This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (c. 1675-1741), was inspired by a legend that was said to have occurred in Spain around the year 209 BCE. At that time, Rome and Carthage were clashing in the Second Punic War (c. 218-201 BCE), and a new Roman general named Publius Cornelius Scipio was beginning to gain momentum in Spain. Around that year (209 BCE), Scipio was able to conquer the city of New Carthage. During this siege and other similar battles, Scipio came into the possession of a great many captives, and it was in Scipio’s reported treatment of these prisoners that the seed of a legend took root. Although it was sadly not uncommon for prisoners and civilians under occupation to be faced with horrors and atrocities in the ancient world, Publius Cornelius Scipio was said to have decided to try kindness for a change. As told by the Greek historian Polybius (c. 200-118 BCE), “In Spain Publius Scipio, the Roman Commander, was spending the winter at Tarraco, and there his first achievement was to win the trust and friendship of the Spaniards by restoring the hostages to their various families” (Polybius, The Histories, 10.34). Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini’s painting tells the story of one of these families that was allegedly reunited by Scipio.
Unfortunately, the name of the captive at the heart of this legend remained unknown—only her looks and her connections were remembered by history. As the story goes, our mystery woman was the ultimate embodiment of feminine beauty, and she had been engaged to marry a certain Celtiberian chieftain, named Allucius, when she had the misfortune of falling into the hands of a Roman army. Describing the captive’s appearance, the Roman historian Livy (59 BCE-17 CE) wrote, “She was a young girl and so beautiful that everyone turned to look at her wherever she went” (Livy, Roman History, 26.50). Regrettably, not all of these roving eyes had good wishes or intentions. The endangered captive’s parents and fiancée knew the danger that the young woman was in, and their concerns were likely not alleviated when they learned that the Roman general, himself, had taken special interest in her. But, in this case, their fears were thankfully unfounded.
Scipio, after investigating the background of the woman, reportedly came up with a plan that was both benevolent and beneficial to Rome’s political and military interests. According to the tale, Scipio invited the captive woman’s family and significant other to the Roman military camp and then proceeded to shock them all with kindness and generosity. Livy described the chaotic scene:
“Then the parents and relatives of the girl were sent for. They had brought with them a weight of gold sufficient for her ransom, and when they found she was being restored to them for nothing, they begged Scipio to take the treasure as a gift, declaring that they would be as grateful for his acceptance as they were for the restoration of the girl in her virgin innocence. In reply to their urgent treaties Scipio agreed to take it; then, having asked for it to be laid at his feet, he called Allucius and told him to take the gold and keep it for his own, saying ‘This is my wedding present, to be added to the dowry you will receive from your bride’s father” (Livy, Roman History, 26.50).
It is this tale that is re-created in the painting above. The unnamed beautiful captive, dressed in white and blue, is seen kneeling before Publius Cornelius Scipio, who is equipped with green and red military gear. Also in attendance are the family and loved ones of the captured woman, presenting treasures that they hoped would pay for her freedom. Scipio, however, refuses the wealth and instead frees the woman, free of charge. Allucius, thankful for the mercy and generosity that was shown, would later reportedly bring a warband of around 1,400 cavalry to aid the Romans. As for Publius Cornelius Scipio, he would continue battling the Carthaginians, ultimately defeating Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. Not long after the battle, Carthage capitulated to the Romans and the victorious general received a new name—Scipio Africanus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Livy, (Roman History) The War with Hannibal, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.
- Polybius, (The Histories) The Rise of the Roman Empire, translated by Ian Scott Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.