Battle of Zama (202 BC): Hannibal Barca’s Waterloo

Battle of Zama

Battle of Zama (202 BC): Hannibal Barca’s Waterloo. Image; The Battle of Zama by Dutch engraver Cornelis Cort, 1567.

On a summer’s day in 202 BC, Roman forces and their Carthaginian counterparts met on the open fields of Zama (located in modern-day Tunisia) to wrestle each other for supreme dominance over the Mediterranean region. But the Battle of Zama was also a personal mission, particularly for Rome’s army general Scipio Africanus – the only man prepared to fight against the fearful Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca – who was bent on avenging his father’s death as well crippling Rome for good.

Rome’s victory in the Battle of Zama helped to firmly establish it as the main superpower not just in the Italian Peninsula but also in the Mediterranean. It also helped Roma expand into North Africa.

But why did the battle happen in the first place? And why did Hannibal lose the battle?

Read on to find more about root causes of the centuries-old rivalry between Rome and Carthage, the events of Zama, and the effects of the war on both sides.

The enmity between Carthage & Rome

The bad blood between Carthage, a colossal maritime superpower of the day, and Rome, a burgeoning republic, began when both powers wanted control over Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. This disagreement led to the First Punic War (264-241 BC), which resulted in a victory for the Roman Republic. By 242, the island had become Rome’s first province outside of the Italian Peninsula.

The Carthaginian military, especially its naval forces, was already a formidable force to be reckoned with; and through their military might, they had managed to gain control over most of the Mediterranean. By the time of the First Punic War, the Carthaginian troops were under the command of Hamilcar Barca. Initially, the North African empire had the upper hand in the conflict largely due to their naval prowess. But the Romans weren’t entirely behind; and upon realizing their weakness, they quickly learned how to fight at sea by imitating the designs of Carthage’s war ships and building powerful ships.

It appeared to be a good strategy for the Romans, and because Hamilcar received little to no help from the Carthaginian government, they were able to defeat Carthage in the First Punic War. But Hamilcar wasn’t ready to give up; and in order to pay his empire’s debts to Rome, he decided to invade Spain, which was under Roman control. This time around, he brought along with him his sons Hannibal and Hasdrubal, as well as his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair.

When Hamilcar and Hasdrubal the Fair died, Hannibal became commander of the Carthaginian forces and vowed to destroy Rome. The young general proceeded to lay siege to the Roman-occupied city of Saguntum as well as invade Italy. The Romans mounted a fierce counter attack, resulting in the break out of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). This time, Carthage came prepared, and Hannibal and his troops decimated the Roman army at the Battle of Cannae in early August 216 BC. Hannibal, who was perhaps the most skilled war tactician of his era, evoked a lot of fear among many Roman army generals. That was until one Roman general named Publius Cornelius Scipio (also known as Scipio Africanus) decided to step up against him.

Not only was Scipio protecting Rome but he was on a revenge mission after losing his father to the Carthaginian troops. He knew the best way to defeat Hannibal and Carthage was by studying his rival’s war strategies. When Hasdrubal Barca was killed while traveling to meet up with his brother in the Alps, Rome now set its sights on defeating Hannibal.

Despite facing fierce opposition and jealousy from the aristocrats back in Rome, Scipio decided to take matters into his own hands. He created an army comprising men who had survived the Battle of Cannae and also used his diplomatic skills to form alliances with other nations, including Numidia who were once allied with Carthage.

With a strong army built, Scipio knew the best way to get Hannibal on the battlefield was to invade Carthage. Like he predicted, Hannibal returned to defend his home, leading to one of the fiercest historic battles in history, a confrontation between two exceptionally skilled army generals.

The Battle of Zama, 19 October 202 BC

According to the historian Appian of Alexandria, an interesting event occurred shortly before the Battle of Zama. It’s said that Hannibal sent out three spies to gather intelligence on the Romans. When the Romans caught the spies, Scipio rather granted them a tour of his camp before sending them back to Hannibal.

Upon hearing their story, Hannibal asked Scipio for a meeting. It’s not entirely clear what the meeting was supposed to be about, but it likely wasn’t a friendly one since Scipio decided to invade the Carthaginian city of Cilla and disrupted its water supply. The meeting eventually took place, but neither man was willing to find compromise. So, both forces and their leaders retreated to their camps to prepare themselves for the battle to come.

The following are the events that took place before and during the battle, which went down as one of the most historic battles of the BC era:

Carthaginian forces

Carthaginian general led about 42,000 forces, which included over 35,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. He also had about 80 war elephants at Zama.

Hannibal came into the battle prepared and probably confident that he would defeat the Romans. His troops numbered an impressive 50,000 and comprised many Carthaginians, as well as rebel Numidians, Ligurians, Gauls, Moors, Balaerics, and even some Romans. The army general also had an army of 80 war elephants, which was the largest number of elephants that he had brought into battle.

Size and composition of the Roman forces at Zama

The combined strength of Scipio Africanus army at the Battle of Zama ranged between 35,000 and 40,000. It included many Numidian forces, who were led by the Numidian king Masinissa. For his numerous military campaigns, including his famous victory over Hannibal of Carthage, Scipio Africanus is generally hailed as one of the greatest military commanders of all time

On the other hand, the Roman army had significantly less men. Scipio himself led two legions, which was likely made up of about 5,500 men each. He received further support from the Numidians under King Masinissa. Having received help from Scipio for many years, especially in securing his crown, Masinissa supported the Roman cavalry with a force of about 4,000 Numidians.

A further 6,000 Numidians joined Rome’s infantry. To defend themselves against the fierce war elephants, Scipio also buffered his army with velites. These were men armed with javelins which they could throw and inflict a lot of damage on Hannibal’s elephants. In total, the Roman army was around 35,000.

Did you know?

Although Hannibal’s troops were more than the Romans, Scipio’s cunning trick in obstructing the supply of water in Cilla gave him an advantage. The Carthaginians spent a lot of their time before the battle digging for water which made them exhausted. Meanwhile, Scipio and his men relaxed in Cilla and were more energized.

The Battle Begins

The battle commenced after both sides blew horns and trumpets at the same time when they arrived at Zama in present day Tunisia. But the sound of the horns was something Hannibal should have considered, especially regarding his war elephants. Because the elephants scattered upon hearing the loud sounds, with some of them rushing into the rebel Numidian cavalry that supported Carthage and the others attacking the Romans. Scipio’s ally, Masinissa seized that opportunity and directed his Numidian allies to attack the rebels.

It was a good start for the Romans, but they still had to contend with the remaining elephants that had attacked them. It was a very bloody fight, with many of Scipio’s velites being trampled while fighting the massive animals. In the end, the Romans were able to defeat bring down or reroute Hannibal’s elephants. This was largely thanks to Scipio’s strategies. The velites and soldiers had been arranged by columns, so they created gaps which allowed the elephants to run through. Hannibal’s plan to severely damage the Roman soldiers with the elephants completely failed.

Now, it was the turn for the Romans to go on the counter offence. Together with the Numidians, the Romans managed to rout the Carthaginian cavalry and defeat them. It was easier for Masinissa since half of the war elephants that had charged towards the Carthaginians had thrown them in disarray.

By the end of the first half of the Battle of Zama, things weren’t looking good for Hannibal and his Carthaginian forces. His horses and cavalry had been defeated but it wasn’t the end. He still had his infantry fighting on the battleground.

Reasons for Hannibal’s defeat at Zama

Battle of Zama

Hannibal’s largely untrained elephants ended up doing more harm to his forces than to the Romans. War elephants were the ancient world equivalent of battle tanks. Image: The Battle of Zama by French painter Henri-Paul Motte, 1890.

While Hannibal had more men who hailed from different places, the numbers eventually meant nothing as it did more disservice to the Carthaginian forces. Because they were so diverse, they had different fighting styles. For example, the Gauls were more individualistic in battle and they relied on their long swords. The use of such weapons generally tend to expose one’s sides. Therefore, it made it easier for the Romans to mount a counter-attack.

Upon realizing that they were about to be defeated, the Gauls attempted to escape from the battle. However, they quickly realized they had been blocked in by Hannibal’s other African allies. The Carthaginian general had commanded them to form a solid block, perhaps as a last resort, or perhaps due to the fact that he didn’t think they were as skilled as the Gauls or Ligurians.

As the Romans advanced towards the African block, they eventually fell apart and also attempted to escape to save their lives. They were blocked yet again, but Hannibal’s third back up, which consisted of army veterans.

There was a brief pause in the battle, allowing Scipio to rearrange his troops and wait for his cavalry to return to fight against Hannibal’s group of veteran army officers.

Eventually, the two sides clashed, and for a while, it wasn’t clear which side was going to emerge victorious. The scales tipped in favor of Scipio when his cavalry returned and attacked Hannibal’s army from behind.

By this time, it was clear that the Romans had won the battle. Hannibal managed to save his life by fleeing. Many of his men were not as lucky as him, as they were either captured or killed by the Romans.


According to the ancient historians Poybius and Livy, the Battle of Zama saw 20,000 Carthaginians lose their lives and another 20,000 imprisoned. On the Roman side, the figure was around 2,500.

The Aftermath of Zama

Decline of ancient Carthage

Carthage’s defeat at the Battle of Zama marked the beginning of its decline in the Mediterranean. The very harsh peace treaty that was struck following Carthage’s defeat during the Second Punic War resulted in the North Africans losing a significant amount of their overseas territories

The following are some of the major events that occurred after the Battle of Zama:

Hannibal’s defeat at Zama was the final blow that Carthage suffered in its decline since the First Punic War. The new treaty that the once-powerful empire had to sign was more severe and damaging. This time around, Carthage was stripped off its power in the region as it had to play second fiddle to Rome. The new superpower in the region exacted heavy price on Carthaginians, requiring them to pay a large sum of money to Rome. Those war payments put the North African empire almost on the verge of bankruptcy.

About half a century later, the Third Punic War broke out when Rome allied yet again with Numidia to wage war against Carthage. The events of this war completely destroyed Carthage in the year 146 BC, as the remaining Carthaginians spread across the Mediterranean.

Although they were opponents on the battlefield, Hannibal and Scipio ironically lived similar lives after the Battle of Zama. Back in Rome, Scipio returned a hero and an arch was erected in celebration of his victory. He entered into politics and served in the Roman Senate. But his career in politics was marred by the activities of his opponent Cato the Elder.

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, was the leader of anti-Carthage faction in Rome’s senate

Cato, the Roman senator who called for the complete destruction of Carthage, accused Scipio of corruption. Displeased with what was happening back home, Scipio decided to self-exile and spent the rest of his life in Liternum, Campania.

As for Hannibal, he eventually returned to Carthage and became a politician. Just as he was skilled on the battlefield, he proved to be a skilled politician as well. He was able to rally his fellow politicians to restore the war-battered economy of Carthage.

Fearing that Hannibal’s post-war economic revival policies could be used to revive Carthage’s army, Rome pressured Carthage to vote Hannibal out of power. The former general then committed himself into exile. It is said that Hannibal spent the rest of his life aligning himself with Rome’s enemies and doing his best to limit the Republic’s expansion. He eventually died by suicide, choosing to kill himself than allow himself to be captured by the Romans.

Read More: 12 Greatest Ancient Military Commanders

Other reasons for the enmity between Carthage & Rome

In the mid-third century BC, the Roman Republic had grown very envious of Carthage’s holdings in Sicily. This resulted in the First Punic War (264-241 BC), which saw the Romans annex Sicily and make the island its first province by 242 BC.

The Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) was triggered partly because the Carthaginians attempted to recapture Sicily and reassert its dominance in the Mediterranean region. It is said that some Greeks on the island sided with the Carthaginians. One of such individuals was the famous Greek mathematician Archimedes, who for many years came to be known for developing some pretty impressive equipment in the defense of the city. In 213 BC, Roman forces invaded Syracuse, a famous city on the island described by Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”. The Romans were merciless toward the Carthaginians and pro-Carthage groups. Many people died during the invasion, famous among them Archimedes.

Such was the unrelenting nature of Rome’s attack on the Carthaginians in Sicily that Roman politician M. Valerian told the Roman Senate in 210 BC that “no Carthaginian remains in Sicily”.

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