The Battle of Zama in 202 BC would decide once and for all the fates of the world’s two greatest powers, Rome and Carthage. Publius Cornelius Scipio entered Africa after reclaiming the Iberian Peninsula for the glory of Rome, even as Hannibal sat at the gates of the glorious city. In Africa, Scipio brought to the Roman side of the conflict Masinissa, first king of the new Kingdom of Numidia. Masinissa brought to the table a huge advantage in his cavalry corps, which had been trained to withstand the fearful (to horses) smell of elephant. Rome lacked such specially trained horses, and therefore had no effective way to combat the massive animals until Scipio gained this ally.
Scipio brought with him into Africa volunteers and remnants of the 5th and 6th Legions, those Romans who were crushed at Cannae by Hannibal; these men had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Hannibal’s army lacked the homogeneity of the Roman legions; the Carthaginian army consisted of Africans, Gauls, Spaniards, Numidians, and even Romans.
Appian of Alexandria gives light to unique events that took place between Scipio and Hannibal prior to the Battle of Zama. Hannibal sent three spies into the Roman camp; when these spies were discovered, rather than have them killed, Scipio showed them his entire camp, and then sent them back to Hannibal. An impressed Hannibal requested a meeting with Scipio; before agreeing to meet Hannibal, Scipio marched his army to the nearby town of Cilla and cut the Carthaginians off from water. The two legendary generals met, reached no agreement, and returned to their armies to prepare for battle.
Hannibal brought to Zama a massive army of 50,000 infantry, including Carthaginian heavy infantry, Latin defectors, and a mixed auxiliary force of Ligurians, Gauls, Balaerics, and Moors. Numidian rebels and Carthaginians constituted the cavalry corps; eighty elephants, the largest number brought to battle by Hannibal, further supported the army.
Scipio commanded two legions, supporting cavalry, and Numidian allies; Appian puts this force at 23,000 infantry and 1500 cavalrymen. Masinissa brought with him an additional 6000 infantry and 4000 cavalry. Scipio also deployed a large number of velites against the Carthaginian elephants; all told, the Roman army approached 35,000 men.
Hannibal arranged his diverse infantry in three lines: the first line consisted of the Ligurian, Gallic, Balaeric, and Moorish auxiliary infantry, the second line was of Carthaginian heavy infantry, and the Latins were held in reserve behind the rest. Hannibal arrayed his elephants in front of his infantry. Carthaginian cavalry held the right wing, while Numidian held the left.
When Scipio formed up his legions, he made specific arrangements to accommodate Hannibal’s elephants. Rather than staggering the maniples of hastati with the maniples of principes so the former could easily fall back behind the latter as the battle wore on, Scipio aligned the maniples of hastati with those of the principes. Gaps were left between each double-maniple; his velites, Scipio placed both in front of his army and in the gaps between the maniples. The Roman right was covered by Masinissa and the Numidian cavalry, while the Roman cavalry protected the left.
The ground of the battlefield itself was unremarkable; no cover could protect fleeing troops from pursuit when the losing army would inevitably collapse. Hannibal’s army formed up in a state of weariness approaching exhaustion, after digging all night for water. Scipio’s army, having bunked in Cilla, arrived fresh and hydrated.
As the horns and trumpets of both armies signaled simultaneously, Hannibal’s line of elephants lost their nerves; many of them charged backward into Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry on the left wing, and the rest charged straight at the Roman army. Masinissa, taking advantage of Hannibal’s misfortune, charged his cavalry into the heart of this mess and routed the enemy’s left wing.
The remaining elephants met Scipio’s velites in front of the legions; the fighting between these two forces was excessively violent even by ancient terms (a theme prevalent throughout the battle), and many velites died fighting the animals. As the elephants came within reach of the legions, the velites retreated into the blocks created by the maniples; as Scipio planned, the elephants ran through the gaps, which in turn became gauntlets of pila. The maniples on the left also engaged the Carthaginian cavalry with their pila; as the enemy cavalry suffered sufficient losses, the Roman cavalry engaged and routed these, too.
Hannibal’s army was now without cavalry support and exposed on both flanks, while his most expensive units inflicted minimal casualties on the Romans and were mostly defeated by Rome’s cheapest warriors, the velites. As Masinissa pursued the Numidians who opposed his rule and the Roman cavalry chased its Carthaginian rivals, Hannibal ordered his infantry forward.
The infantry of both sides advanced slowly into battle, according to Polybius. This may be attributed to the difficulty of the Romans in maintaining formation while moving past the mountainous elephant corpses, and the difficulty of the Carthaginian army in ordering forward a body of infantry that spoke six different languages. Either way, when the two armies met, Hannibal’s auxiliary troops clashed with Scipio’s hastati, the only infantry facing the enemy in the customized Roman formation. The fighting was brutal, but the hastati made their people proud and forced back the entire line of enemy infantry on their own.
As Hannibal’s auxiliary infantry retreated after breaking, the polarization between Roman and Carthaginian flexibility became apparent. The diverse body of troops attempted to retreat through the ranks of their Carthaginian allies, but the Carthaginians refused to open an avenue of retreat. What ensued highlights the desperation of both sides to win the battle of Zama: the auxiliaries began hacking at the Carthaginians in an attempt to break up the formation, and the Carthaginians, convinced their allies had turned on them, responded in kind. Hannibal ran down the line ordering the auxiliaries, pressed by blade on both sides, to flee to the wings of the Carthaginian line, but the damage had been done.
The hastati were halted in their pursuit of the auxiliaries by Roman battle horns; Scipio reformed his troops in a single line, placing the hastati in the center, principes outside the hastati, and triarii on both wings. In this single line the Romans now advanced over a field of corpses and battlefield slaughter; the going was tricky as finding footing on bloody corpses and weapons proved difficult. When at last the Romans closed with their Carthaginian enemies, the fighting was intense and the sway of battle remained neutral.
Masinissa’s Numidians and the Roman cavalry returned at this critical point in the battle; Polybius and Livy both remark on the providential timing. The cavalry slammed into Hannibal’s rear, forcing a decisive end to a brutal battle. On the open plain of Zama, the retreating Carthaginians had nowhere to run; chased down by horsemen, very few of these escaped. Polybius and Livy claim 20,000 Carthaginian killed and an equal number of prisoners; of the Romans, 1500 died at Zama.
The battle of Zama emphasized the flexibility of the Roman manipular legion and the discipline of its soldiers, who could be organized and reorganized timely and efficiently, even in the middle of battle. Roman arms proved doubtlessly superior to those of Hannibal’s auxiliaries, and provided an effective counter to the elephants.
Roman cavalry doctrine had clearly improved since the killing grounds of Cannae; Scipio recruited a numerically superior cavalry contingent that could fight even with elephants present on the battlefield. Roman cavalry and their Numidian allies opened the Carthaginian wings and returned at the opportune time to maximize this advantage.
With Hannibal defeated and his army crushed at Zama, Carthage ended as an effective military power in the Mediterranean. Rome was now free to begin its conquest of Macedon and Greece as it expanded further East; Gaul and Germania were likewise now on the table as possible acquisitions through conquest. With the elimination of Carthage came the opportunity for Rome to expand to the height of its size in the later age of the Roman Empire, the largest empire of the ancient world.