Why Did Hannibal Lose the Battle of Zama?

History Hit

4 mins

15 Oct 2018

In October 202 BC one of the most decisive civilisational clashes in history took place at Zama. Hannibal’s Carthaginian army, which included many African war elephants, was crushed by Scipio Africanus’ Roman force backed by Numidian allies. After this defeat Carthage was forced to accept terms so severe that it was never able to challenge Rome for hegemony over the Mediterranean ever again.

With victory Rome’s status as the local superpower was confirmed. Zama marked the end of the Second Punic War – one of the most famous in ancient history.

The Roman resurgance

The earlier years or this war had already seen Carthaginian general Hannibal cross the Alps with a herd of war elephants, before securing two of history’s most stunning victories at Lake Trasimene and Cannae in 217 and 216 BC. By 203, however, the Romans had rallied after learning their lessons, and Hannibal was confined to the south of Italy after failing to take his earlier opportunities.

Key to this resurgence was Scipio “Africanus”, whose revenge at Zama has the air of a Hollywood Blockbuster about it. His father and uncle were both killed fighting Hannibal’s forces earlier in the war, and as a result the 25 year old Scipio volunteered to lead a Roman expedition to Carthaginian Spain in 211. This expedition, a fairly desperate attempt to strike back at Hannibal, was considered a suicide mission, and Scipio was the only volunteer out of Rome’s prominent military men.

Arrayed against Hannibal’s brothers Hasdrubal and Mago in Spain, the inexperienced Scipio won a string of brilliant victories, culminating with the decisive battle of Ilipa in 206. Spain was then evacuated by the remaining Carthaginians.

A bust of Scipio Africanus – one of the greatest commander in history. Credit: Miguel Hermoso-Cuesta / Commons.

This marked a huge morale boost for the beleaguered Romans and would later be seen as a turning point in their fortunes. In 205 Scipio, the new darling of the Roman people, was elected consul at the almost unprecedented age of 31. He immediately began to formulate a plan to strike at Hannibal’s African heartland, aware that a new tactic would be needed to overcome his unbeatable forces in Italy.

Scipio takes the War to Africa

However, jealous of Scipio’s popularity and success, many members of the Senate voted to deny him the men and money needed for such a campaign. Unfazed, Scipio headed to Sicily, where a posting was traditionally seen as a punishment. As a result, many of the Roman survivors from the catastrophic defeats at Cannae and Trasimene were there.

Eager to take up these experienced soldiers and restore their pride, Scipio used Sicily as a giant training camp as he mustered more and more men purely off his own initiative, including 7000 volunteers. Eventually with this ragtag army he sailed across the Mediterranean to Africa, ready to take the fight to Carthage for the first time in the war. At the battle of the Great Plains he defeated the Carthaginian army and their Numidian allies, forcing the panicking Carthaginian senate to sue for peace.

A man who was considered cultured and humane compared to previous Roman leaders, Scipio offered the Carthaginians generous terms, where they only lost their overseas territories, which Scipio had largely conquered anyway. Hannibal, probably to his great frustration after his many victories, was recalled from Italy.

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Two giants of antiquity meet

Once Hannibal and his army had returned in 203 BC, the Carthaginians turned their backs on the treaty and seized a Roman fleet in the gulf of Tunis. The war was not over. Hannibal was placed in command of a reformed army, despite his protests that it was not ready to fight Scipio’s battle-hardened forces, which had remained nearby in Carthaginian territory.

The two forces converged at the plain of Zama near the city of Carthage, and it is said that before the battle Hannibal requested an audience with Scipio. There he offered a new peace along the lines of the previous one, but Scipio rejected it saying that Carthage could no longer be trusted. Despite professing their mutual admiration, the two commanders parted and prepared for battle the next day; 19 October 202 BC.

Though many of his men were not as well trained as the Romans, Hannibal had a numerical advantage, with 36,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 80 massive armoured war elephants at his disposal. Opposing him were 29,000 infantry and 6000 cavalry – mainly recruited from Rome’s Numidian allies.

Hannibal placed his cavalry on the flanks and infantry in the centre, with his veterans of the Italian campaign in the third and final line. Scipio’s forces were similarly set up, with three lines of infantry set up in classic Roman fashion. Light Hastati at the front, more heavily armoured Principes in the middle, and the veteran spear-wielding Triarii at the back. Scipio’s superb Numidian horsemen opposed their Carthaginian counterparts on the flanks.

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Zama: the last battle

Hannibal began the fighting by sending in his war elephants and skirmishers in a bid to disrupt the tight Roman formations. Having anticipated this, Scipio calmly ordered his men to part ranks in order to create channels for the beasts to run through harmlessly. His cavalry then attacked the Carthaginian horsemen while the lines of infantry advanced to meet with a bone-shuddering impact and exchange of javelins.

The first two lines of Hannibal’s men, comprised largely of mercenaries and levies, were quickly defeated, while the Roman cavalry made short work of their counterparts. However, Hannibal’s veteran infantry were a more formidable foe, and the Romans formed one long line to meet them head on. There was little between the two sides in this bitterly contested fight until Scipio’s cavalry returned to hit Hannibal’s men in the rear.

Surrounded, they either died or surrendered, and the day belonged to Scipio. Roman losses were just 2,500 compared to 20,000 killed and 20,000 captured on the Carthaginian side.

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Demise

Though Hannibal escaped the field of Zama he would never again threaten Rome, and nor would his city. Carthage was then subject to a deal which effectively ended it as a military power. One particularly humiliating clause was that Carthage could no longer make war without Roman consent.

This lead to its final defeat, when the Romans used this as an excuse for the invasion and total destruction of Carthage in 145 BC after it had defended itself against an invading Numidian army. Hannibal killed himself after another defeat in 182, while Scipio, sick of the jealousy and ingratitude of the senate, settled down to a quiet life of retirement before dying a year before his greatest adversary.

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