The Second Punic War between 218 and 202 BCE was a titanic struggle between the Roman Republic and Carthage. After the devastating Roman defeat at Cannae in 216 BCE at the hands of Hannibal Barca, it devolved into a grueling marathon where Rome studiously avoided engaging Hannibal on the field while whittling down his support in Carthaginian-controlled Spain.
The decisive moment of Rome’s victory was the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. Here, the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio earned his epithet Africanus by finally defeating Hannibal on the battlefield and setting up Rome for its meteoric ascent to dominance of the Mediterranean and beyond.
Background to the Battle of Zama: Scipio and Hannibal
Scipio was not the man that Rome expected to lead them to victory. Scipio was young when his father and uncle were killed on the battlefields of Spain. When Scipio volunteered to lead Roman forces there after their death, Livy tells us that he was granted permission not because he showed any special skill but because all other experienced commanders considered Spain a lost cause.
Between 211 BCE and 206 BCE, Scipio waged a long but successful campaign that drove Carthage from the Iberian Peninsula. After a decisive strategic victory at Ilipa in 206 BCE, where Scipio echoed Hannibal’s famous encirclement tactics to finally drive them out of Spain, Scipio had proven himself the finest battlefield commander that Rome had to offer.
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Hannibal, meanwhile, had not managed to achieve anything significant since his victory at Cannae. The Romans knew better than to meet him on an open field so instead revived the tactics of Fabius Maximus to harass Hannibal as he moved throughout Italy. Hannibal ventured around the peninsula, compelling towns and cities to support him with men and supplies, only for Rome to arrive and restore their loyalty after Hannibal left. As years passed by, and the freshness of his victory at Cannae faded, Hannibal’s campaign in Italy had ground to an unproductive halt.
Preparing to Invade
The victorious Scipio was recalled to Italy in 206 BCE and the Roman Senate began debating how to deal with Carthage for good. Scipio advocated for an invasion of Africa but Rome’s dire experiences in doing so during the First Punic War created anxiety. Eventually, it was decided that Scipio would be assigned command in Sicily with an army composed of Rome’s veterans and permission to raise and train more troops. The Senate entrusted Scipio with the responsibility to decide whether to invade North Africa.
During 205 and 204 BCE, Scipio made preparations for an invasion. He enacted a rigorous training regime for his soldiers and spent time assembling ships, supplies, and allies. The most important ally was the Numidian Prince Masinissa who agreed to provide Rome with vital cavalry support for his invasion.
Meanwhile, Hannibal continued to make little progress in Italy, and the defeat and death of his brother Mago in 203 BCE deprived Carthage of yet another military leader and a sizable amount of troops and equipment.
Scipio and Hannibal in Africa
Scipio sailed for Africa in the summer of 204 BCE. He immediately began raiding, besieging, and harassing the limited Carthaginian forces in North Africa. Carthage organized an army under the general Hasdrubal Gisco to meet him, but their encounter at the Battle of the Great Plains in 203 BCE was a catastrophic defeat for Carthage. Hasdrubal retreated, was stripped of his rank, and exiled. Carthage’s Numidian allies were all but eliminated, handing Rome a decisive cavalry advantage that Scipio would use well in the battle to come.
Scipio and the Romans proposed terms to the Carthaginians, but Carthage had one last gamble to play: they recalled Hannibal from Italy. After more than a decade there, Hannibal had not achieved any lasting conquests but he at least had an army of around 20,000 veterans who carried Carthage’s last hope of victory over Scipio. Peace negotiations collapsed, and Carthage staked its hopes on another miracle victory from their greatest military leader.
Neither side was ready for an engagement right away. Scipio’s Numidian allies were occupied dealing with rival groups along with a detachment of his Roman troops, and supply ships from Italy had been sunk by a storm en route to Africa. Meanwhile, Hannibal needed to reach Carthage, assess the situation, and gather whatever remaining mercenaries and recruits he could to bolster his veterans.
A Meeting of Enemies
The return of Massinissa and his Numidians to Scipio’s army forced Carthage to cut short any preparations before the Romans could march on the city. They urged Hannibal to rush to meet Scipio before he could reach the city.
Both sides met at the town of Zama, about five days’ march west of Carthage. Hannibal had managed to accrue about 40,000 men – 36,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry – to Scipio’s 30,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry.
After setting up their camps, the two commanders sent messages to one another and arranged to meet on neutral ground between their positions. Hannibal and Scipio were well aware of each other’s reputations and appeared to have held a level of respect for one another. However, both men were still representatives of their nation. Despite both men being perfectly fluent in Greek, Scipio spoke only in Latin and Hannibal in Punic, relying on interpreters to translate, for the entirety of their meeting.
Polybius’ account of this meeting comes with speeches, certainly invented by the historian, where Hannibal, apparently aware of his imminent defeat, warned Scipio and Rome that fortune can be fickle and that their imminent victory would one day be followed by eventual defeat. Hannibal tried to negotiate a settlement but Scipio rebuffed him, and they withdrew to settle affairs by the sword.
Order of Battle of Zama
Scipio’s order of battle mixed typical tactics with new strategy. The frontline was the lighter hastati equipped with their short-swords and throwing spears called pila. Behind them was a line of heavier and more experienced principes infantry. At the rear were the triarii made up of the wealthiest and most well-equipped soldiers. Attached to these formations were the velites, a class of light skirmishers whose job was to drive off cavalry and elephants. Scipio’s Roman cavalry manned the left flank while his superior Numidian cavalry was stationed on the right.
Scipio deviated from usual Roman tactics by deploying his men in broken lines, divided periodically by long columns through which he planned to funnel Hannibal’s charging elephants. The velites were stationed in these gaps to take down the elephants without allowing them to charge into and break the Roman ranks.
Against them, Hannibal’s eighty elephants stood at the front of his army as a vanguard, an intimidating barrier for the Roman forces. Behind them came the infantry. First his mercenaries, a patchwork of Ligurians, Celts, and Mauretnaians. Hannibal stationed his light infantry — including slingers, archers, and javelin-throwers — ahead of his heavier infantry in this section. The second line consisted of Carthage’s freshly-raised native troops. The last line was made up of Hannibal’s Italian veterans, battle-hardened and unquestionably loyal – men who could be trusted to hold the line no matter what.
The flanks were manned by two separate divisions of cavalry. His dwindling Numidian force held the left, directly opposite the numerically superior Roman Numidians, while his remaining African and mercenary cavalry were stationed on the right.
The Battle Begins
Hannibal opened the battle with a thunderous charge from his elephants. The beasts had served him well in the past, but in this final battle, they disappointed him. The frightful sounds of horns, trumpets, and shouting armies spooked the animals, and their riders lost control. Many of them turned and charged back into Hannibal’s own ranks. They ran into the Numidian cavalry, causing chaos that their Roman counterparts quickly exploited. Massanissa and his more numerous horsemen picked off the scattering Carthaginian-allied Numidians and soon drove them from the field.
A few of the elephants who had not been frightened away charged into the Roman ranks. Scipio’s unusual formation paid off and the elephants charged through the gaps in his line doing minimal damage. The Romans frightened off or took down the remaining elephants, deflecting Hannibal’s opening gamble with very few casualties.
A Desperate Melee
By the time the elephant attack collapsed, Rome’s superior cavalry had driven Carthage’s remaining horsemen from the field too. Hannibal was reduced to his infantry. He ordered the first two lines to advance and meet the Romans in the middle of the field while he remained steadfast with his veterans in the rear.
The two opposing forces met in a clash of swords and spears. The superior training and spirit of the Roman forces quickly manifested. The front ranks of mercenaries engaged the Romans directly, but it was clearly an uneven fight. The second line of raw Carthaginians saw the hopelessness of the situation, and their ranks collapsed. The Carthaginian second line fled, abandoning the mercenaries to their fate.
The mercenaries were not keen to die as their supposed allies fled to safety. Instead, the mercenaries pulled back. Polybius reports that the angry mercenaries began fighting with the retreating Carthaginians, creating a chaotic three-way battle as the Romans continued to cut through their in-fighting enemies.
Hannibal, still waiting in the rear with his veterans, must have known the battle was all but over. He ordered his men to lower their spears to greet the retreating front ranks. Any man who tried to flee into Hannibal’s veterans would be killed. The remainder scattered to the wings, hoping to flee into the countryside without being cut down by the Roman cavalry.
Scipio ordered his forces to regroup before engaging Hannibal’s remaining veterans. Polybius tells us that the field was so mired with gore and corpses that movement on any large scale was becoming difficult.
The Roman forces advanced through the fallen bodies and drew up a single new line in front of the remaining Carthaginians for a final encounter. Scipio placed with triarii and principes in the center to smash Hannibal’s veterans while the hastati manned the wings.
Hannibal’s veterans fought well. Their experience and dedication to their cause kept them fighting long after another army’s spirit would have broken. However, when the Roman cavalry returned from pursuing the retreating enemies and smashed into Hannibal’s flank, even Hannibal’s veterans were forced to concede the battle.
Only a small number of his men, along with Hannibal himself, managed to escape the field. Most of Hannibal’s forces were either cut down in the war’s final battle or taken prisoner by the victorious Romans. Still, even Polybius, writing under the auspices of the descendants of Scipio, conceded that Hannibal “had done in the battle all that was to be expected of a good and experienced general.”
The End of a War
Zama spelled the end of Carthage’s ability to fight Rome and ended any hope of Carthage rivaling its Roman enemies again. The peace terms that Rome forced upon them were harsh. Carthage was stripped of all of its territories outside Africa, such as Spain, its precious war fleet was restricted to just ten ships, it was shackled with indemnity payments for the next 50 years, and it was not allowed to wage war without Roman approval. After starting the war as a power to rival Rome, Carthage ended it as a shadow of its former self, crushed under the thumb of its conquerors.
The Battle of Zama catapulted Scipio to fame and earned him the agnomen ‘Africanus’, but the vicissitudes of Roman politics would soon drive the war hero into virtual exile. Hannibal’s post-war life was not much better. He fled east, and briefly served the Seleucid King Antiochus III in his war with Rome before retiring to the court of Bythinia where the Romans harassed him into committing suicide 20 years later.
After the Second Punic War, Rome would never face a serious foreign threat to its survival until the collapsing days of the empire. In the following decades, through wars with Greece, Macedon, the Seleucids, and more, Rome would secure its dominance over almost the entire Mediterranean Basin.
Had this battle gone differently, had Hannibal won the day at Zama instead of Scipio, Rome’s unquestioned dominance of the Mediterranean would not have been guaranteed. With a rival power across the water, Rome might never have had the manpower or confidence to push its power eastward. The consequences for world history if it had been Carthage dictating the terms to Rome after this war would be impossible to quantify.
Its name might not be as famous as Cannae, but Scipio’s victory at Zama paved the way for a Roman-dominated future that would have profound effects on the history of the world.