Battle of Zama Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Zama was a pivotal engagement between Roman and Carthaginian armies in the Second Punic War.

Summary of Event

After Hannibal had finally been trapped in southern Italy by the “Fabian tactics” of Rome, the tide of the Second Punic War turned against him. The victories of Scipio Africanus in Spain from 208 to 206 b.c.e. and the frustration of the efforts of Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal’s younger brother, to reinforce Hannibal in 207 b.c.e., prepared the way for an invasion of Africa by Scipio in 204 b.c.e. It was then Rome’s turn to ravish the enemy’s countryside as Hannibal had done for fifteen years in Italy. With a large and well-disciplined army composed mostly of volunteers, Scipio outwitted two defense forces collected by Carthage, captured the rural areas around the city, and damaged its economy. The Carthaginians offered a truce to gain time in order to effect Hannibal’s return from Italy; he succeeded in getting away with a force of more than ten thousand veterans. Hannibal Hasdrubal Barca Laelius, Gaius Masinissa Scipio Africanus

Hannibal spent the winter of 203-202 b.c.e. collecting and training an army for the decisive meeting with Scipio. Because both Roman and Carthaginian cavalry were limited, the rival generals each sent out appeals for aid to various North African chieftains. Scipio turned to an old companion in arms, the wily desert sheik Masinissa, who had fought with the Romans in Spain. In 204-203 b.c.e., Scipio had helped Masinissa defeat a rival for control of a kingdom in Numidia, west of Carthage. In 202 b.c.e., however, Masinissa was slower to respond to Scipio than were other local princes who brought cavalry and elephants to aid Hannibal. As a result, Scipio moved his army inland and westward to avoid a major battle until he had secured more cavalry.

Hannibal marched his army in pursuit of the Romans, hoping to force a confrontation before Scipio was ready. When the Carthaginian army came near the village of Zama, about five days’ march southwest of Carthage, Hannibal sent scouts to search out Scipio’s position. These spies were captured, but after being shown through the Roman camp, they were released. By this device, Scipio hoped that their reports would discourage an immediate Carthaginian attack. The Greek historian Polybius (c. 200-c. 118 b.c.e.) reported that the two generals actually had a dramatic face-to-face meeting before the battle, alone on a plain between two opposing hills where their armies were encamped. Nevertheless, Hannibal’s peace proposals were rejected by Scipio, who had recently been encouraged by the arrival of Masinissa with four thousand cavalrymen and other reinforcements.

On the following day, the two armies were drawn up for battle. They were probably roughly equal in size, although some scholars estimate that Hannibal’s force was as large as fifty thousand men while Scipio’s was as small as twenty-three thousand. Certainly the Roman cavalry was stronger. Hannibal placed his eighty elephants in front of his first-line troops, who were experienced mercenaries from Europe and Africa. Scipio’s front line was divided into separate fighting units with gaps between them to allow the elephants to pass through without disturbing the line.

When the battle began, bugles caused the Carthaginian line of elephants to stampede and then turn sideways onto Hannibal’s own cavalry stationed on the wings. The Roman cavalry under Gaius Laelius and Masinissa took advantage of the confusion to drive the Carthaginian cavalry off the battlefield.

During the infantry battle that ensued, the disciplined front rank of Roman legionnaires, closely supported by their second-rank comrades, managed to penetrate Hannibal’s line. The second-line troops of Carthage, apparently not as well coordinated, allowed both Punic lines to be driven back with heavy casualties. Hannibal had kept in reserve a strong third line of veterans, intending to attack with this fresh force when the Romans were exhausted, but he allowed a fatal pause during which Scipio regrouped his detachments. The final stage of the battle raged indecisively until the cavalry of Laelius and Masinissa returned to the field to attack the Carthaginians in the rear and destroy most of those encircled by this maneuver. Polybius reported that the Carthaginians suffered twenty thousand casualties, compared to only fifteen hundred Romans killed.

Significance

Hannibal escaped, but Carthage was exhausted and surrendered without a siege, accepting peace terms that took away all Carthaginian possessions outside Africa, imposed a heavy indemnity, and guaranteed the autonomy of Masinissa’s kingdom. Scipio returned in triumph to Rome, where he was awarded the title “Africanus.” Remarkably undaunted by defeat, Hannibal led Carthage to economic recovery within a few years; later, he fled eastward to aid adversaries of Rome in further wars.

By their victory at Zama, the Romans gained supremacy in the western Mediterranean and launched an imperialistic program that eventually made them dominant throughout most of Europe and the Near East, repressing eastern leadership until the rise of Muslim power in the seventh century c.e.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoyos, B. D. Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1998. Provides the political background to the Punic Wars in extensive detail. Maps, bibliography, and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lancel, Serge. Hannibal. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Boston: Blackwell, 2000. A detailed biography of the Carthaginian general; a substantial chapter is devoted to the Battle of Zama. Illustrations, maps, chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lazenby, John Francis. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. 1978. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. Thorough analysis of the Second Punic War by one of the twentieth century’s recognized experts in Roman military history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Francis H. “The Battlefield of Zama.” Archaeology 23 (April, 1970): 120-129. An illustrated study of the Battle of Zama, with emphasis upon the role that topography played in that conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Philip J. Scipio Africanus and Rome’s Invasion of Africa. Amsterdam: Gieben, 1993. Part of McGill University’s series of monographs in classical archaeology and history, this historical commentary on Book 29 of Livy’s history contains a wealth of information on Scipio, Hannibal, and the site of Zama.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Hannibal; Scipio Africanus. Zama, Battle of (202 b.c.e.)

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