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Battle of Zama

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of Zama, fought in 202 BC, was the decisive battle of the Second Punic War. A Roman army led by Scipio Africanus Major defeated a Carthaginian one led by Hannibal. Soon after this defeat on their home ground the Carthaginian senate sued for peace, ending the nearly 20-year-old war.


After destroying the Carthaginian presence in Spain, Scipio Africanus proposed ending the war by invading Carthage's home territories, an area now roughly comprising modern-day Tunisia. Despite the cautious senate's opposition to this plan, the Roman people gave Scipio the requisite authority to attempt the invasion. At first Scipio operated cautiously, acting mostly to reinforce his army with local defectors. After Masinissa replaced the pro-Carthage Syphax as chieftain of the Numidians, Scipio felt able to risk a decisive battle and began menacing the city of Carthage itself. The Carthaginian senate recalled Hannibal from Italy and, leading an army composed of local citizens and veterans from his Italian campaigns, he met Scipio at Zama.


Zama marked a reversal from typical battles of the Second Punic War in that the Romans were numerically deficient in infantry, while the Carthaginians - by the defection of the Numidians - were outnumbered 6,000 to 3,000 in cavalry. At the start of the battle the Roman cavalry swept their Carthaginian counterparts off the field, but instead of immediately turning around to help in the larger battle, continued their pursuit, in effect wiping out the advantage the Romans enjoyed in this arm. After an extended skirmish between Rome's light infantry and the mix of light infantry and war elephants deployed by Hannibal, the main formations of the two sides met. Hannibal had deployed his veterans in echelon formation behind his first line of infantry, with the intent of using them to envelop the Roman flanks. However, Scipio had done the same with his combined line of principes and triarii, and so was able to counter the Carthaginian flanking action. Still, the Romans had a difficult time with the numerically superior Carthaginian infantry and looked about to succumb to them when their cavalry suddenly returned and, attacking Hannibal's forces in the rear, caused the Carthaginian formation to disintegrate.


Soon after Scipio's victory at Zama, the war ended with the Carthaginian senate suing for peace. Unlike the treaty that ended the First Punic War, and which amounted merely to an extended armistice, the terms Carthage acceded to were so punishing that it was never able to challenge Rome for supremacy of the Mediterranean again. When Rome waged a third war on Carthage 50 years later, the Carthaginians, far from having the power to invade Italy, could only organize a defense of their home city, which after an extended siege was captured and utterly destroyed.