202 BCE

A bronze head of the Roman general Publius Scipio Africanus from the Naples Archeological Museum in Italy. Though a brilliant commander, Scipio succeeded in defeating Hannibal at the Battle of Zama only when his cavalry returned to the fray at the last moment.

The Battle that decided the long struggle between the Romans and the African empire of Carthage, in the Second Punic War, was fought by two armies led by veterans of the disastrous Roman defeat at Cannae. Hannibal Barca had been the victor at Cannae, while his opponent, Publius Scipio (‘Africanus’ as he became known), had been on the losing side, surviving the massacre by luck. This time, the Battle of Zama, in present-day Tunisia, was finely poised, but Scipio had learned important lessons. At the last moment, the Roman cavalry did to Hannibal what he had done to the Romans fourteen years earlier. It was a narrow margin, but enough to seal a historic triumph for Rome and the start of centuries of Roman domination.

The Second Punic War was fourteen years old when Scipio, who had taken most of Spain from the Carthaginians, set out from Sicily in 204 BCE with 40 warships and 400 transports to attack the enemy on their home territory in North Africa. The aim was to finish the war once and for all and to force Carthage to acknowledge Roman supremacy. For Scipio, given temporary supreme command of Roman forces, the campaign was designed to secure his political position in Rome against his jealous rivals. He faced two opponents in Africa, not only Carthage but also the Numidian kingdom ruled by King Syphax, who had long supported his neighbour against Rome. Political rivalry among the Numidians, however, brought Scipio an important bonus. Prince Masinissa took 2,000 of the fine Numidian cavalry over to the Roman side and fought against his former master. In the first engagement between the two sides in the early summer of 203 BCE, Scipio and Masinissa destroyed the Carthaginian and Numidian camps in the Battle of the Great Plains. After marching towards Carthage, Scipio exacted tough armistice terms from the alarmed Carthaginian senate. Masinissa pursued Syphax to Numidia, where he defeated him and declared himself king.

A painting from 1570 by the Italian Renaissance artist Giulio Romano (c.1499-1546) depicts the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. The imaginative reconstruction gives more prominence to the elephants in Hannibal’s army than they deserve. As the beasts charged, Scipio’s troops made gaps in the ranks to let them through, while other elephants turned and trampled Hannibal’s line.

In secret, the Carthaginian assembly summoned Hannibal and his army back from southern Italy, where they had stayed on after Cannae, in the hope that the legendary general could turn the tide in Africa. By spring 202 BCE, the Carthaginian leaders were more confident that the armistice could be overturned and Scipio defeated. Hannibal gathered a new large army, estimated at 36,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry drawn from all over North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. The host fielded a variety of weapons, including the long Greek sarissa pike and the fearsome curved falcata steel sabre, which could cut through a Roman shield. Scipio had a mix of mercenary soldiers and veteran legionaries, some 29,000 in number, supported by 6,000 Roman and Numidian cavalry. They carried the conventional Roman spear, short sword and dagger. The two forces settled in camps a few miles apart at a site known as Zama, though its exact location remains uncertain. Modern estimates suggest a small plain near the present-day town of Sidi Youssef. It was here, halfway between the two armed camps, that Hannibal asked Scipio to meet him for a parley, to see if he could extract terms and avoid an unpredictable battle. Scipio is said to have asked for unconditional surrender. Hannibal turned on his heel and the two commanders prepared for combat on the following day.

Hannibal planned his battle predictably, which helped Scipio a great deal. He placed his infantry in three ranks, one behind the other, first mercenaries, then the Carthaginian levies, and finally his veterans from the Italian campaign. On either flank were placed 2,000 cavalry, while 80 elephants, the tanks of the ancient world, were placed at the front. Hannibal’s plan was to break up the opposing infantry with an elephant charge and deploy his cavalry, as at Cannae, to drive back the enemy flanks and envelop the entire enemy force. Scipio understood all this. His infantry were drawn up in three similar ranks, mercenaries at the front, hardened veterans at the rear. The novelty in Scipio’s plan was to create corridors concealed by lightly armed infantry, the velites, through which the elephants would be ushered to the rear and killed or incapacitated, while the ranks of Roman soldiery closed up behind them. Once the charge was over, Scipio planned to release his two superior cavalry forces, including Masinissa’s Numidians, to destroy Hannibal’s horsemen. What would happen next was in the lap of the gods, to whom both sides commended themselves before the battle.

It was later recorded that Scipio had addressed his soldiers on the eve of battle with the stark demand that they ‘conquer or die’. Certainly both commanders realized that a great deal depended on the battle. The contest began when Hannibal released his elephants, backed by the first lines of infantry, against the Roman army. No battle had ever used so many animals, and neither side was quite sure what would happen. Scipio’s plan did not go perfectly, but it worked well enough. Some of the elephants ran through the corridors to be finished off at the rear; others were so terrified by the deliberate blare of Roman trumpets that they stampeded from the field or turned back, trampling the Carthaginian cavalry. Seeing the disorder, the two cavalry commanders – Masinissa on the right, Gaius Laelius on the left – charged Hannibal’s two cavalry wings and routed them with such enthusiasm that they were chased well beyond the battlefield, leaving the contest for the moment as a simple clash of infantry.

The two blocks of soldiers pushed one way and the other, neither side quite strong enough to gain the advantage, until Scipio’s more experienced second-line soldiers finally broke the Carthaginian mercenaries and levies, leaving just Hannibal’s Italian veterans in front of them. Hannibal stretched his line out, putting the survivors of his first two lines on the wings in the hope that a long line might envelop the shorter Roman line in front. But Scipio quickly reorganized his own forces so that the tough veteran legionaries stretched in a long line to match that of the enemy. While these two lines swayed and fought amid the piles of corpses and wounded, the battle hung on a knife-edge, both sides now deploying their toughest and most experienced troops.

Suddenly back onto the plain galloped the Roman and Numidian cavalry, arriving behind the Carthaginian lines. They slaughtered Hannibal’s veterans just as his horsemen had slaughtered the Roman legions at Cannae. Estimates in Roman histories suggest 20-25,000 Carthaginian dead and almost all the rest prisoners, for the loss of only 1,500 Romans. These figures are certainly exaggerated, but it seems that few escaped. Hannibal himself fled to his headquarters near Carthage, leaving his men to their fate.

Hannibal travelled to the capital at once to announce his defeat and recommend surrender. By spring 201 BCE, terms had been agreed and ratified in Rome, and Rome’s political power now extended to Africa. Both commanders ended their lives in exile. Hannibal killed himself with poison in Anatolia in 183 BCE to prevent the Romans from taking him prisoner; Scipio was victimized by rivals in Rome, accused of corruption and embezzlement, and died in exile at a villa in Campania in southern Italy a year before his famous rival, embittered by the ingratitude of a people whose empire he had helped to secure.