In 202BC the end of power of the truly great Hannibal Barca came to be. His domination, such legendary battles as Cannae and much more was behind him. Now a new rising star would set, Publius Cornelius Scipio, whose reforms to the Roman army would go on to make him legendary.
If you look back at the Second Punic Wars then the simple fact that Roman troops finally landed on African land was significant. As the Roman army steadily defeats Carthaginian armies under Syphax, coupled with adding support to a Numidian uprising against Carthaginian rule, the leaders of Carthage were ready to sue for peace.
Then the mighty Hannibal returned from Italy with some 15,000 of his veterans. Emboldened by the return of its great hero, Carthage chose to continue its wars against the Romans. At its hour of need Carthage made a grave error in judgement.
Bad goes to Worse
Now Hannibal did have his veterans and it has to be said that these troops were battle hardened – they had fought for many years in and around Italy and you can understand how Hannibal would be confident of their ability. But his position was weakened by the destruction of Syphax' forces which left the great leader looking to raise a new army in order to deal with the extra-ordinary challenge which lay ahead.
As the forces met near Zama Regia in the summer of 202 BC, both armies numbered somewhere in the region of 35,000 to 40,000 men apiece. Hannibal had a strong elephant corps with him, which must have filled him with confidence, but the infantry were another matter, of lesser quality to the highly trained legions of Scipio. Also, Scipio had the advantage in cavalry, having delayed an engagement for long enough to allow a strong Numidian force under Masinissa to join him.
Just as with the Battle of Cannae, this Roman meeting with Hannibal was to be of huge scale.
Deployment – Scipio’s Genius
The Romans force drew up in the classic three lines, creating an effective reserve of troops in the rear. BUT the maniples stood in separate formations, not creating a continuous line. These gaps were then loosely filled by the Velites (skirmishers).
Now on the Roman left wing was a large unit made up of Italian allied cavalry, while the right wing consisted of the Numidian cavalry under the command of the able Massinissa. Who it seems had been well briefed by Scipio as to his role in this upcoming battle.
So Hannibal also aligned his troops in three lines. His mercenaries took the front, the second line was formed by the Carthaginian forces and those of the Carthaginian territories (Liby-Phoenicians). At the rear stood Hannibal's most reliable troops, his veterans from the campaign in Italy.
At the very front of the army Hannibal placed his elephant corps and on both wings he placed his cavalry - Numidian cavalry to the left and to the right stood the Carthaginian cavalry. On paper it all looked balanced and Hannibal must have felt good about his deployment.
Let Battle Commence
The usual skirmishing elements came into play at the start and there was some sporadic cavalry action…then all hell broke loose as Hannibal unleashed his Carthaginian War Elephants.
The normal effect of such beasts is to cause panic, indeed terror, within the ranks of the opponent. But not this time. Scipio’s unusual deployment came into play as lining up his troops in separate maniples came into its own. The well placed Velites engaged the elephants, drawing them into the ‘alleys’ that had been created between the core Roman units.
Amusingly Scipio had also ordered for all of his trumpeters in the army to blow at the same time, creating what must have been a terrible noise. The effect: the startled elephants panicked and the assault was far from the success that Hannibal had wanted.
Reports of the battle indicate that some elephants charged straight through the alleys, others turned and ran back into their own cavalry. That said, there was significant damage caused to the Roman forces by the Elephant Corp, but not the devastation that Hannibal had been hoping for.
The cunning Scopio had found a way to deal with the elephants – a tactic that may well have saved the day for him.
Immediately following the elephants charge there was a massed cavalry charge by the Romans. There is some debate as to whether or not the crushing blow to the Carthaginian cavalry (by the Italian cavalry under Laelius) was meant to be followed by the Roman cavalry pursuing them. Some say that they should have returned to harass the foot troops, and that Scipio stood calmly watching, confident in the superior nature of his own foot troops.
On the right the Numidian cavalry was broken by Massinissa and his own Numidian horse. These troops also pursued the broken horse of Hannibal…things were not going too well for the hero of Carthage.
Once the cavalry had done its bit the armies began to close on each other. Then the Romans charged and the Carthaginian mercenaries halted the initial charge quite well. But Roman professional fighting took its toll and the mercenaries were forced back. Some panic ensued here and it is noted that the second line of Hannibal’s army turned its weapons upon the mercenaries to try and stop them yielding ground, an action that led the mercenaries to turn and attack the line behind them.
As the pressure from the advancing Romans grew Hannibal's stalwart veterans stood firm, and looked to force the mercenaries and regular Carthaginian troops to the sides, allowing them to engage the enemy.
It must be noted that Hannibal's veterans were no doubt amongst the best troops in the world at that time, causing significant damage on the centre of a tired Roman line they eventually met.
In response to this ‘sideways shuffle’ of the Carthaginian front rows Scipio moved his Principes to the sides and in turn the Triarii to the extreme flanks to give his army more width and prevent the Carthaginians from performing an outflanking manoeuvre.
The two armies were locked in a gruelling, harrowing combat and for a time the battle hung in the balance.
This was about to change.
The Cavalry Returns
It was at this point, the battle poised to go either way that the Roman cavalry returned, having smashed the Carthaginian horse and driven it away. It immediately fell into the rear of the Carthaginian lines. This decided the battle and at once Hannibal's army began to collapse.
Quite simply Scipio had failed to defeat Hannibal ‘man-on-man’ with an infantry engagement. True his foot troops were better than the force that they faced, but the Carthage veterans and mercenaries held their own. It was the superior cavalry that won the battle for him.
At the end of this battle some 20,000 Carthaginians had been killed and 20,000 more taken prisoner. It is unclear as to how many Romans were killed but something along the lines of 5,000 out of the 30,000 seems accurate.
This is a simplistic battle and you need to acknowledge that Scipion really did recognise just how dangerous his opponent was. He kept things simple, matched Hannibal’s movements and waited for his superb cavalry to win their combat and return to break the Carthaginians.
Scipio’s military mind made the Roman force that stood before Hannibal must more dangerous than the one he had despatched at Cannae. His tactic there of effectively surrounding his opponent and crushing them would not have worked at Zama and with this defeat the end of the Carthaginian Empire came about.
Zama marked a major milestone for both sides: the end of Carthage dominance and the realisation that the Roman Army had learnt from its errors (Cannae being a very painful one) and that Scipio’s reforms to the armies of Rome had turned them into a fighting machine that could match any commander, even one was great as Hannibal Barca.
Wargaming Zama Using Vis Bellica
The rosters, attached, scale down the battle to enable it to be played in an evening. Those wishing to fight the battle at full scale should multiply the number of bases given for each side by a factor of three.
The following special rules apply to the battle of Zama
- The Romans have the Defeat Condition “All Gone” at 30 bases (including Officers).
- The Carthaginians have the Defeat Condition “Big Man Down” on Hannibal.
- Note that the Numidians under Masinissa do NOT count as Allied Troops, due to Masinissa’s special relationship with Scipio. However, if their Leader, Masinissa, takes ANY loss of strength points due to Officer Casualties, then their status reverts to Allied, with all the usual command point penalties applying.
- The cavalry of neither the Carthaginians nor the Romans count as familiar with elephants
Oh the beauty of this game is that it is a simple flat open featureless plain. So not a lot of terrain to worry about. The map therefore shows you how the armies set up to face each other off and needs to do little else.
Written by Roger Hamilton, with army rosters and notes for VB by Robert Avery
This article reproduced from Wargames Journal (issue dated November 2003)