Early Warfare and Weapons in Africa

In ancient Africa peoples or rulers went to war for many reasons. They may have sought to add to their land or wanted a protective barrier from a neighbor’s attacks. They may have desired to gain wealth by collecting taxes and tribute from subject peoples, as ALEXANDER THE GREAT (356-323 BCE) did when he attacked the Persian Empire in 334 BCE. They also used warfare to increase their power in a region and dominate or destroy a rival, as was the case when ROME fought the three PUNIC WARS (264-241 BCE, 218-201 BCE, and 149-146 BCE) against CARTHAGE.

Early Warfare

A few types of weapons, notably spears, stones, and clubs, are known to have been in use for many thousands of years, and it is probable that weapons used for hunting were used at times to kill other human beings during conflict.

The earliest archaeological evidence of warfare was discovered in the 1960s near Wadi Halfa in the present-day Republic of the SUDAN. A large burial plot, dating from c. 12,000 BCE, was found to contain 59 skeletons and a variety of stone projectiles. Projectile points located in the skulls, spines, pelvises, and limb bones of the skeletons indicated violent deaths. Scholars suggest this massacre was the result of an unstable agricultural system in the NILE VALLEY, where crop output varied. As a result, when any population increased or when crop yields decreased, there would be competition for FOOD. Thus the violence that led to the graves in the burial plot was probably the result of intense competition for the limited resources of the area. Whether the deaths were the result of an organized military campaign or a brutal skirmish between neighbors is unknown.

There is a difference between fighting and organized warfare. When groups of warriors fight, they often engage each other in individual combat with minimal regard for long-term strategy and tactics. Campaigns can end in a day or a few days once some goal has been met or vengeance taken. When larger groups of warriors band together, they may fight as an undisciplined hoard, swarming over and capturing or destroying whatever is in their way. True war requires a disciplined army of soldiers that can march in columns, take orders, and fight in line. A truism of military science says that a disciplined army always has the advantage over one that lacks military training and teamwork. When primitive societies began to transform themselves into states, armies became important organs of the state.

Early Weapons

The first spears were made of fire-hardened wood and played an important role in both hunting and conflict between peoples. During the Late STONE AGE (c. 40,000-3200 BCE) stone spearheads were attached to the ends of spears, increasing their durability and lethality. The earliest spears were short-shorter, in fact, than the hunters and warriors who carried them. As the body armor of soldiers grew heavier, however, spears grew in size. By the time Alexander conquered EGYPT in the fourth century BCE, the spears carried by his soldiers had reached 18 feet (5.5 m) in length.

Evidence found near the MEDITERRANEAN SEA indicates that by 10,000 BCE the bow and arrow had been invented. The bow represented a major innovation in weaponry. It held an advantage over the throwing spear in both the distance it could cover and in the volume of fire an archer could produce as compared to a spear thrower.

Early hunting bows gave people the ability to surprise their prey and strike from a relatively safe distance. The first war bows did much the same, allowing archers to shoot high-velocity missiles with deadly accuracy and force. As time passed, more sophisticated bows were produced. The reflex curved bow, for example, concentrated the strength of the bow in its curved center. Later bows added a layer of bone or horn to the belly of the bone, reinforcing it and giving it even greater strength. The front of the bow was then overlaid with sinew to make it even more powerful. Bows like these were so highly stressed that, when unstrung, they unbowed and reversed their curvature.

By 7000 BCE the sling, a weapon more accurate than the early simple bow, had been devised. Projectiles from a sling were especially deadly when the stones used were the size of fists. The bow and sling were the weapons of choice in many parts of the ancient world even during the BRONZE AGE (c. 3500 BCE), until the mace was developed. This heavy weapon, which was of little or no use in the hunt, became the first tool designed exclusively for war.

The Size of Armies

Despite the ancient world’s significantly smaller populations, ancient armies could sometimes be quite large. The Egyptian army in the times of RAMESSES II (c. 1300 BCE) numbered about 100,000 men, mostly conscripts. At the battle of KADESH in 1303 BCE, the first battle for which historians have reliable troop-strength figures, an Egyptian force of 20,000 soldiers faced an army of HITTITES numbering about 17,000. The ASSYRIAN army of 800 BCE, the first in history to be entirely armed with iron weapons, numbered between 150,000 and 200,000 infantry and cavalrymen. At the battle of Cannae in Italy in 218 BCE, the Roman consuls Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro faced HANNIBAL (c. 247-183 BCE) of CARTHAGE with an army of 80,000 soldiers. Hannibal’s victorious troops killed or wounded more than 50,000 Roman legionnaires in a single day of fighting.

The Bronze Age and the Chariot

The Bronze Age (c. 3500-1000 BCE) saw the development of cast bronze weapons, which featured sharper cutting edges than earlier STONE AGE weapons had, and a limited introduction of body armor. At the same time, cities began to build defensive walls behind which the populace could protect themselves from marauders. Up to that time most combat took place at a sword’s, spear’s, or axe’s length from one’s opponent. During the third millennium BCE, on the plains between ancient Egypt and its Mesopotamian neighbors, a major advance in weaponry changed the face of combat when the bow and arrow, the wheel, and the domesticated horse were combined to create the war chariot. For the first time soldiers could advance on a position in a surprise attack, deliver a deadly javelin or arrow attack from a mobile platform, and quickly race away to regroup or engage in lethal pursuit of a terrified and broken foe. Chariot-borne warriors became the elite strike force of the Egyptian army and gave Egypt a tactical advantage over its opponents.

The first chariots were four-wheeled carts with solid wooden wheels without pivoting front axles and pulled by onagers, fast-running relatives of DONKEYS. Over time the war chariot evolved into a lightweight car with spoked wheels and metal axles and pulled by three or four HORSES. The Persian army of Cyrus the Great used deadly scythed chariots, with sharp blades extending from the axles, in battle with Alexander the Great in the sixth century BCE.

The breeding of horses with sufficient strength and stamina to carry armed riders into battle led to the decline of the chariot as a weapon of war, starting at the end of the second millennium BCE. The Assyrians were responsible for the development of cavalry in the ancient world. Riders used their legs to control the animal, maintaining their seats on the backs of their horses with the aid of neck and belly straps. The stirrup, which allowed riders to stay in the saddle and deliver a strong blow from a lance or sword without being unseated by the movement, had not yet been invented. It would reach Europe from India by way of China during the Middle Ages and shift the balance in battle from infantry to mounted men, very often knights.

Iron Age Advances

Bronze weaponry prevailed for centuries in much of the known ancient world until it was displaced by the superior edges and strength of iron weaponry. Not surprisingly, it was iron weaponry-as well as such new, sophisticated war machines as the catapult-that helped the Romans transform northern Africa into a Roman province.

The IRON AGE came to Africa at different times and in different places. In northeast Africa, by 750 BCE the Kushite kingdom of MEROE produced iron tools and weapons that contributed to that kingdom’s regional dominance. The NOK CULTURE on the JOS PLATEAU of present-day NIGERIA was one of the first cultures in sub-Saharan Africa to produce and use iron. Evidence shows that these people used iron tools and weapons as early as 400 BCE.

The discovery of iron had an important impact on warfare. Iron weapons were forged, not cast like bronze, so that they were less brittle and more reliable than earlier weapons made from bronze. Furthermore, unlike bronze, which required hard-to-find tin to produce, iron was widely available, allowing armies to obtain a plentiful supply of inexpensive weapons. The Hittites were the first to make iron weapons, doing so about 1300 BCE. Within 100 years the technique had spread into Egypt and Mesopotamia. Elsewhere, iron weapons aided the Bantu-speaking peoples as they expanded into sparsely populated parts of Africa during the last half-millennium before the common era.

Whereas for centuries the common people had been conscripted into the army only in time of war, the IRON AGE saw the growth of standing armies in peacetime and the resulting permanent corps of professional soldiers needed to train and lead them. Egypt was among the first to practice wartime conscription. In the Iron Age, conscription gave birth to the standing peacetime army.

Other Advances

Perhaps the greatest advance in warfare in the ancient world was the Roman legion, which Hannibal faced in Italy and which was instrumental in the destruction of Carthage in North Africa. A legion was made up of ten 360-man units called cohorts, each of which contained up to three 120-man companies called maniples. A maniple, in turn, contained two centuries, each led by a centurion. (The 100-man century was eventually reduced to 60 men because it was judged easier to command.) The basic battle formation of the Roman legion had three lines. The first two were javelin-armed heavy infantry; the third was a mixture of light and heavy infantry and cavalry. The lines were staggered to allow for great flexibility and movement. Roman generals relied on massive frontal assaults that took full advantage of the soldiers’ discipline and the power of the Roman short sword, or gladius, to inflict severe wounds in close, hand-to-hand combat. Legions were powerful but not invincible. At Cannae in 218 BCE, Hannibal capitalized on his cavalry and encircled the Roman legions from behind, annihilating them.

Warfare in Ancient Sub-Saharan Africa

Very little is known of warfare in sub-Saharan Africa prior to 500 CE. Although foreign accounts and oral histories indicate that there were episodes of military strife prior to colonialism, virtually no archaeological evidence exists.

At the same time, a warrior tradition was part of many cultures. After growing up and gaining strength and skills, a young male often underwent INITIATION RITES, becoming an adult and a warrior. Ready to fight when the elders commanded, warriors were expected to protect their people and CATTLE from predators and neighbors as well as engage in cattle raids on other villages. The MAASAI have traditionally valued the stoic endurance of pain. In earlier times it was a custom for the warrior in training, armed only with a dagger, to prove his manhood by killing a lion.

The newly initiated warrior was given a sword and spear. He wore a special garment and let his hair grow long, braiding it and decorating it with ochre and sheep fat. His life was strictly governed by Maasai law and custom. A warrior drank no alcoholic beverages and ate only in the company of his age set. He also avoided sexual relations until 10 or more years after his initiation into manhood, whereupon he was then promoted to senior warrior and allowed to marry. Throughout his term of service, until he became an elder, he served his people with honor. Little is recorded about the strategy and tactics that these warriors used or about the duration and the ferocity of the battles they fought.

Although the details of early African warfare are vague, by 1200 distinct military tactics had emerged throughout the continent. The severity of warfare depended largely on the size, government structure, and location of the communities involved.

The earliest known conflicts occurred between loosely organized peoples like the DINKA, Nuer, MAASAI, and San. Although their villages, with their elder-dominated SOCIAL STRUCTURE, usually lacked a clear hierarchical system, these communities were able to organize into bands during warfare. Bands (groups of related nomadic or foraging peoples) and groups of agriculturalists often raided neighboring villages, but they seldom engaged in long battles. Few people died in these conflicts because of the limited killing power of their weapons, which were generally just modified hunting and farming tools. This early warfare tended to center on domestic disputes, such as conflicts over cattle, land, LABOR, or social status. Opponents were never really defeated; rather they were simply kept at bay for a period of time.

In the seventh century Arab Muslim armies from Saudi Arabia advanced westward across the Red Sea and into EGYPT, first establishing a base of operations at CAIRO. Mounted on horseback and armed with strong iron swords-as well as religious fervor-they quickly conquered weakly defended agricultural villages in the hinterland. Along the coast they faced stiff Byzantine opposition, which included naval ships, but even the Byzantines eventually fell to the overwhelming Arab forces. Although they also faced fierce resistance from indigenous BERBERS in present-day ALGERIA and MOROCCO, by the beginning of the eighth century Muslim ARABS had conquered nearly all of North Africa. They also crossed the Straight of Gibraltar and conquered the southern part of Spain. In the west the Muslim expansion southward was limited only by the forbidding environment of the SAHARA DESERT. In the east, however, the expansion was forestalled by the armies of MAQURRAH, in Christian NUBIA. In addition to fighting with as much religious fervor as the invading Muslim armies, Nubia’s Christian armies were made up of highly skilled archers who had a tactical advantage over their sword-wielding, horse-mounted enemies.

From the eighth through the 10th centuries Abbasid dynasty rulers in North Africa maintained armies of well-trained MAMLUKS, who were used for protection as well as to enforce Islamic law throughout the realm. By the 13th century, however, the Mamluks had established their own Islamic state, spread over most of Egypt and parts of present-day LIBYA.

In the northern parts of SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA horses were used extensively in the cavalries of the Ghana, Mali, and SONGHAI empires as early as the ninth century because they could survive in the savanna climate. CAVALRY forces could be large; Ghana, for example, could field as many as 200,000 armed horsemen. To the west only smaller horses could survive, so the cavalries were dependent on hand-to-hand combat with sabers and attacks with javelins and bows. Coastal areas of West Africa, such as Senegambia and the Gold Coast, organized armies that used handheld weapons in combination with tactical support from archers. In present-day ANGOLA loosely organized infantries were made up of soldiers highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat who relied on their ability to dodge weapons rather than utilize shields.

At GREAT ZIMBABWE (c. 1200-1450 CE), an Iron Age empire that flourished in the southeastern part of modern ZIMBABWE, archaeologists have found iron tools, but these could be ceremonial or hunting implements. Because communities south of the Sahara were generally small and scattered, it is likely that any disagreement led to the dispersal of peoples rather than to conflict.


Battle of Ecnomus (256 BC) – Largest Naval Battle in History

The Roman expedition to Africa should be considered in the light of Agathocles’ campaign against the Carthaginians half a century earlier. The similarities were many. According to Diodorus, Agathocles was hoping to ‘divert the barbarians from his native city and from all Sicily and transfer the whole war to Libya.’ The Syracusan attack had come as a surprise. Agathocles had escaped from the siege of Syracuse and his fleet reappeared close to the African coast. The Carthaginians had chased it but had failed to stop it. The Syracusans landed near the Latomiae on Cape Bon. After seeing the beached Sicilian ships burning – Agathocles had ordered them to be set on fire so that his soldiers would have no option but to fight for victory – the Carthaginians spread hides over the prows of their ships to mark the misfortune that had befallen their city and they took the bronze beaks of Agathocles’ ships on board their triremes. Agathocles conquered cities in Carthaginian territory, yet his campaign had been made easier by revolts launched by inhabitants who resented the exactions that came with Carthaginian rule. Polybius makes it clear that the Carthaginians were well aware that the local people could easily be subdued by an invader and they were prepared to run the risk of a sea battle to prevent the Romans from crossing to Africa. The Romans planned ‘to sail to Libya and deflect the war to that country, so that the Carthaginians might find no longer Sicily, but themselves and their own territory in danger.’

We do not know when the plans for the invasion were made. Polybius states briefly that the Romans, after making preparations for the coming summer, went to sea with a fleet of 330 decked ships and two sixes and put in to Messana, then started again and sailed southwards, doubled Cape Pachynus at the south-east corner of Sicily and came round to Ecnomus, where their land forces were. The Carthaginians set sail with 350 decked vessels, touched at Lilybaeum and anchored off Heraclea Minoa. Heraclea Minoa was the furthest point under their control on the south coast. Both Heraclea Minoa and Ecnomus were well-suited as staging areas for the two fleets before the battle as they were located on rivers Halycus and Himera, respectively, which would provide the fleets with drinking water.

The route the Romans used was safe until they turned onto the south coast. They wanted to follow the coastline as far as possible in order to reduce the distance of the sea voyage. However, they were likely to encounter the Punic fleet, which was determined to stop them from making the crossing. Polybius does not say where the battle took place. It is a modern assumption that it occurred off Ecnomus but Zonaras places it off Heraclea and this makes sense since the Carthaginians found the Romans towing their horse transports. If the Romans had been near Ecnomus, it would not have been necessary for them to do this, so clearly they must have left their staging area and been on their way to the west.

Polybius states that the Romans had prepared for action at sea and for a landing on enemy territory. Around 140,000 men were embarked on the Roman ships, each ship carrying about 300 rowers and 120 marines. The Carthaginians adapted their preparations to fight at sea and, based on the number of ships, over 150,000 of their men were involved. These figures are essentially credible, except that the number of staff on board the Punic ships may well be too high. Polybius probably made a mistake by multiplying the number of warships by a Roman complement of 420 per ship; the Carthaginians almost certainly had fewer soldiers on board as they were expecting to fight at sea, not on land. As discussed above, some researchers have seen numbers of ships over 300 as too high and have tried to reduce them. There are nevertheless reasons for keeping them as they are. This battle probably involved the largest number of men in any naval battle in history.

The figures for the number of ships refer to both new and old ships that were used in the operation; it was customary to see how many old ships were seaworthy and then build new ships to fulfil the number required. Rome had built 120 ships in 260; most of these were probably still in operation. At this time the Romans had over 100 Punic ships and possibly some of these were repaired and used in the Roman fleet. Thus the invasion would require the building of 100–200 additional ships. The Punic fleet was probably put together in the same way but for Carthage we have no information of the pace of their shipbuilding. However, the number of captured Roman ships was very low and they did not play a role in the Punic fleet.

Polybius wrote a detailed description of the battle, the most complete account we have of all the sea battles of the Punic Wars. The Romans took up a protective wedge formation, with their three sections of ships in a triangle. The commanders, consul suffectus Marcus Atilius Regulus and consul Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus, were placed at the front of the triangle, each commanding a six. The third section, at the base of the triangle, towed the horse transports and behind it was the fourth squadron, the triarii, in a single long line.

The Carthaginians adapted their formation to that of the Romans. Polybius states that they tried to surround the Romans and deployed their ships so that the left wing, commanded by Hamilcar, was close to the coast. The swiftest quinqueremes were on the seaward wing, commanded by Hanno. Three separate engagements followed at a long distance from each other. The first began when the Romans, in their wedge formation, noticed that the Carthaginian line was thin and attacked in the centre:

The Carthaginian center had received Hamilcar’s orders to fall back at once with the view of breaking the order of the Romans, and, as they hastily retreated, the Romans pursued them vigorously. While the first and second squadrons thus pressed on the flying enemy, the third and fourth were separated from them … When the Carthaginians thought they had drawn off the first and second squadrons far enough from the others, they all, on receiving a signal from Hamilcar’s ship, turned simultaneously and attacked their pursuers.

Polybius says the Carthaginian ships were superior in speed so they could move around the enemy’s flank and approach and retire rapidly. In contrast, the Romans relied on their strength, grappling each Carthaginian ship with a boarding-bridge as soon as it approached.

The second phase of the battle started when the Carthaginian right wing attacked the ships of the triarii, causing them great distress, and the third phase began when the third Roman squadron towing the horse transports was attacked by the Carthaginian left wing. The Romans released the tow lines and engaged the enemy. Hamilcar’s division was forced back and took to flight. Lucius took the prizes in tow. Marcus went to help the triarii and the horse transports with those ships from the second squadron that were undamaged. Hanno’s division soon found themselves surrounded by the Romans and began to retreat out to sea. Both consuls hastened to relieve the third squadron, which was shut in so close to the shore, according to Polybius, that it would have been lost if the Carthaginians had not been afraid of the boarding-bridges. When the consuls came up and surrounded the Carthaginians, they captured fifty ships with their crews, although a few managed to slip away along the shore and escape. The Romans lost twenty-four ships sunk, the Carthaginians more than thirty. No Roman ship was captured but in all the Romans captured sixty-four from the Carthaginians.

The detailed information that has come down to us allows a full analysis of the battle but does not necessarily make it easy to understand. Some scholars have rejected the triangle formation on the grounds that it would have been impossible to organize. However, as Tipps has demonstrated, the alleged difficulties have been overstated as the wedge was hardly anything more than a variation of the line-astern formation that offered safety: the outer flank of each ship in the wedge was covered by the ship on its quarter, thus any ship that was attacked was defended by its neighbour with a ram or boarding-bridge.

Other areas of debate are the Punic plan and the reasons for the Roman victory. According to Tipps, forming a trap to lure the enemy was a common Punic manoeuvre in the period of the First Punic War and the Carthaginians expected the Romans to keep their formation. The partial retreat of the Carthaginian centre was a part of the plan. They wanted to draw the Roman fleet forward so that the Carthaginian wings could close around the Roman formation. The Romans were saved because they allowed their formation to split when the consuls made a vigorous charge towards the centre of the Carthaginian line.

Goldsworthy argues that it was Hamilcar’s plan to break the Roman formation in order to produce small-scale encounters between different parts of each fleet and in these clashes the Carthaginians could use ramming tactics. According to Lazenby and Goldsworthy, the Roman victory depended on the boarding-bridge, which turned out to be especially effective in a battle taking place near the shore. At this point in the conflict the Carthaginians had not yet found a way of counteracting it. Moreover, Goldsworthy points out the speed and the skill with which the consuls finished the first battle and came to help in the second and third battles. Most of the damage the Carthaginians suffered was inflicted in the last two battles.

The Carthaginians had lost a crucial battle. Using the boarding-bridges, the Romans had captured a significant number of Punic ships but the boarding-bridges are not the sole explanation for their victory; the speed and mobility of the Roman ships were also important factors. It is intriguing that there must have been a considerable difference between the weights of the ships in the opposing fleets, just as there had been in 260 when the Carthaginians lost to the Romans off the coast of Bruttium. The Roman ships were carrying soldiers and equipment needed in Africa, whereas the Carthaginians had prepared for the sea battle only and had made their ships as light as possible – they had probably left the main masts and rigging on shore. Despite this, the Roman ships managed to move from one side of the battle to another, always giving each other support.

The Romans spent some time, probably at Ecnomus, taking on extra supplies, repairing the captured ships and giving prizes to their men for their success. Then they crossed the sea, meeting no resistance on the way. First a group of thirty of their ships reached Cape Bon, east of the Bay of Carthage. Then, when their remaining ships arrived, the fleet was united and sailed along the coast and landed at Aspis on Cape Bon. The ships were beached and surrounded with a trench and palisade; then the siege of the town began. The Carthaginians watched the situation as it developed. The Punic ships that had escaped from the naval battle had sailed for home and the Carthaginian land and sea forces kept a lookout at different points over the approaches to their capital. When they learned that the Romans had landed, they brought their forces together to protect the city and its environs.

The Romans took Aspis and garrisoned the town and the district, then sent a mission to Rome to report and ask for instructions. In the meantime, they pillaged the fertile countryside, destroying rich country houses and taking many cattle. They also captured over 20,000 slaves and took them back to their ships. Then messengers arrived with the senate’s instructions: one of the consuls, Marcus Regulus, was to remain with forty ships, 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry, while Lucius was to return to Rome with the ships’ crews and the slaves. He celebrated a naval triumph ‘over the Carthaginians’.


Lazenby, J.F., Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War (Warminster, 1978)

Lazenby, J.F., The First Punic War (London, 1996)

Goldsworthy, A., The Punic Wars (London, 2000)

Tipps, G.K., ‘The battle of Ecnomus’, Historia 34/4 (1985)


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.

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.

Hannibal’s Return to Africa III

With his work in North Africa completed, Scipio prepared to return to Rome. Before leaving, he assigned all the cities, towns, and territory held by the defeated Numidian king Syphax to Massinissa and then, crossing the Straits of Messina, travelled overland to Rome dragging the chained Numidian behind his chariot. Crowds lined the route to watch the parade and cheer the man who had saved Italy. Scipio entered Rome to the greatest triumph ever awarded a victorious general. He displayed the spoils of his campaign in Africa and deposited over sixty tons of silver into the treasury after paying a bonus to each of his soldiers. The senate declared a period of thanksgiving, with games and festivals, and Scipio picked up the bill for everything. Of all the honors bestowed on Scipio the greatest was the cognomen or nickname Africanus—a name that reflected his conquest of Carthage and that he would carry for the remaining years of his life. The appellation was a first for the Romans, and it would become an honor every powerful Roman after Scipio coveted and future emperors of Rome would bestow on themselves for their conquests, real or imagined. Whether the title was bestowed on Scipio by his soldiers, by the people of Italy, or by the senate is never made quite clear in the sources. What is evident is that even though Scipio returned to Italy a national hero and probably the most popular political figure in Rome, opposition to him and his family grew—led by a conservative, stridently anti-Carthaginian Tuscan landowner and senator named Cato.

Scipio spared Hannibal from execution or imprisonment, and it is generally conceded by scholars that the senate at Rome agreed due to Scipio’s popularity with the people. Sparing Hannibal made Scipio more enemies in the senate. Besides holding Hannibal in high esteem, Scipio had a practical reason for sparing him. There can be little doubt that, among the potential leaders at Carthage, Scipio considered Hannibal to be the most likely to honor his commitments, uphold the terms of the treaty, and make sure the payments to Rome were made in full and on time.

Nothing is known for certain about Hannibal’s activities in the years immediately following the end of the war (201 B.C.–196 B.C.). Only two ancient sources report on him during the five years following the peace between Carthage and Rome, and those references are scant and even contradictory. Hannibal seems to drop from sight shortly after the peace, but from one source we learn that he remained head of the army and that, in a vague statement, “with his brother Mago at his side, continued to make war in Africa until 200 B.C.” However, we know from other sources that Mago died at sea nearly three years earlier. Nor is it clear in this reference who Hannibal was fighting: Africans or Romans? There is also a reference in a much later source to Hannibal’s concern about the effect of idleness on his soldiers, so much so that to offset it he had them plant olive trees. However, since the reference is not tied to any specific year, the planting could have occurred in the year before the battle of Zama, during Hannibal’s time in Hadrumetum, or after peace with Rome was ratified. What is certain is that Hannibal seems to have withdrawn into private life for at least part of this period, and that he stayed away from Carthage.

The only references found in the main sources to continued Carthaginian resistance against Rome around 200 B.C. concern the actions of Hamilcar the Carthaginian, an officer who had been left behind in northern Italy by Mago in 203 B.C. Another source maintains this Hamilcar was left behind by Hasdrubal when his army passed through northern Italy in 207 B.C. In either case, he could have been left by Hasdrubal and then later joined with Mago, but it is curious that his activities in northern Italy are never mentioned in any detail by the main sources. This Hamilcar apparently operated in Italy for several years, raiding Roman colonies like Placentia and Cremona with his army of Gauls and Ligurians. His army apparently became sizable, numbering some forty thousand, if the sources can be believed, making it as large as if not larger than, any of the armies commanded by Hannibal, Hasdrubal, or Mago in northern Italy.

Because the Roman armies in northern Italy were apparently never large enough to confront this Hamilcar directly, envoys were sent from Rome to Carthage, demanding his recall or surrender. The best that Carthage could do, in reply to the Roman demand, was to declare Hamilcar an outlaw and confiscate his family property in North Africa. This indicates he could have been a rogue operator and not under any orders from Carthage. Finally, Roman legions, considerably reinforced, confronted Hamilcar and his Gauls at Cremona, where his army was defeated and he was killed in the battle along with an alleged thirty-five thousand of his soldiers—another highly suspect number because it makes the battle deaths there second in number only to the horrendous Roman losses at Cannae.

In a later recounting of the battle, the same source has Hamilcar captured alive, and then in a third rendition, he is captured and led in chains before the chariot of the triumphant Roman commander Cornelius on his return to Rome. Regardless of Hamilcar’s fate, killed in battle or executed, his presence in northern Italy is confusing. It could be interpreted as evidence of clandestine Carthaginian resistance to Rome, a “black ops” operation of sorts, or that he was acting independently—as a warlord of sorts, leading the Gauls. Hamilcar’s presence in northern Italy with his army of Roman-hating Gauls could have been a reason for Hannibal, as we will see in the next chapter, to have encouraged King Antiochus of Syria to invade Italy rather than Greece.

The end of the Second Punic War saw the political situation at Carthage change dramatically. A struggle developed between the aristocratic elements that had traditionally controlled the society and the popular assemblies. Traditionally, the most powerful political body at Carthage was called the “order of judges,” and it consisted of some 104 of the richest men in the city, who were appointed for life terms. They were so intent on protecting their own financial interests that anyone at Carthage who offended one of them became the enemy of all of them. While corruption and mismanagement in the higher echelons of government were rampant, the judges were so powerful they had been able for years to stifle attempts at reform. They were the oligarchs, those who had made money during the war and were concerned only with lining their own pockets and taxing the poor to pay Rome.

When the first installment of the war indemnity for 199 B.C. came due, it was short, so the Carthaginians sent Rome a debased quality of silver. When the talents were received at Rome and tested by the officials in charge of the treasury, they found that 25 percent was base metal. The Romans, with good reason, were convinced that the Carthaginians were up to their old tricks again. Confronted with their blatant attempt to pay with debased silver and anxious to avoid any resumption of hostilities, the Carthaginian senate quickly made good the discrepancy by further taxing the common people. Popular dissent over the next couple of years reached crisis proportions. Hannibal believed the time had come to curtail the power of the oligarchs, and he reappeared on the scene in 196 B.C.—elected suffete, or chief executive officer, of Carthage by the popular assemblies. The position of suffete was the highest executive office in the government of Carthage and similar to the consulship in Rome. Normally, two suffetes were elected by the popular assemblies to serve concurrent one-year terms directing the administration of the state, just as two consuls were elected in Rome to do the same. Two were elected so that each could serve as a check on the other as they performed certain religious duties and judicial functions, controlled government finances, prepared legislation, and presided over the popular assemblies. Only Hannibal’s name is mentioned as suffete for the year 196 B.C.; it is possible that only he was elected, or, if a second suffete was elected, his name was simply lost to history.

Hannibal campaigned by condemning the “haughtiness” of the judges and accusing them of oppressing the liberty and economic well-being of the common people. He entered the political arena campaigning against the privilege and corruption of the very class from which he had come. Although Carthage had always been a plutocracy and the rich had traditionally governed there, the loss of the Second Punic War and the indemnities imposed by the Romans sparked a popular opposition when the oligarchs tried to shift the burden of paying that indemnity onto the backs of the middle class and the poor through a special assessment. The oligarchs had been so blatant in their mismanagement and even theft of public funds that Carthage was in danger of defaulting on its next payment to Rome and thus the reason for the special assessment. State revenues had been consistently mismanaged, stolen, and wasted. The treasury was rapidly being depleted, yet when Hannibal ordered an audit of the tax revenues from landholdings as well as duties collected at the ports, he found the amounts collected were more than sufficient to meet the obligations of the indemnity owed Rome, but they were routinely being siphoned off by the oligarchs. When the information became known, there was a popular outcry, and Hannibal became the champion of those who wanted to break the hold of the oligarchs over Carthage. Hannibal challenged the assessment and argued that excessive taxation at the expense of the people was unnecessary.

It was a charge that resonated with the popular assemblies, and as suffete, Hannibal was given the authority to reform the government and fiscal administration of Carthage, something that brought him into conflict with the oligarchs. While each member of the order of judges had been elected for life, Hannibal pushed a law through the popular assembly that required the annual election of judges and set two-year term limits. It was a radical challenge to the traditional power structure of Carthage, and although it made Hannibal popular with the lower classes, it incurred the animosity of the oligarchs.

The war changed Carthage. While limited democracy had existed there for centuries in the form of the popular assemblies, it was closely regulated by the oligarchs. Following the end of the war the popular assemblies increased their influence in public affairs by taking a stronger stand against the aristocracy. The people demanded more of a say in policy formulation, and the suffete, who presided over them and was elected directly by them, became, especially under Hannibal, their champion. While at Rome, the opposite was happening. The senate, with no basis in Roman constitutional law but because of its effective direction of the war, was coming to dominate the society at the expense of the popular assemblies and acting more and more in the interests of the aristocracy. The Roman senate had existed since the founding of the city by Romulus (756 B.C.) and was initially an advisory body to the Roman kings composed of the hundred richest men in the society. By the time of the Punic Wars, it had increased in size, prestige, and power. The consuls, the heads of the army, and the executive branch of Roman government came from the aristocratic class, and although the candidates for the consulship were selected by the senate, they were elected by the people. They reported to the senate, and at the end of their term, joined it for life. Thus, it was always in a consul’s interest to conform to the will of the group he would be joining at the end of his term and the group with which his economic interests were so closely aligned—not the constituency which had elected him. It would be several decades following the conclusion of the Second Punic War before Rome would undergo a transformation similar to the one that occurred, however briefly, at Carthage under Hannibal. That change at Rome came with the rise to power of the tribune—the man elected annually by the Roman lower classes, the plebeians, to champion their cause with the aristocracy and protect their interests in government.

In the short term, Hannibal seems to have instituted some reforms, but owing to the entrenched corruption among the aristocratic class and his subsequent flight into exile, he proved powerless to bring about any lasting changes as Carthage reverted to business as usual. Because Carthage had been spared the ravages of war, the economy was positioned to prosper. The Carthaginians had used mercenaries to do their fighting and had not suffered significant losses of manpower. Over the next ten years, Carthage made significant economic gains in North Africa even though she had lost her overseas possessions to Rome. The money Carthage had spent to fund wars now went into economic development—a phenomenon known as the “revenge of the defeated.” Carthage recovered to the point of being able to supply Rome with enough grain to feed the people in Italy as well as the Roman armies fighting in Macedon and Greece. Ten years later, Carthage was able to export over half a million bushels, and by 171 B.C. the amount had risen to over 2 million. So prosperous and rapid was the recovery, that Carthage was able to offer Rome the balance of the indemnity due in one final payment—which the Romans refused.

One area that contributed to the economic recovery was a brisk trade that developed between Carthage and Rome for finished products—the Carthaginians fabricating and selling, the Romans buying. The harbor at Carthage, according to fairly recent excavations, seems to have undergone extensive renovations and even expansion after the end of the Second Punic War—which can only be explained within the context of the economic recovery of the city. There are also indications of significant strides in urban development in and around the city during the period of Hannibal’s administration, and it is perhaps more than coincidental, as shall be seen in the next chapter, that he is reported to have undertaken the design of cities for the kings of Armenia and Bithynia.

The aristocrats or oligarchs at Carthage, largely because of Hannibal’s reform movement, faced a growing popular discontent and calls for holding them accountable for their corruption and mismanagement of the government. Faced with the prospect of losing their privileged position in the city and having to pay back to the state treasury the funds they had embezzled, a cabal of oligarchs plotted to discredit Hannibal and remove him from political office. A faction in the senate pulled the one chain they knew would alarm the Romans, the prospect of another military threat from Hannibal. They sent word to Rome that they suspected Hannibal was planning to invade Italy again, this time with an army composed in part of Macedonian mercenaries provided by King Philip. They maintained Hannibal was corresponding with King Antiochus III of Syria in an effort to gain financial support for his plan to invade Italy again, and even receiving the king’s agents at Carthage. The oligarchs further fueled the fire of suspicion by contending Hannibal was a man of “inherently violent disposition” who believed only war could bring prosperity, and that a people who remained at peace for any extended period would become soft and complacent.

When the matter was debated in the senate at Rome, Scipio rose to defend Hannibal. He objected to what he argued were groundless accusations and advised the senators not to be drawn into the petty squabbles and rivalries of the Carthaginian aristocratic political factions. But Scipio had his own problems at home; there were those in the senate who viewed him as too accommodating when it came to Hannibal. Scipio now found himself the target of a political inquiry into the mismanagement of state funds that had been allocated to him during his campaigns in Spain and Sicily.

In the late spring or summer of 195 B.C., a senatorial delegation from Rome was sent to North Africa under the cover of mediating a border dispute between Carthage and Massinissa. The three senators who constituted the delegation were openly hostile to Scipio and had come to build a case against Hannibal. Before the delegation arrived, Hannibal left Carthage—travelling by horseback south along the coast to Hadrumetum. There he hired a ship and set sail for the island of Cercina, some thirty miles due east off the coast of Tunisia. Cercina was a resupply depot used by ships plying the Mediterranean, and from there Hannibal intended to sail on to Tyre on the coast of Lebanon.

Landing at Cercina, Hannibal was recognized immediately. His reputation had made him a celebrity in the ancient world, and “in every city people were eager to catch a glimpse of him.” He explained his presence to the port authorities by contending he was on a diplomatic mission to Tyre. Fearing that word of his location might reach Carthage quickly by one of the ships daily leaving the port and complicate his departure from Cercina, he devised a ploy. Hannibal announced the preparation of a sacrifice to be followed by a great feast—all at his expense. The officers and crews of all the ships in port were invited, and to give the guests shelter from the midday summer sun, he asked the captains to remove their sails and erect them as sheltering canopies during the festivities. The sails from all the ships were taken down—except for those on Hannibal’s ship—and transported to the site of the festival. The sacrifice was held and the feasting went on well into the night. Late in the festivities, Hannibal returned to his ship and quickly set sail.

There was not a ship in port that next day that was capable of overtaking him. Crews had to recover from their binge and their ships had to be rigged for sailing again—a time-consuming process. When word reached Carthage that Hannibal was at Cercina, the senate sent two warships to try to overtake him. The judges and the senate declared him an “outlaw,” his family property was confiscated, and his homes demolished—perhaps to convince the Roman delegation that the aristocratic faction at Carthage was not a part of any Hannibal plan to resume war.

By the time the Carthaginian warships were at sea, Hannibal had found his first refuge as an exile. The man who for nearly a quarter of a century was the driving force for war in the western Mediterranean prepared to become a humble supplicant at the knees of the eastern Hellenistic potentates. His first stop, as irony would have it, was in the same city from which Elissa, the founder of Carthage, had fled over six centuries before. Hannibal was preparing to begin a new chapter that held little promise for the man who had terrified all Italy and come close to changing the very direction of history.

The Dark Age of Mesopotamia Redux

Between 1119 and 1032 BC, the Hittites collapse, and the prosperity of Assyria and Babylon withers.

While the Mycenaeans deserted their cities and the Dorians trickled down into them, disruption was rippling eastwards, past Troy (now shabbily rebuilt, resettled, and a ghost of its former magnificent self) and farther east, into the lands still held by the Hittites.

By this time, the Hittite empire was not much more than a shadow state. The poverty, famine, and general unrest of Tudhaliya IV’s reign had worn away its outer edges, and fighting over the throne continued. During the Mycenaean slide downwards, Tudhaliya IV’s younger son took the crown away from his older brother and claimed the country for himself. He called himself Suppiluliuma II, in an effort to evoke the great Hittite empire-builder of a century and a half earlier.

Suppiluliuma II’s inscriptions brag of his own victories against Sea Peoples. He fought several naval engagements off the coast of Asia Minor, beating off Mycenaean refugees and mercenaries, and managed for a time to keep his southern coast free of invasion. But he could not bring back the golden days of Hittite power, when his namesake had almost managed to put a son on the throne of Egypt itself.

The same wandering peoples who had pushed towards Egypt—peoples fleeing famine, or plague, or overpopulation, or war in their own lands—were pressing into Asia Minor. Some came from the direction of Troy, across the Aegean Sea and into Hittite land. Others came from the sea; Cyprus, the island south of the Hittite coast, apparently served them as a staging point. “Against me the ships from Cyprus drew up in line three times for battle in the midst of the sea,” Suppiluliuma II writes. “I destroyed them, I seized the ships and in the midst of the sea I set them on fire…. [Yet] the enemy in multitudes came against me from Cyprus.” Still other enemies crossed over the narrow Bosphorus Strait, from the area north of the Greek peninsula called Thrace; these tribes were known as the Phrygians.

There were too many of them, and the Hittite army was too small. The newcomers moved right through Suppiluliuma’s troops, scattered his defenses, and arrived in the heart of his kingdom. The capital city Hattusas burned to the ground; its people fled; the royal court dispersed like dust.

The Hittite language survived in a few separated cities around the southern edge of the old empire; Carchemish was the largest. In these last outposts of the Hittites, the Hittite gods hung onto life. But the kingdom that had worshipped them was gone.

The ebb of three civilizations in a western crescent—the Hittites, the Mycenaeans, the Egyptians—coincided with a sudden burst of power to the east. For a few brief years, while the wandering nomads and Sea Peoples were busy harassing the west, Assyria and Babylon brightened.

In Assyria, the king Tiglath-Pileser was crowned not long after the sack of Hattusas. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father had each in turn ruled over the Assyrian heartland—an upside-down triangle with Assur at its bottom point, stretching up and over to Erbila on the west and Nineveh on the east. It was a nice little area, prosperous and easily defended, with the richest corn-growing land in all of Mesopotamia. All three kings had been content to hold it, defend it, and keep it safe.

Tiglath-Pileser wanted more. He was the first warlike king since Shalmaneser, eight generations and a hundred years earlier. He turned against the invaders and used their attacks to take more land for himself. And for a brief period—a little under forty years—Assyria regained something like its previous luminescence.

The Phrygians, having stormed through the Hittite territory, were approaching Assyria on the northwest. In one of his earliest victories, Tiglath-Pileser beat them off. His inscriptions boast that he defeated an army of twenty thousand Phrygians (he calls them “Mushki”) in the valley of the northern Tigris: “I made their blood flow down the ravines and pour from the heights of the mountains,” he explains. “I cut off their heads and piled them like grain heaps.”

And then he went on fighting his way northwest, heading right into the face of the approaching wave. “[I set out for] the lands of the distant kings who were on the shore of the Upper Sea, who had never known subjection,” he wrote in his annals. “I took my chariots and my warriors and over the steep mountain and through their wearisome paths I hewed a way with pickaxes of bronze; I made passable a road for my chariot and my troops. I crossed the Tigris…. I scattered warriors…and made their blood to flow.”

For thirty-eight years, Tiglath-Pileser fought. An expanding list of cities, conquered by the king, sent taxes and laborers to the Assyrian palace and suffered under the rule of Assyrian governors. Among them was Carchemish; Tiglath-Pileser had taken it (according to his own inscriptions, anyway) “in one day.” Other cities gave up without a fight, their kings greeting Tiglath-Pileser’s approach by coming out and falling down to kiss his feet. Tiglath-Pileser himself travelled all the way to the Mediterranean coast, where he went dolphin-hunting on a spear-boat rowed by his men. The pharaoh of Egypt—one of the eight Rameses—sent him a crocodile for a present, which Tiglath-Pileser took back to add to his game preserve in Assur. He built shrines and fortresses and temples, each proclaiming that at long last, Assyria had another great king.

Down to Assyria’s south, Babylon also saw the rise of a great king.

Babylon and its surrounding lands had been ruled by nobodies ever since Burnaburiash, who had corresponded with Tutankhamun two hundred years earlier. Within three or four years of Tiglath-Pileser’s accession up in Assur, the undistinguished line of the Second Dynasty of Isin spat out a genetic sport named Nebuchadnezzar.

While Tiglath-Pileser fought his way west and north, Nebuchadnezzar turned east. The statue of Marduk, after all, was still in the hands of the Elamites of Susa; since its capture a hundred years before, no king of Babylon had proved himself mighty enough to get it back.

Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Elam was met by a wall of Elamite soldiers. He ordered his troops to retreat, and made a cunning plan for a second attempt. He would march his men into Elam at the very height of summer, a time when no commander with any sense would force an army to march anywhere. The Babylonian soldiers, arriving at Elam’s borders, caught the border patrols by surprise and made it to the city of Susa before anyone could raise the alarm. They raided the city, broke down the temple doors, kidnapped the statue, and departed to march in triumph back to Babylon.

Rather than waiting around for the priests of Marduk to acknowledge their debt to him, Nebuchadnezzar hired scribes to compose tales about the rescue, not to mention hymns in Marduk’s honor. Stories and songs and offerings streamed from the royal palace to the Temple of Marduk until the god stood at the top of the Babylonian pantheon; it was in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I that Marduk became the chief god of the Babylonians. And in a classic circular argument, Nebuchadnezzar reasoned that, since he had rescued the chief god of Babylon, the chief god of Babylon had set divine favor on him. The undistinguished beginnings of the Second Dynasty were forgotten; Nebuchadnezzar had the god-given right to rule Babylon.

Under these two mighty kings, Babylon and Assyria were more or less balanced in power. Sharp border spats occasionally intensified into actual battles. A couple of Assyrian frontier towns were sacked by Babylonian soldiers, and Tiglath-Pileser retorted by marching all the way down to Babylon and burning the king’s palace. This sounds more serious than it was. Babylon lay so close to the Assyrian border that most of the Babylonian government offices had already been moved elsewhere. The city was a sacred site, but no longer a center of power. And Tiglath-Pileser, his point made, marched back home and left Babylon alone. He did not intend to provoke an all-out war. The two kingdoms were equally strong, and there were more serious threats to face.

The movement of peoples from the north and west had not stopped. Tiglath-Pileser was continually fighting border battles against roving wanderers who were rapidly becoming as pervasive as the Amorites had been, almost a thousand years before. These people were Western Semites who had lived in the northwest of the Western Semitic lands, until pushed onwards by the influx of people from farther west. The Assyrians called them Aramaeans, and by Tiglath-Pileser’s own accounts, he made something like twenty-eight different campaigns to the west, each aimed at beating back Aramaean invasions.

Nor were Babylon and Assyria immune from the famine and drought, the crop failures and sickness plaguing the rest of the known world. Court records describe the last years of Tiglath-Pileser’s reign as desperate and hungry, a time when the Assyrian people had to scatter into the surrounding mountains to find food.

Babylon was in hardship too, and the city’s suffering grew more intense as Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-year reign drew to an end. The city’s troubles are described in the Erra Epic, a long poem in which the god Marduk complains that his statue is unpolished, his temple in disrepair, but he can’t leave Babylon long enough to do anything about it, because every time he departs the city, something horrendous happens to it. The current horrendousness is the hovering mischief of another god, Erra, who because of his nature can’t resist afflicting the city: “I shall finish off the land and count it as ruins,” he says. “I shall fell the cattle, I shall fell the people.” Babylon itself, shrivelled by the wind, had become like a “luxuriant orchard” whose fruit had withered before ripening. “Woe to Babylon,” Marduk mourns, “I filled it with seeds like a pine cone, but its abundance did not come to harvest.”

The dryness and failed crops suggest famine; the falling of people and cattle, a repeat visitation of the arrows of Apollo Sminthian. Sickness and hunger did nothing to improve the defenses of either city. By the time that Tiglath-Pileser’s son succeeded his father, the Aramaean problem had become so acute that he was forced to make a treaty with the new king of Babylon. Together, the two kingdoms hoped to beat off their common enemy.

The attempt failed. Not long after, Aramaeans rampaged across Assyria, seizing for themselves all but the very center of the empire. They invaded Babylon as well; the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the great king, lost his throne to an Aramaean usurper.

The Aramaeans, like the Dorians, did not write. And so as Egypt descended into fractured disorder and darkness spread across the Greek peninsula, a similar fog rolled from the old Hittite lands to cover Mesopotamia. The land between the two rivers entered its own dark age, and for a hundred years or so, no history emerges from the blackness.

Clades Lolliana 16 BC

Militarily speaking, the 500 or so years of Empire made for a vastly quieter time for the Romans than the preceding 700 years or so of the Republic. The intractable doors of the Temple of Janus even remained closed for a while in the early years of Augustus’ reign. Augustus wielded complete control over what had now become the Roman Empire; he also retained control of the Roman army – essentially to prevent a return to the bloody turmoil of the civil wars by covetous, power-hungry generals. He maintained a policy of limited expansion, largely keeping the new Empire within its existing boundaries. This was in the face of encouragement to invade Britannia and Parthia and a need to ensure that the legions were usefully employed to the benefit of the political establishment rather than to its detriment. As far as the Romans could see, there was little out there now which would earn a return on expensive military campaigns; lucrative booty and fertile lands not under Roman control were now in short supply. Why bother? Augustus had the financial resources to satisfy and resettle veterans out of his substantial windfalls from the Ptolemaic empire; he was naturally unwilling to allow ambitious commanders to launch insurrection on the back of victorious military campaigns. Fortuitously, it turns out that battle casualties and proscriptions from the civil wars had dramatically reduced the number of nobles agitating for a return to the Republic.

Policy in Asia Minor, Africa, Egypt, Spain and Gaul largely reflects this restraint, this military conservatism. Germany, however, was to prove an exception. In 17 BC, tribes led by the Sugambri, from near what is now the Dutch-German border on the right bank of the Rhine, defeated a Roman legion under the command of Marcus Lollius. This came to be known as the Clades Lolliana – the Lollius Massacre.

Marcus Lollius is little known but he was probably a homo novus (new man), a friend of and indebted to Augustus who had saved him from proscription. Consul in 21 BC, he was the first governor of Galatia and enjoyed success over the Thracian Bersi tribe. In 17 BC, he was a governor on the Rhine leading the Vth (Alaudae) Legion, battle hardened from their campaigns against the Cantabri in Iberia. Soon after his arrival, a number of Romans were captured and crucified by the Tencteri, knowing quite well that this would not go unpunished. The Tencteri, noted for their skills as cavalrymen, joined with the Usipites and the Sugambri and launched attacks into Roman-occupied Gaul. For the Tencteri and Usipites, this was a long-awaited chance to avenge the slaughter visited on them some forty years earlier, in 55 BC, by Julius Caesar. According to Cato the Younger, Caesar murdered 400,000 of them and ought to be brought to book for the war crime. The Sugambri were led by Melo, brother of Baetorix; later the Sicambri under Deudorix, son of Baetorix, joined Arminius and were to help annihilate the three Roman legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus at the Teutoburg Forest.

Lollius was impatient and ill-prepared. He marched out with the Vth Alaudae and a small squadron of cavalry to confront the invaders; the cavalry were sent on ahead only to be massacred in a Tencteri ambush. The Germans pursued the survivors back to the ranks of the legion, which was taken by surprise and slaughtered. If the destruction of the Vth Alaudae was not bad enough, the Tencteri made things a lot worse when they triumphantly captured the coveted gold aquila standard – a most stigmatic, albeit rare, humiliation for the legion and its commander. There was further bad news when it transpired that Augustus was himself in that part of Gaul at the time. The emperor, no doubt furious at the loss of a standard and the best part of a legion, gathered an army to confront the Germans. Augustus took hostages and subsequently withdrew his army. Lollius, of course, was finished. Apart from this calamity, he had a torrid time as a guardian to Gaius Caesar, Augustus’ nephew. Their strained relationship culminated in accusations of corruption and taking bribes from King Phraates of Parthia, after which he took his own life. He died a wealthy man, his considerable fortune being inherited by his granddaughter, Lollia Paulina. Predictably, history has not treated him well: Velleius Paterculus labelled him greedy and vicious – the inevitable epitaph for a commander who loses his eagle to the barbarians. His friend Horace, on the other hand, had praised him; to Pliny the Elder he was a hypocrite. With supreme understatement, Suetonius described the incident as ‘disgraceful’ rather than ‘damaging’. Comparing it with the Clades Varianas (the Varus Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest), he says, ‘But the Lollius debacle was more about dishonour than disaster.’

The Romans should have taken Clades Lolliana as a stark and timely warning that, in this part of Gaul and in Germany, they were vulnerable, and, if they were to succeed, would have to demonstrate the utmost military skill and deploy the best strategies and the sharpest of tactics. If any good came out of Lollius’s avoidable disaster it was that his clades eventually provided the Romans with a springboard for the invasion of western Germany in order to create a buffer against German attacks on Gaul. It allowed Augustus to extend the boundary of Empire to the Elbe and, incidentally, provided military opportunities for his stepsons, Tiberius and Drusus. Drusus was able to win a series of victories and reached the Elbe between 12 and 9 BC. From 11 BC, for seven years, German hostility between tribes deepened. Tacitus records that the Chatti defeated the Cherusci, but were themselves pacified from AD 4. Velleius Paterculus also notes unrest. On the death of Drusus in 9 BC, Tiberius took over and consolidated these gains through ethnic cleansing, resettling the more refractory Germans in Gaul in 8 and 7 BC. Three years later L. Domitius Ahenobarbus was able to penetrate Germany by another route: the valley of the Saale in the upper Danube Valley.

Skillfully combining naval and land operations, in AD 6, Tiberius built on his successes, culminating in an attack against Maroboduus and his 75,000-strong Marcomanni army. Gaius Sentius Saturninus and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus led the 65,000 infantry and 10,000–20,000 cavalry and archers, along with 10,000–20,000 civilians, amounting to thirteen legions with entourage. In AD 4, Tiberius invaded Germania and subjugated the Cananefates, the Chatti near the upper Weser and the Bructeri, south of the Teutoburg Forest, before crossing the Weser. However, in that same year, a distracting and diverting rebellion erupted in Illyricum, led by the Daesitiate, the Breucians, the Pannonia and the Marcomanni; this Bellum Batonianum (War of the Batons) lasted for four years. Tiberius sent eight of his thirteen legions east to crush the revolt, which had been inflamed by neglect on the part of the Romans, food shortages and the heavy-handed exaction of oppressive taxes. Only three legions (the XVIIth, XVIIIth and XIXth), six independent cohorts and three squadrons of cavalry were left to Publius Quinctilius Varus, legatus Augusti pro praetor (envoy of the emperor, acting praetor), in Germany.