This painting, by the Italian artist Carlo Carlone (c. 1686 – 1775), was inspired by an ancient Roman legend, commonly referred to as the Generosity (or Magnanimity or Continence) of Scipio. The tale involves Publius Cornelius Scipio, later nicknamed Scipio Africanus, and this particular event from his life was said to have occurred around the year 209 BCE, when Scipio was making a name for himself as a Roman general in Spain during the Second Punic War (c. 218-201 BCE). At the time of the scene in the painting, Scipio had recently conquered the city of New Carthage, resulting in a large number of captives falling into the hands of the victorious Romans. 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). Carlo Carlone’s painting tells the story of one of the families that was allegedly reunited by Scipio.
According to the ancient legend, a noble woman described as the ultimate embodiment of feminine beauty was captured by the Romans when New Carthage fell. Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), a Roman historian, described the woman’s appearance, writing, “She was a young girl and so beautiful that everyone turned to look at her wherever she went” (Livy, Roman History, 26.50).
Her name, unfortunately, was never recorded, but she was said to have been engaged to marry a certain Celtiberian chieftain, named Allucius, when she had the misfortune of being apprehended by Scipio’s army. The captive woman’s family and fiancée were naturally concerned for their loved one’s safety, as they knew that occupying troops do not always have the best intentions for beautiful young captives. Concerns were likely not alleviated when they learned that the Roman general, himself, had taken special interest in the mysterious captured woman. But, in this case, the fears of the family and the fiancée were thankfully unwarranted.
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. Scipio can be seen sitting under shade in the middle of the painting, with the unnamed captive woman lounging beside him. Both of them are seen facing a standing figure that must be Allucius, the woman’s fiancée. Carlo Carlone’s painting shows the moment when Scipio releases the captive woman back to her fiancée, letting them keep the ransom money as a wedding present. Scipio’s mercy and generosity in this episode paid off, for grateful Allucius was later said to have brought a warband of around 1,400 cavalry to aid the Romans.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Polybius, (The Histories) The Rise of the Roman Empire, translated by Ian Scott Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.
- Livy, (Roman History) The War with Hannibal, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.