governing board and had submitted himself beforehand to the decree of the senate. Scipio was to proceed this year to Sicily to superintend the building of the fleet, the preparation of siege materials, and the formation of the expeditionary army, and then in the following year to land in Africa.
For this purpose the army of Sicily still composed of those two legions that were formed from the remnant of the army of Cannae was placed at his disposal, because a weak garrison and the fleet were quite sufficient for the protection of the island; and he was permitted moreover to raise volunteers in Italy. It was evident that the senate did not appoint the expedition, but merely allowed it: Scipio did not obtain half the resources which had formerly been placed at the command of Regulus, and he got that very corps which for years had been subjected by the senate to intentional degradation.
The African army was, in the view of the majority of the senate, a forlorn hope of disrated companies and volunteers, the loss of whom in any event the state had no great occasion to regret. Any one else than Scipio would perhaps have declared that the African expedition must either be undertaken with other means, or not at all; but Scipio’s confidence accepted the terms, whatever they were, solely with the view of attaining the eagerly-coveted command. He carefully avoided, as far as possible, the imposition of direct burdens on the people, that he might not injure the popularity of the expedition.
Its expenses, particularly those of building the fleet which were considerable, were partly procured by what was termed a voluntary contribution of the Etruscan cities that is, by a war tribute imposed as a punishment on the Arretines and other communities disposed to favour the Phoenicians partly laid upon the cities of Sicily. In forty days the fleet was ready for sea. The crews were reinforced by volunteers, of whom seven thousand from all parts of Italy responded to the call of the beloved officer. So Scipio set sail for Africa in the spring of 550 with two strong legions of veterans (about 30,000 men), 40 vessels of war, and 400 transports, and landed successfully, without meeting the slightest resistance, at the Fair Promontory in the neighbourhood of Utica.