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The Trouble With Zama: Paradox, Smoke and Mirrors in an Ancient Battlefield

Elephants At The Battle Of Zama The second so-called Punic War between Carthage and Rome came to an end in 202 BCE. Rome had prevailed and a peace treaty was signed in 201 between the two Mediterranean powers, with heavy concessions and indemnity to be paid to the victor. The deciding factor, according to the classical record (composed almost exclusively of pro-Roman accounts, the Carthaginian reports having been conveniently lost or destroyed), was the Battle of Zama. Hannibal, probably the most brilliant military genius in history, after remaining unvanquished for 16 years on enemy land, facing overwhelming odds and receiving almost no reinforcements, was allegedly decisively defeated by the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio, who would be awarded the title Africanus in recognition of his great victory. Is this really what happened? A number of problems, inconsistencies, and paradoxes suggest otherwise.

At Zama, Hannibal supposedly was able to field 36,000 infantry, 4,000 horse, and 80 elephants, to face Scipio’s army of 29,000 infantry and over 6,000 cavalry. A standard summary of the description of the battle, as presented by Roman historiography, can be found in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2003): “The elephants, opening the battle, were either ushered down corridors Scipio had left in his formation or driven out to the flanks, where they collided with Hannibal’s cavalry, which was then routed by the Roman cavalry. When the infantry lines closed, the Roman first line may have defeated both Hannibal’s first and second lines, though the remnants may have reformed on the wings of his third line, composed of his veterans from Italy. Scipio, too, reformed his lines at this point, and a titanic struggle developed until the Roman cavalry, returning from the pursuit, charged into Hannibal’s rear, whereupon his army disintegrated” (Polybius 15: 9-16; Livy 30: 29-35; Scullard, 1970; Lazenby, 1978).

First of all, let us consider the matter of the elephants. Roman historiography, as part of the development of the Scipio legend and the dissemination of pro-Roman propaganda, has recorded that Hannibal had available an inordinately large number of war elephants at Zama, no less than 80 (Livy 30:33). Considering that he had only 37 to cross the Alps and invade Italy, and that in the string of his great and devastating victories, from 218 to 216, the elephants participated in only one battle, at the Trebia, the number given for Zama is quite remarkable.

Following Scipio’s invasion of the Carthaginian homeland in North Africa, two major military engagements between the warring powers took place before Zama, one at Utica and the other at the Great Plains. How many elephants did the city of Carthage, which did not support a regular standing army, maintain? If the Carthaginians had had a large supply of trained war elephants at hand, it would have made sense for them to send along a sizeable contingent of pachyderms, the tanks of antiquity, with Hasdrubal Gisgo, when he marched to meet Scipio’s invading force surrounding Utica. But we do not read Roman reports of any elephants, not a single solitary one, accompanying the forces of Hasdrubal.

Surely, after Scipio’s treacherous sneak attack in the middle of the night, burning the tents of unsuspecting soldiers lulled into complacency with a promise of peace, the Carthaginian senate would have ordered all its available war elephants to march to face the ruthless enemy at the Great Plains. Once again, the elephants were conspicuous by their absence.

Then, all of a sudden, Hannibal, who had only been able to assemble a makeshift army for the decisive confrontation at Zama, appears with no less than 80 elephants, all with mahouts and trained for battle. This most unlikely brigade of pachyderms is in all likelihood nothing more than a fabrication of the pro-Roman historians, a bit of propaganda to make Scipio’s victory appear more formidable and impressive. Perhaps instead of 80, there were 18, or maybe only eight, or, most probably, none.

The charge of the presumed elephants supposedly opens the battle, but we are told that they were frightened by the Romans responding with loud noises, shield clashing, trumpets, and what not. This also does not make much sense. Ancient battles typically started with loud yelling, shield banging, and other forms of intimidation, and consequently a major part of the training of animals to be used in attacking enemy positions would have consisted of accustoming them to such sounds.

Then, it is claimed that the elephants either run blindly into corridors left open in the Roman formation for the purpose of directing the animals to harmlessly pass through—Scipio’s alleged “solution” to the problem posed by an elephant charge—or they panicked and turned against Hannibal’s own men, wrecking havoc with his cavalry on the flanks. This also does not hold up against logical scrutiny. Since in addition to one or more armed warriors the animals carried mahouts on their backs, and the animals were trained to respond to the commands or prodding of their riders, they would surely have been angled to the right or left to trample men at the edges of any such corridors and cut through them obliquely. Furthermore, as Haywood (1933) and Scullard (1974) point out, it is not credible that rampaging elephants would do a lot of damage turning against their own side, because the mahouts carried a hammer and chisel to kill any elephant running out of control, as was the case at the earlier battle of the Metaurus (Livy 27:49). It can also not be argued that these were poorly trained elephants, for if Carthage did not send any elephants with Hasdrubal Gisgo to Utica or to the Great Plains, it would have had available all its trained pachyderms. If all elephants had been insufficiently trained to be of any use to Hasdrubal Gisgo, their status would not have changed by the time of Zama and they would not have been deployed. Finally, had the city exhausted its supply there would not have been enough time, between the Great Plains battle and Zama, to capture and train more. Of course, as Richard Gabriel has pointed out (personal communication), no serious military historian accepts the figure of 80 elephants at Zama. If there were any, they would have been few, and probably none.

Movie Poster For Scipione l'africano Unfortunately the myth of the elephants at Zama has been perpetuated in many accounts found in the literature, and was even an important feature of the fascist film Scipione l’africano, directed by Carmine Gallone, produced and backed by Mussolini’s government in 1937. In that barbaric motion picture 50 elephants were used, with a number of them being actually speared and butchered. Mussolini identified himself with Scipio, and his fascist regime with the Roman Empire (less so with the Roman republic, but politicians are often notoriously ignorant in historical matters).

Attempts have been made to compare the battle of Zama with Cannae, and to call Zama a “Cannae in reverse,” but the comparisons simply do not hold up. First of all, the scale of Cannae was vastly larger. With 96,000 Romans and 50,000 Carthaginians, almost 150,000 men committed themselves to a death struggle on that fateful day, 14 years earlier. By contrast, if we accept the Roman accounts, likely to have exaggerated the number of Carthaginian combatants at Zama in order to make victory more impressive, we would have 35,000 on the Roman side and 40,000 (probably less) on the Carthaginian, or a total of 75,000—about half the number of combatants fielded at Cannae.