Punic Wars: Battle of Zama

Fighting at the Battle of Zama
Battle of Zama. Public Domain

The Battle of Zama was the deciding engagement of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) between Carthage and Rome and was fought in late October 202 BC. After a string of early Carthaginian victories in Italy, the Second Punic War settled into a stalemate with Hannibal's armies in Italy unable to deliver a deathblow again the Romans. Recovering from these setbacks, Roman forces achieved some success in Iberia before launching an invasion of North Africa. Led by Scipio Africanus, this army engaged a Carthaginian force led by Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC. In the resulting battle, Scipio defeated his famous foe and forced Carthage to sue for peace.

Fast Facts: Battle of Zama

  • Conflict: Second Punic War (218-201 BC)
  • Dates: 202 BC
  • Armies & Commanders:
  • Casualties:
    • Carthage: 20-25,000 killed, 8,500-20,000 captured
    • Rome & Allies: 4,000-5,000

Background

With the beginning of the Second Punic War in 218 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal boldly crossed the Alps and attacked into Italy. Achieving victories at Trebia (218 BC) and Lake Trasimene (217 BC), he swept aside armies led by Tiberius Sempronius Longus and Gaius Flaminius Nepos. In the wake of these triumphs, he marched south looting the country and attempting to force Rome's allies to defect to Carthage's side. Stunned and in crisis from these defeats, Rome appointed Fabius Maximus to deal with the Carthaginian threat. 

Bust of Hannibal
Hannibal. Public Domain

Avoiding battle with Hannibal's army, Fabius raided the Carthaginian supply lines and practiced the form of attritional warfare that later bore his name. Rome soon proved unhappy with Fabius' methods and he was replaced by the more aggressive Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. Moving to engage Hannibal, they were routed at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC. Following his victory, Hannibal spent the next several years attempting to build an alliance in Italy against Rome. As the war on the peninsula descended into a stalemate, Roman troops, led by Scipio Africanus, began having success in Iberia and captured large swaths of Carthaginian territory in the region.

In 204 BC, after fourteen years of war, Roman troops landed in North Africa with the goal of directly attacking Carthage. Led by Scipio, they succeeded in defeating Carthaginian forces led by Hasdrubal Gisco and their Numidian allies commanded by Syphax at Utica and Great Plains (203 BC). With their situation precarious, the Carthaginian leadership sued for peace with Scipio. This offer was accepted by the Romans who offered moderate terms. While the treaty was being debated in Rome, those Carthaginians who favored continuing the war had Hannibal recalled from Italy.

Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus - detail of painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, "Scipio Africanus is shown releasing the nephew of the Prince of Nubia after he was captured by Roman soldiers". Walters Art Museum

Carthage Resists

During this same period, Carthaginian forces captured a Roman supply fleet in the Gulf of Tunes. This success, along with the return of Hannibal and his veterans from Italy, led to change of heart on the part of the Carthaginian senate. Emboldened, they elected to continue the conflict and Hannibal set about enlarging his army.

Marching out with a total force of around 40,000 men and 80 elephants, Hannibal encountered Scipio near Zama Regia. Forming his men in three lines, Hannibal placed his mercenaries in first line, his new recruits and levies in the second, and his Italian veterans in the third. These men were supported by the elephants to the front and Numidian and Carthaginian cavalry on the flanks.

Scipio's Plan

To counter Hannibal's army, Scipio deployed his 35,100 men in a similar formation consisting of three lines. The right wing was held by Numidian cavalry, led by Masinissa, while Laelius' Roman horsemen were placed on the left flank. Aware that Hannibal's elephants could be devastating on the attack, Scipio devised a new way to counter them.

Though tough and strong, the elephants could not turn when they charged. Using this knowledge, he formed his infantry in separate units with gaps in between. These were filled with velites (light troops) which could move to allow the elephants to pass through. It was his goal to allow the elephants to charge through these gaps thus minimizing the damage they could inflict.

Hannibal Defeated

As anticipated, Hannibal opened the battle by ordering his elephants to charge the Roman lines. Moving forward, they were engaged by the Roman velites who drew them through the gaps in the Roman lines and out of the battle. In addition, Scipio's cavalry blew large horns to frighten the elephants. With Hannibal's elephants neutralized, he reorganized his infantry in a traditional formation and sent forward his cavalry.

Attacking on both wings, the Roman and Numidian horsemen overwhelmed their opposition and pursued them from the field. Though displeased by his cavalry's departure, Scipio began advancing his infantry. This was met by an advance from Hannibal. While Hannibal's mercenaries defeated the first Roman assaults, his men slowly began to be pushed back by Scipio's troops. As the first line gave way, Hannibal would not allow it to pass back through the other lines. Instead, these men moved to the wings of the second line.

Pressing forward, Hannibal struck with this force and a bloody fight ensued. Ultimately defeated, the Carthaginians fell back to the flanks of the third line. Extending his line to avoid being outflanked, Scipio pressed the attack against Hannibal's best troops. With the battle surging back and forth, the Roman cavalry rallied and returned to the field. Charging the rear of Hannibal's position, the cavalry caused his lines to break. Pinned between two forces, the Carthaginians were routed and driven from the field.

Aftermath

As with many battles in this period, exact casualties are not known. Some sources claim that Hannibal's casualties numbered 20,000 killed and 20,000 taken prisoner, while the Romans lost around 2,500 killed and 4,000 wounded. Regardless of casualties, the defeat at Zama led to Carthage renewing its calls for peace. These were accepted by Rome, however the terms were harsher than those offered a year earlier. In addition to losing the majority of its empire, a substantial war indemnity was imposed and Carthage was effectively destroyed as a power.