Hannibal’s Return to Africa II

Movements of the opposing armies before the battle of Zama.


The armies that faced each other that day were relatively close to the same size, with the Romans having a slight numerical advantage in cavalry. In addition to his own fifteen hundred horsemen, Scipio had the four thousand horsemen and six thousand infantry brought to him by Massinissa. In terms of infantry, his army was composed of twenty-three thousand Romans and Italians, who, along with the Numidians, brought his total to a little over thirty-four thousand. Hannibal had nearly forty thousand soldiers, among them Ligurians, Gauls, Balearic Island slingers, and Mauritanians, all of whom he placed on his front line. These were the most unreliable elements in his army, and, as in the previous battles in Italy, he intended them to absorb the first wave of the Roman attack and sustain the heaviest casualties. Their sacrifice would make the work of Hannibal’s second and third lines easier. Livy refers to the first line as “the scum of every nation,” men motivated only by the prospects of money, booty, and slaves.

In front of this line Hannibal positioned eighty elephants to break the Roman assault—the greatest number he had ever used in battle. His second line consisted of Carthaginian and African infantry, while the third was held in reserve to be committed to the battle when Hannibal considered it to be the decisive moment. This last line was composed of seasoned veterans—the Bruttians, the remnants of the mercenaries he had brought with him from Italy. To reinforce them were some four thousand Macedonian heavy infantry who had been sent from Philip. Hannibal purposely held this line apart from the fighting, so when they entered the fray at the right moment they would do so with “strength and spirit unimpaired.”

In his usual fashion, Hannibal placed his cavalry on both flanks, Numidians on the left and Carthaginians on the right. But this time he lacked the numerical advantage in cavalry that he had always enjoyed and relied on. Hannibal motivated his soldiers for battle utilizing a combination of fear and self-interest. While the Gauls, Ligurians, and Bruttians hated the Romans, they must also have been enticed to fight by the prospect of the spoils that come with victory. The Numidians, Hannibal’s African contingent, were probably fighting for money but also out of fear that a Roman victory would mean enslavement under Rome’s ally Massinissa. For the Carthaginians, their motivation had to have been the prospect that a Roman victory would mean they would lose everything. Their city would be sacked and burned, their wives and children who survived carried off into slavery, while victory that day would mean they would regain their commercial mastery of the western Mediterranean world with all the profits that entailed.

As Hannibal addressed his troops, he reminded the veterans of the long years they had fought together in Italy, even though most of them were Italians and recent Numidian recruits—the old core that had come with him from Spain were probably either dead or long gone. He recounted the Roman legions they had defeated in Italy and named the consuls who had fallen before them. Hannibal would stop along the line when he recognized a veteran who had distinguished himself in previous battles, calling out that soldier’s name and recounting his deeds for those around him to hear. The problem was, there were very few of those men from the old guard left to honor. Most of Hannibal’s soldiers were not of the same caliber as those he had led over the Alps and into Italy. He commanded what must have been a disjointed force of men, many of whom had little experience with him as their commander and with whom there must have been no bond beyond money or fear. Unlike the force of mercenaries Hannibal had led from Spain, he had limited time to train this new army and mold them into anything close to the dedicated, cohesive fighting force he had led onto the battlefields of Italy. What Hannibal had been able to do so effectively in Spain and Italy with his army, he seemed unable to accomplish in North Africa.

In the Roman camp, Scipio followed a similar pattern in preparing his soldiers for battle. He recounted their victories in Spain and in North Africa and explained there was little to fear from Hannibal, an adversary who was but the shadow of the man he had once been. Scipio reminded his soldiers that it was Hannibal who just the day before had come to him seeking peace, not out of a desire to end the war, but out of fear of defeat. Soon, he told his soldiers; they would be enjoying the spoils of Carthage and then returning home to their families—as wealthy, proud, and undisputed masters of the world.

As he positioned his army for battle, Scipio placed soldiers known as the hastati, or spear throwers, on the first line. They were usually the poorest and youngest men in the Roman army, those who could afford, if lucky, only modest protective equipment, usually chainmail armor. They were first in battle and bore the brunt of the initial attack. If the enemy overcame the hastati, they would come up against the second line, more seasoned infantry, known as the principes. These men came from a wealthier class, fought with large shields and swords, and were more heavily armed and more experienced. The third line were the triarii, the oldest and wealthiest men in the army, those who could afford the highest-quality equipment. The triarii wore heavy metal armor, carried large shields, and fought in a shallow phalanx formation. They were only committed to the battle at a crucial junction, giving rise to an old Roman saying, res ad triarios venit (it comes down to the triarii). When the battle lines had been formed, Scipio positioned his Italian cavalry on the left wing and the Numidians under the command of his new ally, Massinissa, on the right.

In drawing up his battle lines, Scipio made an innovative modification that contributed significantly to his victory. Armies at the time were usually drawn up in either the traditional Greek phalanx, a tight formation of soldiers fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with interlocking shields, or in a more relaxed checkerboard fashion, a style that came to characterize the Roman army during and after the Second Punic War. When Scipio saw Hannibal’s elephants in the front line, he modified the checkerboard pattern by ordering the second line to position itself directly behind the first, and the third behind the second. This arrangement opened pathways or alleys to the left and right of each file of soldiers that ran directly from the front of the first line straight back to the third. Into these alleys, Scipio interspersed very lightly armed soldiers known as velites. Like the hastati, they were among the youngest and poorest but most mobile of his troops. They were nearly naked and armed with javelins. Their function was to harass the enemy at the initial encounter but not stand and fight. They were skirmishers, and once they had done their work, they quickly faded back into the files as the opposing armies closed. Scipio intended for them to give way as Hannibal’s elephants charged, moving themselves laterally out of the path of the animals, and then turning to torment the beasts with javelin thrusts to their eyes and rectal areas as they passed.

As the armies engaged, Hannibal ordered his mahouts to drive their elephants directly into the Roman first line. The Roman infantry responded by beating their swords on their shields, and the noise, combined with the blowing of trumpets, panicked some of the elephants, causing them to turn back on their own lines. Others charged forward into the Romans and instinctively took the path of least resistance—directly through the alleys created between the maniples. As they passed, they were tormented by the velites and eventually driven off the field.

At first, Hannibal’s front line managed to push the Romans back. But eventually the Romans stopped giving ground and held fast. So close were the armies pressed together at this point, that spears were dropped and the fighting became hand-to-hand with swords. Then, at a crucial moment in the battle, Hannibal ordered the Carthaginian troops in his second line to come to the aid of those on the first—but they refused to move forward. As one ancient source phrased it, they demonstrated “a thoroughly cowardly spirit.” Apparently Hannibal had little confidence in them from the outset because of their “inherent cowardice” and had probably placed them between his first line and his seasoned veterans in the third in an attempt to force them to fight when their turn came. Without support, Hannibal’s front line eventually gave way, and as the soldiers turned to retreat, they found themselves fighting the Romans behind them and the Carthaginians who now blocked their only avenue of retreat in front. Large numbers of Hannibal’s soldiers died at the hands of their own, while any who managed to extricate themselves from the fighting and emerge found their escape blocked by the interlocking shields and lowered spears of Hannibal’s third line—his Bruttian allies and the Macedonian phalanx.

What was left of Hannibal’s first and second lines was eventually pushed out onto the flanks, where they attempted to run into the open countryside. But there was no escape from the carnage, and most were killed or captured by Roman cavalry detachments waiting on the wings for them. The space between the two armies filled with the dead and the dying—the ground soaked in the blood and gore of both men and animals. Corpses were piled up in heaps in a macabre display of contorted arms, legs, and torsos extending in every direction. The turning point in the battle came when Roman and Numidian cavalry detachments, returning from having driven Hannibal’s cavalry off the field, attacked his third line from the rear. The level ground gave them every advantage over Hannibal’s best infantry, who were now confused and disorganized, fighting their own men in front of them and the Romans behind them.

When the battle ended, over twenty thousand of Hannibal’s soldiers were reported to have been killed and an equal number taken prisoner. If the numbers reported in the ancient sources can be believed, the Romans suffered only fifteen hundred killed. With Hannibal’s army in disarray, the Romans moved to plunder his camp. The battle was over, and Hannibal, once the terror of Italy and the nemesis of Rome, deserted what was left of his army. With a few of his closest supporters, he fled across the desert on horseback, riding all that night and into the next day, until they reached the safety of the coast at Hadrumetum. Despite Hannibal’s defeat, the Greek Polybius found no fault with his actions at Zama, nor did he question the competence of his command.

According to Polybius, circumstances and fortune simply did not favor Hannibal that day, as he had come upon an adversary who was his equal. Polybius believed that Hannibal did everything possible to avoid fighting at Zama. He attempted to negotiate a settlement, and when that failed and he was forced to fight, he acted to the highest standards in the way he deployed his army. But the Roman army at Zama was not like those Hannibal had faced in Italy. This army and its commander were more experienced and better trained than those Hannibal had slaughtered at the Trebbia, Trasimene, and Cannae. The Romans had come a long way in sixteen years of war and learned their lessons the hard way. What Hannibal faced at Zama were disciplined, experienced soldiers led by a new breed of commander, one who thought and acted like a professional soldier, not a politician.

In analyzing the battle of Zama, the primary question is why did Hannibal lose? Was it because he held back his best troops, his Italians and the Macedonian phalanx, while the rest of his army was being cut to pieces? This was not consistent with his usual tactical modus operandi. With the Roman army engaged with his first line and their cavalry off the field, why didn’t Hannibal drive his third line of fresh and experienced veterans into the fray while executing the lethal cavalry flank attack or envelopment he was famous for in Italy? Was he too distracted, contending with a mutiny in his Carthaginian second line? Why did he allow the Romans to control the flanks—the most important position in a battle?

Hannibal appeared uncharacteristically passive at Zama, leaving the initiative to Scipio. He took a defensive posture by engaging in a traditional slugfest of attrition. His inclination to maneuvers and the employment of innovative strategies, moves that once defied convention and gave him the advantage over larger armies, was not in evidence, despite the praise of Polybius. This was clearly not the same general who had commanded at the Trebbia, Trasimene, and Cannae over a decade before.

After plundering Hannibal’s camp, Scipio returned his army to its base at Utica. There, he dispatched an emissary to report his victory to the senate in Rome and prepared his army to march on Carthage. He sent half his force by sea and the remainder overland. Scipio was aboard the flotilla, not far from Carthage, when a ship “laced with woolen fillets and olive branches of supplication” intercepted them. On board the approaching vessel were ten of the most prominent citizens of Carthage, who had come to beg for mercy. Scipio ordered them to return to the city and wait until he established his camp nearby at the site of modern-day Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. In an attempt to help the Carthaginians, the son of Syphax attacked the Roman camp with a sizable force of infantry and cavalry, but the Romans drove them back into the desert from where they had come.

The Carthaginians sent a second delegation to Scipio, this time thirty of their leading citizens, begging an audience to discuss terms. Their reception was hostile, because, “the memory of their treachery was still fresh.” Scipio held a council of his closest advisors to discuss his response, and the consensus that emerged was that Carthage should be destroyed. When Scipio’s advisors began to discuss in detail what an assault on the city would entail, the magnitude of the undertaking and the probable length of the siege became sobering. Political considerations also had to be accounted for. Despite his success on the battlefield, Scipio was not popular with all the political factions in the senate at Rome, and he suspected he might be replaced. If that happened, his successor could reap the credit for winning the war without ever having fought a battle. With these considerations in mind, the decision was made not to lay siege to Carthage but to end the war immediately on relatively lenient terms.

The Carthaginian envoys were called to Scipio’s quarters where, once more, they were sharply rebuked for the duplicity of their people, and then the terms of a remarkably lenient peace were laid out before them. Carthage would be allowed to remain an independent city-state—free from Roman military occupation. Its citizens would retain their own form of government and continue to formulate and live under their own laws. Carthage would retain control over all those territories she held in Africa before the war began, and all Roman prisoners, deserters, and runaway slaves were to be returned. All Carthaginian warships, except for ten, were to be turned over to the Romans, along with all the remaining war elephants. Carthage was prohibited from waging war anywhere in the ancient world without the permission of the Roman senate, and Massinissa would be awarded territory in North Africa as delineated by Rome. Scipio’s soldiers were to be fed and paid a salary by Carthage for a minimum of three months or until envoys returned from Rome with ratification of the treaty. In the meantime, a truce was in place, but not a peace treaty. A hundred hostages, all between the ages of fourteen and thirty, were chosen by Scipio from among the leading families of Carthage and surrendered to guarantee compliance with the truce. The Roman ships that had been salvaged by Carthage were to be returned and their owners compensated for lost or missing cargo. Finally, Carthage was to pay an indemnity to Rome of 10,000 talents in equal annual installments over a fifty-year period—considerably more than the 2,200 talents imposed at the conclusion of the First Punic War in 241 B.C.

The envoys returned to Carthage to present the terms to the senate for ratification. Hannibal was summoned from Hadrumetum, probably to account for his defeat and explain why the war had been lost. When he returned to Carthage and reviewed the terms, Hannibal urged the senate to accept them and put its trust in Scipio. When the terms were announced to the people in a public forum, they were initially met with disapproval. Speaker after speaker took the podium to rail against ratification. The people were tired of the war, even though it had failed to touch most of them directly. They complained over the additional taxes and assessments imposed by the government to pay the first installment of indemnities due to Rome.

Hannibal, present in the assembly, became so agitated that he forcibly pulled one speaker from the dais in frustration, and the crowd reacted angrily to his action. There were shouts that Carthage was a democracy—where people had a right to express their views. When Hannibal took the podium, he responded to a bevy of taunts, but calmed the crowd by explaining that he was a soldier and not accustomed to the “excessive freedoms of city life.” He had been away for nearly forty years waging war to protect their freedom and needed time to accustom himself to the “conventions, laws and customs of civil life and public discourse.” Hannibal commanded great respect, and the crowd responded favorably to his apology. They listened attentively as he explained the reality of their situation and the fairness of Scipio’s terms. They accepted his criticism that people only seem to feel the misfortunes of war when they impinge on their purses. There is no sting more painful, he commented, to people who are wealthy, comfortable, and secure than the loss of their money.18 Hannibal turned the crowd in favor of peace on Roman terms that day, and with few options open to them, the popular assembly and then the senate approved them.

At Rome matters began to unfold just as Scipio had feared. Elections for the consulship were held, and one of those elected for 201 B.C. was Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus. Lentulus, with support from senators who were critical of Scipio, maneuvered to have Africa assigned to him as his province. Ambitious men were seeking appointments so they could partake of the final victory feast at little personal risk. There was money to be made in North Africa, and Lentulus calculated that with the major fighting over, he could claim the final victory and its rewards with minimal risk. Even if hostilities resumed, he believed they would do so only on a limited basis. The financial and political rewards far outweighed any risks. But the attempt to assign him Africa was defeated in another political venue. Scipio’s supporters circumvented the senate and went directly to the popular assembly to have it grant Scipio “imperium”—a combination of political, military, and economic authority over Africa. Now he had sole command over the Roman land forces in Africa and the authority to administer his peace treaty with Carthage. Carthage surrendered its warships, and some five hundred were towed out to sea, burned, and sunk within sight of the city ramparts. Then the Carthaginians turned over their elephants, along with four thousand Roman prisoners, deserters, and slaves. Scipio had the soldiers repatriated, the deserters crucified, the Italians among them beheaded, and the runaway slaves scourged and returned to their masters.


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