The Battle of Zama. Source: Art Institute of Chicago / Public domain

When Hannibal Met His Nemesis: The Battle of Zama


The Battle of Zama was a decisive battle of the Second Punic War (also known as the Hannibalic War, or the War Against Hannibal), which was fought between Rome and Carthage. The battle was won by the Romans, and brought an end to the war, which had been going on for 16 years.

Apart from that, the defeat of the Carthaginians at the Battle of Zama meant that Carthage lost its status as a major power in the western Mediterranean, and therefore was no longer considered to be a threat to Rome. Although Carthage was allowed to continue its existence, the Romans would return to conquer its remaining territories during the Third Punic War, which they declared about half a century after the Battle of Zama.

The Battle That Took Place in Zama?

The Battle of Zama took place in 202 BC, and it was fought between the Carthaginians under Hannibal and the Romans under Scipio Africanus in present day Tunisia. In spite of its name, the battle itself did not take place at Zama. Incidentally, the exact location of Zama has yet to be identified by modern scholars.

According to the Greek historian Polybius, Hannibal had encamped at Zama, “a town lying five days’ journey to the west of Carthage.” Before the battle, however, Hannibal and Scipio agreed to meet each other, and moved their camps to a town called Naragarra (identified as the modern town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef). Therefore, it was near this place that the battle took place.

Ruins of ancient Carthage in modern day Tunisia. (Valery Bareta / Adobe stock)

Ruins of ancient Carthage in modern day Tunisia. ( Valery Bareta / Adobe stock)

Another historian who wrote about the battle, Livy, agrees with Polybius on the location of the battle. It is thanks to the Roman biographer, Corneilus Nepos, that the final battle of the Second Punic War is remembered as the Battle of Zama, and not the Battle of Naragarra. In his biography of Hannibal, Nepos wrote that the Carthaginians fought the Romans near Zama.

The First Punic War and the Treaty That Followed

As mentioned already, the Battle of Zama was the last battle of the Second Punic War. This war started in 218 BC, and was fought between the Roman Republic and Carthage, the two dominant powers in the western Mediterranean. The two sides had already clashed during the First Punic War, which lasted from 264 to 241 BC. This war was caused by the conflict between Rome and Carthage on the island of Sicily.

By the end of the First Punic War, Rome, which had little or no experience in naval warfare prior to the conflict, was in command of a formidable navy that made them a major maritime power in the Mediterranean. In addition, the Carthaginians were defeated, and were forced to negotiate a peace treaty. According to Polybius, the contents of the treaty, known as the Treaty of Lutatius, are more or less as follows:

“There shall be friendship between the Carthaginians and Romans on the following terms if approved by the Roman people. The Carthaginians to evacuate the whole of Sicily and not to make war on Hiero or bear arms against the Syracusans or the allies of the Syracusans. The Carthaginians to give up to the Romans, all prisoners without ransom. The Carthaginians to pay to the Romans by instalments in twenty years two thousand two hundred Euboean talents.”

The Roman people did not accept the treaty, but no substantial changes were made even after the matter was examined by 10 commissioners. Some slight modifications were made – the term of payment was halved, 1000 talents added to the indemnity, and a demand was made for the evacuation by Carthage of all the islands between Sicily and Italy. Needless to say, these terms made the treaty less favourable to the Carthaginians, but they had no choice but to accept them.

The Years After: Carthage’s Loss of Territory and Gain of More

Not long after the end of the First Punic War, the Carthaginians had to deal with a revolt by their mercenaries, who were joined by the Numidians and Libyans. Polybius referred to the revolt as the Libyan War, and notes that it was also known vulgarly as the Truceless War, since “it far excelled all wars we know of in cruelty and defiance of principle.”

According to Polybius, the war lasted for three years and four months, and that the Carthaginians “were in danger of losing not only their territory, but their own liberty and the soil of their native town.” Towards the end of the revolt, the Romans, “on the invitation of the mercenaries who had deserted to them from Sardinia”, prepared an expedition to the island.

The Carthaginians saw this as a breach of the peace treaty, and they made preparations to punish those who caused the revolt on the island. The Romans, however, “made this the pretext of declaring war on them, alleging that the preparations were not against Sardinia, but against themselves.” Realising that they were in no shape to start another war with Rome, the Carthaginians gave up Sardinia, and agreed to pay another 1200 talents to Rome, thereby avoiding war for the time being.

Although Carthage had lost the islands of Sardinia and Corsica to Rome in 238 BC, they expanded into the Iberian Peninsula in the following year. The Carthaginians had already established colonies along the eastern and southern coasts of the peninsula, and initially limited their interests to trade and commerce. After losing Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica to the Romans, however, the Carthaginians decided to compensate these loses by expanding into the Iberian Peninsula.

This task was given to Hamilcar Barca, who had been given command of the Carthaginian forces in Sicily during the final years of the First Punic War. Hamilcar distinguished himself as a military leader, and was regarded to be the best general and statesman produced by Carthage prior to the rise of Hannibal, who was his son. Having landed at Gadir (Cádiz), the Carthaginians immediately commenced their campaign against the Iberian tribes, and subjugated them either by force of arms or through diplomacy.

Hamilcar Barca (Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe stock)

Hamilcar Barca ( Erica Guilane-Nachez  / Adobe stock)

The Rise of Hannibal and Invasion of Italy

Hamilcar died in 229/8 BC, and was succeeded by Hasdrubal. When the latter was murdered in 221 BC, he was succeeded by Hannibal. In 219 BC, Hannibal besieged and captured Saguntum, which belonged to an ally of Rome. As the Romans were occupied with the Second Illyrian War, they were unable to send aid. Rome, however, sent an embassy to Carthage.

Unlike 238 BC, the Carthaginians were in a better shape for war, thanks in part to the Iberian silver mines in their possession. Therefore, the Carthaginians, who were on the side of Hannibal, rejected the demands of the Romans. As a consequence, war between the two powers became inevitable, and the Second Punic War broke out in 219 BC.

Hannibal Barca (Sébastien Slodtz /  CC BY-SA 2.0  ), and the Battle of Zama, 202 BC ( Public Domain  );Deriv.

During the winter of 219/8 BC, Hannibal was in Cartagena making preparations for bringing the war to Italy. When spring arrived, Hannibal crossed the River Ebro, and marched into the Pyrenees. The Romans declared war on Carthage shortly before hearing the news of Hannibal’s arrival in the Pyrenees. Having crossed the Pyrenees, the Carthaginians marched through southern Gaul (France).

In the meantime, the Romans sent an army to Marsillia (Marseille), with the intention of cutting off the Carthaginians’ access to the coastal route to Italy, and to invade Spain. Hannibal, however, evaded the Romans, crossed the Rhone River, and marched northwards along the river’s left bank. Whilst one part of the Roman army went on to Spain, another returned to Italy, as the Romans realised that Hannibal would cross the Alps and invade northern Italy.

Hannibal's famous crossing of the Alps with war elephants. (Heinrich Leutemann / Public domain)

Hannibal's famous crossing of the Alps with war elephants. (Heinrich Leutemann / Public domain )

Having crossed the Alps, the Carthaginians defeated the Romans in a series of battles, and rampaged across the peninsula. Although Hannibal had the opportunity to capture Rome itself, he chose not to do so. For instance, after annihilating the Roman army at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC, Hannibal did not march on Rome, either because his troops were too worn out, or because he felt that the city was too well-fortified. Moreover, he was hoping, vainly, that the allies of Rome would defect, thus causing a civil war.

As the war went on, Hannibal realised that merely defeating the armies sent by Rome was not enough, and that it would be necessary to receive reinforcements from North Africa and Spain if he wanted to conquer Italy. Therefore, Hannibal changed his strategy, and moved his army from central Italy to the south, where several ports, including Tarentum, were captured. Additionally, Hannibal made alliances with the Macedonians and Syracuse.

Hannibal’s situation in Italy became increasingly precarious as the war dragged on. In time, the Romans were able to recapture their southern cities, whilst Syracuse fell to the Romans, and Macedon engaged in a war with the Aetolian League, allies of Rome. In the meantime, the Romans were campaigning in Iberia, and eventually wrestled control of the territory from the Carthaginians in 206 BC.

The campaign there had been going on since the start of the war, and only came to an end when the Romans launched a surprise attack, and captured Carthago Nova (Cartagena), the Carthaginians’ capital in Iberia. The victorious general, Publius Cornelius Scipio (known later as Scipio Africanus), was then sent to Sicily, and thence to North Africa. The Romans were soon at the gates of Carthage, and the desperate Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy in 203 BC to defend their city.

The Battle of Zama: Where Two Tacticians Clashed

In late October 202 BC, the Battle of Zama was fought between the Romans, commanded by Scipio, and the Carthaginians, commanded by Hannibal. The Carthaginians were at a disadvantage. Amongst other things, Hannibal had arrived too late to prevent Scipio from joining up with his Numidian ally, Masinissa, which allowed the Romans to choose the site of battle, and most of his troops were new recruits who lacked the experience of fighting the Romans.

Bronze Bust of Scipio Africanus, Naples National Archaeological Museum. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bronze Bust of Scipio Africanus, Naples National Archaeological Museum. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Prior to the battle, the two generals met each other in person. Both Polybius and Livy provide a vivid account of the meeting, with speeches placed in the mouths of both generals. It is likely that Hannibal, aware of the unfavourable conditions of the battle, tried to negotiate a treaty, so as to avoid the battle. Scipio, on the other hand, may have been curious to meet Hannibal. In any case, Scipio refused the terms proposed by Hannibal, and the Battle of Zama took place the following day.

The deployment of troops at the Battle of Zama can be found in both Polybius and Livy. For instance, Livy describes Scipio’s deployment of his troops as follows:

“The hastati in front, behind them the principes, the triarii closing the rear. He did not form the cohorts in line before their respective standards, but placed a considerable interval between the maniples in order that there might be space for the enemy elephants to be driven through without breaking the ranks. … Italian cavalry on the left wing, Masinissa and his Numidians being posted on the right. The velites, …, were stationed at the head of the lanes between the columns of maniples with instructions to retire when the elephants charged and shelter themselves behind the lines of maniples, or else run to the right and left behind the standards and so allow the monsters to rush on to meet the darts from both sides.”

Modern representation of a Carthaginian war elephant. (CC BY SA)

Modern representation of a Carthaginian war elephant. ( CC BY SA )

On the other hand, Livy describes Hannibal’s deployment of his troops as follows:

“To make his line look more menacing Hannibal posted his elephants in front. He had eighty altogether, a larger number, than he had ever brought into action before. Behind them were the auxiliaries, Ligurians and Gauls, with an admixture of Balearics and Moors. The second line was made up of Carthaginians and Africans together with a legion of Macedonians. A short distance behind these were posted his Italian troops in reserve. These were mainly Bruttians who had followed him from Italy more from the compulsion of necessity than of their own free will. Like Scipio, Hannibal covered his flanks with his cavalry, the Carthaginians on the right, the Numidians on the left.”

When the battle began, the Romans dealt with the elephants first. According to Livy, “the trumpets and horns of the Romans were sounded and such a clangor arose that the elephants, mostly those in front of the left wing, turned upon the Moors and Numidians behind them.” Whilst some of the elephants managed to charge the Romans, the arrangements made by Scipio served to counter the beasts.

In the meantime, the Roman cavalry defeated the Carthaginian’s on both sides, leaving Hannibal’s infantry exposed on both flanks. The Carthaginian infantry was also easily beaten, and the decisive moment came when the Roman cavalry, which had been pursuing the fleeing Carthaginian cavalry, returned, and attacked the enemy’s infantry in the rear. The Carthaginians were routed, and the Romans emerged victorious from the battle. According to Polybius, “more than fifteen hundred Romans fell, the Carthaginian loss amounted to twenty thousand killed and nearly the same number of prisoners.”

Rome, the Sole Superpower in the Mediterranean

The Battle of Zama is considered to be one of the most significant battles of the ancient world, due to the impact that it had on the subsequent history of the Mediterranean world. For a start, this battle brought a close to the Second Punic War. Although another war with Carthage would break out about half a century later, the terms of peace imposed by Rome ensured that the power of Carthage was broken for good.

Apart from losing much of its territories, Carthage had to publicly burn at least 100 ships, and was forced to pay an indemnity of 10000 Euboean talents over a period of 50 years. Thus, with the destruction of Carthage, Rome was now the sole superpower in the western Mediterranean.

Top image: The Battle of Zama. Source: Art Institute of Chicago / Public domain

By: Wu Mingren


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