The Trouble With Zama: Paradox, Smoke and Mirrors in an Ancient Battlefield

At Cannae discipline was absolute, and Hannibal’s forces moved with clockwork precision, leaving nothing to chance. After the Carthaginian heavy horse under Hasdrubal defeated the Roman equites on the right wing of the Roman formation, they did not give in to the temptation of pursuing the survivors, a remarkable display of discipline. Instead they wheeled to the right like a well-oiled machine, swiftly riding behind the mile-long battlefield to fall upon the flank and rear of the large contingent of allied Italian cavalry under Varro, which was being kept in place by the hit and run tactics of the agile and versatile Numidian riders. When the allied cavalry panicked and broke, it was only the fast Numidian horsemen who undertook the pursuit, while Hasdrubal’s heavy horse, again with perfect discipline, wheeled once more to the right and fell upon the rear of the Roman army already engaged with the Carthaginian center and in the process of being enveloped by Hannibal’s elite Lybian forces closing in from the sides.  Hasdrubal’s preordained cavalry manoeuvre blocked the possibility of any retreat and doomed the legions under Servilius and Minucius to their fate.

Compare the above display of equestrian manoeuvrability and discipline with the cavalry engagement at Zama, where Hannibal was outnumbered by 6,000 to 4,000 in horsemen. It is clear that Hannibal instructed his smaller Numidian and Carthaginian cavalry to feign a retreat when the Roman horse attacked at the beginning of the battle, and, pretending to escape, draw away from the battlefield the pursuing Numidian horse from the right Roman flank, under the command of Massinissa, as well as the Roman equites under Laelius from the opposite wing. This they accomplished with perfection, removing the superior cavalry forces from the battlefield. Hannibal, and not Scipio, controlled this development.

With respect to the infantry engagement, only Hannibal’s third line, which he held as a reserve far behind the others, was composed of seasoned veterans and elite forces from his Italian campaign. Naturally, most of them were not among the men who had crossed the Alps with him in 218 BCE, but they were experienced soldiers, including many from Bruttium, who were determined to shake the Roman yoke. His first two lines, on the other hand, were of questionable quality, and Hannibal probably expected them to cave in under the onslaught of the veteran Roman legionnaires, although not without first taking their toll from them, both in terms of casualties and fatigue. He wanted to insure that not only the Roman first line—the hastati—but also the second and third lines—the principes and the triari—would come into the fray and gradually wear themselves out. Once Hannibal’s first line broke, the retreating soldiers were not permitted to reintegrate themselves at random points in the next line, but were forced to move to the sides, extending the Carthaginian front. Knowing Hannibal’s habit of meticulous planning, it is likely that this repositioning was intentional and decided well before the start of the battle. The same thing happened after the second line broke, and then the Romans were left facing the fresh and rested elite veterans of Hannibal’s army, plus a vastly wider enemy line, threatening to engulf them from the flanks.

At that point in the fray, Scipio must have realized that his situation was becoming desperate, for he was in danger of being enveloped from the sides, and was facing an irresistible barrier of rested veterans ready to crush his tired soldiers in the center. We are told that he ordered the Roman advance stopped and repositioned the principes and the triari to the sides of his formation, extending his front to match the width of the Carthaginian line, hoping to avoid encirclement. From the Roman account we get the impression that the Carthaginians remained idle during this redeployment, patiently waiting without attacking until Scipio was done with his preparations, which is patently absurd. We are asked to believe that the most brilliant tactician in history not only was waging a most unimaginative battle but actually wasted time when he would have known full well that time was of the essence and that he had to complete the defeat of the enemy infantry before the absent Roman cavalry could return to the battlefield. It is likely that, if the battle was unfolding as described, at this point Hannibal’s rested veterans would have attacked the Romans without giving them the opportunity to redeploy. At the very least Hannibal would have used the momentary lull in the fighting to reorganize his own forces, most likely by displacing his veterans to the sides, to face the triari and the principes, while the survivors of his first two lines got ready to deal with the exhausted hastati in the center—it is not credible that he would have remained idle. As for Scipio, there was nothing more he could have done at this point, and we are told that the battle resumed with increased ferocity. In view of the rested condition and the quality of Hannibal’s elite veterans, it is very likely that they were in the process of routing the principes and triari while the center held, and certain defeat looked Scipio in the face.

What saved the day for Scipio, if we believe the classical accounts, was the fortuitous return in the nick of time of the horsemen under Massinissa and Laelius, who had been tricked away from the battlefield for what must have been hours, and who fell upon the Carthaginian rear. If this is what happened, we must conclude that ultimately it was Massinissa’s betrayal of Hannibal and his fortunate (for the Romans) return to the field, rather than the generalship of Scipio, that decided the outcome of the battle. Had Massinissa and Laelius’s return been delayed for another half hour, Hannibal would almost certainly have prevailed. Even at this point, the Carthaginians were not completely encircled, as the Romans had been at Cannae. According to Polybius, the Carthaginian casualties numbered 20,000, an outcome hardly comparable with the 70,000 fallen at Cannae. Scipio, undoubtedly aware of how close he had been to defeat, had he not been saved at the last moment by Massinissa, later acknowledged that Hannibal had done at Zama everything anyone could have done (Livy 30:35, 5-8). The illusion that at Zama the student had matched and outdone the teacher, part of the Scipio myth propagated by Roman historiography, does not fit what supposedly took place in the last battle of the Second Punic War.

The classical accounts of the battle of Zama, as we have seen, are strangely inconsistent and contradictory. The course of the struggle is unimaginative to the point of being suspect as the alleged outcome of a first-rate military mind such as Hannibal’s and even Scipio’s. It reads more like the invention of a writer lacking the vision of a great general. The matter of the fictional elephants further reduces credibility. But these are not the only problems with the battle of Zama.