The Battle of Zama: Rome’s Vengeance

Cornelis Cort | 1567 | The Romans repel the Carthaginian elephants at the Battle of Zama | The Hunterian Museum | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It is the year 202 BCE, and the great Hannibal Barca is witnessing his vision of Rome’s destruction crumble before his very eyes, at the Battle of Zama. Many things must have gone through his head as he watched, but what must have been at the forefront of his thoughts were questions like “How were the Romans able to force me back to Carthaginian territory?” and “How were my war elephants so easily repelled,” and “How was my cavalry routed so quickly,” and “How can Carthage’s greatest son be defeated?” The answer to Hannibal’s final question would come when the cavalry of the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio crashed into the back of the Carthaginian infantry.

The Second Punic War had been raging for some seventeen years before the events of Zama. The war started off in Hannibal’s favor with his daring crossing of the Alps, and his subsequent battles on the Roman peninsula. Conflicts such as the Battle of Ticinus, the Battle of the Trebia, and the Battle of Lake Trasimene would all distinguish Hannibal as a genius military commander and serious threat to Roman power.1 While all of the previously stated battles were costly for Rome, no other Roman defeat would ever be as devastating or as costly as the one suffered at the Battle of Cannae. At Cannae, Hannibal utterly annihilated the Roman army by baiting it into being enveloped and surrounded by his own soldiers. The historian Livy claims that around 45,500 infantry and 2700 cavalry were killed at the battle with about 3000 men and 1500 cavalry taken prisoner.2 A defeat of this magnitude had never been suffered by the Romans before, and with this loss, Rome was put on the back foot and had to scramble to attempt to reassert its dominance.

After this string of great victories, Hannibal moved to southern Italy in order to rally support amongst unhappy Roman subjects and to open up a route to Carthage in order to gain supplies to continue his invasion. Hannibal’s activity in southern Italy slowed down his initial lightning campaign through Roman territory. Hannibal found that the Romans began to avoid him and his army and instead attacked the settlements that had either been conquered or swayed by Carthage.3 This strategy of perpetual avoidance kept Hannibal trapped in southern Italy for many years with little to show for it except for the capture of Tarentum, which was gained through espionage. This lack of traction severely effected Hannibal’s ability to campaign effectively, and this fact is most apparent when Hannibal was unable to lay siege to Rome itself due to lack of siege equipment and supplies.4

While Hannibal’s campaign in southern Italy ground to a halt, the war maintained its intensity everywhere else. The fires of war engulfed the Iberian Peninsula where the Scipio brothers, Publius and Gnaeus, did battle with Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal. These three men and there armies battled and raided all throughout the peninsula, inflicting grievous casualties on each other. The Scipio brothers had been successful at preventing Hasdrubal from aiding his brother in Italy; however, the brothers’ successes ended in the year of 212 at the Baetis River. The brothers, confident from their previous victories, split their army between the two of them and pursued the Carthaginians into their own territory. The first of the brothers to engage in battle was Publius, who encountered Hannibal’s brother Mago. The numerically superior Romans were held in place by the Carthaginian infantry long enough for relief armies to arrive and overwhelm the Romans. Publius would not escape the battle alive and neither would most of his army. Gnaeus heard of a large Carthaginian army moving in his direction, and in response he made a full retreat back to Roman territory. Gnaeus was unable to escape, so instead, he quickly built defenses in order to ward off the Carthaginian attacks. However, he was overwhelmed and crushed underneath the force of three Carthaginian armies. These twin battles marked the deaths of two great Roman generals. However, the deaths of these men would draw the ire of a Roman who could rival Hannibal’s military genius. Publius’ son of the same name now entered the fray of the Second Punic War.5

Publius Cornelius Scipio’s grudge against the Carthaginians is one that was only matched in its intensity with that of Hannibal’s grudge against the Romans. The Carthaginians, and more importantly Hannibal, had given Scipio many reasons to hate them. First was the matter of his father, who was wounded and shamed after his defeat to Hannibal at the Battle of Ticinus. Polybius even states that during the Battle of Ticinus, Scipio saved his father from certain death by putting himself in harm’s way.6 Scipio then had to suffer the tragedy of losing both his uncle and his father. If Scipio was willing to put himself in mortal danger to save his father, then he must have loved him very much; therefore, his father’s death would have enraged and devastated him. It is also very likely that, because of his age, Scipio was present at the Battle of Cannae.7 Therefore, Scipio would have witnessed firsthand the devastation and ruin that Hannibal and the Carthaginians had brought to Rome and her people. Scipio’s hatred, similarly to Hannibal’s, was instilled in him as a reaction to what his enemies did to his father and his nation. Scipio even had a moment where he swore an oath to the gods similar to the oath that Hannibal made when he was just a boy.8 Scipio, after swearing his oaths and making his purpose clear to the senate, was given an army and was sent forth to combat the Carthaginians in Iberia.

A bronze bust of Scipio Africanus | Dated around the 1st Century BC | Photo by Ilya Shurygin | 2012 | National Archeological Museum of Naples | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Thus began Scipio’s counter campaign against the Carthaginians in the year 209 BCE. He began his campaign by capturing the city of Cartegena, which acted as a headquarters and supply base for the Carthaginians on the peninsula. After this victory, Scipio encountered and defeated Hasdrubal at the Battle of Baecula. This caused Hasdrubal to flee the peninsula, which allowed for Roman conquest of the entirety of Iberia.9 Hasdrubal later perished in battle after his flight from Iberia. The Iberian Peninsula was fully abandoned by the Carthaginians after Mago’s defeat at the hand of Scipio at the Battle of Ilipa, where Scipio prevailed despite a massive numerical disadvantage. After this, Scipio left Iberia to celebrate a triumph in Rome, arriving in 205 BCE. After the celebrations were finished and Iberia was no longer at risk, Scipio set his sights on the conquest of Carthage itself.

After receiving permission from the senate, Scipio finally went ahead with his invasion of Africa and his campaign to Carthage. He started off his campaign by besieging the city of Utica. Two Carthaginian generals attempted to break the siege but were instead crushed by Scipio at the Battle of Campi Magni. At this point Scipio had proven himself to be a massive threat to the very existence of Carthage. The leaders of Carthage were terrified of Scipio and the havoc he could wreak on their people. The desperate Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from his long campaign in southern Italy in order to defend their homeland.10 Once Hannibal arrived in Africa, he hastily built up an army of mostly inexperienced infantry. He was able to acquire around eighty war elephants; however, his army was seriously lacking in cavalry. Even with the numerical advantage, Hannibal knew that he would have a difficult time defeating Scipio and his hardened veteran legions. Scipio also received reinforcements of Numidian cavalry, as well as Roman cavalry that he had fielded earlier in the campaign. The coming battle was beginning to fall into the favor of Scipio.11

When the two armies finally met, the generals first spoke with each other. Hannibal began the confrontation with a concession of Sicily and Sardinia; however, he acknowledged that those islands were nothing compared to the lives lost throughout the war. Scipio countered his offer with the demand that Carthage also come under the control of Rome, to which Hannibal refused. With that, any chance of peace or reconciliation between the two armies was gone and the Battle of Zama was soon to begin.12

On the day of the battle, Hannibal possessed the numerically superior army, which was around 40,000 men strong with about 4000 cavalry and 80 elephants.13 Scipio’s army consisted of about 30,000 and 6000 cavalry, which consisted of many veterans from battles against the Carthaginians.14 Hannibal’s battle line started with the elephants in the front, mercenaries/auxiliaries behind them, the local levies from Carthage, and at the very rear were the veteran soldiers in reserve. Lastly, Hannibal protected his flanks with his cavalry. Scipio, using the flexibility of his units, drew up his line with large spaces in between each unit allowing for gaps in his formation. The velites were stationed at the front of these gaps and the roman cavalry was posted on the right flank while the Numidian cavalry was positioned on the left flank. When the battlefield was finally set, Hannibal began his attack with an elephant charge.15 This elephant charge would have proved disastrous to Scipio, but he was able to maneuver his troops out of the way of the elephants, and he did this through the use of the manipular legion.

The initial deployment of the Roman and Carthaginian armies at Zama | 2009 | Mohammad Adil | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the early days of Rome’s history, the Romans used the military formation called the Phalanx, which was a tightly packed shield wall that incorporated the used of long spears. This system only did the Romans so much good, and they began to realize that they needed a formation that was more mobile and less rigid. The Romans adopted a system that utilized the military united, titled “the maniple.” This saw larger military units broken up into smaller groups of soldiers that could function independently if need be. The backbone of this system was in the centurions who acted as field commanders for their legions. This new system allowed for small adjustments to be made on a unit scale without the scrutiny of the general or highest ranking officer. A centurion could take control of and maneuver his unit in the best way he saw fit.16 The Roman invention of the pilum also significantly helped Scipio repel the initial charge of elephants. A pilum is a heavy spear that every standard infantryman had. This abundance of spears would have made it easy for the Roman soldiers to disrupt the charge by wounding, killing, or startling the elephants.17

This system of unit management was invaluable during the elephant charge. Scipio was able to organize his units in straight lines to create gaps for these elephants. Each maniple could move and adjust itself as was needed to avoid the oncoming elephants. The ensuing spears, shouts, and trumpets made certain that the elephants either charged back into the Carthaginians or were otherwise rendered ineffective. The Roman and Numidian cavalry then charged the Carthaginian cavalry causing them to flee the battlefield.18

Scipio maneuvers his men around the Carthaginian elephant charge | 2009 | Mohammad Adil | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The poor quality of Hannibal’s infantry began to rear its ugly head at this point in the battle. The first two line broke with no real trouble to the Romans. The first two lines began to collapse and fall back into the third line of veterans who refused to move backwards. Hannibal was able to prevent a total rout, but he had to coalesce all of his units into a single disorganized battle line. In response, Scipio spread out his unit to match the width of the Carthaginians. The battle devolved into a grind with both armies fighting head on in hopes of one retreating. Polybius described the battlefield as “slippery with gore, the corpses lying piled up in bloody heaps, and with the corpses arms flung about in every direction.”19 This grind must have continued for some time with neither side prevailing in any significant way. That was until the Numidian and Roman cavalry returned from their pursuit and crashed into the back of the Carthaginian infantry. After that point, the Carthaginian line was shattered and the battle became a slaughter. According to Polybius, by the end of the battle over 20,000 of Carthage’s men died and “the prisoners taken were almost as numerous,” while the Romans only lost 1500 men.20 This was the greatest military defeat that Hannibal Barca had ever suffered, and it was one that Carthage could not recover from.

Hannibal managed to escape the slaughter and capture, but he did not intend to stay in Carthage after this great defeat. Hannibal advised Carthage’s leaders to accept whatever terms the Romans offered, and with that came the end of the Second Punic War. The Romans put heavy reparation on the Carthaginians. Carthage lost most of its autonomy outside of Africa and had to pay four times as much to Rome as they did at the end of the First Punic War.21 The Carthaginian spirit was broken and Rome was now the sole power in the Mediterranean. Hannibal’s dream of vengeance against Rome was shattered and he lived out his life in exile from his home. The Battle of Zama and the feats of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus paved they way for Roman domination of the Mediterranean for years to come.

  1. Patrick Hunt, Hannibal (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2017), 78-81, 94-96, 115-118.
  2. Titus Livius, History of Rome: Book 22, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905), bk. 22, 49.
  3. Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, 2014, s.v. “Hannibal Invades Italy,” 33.
  4. Titus Livius, History of Rome: Book 26, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905), bk. 26, 9.
  5. Patrick Hunt, Hannibal (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2017), 180-182.
  6. Polybius, The Histories, trans. Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh (London: Macmillan and Co. and New York, 1889), bk. 10, 3-4.
  7. Patrick Hunt, Hannibal (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2017), 184.
  8. Titus Livius, History of Rome: Book 22, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905), bk. 22, 53.
  9. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Scipio Africanus the Elder.”
  10. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Scipio Africanus the Elder.”
  11. Patrick Hunt, Hannibal (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2017), 228-231.
  12. Titus Livius, History of Rome: Book 30, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905), bk. 30, 30-31.
  13. Patrick Hunt, Hannibal (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2017), 235.
  14. Taylor Michael, “Reconstructing the Battle of Zama,” The Classical Journal 3 (2019): 316.
  15. Titus Livius, History of Rome: Book 22, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905), bk, 30, 33.
  16. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2019, s.v. “Warfare of the Roman Republic,” by Denvy A. Bowman.
  17. Jordan F. Slavik, “Pilum and the Telum: The Roman Infantryman’s Style of Combat in the Middle Republic,” Classical Journal 2 (2017): 151-152.
  18. Polybius, The Histories, trans. Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh (London: Macmillan and Co. and New York, 1889), bk. 15, 12.
  19. Polybius, The Histories, trans. Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh (London: Macmillan and Co. and New York, 1889), bk. 15, 14.
  20. Polybius, The Histories, trans. Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh (London: Macmillan and Co. and New York, 1889), bk. 15, 14.
  21. Patrick Hunt, Hannibal (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2017), 242-244.

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10 Responses

  1. Hannibal truly didn’t stand a chance in that battle whether he knew that before hand is up to debate. Maybe if most of his army wasn’t inexperienced then the battle probably could have turned out differently but I highly doubt it sue to the fact the Romans made his war elephants useless. Great Article nonetheless.

  2. This article was really well done, and very detailed. Despite all the detail, this article never felt like it was dragging, and overall it was well written. I know very little about ancient history, so reading these articles by Davis is usually very eye-opening and insightful to conflicts and events that occurred centuries in the past. The details on the conflict were very visual and made understanding the conflict a lot easier.

  3. I usually don’t enjoy historic articles that go into the details of battles plans because I have a hard time wrapping my head around them, but you did a great job helping the reader understand what was going on. It was easy to imagine the positions and hatred that both sides held toward each other as well. When you mentioned that the conclusion of this war made Rome the dominant power in the Mediterranean, that marked a great period of change for many nations. History as we know it would have been very different if Rome had not been the winner of this war.

  4. An amazing article! Being a fiend for Roman history, reading about this was cool to hear as I had never heard the story in-depth too much before, it was easy to understand the behind all the characters in the story, crazy to think about the power-hungry Hannibal and that these were events that happened in Rome’s history.

  5. This is a very detailed article that really offers an opportunity for the reader to imagine the position of Hannibal Barca. Typically, I am not drawn to Roman history, however, this article outlines a significant part of military history between the Romans and Carthaginians. From the article, I learned that despite the outcome contradicting Hannibal’s idealized victory, this battle represented intense military action in response to deep rooted political hatred and emphasized the pride and attitudes of both militaries.

  6. I came here from the Battle of Cannae article fully engaged and ready to find out what happened next! I throughly enjoyed reading this article and learned so much. To me it’s kind of ironic that Hannibal fell to someone of his own military strategy and genius, who also had a mission of revenge. And while it’s sad a trope it shows how powerful any moment in history could be like what would have happened if the elephants had done more damage? How would the outcome of the war been affected? Great article!

  7. This is honestly a really great article! It was interesting and I learned a lot about one of history’s greatest generals. Before this, I really didn’t know anything about Rome’s history, but this article did help me learn quite a lot. It’s crazy that Hannibal Barca basically watched Rome’s destruction before his eyes. Because of the article was well detailed, I was able to learn about how the general got to living in exile from his home.

  8. A very well written article for sure! It was very cool and informative to learn about a side of Roman history I had no knowledge about previously. Very well detailed and really gave me a mental picture of what it was like. It helped me realize war back then is very different from right now. Great article!

  9. Such an informative and interesting article! Very captivating. Honestly I am unfamiliar with this side of Rome’s history and wish I knew more. I knew that Rome had a warring time yet I had know idea about Scorpio and his war tactics against Hannibal . This article gave such great information about the combat side of war. As well as the transition of a country during tragic thing that happened. Because of this article it gave great insight into Rome’s history. I loved reading your article. Great job!

  10. Honestly a pretty solid article about the defeat of one of history’s greatest generals. It was interesting to learn Scipio’s motivations for defeating Carthage and the many victories he racked up during his conquest of Iberia. The defeat of Hannibal’s famed war elephants is something that the Romans likely thought was a long time coming. The incredibly flexible tactics of the Romans is something I always enjoy reading about and something that I greatly admire about them. The fate of Hannibal is truly sad, one of the most cunning generals to ever live ending their career leading a naval fleet at the Battle of Side.

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