Five Ancient Battles That Changed The World: Zama

November 10, 2014 by crew

Hannibal Barca is remembered by history as one of the great military commanders, and by the Romans as the man who almost destroyed them. His name became a byword for disaster in Rome, and as a bogeyman to threaten errant Roman children. His fate is intertwined with that of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the first great Roman general. The two men met across the battlefield at the plain of Zama. At stake was the outcome of a war between the Roman Republic and Carthage, and the outcome would ultimately bring down both.

Hannibal Barca

The Battle of Zama

Following a long series of conflicts, first against the tribes of central Italy, then against the Greeks of southern Italy, Rome had emerged as the dominant power on the peninsular by 270BC. The most powerful city in the western Mediterranean at this time was Carthage, situated on the coast of Tunisia. Between Carthage and Rome lay Sicily; and the two cities went to war for control of the island in 264. The First Punic War lasted 23 years and featured massive loss of life and expenditure of resources on both sides. The destruction of the Roman fleet in a storm is rivalled only by the destruction of the Mongol fleet in the kamikaze typhoon as the greatest single naval disaster in history (nothing else comes remotely close). A rebuilt fleet won a decisive naval engagement in 241 and with Carthage no longer able to supply its army on Sicily, it had no choice but to sue for peace.

Hannibal Alps

Stripped of control of Corsica, Sardinia, and parts of Africa, and financially exhausted by its indemnity payments to Rome, Carthage looked to Spain for an alternative source of revenue. The invasion was led by Hamilcar Barca, commander of the Sicilian army in the closing years of the war with Rome. By the time of his death in 228, Hamilcar had made significant territorial gains and secured control of numerous gold and silver mines.

He was briefly succeeded by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, who led the army until his own death in 221, and then by his son, Hannibal. At the time he took command, a generation had passed since the end of the First Punic War, and Rome had begun to cast envious glances at Carthaginian success in Spain. Using an attack by Hannibal on the city of Saguntum as a pretext, Rome declared war in 218. The Second Punic War had begun.

At this time, Rome had to yet to become an empire. Instead of a sole ruler, it shared power among its upper classes via a series of annual magistracies. The top jobs were the consuls, of which two were elected each year. Although they had political and religious duties, each consul was given command of half the Roman legions for the duration of their office. Traditionally, the consuls would campaign for one year, and then lay down their command to be taken over by the consuls of the following year.


The consuls of 218 were Tiberius Sempronius Longus, and Publius Cornelius Scipio. Sempronius was sent with a fleet to Africa to raise supplies. Scipio, along with his brother Gnaeus, was sent to Spain to battle Hannibal. When Scipio put in at Massalia (now Marseille) to resupply, he was shocked to learn that Hannibal had marched his army out of Spain to take the fight to Rome. Hannibal’s harrowing crossing of the Alps with his army, elephants and all, is now legendary, and when he reached the other side, he replenished his forces by coming to terms with the Gallic tribes that occupied northern Italy. Scipio sent his brother on to Spain and set off to intercept Hannibal, but was defeated and badly wounded. Sempronius was recalled back to Italy and in December of 218, Hannibal crushed his army at Trebbia.

The following year, Scipio’s command in Spain was extended and he rejoined his brother there. Four new legions were raised to battle Hannibal in Italy, but in June of 217, Hannibal ambushed and destroyed the army of Gaius Flaminius at Lake Trasimene. In 216, Rome took the extraordinary step of fielding both consular armies together to try and defeat Hannibal. The resulting battle at Cannae proved to be Hannibal’s masterpiece. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Hannibal was able to encircle the Roman army. Cut off from any avenue of retreat, the resulting slaughter was so great that Cannae is possibly the bloodiest battle in history with as many as 70,000 Romans killed that day at the rate of 60 per second.

Route of Invasion

The victory left Rome on the verge of defeat, but Hannibal declined to press home his advantage by taking the city, most likely because his army didn’t have the capability to carry out a siege. Instead he took control of much of southern Italy and attempted to separate Rome from its allies. Rome in turn avoided pitched battles with Hannibal and focused on preventing him from capturing Roman allied cities, and preventing him from raising reinforcements. Meanwhile in Spain, the Scipio brothers had fought the Carthaginian army there to a stalemate, but in 211, both men died in battle.

Scipio’s son, also called Publius Cornelius Scipio (because that’s how the Roman aristocracy rolled), offered to take over command in Spain. At just 25 years old, Scipio was far too young to take a consular command, but with the war against Hannibal still raging in Italy, there was no-one else prepared to take over in Spain. Scipio arrived in 210, and by 206 he had driven the Carthaginian army from Spain. He returned to Rome to be elected consul for 205, still a decade younger than age limit for the post, and raised an army on Sicily to take the war to Carthage.

Battle of Zama

He landed in Africa in 204 and delivered and ambushed a joint Carthaginian/Numidian army. The Numidians were long-time allies of Carthage and their superb cavalry served in the Carthaginian army. Scipio was able to use the victory to place a new king on the Numidian throne and gain access to the cavalry himself. Surrounded by Scipio and cut-off from their allies, Carthage initially entered peace negotiations with him, but then abruptly withdrew and recalled Hannibal from Italy. In October of 202, they faced each other on the plain of Zama.

For once, Hannibal had the advantage in numbers. His army totalled 36,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 80 elephants. Scipio’s army numbered 29,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, but with Numidians serving on both sides, Hannibal no longer had an advantage in cavalry. Furthermore, his army consisted of the remnants of his Italian veterans boosted by hastily raised citizen-levy. Scipio’s army was well-trained and included the survivors of Cannae, who had been stationed on Sicily as punishment ever since.

Array of Battle

Scipio also drew up his infantry in three lines. The stronger Numidian cavalry were placed to the right flank, and the weaker Italian cavalry to the left flank. Hannibal drew his infantry up into three lines, though he held his third line further back to prevent Scipio from encircling him with his superior cavalry. He stationed the elephants stationed in front of the infantry, the Numidian cavalry on the left facing Scipio’s, and the Carthaginian cavalry on the right.

The elephants provided Scipio with his most immediate problem. They had earlier been used to great effect against Rome by the Greek general, Pyrrhus, but were prone to panic and could only charge forward in straight lines. Scipio drilled his troops to open gaps in the line to allow an elephant charge to pass through, and ordered his cavalry on the flanks to blow their horns when the elephants came close. Several elephants were panicked by the horns and ploughed back into the Carthaginian left flank, the remainder were allowed to pass through the Roman line. Sensing their opportunity, the Numidian cavalry on the Roman right followed the rampaging elephants into the Carthaginian left.

Zama Elephants

With the elephants dealt with, Scipio brought the triarii up their usual position behind the first two lines and marched forward to engage the Carthaginian centre. The momentum swung back and forth in the centre before both Scipio and Hannibal pulled back and reformed their remaining troops into a single line. They once again engaged and this time fought to a bloody stalemate Hannibal had meanwhile had ordered his cavalry to retreat and pull the Roman cavalry away from the battlefield to prevent them attacking the sides of his line.

Once they were at a safe distance, the Carthaginian cavalry turned and engaged the Roman cavalry but were routed on both flanks. This allowed the Roman cavalry to return to the battle, approaching from behind the Carthaginian line. With Roman infantry in front of them and cavalry behind them, the Carthaginian line was surrounded and slaughtered. Carthage subsequently surrendered. The resulting treaty was so harsh it ended Carthage as a major force and Rome was left as the undisputed power in the western Mediterranean.

It’s difficult to know how a Carthaginian victory would have affected the outcome of the war. Rome had retaken Italy and taken control of Spain so defeat at Zama would at best have chased Rome out of Africa and prolonged the war. Had Scipio fallen, then Rome would have been deprived of the one general capable of going toe-to-toe with Hannibal. The likelihood is Rome would still have eventually won, albeit Carthage may not have been ruined in the process, and Rome would not have been able to so quickly turn its gaze east to the powerful Greek kingdoms of Alexander’s successors.


As much as Zama decided the Second Punic War, its effects went beyond simply paving the way for Rome’s control of the ancient Mediterranean. Faced with its greatest crisis, the Roman system had proved incapable of providing generals capable of meeting the threat of Hannibal. The annual turnover of consuls did not allow for generals to gain experience in the field, nor did it allow for keeping the best generals in the field. Hannibal had ruthlessly exploited this deficiency, and the system had to be abandoned to allow Scipio to emerge as a Rome’s first truly great military leader. The consequences would not be immediately felt, but ultimately, it would bring down the Roman Republic.

Gaming Zama

Zama is not a battle that is going to tax anyone’s supply of terrain. The plain was chosen for the battle precisely because it was so open and there is no indication in the sources that terrain proved a hindrance to either side. With both armies being roughly the same size and aligned directly opposite each other, Zama is a very easy battle to set-up. If your system has rules for commanders then both should be fielded in the centre at the rear, and both should be the best that your systems allows.

Roman Army

Scipio’s army was the classic manipular army of the Mid-Republic; arranged in three lines with the hastati in the front, princeps in the middle, and triarii at the rear. The Numidian cavalry are on the right, the Italian to the left, and there should be roughly twice as many Numidian as Italian. The infantry line would have been screened by skirmishers.


Hannibal also deployed his infantry in three lines. The exact make-up of the infantry is unclear though it seems likely that his most experienced troops would have been in the rear line, and the Carthaginian levy in the middle. His elephants were arrayed across the front of the infantry and skirmishers would likely have been in front of them. He had around two-thirds the amount of cavalry as Scipio, and this was evenly distributed to both flanks with Numidians on the left and Carthaginian on the right.

Overall, Hannibal will have around 80% of the infantry numbers of Scipio, and the Carthaginian levy in particular will likely be lower quality troops compared to Rome. There should be roughly one elephant per 350 infantry, though as all systems have to abstract numbers (assuming you don’t have a gaming table big enough to field around 80,000 minis), then you may have to adjust this to keep the list balanced.


Zama is a battle that could have gone very differently had the elephant charge been more effective, and you may find the battle hinges on it. The Romans should have rules allowing them to deal with the charge (such as the ones found in Warhammer Ancient Battles), else things may go badly for them.

The Series...

The Battle of Marathon

The Battle of Chaeronea

Ben Clapperton

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