Ancient History & Civilisation


While terms were being discussed at Rome, Hannibal landed in Africa near Hadrumetum and was soon joined by Mago’s army from Italy. When a storm drove a Roman convoy ashore near Carthage, the populace of the overcrowded and ill-supplied city seized the supplies. Scipio sent envoys to complain of this violation of the armistice, but they were dismissed and treacherously ambushed on their return voyage. Thus the war party at Carthage, trusting in Hannibal, again prevailed, and renewed hostilities just when the peace had been ratified at Rome.10

Scipio in anger stormed up the Bagradas valley, cutting Carthage off from her economic base. He hastily summoned Masinissa, who was fighting in western Numidia, and advanced further and further inland to meet him, as he dared not face the enemy without the Numidian cavalry. Thereupon Hannibal advanced from Hadrumetum to Zama, the western town of this name, hoping to cut Scipio’s communications and to force him to fight without the cavalry. At Naraggara (Sidi Youssef) Scipio was joined by Masinissa and then advanced perhaps to the Ou.-et-Tine. After an ineffective interview between the two generals, the two armies faced one another for battle. Each side numbered between 35,000 and 40,000 men, the Carthaginians being slightly stronger in total, although weaker in cavalry; and each side was drawn up in three lines.11 Hannibal placed his foreign mercenaries in his first line with a screen of light troops and elephants in front; the weak native Libyans and Carthaginians formed the second line; the third line was some distance from the first two and consisted of the Old Guard, Hannibal’s veteran army from Italy; on the wings was the cavalry. The Romans were drawn up in their customary three lines, but the maniples of each line were stationed directly behind one another, not in echelon. The tactical aims of the two generals have not been fully recorded, but the following motives seem justified. Scipio counted on his superior cavalry to expose the enemy’s wings; he then hoped to apply the outflanking movement which he had used with increasing skill and success at Baecula, Ilipa and Campi Magni. Hannibal, realizing his weakness in cavalry, probably ordered it to simulate flight and so draw its opponents off the field. He would then throw all his infantry in successive waves against Scipio’s numerically inferior infantry, while he would thwart an outflanking movement by holding back his veterans as a reserve.

The battle opened with the charge of Hannibal’s elephants, which miscarried. Some turned back on their own lines, others ran down the passages which Scipio had skilfully left in his ranks, others were driven off to the flanks. The Roman cavalry then charged and drove both Carthaginian wings off the field. The infantry closed, while Scipio, seeing Hannibal’s third line remaining stationary, realized that an outflanking manoeuvre was impossible. The hastati drove back the first line of mercenaries, who were forced out to the wings by their second line which would not receive them; then, supported by the principes, they broke the Carthaginians of the second line. Scipio took the opportunity to break off the battle and both sides re-formed. Scipio lengthened his front by bringing up his two rear lines on the flanks of the hastati; Hannibal, whose front would thus be shorter than Scipio’s, probably placed the survivors of his first two lines on the flanks of his veterans. Hannibal would need longer to reorganize, while Scipio would give him as long as he needed, hoping for the return of his cavalry. When the ranks again joined, it was hotly contested until the returning Roman cavalry fell on the enemy’s rear. The cavalry had arrived in time to decide the course, not only of the battle, but of the world’s history.

Hannibal’s army was destroyed, although he himself escaped to Hadrumetum. Scipio received supplies at Castra Cornelia, and after making a demonstration at Carthage he received a peace deputation at Tunis, for Hannibal himself on his return to Carthage after thirty-six years was counselling peace, especially as news came that Syphax’ son had just been defeated. Further resistance was useless and might involve the destruction of the city. Scipio also was ready for peace, because the siege of Carthage would involve fresh effort when Italy most needed rest, and because he wished to disarm but not to destroy.

A three months’ armistice was concluded on condition that Carthage offered reparations for breaking the truce, gave hostages, and supplied corn and pay for the Roman troops during the armistice. According to the terms of the peace Carthage retained her autonomy, her territory within the ‘Phoenician Trenches’ (i.e. very roughly equivalent to modern Tunisia as far south as the Gulf of Gabes) and her control over trade-marts like Emporia. She was to restore to Masinissa all his land and ancestral property. She was reduced to the state of a dependent ally of Rome, being allowed to make war on no one outside Africa and only with Rome’s permission within Africa. This meant the end of her life as a great Mediterranean power and gave her no guarantee against future aggression in Africa. All her elephants and nearly her whole navy were to be surrendered, prisoners of war were to be given up and finally an indemnity of 10,000 talents was to be paid in fifty annual instalments, which would keep her weak and dependent on Rome for this long period. (In fact when in 191 BC Carthage tried to pay the balance of her indemnity as a lump sum she was refused.) In return the Romans would evacuate Africa in 150 days. And so the long war ended. The Senate ratified Scipio’s terms and he returned victorious to Rome, where he was surnamed after the land he had conquered – Africanus.

The importance of the Second Punic War can hardly be exaggerated. It was a turning-point in the history of the whole ancient world. Its effect on Rome and Italy, on the constitution, on economic and social life, on religion and thought was profound. After it no power arose which could endanger the existence of Rome. The Hellenistic monarchies of the east still flourished, but at Rome’s touch they fell like a house of cards. She was mistress of the fortunes of the civilized world and gradually introduced into that world a unity, unknown since the days of Alexander, which lasted some five hundred years. Further, the dramatic nature of the struggle has captivated the imagination of mankind. It was on this stage that one of the world’s most glorious failures rose and fell, that one man pitted his resources against those of a nation. Not that Hannibal bore on his shoulders alone the whole weight of a war of revenge, unsupported by his home government, as popular fancy likes to paint the heroic figure; it was circumstances, or rather Rome’s unceasing activity, that isolated Hannibal and forced him to fight unaided. And the causes of his failure were largely the causes of Rome’s success: Rome’s superiority at sea, her roads and fortresses, the unexpected loyalty of her Italian allies which morally justified her conquest of the Italian peninsula, the unshaken direction of the Senate, the loyal co-operation of the people and their ‘will to conquer’ which survived disaster after disaster, the wisdom of a strategy of exhaustion and the courage by which it was maintained while the countryside bled, the blocking of reinforcements from Carthage and Spain, the undermining of the enemy’s resources in the Spanish peninsula, and above all the superior quality of the vast manpower on which Rome could draw in her hour of need. Finally, what turned the hope of ultimate success against Hannibal into complete and devastating victory against Carthage was the production of a military genius by Rome, one who learning as a pupil from Hannibal himself forged out of the Roman army a weapon which could be turned against the master. Rome produced many generals of distinction but only one who dared face Hannibal in open battle after Cannae. Fabius was called the Shield of Rome and Marcellus her Sword, but Scipio’s very name meant a Staff, on which Rome could lean and with which she could thrash her foe. But the brilliance of a Scipio would have been useless without that unswerving loyalty and perseverance of the Senate and People of Rome. The unavailing gallantry of the great house of Barca at length succumbed to the solid moral qualities of the self-sacrifice of a nation at war. It was by moral forces that Rome survived her ordeal: forces which were soon to be blunted by ambition and avarice at home and by the contagious corruption of the eastern world into which she was next drawn. Never did the spirit of the Roman People shine forth brighter than in the dark hours of the Second Punic War.

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