The Battle of Zama, 202 BC

Neil Faulkner analyses Scipio’s greatest victory.


Zama was one of history’s most significant battles. It pitted two of the ancient world’s greatest commanders against each other. It was the climax of a century-long struggle between two empires for control of the Western Mediterranean. It launched Rome on its path to global hegemony.

Like all battles, it was a clash of armies that embodied the essential characteristics of the two social orders they represented. And, as is often the case, the outcome was determined in large part by the superiority of one social order over the other. For the two commanders were evenly matched. Hannibal and Scipio were both masters of war. Both were brilliant, imaginative, cunning, highly experienced, and almost always victorious.

Opposite Roman Republican legionaries, as depicted on the famous altar of Domitius Ahenabarbus. BELOW Map of the Zama campaign, 202 BC.
Roman Republican legionaries, as depicted on the famous altar of Domitius Ahenabarbus.

Each, too, in their respective way of making war, was an expression of the spirit of their respective states. Hannibal was the roving warlord of a city-state of merchant princes and great landowners, a ruling class that preferred money-making and estate-management to military campaigning, and who, in consequence, hired mercenaries to do their fighting.

Not the least of Hannibal’s qualities as a great commander was his ability to weld a cosmopolitan mix of Carthaginians, Numidians, Celtiberians, Gauls, Samnites, Bruttians, Greeks, and others into a formidable fighting force with excellent discipline, morale, and esprit de corps. His men fought for pay and booty, but also out of pride.

Much of this applied also to Scipio, for, as Graham Goodlad explains in our companion article on p.28, he was often hamstrung by jealous aristocratic politicians reluctant to allocate him large contingents of Roman citizen soldiers. Scipio had to improvise armies by recruiting locally – in Spain, Sicily, and North Africa – and could not have been successful but for his charm and tact in dealing with allies.

The Middle Republican legion

But he nonetheless commanded far larger numbers of citizen soldiers than Hannibal ever did. His elite were always his legionaries. These were recruited from the cities of Italy – from Roman, Latin, and ‘allied’ communities – and they were organised in a very distinctive way.

The Middle Republican legion was a part-time citizen militia organised into four age classes: the velites (1,200 strong) were recruited from the youngest and poorest men and fought as light infantry; the hastati (1,200) were slightly older and formed the first line of heavy infantry; the principes (1,200) were the mature men of the second line; and the triarii (600) were the old soldiers of the third, or reserve, line.

Map of the Zama campaign, 202 BC.

The legion was subdivided for administrative and tactical purposes into 30 maniples of either 160 men (120 hastati or principes and 40 velites) or 100 men (60 triarii and 40 velites).

The velites were equipped with small shields and javelins, the hastati and principes with oval shields, body armour, heavy throwing spears, and swords. The triarii, on the other hand, still carried the long thrusting spear of a traditional phalanx.

Though raised as citizen militia, many men served in the ranks for years at a stretch, becoming in effect professional soldiers; and under commanders like Scipio they might be drilled to the highest level and acquire much combat experience. The Middle Republican legion might then become a first-class fighting unit.

Scipio’s campaigns provide an unequivocal lesson in this regard. The speed of his descent on New Carthage, the complexity of his manoeuvres at Baecula and Ilipa, and the success of his night-time coup against the Carthaginian and Numidian camps near Utica are all measures, in different ways, of the professionalism of his army.

Zama was to be the supreme test, and any analysis of the battle depends upon an understanding that Scipio was the commander of a coherent city-state militia that had been honed into a highly drilled, superbly disciplined, fully professional army. Complex manoeuvring in close contact with the enemy and grim resolution in the fearful business of sustained hand-to-hand fighting would be notable features of Roman conduct of the battle.

Approach to battle

The campaign of Zama began with the two armies widely separated: Scipio still based in the area around Utica, north-west of Carthage; Hannibal almost a hundred miles to the south at the port of Hadrumetum.

Nor was Hannibal in any great hurry. Around his core of Italian veterans – not all of them enthusiastic about being taken to Africa – he had to build an army out of new recruits. He needed time to raise men and to train and equip them.

Scipio took the initiative, advancing south-west along the Bagradas Valley, the Carthaginian breadbasket. This had three strategic advantages: it threatened the main grain supply of Carthage; it brought the Romans closer to their Numidian allies; and it compelled Hannibal to leave his own bases on the coast and march into the hinterland.

above Plan of the Battle of Zama, 202 BC, showing the initial deployments and (inset) the final phase.
Plan of the Battle of Zama, 202 BC, showing the initial deployments and (inset) the final phase.

The two armies met at Zama, and both commanders were willing to fight: Scipio to win the decisive victory over the main enemy that would end the war; Hannibal to extinguish the threat to the Carthaginian homeland – though he first made an abortive attempt to negotiate peace on the basis of the status quo ante bellum (the situation before the war).

As so often, our figures for the numbers present on either side are uncertain, though it seems likely that the Romans were out-numbered, perhaps heavily so.

In one critical respect, however, they had clear superiority. Hannibal’s cavalry had always been his main masse de manoeuvre and force de frappe (strike force). Scipio’s destruction of the camp of the pro-Carthaginian Numidians near Utica, and his friendship and support for the exiled pro-Roman Numidian prince Masinissa, had given him superiority in the mounted arm.

Not only that: he had engineered a battle on an open plain, where he might use his new cavalry advantage to maximum effect – where, indeed, he might bring about his own version of Cannae.

Deploying for battle

Scipio deployed in the traditional triplex acies – three main lines, formed of hastati, principes, and triarii, with the velites skirmishing ahead. But there were subtle differences – all of them designed to deal with the elephant problem.

They were poorly trained, but there were 80 of them, and they formed the front line of Hannibal’s army. The Carthaginians planned to open the battle with an elephant charge, the aim being to disorganise and demoralise the Romans before the main clash of heavy infantry.

Behind the elephants, Hannibal also had his triplex acies. Gauls, Ligurians, and Balearic and Numidian light infantry formed the first line; these were probably the remains of an army that Mago had led across the Mediterranean in a failed attempt to bring reinforcements to Hannibal.

Carthaginian and Libyan levies formed the second line; these were newly raised troops, and their reliability was probably in question.

It was the third line that most mattered. The elephants, Mago’s men, and the African levies were to be committed one after the other in an attempt to grind down the Roman legions before the decisive phase of battle. For in the third line stood Hannibal’s Italian veterans, around 20,000 strong, perhaps equal in number to the whole of Scipio’s heavy infantry, and all now equipped in Roman style from captured gear.

The third line was deployed about 200 yards behind the second: it was not to become entangled, disordered, even swept away by whatever befell the men in front. It was to be standing intact – serried ranks of combat veterans forming a battle-winning reserve – to deliver the coup de grâce.

Phase 1: The elephant and cavalry charges

When the armies had completed their deployments, Hannibal ordered his elephant charge. This, to a large degree, miscarried.

Elephants are highly intelligent animals and were trained for battlefield service, but to do this thoroughly took time. Against poorly trained elephants, Scipio’s three devices for dealing with the threat were effective.

His trumpeters were ordered to sound tremendous blasts as the elephants approached, and the noise seems to have panicked some, who turned away and stampeded back into their own lines.

Below The elephant charge at Zama. The Roman heavy-infantry maniples are shown funnelling the elephants down the avenues. The three lines of Hannibal’s infantry can be seen in the distance.
The elephant charge at Zama. The Roman heavy-infantry maniples are shown funnelling the elephants down the avenues. The three lines of Hannibal’s infantry can be seen in the distance. Image: Angus McBride/WIPL.

As the rest closed, they were funnelled towards gaps through the Roman lines. For, instead of deploying in the traditional chequerboard formation, Scipio had deployed his maniples of hastati, principes, and triarii one behind the other, leaving wide avenues open to the elephants.

The heavy infantry presented walls of shields and spears, the trumpeters continued blasting, the velites hurled javelins, and most of the terrified beasts took the line of least resistance and headed down the avenues.

They were then dispatched by the light troops one by one in the rear. The few that actually plunged into one or another of the blocs of heavy infantry were relatively easily dealt with.

At the same time, Masinissa had charged the pro-Carthaginian Numidians facing him on the right, defeating his opponents and driving them from the field.

On the opposite flank, some of the elephants careered towards the Carthaginian cavalry, throwing them into disorder, and Gaius Laelius, in command of the Italian cavalry on that flank, seized the opportunity to charge and break the enemy horse.

The elephants and both wings of Hannibal’s cavalry had been defeated. But Scipio’s victorious cavalry had followed the enemy horse off the battlefield, clearing the ground for an exclusive struggle of infantry in the second phase.

Phase 2: The infantry struggle

The hastati now closed with Hannibal’s first line of infantry, mainly Gauls and Ligurians, and the former gradually prevailed. There are probably two main reasons for this.

First, whereas the principes were in close support of the hastati – and were of course fellow countrymen – Hannibal’s Africans of the second line hung back, perhaps under orders not to become untangled, perhaps lacking the experience and resolve, leaving the Gauls and Ligurians feeling isolated.

Second, the Roman legion was superior to the Gallic host in close-quarters fighting. Roman soldiers were trained to fight as a unit, with locked shields and stabbing blows of the sword. The Gauls were individualists who deployed long slashing swords, the use of which tended to expose the body to counter-thrust. This subtle distinction – magnified a thousand times along the fighting front – helped tip the balance.

As the Gauls first gave ground, then broke and ran, they found their escape-route blocked, as orders had been given to the Africans not to open their ranks, lest they be swept away, but to maintain a solid front against both friend and foe.

The hastati were now tired and shaken, and had taken heavy losses, having fought both elephants and Gauls. Facing a fresh line, they faltered and had to be reinforced by detachments of principes who were now fed forwards into the fighting.

LEFT Hannibal’s army was a rich ethnic mix, though virtually all his men are likely to have been heavily armoured, often wearing captured Roman kit. This reconstruction shows a Celtiberian on the left, a Gaul on the right.
Hannibal’s army was a rich ethnic mix, though virtually all his men are likely to have been heavily armoured, often wearing captured Roman kit. This reconstruction shows a Celtiberian on the left, a Gaul on the right. Image: Angus McBride/WIPL.

This reinforced Roman line, perhaps now overlapping the African line on either flank if principes had been deployed to extend it, gradually wore down the enemy’s resistance. The Africans broke and ran as the Gauls had done, finding their escape route barred in turn by the solid front presented by Hannibal’s veterans of the third line.

Phase 3: The last stand of Hannibal’s veterans

The 200-yard gap between Hannibal’s second and third lines, and the great mass of dead, wounded, gore, and abandoned kit littering the field, imposed a pause.

Scipio used this opportunity to reorganise his line. The hastati were out of control, the principes in considerable disorder; only the triarii remained in-hand as a fresh, well-ordered reserve. Confronting a phalanx of 20,000 battle- hardened veterans, it was essential for the Roman commander to reform his ranks.

The hastati were recalled and rallied. The principes were regrouped and redeployed on either flank. And the triarii now joined the front line, taking station on the two outer wings, where they might stabilise the weakened maniples of the centre, and, overlapping the enemy line, act as the two arms of a pincer to close around the opposing flanks.

Scipio was in no hurry now. Not only was it important for him to steady and reorder his line, but he was awaiting the return of his cavalry. His plan was for the bloodied ranks of hastati and principes to fix the front of Hannibal’s veterans, while his triarii pressed against their flanks, and, finally, the Roman and Numidian cavalry plunged into their rear.

It was now a curious battle on this remote African plain, for most of the men still left fighting were Italians. And this was, indeed, a battle not only to decide whether Rome or Carthage would henceforth rule the Western Mediterranean, but also whether the Roman alliance would endure on the Italian peninsula.

We do not know how long the struggle lasted. But the two lines of heavy infantry, perhaps 40,000 men in all, collided, grappled, and stabbed and hacked at close-quarters for a time, adding more to the heaps of dead and dying.

Then Masinissa and Laelius returned at the head of their men and closed off the Carthaginian rear. And that meant it was all over bar the killing – the battle, the war, the empire.

Below The Battle of Zama, 202 BC. Detail from a painting by Cornelis Cort, c.1567.
The Battle of Zama, 202 BC. Detail from a painting by Cornelis Cort, c.1567. Image: Angus McBride/WIPL.

Around 20,000 were slain on the Carthaginian side, 2,000 or so on the Roman. Hannibal himself escaped among the half or more of the Carthaginian army that got away, but he immediately devoted himself to securing peace, insisting that the defeat was absolute, that further resistance was hopeless, that his people should take whatever terms they could.


The Roman state suffered a series of catastrophic battlefield defeats during the Second Punic War, most notably at Cannae, yet it continued fighting and rejected all peace efforts. This gritty determination was rooted in its city-state social structure.

With manpower reserves of perhaps 700,000 infantry and 70,000 cavalry (on one estimate), it had the capacity to repeatedly raise fresh armies after each defeat, and to shift to a strategy of avoiding pitched battle and winning the war through the slow strangulation of the peninsular alliance Hannibal had constructed in the wake of his early triumphs.

A Roman military system based on a mass citizen-militia eventually proved its superiority over a Carthaginian military system based on mercenary service. The former had a strategic and logistical depth lacking in the latter, and this was finally decisive.

Publius Cornelius Scipio – Scipio Africanus – brought this military system to a peak of proficiency. He was not necessarily Hannibal’s superior as a great commander – any more than Wellington was Napoleon’s, Grant was Lee’s, or Montgomery was Rommel’s. But he was perhaps the first truly great captain to command Roman legions; the first to demonstrate their world-conquering potential. •

All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.