Skip to main content

Decisive Battles of History: Zama

The Second Punic War

The Second Punic War is one of the more popular subjects among both military historians and simple history buffs. It was the fight of the valiant Hannibal Barca against the rising Rome. Hannibal was the nightmare of Rome, who crossed the Alps to defeat Rome and smashed several Roman armies at famous battles like Trebia, Trasimene or Cannae. His successes were even more impressive when we consider that he was fighting thousands of miles from his operational base in Spain. The Battle of Cannae is by far the most well-known battle of the Second Punic War, and military historians still admire the brilliance of Hannibal. Still, as a matter of fact, it was not Cannae that decided the outcome of the Second Punic War.

It was another battle, and it was won by the other military genius who rose in the Second Punic War, Publius Cornelius Scipio, better known as Scipio Africanus.

The Road to Zama

Rome defeated Cartage during the First Punic War and succeeded in expelling their rivals from Sicily. Many Cartigians regarded their defeat as a humiliation, and the powerful Barcid family started to expand in Spain as an alternative to Sicily.

Hannibal Barca rose to prominence in Spain, the son of the brilliant general Hamilcar Barca, who led the Cartiginian war effort in Sicily during the First Punic War.

Rome also sought to expand their influence in the Western Mediterranean, and the conflicting ambitions of the Barcids and Rome led to a Roman ultimatum to Cartage. The Romans categorically demanded a halt to Cartiginian expansion in Spain; otherwise, there would be war between them. The Cartiginian Senate reacted by accepting their challenge, to the great surprise of the Roman envoys, who expected their rivals to back down.

Hannibal decided to take the fight to Rome in Italy. He assembled his forces and marched from Spain to Italy. In doing so, he famously crossed the Alps, but his way of thinking paid off when he was able to replenish his losses with Gallic soldiers. Rome sent several armies against Hannibal, but the brilliant general defeated every one of them. He succeeded in inciting revolts against Rome, and several of Rome’s Italian allies switched sides to join Hannibal.

The losses shook the Romans, but they were determined to fight on. Under the leadership of Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Romans adopted the Fabian strategy (war of attrition). The Romans tried to avoid direct confrontation with Hannibal and settled for skirmishes, raids and small-scale war. The strategy meant that the Romans were content with withing down the forces of Hannibal, but of course, this strategy took many years to materialise.

Because Rome was fighting on its home soil, they had greater resources; Hannibal was also starved of money and fresh troops, but his army of veterans was as tough as nails, and they were not going down without a fight. Gradually, the Romans succeeded in pushing back Hannibal and limiting him to Southern Italy, but even before he sailed back to North Africa to face Scipio, Hannibal was not defeated just yet.

Archimedes was just one of the many killed in the conflicts of Rome and Carthage

Archimedes was just one of the many killed in the conflicts of Rome and Carthage

Italy was not the only theatre of the Second Punic War either. Armed conflict was going on in Spain also, and thanks to the brilliance of Scipio, the Romans pushed out the Cartiginians from Spain, and by 205 BC, when Scipio returned to Rome, the former Carthaginian Empire in Spain was gone and annexed by Rome.

Scipio advocated for an aggressive course of action to end the war, but his strategy was shut down by the more cautious Fabius, who deemed Scipio’s plans to invade the Carthaginian homeland as far too risky.

After a long political struggle, Scipio got himself the green light to proceed with his invasion, but crucially the Senate refused to conscript soldiers. This left Scipio short on manpower. He recruited around 7,000 volunteers in Italy and then sailed for Sicily to recruit more men.

Once his army was ready, he sailed for North Africa. There he was joined by the Numidians under the leadership of Masinissa, who abandoned the Carthaginians. He supplied Scipio with the formidable Numidian cavalry that Hannibal used in the early parts of the war.

Scipio defeated the armies Carthage sent against him, and after their big defeat at the Battle of the Great Plains, Carthage had no option but to seek peace. Scipio’s terms were moderate, but the Carthaginians were only biding their time and decided to recall the veteran army of Hannibal from Italy.

The Battle of Zama

The two armies were comparable in size, but Hannibal had a slight numerical advantage. Hannibal’s army had around 40,000 soldiers (36,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 80 elephants), while Scipio’s army had around 35,000 soldiers (29,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalries, including the formidable Numidians).

Before the day of the battle, the two generals met, but if they had any intentions of avoiding the battle, they failed.

The two armies faced each other the next day. The Romans lined up in their traditional formation with skirmishes before their heavy infantry, hastati (younger soldiers) in the first line, principes (older soldiers) in the second line and the triari (the most experienced soldiers) in the third line. In their initial deployment, Scipio left lanes between his infantry units, as he expected Hannibal to send his elephants against them.

The Numidian and Roman cavalry were positioned on the two flanks.

Hannibal placed his elephants in front of his infantry and lined up his infantry in three lines. He had his ill-trained mercenaries on the front line, citizen militia on the second, and veterans on the third. As Hannibal anticipated flanking moves by Scipio, he left a gap between his veterans and the second line to give him time to respond to Scipio if the need arose.

The Carthaginian cavalry was also lined up on the two flanks in about equal numbers.

The battle began with Hannibal sending to attack his elephants; however, Scipio’s infantry was able to deal with these with relative ease.

Scipio’s cavalry attacked next and succeeded in pushing them away from the field for the moment, which left the infantries staring at each other. With the cavalry gone, the battle soon turned into a huge infantry brawl that lasted for hours, with no clear winner.

The return of the Roman and Numidian cavalry decided the battle, as they were able to hit Hannibal’s infantry from behind, turning the battle into a massacre.

The battle ended in a decisive Roman victory. The Carthaginian army was killed or captured, while Scipio lost only 4,000-5,000 soldiers.

Carthage was forced to agree to the terms of Rome and become a second-rate power in the aftermath of defeat.

Scipio spared Hannibal the humiliation of parading him through the streets of Rome and left his great nemesis to continue his life in Carthage. Hannibal proved himself an efficient politician and administrator, but his rivals forced him into exile.

His great rival Scipio did not fare much better in his political career. Disillusioned by Roman politics, he spent the last years of his life in self-imposed exile. He died an embittered man. This quote probably best demonstrates his final view about his countrymen: “Ingrata Patria, ne ossa quidem habebis” (“Ungrateful fatherland, you won’t even have my bones”), as he refused to have himself buried in Rome.

The defeat of Carthage made Rome the greatest power in the Western Mediterranean, which by the end of the next century expanded its dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean also, turning it into a Roman lake.


Goldsworthy, Adrian. (2012). The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265–146 BC. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler