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

The Dual Punic Port Of Ancient Carthage The recent dating of the famed dual military and commercial Punic port of Carthage to the second, rather than the third, century BCE, has created a paradox leading to further doubts and possibilities. According to Dexter Hoyos in The Carthaginians, the suggested dating for the construction of Carthage’s artificial ports south of the agora is c. 218-210, but H. R. Hurst, in his Excavations at Carthage points out that the latest scientific dating indicates that the port, one of the great architectural and engineering wonders of the ancient world, was actually built later, at some point between 201 and 146 BCE (the latter, of course, being the year of the destruction of Carthage by the Romans).  As Abdelaziz Belkhodja argues quite compellingly in his new book, Hannibal Barca: L’histoire veritable, published by Apollonia in Tunisia in 2012, if the military port was actually built after, and not before, the conclusion of the second war between Carthage and Rome, this casts serious doubts on the authenticity of the peace treaty that Carthage was required to sign after the alleged defeat at Zama. The treaty, which dates back to 201 BCE, included the clause that Carthage’s naval forces be dismantled, and in the future be limited to no more than 10 warships. The great Punic port, with berths for over 200 warships, could not have been built for a navy limited to 10 galleys. Consequently, that limitation did not exist when the port was constructed, which in turn means that at least that provision of the treaty is fictitious.

Belkhodja also points out that no one has been able to find the exact location of the battle of Zama (the village of Jama, close to Siliana, some 150 km southwest of Tunis, and a number of other candidates have been suggested, but without archaeological verification). The site remains unknown, while those of practically all other major battles waged during the Second Punic War are reasonably well established. This is particularly troublesome in view of the Romans’ penchant for erecting monuments in situ to commemorate their greatest victories. They held control of North Africa for centuries, so why is there not some impressive display of statuary marking the battlefield? There is none, not even a lonely column or the ruins of a temple—as would be expected if the battle had never taken place!

If the war was concluded with a peace agreement giving concessions to Rome (but not including the complete dissolution of the Punic navy), as offered by Hannibal in his meeting with Scipio, this would have negated the need for a final battle. The construction of the military port after the war would then make sense, as would the lack of a monument to mark the location of the fictitious battle. It is therefore possible that the battle of Zama never took place and was a fabrication of Roman propaganda, left uncontested following the Carthaginian holocaust of 146 BCE. As Belkhodja argues, although Carthage lost the war, Hannibal may never have actually been defeated by the Romans.

But why the deception, the smoke and mirrors creating the illusion of a decisive military engagement that may never have occurred? The answer can perhaps be found in the wounded pride and the hubris of the Roman psyche. For a people who regarded themselves as destined to rule and as better than all non-Romans, the humiliation of suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of a man of genius who remained unvanquished and untarnished for 16 long years, on their own land, where they enjoyed every possible advantage, was too much to bear. Cannae, in particular, left such a devastating hole in their arrogance that it could only be filled by creating the illusion of having achieved a comparable victory.

It is interesting to note that none of the classical accounts of the controversial final battle of the Second Punic War was written by an eye-witness. Both Polybius and Livy, and others who essentially parroted them later with small variations in details, wrote about Zama after the Carthaginian holocaust of 146 BCE (which Polybius witnessed in person, as companion and friend of Scipio Aemiliano, the butcher of Carthage). The myth of Zama seems to have emerged full-fledged after the burning and dispersal of the libraries of Carthage and the destruction of all Carthaginian records of the war. Consumed by hatred for what they could not overcome, and deeply resentful of the renewed prosperity of the North African city-state (largely the result of the reforms instituted by Hannibal as suffete after the war) the Romans eventually unleashed the genocidal fury that led to one of the greatest crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Roman war machine, the annihilation of the thriving and vibrant civilization of Carthage, 37 years after the death of its greatest defender.

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© Yozan Mosig, 2012

yozan-mosig-miniAbout The Author

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 20 years. His Hannibal Library contains over 10,000 items. Read more about Yozan »