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Battle of Zama

(19 October 202 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

In 204 BCE situation of Carthage in second Punic war was already hard, Spain was lost and Masynissa king of Numidia went to the side of Rome after Carthaginians betrayed him and supported his rival Syfax, who was crowned by them as next Numidian king. Hannibal stayed constantly in Italia, but not as triumphant winner. Commander survived difficulty in the south of Apenine peninsula, his army was broken and there was no chance for any support.
Romans were still avoideding direct clash with him conducting other activities on the fronts. In this year they took a bold step, because the Senate agreed upon a plan of Publius Cornelius Scypio, who wanted to attack directly on Carthage. Soon at the head of large army he landed at African coast. Frighted inhabitants of Carthage expected that sooner than later their city will be attacked by unbeatable conqueror of Spain.

Warfare in Africa

After their landing Romans started to siege Utika, city north of Carthage. Then king Massynisa joined Scypio with his troops – light Numidian cavalry. Carthaginians carried out fast mobilization and gathered large number of people ( few thousand soldiers). Hannon led them against Romans, but he lost and died during the battle.

The siege of Utika. streched in time and Scipio ordered to raise a fortified camp. His army stayed there during the winter without any essential activities, Carthaginians calmed down and even some of them were thinking that soon Romans will be forced to retreat. In fact leggionaire’s camp was located on a spit jutted out into the sea and Carthaginians managed to bar the way to the mainland. Romans had to find a solution to this problem. Scipio was not going to loose his people during direct clash and decided to beat the enemy using a trick.

Pretend to make peace and start negotiation in 203 BCE he completely lowered enemy’s vigilance. Some night he ordered to attack hostile camp. First riders ignited tents on the camp’s edges. Fire immediately took entire camp. Hundreds of Carthaginians lost their lifes in flames, the rest of them ran straight to the Roman swords, who surrounded this fiery hell. Whole Punic army ( approx 30 thousands people) was destroyed without battle and with any lost on Roman side.

Battles of second Punic war, which was conducted on Apenine and Iberian peninsulas, in Sicilia and North Aftica.

Hazdrubal Giskon, loser from Ilipia gathered with Syfax another army of about 30 thousands soldiers. He stood to fight against Scypio on so called Great Fields in valley of the Bagradas river, but he was completely defeated, many people were lost and others ran away. Syfax escaped to Numidia, but Lelius and Masynissa were after him and soon he was captured. This series of failures put Carthaginian Council in horror.. City was almost deprived of defence and on the horizon smoked from burned villages and cities could be seen. Shortly it was considered that there is only one solution. To Hannibal order of return from Africa was sent.

Titus Liviusmentioned, that Scypio Africanus and Hannibalsupposedly met in Ephesus. Then Scypio asked Hannibal, who in his opinion is the best commander in history. Hannibal’s answer was, that Alexander the Great, because he managed to conquer all Persia with really small amount of soldiers. Roman asked then, who Hannibal will put on the second place. Carthaginian responded that king Pyrrus will take the second place. The next question was about the third place in ranking. Hannibal gave himself. Scypio laughted at him and asked what he will say if he will defeat Rome. Hannibalr replied that in such situation he will put himself on first place.
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With news about presence of Roman army in Carthage Hannibal landed in Leptis Minor ( today Lemta near little Syrt ) far away from Scypio and Punic capital. In order to gather the new army he hired the men and looked for allies. Roman Senate had awareness about hopeless situation of Carthage and put up hard conditions according to a peace, which were rejected by Carthaginians. Commander demanded to:give back all lands except Africa, reduce Carthaginians fleet, and pay compensation of five thousands talents. Both Cathage and Rome agreed upon these conditions. It seemed that war will come finally to an end, when suddenly Hannibal appeared. He took with himself all his best survived veterans and shortly after his return to Africa he started to improve the army, Elephants were imported, mercenaries were paid and many inhabitants of Carthage were enlisted in the army. Situation was very tense. Punic people who didn’t like conditions of peace started to believe in victory over the Roman conqueror. Scypion desired to bring Carthaginians even more in their doom. Possible that he wanted challenge Hannibal in the end. If he defeated him, he would gain immortal fame and ultimately avenge battle lost in Canny.

Both sides made an impession that they were intentionally seeking for excuse to resume warfare. Cause was found quickly – some day during a storm few of Roman transport ships were drowned and Carthaginians collected all loads thrown out by the sea. Scypio demanded of their return and when he didn’t receive any answer he took all his army outside the camp Castra Cornelia (on the coast) and started to plunder villages in valley of river Bagradas. In this way he wanted to provoke Carthaginians to major battle as soon as possible. Punic Counsil sent an army under Hannibal’s command against Romans. Hannibal set off from Adrymes ( now Sousse) and destroyed the military camp in Zama. This battle had to decide how Second Punic War will end.

Power of Rome

Power of Carthage

The Roman army with all its auxiliary had 29.000 fotmen and 6100 horse riders. Even Scypio itself on the very beginning possesed 23.000 excellent infantry and 1500 Roman and Italian horse riders.

Masynissa took with himself 6000 footmen and 4000 horse riders His auxiliary brought also Numidian ” kaida” Dakamas

Carthaginian army consisted of practically three different armies, which could cooperate with each other. First army based on Celts and Ligurian of Magon, second was African soldiers so Libyans and Carthaginian citizens, third contained veterans from Italy.

In this way Hannibal collected 36.000footmen and 4000 horse riders, who were supported by Numidian nobleman Tychaios. Hannibal’s army was complemented by untrained and timid fighting elephants in amout of 80.


Two armies met each other on 19th of October 202 BCE on valley near Zama south of Carthage. Hannibal had awareness, that he possesed weak cavalry and not well-trained soldiers, but even thought he accepted this challenge. Before main battle he visited Scypio. The best leaders in this century looked at each other for the first time. Their conversation is well known thanks to reports of Livius. Carthaginian tried to persuade Roman to make peace arguing that Cathage have been already defeated, previous victories of Scypio and begging him for mercy make him famous enough.
Hannibal supposedly said to Scypio in this way:

So for you, who give peace it will be something dignified and lucid. For us, who ask it will be something necessary rather than praiseworthy. (…) Certain peace will be safer and better than expected victory. Peace depends on you, victory lays in the hands of the gods. Do not put happines to the test in this moment. (…) Result never lives up to the expectation less than in war.

Titus Livius, Roman histor ab urbe condita., IX, 30.

Roman commander replied:

Neither our ancestors started war about Sicilia neither we about Spain.(…) You first started. (…) Even you admit it and gods stand as witnesses, who already decided about previous war’s end, which was compatibile with human and divine law. According to this war gods will also decide. (…) Prepare for war then if peace was for you so hard to stand.

Titus Liviusz, Roman history ab urbe condita., IX, 30.

The last chance for peace was lost. Commanders had returned to their armies and started to set upranks.

The main battle

Scypio placed light infantry and Masynissa’s cavalry on the right wing and on the left wing he put Italian cavalry under command of trustworthy questor Caius Laelius. Under his orders were also supposedly 600 Numidian horse riders of Dakamas. Centre was created by armed legionary infantry, which was set in three lines. Footmen were not set in shape of chessboard, but troops in the second row stood directly behind the first line of hastatii. After troops of principes best soldiers – triarii – took position. In this way in battle order some spaces were left. Scypio hoped that fighting elephants will fall in trap there and they will not able to damage his army. These spaces were hidden with light cavalry, who had order to escape to the rear of the army if necessary.

Battle of Zama started probably at noon and lasted until the very evening.

Hannibal for the first time divided infanry into three parts. First consisted of 12.000 hired Moors (archers), Balearic slingers, Ligurians and Celts from Magon’s army. Carthaginian formed experimental first line, which was mix of archers and infantry. In the second line stood citizens of Carthage and Libian lieges. Finally in the distance of approx. 178 meters after second line third part of the army was set. It cointained well-trained soldiers, who served under Hannibal during Italian campaign.
On the left wing Hannibal placed Numidian and on the right wing Carthaginian cavalry. At the very front stood 80 fighting elephants.

Attack of Hannibal’s fighting elephants on Roman formation.

For some time armies were standing facing each other. Battle was started by attack of Numidian riders. Finally Carthaginian made first important move. At his command elephants went to battle. Dozens of gray animals ran towards the Romans. Legionaries however did not looked scared and they stood hard in one place. In one moment according to order of Scypio they started to shout, hit the shields and trumpeters played at the same time. Some elephants turned back and bumped into Numidian cavalry of Hannibal inflicting heavy lossses. This moment of chaos was used by king Masynissa, who defeated Hannibal’s allies with one effective attack. Other animals ran futher crushing many soldiers, but they were thrown with stones and stabbed with javelins and finally escaped from battlefield. The rest of them ran along the Roman battle line to the right. Stabbed with spears by riders of Laelius escaped traming Carthaginian cavalry. Laelius then charged and at once smashed them.

In this way all Hannibal’s cavalry was sweeped away from the field of battle. But Roman cavalry disappeared as well, because they chased the remainings. To sum up elephants were not trained well and were scared to attack infantry standing in one formation. Romans suffered small losses, because elephants ran through empty spaces between their battle order. The main advantage of Hannibal dissappointed him.

Roman legionaries from Roman republic. On the left soldier from formation of triarii, on the right on of hastati or principes.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Then was time for battle between infantries. Scypio reorganised his legionaries in normal battle formation and ordered frontal attack with main infantry forces. Thousands of Roman soldiers marched on. They stopped in front of the first line of Hannibal’s infantry and threw spears. Many of soldiers from the first line were killed. Romans grabbed their swords and attacked before enemies were able to regroup their lines. They were better armed and trained than them. Also the current course of battle raised their morale, so they defeated Cathaginians quite fast.
Decimated soldiers were pushed back by victorious Romans. Then the second line of Hannibal consisted of Libian and Carthaginian recruits threw their spears in back of these, who were retreating. This drastic step (they supposedly did it because of order from Hannibal) increased losses, but made impossible to push them to second line and confuse its order. They had to retreat to the sides or die by the hands of Romans. Legionaries pressed futher and defeated second line too. Weak Carthaginian infantry was not manage to stop them and started to retreat chaotically. But veterans forced them brutally to divorce from side to side. Scypio noticed, that now hostile array was in shape of one line with the best soldiers in the middle. This line was longer than his and he was affraid to be outflanked, so he ordered to regroup his army. Using loose structure of arrayquincunx, he moved przesunął principes sidways and triariito the wings creating longer line than his enemy. Fierce battle started. Most of Hannibal’s formations were lost, but his veterans were defending relentlessly.

It’s how Hannibal is described by Titius Livius “He was characterized by inhuman cruelty and adultery better than Carthaginian; nothing was reliable or holy for him. Neither piety or oath or faith”.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Suddenly cavalry of Lealius and Masynissa returned from the pursuit. They at once attacked the rear of the Hannibal’s army. Punic soldiers found themselves in the lap. After some time they were disspated and panic broke out. Legionaries attacked they even harder to complete their destruction. When Hannibal saw that nothing will protect him from defeat he fleed with small group and after 48 hour of endless gallop they ascaped to Adrymes. Rest of his army tried to retreat from Romans, but only a few managed to do this. Scypion was a winner. His victory was crushing.

Roman army lost 1500 soldiers and Carthaginian 20.000. Fifteen thousands Punic people got captive, most of them heavy injured. Approx. 5000 Hannibal’s soldiers escaped from the field of battle.


Carthage after lost battle was not able to conduct a war any longer. In 201 BCE peace was made according to which Carthaginians could only keep their properties in Africa. They couldn’t to conduct any war without Roman permission, what’s more they had to pay huge contribution of 10 thousands silver talents during a period of fifty years. They were force to give back all their fleet except ten patrol ships and give hostages as a guarrantee of fulfiling all treaty’s conditions. King Masynissa, who supported Scypio in battle of Zama was responsible to take control over all Carthage’s activities in Africa.

Fate of Hannibal himself is really interesting. For some time he stayed in Carthage.

After final act of his bravery Hannibal hided himself in Hadrumetum from where he was called to Carthage. He return to this place in his thirties after he had left as a child. He confessed in front of Carhaginian Senate, that he lost not only a battle, but also a whole war and the only right solution is to make peace.

Titus Livius, Roman history ab urbe condita., IX, 35.

Finally Roman intrigues forced Hannibal to retreat. He found shelter at the court of Seleucidian king Antioch the Third. After defeat of Antiochia in war against Rome in 189 BCE Hannibal ecaped to Bitynia, where he commited suicide by drinking a poison, which he got from his father and he always carried in the ring. All for this to not be captured by Romans and be placed in the cage during their triumph. Before death he said: “Let’s free Romans from their anxiety, if they claim that it’s too long to wait for old man’s death”.

Defeat in battle of Zama was an end for strong Cathaginian country. Thanks to Scypio’s reformation of Roman army it became almost unbeatable. Rome was the greatest power within the area of Mediterranean sea without any enemies around. That’s why it began expansion to become large future Roman Empire.

  • Holmes Richard, Wielkie bitwy i kampanie
  • Kęciek Krzysztof, Dzieje Kartagińczyków, Warszawa 2007
  • Kęciek Krzysztof, Wojna Hannibala, Warszawa 2005
  • Lancel Serge, Hannibal
  • Sikorski Janusz, Kanny 216 p.n.e., Warszawa 1984
  • Zieliński Tadeusz, Rzeczpospolita rzymska, Katowice 1989

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