Hannibal’s Return to Africa I

202 BCE: Hannibal Barca, leader of the Carthaginian army, is defeated by the invading Roman legions under Scipio Africanus in the Battle of Zama. (Painting: Zama’s aftermath, preliminary version of Giuseppe Rava, research of Raffaele D’Amato, from Roman Centurions, 753-31 BC, Oxford, 2011)

Having been confined to a small area on the Adriatic coast for nearly two years, Hannibal received orders to return to Africa in the summer of 203 B.C. Even in retreat, he remained a threat to the Romans. If, along with the remnants of Mago’s army, he could reach the shores of North Africa, their combined forces could affect the outcome of the war. Yet there is only one scant reference in the sources to an attempt to intercept Mago after he departed Genova and none regarding Hannibal. The Romans had naval forces in Sicily that were active in the waters off the coast of North Africa. Both Hannibal and Mago would have had to slip past them on their way to Africa, yet there is only a brief mention in one source of the senate at Rome ordering the navy to block the Carthaginian departures. That same source, Livy, attributes the failure to even try to stop Hannibal to a lack of determination, and even fear on the part of the Roman naval commanders. As a result, Hannibal and most of Mago’s force were able to reach North Africa without incident.

By this point in the war the Romans had shifted their focus to Spain. Scipio, following the deaths of his father and uncle, had taken charge of the Roman forces there and turned the war around. His capture of Cartagena in 210 B.C., and then a victory at Ilipa, near Seville, in 206 B.C. put Carthage on the defensive. Scipio returned to Rome in 205 B.C. to a hero’s welcome. He was so popular that he was elected consul, even though he was legally too young to hold the office. The following year he sailed to North Africa with a newly raised army, and instead of launching an assault directly against Carthage, laid siege to the coastal city of Utica, about fifteen miles to the west.

Outside of Utica in 203 B.C., Scipio defeated a large Carthaginian army under the joint command of Hasdrubal, the son of Gisco, and his African son-in-law, Syphax, which had been sent to lift the siege. Reeling from this defeat, the Carthaginians sent a delegation of their most senior senators to approach Scipio about a treaty. They prostrated themselves before him and acknowledged that while Carthage might have been technically responsible for starting the war, the real cause lay in the ambitions of the Barca clan. In reply to their request for an end to the hostilities, Scipio demanded that the Carthaginians withdraw all their forces from Italy, relinquish Spain and all the islands between Italy and North Africa, hand over their warships and elephants, pay an indemnity of five thousand talents, and feed the Roman army until it left North Africa. The delegation returned to Carthage to report the terms to the senate, which, in response, sent word to Hannibal and Mago to return as soon as possible. The senate then undertook to stall Scipio, who became impatient with the delay and threatened to resume the war. The senate quickly agreed to his terms with the stipulation that a Carthaginian delegation would be allowed to travel to Rome and obtain ratification of the treaty directly from the senate there. It was nothing more than another attempt to gain more time to allow the Barcas to return to North Africa with their armies and resume the war.

The Carthaginian envoys landed at the port of Puteoli, on the gulf of Naples, and then made their way overland to Rome. When they arrived, they were detained outside the walls of the city until the senate agreed to meet with them near the Campus Martius or “field of Mars,” a publicly owned area named in honor of the Roman god of war where male citizens assembled every spring to receive their military assignments and every five years to be counted for the census. The mood at the meeting was adversarial. At the outset, the Romans confronted the Carthaginians with their reputation for duplicity and violations of previous agreements. They argued aggressively that there was no point to a peace treaty, since the Carthaginians could not be trusted to honor it once they saw an advantage or a possibility of gain at Roman expense. In response, the Carthaginian envoys pleaded for peace and continued to place all blame for the war on Hannibal and his brothers. They maintained that Hannibal had acted without their express authority when he attacked Saguntum and crossed the Alps to invade Italy—it had all been on his own initiative. The Romans reminded them that, years before, when the Roman ambassadors had protested the attack on Saguntum and given the Carthaginians the choice between war and peace, their senate had enthusiastically chosen war, rolled the dice, and lost. Now they would have to pay the price.

The Carthaginian delegation was left waiting while the Romans retired to debate their course of action. The consensus that emerged was that, with the war in Spain essentially over and Scipio and his army holding the upper hand in North Africa, Carthage was desperate for a settlement. The Romans knew, or at least surmised, that Hannibal and Mago had been sent for and the Carthaginians would resort to any deception to buy time for them to return and relieve the pressure. Many of the senators favored ordering Scipio to continue to press the war in North Africa and refused to consider any accommodation with Carthage so long as Hannibal and Mago remained on Italian soil. A little later, when word reached Rome that Hannibal and Mago had departed, the senate ratified the treaty on the terms laid down initially by Scipio.

When the Romans learned that Hannibal had left, they were ambivalent about his departure. On the one hand, they were glad to get him out of Italy, and there are indications that with him gone there were signs of an economic recovery. On the other hand, there was concern about the impact he and his army would have on the course of the war in North Africa. To celebrate his departure and insure that the gods would favor Scipio’s campaign in North Africa, games were held and sacrifices conducted at the Circus Maximus, the chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue situated in the city between the Aventine and Palatine hills. But the prospect of Hannibal in Africa also worried the Romans. Scipio was not popular with all the aristocracy, and there were senators who were skeptical about the outcome when he would face Hannibal on the battlefield. Scipio was young, and despite his victories in Spain and North Africa, he might not be Hannibal’s equal. Not knowing yet that Mago had died at sea, they feared Scipio could be facing both Barca brothers in North Africa, experienced commanders who led seasoned veterans. The Barcas had killed several Roman consuls on the battlefields of Italy and Spain and had as trophies more captured Roman standards than the Roman armies currently carried. Nor did the entire senate support Scipio. There was an influential faction that had been traditionally hostile toward his family and wanted him removed from office and replaced with someone more to their liking. Quintus Fabius, the former dictator and a respected advisor to the senate, before he died warned that Hannibal defending his home in Africa could be a more formidable enemy than he had been in Italy. Even though Hannibal was out of Italy, many in the senate knew the war might be far from over.

Factions in the Carthaginian aristocracy had similar concerns about Hannibal. While there were Romans who worried Scipio was too young, there were Carthaginians in the senate who argued that Hannibal was too old. While they acknowledged his achievements, they were concerned because Spain had been lost, and after fifteen years, there was nothing to show for the expense and effort in Italy. The Carthaginian army in North Africa under Hasdrubal and Syphax had been defeated by Scipio just a few miles from the walls of Carthage, and if battles continued to be lost, the outcome of the war was sure to be harsher than the terms that were already on the table. The city could be occupied, looted, and burned. The Carthaginian senate was divided between those who wanted to conclude an immediate peace with Rome to safeguard their holdings, and another, equally influential and vocal faction, which favored supporting Hannibal and continuing the war.

As the Carthaginian flotilla set out to sea, Hannibal looked back at the coastline of Italy, the country he had ravaged for so many years. It must have been a bittersweet moment. Hannibal was young when he crossed the Alps, having just turned thirty, and full of promise now at forty-four he was leaving Italy without even having brought the Romans to the negotiating table much less winning the war. He cursed the gods for his change of fortune, then in hindsight, blamed himself for having failed to march on Rome after Cannae, when his soldiers “were covered with Roman blood from their victory.” Hannibal was envious of Scipio because of his youth and success. At the same time, he was critical of him because he had never commanded an army in battle on Italian soil, and now he was in position to march on Carthage. With continual words of self-recrimination and regret, the nemesis of Rome left Italy and sailed toward Africa to write a new chapter in an old book.

A few days later, Hannibal’s flotilla landed south of Carthage, somewhere on the coast around ancient Hadrumetum, which today is called Sousse. This was the Barca tribal homeland, and Hannibal established his base camp in the land he had left as a child decades earlier—a land and a people that must have seemed more alien to him than Spain and Italy, where he had lived and fought for so long. Hannibal probably avoided Carthage because of his mistrust of the political factions there—those who blamed him for the course of the war and might seek to hold him accountable. Despite his victories and reputation, Hannibal faced the prospect of prosecution, and even crucifixion, if the senate found fault with his conduct of the war in Italy. As Livy pointed out, “Hannibal had not been defeated by the Romans, who he so often slaughtered and routed, but by the Carthaginian senate with its carping jealousy.” With the lessons learned from his father’s experiences in the First Punic War, Hannibal may have decided that he would now act more in the capacity of an independent warlord in this final phase of the war than as a general in the service of his city-state.

In the south Hannibal had a considerable buffer between Scipio’s army and his own, allowing him valuable time to organize his forces and prepare for the next stage of his campaign. The clans and tribes around Hadrumetum had been loyal to the Barcas for generations, and Hannibal must have been counting on them to augment his forces. Several of these tribes had come to join him out of concern that if the Romans were to win the war, their ally, the Numidian king Massinissa, would dominate most of North Africa and they would lose their independence. So they joined Hannibal, just as the remnants of Mago’s army from northern Italy arrived, bringing word of his death at sea.

With no treaty in place, Scipio turned his army loose to plunder the countryside to the west of Carthage in a manner similar to what Hannibal had done in Italy for years. Hannibal remained at Hadrumetum during the winter of 203–202 B.C., even though he received repeated appeals from the senate at Carthage to engage Scipio. According to the sources, Hannibal was unresponsive and may even have had his soldiers out in the groves planting olive trees to pass the time. Whatever his reasons, Hannibal remained passive for several months, possibly even as long as a year, before moving his army into the interior of Tunisia and establishing his camp near a town called Zama. There is little information about the location of Zama, other than references to its being a five-day march southwest from Carthage, an estimated one hundred miles and roughly the same distance due west from Hadrumetum. Among the possible sites identified over the years by scholars is an area just north of modern-day Maktar. Other possibilities are El Kef and Sidi Youssef, in the same general area but a little farther west and closer to the current border between Algeria and Tunisia.

Military historians have never agreed on the exact location or even the date of the battle between Hannibal and Scipio. Speculation is that it occurred in this general area in 202 B.C. A summer battle is ruled out, given the extreme heat in the desert at that time of year, when temperatures can rise to dangerous levels. The effects of dehydration and sunstroke on the infantry, the elephants, and the horses would have been debilitating. Thus, a date in the autumn, probably between late September and November, is more plausible. In attempting to fix a more precise date, scholars have sometimes looked to the writings of the ancient historian Dio Cassius. Cassius maintained that the battle took place on a day when there was an eclipse of the sun, which alarmed the Carthaginians. Astronomical calculations indicate a plausible date of October 19, 202 B.C., and while there appears to have been an eclipse on that day, further investigation reveals that it probably blocked less than one-tenth of the sun for observers in that latitude. In the heat of battle, it is doubtful that so small a celestial event would have been noted much less been cause for Carthaginian concern.

Scipio moved his army south from the coast and established his camp on a site with an abundant supply of water. Hannibal chose to forego easy access to water for what he considered to be a more secure location and then sent scouts to reconnoiter Scipio’s camp. Some of them were apprehended, but instead of being executed as spies, the usual penalty, they were graciously received by Scipio, encouraged to walk around the camp, and make accurate observations of everything they saw. As Hannibal’s men were touring the camp, Massinissa made an impressive arrival with six thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry. Scipio was so sure of himself, so confident of victory, that he utilized a clever ploy against the master of psychological tactics. Giving the scouts a tour of the camp, and then releasing them to report back what they had seen, was something Hannibal would have done years earlier in Spain and Italy to rattle his opponent.

When the scouts returned and reported what they had seen, Hannibal sent word to Scipio that he wanted to meet and discuss a solution to ending the war other than by fighting—something Hannibal had never done before in his career. Scipio’s ploy had worked. That Hannibal even proposed a meeting could be interpreted as his lack of confidence in his army, or perhaps even in his ability to direct a battle. Scipio was receptive to the proposal, and as their camps were within a few miles of each other, he agreed to meet at a site midway between the two, which afforded an unobstructed view from all directions. Scipio and Hannibal each arrived at the meeting place, accompanied by a small detachment of armed cavalry and an interpreter. The cavalry remained a short distance away as two of history’s greatest generals approached each other. Facing each other for the first time, both men initially remained silent, not out of reticence or fear, but apparently from what must have been a sense of mutual respect and admiration.

Initially, each spoke in his native language, but as their rapport developed and they became more comfortable with each other, they may well have dispensed with the interpreters and conversed in Greek. We know from the sources that both men had a working knowledge of Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient world. Hannibal spoke first by taking responsibility for starting the war—a major concession and a conciliatory opening to the negotiations. But instead of continuing in that vein, he began to brag how at several periods during the war victory was nearly in his grasp. Not just a battlefield victory, of which he reminded Scipio he had many, but a victorious end to the war itself. Then Hannibal shifted his approach by becoming complimentary and expressing how pleased he was to be negotiating with Scipio, and not with any of the other Roman commanders, none of whom he considered to be his equal. He praised Scipio for having taken command at a young age, when he was not yet able to qualify for the position, and in avenging the deaths of his father and uncle in Spain. Hannibal complimented Scipio because he had not let vengeance consume him but channeled it into a positive accomplishment. He had the strategic foresight to invade Africa when others thought only of defending Italy. It was a mirror of what Hannibal had done as a young man. He went on to praise Scipio for his ability as a commander by enumerating his recent victories in North Africa and bringing to the gates of Carthage the same fear that the Romans had felt when he was before the walls of Rome.

Then Hannibal began to lecture Scipio about life, and the vicissitudes of war. He concluded with the argument that peace in hand is of greater value and to be preferred to an empty hope of victory. Peace between them now, Hannibal argued, would bring Scipio everything he could want. But if they fought, Scipio would have to accept whatever outcome fate and the gods had in store for him. Unable to let go, Hannibal’s ego impelled him to point out how this war was more notable for the Carthaginian victories than the Roman ones. Then he shifted his approach back to praise, this time toward Scipio’s family, as he recounted how he had engaged Scipio’s father in northern Italy years before. Hannibal acknowledged how they had both lost those close to them because of this war; Scipio his father and uncle, Hannibal his brothers. There was no need to continue the war, Hannibal urged; they could end it now.

Hannibal’s words reveal an ego that needed to project strength, confidence, and resolve, while at the same time attempting to hide his fear that his time at center stage was over and this was a battle he might well lose. He continued, noting how much simpler and happier life could have been for both of them if those who directed the affairs of their governments had been able to remain content with what they had and not coveted the possessions of others. If Carthage had only remained content to stay within the confines of Africa, and Rome within Italy, the war and all its suffering could have been avoided—words from the man “for whom Africa was too small a continent.” Hannibal mused that while one could criticize the past, no one could change it, and they would both have to deal with the way things were, not with how they would have had them.

Conceding that he was negotiating at a time when Rome clearly held the upper hand, Hannibal reminded Scipio that the outcome of the war had not yet been decided. All that was needed to bring it to an end that benefited both sides without further bloodshed were calm, rational minds and a willingness to discuss and negotiate. Hannibal explained that he saw life now through the eyes of an old man, and old men, aware of the sudden and unexpected changes that fortune can inflict, prefer to follow what is prudent rather than trust in luck. Young men, he lectured the younger Scipio, especially those who have enjoyed good fortune, tend to believe that it will endure forever, and in that belief, Hannibal warned, is their weakness.

Then Hannibal began to outline the terms of a settlement by offering Rome all the territory that was the cause for starting the war, and which Rome now possessed; Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and all the islands between Africa and Italy (Malta). The terms did not differ significantly from what Scipio had offered to the Carthaginian senate the year before, and remarkably, would be, with some minor additions and adjustments, the terms of the final peace after Hannibal’s defeat at Zama. Hannibal conceded that the Carthaginians had been deceitful in past negotiations and often failed to uphold terms they had agreed to. But things were different now. Hannibal was prepared to give his personal pledge to uphold the terms of a peace accord between them. While Hannibal conceded that he had started the war and was successful until the gods became envious of him and reversed his fortune, he assured Scipio that Rome would never come to regret any peace accord which he guaranteed. Then Hannibal moved in to close the deal as he posed the key question: why risk losing everything you have gained so far on the outcome of a battle? By engaging in a treaty now, Hannibal emphasized, Scipio could walk away from the table the winner—with minimal risk. Hannibal’s words revealed a man who had accepted that Fortuna, or fortune, the most powerful force in the ancient Roman pantheon, had turned her gaze away from him, but he retained a reputation as an undefeatable commander in battle and with a sizable army behind him remained a formidable threat.

Scipio had remained quiet while Hannibal spoke, listening carefully and taking the measure of the man against whom he had first fought sixteen years before at the Trebbia. Then, Scipio had been a boy of eighteen and held no rank. Now he was the youngest consul in Rome’s history and in command of an army facing Rome’s greatest enemy. Scipio was considerably less philosophical than Hannibal and not given to long digressions. In his pragmatic manner, he made it evident from the outset that he considered himself to hold the upper hand that day, both in their negotiations and on the battlefield. He reminded Hannibal that times had changed. It was the present, Scipio reminded Hannibal, that mattered, not the past. Scipio pointed out that the Carthaginians had started both Punic wars and to end this conflict he had negotiated with them in good faith. Yet the Carthaginians violated the terms of the agreement when it suited them, because they believed that when Hannibal returned to North Africa he would turn the tide of the war in their favor. Now they were seeking to avoid the consequences of their duplicity.

Scipio pointed out that Hannibal was simply offering to concede what Rome already possessed. The Carthaginians, he contended, did not deserve to have the same terms available to them now as they had before they violated the recent treaty. The time to have negotiated an end to the war on favorable terms had been before Hannibal left Italy, not now. As Scipio saw it, Hannibal had only one option to avoid a battle; unconditional surrender. That would entail, in addition to the original terms of the last treaty, paying an indemnity to compensate Rome for the recent loss of a large convoy of her ships off the coast of North Africa. Those ships had been ferrying supplies from Sicily when they were caught in a storm off Cape Bon and driven ashore. A Carthaginian naval squadron took possession of the transports and towed them back to Carthage, where the people looted the cargo. Scipio had sent a delegation to Carthage to demand the return of the ships and their cargo, as well as an apology for what he considered an act of piracy and a violation of the peace treaty. But the senate at Carthage, emboldened by the prospect of Hannibal’s return to Africa, refused. To make matters worse, the Roman ship carrying Scipio’s emissaries back to his camp was intercepted by Carthaginian war ships and some of the soldiers on board killed in a skirmish. In response, Scipio demanded additional compensation for their deaths and the mistreatment of his envoys.

In response, Hannibal took a hard line and warned Scipio that they would have to fight and let fortune decide which of them would prevail and whether Rome or Carthage would be master of the western half of the Mediterranean. The meeting ended, and they returned to their respective camps to prepare their armies for battle. The next day the two most famous generals in the ancient world, leading the two most powerful armies from the world’s two richest cities, met on a broad plain to do battle. Zama, along with the Metaurus, is among the most underrated battles in history, and yet the outcomes of both these clashes marked the genesis of the Roman Empire and probably helped establish the direction of Western civilization.


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