The Continence Of Scipio

An Ancient General Taps the Brakes

The Roman general Scipio is on the altar raised;
In golden robes, on simple throne, he dominates the dais,
His court is made outdoors, a marble slab the man exalts;
Did Scipio Africanus drag the rock from local vaults?
Did th’ conquered Carthiginians ‘ready have a throne outside
For sundry conqu’ring Roman gents to sit, obscene, astride?

With bloodless hand the vanquisher makes offers to his guest
(We know he’s now refused the virgin’s ransom from context —
The history tells us Scipio a virgin could have had;
A girl among his prisoners in whitened cloth all clad,
Yet he instead returned her to her courtly bowing prince
Refusing he the ransom; gave it back as wedding gifts.)

Astonished are the people at th‘ barbarian’s new restraint;
The Carthaginians nod and murmur, “Hanno, this guy ain’t.”
All Scipio, womanizer, aristocrat on treasure placed,
Need do was not assault a pris’ner in his clutches placed,
And turn down ransom from her family when they ask her back,
To make himself the voice of reason after the attack.

The family bows and blushes at the mercy of the king,
The Romans beam through injuries, heads wrapped, their arms in slings,
The Carthaginians wonder at the enemy’s reprieve,
A lady of the court with laurels decorates the thief,
Who stole with combat part of Spain where lived their lives concerns,
Adoring this peacemaker while nearby New Carthage burns.


I’m doing flash cards to learn about these paintings. The painting is on one side and the artist and name of the painting are on the other. This scene, Scipio Africanus giving this prisoner woman back to her family, is the subject of something like a million bazillion paintings that all sort of look like this one.

I’ve read that Scipio had a reputation as a “lady’s man” which made it all the more surprising that he set this woman free for no ransom instead of enslaving her, which is just about the grossest use of the phrase “lady’s man” I’ve heard of. But then also he just burned New Carthage to the ground so what continence really are we celebrating? War is ridiculous.

Thanks for reading my rhymes and these post-scripts. I’m told that having a mailing list is important if you want to own your platform and so here I am and here you are. If you know someone who would like these emails, tell them about me.

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This is Phil.


Image: The Continence Of Scipio by Nicolas Poussin

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