Gaius Laelius — also Caius Lelius — general and statesman, was a friend of Scipio Africanus, whom he accompanied on his Iberian campaign (210 BC - 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 & Italian 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 of Scipio's rescue of his father in a skirmish that was probably the Battle of Ticinus in late 218 BC.
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. Though given how 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 at this time) is even more lowborn than is assumed.
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 entire 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 elder brother, Lucius, capture Orongis, (thought to be modern day Jaen). Laelius' involvement during events of this year are largely unknown.
However, Laelius' role in the decisive Battle of Ilipa (206 BC) is not clear. 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, who went himself 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 send Laelius by sea and Marcius by land to capture the city. On the way, the city's defectors were apprehended but the squadron they were to be deported to Africa on was defeated by Laelius at battle of Carteia. Coinciding with rumours of Scipio's ill health, the Romans were then troubled by a rebellion among the soldiers and insurrections among the local tribes in late 206BC when Scipio fell ill. Laelius's role during the insurrection is not clear, but he is noted as to have commanded Africanus' cavalry when the latter marched to subdue the Ilergetean revolt.
In Scipio's consulship year (205 BC), Laelius went with him to his designated province Sicily, whence 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, confirming an alliance shortly after the battle of Ilipa, out of his own territories. Masinissa, being a fugitive in effect, came to Laelius during his raid, thought to be in the area of Hippo Regius, to appraise 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  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 the Masaesylian prince Syphax, Laelius captured the city of Cirta at this time, and took Syphax alive. He then conducted to Rome the captured prince and his son Vermina and some other leading men.
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; without the cavalry to intervene at a crucial time and falling upon the Carthaginians from the rear, Scipio may well have been defeated. Laelius was finally made quaestor only after the decisive victory in 202 BC, which was his first public office.
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. Finally, in 190, he was elected consul along with Scipio's elder brother Scipio Asiaticus but failed to win 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.
Laelius's wife is not known, but c. 188 BC, he fathered a legitimate son who would become consul in 140 BC - Scipionic Circle.
It was also in 160 BC, when the aged Laelius (probably then in his mid-seventies) met the author Polybius in Rome during his last years, and gave him much first-hand information about Scipio Africanus. 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. Strangely, a self-published book Imperator: Italia by Erich 'B' Hartmann (the apostrophe marks appear deliberate), 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.
Manius Acilius Glabrio and Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica
|Consul of the Roman Republic
with Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus
Gnaeus Manlius Vulso and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior