Battle of Zama

Battle of Zama

The Battle of Zama, fought in Numidia in North Africa, ended the Second Punic War. One of the most famous conflicts in history, the Second Punic War (218–202 BCE) pitted the great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca against Rome. After Hannibal’s destruction of two Roman legions in the Battle of Cannae in 216, one Roman army kept Hannibal under constant observation while others reconquered cities that had rebelled against Rome. Syracuse fell to the Romans in 212. In 210 at age 25, the brilliant Publius Scipio became commander of Roman forces in Spain. He quickly secured the upper hand. In 209 Scipio captured the Carthaginian stronghold of Cartagena, and in 206 in the Battle of Ilipa he ended Carthaginian influence in Spain.

Despite military victories in Spain and Sicily, Rome was sorely pressed by the long war. Finally, in 204, Scipio sailed with 30,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops to Africa. There in the Battle of the Great Plains he defeated a Carthaginian force of equal size. Carthage sued for peace and, at the same time, recalled Hannibal from Italy. In 203 Hannibal and 18,000 men returned to Carthage. Never defeated in battle in Italy, he had not been sufficiently supplied to win the war there.

The scene was set for the final struggle between Hannibal and Scipio, the two ablest generals of the war. More confident with Hannibal’s return, Carthage broke the peace by seizing Roman supply ships scattered in a great storm. The final battle took place in 202, probably in October and at Zama, five days’ march southwest of Carthage.

Hannibal moved west from Hadrumetum to near Zama and encamped less than four miles from the Romans. He proposed a parlay, to which Scipio agreed. The two men talked with only an interpreter present. Hannibal apparently sought peace, but Scipio refused. Because of the recent Carthaginian treachery in attacking the Roman supply ships, Scipio would not agree to peace without a battle.

That battle took place the next day, and Scipio held the upper hand. Just before the battle, Numidian king Masinissa joined him with 4,000 cavalry and 6,000 infantry, a fact unknown to Hannibal. Each side then had about 40,000 men. Probably Hannibal enjoyed a slight overall numerical advantage, but Scipio had more cavalry.

Hannibal positioned more than 80 war elephants in front. Behind these he placed his infantry, in Roman fashion, in a series of three separate linear formations (although not in maniples). The first body consisted of 12,000 seasoned mercenary troops: Ligurian and Gallic swordsmen, Balearic slingers, and Mauretanian archers. The second rank consisted of the less experienced Carthaginian and Libyan troops, while the third grouping was of Hannibal’s best troops, the seasoned veterans who had campaigned with him in Italy. Numidian cavalry protected Hannibal’s left flank, and Carthaginian cavalry protected his right flank. Hannibal expected the first two bodies of infantry to absorb the initial Roman assault, whereupon he would fall on the Romans with his veterans.

Scipio placed his infantry facing the Carthaginian line of battle. His Italian cavalry was on the left flank, and his Numidian cavalry under Masinissa was on the right flank. Scipio’s infantry was not in solid ranks but instead was subdivided into smaller maniples, with spaces between the lines to help absorb the shock of the Carthaginian war elephants. Fearing these, Scipio placed the maniples one behind the other, abandoning the usual Roman checkerboard formation. At the beginning of the battle these gaps of the hastati (the youngest infantrymen), each armed with two pila (throwing spears) and the famous short sword or gladius, were filled by velites (light infantry), armed with javelins and the gladius.

The battle began with Hannibal advancing his elephants toward the Roman lines. The elephants were not well trained, however, and many of them soon became disoriented by Roman trumpets and bugles and bolted to their left, causing Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry to stampede and greatly assisting in their rout by Masinissa’s cavalry. Meanwhile, Scipio’s Roman cavalry attacked and defeated the Carthaginian cavalry on Hannibal’s right, driving it from the field. The situation now resembled the Battle of Cannae in reverse, with the Romans poised to envelop the Carthaginian flanks.

Although the first body of Hannibal’s infantry fought well, the second failed to come up on time, leading the mercenaries in the first rank to believe that they had been deserted, whereupon they withdrew. Hannibal then brought up his seasoned veterans but earlier than he had planned. These now clashed with the retreating mercenaries. Scipio re-formed his infantry before Hannibal could strike, and his cavalry fell on Hannibal’s veterans from the flanks, cutting them to pieces. Scipio’s horsemen pursued and killed many of those attempting to flee.

The Romans won a decisive victory. Carthaginian losses are variously estimated at 20,000–25,000 killed and 8,500–20,000 captured. Only Hannibal and some of the cavalry escaped to Hadrumetum. Roman losses were perhaps 1,500–2,500 killed, while Masinissa may have lost 2,500 men killed.

Zama was payback for Cannae. Well-trained Roman infantry, supported by a superior cavalry force, had annihilated a larger poorly trained infantry force that was weak in cavalry.

Hannibal urged the Carthaginians to sue for peace. According to the terms dictated by Scipio, Carthage retained its autonomy but had to give up all its elephants and all but 10 of its triremes. Carthage also ceded Spain to Rome as well as the Mediterranean islands that Carthage had held and was obliged to pay a large indemnity of 10,000 talents over a 50-year span. Furthermore, Carthage was forced to agree not to wage war, even in Africa, without Roman approval. Hannibal, however, took charge of the Carthaginian state and re-formed the government, paying the heavy tribute demanded by Rome. In 195 Rome demanded that he be surrendered. Hannibal fled to Syria, where he received asylum. Learning that he was about to be turned over to Rome, however, he committed suicide in 183.

The Battle of Zama gave Rome control of the Mediterranean world. A grateful Rome accorded Scipio the title of “Africanus.” Rome also meted out harsh treatment to the allied states that had revolted and scarcely acknowledged the services of loyal states. During the course of the conflict, the Senate had also greatly increased its power. One other consequence of the war was the creation of a standing Roman army of four legions to hold the two new provinces in Spain. The men enlisted for long terms and were paid, but this standing professional army had ominous consequences for the Roman political system.


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Dodge, Theodore Ayrault. Hannibal: A History of the Art of War among the Carthaginians and the Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 B.C. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Lazenby, J. F. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Liddell Hart, Basil. Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon. New York: Da Capo, 1994. Nardo, Don. The Battle of Zama: Battles of the Ancient World. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1996.