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Punic Wars: Battle of Zama

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Battle of Zama - Conflict:

The Battle of Zama was the deciding engagement in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) between Carthage and Rome.

Armies & Commanders:

Carthage

  • Hannibal
  • approx. 50,000 infantry
  • 4,000 cavalry
  • 80 elephants

Rome

  • Scipio Africanus
  • 34,000 infantry
  • 3,000 cavalry
  • 6,000 Numidian cavalry

Battle of Zama - Date:

The fighting at Zama occurred in late October 202 BC.

Battle of Zama - Background:

In 204 BC, after fourteen years of war, Roman troops landed in North Africa with the goal of directly attacking Carthage. Led by Scipio Africanus, they succeeded in defeating Carthaginian forces led by Hasdrubal Gisco and their Numidian allies commanded by Syphax at Utica and Great Plains (203 BC). With their situation precarious, the Carthaginian leadership sued for peace with Scipio. This offered accepted by the Romans who offered moderate terms. While the treaty was being debated in Rome, Carthaginian forces captured a Roman supply fleet in the Gulf of Tunes.

Battle of Zama - Carthage Resists:

This success, along with the return of Hannibal and his veterans from Italy, led to change of heart on the part of the Carthaginian senate. Emboldened, they elected to continue the conflict and Hannibal set about enlarging his army. Marching out with a total force of around 54,000 men and 80 elephants, Hannibal encountered Scipio near Zama Regia. Forming his men in three lines, Hannibal placed his mercenaries in first line, his new recruits and levies in the second, and his Italian veterans in the third. These men were supported by the elephants to the front and Numidian and Carthaginian cavalry on the flanks.

Battle of Zama - Scipio's Plan:

To counter Hannibal's army, Scipio deployed his 43,000 men in a similar formation consisting of three lines, with Roman and Numidian cavalry on the flanks. Aware that Hannibal's elephants could be devastating on the attack, Scipio devised a new way to counter them. Though tough and strong, the elephants could not turn when they charged. Using this knowledge, he formed his infantry in separate units with gaps in between. These were filled with velites (light troops) which could move to allow the elephants to pass through.

Battle of Zama - Hannibal Defeated:

It was his goal to allow the elephants to charge through these gaps thus minimizing the damage they could inflict. As anticipated, Hannibal opened the battle by ordering his elephants to charge the Roman lines. Moving forward, they were engaged by the Roman velites who drew them through the gaps in the Roman lines and out of the battle. With Hannibal's elephants neutralized, Scipio sent forward his cavalry. Attacking on both wings, the Roman and Numidian horsemen overwhelmed their opposition and pursued them from the field.

Though displeased by his cavalry's departure, Scipio began advancing his infantry. This was met by an advance from Hannibal. While Hannibal's mercenaries defeated the first Roman assaults, his men slowly began to be pushed back by Scipio's troops. As the first and second lines gave way, Hannibal's veteran's stood firm forcing the other Carthaginian troops to move outward to the flanks as they retreated. Extending his line to avoid being outflanked, Scipio pressed the attack against Hannibal's best troops.

With the battle surging back and forth, the Roman cavalry rallied and returned to the field. Charging the rear of Hannibal's position, the cavalry caused his lines to break. Pinned between two forces, the Carthaginians were routed and driven from the field.

Battle of Zama - Aftermath:

As with many battles in this period, exact casualties are not known. Some sources claim that Hannibal's casualties numbered 20,000 killed, 11,000 wounded, and 15,000 taken prisoner, while the Romans lost around 1,500 and 5,000 wounded. Regardless of casualties, the defeat at Zama led to Carthage renewing its calls for peace. These were accepted by Rome, however the terms were harsher than those offered a year earlier. In addition to losing the majority of its empire, a substancial war indemnity was imposed and Carthage was effectively destroyed as a power.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: to 1000
  6. Wars of Rome
  7. Battle of Zama - Punic Wars History

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