Title: Was Hannibal perfect at Zama?
Author: Dick Cheney.









Was Hannibal perfect at Zama?
ďHad you not defeated me, I would have placed myself greater than Alexander.Ē
-Hannibal Barca to Scipio Africanus

Hannibal Barca is unquestionably one of the great battlefield tacticians of all-time. Though he probably should have found a way to besiege Rome after 16 years in Italy, his wins at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae against a mighty and numerically superior opponent shows evidence of military genius. His victory at Cannae, in particular, is still described today as a tactical masterpiece, and ďthe perfect battle of annihilation,Ē both for its foresight and incredible destructiveness. There can be no doubt that the total annihilation of 8 Roman legions -after a perfectly planned encirclement- places Hannibal high among the great captains in military history.


Which only begs the question then, what happened at Zama?


Not counting the strategic picture, most historians will say that Hannibal lost this battle because Massanissa, and at least 6,000 Numidian cavalry, had switched sides. In fact, Polybius tells us that the battle was evenly matched until Massanissaís cavalry returned in the ďnick of timeĒ to overtake Hannibalís third line. And, in his judgement of Hannibalís generalship, Polybius reckons that Hannibal -even without cavalry- did everything he could, and that all great generals are right to mistrust fortune.


However, given the power of hindsight, and some imagination, we are able to question Hannibalís generalship at Zama and offer alternatives.


Battle of Zama, 202 B.C.







Alternative & Mistake: Use of Terrain.


Though its clear by the time of the Battle of Zama -especially after the Battle of the Great Plains- that Carthage had lost control of most Northern Africa, the failure to use local terrain and town centers to greater advantage is inexcusable. At Zama, Hannibal needed to pick his ground much better then he did. No question he was pushed into an early engagement with Scipio, who was ransacking Carthaginian cities, but the failure to use any terrain at all, was uncharacteristically unlike Hannibal, and can be proven to have potentially cost him.


Most sources agree that Hannibal came to Scipio, and despite knowing the exact makeup of Scipioís army and location -if Polybiusís spy stories are to be believed- thereís no evidence that Hannibal ever considered using terrain or offering any kind of battle that could have negated cavalry, maneuver, or decisive battle. In fact, Polybius writes that Scipioís forces were conveniently encamped near a water source while Hannibalís were not. Thereís no chance then that Hannibalís position would be sustainable, which makes it hard believe that his battle plan had seriously considered fighting defensively or using cliffs and hillsides to hide or cover his flanks.


Despite not knowing exactly where Zama occurred, Hannibal was encamped on a hillside, so there is still some possibility that something else was available other than open plains. Carthage was also only 5 days march from Zama, the option to redeploy and refit, or make a fortified stand somewhere else, looks to be available. However, whether these assumptions are accurate or not is irrelevant, was is relevant -and perfectly accurate- is that order of battle is primary determined in part by terrain. If you want Zama to turn out differently, you must fix the terrain.


Alternative: Conclave Trap

If Hannibalís battle plan was to break up the Roman lines enough for his elite third line to finish the job, then Hannibal third line should have been deployed in an open crescent. A third line deployed in this way -and hidden from view- would have given Hannibal a chance to envelope the Roman army as it surged forward to defeat his weaker troops. While this is a ploy that mirrors Cannae, the difference this time is to take advantage of superior numbers. If Scipio falsely bases the length of his own lines from whatís in front of him -Carthaginian Mercenaries and Citizen Levies- then thereís a chance that Hannibal could expand his third line outwards to envelope the advancing legionaries. In fact, during the actual battle, Scipio needed to form a single line to match the length of Hannibalís third line, which suggests its numbers were significant and possibly greater than Scipio's own lines. Whether Hannibal had enough men -and confidence- to try envelopment and a sophisticated trap like this is hard to tell. Some historians believe it was Hannibal this time who was afraid of envelopment, given Scipioís record at Ilipa, the lack of Carthaginian cavalry, the open terrain, and the deployment of three separate lines (a novelty for Hannibal). The very fact that Hannibal kept his third line in reserve for so long offers more questions then answers. However, if Hannibal truly outnumbered Scipio (50,000 vs. 35,000 high estimate), then envelopment with an enlarged battle line seems like a possible alternative.


Conclave Trap:
Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 

Mistake: Pawn-Sacrifice


No one doubts that elephants were always going to be a pawn sacrifice. Their poor reliability meant they were good for nothing other than to charge. Though we can wonder if they would have been better placed on the wings of Hannibalís line, its rather doubtful we can find a better tactical alternative. In fact, given the horror and damage they did to Hannibalís own men, its thinkable that they shouldnít have been used at all.


That said, Hannibal did essentially use his first two lines as cannon fodder. The plan -which is coherent- was to have the mercenary line, elephants, and his second line of Carthaginian levies, to charge the Roman lines and break up their organization enough to where his elite third line could come in and clean house. While the plan did play into Roman strengths -especially towards frontal assaults-, it was simple to execute, and allowed Hannibalís third line to act as a bulwark against retreat. Hannibalís first two lines were of questionable quality, and placing his veterans in the rear made sure they would fight, but to say that half the army (and first two lines) should have been forlorn, and not supported at any point in the battle, is hard to excuse.


Polybius tells us that Hannibalís veterans stood still as his first two lines engaged with Scipioís. And despite modest gains, they did not deploy. And when the situation became dire, and his first two lines ended up wavering and retreating into each other, they again did not deploy. Finally, and most crucially, when Scipio was forced to form a single line, which was tough to do because of so many dead bodies, Hannibalís third line was too far out to prevent this from happening or seize any initiative. Allowing so many fortunate breaks in the battle then, appears to be a questionable mistake, and could have been prevented with adequate support for all lines in Hannibalís formation.

Alternative: Neutralize Roman Cavalry



Iím not buying yet that Scipioís army was of significantly greater quality than Hannibalís. The core of Scipioís army at Zama was just two legions, made up mostly disgraced remnants from Cannae. In addition, Roman cavalry was the usual crap, and his new Numidian allies were still of unproven loyalty. Hannibal, meanwhile, probably had 12,000 veterans from Italy along with some Macedonians and his own Numidian cavalry. In fact, the difference in cavalry at Zama was probably only 6,000 (Scipio) to 4,000 (Hannibal). And despite this ďhuge difference makerĒ (which Alexander would laugh at), Hannibal still fought Scipio to a standstill until he was finally surrounded.


If Hannibal needed to neutralize Roman cavalry to win at Zama, then a change of tactics is to make this a priority. 4,000 vs 6,000 horses does not seem insurmountable, especially with infantry support. Yet, alls were told is that the Carthaginian Cavalry took flight after a brief skirmish, or that Hannibal had purposely planned to lure the Roman cavalry away. We can speculate that Hannibal truly feared becoming encircled -which was one of many possible reasons for a third line- but another option is assigning actual infantry and skirmishers to deal with the cavalry arm. Whatever the correct counter here may be, the simplest way to win the battle of Zama is to neutralize the Roman cavalry.