NFB’s Decisive Battles Of The World: Zama

Yes, decisive battles have returned. Going right back to the ancient world and the beginning of the end for Rome’s great rival.

Name: The Battle of Zama
The War: The Second Punic War
When: 19 October 202 BC
Where: Zama Regia, near Carthage, modern-day Tunisia
Type: Land
Forces/Commanders: 51’000 Carthaginian troops (45’000 infantry, 6’000 cavalry, 80 war elephants) under Hannibal against 43’000 Roman Republic/Numidian troops (34’000 infantry, 3’000 Roman cavalry, 6’000 Numidian cavalry) under Scipio Africanus and Massinissa.


I am mindful of human weakness, and I reflect upon the might of Fortune and know that everything that we do is exposed to a thousand chances… prepare for war, since you have been unable to endure a peace.
-Scipio Africanus, in correspondence with Hannibal

Thus began an entirely new battle. For they had reached the real enemy, their equals in the character of their weapons and their experience in war and the celebrity of their deeds and the greatness whether of their hopes or of their danger. But the Roman was superior both in numbers and in spirit, because he had already routed the cavalry, had already routed the elephants, and was already fighting against the second line, having repulsed the first.
-Livy, The History of Rome

What Happened:

It is a true ancient epic, the story of the Punic Wars. Rome, all the way to its final end, never came closer to losing its place as the dominant power in the Mediterranean then when it was locked in combat with the North African power of Carthage. Conflict raged from Africa, through Spain and Gaul and all the way to Italy itself.

The First Punic War had been fought mostly over the island of Sicily from 264-241 BC and had ended with harsh peace terms being instigated on Carthage. Such a peace was never going to last and disputes between the two great powers in Iberia, one of the more valuable provinces to both, caused the Second Punic War to erupt in 218 BC.

Initial stalemate in Iberia turned to panic and disaster due to the actions of Hannibal, the greatest and most famous of the Carthaginian Generals. Taking the Carthaginian Army in Iberia, famously including several dozen war elephants, he crossed Gaul and then the Alps to take the fight to the Roman heartland. A shrewd tactician, ahead of his time, Hannibal won victory after victory. The Roman leader Quintus Fabius Maximus turned to what became known as a “Fabian strategy” of avoiding battle with Hannibal’s superior force and aiming to beat him through sheer attrition. The strategy was unpopular with the offensively minded Romans. They eventually elected new leaders and sought a major engagement. The result was the Battle of Cannae, perhaps the worst defeat Rome had ever suffered, suffering over 50’00 dead to a brilliant enveloping move by Hannibal’s Army.

Hannibal remained free to move in Italy but lacked the strength to take Rome. Rome itself was in no position to end the war on the peninsula and continued to be distracted by fighting as far afield as Macedonia.

Recognising that Carthage could not be defeated in Italy, the Romans focused their efforts on securing Iberia which they had done by 206 BC. The man who had done it, Scipio, returned to Rome in triumph, becoming Consul in 205. Despite the warning of Fabius, Scipio pushed for a direct invasion of Africa in order to end the war. The Senate agreed, but gave Scipio precious little resources in order to do it. Instead he turned to the disgraced banished survivors of previous Roman defeats in order to make his army.

Landing in Utica in 203 BC, he defeated Carthage at the Battle of the Great Plains, with the help of a pretender to the Numidian throne, Massinissa. Massinissa led a substantial proportion of Numidian cavalry, previously allied to Carthage, which proved a great advantage to Scipio.

Carthage was in disarray and agreed to a hastily arranged peace treaty. The terns were Versailles-esque and Carthage very quickly repudiated it by attacking a Roman fleet in the Gulf of Tunis. Hannibal was recalled from Italy to lead an army to defeat Scipio.  Marching out from Carthage to face him, the battle took place on the Zama Minor plains, around 130 km from modern-day Tunis.

The two armies deployed in roughly similar formations, but placed key troops at different point.

Both sides placed their cavalry on the flanks, with Scipio putting the Numidians on his right. Both sides organised three separate ranks of infantry. Carthage placed its mercenary troops in the first, its local levy troops in the second and Hannibal’s Italian veterans in the third. Scipio placed his hastati, the poorest and light armoured in the first, the principes, the moderately wealthy and better equipped in the second and the trairii, the wealthiest and best armoured in the third. Scipio’s infantry were more tightly packed then Hannibal’s, with one very key exception.

Hannibal placed his great advantage, 80 war elephants in front of his infantry force. In the face of this threat, Scipio prepared an ingenious solution. War elephants were not an invincible foe by any means, the Romans had beaten them before, but in the flat terrain, they presented a unique challenge.

Allegedly, according to Livy’s account anyway, the two leaders met before the battle to discuss possible peace terms, but could come to no agreement.

Hannibal sent his elephants at the Roman lines, aiming to break their cohesion and take advantage with a further wave of skirmishers and other light infantry, before overlapping the Roman lines with his veterans. Scipio was ready.

First, he had his cavalry horns frighten a portion of the attacking force, making them turn back into Hannibal’s left-wing. In the resulting confusion, Massinissa took the chance, charged into the Carthaginian left wing, and routed it completely, continuing the chase off the field. On the Roman left, the same thing happened but the Carthaginian cavalry on that section of the battlefield retreated deliberately, seeking to draw the entire Roman force of cavalry off the field. In this, they succeeded, and soon it was just infantry left on the field.

As the elephants neared his lines, Scipio sprung his trap. Having hidden them behind the first few lines of troops, he now ordered those lines to move aside revealing several lanes cut through his army. The elephants, not trained to do anything other than charge in a straight line, passed through them without harming the Romans, to be dealt with at the rear of the force. With a simple infantry movement, Scipio had neutralised Hannibal’s advantage.

What followed was a serious of infantry line engagements. Scipio attacked with all three of his marching in formation, while Hannibal met them with only his first two. The hastati pushed their Carthaginian foes back, the mercenary line falling apart after some sustained combat. Unwilling to risk a confused rout, Hannibal ordered them to move to the flanks of the second line rather than retreat directly. Hannibal then attacked with this reinforced second line and pushed the hastati back, inflicting heavy casualties. Scipio quickly reinforced them with his second line of principes and blunted, then turned back, Hannibal’s attack.

Again, Hannibal refused to risk a direct retreat and ordered the remains of his first two lines to move to the flanks of his third. Scipio broke off, and reorganised his own lines to match the now extended one of Hannibal, refusing to risk another double envelopment that had destroyed the Romans at Cannae. Placing the remnants of his hastati in the direct centre, he placed his principes in two groups on either side of them, and his still unused triatii in two groups at either end of the line. Both sides prepared to attack again.

Meanwhile, to the east, the cavalry of both sides engaged away from the main fight, with the Romans/Numidians winning out, putting the Carthaginians to flight before returning to the main field as fast as possible, the battle having lasted several hours at this point.

The two extended infantry lines now crashed into each other, a final bloody confrontation. Neither side was able to make a breakthrough, until the cavalry returned, attacking into the rear of Hannibal’s troops. Encircled and stretched thin, the game was up for Carthage. A substantial portion of the army was able to fight their way through and escape, including Hannibal, but the majority of were annihilated by the respective infantry and cavalry attack with contemporary accounts claiming at least 20’000 killed and 20’000 captured.

Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War

It ended it. Carthage was left with no overseas colonies, and no armed forces to speak off, with a strong Roman force near its capital. Carthage sued for peace, unwilling to face destruction.

Rome’s peace terms were harsh, with heavy economic provisions as well as forcing Carthage to agree never to declare war on anyone without Roman approval. Scipio returned home triumphant, having ended the largest threat top Roman power in its history. He accepted no grand positions for his success except for the name “Africanus” and lived relatively quietly for the rest of his life.  Hannibal served in Carthage for a time before going into a self-imposed exile from his homeland, leading foreign forces against his old enemy, eventually committing suicide rather than be captured by the Romans.

The peace would not last, but, from the terms, that may have been the intention. Rome simply waited for the opportunity to wipe out Carthage once and for all. Using Massinissa, now the aged King of Numidia 70 years later, to bait Carthage into attacking, the Romans had the excuse they needed. The Third, and last, Punic War saw another Roman invasion of Hannibal’s homeland and after an extended siege, the complete destruction of the city of Carthage itself, its buildings destroyed, the ground salted and what was left of its population sold into slavery.

Tactical/Technological Developments

Scipio’s method for dealing with the elephants was ingenious, as simple a solution as could possibly be envisioned.  He saw the weaknesses of the beasts and exploited it, in a way that made the animals essentially obsolete in western battles. Never again would they be the trump card they had been before. The effect of seeing the animals so easily dealt with must have been devastating to the Carthaginians.

 Moreover, his general strategy, in seeing that the war could not be brought toa  satisfactory conclusion without the invasion of the Carthaginian heartland itself, was the correct one, ending the direct threat to Rome that Hannibal presented.

Scipio successfully utilised his different classes of warriors to counter Hannibal’s army, while Hannibal erred in putting his veterans in the final line, their expertise being brought to the battle at too late a stage. Hannibal’s plan to lure the Roman cavalry away from the field was not a success, and ended up letting them attack his rear with ease at the conclusion of the battle.

Macro-Historical Importance

Simply put, the last great obstacle to Roman dominance of the Mediterranean, and with it Europe, was utterly defeated. It would be over 600 years before Rome was threatened to the same extent again. From then on, the only large-scale wars that Rome fought would be Civil Wars, up to the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century. With the victory at Zama, Rome secured its heartland in Italy, Sicily, Iberia, the Balkans and North Africa. They were the only great power in the world, with the army and the navy to back it up.

If things had been different? If Scipio was unable to deal with the elephants, if the Roman cavalry were the ones to be neutralised? If Hannibal had been victorious, it still would have left Carthage in a difficult spot. They had lost their foothold in Italy, and their colonies in Iberia. Their armies were not as strong as they had been. Still, the defeat of Scipio would have left Rome badly undermanned.

It is likely that peace would have prevailed, albeit one that was far more favourable to Carthage then what actually transpired. Carthage would almost certainly have been free to continue expanding in Africa and Greece. Another war with Rome would have been inevitable, but it would not have been the apocalyptic clash that the Third Punic War became. It would have been far more even, fought again in Africa and Iberia, in Sicily and the Mediterranean Sea.

The outcome of such a fight, perhaps with the formidable Hannibal still in command, is impossible to ascertain. But whether or not Rome won the war, their rapid advance would have been checked, with the Latins still looking across the sea at another great power. Would Europe have come to be influenced as much by the culture and art of Carthage as it did with Rome? Iberia certainly would have.

In National Consciousness

Zama is principally recognised today for the commanders who fought there. The battle seen as Hannibal’s last battle (though it wasn’t) and the fight that made Scipio a legend. Both men are remembered as titans of the ancient world, though Hannibal is far more frequently associated with his famous crossing of the Alps and the Battle of Cannae.  Even in the Ancient World, both men were revered in song and writings, with the Punic Wars being exaggerated into devastating conflicts that nearly tore the earth asunder.

In truth though, Zama itself is not ingrained in an historic or national consciousness, save for the limited tourist trade that the battle site generates for Tunisia, a nation that claims the Carthaginian legacy to an extent.

Zama is important as the end of Rome’s most dangerous foreign enemy, the removal of the last obstacle on their way to greatness.

For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.

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1 Response to NFB’s Decisive Battles Of The World: Zama

  1. Pingback: NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Index | Never Felt Better

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