Battle of Zama

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Hoofbeats echo in your head, getting louder, and louder still. 

The going had seemed so easy on the way out, and now it seems like every bush and root is clawing at you, trying to hold you down. 

Suddenly, pain lances through your back and shoulder blade as you’re struck. 

You hit the ground just as hard, a painful throbbing starting where the blunt end of Roman soldier’s spear just hit you. Looking up, you can see him and his companions, standing over you and your two friends, their spears leveled at your faces. 

They chatter among themselves — you cannot understand — and then several men dismount, pulling you roughly to your feet. They bind your hands in front of you.

The walk seems to last forever as you are pulled along behind the Roman horses, tripping and stumbling in the heavy darkness.

The first faint slivers of dawn are peeking over the trees as you’re finally pulled into the main camp of the Roman Army; revealing the curious faces of soldiers rising from their beds. Your captors dismount and push you roughly into a large tent. 

More unintelligible talk, and then a strong, clear voice says in accented Greek, “Cut them loose, Laelius, they can hardly do any damage — just the three of them in the middle of our entire army.”

You look up into the piercing, bright eyes of a young military commander. A man who can be none other than the famous Scipio himself. 

“Now gentlemen, what do you have to say for yourselves?” His expression is one of friendly welcome, but behind that easy demeanor it’s only too easy to see the confident hardness and shrewd intelligence that has made him into Carthage’s most dangerous enemy. 

Next to him stands a towering African, equally self-assured, who had obviously been conversing with Scipio before you arrived. He can be none other than King Masinissa.

The three of you look at one another briefly, and all remain silent. There is little use in speaking — captured spies are almost inevitably sentenced to death. It would probably be crucifixion, and you would be lucky if they didn’t torture you first. 

Scipio seems to be considering a thought deeply during the brief silence, and then he smiles, chuckling. “Well, you came to see what we have to send against Hannibal, no?” 

He gestures to his lieutenant again, continuing. “Laelius, put them under the care of the tribunes and take these three gentlemen for a tour of the camp. Show them whatever they want to see.” He looks past you, out of the tent. “We’d like him to know exactly what he will be up against.” 

Dazed and confused, you are led out. They take you for a leisurely stroll throughout the camp; all the while you’re wondering if this is just some cruel game to prolong your suffering. 

The day is spent in a stupor, your heart never ceasing its rapid thrumming in your chest. Yet, as promised, as the hot sun begins to set, you are given horses and dispatched back to the Carthaginian camp.

You ride back in complete disbelief and then come before Hannibal. Your words trip over themselves as you report all that you saw, as well as the inexplicable conduct of Scipio. Hannibal is noticeably shaken, particularly by the news of Masinissa’s arrival — 6000 tough African infantrymen, and 4000 of their unique and deadly Numidian cavalry. 

Still, he can’t stop his small smile of admiration. “He has courage and heart, that one. I do hope he will agree to meet and speak together before this battle begins.”  

What Was the Battle of Zama?

The Battle of Zama, which took place in October of 202 B.C., was the last battle of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, and it’s one of the most significant and well-known conflicts of ancient history. It was both the first and the final direct confrontation between the great generals Scipio Africanus of Rome and Hannibal of Carthage. 

Though outnumbered on the field, Scipio’s careful deployment and maneuvering of his men and allies — specifically his cavalry — successfully won the day for the Romans, resulting in a devastating defeat to the Carthaginians.

After a failed attempt to negotiate peace before the battle, both generals knew that the coming conflict would decide the war. Scipio had operated a successful campaign in Northern Africa, and now only Hannibal’s army stood between the Romans and the great capital city of Carthage. Yet, at the same time, a decisive Carthaginian victory would leave the Romans on the defensive in enemy territory. 

Neither side could afford to lose — but ultimately one of them would.

The Battle of Zama Begins

The armies met on the wide plains near the city of Zama Regia, southwest of Carthage in modern day Tunisia. The open spaces favored both armies, with their large cavalry and light infantry forces, and in particular Hannibal — whose Carthaginian forces were relying on his terrifying and deadly war elephants to quickly carry the day. 

Unfortunately for him, however — though he had chosen ground well-suited to his army — his camp was a fair distance from any water source, and his soldiers tired themselves out considerably as they were forced to haul water for themselves and their animals. The Romans, meanwhile, were encamped not a javelin’s throw away from the nearest source of water, and went to drink or water their horses at their leisure. 

On the morning of the battle, both generals arrayed their men and called on them to fight bravely for their countries. Hannibal placed his contingent of war elephants, over eighty of them total, in the front and center of his lines so as to protect his infantry. 

Behind them were his paid mercenaries; Ligurians from northern Italy, Celts from western Europe, Balearic Islanders from off the coast of Spain, and Moors from western North Africa.

Next were his soldiers of Africa — Carthaginians and Libyans. These were his strongest infantry unit and also the most resolute, as they were fighting for their country, their lives, and the lives of all their loved ones. 

On the Carthaginian left flank were Hannibal’s remaining Numidian allies, and on his right flank he positioned his own Carthaginian cavalry support. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Scipio had placed his cavalry, facing the Carthaginians’ mirror force, on the wings as well, with his own Numidian horsemen — under the command of his close friend and ally, Masinissa, king of the Massyli tribe — standing opposite Hannibal’s opposing Numidians. 

The Roman infantry consisted primarily of four different categories of soldiers, organized into smaller units to allow for quick changes to battle formation, even in the midst of the fighting — among those four types of infantry, the Hastati were the least experienced, the Principates slightly more, and the Triarii the most veteran and deadly of the soldiers. 

The Roman style of fighting sent their least experienced into battle first, and when both armies had grown tired, they would rotate the Hastati to the back of the line, sending a wave of fresh soldiers of even higher abilities crashing into the weakened enemy. When the Principates were played out, they would rotate again, sending their deadly Triarii — well rested and ready for the fight — to wreak havoc upon the now exhausted opposing soldiers. 

The fourth style of infantry, the Velites, were lightly armored skirmishers who moved quickly and carried javelins and slings. A number of them would be attached to each unit of heavier infantry, using their ranged weapons to disrupt the enemy charge as much as possible before they reached the main body of the army.

Scipio now used this Roman battle style to his full advantage, further adapting the smaller unit sizes to neutralize the expected elephant attack and enemy cavalry — rather than creating a tight line with his heavier infantry soldiers as he usually would, he lined them up with gaps between the units and filled those spaces with the lightly armored Velites

With the men so arranged, the scene for the Battle of Zama was set.

Battle is Met

The two armies began to move closer together; the Numidian cavalry on the edge of the line had already begun to skirmish with one another, and finally Hannibal gave the order for his elephants to charge. 

The Carthaginians and Romans both sounded their trumpets, shouting out deafening war-cries enthusiastically. Planned or no — the clamour worked in the Romans’ favor, as many of the elephants spooked at the noise and broke away, running to the left and away from the battle while crashing through their Numidian allies. 

Masinissa quickly took advantage of the ensuing chaos, and led his men in an organized charge that sent their opponents on the Carthaginian left wing fleeing the battlefield. He and his men followed in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile, the remaining elephants slammed into the Roman lines. But, due to Scipio’s ingenuity, their impact was greatly reduced — as they had been ordered, the Roman Velites held their position as long as possible, then melted away from the gaps they had been filling. 

The men further back ran to the rear behind the other infantrymen, while those in the front split and pressed themselves against their comrades on either side, effectively reopening the gaps for the elephants to pass through while hurling their spears at the animals from the sides. 

Though the elephants’ charge was still far from harmless, the beasts took as much damage as they inflicted, and soon began to waver. Some ran straight through the gaps and kept running, while others rampaged off the battlefield to their right — there, the Roman cavalry of Scipio’s left wing met them with spears, pushing them back against their own Carthaginian cavalry as before. 

In a repeat of the tactics used at the opening of the battle by Masinissa, Laelius — Scipio’s second in command in charge of the Roman cavalry — spared no time in using the chaos amongst the Carthaginian army to his advantage, and his men quickly drove them back, pursuing them away from the field. 

The Infantry Engage

With the elephants and cavalry gone from the battle, the two lines of infantry swept together, the Roman Hastati meeting the mercenary forces of the Carthaginian army. 

As both flanks of their cavalry had been defeated, the Carthaginian soldiers entered the fray with their confidence already dealt a rough blow. And to add to their shaken morale, the Romans — united in language and culture — screamed out cacophonous battle-cries which the divided nationalities of the mercenaries just couldn’t match. 

They fought hard nonetheless, and killed and wounded many of the Hastati. But the mercenaries were far lighter soldiers than the Roman infantrymen, and, slowly, the full force of the Roman onslaught pushed them back. And, to make this worse — rather than pressing on to support the front line — the second line of Carthaginian infantry fell back, leaving them without aid. 

Seeing this, the mercenaries broke and fled — some ran back and joined the second line, but in many places the native Carthaginians didn’t allow them to enter, fearing that the wounded and panic-stricken mercenaries from the first line would dishearten their own fresh soldiers.

They therefore blocked them, and this led the retreating men to begin attacking their own allies in a desperate attempt to get through — leaving the Carthaginians fighting both the Romans and their own mercenaries. 

Luckily for them, the Roman attack had been significantly slowed. The Hastati attempted to advance across the battlefield, but it was so littered with bodies from men of the first line that they had to clamber over gruesome heaps of corpses, slipping and falling on the slick blood covering every surface. 

Their ranks began to break as they struggled across, and Scipio, seeing the standards falling apart and the arising confusion, sounded the signal to have them fall back slightly. 

The careful discipline of the Roman army now came into play — medics quickly and efficiently helped the wounded back behind the lines even as the ranks reformed and prepared for the next advance, with Scipio ordering the Principates and Triarii to the wings.

The Final Clash

Thus reformed, the Roman army began a careful, ordered advance across the carnage strewn field, and finally reached their most dangerous enemy — the Carthaginian and African soldiers of the second line. 

With the small pause in fighting, both lines had rearranged themselves, and it was almost as if the battle had begun fresh. Unlike the first line of mercenaries, the line of Carthaginian soldiers matched the Romans now in experience, skill, and reputation, and the fighting was more vicious than had yet been seen that day. 

The Romans were fighting with the exhilaration of having driven back the first line and taken both cavalry flanks out of the battle, but the Carthaginians were fighting with desperation, and the soldiers of both armies butchered one another in grim determination. 

This gruesome, close-fought slaughter might have continued for some time yet, had not the Roman and Numidian cavalry made a fortuitous return. 

Both Masinissa and Laelius had recalled their men from their pursuits almost at the same moment, and the two cavalry wings returned at a full charge from beyond the enemy lines — smashing into the Carthaginian rear on both flanks. 

It was the final straw for the disheartened Carthaginians. Their lines utterly fell apart and they ran from the battlefield. 

On the deserted plain, 20,000 of Hannibal’s men and approximately 4,000 of Scipio’s men lay dead. The Romans captured another 20,000 Carthaginian soldiers and eleven of the elephants, but Hannibal escaped the field — pursued until dark by Masinissa and the Numidians — and made his way back to Carthage. 

Why Did the Battle of Zama Happen?

The Battle of Zama was the culmination of decades of hostility between Rome and Carthage, and the final battle of the Second Punic War — a conflict which had almost seen the end of Rome. 

Yet, the Battle of Zama almost didn’t happen — had attempted peace negotiations between Scipio and the Carthaginian Senate remained solid, the war would have ended without this ultimate, decisive engagement.

Into Africa

After suffering humiliating defeats in Spain and Italy at the hands of Carthaginian general Hannibal — one of the best field generals of not only ancient history but all-time — Rome was almost finished. 

However, the brilliant young Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio, took over operations in Spain and there dealt heavy blows against Carthaginian forces occupying the peninsula.

After retaking Spain, Scipio convinced the Roman Senate to allow him to take the war straight to North Africa. It was permission that they were hesitant to give, but in the end proved to be their salvation — he swept through the territory with the assistance of Masinissa and was soon threatening the capital of Carthage itself. 

In a panic, the Carthaginian Senate negotiated peace terms with Scipio, which were highly generous considering the threat they were under. 

By the terms of the treaty, Carthage would lose their overseas territory but keep all their lands in Africa, and would not interfere with Masinissa’s expansion of his own kingdom to the west. They would also reduce their Mediterranean fleet and pay a war indemnity to Rome as they had following the First Punic War. 

But it wasn’t quite that simple.

A Broken Treaty

Even while negotiating the treaty, Carthage had been busy sending messengers to recall Hannibal home from his campaigns in Italy. Feeling secure in the knowledge of his impending arrival, Carthage broke the armistice by capturing a Roman fleet of supply ships that was driven into the Gulf of Tunis by storms. 

In response, Scipio sent ambassadors to Carthage to demand an explanation, but they were turned away without any sort of answer. Even worse, the Carthaginians set a trap for them, and laid an ambush for their ship on its return journey. 

Within sight of the Roman camp on shore, the Carthaginians attacked. They were unable to ram or board the Roman ship — as it was much quicker and more maneuverable — but they surrounded the vessel and rained arrows down upon it, killing many of the sailors and soldiers aboard. 

Seeing their comrades under fire, Roman soldiers rushed to the beach while the surviving sailors escaped the encircling enemy and ran their ship aground near their friends. Most lay dead and dying on the deck, but the Romans managed to pull the few survivors — including their ambassadors — from the wreckage. 

Infuriated by this betrayal, the Romans returned to the warpath, even as Hannibal reached his home shores and set out to meet them.

Why Zama Regia?

The decision to fight on the plains of Zama was largely one of expediency — Scipio had been camped with his army just outside the city of Carthage before and during the short lived treaty attempt. 

Enraged by the treatment of the Roman ambassadors, he led his army out to conquer several nearby cities, moving slowly south and west. He also sent messengers to ask Masinissa to return, as the Numidian king had gone back to his own lands after the success of the early treaty negotiations. But Scipio was hesitant to go to war without his old friend and the skilled warriors that he commanded. 

Meanwhile, Hannibal landed at Hadrumetum — an important port city south along the coast from Carthage — and began to move inland to the west and north, re-taking smaller cities and villages along the way and recruiting allies and additional soldiers to his army. 

He made his camp near the town of Zama Regia — a five day march west of Carthage — and sent out three spies to ascertain the location and strength of the Roman forces. Hannibal was quickly made to learn that they were camped nearby, with the plains of Zama being the natural meeting place for the two armies; both of which sought battle ground that would be conducive to their strong cavalry forces.

Short Negotiations

Scipio displayed his forces to the Carthaginian spies that had been captured — desiring to make his opponent aware of the enemy he would soon fight — before sending them safely back, and Hannibal followed through on his resolve to meet his opponent face to face. 

He asked for negotiations and Scipio agreed, both men having the utmost respect for one another. 

Hannibal pleaded to spare the bloodshed that was coming, but Scipio could no longer trust a diplomatic agreement, and felt that a military success was the only sure way to a lasting Roman victory.

He sent Hannibal away empty handed, saying, “If before the Romans had crossed to Africa you had retired from Italy and then proposed these conditions, I think your expectations would not have been disappointed.

But now that you have been forced reluctantly to leave Italy, and that we, having crossed into Africa, are in command of the open country, the situation is manifestly much changed.

Furthermore, the Carthaginians, after their request for peace had been granted, most treacherously violated it. Either put yourselves and your country at our mercy or fight and conquer us.”

How Did the Battle of Zama Impact History?

As the final battle of the Second Punic War, the Battle of Zama had a major impact on the course of human events. Following their defeat, the Carthaginians had no choice but to submit themselves utterly to Rome. 

Scipio proceeded from the battlefield to his ships at Utica, and planned to immediately press onto a siege of Carthage itself. But before he could do so, he was met by a Carthaginian ship, hung with strips of white wool and numerous olive branches.

The vessel held the ten highest ranking members of the Senate of Carthage, who had all come on Hannibal’s advice to sue for peace. Scipio met with the delegation at Tunis, and though the Romans strongly considered rejecting all negotiations — instead crushing Carthage completely and razing the city to the ground — they eventually agreed to discuss peace terms after considering the length of time and cost (both monetarily and regarding manpower) of assaulting a city as strong as Carthage. 

Scipio therefore granted the peace, and allowed Carthage to remain an independent state. However, they lost all of their territory outside of Africa, most specifically major territory in Hispania, which provided the resources that were the primary sources of Carthaginian wealth and power. 

Rome also demanded massive war indemnities, even more than had been imposed after the First Punic War, that were to be paid over the coming fifty years — a sum that effectively crippled Carthage’s economy for decades to come.

And Rome further broke the Carthaginian military by limiting the size of their navy to only ten ships for defense against pirates and by forbidding them from raising an army or engaging in any warfare without Roman permission.

Africanus

The Roman Senate granted Scipio a triumph and numerous honors, including bestowing the honorific title of “Africanus” to the end of his name for his victories in Africa, the most notable being his defeat of Hannibal at Zama. He remains best known to the modern world by his honorific title — Scipio Africanus. 

Sadly, despite effectively saving Rome, Scipio still had political opponents. In his later years, they constantly maneuvered to discredit and shame him, and though he still had the popular support of the people, he became so frustrated with politics that he retired from public life completely. 

He eventually died at his country estate in Liternum, and bitterly insisted that he not be buried in the city of Rome. His tombstone is even said to have read “Ungrateful fatherland, you will not even have my bones.” 

Scipio’s adopted grandson, Scipio Aemilianus, followed in his famous relative’s footsteps, commanding the Roman forces in the Third Punic War and also becoming close friends with the impressively vivacious and long-lived Masinissa.

The Final Fall of Carthage

As an ally of Rome and personal friend of Scipio Africanus, Masinissa also received high honors following the Second Punic War. Rome consolidated the lands of several tribes to the west of Carthage and gave dominion to Masinissa, naming him king of the newly formed kingdom known to Rome as Numidia. 

Masinissa remained a most faithful friend of the Roman Republic for the entirety of his significantly long life, often sending soldiers — more even than requested — to aid Rome in her foreign conflicts. 

He took advantage of the heavy restrictions on Carthage to slowly assimilate regions on the borders of Carthaginian territory into Numidian control, and though Carthage would complain, Rome — unsurprisingly — always came out in support of her Numidian friends. 

This dramatic shift in power in both North Africa and the Mediterranean was a direct result of Roman victory in the Second Punic War, which was made possible thanks to Scipio’s decisive victory at the Battle of Zama.

It was this conflict between Numidia and Carthage that eventually led to the Third Punic War — an altogether smaller affair, but an event that saw the utter destruction of Carthage, including the legend that suggested the Romans salted the ground surrounding the city so that nothing could ever grow again. 

Conclusion

The Roman victory at the Battle of Zama directly caused the chain of events that led to the end of Carthaginian civilization and to the meteoric rise of Rome’s power — which saw it become one of the most powerful empires in all of ancient history. 

Roman or Carthaginian domination hung in the balance on the plains of Zama, as both sides understood only too well. And thanks to masterful use of both his own Roman forces and his powerful Numidian allies — as well as clever subversion of Carthaginian tactics — Scipio Africanus won the day. 

It was a decisive encounter in the history of the ancient world, and indeed one that was important to the development of the modern world.

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