Hannibal and the Battle of Zama

By Johndisp

Many historians agree that the Battle of Zama, in 202 BC, marked the end of Hannibal Barca’s distinguished career. But many don’t know exactly what happened in this battle that stopped Hannibal in his tracks. I will attempt to elaborate on the causes, after some background on Hannibal.

In 237, Hannibal Barca, then a boy of ten, was taken to Spain by his father Hamilcar. Hamilcar had gone to Spain to unify the Carthaginian holdings there and offset some of the financial setbacks generated by the Carthaginian loss during the First Punic War (264-241).

Once in Spain, Hannibal watched his father add new territories to his new empire. Slowly, the natural resources of gold, silver, and iron that were abundant in southern Spain began to pull Carthage out of the financial doldrums.

In 229, Hamilcar died and his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair took the mantle of leadership. As a new governor he began using diplomacy to secure the Carthaginian holdings. He used clever treaties and intermarriage between the Iberians and his own Carthaginians to cement the relationships. It is likely that Hannibal returned to Carthage for a time to further his education.

In 221, Hannibal was elected leader of the Carthaginians forces due to Hasdrubal’s murder. Hannibal fell back to what he knew best and went on the offensive militarily. He captured Salamanca and Saguntum, a Roman ally. The Romans were fully involved with the Second Illyrian War and thus could offer no assistance.

The year was 218 when Hannibal left his brother Hasdrubal (obviously not the one that had been murdered) as the commander of Spain. Hannibal then led the invasion into Italy before the Romans were prepared. In a blitzkrieg style attack, Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees with an army of 50000 infantry, 9000 cavalry and 37 elephants. He crossed the Rhone River an then in October captured Col du Mont Genevre. He had finally arrived at the plains along the Po River with most of his army still intact.

Now Gauls lived on these plains and they were still bitter at been conquered by Rome. They formed alliances with Hannibal in an attempt to regain their independence. The Romans were fearful of a Carthage/Gaul united army and thus sent an army to stop them. The armies met near the Ticinus River and the Carthaginians proved victorious. With this victory, over 14000 Gauls made themselves available to Hannibal. With this fresh influx of troops, Hannibal again defeated the Romans at the Trebia River.

In March 217, Hannibal left his winter quarters, and attacked Etruria. During this battle, Hannibal lost an eye. The Roman army attempted a counterattack with 25000 men, but they were ambushed and destroyed. Hannibal hoped that these defeats would cause some of Rome’s allies to abandon them and come over to his side, but they did not. Hannibal then went into uncommon ground for him by trying to use diplomatic skills to lure Rome’s allies away.

Although Roman armies were able to harass Hannibal throughout 217, they could not get them to engage in any decisive battles. By 216, the Roman senate decided to put an end to this nuisance once and for all. They raised an army of 80000 men to combat Hannibal’s 50000. In July, the Carthaginians were finally trapped near Cannae. Hannibal formed his lines in a slight semi-circle and allowed the center to drop back a bit and become concave. Just when the Romans thought they had one, the Carthaginian cavalry circled around behind of them and trapped the Romans. Their forces were destroyed.

After this defeat, many of the Roman allies finally revolted. Capua threw open its gates and welcomed Hannibal into the city. Capua then became his Italian capital. Hannibal felt it was only a matter of time before the Roman senate would sue for peace.

However, the senate kept their central allies in check and refused to submit. Hannibal then again turned to diplomacy to try and achieve his victory. He made agreements with king Phillip of Macedonia and with Syracuse.

While Hannibal was developing his diplomatic skills, his military ones began to suffer. He tried in vain to capture the ports of Cumae and Puteoli, and due to these failures could not receive reinforcements. Knowing that he could not continue into Central Italy without more troops, he headed south and captured Tarentum and several other ports in 213 BC. Although he could now get his reinforcements, the Romans convinced Greece to start a war with Macedonia in order to limit the aid they could offer the Carthaginians.

In 212, Rome attacked Syracuse and Capua. Syracuse fell without incident and Capua gave in 211 BC after a difficult siege. After this victory, the Romans started pushing Hannibal southward. In 209 BC, they recaptured Tarentum.

Hannibal was desperate and could not receive reinforcements from Carthage and so asked his brother in Spain to help him. When Hasdrubal tried to lead an army over the Alps this time, the Romans were ready and defeated him in 207BC.

While Hannibal conducted guerilla warfare in the “toe” of Italy, the Romans conquered Spain. Although most of their generals were dead, a young commander took charge. This commander was Publius Cornelius Scipio, who would later be known as Scipio Africanus. He led his army throughout Spain and conquered the Carthaginian holdings, finally ending the war in 206BC.

Then in a brash move, Scipio took his army to Africa. He made an alliance with the Numidian king Massinissa and attacked Carthage. The Carthaginian immediately recalled Hannibal and his army from Italy. His return to Carthage set the stage for Zama.

In 202 BC, many people expected their to be a massive battle between Hannibal and Scipio right outside the walls of Carthage, Scipio however had other plans. He led his forces westward from his base in Utica and invaded the Bagrada Valley, which was where Carthage acquired most of its food. This move caused Hannibal to attack Scipio in an attempt to defeat him once and for all.

Hannibal and his men arrived in Zama a few days later. Scipio formed his lines first. He set two legions of Roman heavy infantry, and flanked them with his cavalry, Italian on the left and Numidian on the right. The Romans were in their customary formations, hastati, followed by principes, and lastly the triarii. Scipio also included a slight variation in his battle formation. He left empty channels running straight through his lines. The reason for this was that Scipio knew Hannibal would use elephants and he hoped to allow them to safety avoid his forces by taking these channels.

For Hannibal, he lined up 80 elephants ahead of his first group of infantry. Behind them were Ligurian and Gallic infantry, with the Numidian Cavalry to their left and the Carthaginians’ own cavalry to their right. He made another line of mostly green infantry and kept his veterans of the Italian Campaign to the rear to be used at the most opportune moment. Although his strategy seems sound, there was one key flaw. The 80 elephants were mostly untrained. Carthage had captured and rushed them into service without making them truly battle worthy. This flaw would prove to be Hannibal’s undoing.

Hannibal ordered his elephants forward, and as they closed with the Roman center, Scipio unveiled the second part of his master plan. His men drew forth trumpets and began blaring the startling noises. This sound terrified the elephants and they routed. They charged into either their own ranks and passed harmlessly down the channels that Scipio had provided in his lines. One of the main casualties for the Carthaginians was that the elephants turned left and crashed into the Numidian cavalry. King Massinissa, of the Roman right, saw the chaos in front of him and charged his cavalry at their countrymen. Hannibal’s Numidians were driven from the field.

The remaining elephants turned right and crashed into Hannibal’s Carthaginian cavalry. The Italian cavalry then charged the disrupted Carthaginians and drove them from the field as well. Thus in one fell stroke, Hannibal lost both of his flanks.

Now it was time for the infantry to shine. At first, Hannibal’s troops were successful, but as the battle wore on they could not break the hastati. Finally the weight of the Romans began to push them backwards. Hannibal’s green second line charged forward and they began to rout the hastati, but then the Roman principes joined the fray and the lines became stationary.

Hannibal realized that Scipio’s cavalry would return and so he knew that he had to do something. It was time for him to use his 24000 veterans that were still uninvolved in the combat. He ordered them to join the battle.

At this moment, Scipio made a crucial choice. He ordered his hastati to reform amid the principes and triarii. They formed a small but dense killing zone that the Carthaginians had to enter. Although the fighting was brutal, it appeared the Carthaginians were just starting to get the upper hand, when Scipio’s cavalry returned and routed the Carthaginians.

Hannibal escaped to Hadrumentum, and the Carthaginian government sued for peace. This marked the last major battle for Hannibal. Although he later served as an admiral for the Seleucids, he never could return to glory after this defeat.