On or around Oct. 19, 202 B.C., according to historians, (though some place the date in September), the Roman Gen. Scipio Africanus crushed the forces of Hannibal Barca of Carthage at the Battle of Zama. The defeat forced the Carthaginians to cede victory in the war to Rome.
By the middle of the third century B.C., the two largest powers in the western Mediterranean Sea were Rome and Carthage. Primarily a land power, the Roman republic encompassed a good chunk of the Italian peninsula, while Carthage's possessions included various islands, much of western north Africa and even parts of Spain. Various issues caused a series of wars, known as the Punic Wars, to break out beginning in 264 B.C. (the Latin word “Punic” meant “Phoenician,” the ethnic stock of the Carthaginians).
The First Punic War lasted from 264 to 241 B.C. and saw Sicily and north Africa as major battlegrounds, but the war at sea dominated the conflict. The war ended with a Roman victory and the republic now in full possession of Sicily, which stood halfway between Rome and Carthage and both sides feared could be a dagger pointed at the heart of the other. Perhaps more importantly, the war had forced Rome to build a massive fleet and found itself for the first time cast in the role of naval power.
One of Carthage's chief generals in the war was Hamilcar Barca, who hated the Romans so much that he supposedly made his young son Hannibal swear that he would hate the Romans, too, and exact revenge upon them for Carthage's defeat.
In 218 B.C., tensions between Rome and Carthage flared once again, this time due largely to each country's influence in resource-rich Spain. Upon the outbreak of war, Hannibal took his army, which included several dozen war elephants, across the Pyrenees, across what is today southern France, and finally across the Alps. The Roman senate sent an army to stop Hannibal's invasion from the north, but to little avail. His powerful war elephants were like nothing the Romans had ever encountered, and their armies fled before the charge of the great beasts.
In battle after battle, Roman forces suffered defeat: Trebia, Trasimene, Cannae. After Cannae, in which the Romans were defeated with a double envelopment (or pincer) maneuver, the Carthaginian army did not go on to attack the city of Rome itself. According to the Roman historian Livy, one of Hannibal's officers, Maharbal, said to the general, “You know how to win a battle, Hannibal, but not how to use your victory.”
Indeed, while the Carthaginians proved ferocious fighters in a pitched battle, they lacked the resources for a proper siege of a major Roman city. Rather than risk all by attempting to take Rome, Hannibal spent 14 years marching up and down the Italian peninsula, attacking and defeating the Roman armies sent to stop him and plundering the countryside but generally doing little in the way of negatively impacting the strategic abilities of his enemy.
Still, this represented a major crisis for the Romans. A hostile, unbeatable army was roaming their territory at will, causing all sorts of confusion and chaos. Certainly their cities were threatened, if not attacked directly. The Roman position could be compared to Britain's in 1940-1941, when the Nazi German menace couldn't take the British isles directly, though could still cause all sorts of headaches and problems for its enemy.
After years of inconclusive warfare in Italy (and a few other theaters as well), the Romans decided upon a bold new strategy. Rather than simply fighting the Carthaginians in Italy, Spain and Sicily, why not sent an expedition to north Africa to directly threaten Carthage? In 205 B.C., Publius Cornelius Scipio had been made a consul, a kind of co-president with another consul elected annually. He was only 31 years old. The following year, he landed his troops in north Africa.
In the book, “History's Greatest Wars: The Epic Conflicts that Shaped the Modern World,” historian Joseph Cummins wrote: “Scipio's forces ravaged much of the abundant Bagradas valley and, in the late summer of 204, successfully laid siege to Utica. Scipio had help in this, for the all-important allies of the Carthaginians, the Numidians, had a new leader named Masinissa, who had switched his allegiance to Rome, bringing his considerable forces with him.”
Cummins also notes that new factions had come to power in Carthage that were hostile to Hannibal's family. Though peace negotiations began, they soon broke down, and Scipio continued his rampage across north Africa. In the summer of 202, Hannibal finally agreed to leave Italy and help defend Carthage.
When, on or around Oct. 19, 202 B.C., Scipio's forces finally met Hannibal's veterans at what would eventually be called Zama in western Tunisia (the exact location of the battle is not entirely certain), the Romans boasted 29,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry. The Carthaginians consisted of 36,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. And of course, Hannibal had his favorite weapon of all, an unknown number of war elephants. Both sides packed their infantry densely in the middle, with their cavalry holding both flanks. Hannibal's elephants stood in front of his infantry.
Predictably, Hannibal opened his assault with a charge of his elephants. Scipio had prepared for this tactic and trained his troops to open alleyways between infantry formations, then guide the elephants into the alleyways with spears. Also, Scipio ordered his horns to sound just as the elephants were charging to disorient and frighten them. The tactic worked, and the elephants all funneled through the alleyways between infantry formations and then kept running once through — the dreaded war elephants had been neutralized.
Scipio took advantage of his stunned enemy, who had just seen a tried and true tactic fail, to launch an assault with his cavalry from both flanks. With superior numbers, the Roman cavalry hit their Carthaginian opposite numbers hard, and the Carthaginian horsemen soon fled with their foes in hot on pursuit.
The opening moves of the battle had not gone as Hannibal had planned, but he was undeterred. He began extending his infantry lines just as the Romans did the same. Hannibal's veterans — perhaps the best infantry in the world at the time, held the center of his line, while mercenary and secondary infantry forces fanned out to cover the flanks. The two lines of infantry crashed into one another, and the fighting began in earnest. It was still anybody's ball game.
Then, unexpectedly, the Roman cavalry returned. It had broken off its pursuit of the Carthaginian horsemen and now crashed into the rear column of the Carthaginian footmen. The shock of the powerful Roman cavalry at their back broke the Carthaginian line, sending the infantry running in all directions. Scipio had won the day.
With the loss of the battle and Hannibal's army, the Carthaginians now had no realistic way of winning the war militarily and soon called for another round of peace talks. This time, they bore fruit. In the book, “The Romans: From Village to Empire: A History of Ancient Rome from Earliest Times to Constantine,” historians Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J.A. Talbert wrote:
“Peace was concluded in 201. The terms of the treaty severely restricted Carthaginian power and blocked any prospect of its revival. The Carthaginians surrendered their fleet, were burdened with crippling indemnity payments, lost all their territory outside of the core around Carthage and the other Punic cities in northern Tunisia, and were prohibited from waging war outside this territory without Roman permission. Meantime, Masinissa emerged as a staunch Roman ally with control of an enlarged Numidian kingdom.”
Like the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo roughly 2,000 years later, Scipio became the premier statesmen of his day. He was given the agnomen “Africanus” because of his victories in Africa and became known as the “princeps senatus,” “first man of the senate.” Hannibal, only 43 years old at the war's conclusion, became a statesman in Carthage as well, until Rome demanded that he stay out of politics. He then traveled the ancient world and, sometime in the 180s B.C., committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of his enemies.
In 151 B.C., Carthage was attacked by Numidia, and the Carthaginians soon launched their own attack which ended in disaster. Two years later, the Roman senate ruled that by sending an army to invade Numidia, Carthage had violated the treaty of 201 B.C. Significantly weaker than it had been a half century earlier, Carthage was in no position to fight Rome and Numidia. A Roman army was dispatched to north Africa once again, and this time laid siege to the Phoenician city. In 146 B.C., after three years of siege, Carthage finally surrendered. It's people were either killed or sold into slavery, and the city was destroyed.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org