In 204 BCE, the war with Rome was not going well for Carthage. The city had lost its final holdings on Sicily and other islands. Spain, the merchant city’s main source of mercenary armies, had fallen. Now Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, the same Roman commander who had defeated their armies in Spain, had landed a large Roman army near the city itself. Making things worse was that one of the Carthaginians’ closest allies in Africa, Massinissa, had changed sides and had led his experienced cavalry to join the Romans. He brought with him several thousand horsemen, nicely rounding out the Roman order of battle.
Carthage gathered an army and called on its remaining major ally, Syphax, and his army and moved to defeat Scipio. But in a night attack, the smaller Roman army and its ally routed and then slaughtered the camped Carthaginians. There was only one response left for the great merchant city that had been fighting Rome for more than a decade. They recalled Hannibal and the last army they had left from Italy.
Hannibal Barca and about 15,000 of his veterans slipped past the Roman fleet and soon were in Carthage. At this point, Scipio made the city a proposal. He was under pressure from an untrusting and jealous Senate and wanted the war over before they could recall him to Rome. So Scipio made the city a very generous offer that would not only have allowed Carthage to keep its merchant fleet, a major source of the city’s wealth, but would also have left it a large degree of independence and even a small fleet of warships. Carthage would not again be a military threat to Rome, but it could remain an economic powerhouse, wealthy from trade and manufacturing.
The city of Carthage was now at war with a Rome that controlled the entire western Mediterranean. They no longer had their main source of soldiers, their manpower was limited, and one of their key allies had changed sides. Even if they defeated Scipio, they would not, and probably could not, win the war. Rome, which had proven amazingly resilient, would simply send another army and then another until they finally won. But the return of Hannibal and his veterans gave the people of Carthage hope. The city’s leaders flatly refused the Roman commander’s offer.
A few days later Hannibal and Scipio’s armies faced each other near Carthage. Hannibal’s army had elephants and his core of veterans. The Roman army had its flexible and well-trained smaller units and superior cavalry.
The Battle of Zama
Hannibal’s Carthaginians were formed into three lines each behind the other. The legions were in long columns made up of maniples, numbering between 100 to 180 men. They lined up not shoulder to shoulder but behind one another in long columns. This was unusual because the legion normally deployed in a checkerboard formation that allowed for maximum maneuverability or in a line to allow the most soldiers to fight for the frontage.
The battle began when Hannibal ordered a charge by the war elephants that were spread all across the Carthaginian front. It was hoped the large beasts would disrupt the Roman formations and scatter its cavalry. But like most animals, these elephants ran along the line of least resistance. Those that were not frightened or driven away by javelins simply hurried down the open spaces between the columns while their riders were fired at from both sides. Worse for the Carthaginians was that the elephants, charging the Roman right, were actually turned around by the noise and pain. Instead of disrupting the Roman cavalry, they slammed into their own Numidian horsemen, who were protecting the Carthaginian left flank. Observing this happen, Massinissa charged his larger cavalry force and infantry against the disorganized Numidian horsemen. The Numidians broke and ran almost immediately. Seeing this, the Roman horsemen on the other side of the battle charged as well. There was a violent melee and then the Carthaginian cavalry abandoned Hannibal’s right flank as well. The Carthaginian flanks were open to attack, but since both Roman forces followed the enemy horses off the field in pursuit, these flank victories did not determine the battle. For a while, the Roman successes simply left the field to the infantry. This was good news for Carthage because they had 45,000 soldiers to Rome’s 34,000.
Hannibal ordered his front line to charge Scipio’s Romans, who, with the threat of elephants gone, had re-formed into a solid front. That first line consisted of mostly Gauls: individually brave but not skilled at fighting in a unit. They smashed into the Romans, and the fighting degenerated into man-to-man combat. They were doing what Hannibal hoped, breaking up the solid Roman front.
For some reason Hannibal’s second line, made up of newly trained Carthaginians, failed to advance and take advantage of the Gauls’ attack. Seeing they were not being supported but were left to die in front of the Romans, the Gauls turned and fled. But the unmoving line of Carthaginians refused to open to let them pass. Needless to say, the Gauls now were sure they had been betrayed and began attacking Hannibal’s second line. The two Carthaginian formations were still fighting when the front of the Roman army, Scipio’s hastati (a class of infantry), slammed into them both. When the second line of Romans, the principes, joined in the fighting, the surviving Gauls and Carthaginians of the second line were both routed.
The retreating Carthaginian second line then ran directly toward the last of Hannibal’s formations. This was a line formed by the veterans who had come back from Italy with him. They knew that if they broke formation to let the fleeing Carthaginians through, the Romans advancing just behind the fugitives would tear their line apart. So, they too held solid against their own retreating soldiers. For a second time, one of Hannibal’s lines fought against the other as the Romans advanced behind it.
By the time Scipio had re-formed and moved his maniples to attack Hannibal’s veterans, the fugitives who had survived from the broken two-thirds of the Carthaginian army had either died or escaped around the edges of the final line. From having a numerical advantage in infantry of four to three, the odds against Hannibal had now changed to a disadvantage of two to one as his 15,000 veterans attempted to defeat more than 30,000 legionnaires. And for a time they held, fighting off twice their number and not even being pushed back. But then the Romans’ two victorious cavalry forces returned to the battlefield. Both slammed into the back of those Carthaginian veterans. Surrounded and outnumbered, the last and best of Hannibal’s army died. Hannibal himself fled into Carthage and then into permanent exile.
Scipio, soon to be known as Africanus in honor of his victory, approached the walls of Carthage, but lacked siege artillery. He could besiege the city, but that would take months and the Senate was likely to call him back anytime. So again he offered terms, though not as generous as those he had been willing to give a few days before. Now Carthage did not have a single army left. The oligarchy that ruled Carthage had no real choice but to accept. Among these terms was the provision that Carthage could never again wage war without the Roman Senate’s permission. The peace agreement guaranteed that the city survived but also ensured Carthage could not rise again to greatness or be a threat to Rome. They ignored a basic rule of diplomacy that is all too often ignored: If you have everything to lose and winning will not win the war, accept any peace you can get.
Having lost two wars to Rome, the merchant princes of Carthage should have known better. But less than fifty years later, the city hired another army of mercenaries and attacked a Roman ally in Africa—an ally that they felt had betrayed the city. Rome’s reaction was not only to conquer the city but effectively to eliminate it. Although it was one of the most successful merchant cities in history, Carthage never seemed to realize that it had a good deal when it really mattered.
Had Carthage survived as a major economic presence in the Mediterranean, the city might well have slowed or changed the expansion of Rome. Certainly its mercantile philosophy and family-centered social structure would have been more present in today’s Western culture as opposed to the patriotic and state-centered ideal that we have all inherited from Rome.