The battle of Zama, supposedly waged in North Africa in 202 BCE, between the armies of Hannibal Barca and the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio, was the final military engagement of the Second Punic War, and a decisive turning point in the history of the Mediterranean cultures and the rest of the world. The traditional accounts of the battle, based practically in their entirety on pro-Roman sources, paint a strange and highly unlikely picture of the conflict and its outcome. Let us first examine the reasons for the distortions presented by the classical record, and the circumstances leading up to the battle. In a following article I will attempt to reconstruct what actually happened on that fateful day, looking through what can only be characterized as smoke and mirrors in the standard sources.
To understand what took place in 202 BCE at Zama—not the name of the actual locality of the engagement, but the label most easily recognized—and the reasons why the records of the event were presented in the manner in which they have been preserved, it is necessary to go back to 216, the year of the greatest defeat in the history of Roman military power, the battle of Cannae. Only by taking into account Hannibal’s victories at the Trebia (in 218), Trasimene (in 217), and especially Cannae, can we gain a measure of the magnitude of the humiliation Rome experienced at the hands of the great Carthaginian hero, who remained undefeated on Italian soil for 15 years. We can then comprehend the psychological and political need to build up the image of a Roman counter-hero, Scipio Africanus, and to exaggerate and distort the account of Zama by presenting it as a Cannae in reverse. The descriptions of Cannae and Zama in Roman historiography offer a curious reciprocal contrast, as will be seen below.
At Cannae, in 216 BCE, Hannibal was able to field 40,000 infantry plus 10,000 cavalry to face a vastly numerically superior Roman force under Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro, numbering 80,000 infantry and close to, or actually well over, 10,000 horse (not merely 6,000, as usually claimed—see Mosig & Belhassen, 2006). Hannibal, through his brilliant battlefield tactics, managed to destroy the Roman horse early in the engagement and totally encircle the huge infantry force, achieving within a few hours the annihilation of the largest army Rome had ever assembled.
This terrible defeat was not only a severe blow to the military might of Rome; it was an affront to Roman arrogance and pride. The description of the battle of Cannae in Roman historiography was influenced primarily by the accounts of Polybius—who, although Greek, was in the employ of the Cornelian family—and Livy, a patriotic Roman propagandist. The reports of Polybius, Livy, and other pro-Roman historians distort the events at Cannae in several ways (detailed in Mosig & Belhassen, 2006). One claim was that, although the Romans had a two to one advantage in infantry, Hannibal had almost a two to one superiority in cavalry, and that the numerically superior horse was the deciding factor in the disaster. Polybius astutely gives the size of the Roman horse as “over 6000,” which is not technically false, although clearly misleading, since the actual figure was probably close to twice that number. A force of 10,000 to 12,000 horse and 80,000 foot soldiers allows for the total Roman deployment to exceed 90,000. With 10,000 survivors plus 10,000 captured 90,000 is consistent with Polybius’s reported casualty figure of 70,000. Livy, on the other hand, following Polybius’s “6,000” number for the Roman horse, sees the total strength as 86,000, and gives a much lower number for the Roman fallen, 50,000. By the creation of a fictional numerical superiority in the Carthaginian horse and the sharp reduction of the Roman dead, the greatest shame of Roman arms was substantially diminished (Mosig & Belhassen, 2006).
Additionally, Roman pride, which had rationalized the defeats at the Trebia and at Lake Trasimene as the results of ambushes rather than “fair” engagements, needed some excuse to explain how they had been crushed on an open plain at Cannae, where no ambush could be concealed. To that end, Livy reports a spurious incident (not mentioned by Polybius) of treacherous trickery, fitting his portrayal of Hannibal (21:4) as possessing “inhuman cruelty” (inhumana crudelitas) and “no regard for truth” (nihil veri), as well as the standard Roman stereotype of Carthaginian perfidy and “Punic faith.” A contingent of 500 apparently unarmed Numidians allegedly pretended to defect and then attacked the Romans from behind with weapons hidden in their clothes (22:48). It seems that vanity demanded that only through treachery and overwhelming cavalry superiority could the “noble” Romans have been defeated!
But wounded Roman arrogance needed more than fabricated lower casualty figures, inflated enemy numbers, and imagined trickery to alleviate the incurred disgrace. The Romans needed a hero behind whom they could rally, a greater than life figure to restore lost confidence, infuse new pride, and, above all, to counteract the image of the apparently invincible Hannibal, Rome’s worst nightmare. They also desperately needed a great victory, comparable to Cannae, to erase their dishonor. The heroization, deification, and hagiography of Publio Cornelius Scipio the Younger, later known as Scipio Africanus, provided the Romans with a legend to accomplish the former, while the exaggerated and distorted accounts of the battle of Zama supplied the illusion that a reverse Cannae had been achieved. We will examine below both of these developments.
A number of ancient sources provide information allowing us to follow the creation of the legend and apotheosis of Scipio Africanus. Besides Polybius (who regarded him as a hero, but had reservations concerning his character) and Livy, Haywood (1933) mentions support for the idolizing of Scipio in reports by Appian, Lactantius, Ennius, Cicero, Oppius, Hyginus, Valerius Maximus, Gellius, Nepos, and others. Members of the Cornelian family, as could be expected, “were united in believing Africanus one of the greatest men of history. Ennius and others had considered him more than a man” (Haywood 28-29).
The earliest expression of the heroization of Scipio in Roman historiography seems to be the incident that supposedly took place during the cavalry engagement at the Ticinus river, in 218 BCE, the first clash between Punic and Roman forces after Hannibal’s epic crossing of the Alps. There, Scipio’s father, the commanding consul, was seriously wounded, and was supposedly saved by the bravery of his son, the future Africanus (Livy 21:46, 9-10), who was at the time barely 18 years old. Nevertheless, according to Coelius Antipater, “the honor of saving the consul should be credited to a Ligurian slave [rather than to the young Scipio].” Livy actually says “servati consulis decus Coelius ad servum natione Ligurem delegat” (21:46, 10), while expressing a preference for the version attributing the act to the young hero. The Ligurian slave is also mentioned in Macrobius’s Saturnalia (1:11, 26), but the more popular account, giving Scipio as the savior, is found in Appian, Hannibalic War, 7; Valerius Maximus 5:4, 2; Floros 2:6, 10; Silius Italicus 4, 417-479, Orosius 4:14; 6; and Zonaras 8:23, 9. Polybius does not mention the incident in his description of the battle of the Ticinus, but includes Scipio’s presumed heroism much later, attributing the information to Scipio’s friend Laelius, hardly an unbiased source. As Lancel (1998) points out, “in his laudatory portrait of his hero leaving to conquer Punic Spain in 210 claims that the young man had single handedly saved his father, who was hemmed in by the enemy, while his companions hesitated in the face of danger […]. This narrative smacks of the hagiography that very soon developed around the figure of Africanus, doubtless with the complicity of the interested party.”
Beck & Walter (2004) also comment on the discrepancy between Coelius Antipater’s description of the incident and the version favored by the mainstream of Roman historiography: “The intention to decorate the young P. Cornelius Scipio with the heroic deed from the Ticinus goes deeper than a mere attempt to express his virtus. Polybius and afterwards Livy were much more interested in portraying him as a man who, from the very beginning of the war till the victory at Zama, struggled tirelessly against Hannibal. Coelius was unencumbered by that intention.”