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Battle of Zama, 202 BC

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Scipio Africanus versus Hannibal Barca: A Roman army under Scipio fights a Carthaginian army under Hannibal in his homeland. Which of these military geniuses will outwit the other and win the day? Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation. | Legend |
 
 
This battle ended the Second Punic War after sixteen grueling years. Rome, the entity Hannibal sought to destroy, may have actually become stronger in order to overcome his vicious threat to its existence.
 
This battle features two of the most talented, evenly matched commanders in history. Hannibal relied too heavily on the initial war elephant charge to disrupt Scipio’s formation, a rare weakness in creativity on Hannibal’s part. Scipio’s victory is strangely reminiscent of Hannibal’s victory at Cannae, which Scipio among few others escaped from. In this battle, Hannibal was simply defeated by an arguably superior commander who anticipated his maneuvers.
 
 
I did not intend to animate this battle but changed my mind abruptly as part of a new doctrine of animating more famous battles. Too often, too many lesser-known battles were animated to appeal to learned military history fans looking to be exposed to less typical battles. However, famous battles such as Zama appeal to a wider audience in the hopes of sparking an interest in military history as a whole. The site therefore assumes a few dimensions where those with different levels of interest can enjoy content balanced among them.
 
- Jonathan Webb
 
Works Consulted
 
Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars. London: Random Century, 1990.
 
Carey, Brian Todd. Hannibal’s Last Battle: Zama and the Fall of Carthage. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2007.
 
Cottrell, Leonard. Hannibal: Enemy of Rome. London: Camelot, 1960.
 
Dodge, Theodore. Great Captains: Hannibal. New York: Riverside, 1891.
 
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
 
Scullard, H.H. Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician. New York: Cornell University, 1970.
 
Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. London: Salamander, 1980.

Images

Carthaginian cavalry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/carthaginian_units/index.shtml
 
Carthaginian infantry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/carthaginian_units/index.shtml
 
Carthaginian war elephant: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/carthaginian_units/index.shtml
 
Hannibal Barca: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannibal
 
Roman infantry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/rome/
 
Roman cavalry: http://rtw.heavengames.com/rtw/info/units/rome/
 
Scipio Africanus: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Old_man.JPG
 

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  1. 25 Comments to “Battle of Zama, 202 BC”

  2. Defeated by a superior commander? As i recall, Hannibal had been separated from most of his Italian army, and was fighting with almost entirely raw recruits, except for his reserve. Scipio had the army he had been fighting with during the entire Spanish campaign. Hannibal had lost this battle before it even started. It is worth noting that Scipio at no time dared to engage Hannibal on Italian soil with his army, instead going to Spain, then to Carthage itself, forcing Carthage to call Hannibal back to fight a battle on unfavorable terms.
    What is weird is that Hannibal agreed to engage Scipio on an open field without an explicit cavalry advantage. After all the traps and stratagems, it seems very unlike him, and points to him being forced by the overall politics of the situation (not Hannibal being forced by Scipio, but Carthage being forced by Rome) to engage in a pitched battle. By that point Rome had already won, and it was just a technicality that Hannibal himself had to be defeated.
    I don’t mean to sound strident, but rather to point out an alternative view to the battle.

    By Ziggy on Oct 19, 2009 at 7:46 pm

  3. well, scipio i would say is not appreciated enough, granted hannibal did fight very indenpendent from supply and such and won many decisive victories, scipio though is not recognized for illipa as much as he should be, i mean it was on par with hannibals victories for the most part, also scipio showed better adaptability than hannibal, scipio adapted to deal with the elephants, hannibal tried to mimic to a degree the 3 line roman formation, and it proved less effective, i would personally argue that they are very evenly matched, with hannibal MAYBe being better by a small amount

    By ben w. on Oct 20, 2009 at 10:12 pm

  4. I agree with what Ziggy said. On the tactical level, Hannibal lost his Numbian cavalry, which was vastly superior to Roman and Carthaginian ones, that and he was outnumbered in cavalry. If we trace back to Hannibal’s victories, the deciding factor was most often than not, the cavalry, and only by having a superior one, he could achieve the double envelop in Cannae.

    Since Hannibal could not rely on his cavalry, let alone the infantry (news recruits vs battle hardened army from the Spain campaign), his best and probably the only move that would gain him the initiative was the elephants; both him and Scipio knew that, and then the rest is history.

    The battle was won already not at the tactical level but the strategic one. The Roman strategy was, since the 2nd Act of the war, to deprive supplies to Hannibal, and that strategy was consistent and paid off amazingly at the end game. Carthage lost Numbia, Spain, the sea, and finally the homeland. One has to keep in mind that Carthage had no coherent strategy at the time; it was more or less Hannibal himself vs Rome. It would be very hard to conclude Scipio was on par with Hannibal, let alone superior, given that they were fighting vastly on unequal grounds.

    By Gob on Nov 4, 2009 at 5:34 am

  5. Well, the point is that Hannibal could have easily won the Battle of Zama, and he didn’t. If the cavalry of Laelius and Massinissa didn’t return in time, the battle could have gone either way.

    Remember, it was Scipio who advocated the African campaign. Fabius and others opposed it, preferring to simply expel Hannibal from Italy. It was Scipio who argued invading Africa with the idea of Carthage recalling Hannibal from Italy and fighting to defend the home city.

    So in a real sense, it was Scipio who was responsible for forcing Hannibal to fight in Africa.

    By Tonifranz on Nov 14, 2009 at 1:25 am

  6. Could have easily won? As i recall, the battle was more or less stalemated until Scipios cavalry came back. It could have gone either way. And Hannibal had no way of making sure Scipios cavalry DIDN’T come back, so i think saying he could have “easily won” is a bit misleading.
    And yes, Scipio could be given credit for forcing Carthage to call back Hannibal, but that was part of the overall strategic advantage that he had (being from Rome which, while it had its disagreements, was much more organized and focused than Carthage), rather than being a better general. Hannibal was just more or less stranded by that point, and didn’t have any kind of outside help, which Scipio did have.

    By Ziggy on Nov 17, 2009 at 9:59 pm

  7. im not saying scipio is better than hannibal, im just saying hannibal was only slightly better than scipio, scipio adapted whereas hannibal stayed the same, scipio learned how to defeat the elephants, worked to gain a strong cavalry arm, and used the three line roman system effectively, hannibal tried to use a three line system like the romans but it did not work that well really, and was in reality most likely going to lose anyway before the cavalry reappeared, it just wud not have been by as much tho

    By ben w. on Nov 20, 2009 at 3:39 am

  8. Ben w., the problem is that you have no way to make the conclusion on who was better, when the battle was won strategically. Hannibal had to open with his elephants because they were his best bet, given that his had inferior cavalry. he seemingly “stayed the same”, because he had no better moves, given the constraints.

    By Gob on Nov 23, 2009 at 8:06 pm

  9. But the point is, Hannibal could have won the battle. As has been pointed out, until Laelius’ and Massinissa’s cavalry arrived, it could have gone either way.

    Hannibal could have won. He could have lost. Remember, strategically, in 218-216 BC, he strategically is not in a much better situation than in 202 BC. He was in enemy territory, surrounded by hostile cities, with no hope of reinforcements except that of the unreliable Gauls in northern Italy, outnumbered, etc. His army was mowed by attrition from the trip on the Alps, he lost all but one of his elephants. But he won. Spectacularly. The only advantage he has is his genius.

    Truth is, Scipio is a much better general than Varro and Flamininus and his own father.

    In fact, I would argue that strategically, Hannibal’s situation in Africa in 202 BC is better than in 218-216 BC in Italy. He lost the Numidians, but he still has his Libyans. His army outnumbered that of Scipio, and he has his elephants. He still has his genius, and he still has his core of veterans–remember the third line? He has access to reinforcements from Carthage itself.

    The fact that he nearly won the battle testifies to his advantages, both in mind and in resources.

    The only difference is that his opposition is not of the caliber of a Varro, a Flamininus, or even a Marcellus. He would have won, easily, against those generals, at Zama.

    Did Scipio make adequate preparations before Zama? Yes. But it all could have been undone had he been defeated at Zama.

    The fact is at Zama, Hannibal was out-generalled by Scipio, both tactically, operationally, politically, and strategically.

    By Tonifranz on Nov 27, 2009 at 1:23 pm

  10. In addition, it could be pointed out that Scipio, when he first landed at Africa, did not have the initial strategic advantage.

    There were large armies led by the Carthaginians and the Libyans under Syphax. He had Massinissa.

    It was his victory at Great Plains and at Utica which forced Carthage to sue for peace.

    Of course, when Hannibal went home because the war supposedly ended, the Carthaginians declared war on Rome feeling superior with Hannibal back.

    So, if Scipio did not win at Great Plains and Utica, Hannibal would not have been recalled to Africa. So whatever strategic advantage he had over Hannibal he created by his own earlier victories over Syphax and the Carthaginians.

    Which is why I think tactically, Hannibal is much better than Scipio, but strategically, Scipio is better.

    By Tonifranz on Nov 27, 2009 at 1:30 pm

  11. Your correct, Hannibal was out-generaled, but hardly to his fault. Remember, Scipio basically had his nation backing him. Rome had their disagreements, and yes he was initially considered too young, but as a whole Rome was united in their effort against Carthage.
    Hannibal on the other hand was one mighty warrior with a tough army working against Rome. Carthage itself was more of a third player, and none of Carthage’s generals came near to Hannibal’s genius. Most of them weren’t even a match for the generals Hannibal defeated.
    By saying “Hannibal could have won” your making it sound like it was a simple matter. Of course he COULD have won. Likewise, Varro COULD have won Cannae, but he didn’t. While Scipio was not on the caliber of Hannibal, you are correct that he was a high caliber general himself, and knew better than to fall for any of Hannibal’s tricks. Hannibal was in a desperate spot: his army was 2/3 new recruits, he was deficient in cavalry, he was in an open field where no ambushes could be laid, and he was strategically against a wall. Scipio won that battle basically by playing it safe and letting his superior army (not in numbers, but in skill and experience) do the trick. It almost came undone when his cavalry ran away, but it came back in time to nick Scipio the victory.
    I think Scipio’s main advantage is that he came after Hannibal, and so could learn from him. Hannibal fought over 20 battles in Italy and never really lost any of them ( a few were a draw).

    By Ziggy on Dec 2, 2009 at 5:05 am

  12. I mostly agree with you. But I think Hannibal created some of his own disadvantages early on in the war.

    Maybe Hannibal shouldn’t have agreed in attacking Saguntum without explicit orders from Carthage.

    The way he did it, it almost ensured at best lukewarm support from Carthage. And by his invasion of Italy, he united the Romans against him.

    If Rome attacked Carthage first, I’m sure Hannibal will get much more enthusiastic support from Carthage.

    By Tonifranz on Dec 7, 2009 at 11:20 am

  13. battle of cannae must be added as soon as possible :)

    By Burak on Jan 3, 2010 at 10:57 pm

  14. Short note: Cannae has already been animated (quite well I think) by the Discovery Channel along with the Battle of Pharsalus 48 BC. Here’s the link:
    http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/rome/battlemaps/battlemaps.html

    By Jonathan Webb on Jan 9, 2010 at 10:18 pm

  15. Scipio had fought Hannibal on Italian soil and won. I can’t recall the details off the top of my head, but it wasn’t a major fight. Hannibal was besieging a place, and was attacked in his flank by Scipio, and forced to retreat.

    So it’s really Scipio 2 Hannibal 0.

    By mark on Apr 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm

  16. Your correct, Hannibal was out-generaled, but hardly to his fault. Remember, Scipio basically had his nation backing him. Rome had their disagreements, and yes he was initially considered too young, but as a whole Rome was united in their effort against Carthage.Hannibal on the other hand was one mighty warrior with a tough army working against Rome. Carthage itself was more of a third player, and none of Carthage’s generals came near to Hannibal’s genius. Most of them weren’t even a match for the generals Hannibal defeated.By saying “Hannibal could have won” your making it sound like it was a simple matter. Of course he COULD have won. Likewise, Varro COULD have won Cannae, but he didn’t. While Scipio was not on the caliber of Hannibal, you are correct that he was a high caliber general himself, and knew better than to fall for any of Hannibal’s tricks. Hannibal was in a desperate spot: his army was 2/3 new recruits, he was deficient in cavalry, he was in an open field where no ambushes could be laid, and he was strategically against a wall. Scipio won that battle basically by playing it safe and letting his superior army (not in numbers, but in skill and experience) do the trick. It almost came undone when his cavalry ran away, but it came back in time to nick Scipio the victory.I think Scipio’s main advantage is that he came after Hannibal, and so could learn from him. Hannibal fought over 20 battles in Italy and never really lost any of them ( a few were a draw).
    +1

    By Johio on May 19, 2010 at 9:51 pm

  17. But did Hannibal HAVE to use an elephant charge? It was the obvious thing to do as the eles would obviously have taken away the Roman advantage of fighting in formation (few could match them in that as Pyhrrus noticed); an ele charge could disorganise the formation and hand Hannibal an advantage when his infantry charged the disorganised Romans.

    It was the obvious thing to do, too obvious…

    However, another great general had used Elephants against the Romans, and in a much more effective way; Pyhrrus. In one of his Pyhrric Victories he had used eles to flank the Romans, and, IFAICR, in another he had mixed his phalanxes with normal infantry and eles, very effectively.

    So other options were available to Hannibal, but he did the obvious thing and lost to a superior general for that exact reason. Just like he outsmarted the Romans at Cannae and before, Scipio outsmarted him, as he had before outsmarted other Barcids, most notably at Ilipa; where he also found a way to counter the formidable Numidian cavalry that had haunted the Romans on so many occasions.

    And in both occasions, Scipio operated with inferior numbers (the Roman infantry at Cannae was no less superior to Hannibal’s than that at Zama, yet at Cannae Hannibal brilliantly countered it, at Zama he did not), and at Ilipa with an army composed mostly of Iberian allies.

    To me, no general outshines Scipio on the battlefield or in strategy, but he must share the top spot with others, amongst them Hannibal.

    By Palle on May 28, 2010 at 4:22 pm

  18. I completely agree with Johio, the way Hannibal used his elephants determined who would win the battle. I’m not sure how difficult it is to control elephants other than direct them forward in a charge, but Pyrrhus showed they could be used to flank.

    By Victor on Apr 17, 2011 at 4:59 pm

  19. But remember that Pyrrhus and Hanniba had completely different armies: Pyrrhus relied on his irreplaceable phalanxes, and Hannibal had “2/3 new recruits, and deficient in cavalry” as Johio noted. For a flanking to work one would need to have the center to pin down the enemy’s center.

    If we want to use this powerpoint presentation as our reference point, note that Hannibal had no advantage at all in his center; they were able to hold position for a period of time but they could not defeat the Roman center.

    Palle:
    Hannibal had the element of surpirse at Cannae but at Zima he didn’t, and a genreral like Scipio would prevent that from happening.

    By Gob on Apr 19, 2011 at 6:31 am

  20. “Scipio had the army he had been fighting with during the entire Spanish campaign” ~ Ziggy

    Wrong. Scipio was given the survivors of the serious ass-kicking Hannibal handed out initially, the ones who were sent to Sicily as a punishment for failure. He turned these “failures” into an army capable of winning.

    ” It is worth noting that Scipio at no time dared to engage Hannibal on Italian soil with his army, instead going to Spain, then to Carthage itself, forcing Carthage to call Hannibal back to fight a battle on unfavorable terms.” ~ Ziggy

    1. Er, Scipio wanted to dictate terms to Carthage on Carthaginian soil.

    2. Home advantage is unfavourable now? When did this happen?

    Stop making crappy excuses just because your hero was defeated.

    “The battle was won already not at the tactical level but the strategic one. The Roman strategy was, since the 2nd Act of the war, to deprive supplies to Hannibal,” ~ Gob

    And whose strategy was this? Oh right, it was Scipio’s strategy from the get go when he decided he’d quite like to capture New Carthage.

    “It would be very hard to conclude Scipio was on par with Hannibal, let alone superior, given that they were fighting vastly on unequal grounds.” ~ Gob

    It’s easy to conclude he’s tactically the equal of Hannibal. And given Hannibal’s failure to achieve anything concrete, easy to conclude he’s strategically superior to Hannibal.

    “so i think saying he could have “easily won” is a bit misleading” ~ Ziggy

    He thought he could easily win. When he decided to engage Scipio didn’t have the cavalry, he’d had to march off into the back of beyond in the hopes of meeting up with it. Hannibal calculated he could defeat Scipio before he could meet up, Scipio calculated he could meet up and get the cavalry if he made his march. Scipio turned out to be correct.

    Can’t stop making excuses, some people.

    “Ben w., the problem is that you have no way to make the conclusion on who was better, when the battle was won strategically” ~ Gob

    Quoted for irony. Given that the strategy of Scipio is the decisive factor of the entire war then I quite easily conclude that the better strategist won the war.

    “The fact is at Zama, Hannibal was out-generalled by Scipio, both tactically, operationally, politically, and strategically.” ~ Tonifranz

    Quoted for truth.

    “Your correct, Hannibal was out-generaled, but hardly to his fault. Remember, Scipio basically had his nation backing him” ~ Ziggy (who seems to be an apologist)

    *cough*bullcrap*cough*

    The guy had to build his own cavalry, build his own navy and was twice given defeated troops to work with and had to constantly argue with the Senate.

    “By saying “Hannibal could have won” your making it sound like it was a simple matter.” ~ Ziggy (again)

    Oh sorry Ziggy. Hannibal is faced by a Roman force more than twice his size and wins and is hailed a genius. Hannibal faces a Roman force he outnumbers on his own soil and mumble mumble raw recruits mumble mumble no home backing mumble mumble Scipio had all the cards? Don’t buy it.

    No excuses, he lost. If he was the great general you clearly think he was then some ruse or strategem could, indeed should, have won him the day. As it was he played all his cards and lost. His every move was anticipated. He was defeated fairly and squarely in his own backyard by a numerically inferior foe. Plus, he had more elephants than in any other of his battles.

    “I think Scipio’s main advantage is that he came after Hannibal, and so could learn from him” ~ Ziggy

    And if fans of Hannibal can’t claim a credit for a win, they console themselves by trying to claim reflected glory by insisting Hannibal somehow tutored Scipio. Where did Scipio learn New Carthage? Because it sure as hell wasn’t from studying Hannibal.

    Theodore Dodge has a lot to answer for.

    By taudarian on Nov 29, 2011 at 12:19 am

  21. the powerpoint was great.

    By a boss on Jan 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm

  22. This is why i rate caesar over hannibal.Hannibal had the same disadvantage as caesar at pharsalus.Caesar compensated magnificiently with his fourth line.Hannibal did not.
    He should have reinforced his flanks with a mixed force of infantry and cavalry to compensate for his overall numerical disadvantage in cavalry.Or used his elephants on the flanks frightening the roman cavalry and also keeping the chance of a elephant charge into the roman flanks after both infantry lines met which could have caused heavy losses and panic in the densly packed masses.

    By Austerlitz on Mar 21, 2012 at 10:41 pm

  23. The core of Scipio’s army was just two legions, the fifth and sixth, built around the remnants from Cannae and sent to Scily in disgrace since they were considered only good for garrison duty. But those troops were saved from the wreckage by some very good surviving officers, including young P. Cornelius Scipio, who msut have been a military tribune at that stage; so they remembered.
    His initial cavalary in Scily was the usual Roman junk, highborn types who did not like walking. He built a real cavalry arm by drafting Scilian nobility, letting them off for cash and using their cash to equip and horse quality volunteers. Remember his cavalry commander C Laelius, was no aristocrat, jsut a very competant general officer who won naval and land battles.
    But those two legions were a maximum of 10 000 men, the rest were the usual allies and hangers on. Hannibal still had more than 12 000 veterans from his “Army of Italy”, the same veterans that had smashed eight legions at Cannae.
    He trained and trained those two legions and blooded them in the two battles afer his landing. So in the end he, like Hannibal, had a core unit of highly trained, high morale troops with confidence in their general. And Scipio had learned and learned. He prepared for the day when he would face Hannibal. And so he won; even on the battlefield he changed tactics; spreading out his line in the face of the “Army of Italy”, and they were vulnerable while spreading. Polybius talks of a battlefield slippery with blood and strewn with corpses; Scipio fomed his hastatii in front of this bloody field and had his princeps and triarii thread their way carefully over the bloody ground through the corpses. They could have been hit then.
    And so, even when it was still pure infantry, the Roman line was over-exended, just the hastatii, who had already fought the first two lines, facing the army of italy and the rest of the legions facing the libyans and catheginians who had already been beaten.
    And still the legions held until that highly trained cavalary unit under laelius returned. Scipio trusted laelius and his cavalry commander by that stage could read his commander in chief’s mind. He had to wipe hannibals cavalry totally but get back in time. He did just that.
    In the end, Scipio with an inferior force, won. Two legions beat the more numerous army of italy, an army that had already defeated them and six other legions. The rest of the troops, roman and cartheginian, were nothing to get excited about although it is clear scipio had trained his better but far more importantly was far more willing to give them the support they needed from his two legions. He did not waste them in attrition battles as hannibal did with his first two lines.
    Hannibal was obviously a more natural military genius; but scipio had high intelligence and was willing to learn and learn and learn. In the end he was the better general and he won.
    A far more modern but similar battle to Zama was Waterloo. Napoleon had the genius and the repuation. Wellington had the longer learning curve as well as a decent IQ. And in the end the intelligent man always learning and preparing himself for a final battle beat the genius, tuirning an army of the “dregs ” into great regiments with adequate subordinate officers.

    By gareth on Oct 16, 2012 at 7:35 pm

  24. Undeniably consider that that you stated. Your favourite justification appeared to be on the web the easiest factor to take note of. I say to you, I definitely get irked whilst other folks consider worries that they just don’t recognize about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the entire thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thank you

    By Sara Bharwana on Apr 10, 2013 at 7:52 am

  25. I completely agree with taudarius and gareth. Scipio’s army in his African campaigns is not as ”veteran” as people like to claim. The majority of them had not seen action since the end of the war in Sicily in 212 BC. They had been on garrison duty since then. When Scipio arrived, he found that a good number were old and unfit. He therefore had toreplace them with newly-raised levies. The fact that Scipio was able to blend these elements into a cohesive fighting force speaks volumes for his charisma and ability as a general.

    By Rory Paul on Jun 28, 2014 at 2:40 pm

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