How Rome finally defeated Hannibal at Zama

Roman solider holding a spear and wearing a helmet

In the year 202 BC, two of the greatest military minds of the ancient world clashed in a battle that would determine the fate of the ancient Roman Republic.


Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who had successfully led his army across southern France and into Italy, was pitted against Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who had vowed to finally defeat Hannibal.


The Battle of Zama was fought on the 19th of October 202 BC and ended with a decisive victory for Rome.


The Second Punic War began in 218 BC when Hannibal attacked a Roman allied city in Spain and then invaded Italy with the goal of conquering Rome.


For the next fifteen years, he led his army on a series of campaigns against the Roman Republic, culminating in his famous victory at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.


This was one of the worst defeats in Roman history, with over 50,000 Roman soldiers killed.


Despite his string of successes, Hannibal was unable to take Rome itself and the war dragged on. 

Scipio Africanus' early life

Scipio Africanus, born with the name Publius Cornelius Scipio, was born in Rome in 236 BC into a wealthy and well-connected family.


His father and uncle both served as consuls, the highest elected office in the Republic, and his grandfather had been a hero of the First Punic War.


Scipio showed great promise as a military commander from an early age. 


Scipio had fought against Hannibal at the Battle of Ticinus River in 218 BC, under the command of his father who had the same name.


At the battle he is said to have heroically rescued his father from certain death.


Young Scipio was also present at the disastrous Battle of Cannae in 216 BC. He was one of the few Roman commanders to escape alive and he vowed to take revenge on Hannibal.


His first-hand experience of seeing the success of Hannibal's tactics on the battlefield encouraged him to explore ways of adopting them into his own battlefield strategies.

The Scipii in Spain

Following the Battle of Cannae, the Senate sent Scipio to Spain with an army to fight the Carthaginians there.


This was a diversionary tactic to take the pressure off Rome and it worked, as Hannibal was forced to divert troops and resources from being transported to Italy and use them instead to defend Carthaginian interests in Spain. 


Scipio quickly proved himself to be a capable commander in his own right. He began to imitate some of the tactics that Hannibal had used so successfully against the Romans, and he started to gain a reputation as a great general.

Scipio invaded Spain in 209 BC and attacked the city of Carthagena Nova (New Carthage).


The natural defenses of a lagoon protecting one entire side of the town, as well as its fortifications, made it almost impenetrable.


However, Scipio found a way to cross the lagoon and attack the city from the rear, leading to its eventual capture.


This was a significant victory as it denied Hannibal access to much-needed reinforcements and supplies.


Then, Scipio confronted Hasdrubal Barca, Hannibal's brother, at the Battle at Baecula in 208 BC.


The Carthaginians had taken up a stronger position opposite a river. Scipio knew that he had to march his troops across the river and charge uphill against this well-protected position, which automatically put him in a compromising position.


Mimicking Hannibal's own strategies, Scipio ordered his troops to build a bridge to cross the river to both reduce the need to enter the water and to nullify the higher ground that his enemies enjoyed.


This tactic was successful, and Hasdrubal was forced to retreat.

In 206 BC, Scipio Africanus was given an extended command of the Roman army in Spain with the express purpose of finally defeating the last Carthaginian forces there.


He achieved this in a series of brilliant campaigns, culminating in the Battle of Ilipa in 206 BC where he comprehensively defeated the Carthaginians by once more copying Hannibal's use of feints and distractions to catch his enemies off-guard.


At the end of his time in Spain, Scipio had grown increasingly confident that he understood how Hannibal thought and that he could successfully use Carthaginian strategies against them to assure victory.


With the successful conclusion of his Spanish campaign, he now sought the Senate's permission to take the war to Hannibal himself.

Scipio's consulship

When Scipio returned to Rome in 206 BC, he was hailed as a hero. In 205 BC, he was unanimously elected to consulship at the age of 31 but was assigned to Sicily, which meant that Scipio was positioned as close to Carthage as possible and gave him an opportunity to go on the offensive.


Scipio thought that if he attacked the city of Carthage itself, Hannibal would be recalled from Italy in order to protect his homeland.


So, Scipio asked the senate for supplies and an army to march on Carthage, but his request was denied.


It appears that people inside the Senate had become jealous of Scipio's success and wanted to undermine his popularity with the Roman people.


Instead, Scipio took matters into his own hands and raised an army himself.

This decision put Scipio at odds with the Senate, who saw him as a young upstart challenging their authority.


However, he had popular support from the people of Rome who saw him as a courageous leader who was willing to take on the might of Carthage.


Scipio's new army landed in Africa in 205 BC and quickly captured the city of Utica. This put Scipio in a strong position to march on Carthage itself. 


After the capture of Utica, the Numidian King Masinissa, decided to swap allegiances from Carthage and ally himself with Rome.


This gave Scipio access to the powerful Numidian horsemen.

As Scipio predicted, Hannibal, who recognised the threat that Scipio posed, marched his army from Italy to Africa to meet him in battle. 


When the two sides came within reach of each other, the two generals attempted to meet and seek a negotiated peace.


In acknowledgement of the genuine risk to Carthage's survival, Hannibal offered to surrender several key Carthaginian colonies in the western Mediterranean to Rome in return for peace.


However, Scipio knew that he was in a much stronger negotiating position and simply demanded unconditional surrender in return for peace.


The negotiation process quickly broke down as animosity between the two commanders prevented any real progress.


Both Hannibal and Scipio wanted to bring the Second Punic War to an end through a decisive victory on the battlefield.

Preparations for battle

When Hannibal arrived back in North Africa, he began to raise an army of mercenaries and allies to replenish his forces.


As part of his recruitment campaign, he raised new units of war elephants. These were some of the most devastating and effective troops available to Carthaginian generals and could decide the fate of battles by themselves.


Hannibal made limited use of his elephants during his campaign in Italy because he had lost most of them crossing the Alps.


However, now in Africa, he paid for 80 of them to be on the battlefield. He also had Libyan allies, and Italian veterans from past conquests.

Hannibal placed his mass of 36,000 infantry in lines on the centre of the battlefield with his 4000 cavalry men on the wings to prevent the Romans out-flanking them. In a line in front of his infantry he placed his elephants.


Hannibal wanted to let the animals charge into the massed ranks of the Romans, causing damage and chaos as they went.


He hoped that once the elephants had done their destructive work, the rest of his army could simply chase down the scattered Romans and achieve victory.

Scipio, on the other hand, organized his 29,000 infantry in three lines based upon their battle experience.


The youngest and most inexperienced (called the hastati) were in front, with the principes behind them, and finally the veteran triarii at the rear.


On the Roman army's left wing were the 2000 Italian cavalry, and, to the right, the 4000 Numidian cavalry of Masinissa.

The Battle of Zama

The two great generals finally met at the Battle of Zama, around 100 kilometres south-west of the city of Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, on the 19th of October 202 BC.


The Roman army under Scipio's command was only slightly outnumbered by the Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal.


Carthage had around 40,000 troops, while Scipio had around 35,000. However, Scipio had studied Hannibal's tactics and had a specific plan for how to defeat his enemy.

The battle began with Hannibal ordering his elephants to directly charge at the Roman lines.


Scipio countered the terrifying elephant charge by having his troops open up their ranks and let the animals through.


Once the elephants were past, Scipio's men blew trumpets, which scared and confused the animals.


Many elephants turned around and ran through Hannibal's army, throwing the Carthaginian army into chaos.

The Roman and Numidian cavalry then charged the Carthaginian horsemen and quickly gained a victory, chasing them from the battlefield.


The Roman cavalry then swung around and attacked Hannibal's infantry. Meanwhile, Scipio had ordered his soldiers to march forward and attack the Carthaginians.


Trapped between the Roman infantry and cavalry, the Carthaginian mercenaries began killing each other in an attempt to escape.


Hannibal's remaining men were slaughtered. Twenty thousand were killed and a large number injured.


Hannibal himself fled back to the city Carthage and declared that he had lost not only the battle, but also the war.


The Carthaginians sued for peace, and in the Treaty of Zama, they were forced to become a dependent ally of Rome.


This meant that while they were not officially absorbed into the Roman lands, they did lose their autonomy.


Consequently, Carthage had to give up their elephants and almost all of their navy. They were also not allowed to make war with any other nation without Rome's permission.


Worst of all, Carthage was required to pay a crushing indemnity of 10,000 talents of silver over a 50-year period.


This heavy burden was intended to cripple Carthage's economy for so long that it could never become a genuine threat to Rome again.

Following his victory at Zama, Scipio was once more hailed as a hero by the people of Rome and was given the title 'Africanus' to recognise the fact that he had been the first Roman to successfully add African regions to the Roman sphere of control. 


Scipio then went on to have a successful political career, eventually becoming consul again in 193 BC.


Hannibal, on the other hand, who had lost the confidence of his own people, chose to flee to the eastern Mediterranean, where he helped advise other kingdoms as they tried to prevent further Roman expansion.


Finally, he was forced to commit suicide by poison in 183 BC rather than be captured by his enemies.


The Battle of Zama was a significant moment in Roman history as it effectively ended the power of Carthage.


It also saw the rise of Rome as a leading superpower in the Mediterranean. The effects of the war would be felt for many years to come.

Further reading