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  • James Houser

202 BC - The Battle of Zama

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

SEPTEMBER 20. 202 BC. It has been sixteen years since Hannibal crossed the Alps, fulfilling his childhood vow to his father that he would spend his life warring against Rome. For sixteen years, Hannibal of Carthage has been undefeated in battle, the scourge of the world, Rome’s most dangerous enemy. Today, he confronts his nemesis on the field of Zama, on the plains of Africa. Today is Hannibal’s last stand.

Hannibal had made a risky gamble when he launched his attack on Rome. He was not authorized by the Carthaginian ruling class to start this war, and he had many enemies back in Carthage. Nevertheless, he dragged his city into war with the growing superpower of the Mediterranean, and at first he seemed to justify the risk. Hannibal smashed Roman armies in battle after battle: the Trebbia in 218 BC, Lake Trasimene in 217, and most famously Cannae in 216, where he annihilated a Roman army of nearly 90,000 men. He had been bouncing around Italy ever since with his veteran army at his back, a relentless, dangerous force to be reckoned with.

But that was all he had been able to do. All the allies Carthage had called to their war – Greek cities, Gauls, Spanish tribes – had been utterly defeated by the Romans. Hannibal’s attempts to strip away Rome’s allies and subjects in southern Italy had come to naught, and as the Romans recaptured city after city, they limited Hannibal’s freedom of movement. The Carthaginian provinces in Spain, a profitable empire that had taken decades for Hannibal’s father to build up, were lost to Roman conquest. Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal, attempting to link up and bring reinforcements, had been cornered and annihilated by the Romans at the Metaurus River. The light at the end of the tunnel only got further away.

By 205 BC, Hannibal and his army were isolated in the toe of the Italian boot. As long as a superior Roman army confronted them, Hannibal was reduced to a passive defense, and now the Romans had to wrestle with a new problem: what now? Going after Hannibal seemed like A Bad Idea, since he would just tear their army apart on ground of his choosing the way he always had. So what next?

The Romans divided over what to do about Hannibal and his trapped, but still dangerous, army. One faction was represented by old Fabius Maximus, he of the “delaying” indirect strategy that had been the cornerstone of Roman military efforts. Fabius believed that the Romans should just starve Hannibal out, slowly squeeze him, but do nothing to risk a battle. The other faction was represented by Rome’s greatest general of the war, the young Publius Cornelius Scipio. Scipio believed that to get Hannibal out of Italy, there was only one thing to do: take the war to Africa, threaten Carthage itself, and draw Hannibal out that way.

Publius Cornelius Scipio is someone I’ve mentioned before, and he’s someone who deserves a little bit of description, because he is about to be Hannibal’s ultimate nemesis. Scipio’s father had been killed fighting Carthage in Spain, and Scipio himself had survived the bloodbath at Cannae, so he had known firsthand the sacrifice of the war against Hannibal. Scipio was young, bold, immensely ambitious, and frankly brilliant. He was one of history’s great generals. When he and Hannibal ultimately faced off at Zama, it would be one of those crazy moments in military history where the two greatest military minds of their age go at each other with everything they have. This would probably not occur again until Wellington and Napoleon faced off at Waterloo.

Scipio had won great victories in Spain, where he displayed unusual and clever tactics that marked him out from the usual “attack everything” mode of most Roman commanders. He was a man of enormous intellect and culture. He was actually a fashion icon, since his clean-shaven appearance was modeled on Alexander the Great, and sparked a masculine fashion of beardlessness in Rome that would last until the middle Roman Empire three hundred years later. His embrace of Greek culture sparked hostility among conservatives like Cato the Elder (a Fabius loyalist, so a Scipio opponent). In short, Scipio represented grace and a more “genteel” form of masculinity compared to old Roman fashions, which rubbed some people the wrong way. He was a polarizing figure in his own day.

To try and sideline the young upstart, the Senate relegated him to Sicily – a relative backwater in the war since it had been pacified. Nevertheless, Scipio began to lay the groundwork for an invasion of Africa. He made alliances with local Tunisian and Algerian tribes who could provide him with light cavalry and reconnaissance; he set to work building up a fleet and army in Sicily directed at Africa; he studied previous (all failed) invasions of Africa. It was not a new idea, but it was an old idea that had been tried and failed, which is always scarier than a new idea. Both Greeks and Romans had tried to invade the North African coast to strike at Carthage in the past, and all had failed. Scipio planned to make it work.

In 204 BC, Scipio – without authorization from the Roman Senate – set off on his expedition and landed on the coast of North Africa with about 25,000 men. Because he first needed a base of operations, he laid siege to the city of Utica, but already a large Carthaginian army was marching south and breathing down his neck. Scipio withdrew to a random mountain on the coast, where the Carthaginian general quickly surrounded him and demanded his surrender. Scipio pretended to negotiate while carrying out subtle observations of the enemy camp. What he intended to do was something almost unheard of in ancient military history: a night attack.

Night attacks before the age of electricity or night-vision devices were virtually impossible. The successful night attacks of the pre-19th Century period can be counted on one hand. The attack near Utica is one of them. The negligent Carthaginian sentries were startled awake when flames shot into the night and pandemonium followed as the entire Roman army descended upon the camp. Scipio’s heavily outnumbered forces panicked and routed the entire Carthaginian army and killed at least 40,000 men. This battle was worthy of Hannibal’s cunning and ruthlessness; shortly Scipio had taken Utica and defeated another enormous Carthaginian army at the Bagradas River. I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me.

The tables had been turned. Now Scipio and his triumphant Roman army threatened Carthage itself, in much the same way that Hannibal had threatened Rome after Cannae over a decade before. The result of the twin defeats at Utica and Bagradas was panic in Carthage. The city-state of Carthage was fundamentally different from Rome. It was a former Phoenician colony, a great trading and commercial city, not a militarized republic built around a large agrarian population base. It did not have local resources, a vast recruitable population, or a long military tradition to call on in times of crisis. The people of Carthage were more panicked in 203 BC than the Romans had ever been in 216 BC after Cannae.

The most immediate result of Scipio’s victory was the recall of Hannibal. Just as the young Roman had predicted, the panic within Carthage caused Hannibal’s 20,000 man army and all other forces to be withdrawn from Italy. Remember, the Roman response had been the opposite: to go cause trouble for Carthage elsewhere in order to weaken and deplete their resources. This took civic discipline, nerve, and steady strategic thinking. Instead, Carthage reacted with panic, and brought their best general and best army home.

In 202 BC, then, Hannibal took command of the forces facing Scipio outside Carthage. Under pressure from the Carthaginian elite to act without delay, Hannibal struck camp and marched southwest to Zama, five days’ march southwest of Carthage. There he received foreboding news: the Numidian (Algerian) King Masinissa had joined the Roman general with a large force of infantry and cavalry. For the first time in the war, the Romans would have better cavalry than Carthage – who had always had the best cavalry up until now.

Hannibal realized how this was likely to turn out. The Romans had more cavalry, they had a veteran army under a great general, and they were high off victories and conquests. Hannibal himself was still a brilliant leader, but his veterans were mostly dead and gone, Carthage’s morale was slumping after years of war, and he was past his prime – old and tired. So Hannibal asked for a conference with his young challenger: the two of them, alone, face to face.

It must have been one of the more interesting meetings in history. The fathers of both men had died fighting the other’s country. Once a youthful prodigy himself, Hannibal now faced the man who reflected him in so many ways. Scipio confronted the bogeyman of Rome, the general who had destroyed the Romans at Cannae, a battle that Scipio himself had barely survived. It must have been like Grant and Lee at Appomattox, or if Churchill and Hitler had had a tete-a-tete over a cup of coffee right before D-Day. But it happened.

Hannibal saluted Scipio and began to speak. He discussed how easily Fortune can turn, how quickly things can change, and expressed concern that Scipio (being so young) might not understand yet how much the taste of victory could sour in his mouth. He pointed out that he had once been at large and feared all over Italy, and now here he was about to defend his own city; though Scipio didn’t yet realize it, things could change just as quickly again if Scipio was defeated, here at Zama. Instead he proposed a truce that would restore the status quo before the war.

Scipio simply responded that Rome had not started this war, and that Hannibal had his chance to negotiate under such terms when he was still in Italy, before Scipio invaded Africa. By refusing to negotiate from a position of strength, Hannibal had given up any reasonable grounds to demand that they just pretend all this never happened. No, Rome was going to go for the jugular, and it was time to fight. The two generals returned to their camps and prepared for battle.

At dawn the following day, both Hannibal and Scipio marched onto the field of Zama to fight the final battle of the Second Punic War. In quality and training Hannibal’s army of 40,000 men was inferior to Scipio’s force of 35,000. He understood this, so he placed his veteran soldiers from Italy – the men who had won all those legendary battles – at the very back of his formation. His first line was composed of less seasoned veterans from Spain, while the middle line was made up of his raw recruits hastily drawn from Carthage and North Africa. Hannibal posted his cavalry on either side, but knew that he could not depend on cavalry superiority as he had in the past since the Romans had more and better horsemen; instead, he relied on his 80 war elephants to break through the Roman infantry formations and clear the way for his triumph.

Scipio, knowing that Hannibal’s elephants were his most dangerous unit, put his troops into columns instead of the usual Roman linear formation. These columns were disguised by light troops that filled the gaps. Scipio placed his own Numidian light cavalry, under the command of King Massinissa, on either flank - mirroring the Carthaginian formation and knowing that they would outmatch Hannibal’s horsemen.

Hannibal began the battle according to plan, sending his elephants in a great charge against the Roman infantry formations. The elephants on the left, though, were young and untrained; they panicked when they heard the Roman war trumpets, and turned around in flight – right into the Carthaginian cavalry on the left. The Numidian cavalry commander Massinissa seized the opportunity and charged his opposite numbers. He routed Hannibal’s cavalry, and soon was in hot pursuit. The elephants on the right charged the Roman formation – but the Roman light infantry withdrew into the heavily armored columns, leaving wide gaps for Hannibal’s elephants to charge right through. Scipio’s tactic totally neutralized Hannibal’s elephant charge.

The infantry of both armies, which had stood fast throughout all this confusion, now began to advance towards one another. Hannibal’s superior numbers could have told, but the inexperienced levies that Carthage had given him hesitated to move forward as the Roman legionaries started carving into his first line. When the first line tried to withdraw, the second line of raw recruits refused to let them pass. All of this resulted in a struggle amongst the Carthaginians as the Romans bore down on them. Finally, both the first and second lines broke, scrambling for the third line – which also refused to let them through.

This resulted in mass confusion and high casualties among Hannibal’s infantry, but when the Romans did encounter the third line held fast. These were Hannibal’s veterans. Their sergeants had followed the great general across the Alps. They had been victorious at Trebbia, Trasimene, Cannae. They had followed Hannibal across Italy for almost two decades. They did not break, and the Roman infantry crashed on them in waves, failing to make a dent on the army that had terrorized and pillaged their country for so long.

The death blow came from behind. Having given up their pursuit, the Roman and Numidian cavalry had returned to the battlefield. They struck the Carthaginian rear, which proved to be the decisive stroke. Outnumbered, outplanned, outfought, and now surrounded, the Carthaginian lines began to disintegrate, and the Romans moved forward in a slow slaughter – like a miniature Cannae of their own. For the loss of about 1,500 men killed, the Romans killed 20,000 Carthaginians and captured another 15,000. Hannibal fled with a few retainers back to Carthage.

Scipio decided against laying siege to the enormous walls of Carthage, and instead brokered a peace deal. It was harsh. Carthage would turn over almost all its warships and all its elephants, pay a massive indemnity, and subordinate all its diplomatic decisions to Rome. This was fairly lenient, since Scipio could have just gone ahead and conquered the place – but it was not to be. When some Carthaginian politician tried to argue against the peace deal, urging his countrymen to fight on, Hannibal himself ascended the rostrum and wrestled the speaker down from the dais. He proclaimed that Carthage had to accept – or there would be hell to pay. So they did. The Second Punic War was over.

The Roman victory at Zama, once and for all, propelled this Italian city to the status of international superpower. Already enlarged by its domination over Italy, the addition of Spain and Sicily along with total domination of North Africa meant that the whole western Mediterranean was under direct or indirect Roman control. Although it would not be the Roman “Empire” until the rise of Augustus in 31 BC, at this point Rome truly became an imperial power. Hannibal’s challenge to Roman rule was the last mortal threat that Rome would face until the Goths came knocking in the 400s AD. From here on out, it was a Roman world in the ancient Mediterranean.

As for Hannibal and Scipio? Well, Hannibal’s predictions came to pass. Though Scipio earned himself the name “Africanus” as a marker of his victories, and enjoyed enormous military prestige and acclamation, he was eventually brought down by charges of corruption and embezzlement – levelled by that great paragon of strict morality, Cato the Elder. Just as Hannibal had warned him, fortunes can change in an instant. Scipio died on his estate, out of power and forgotten, in 183 BC.

Hannibal ascended to lead Carthage in its era of peace, presiding over a magnificent recovery, but Rome’s eternal hatred and constant threats caused him to flee in 196 BC. He travelled from court to court across the Mediterranean, trying to provoke leaders into wars against Rome, fulfilling the promise to his father that he would be an eternal enemy of the Roman people. Finally, cornered in modern Turkey, he committed suicide rather than fall into Roman hands – an old man, hunted to his death, out of the fear Rome still had for him. He died in 183 BC, only months away from the Roman nemesis who had brought him down.

So died two of the greatest rivals in military history: alone, abandoned by their peoples, disgraced and all but forgotten. Two trains on the same track.

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