The Battle of Zama – Hannibal meets his nemesis

Zama battlefield © Wood Brothers

Our long cycling journey following Hannibal’s trail has come to an end, appropriately where the Carthaginian general met his first and last major defeat – at the Battle of Zama.

Hannibal had been recalled to Africa to defend his homeland against an invasion by the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio. For nearly 20 years Hannibal had waged war from Spain to Italy without seeing his native land. Coming home must have been an unusual experience for him after spending most of his adult life – 15 years – fighting Romans in Italy.

His native land probably looked as foreign to him as it did to us as we rode from the capital of modern day Tunisia, the port city of Tunis, about 150 kilometres south-west to the town of Siliana and then to the village of Jama, thought to be right in the middle of the battlefield.

Jama overlooks a wide and rolling landscape of olive groves and brown farming land, surrounded by hills. When we arrived the local villagers were walking or riding donkeys down to their local fountain to collect water – ruined, empty Roman water cisterns in the village attest to a once far more convenient water supply.

Their simple, whitewashed, dusty homes were more like huts than houses, with empty spaces in the walls instead of windows and surrounded by marauding chickens and sheep. Life here appears to have changed little since Hannibal’s day. And yet in 202 BC a battle that changed the course of history was fought here between two of the greatest generals of antiquity.

Unlike at the battles of Cannae, Trasimene and Trebbia, for the first time, Hannibal was outnumbered in the cavalry department. Most of his valuable Numidian allies had defected and with them his crack horsemen. But he had about 80 war elephants and according to Polybius had assembled an army of 50,000 men, against Scipio’s 45,000.

On the eve of the battle Hannibal requested a meeting with Scipio and the two men met face to face. Perhaps unusually, Hannibal was not very keen to fight and tried to negotiate peace terms but they were flatly refused by the Roman general.

According to Livy, Hannibal was still giving orders to his men when his elephants were surprised by the sudden advance of the Romans and because of the loud trumpet calls and war cries the animals panicked, trampling Hannibal’s own men. Those elephants that did attack the Romans were allowed to harmlessly pass through the Roman ranks thanks to Scipio’s battle formation that left wide alleys between the ranks to allow the beasts to harmlessly go by.

Scipio also used Hannibal’s famous encirclement tactics against him by first defeating the Carthaginian cavalry and then encircling the enemy infantry and attacking them from behind. Nonetheless it was a closely fought contest – Hannibal’s veteran infantry were holding the Romans until the enemy cavalry attacked them from the rear.

It was a conclusive defeat for Hannibal – he escaped the field of battle and returned to Carthage where he encouraged his fellow citizens to sue for peace. The Second Punic War was over.

And after a cycling journey that has taken us from Cartagena in southern Spain, up the Iberian coastline, over the Pyrenees, through southern France, over the Alps, through Italy and finally to Tunisia, our campaign is over too. Rather surprisingly, after Zama, Hannibal was not executed by the Romans. Instead he became a politician in the Carthaginian senate and after a few years fled to Bythinia in modern day Turkey. There he tried and failed to raise an even greater army with the help of local despots that could defeat his old foe.

In the end the Romans got sick of him and many years later when he knew the Romans were about to capture him, rather than give himself up, Hannibal took poison. He was 65 years old.

And after our long days of cycling, we feel about 65 too. We’re safely back in London now, which is a strange feeling after such a long cycling epic. A few days after its end our trip already seems like a dream. Pretty soon, rather like Hannibal’s war, our 10 weeks of adventures on Hannibal’s trail, will no doubt seem like a very long time ago.

By The Wood Brothers  BBC History 

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