Gaius Laelius

Gaius Laelius was a Roman general and statesman, and a friend of Scipio Africanus, whom he accompanied on his Iberian campaign (210–206 BC; the Roman Hispania, comprising modern Spain and Portugal). His command of the Roman fleet in the attack on New Carthage and command of the Roman cavalry at Zama contributed to Scipio's victories.


According to some Roman historians, including Polybius (Book 10), Laelius was a friend of Scipio from childhood; however, his family background is obscure. This obscurity unfortunately extends to how he became acquainted with Scipio in the first place. Livy suggested that he was not from a rich family, since he wanted command of the campaign against Antiochus the Great in 190 BC to repair (or more likely make) his family fortunes.

Polybius suggests that Laelius was a companion of Scipio from their earliest days in the army together, since Laelius was apparently a witness to Scipio's rescue of his father in a skirmish that was probably the Battle of Ticinus in late 218 BC.[1]

Laelius certainly accompanied Scipio on various expeditions from 210 BC to 201 BC but received no official position from the Senate until about 202 BC when he was finally made quaestor. This lack of recognition may have been due to his relatively low social status and/or family's lack of wealth and political influence.[2][3] However, given that the name 'Laelius' only begins to appear with the retelling of the Second Punic War, it may be the case that he (and his family, none of whom are mentioned before this time) is even more lowborn than is assumed.

Military career: Laelius in Hispania (210–206 BC)

In the Iberian campaign, lasting from 210 BC to about 206 BC, Laelius was a loyal second-in-command, the only man to whom Scipio confided the entirety of his plans to take Iberia. He commanded the fleet of thirty ships in the assault on Carthago Nova in 209 BC. Laelius was in charge of some important hostages after the capture of New Carthage, and he was dispatched, along with those hostages, by Scipio to Rome in a quinquereme with the news of this important victory. The Senate gave Laelius further orders for Scipio, which Laelius conveyed back to Scipio while the troops were still in their winter quarters at Tarraco. The time was therefore around early 208 BC.

According to Polybius, Laelius then commanded the left wing of the army, attacking Hasdrubal's right wing, at the Battle of Baecula (near Bailen) in 208 BC, where Scipio inflicted a defeat on Hasdrubal who then retreated to northern Iberia and Italy. The following year, 207 BC, was spent consolidating their position, though Scipio sent Silanus to deal with the newest Punic commander in Iberia, and had his younger brother, Lucius, capture Orongis (thought to be modern day Jaen). Laelius' involvement in the events of this year is largely unknown.

Laelius' role in the decisive Battle of Ilipa (206 BC) is similarly unclear. In its direct aftermath, though, he was dispatched to convince the Berber (or Masaesylian) King Syphax to renew his allegiances to Rome, but failed, owing to the king's refusal to ratify any treaty except with Scipio himself; accordingly, Scipio went personally to the Masaesylian court to secure the alliance. Shortly after this diplomatic success, Gades showed discontent with Carthaginian rule, and, catching word of this, Scipio sent Laelius by sea and Marcius by land to capture the city. On the way, the city's defectors were apprehended but the squadron on which they were to be deported to Africa was defeated by Laelius at battle of Carteia. The Romans were then troubled by a rebellion among the soldiers and insurrections among the local tribes in late 206 BC when Scipio fell ill.[4] Laelius's role during the insurrection is not clear, but he is noted as having commanded Africanus' cavalry when the latter marched to subdue the Ilergetean revolt.

Laelius in Africa (204–202 BC)

In Scipio's consulship year (205 BC), Laelius went with him to his designated province, Sicily, where he conducted an expedition or raid to northern Africa while Scipio was readying his troops and supplies for a full-scale invasion. The purpose of this expedition was to assess the situation in Africa. Both princes having previously been won over, Syphax broke his alliance with Scipio and joined the Carthaginians when he was offered a marriage alliance with Sophonisba, a famous Carthaginian beauty, the daughter of Hasdrubal Gisco. Subsequently, Syphax drove his bride's former fiance, Masinissa—who remained loyal to Scipio, having confirmed an alliance with him shortly after the battle of Ilipa—out of his own territories. Masinissa, now effectively a fugitive, came to Laelius during his raid, thought to be in the area of Hippo Regius, to apprise him of his circumstances. Laelius was then able to convey the urgency of the invasion to Scipio.

In about 204 BC, Scipio was ready to invade Africa. After several skirmishes, and a period of contrived truce, the Romans assaulted the allied camp at the battle of Utica in which Scipio and Laelius set fire to the Carthaginian camp.[5] The Romans nevertheless failed to detach Syphax from his marital and political alliance with the Carthaginians; nor was a complete victory possible over the Carthaginian army, with Scipio fearing for his fleet.

Finally, in 203 BC, Laelius defeated Syphax, captured the city of Cirta, and took Syphax alive. He then conducted the captured prince and his son Vermina and some other leading men to Rome.[6]

At Zama (202 BC), Laelius rendered considerable service in command of the cavalry, which was again placed originally on the left wing with Masinissa on the right wing;[7] without the cavalry intervening at a crucial time and falling upon the Carthaginians from the rear, Scipio may well have been defeated.[8] Laelius was finally made quaestor only after the decisive victory in 202 BC, which was his first public office.

Political career

In 197 BC, he was elected plebeian aedile and in 196 BC made praetor of Sicily, both times apparently with the aid of his former commander and old friend. Scipio's influence, however, did not serve to win Laelius the consulship in 192 BC.[9] Finally, in 190, he was elected consul along with Scipio's elder brother Scipio Asiaticus but failed to win leadership of the campaign against Antiochus III the Great, which would have enriched him. One version has Laelius himself nobly offering the Senate the choice instead of the traditional drawing of lots to decide the allocation of provinces. When his friend Scipio Africanus announced that, if his brother Lucius was chosen to lead the campaign against Antiochus, he would accompany his brother as a legate, the decision was inevitable - Lucius would be preferred. Laelius's decision, if this version is correct, was a triumph of friendship, but not for his personal finances.

He was given Gaul as his province, and was employed in organizing the recently conquered territory in Cisalpine Gaul. Placentia and Cremona were repopulated.

Later life

Like other superannuated Roman generals, Laelius later served on embassies to King Perseus of Macedon (174-173 BC) and to Transalpine Gaul (170 BC).[10]

Laelius's wife is not known, but c. 188 BC, he fathered a legitimate son who would become consul in 140 BC - Gaius Laelius Sapiens. His son's relationship with Scipio Aemilianus would, in many ways, mirror Laelius the Elder's own friendship with Scipio Africanus, Laelius the Younger fighting in the Third Punic War as Aemilianus' subordinate, and being his political ally and client as well, as part of the Scipionic Circle.

It was also in 160 BC, when the aged Laelius (probably then in his mid-seventies) met the author Polybius in Rome[11] during his last years, and gave him much first-hand information about Scipio Africanus.[12] Polybius was a client of Scipio's brother-in-law Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus (who died suddenly in the same year, 160 BC), and became a friend to both his sons, notably Scipio Aemilianus (Africanus's adoptive grandson).

Laelius appears to have died some years after 160 BC, but his year of death is mentioned by neither Livy nor Polybius.

As a relatively minor figure in Roman history, media does not portray much of Gaius Laelius. George Handel's opera Scipione, about the romantic episode 'the Continence of Scipio', is one of the few cases. It has Laelius (Italianised to 'Lelio') assume, in addition to his historic role as Scipio's subordinate, an intermediary role between the Iberian princess Berenice and his friend, along with providing him with his own love interest.

Recently, however, he has had a fairly prominent, albeit largely negative, role in Ross Leckie's Scipio and a minor role (though comparatively large next to the remainder of the Roman cast) in David Anthony Durham's Pride of Carthage. A self-published book Imperator: Italia by Erich 'B' Hartmann, presumably part of a trilogy or series, has Laelius as a second narrator charting events of the Second Punic War while he converses (or recollects) with the first narrator, Polybius, who is collecting materials for his eponymous Histories.


  1. "One of these was Gaius Laelius, who from his youth up to the end had participated in his every word and deed, and who has produced the above impression upon myself, as his account seems both probable on the face of it and in accordance with the actual performances of Scipio.". Polybius. The Histories of Polybius, Book 10, reproduced from The Histories of Polybius published in Vol. IV of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1922 to 1927. Retrieved 23 April 2007 from Bill Thayer's website
  2. Livy, Book 23, Periochae.[]
  3. The Senate in the Second Punic War clearly granted official positions such as tribune, quaestor or higher ranks based on the person's rank and status; a relatively obscure but talented man from a non-senatorial family or from a minor branch of a great family stood virtually no chance of being named to command in a province, or being named or elected a magistrate or tribune. A relatively obscure Roman knight or equestrian named Lucius Marcius Septimus was elected by the survivors in Hispania after the Scipio brothers were killed in 210. The Senate refused to give him formal command, but no Roman general was willing to go to Hispania. Until first Claudius Nero and then Scipio arrived, Lucius Marcius Septimus was responsible for holding the surviving Roman armies together in Hispania. When the young Scipio arrived in Spain, he retained Marcius in his command. However, Marcius may have damaged his own chances of command by signing his initial despatch to the Senate as a 'propraetor' which many saw as presumptuous.
  4. Unknown. "240 – 20 BC Punic Wars and Roman conquest of Hispania". Retrieved 20 May 2007. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-06-05. Retrieved 2007-05-21.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. Polybius. The Histories of Polybius, Book 14 fragment, reproduced from The Histories of Polybius published in Vol. IV of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1922 to 1927. Retrieved 20 May 2007 from Bill Thayer's website
  6. Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 17, published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914. Available online at <*.html>. Retrieved 20 May 2007. Cassius Dio states that the Romans gave Syphax an estate at Alba, and "at his death honoured him with a public funeral; and they confirmed Vermina in the possession of his father's kingdom besides bestowing upon him the Numidian captives."
  7. Polybius. The Histories of Polybius, Book 15, reproduced from The Histories of Polybius published in Vol. IV of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1922 to 1927. Retrieved 23 April 2007 from Bill Thayer's website . See this chapter for a detailed account of the battle.
  8. Steven James, Zama: The Infantry Battle Revisited, June 2005. Available Online: Retrieved 20 May 2007
  9. Michael Akinde. "Scipio_Africanus_:_Princeps_(200_-_190_BCE)". Retrieved 23 April 2007.
  10. Livy 41. 22. 3, 43. 5. 10
  11. Laelius, Gaius. (). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 23 April 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:
  12. Polybius. The Histories of Polybius, Book 10, reproduced from The Histories of Polybius published in Vol. IV of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1922 to 1927. Retrieved 23 April 2007 from Bill Thayer's website

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Laelius". Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 62–63.

Political offices
Preceded by
P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica
M' Acilius Glabrio
Consul of Rome
190 BC
With: Scipio Asiaticus
Succeeded by
M. Fulvius Nobilior
Gn. Manlius Vulso
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