Hannibal and the Punic Wars

The Road to Zama: The Heroization of Scipio and the Betrayal of Massinissa

The request for a truce was granted by the Roman commander, but in Rome the Carthaginian delegates were vilified and mistreated. According to Livy, ”Marcus Valerius Laevinus, who had twice been consul, contended that spies, not envoys, had come to them, and that they should be ordered to depart from Italy and guards sent with them all the way to their ships, and that a written order should be sent to Scipio not to relax effort in the war […] a larger number [of senators] voted for Laevinus’s motion. The envoys were sent away without securing peace and almost without an answer” (30:23, 2-8).

Hannibal, who was still undefeated in Bruttium, at the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, as well as his youngest brother, Mago (who had suffered a reverse of fortune in his invasion of northern Italy, after an aborted attempt to move south hoping to eventually join his brother), received orders to return to Carthage to defend the motherland, and both complied, although Mago died from his wounds on the way back (Livy 30:18-20). Hannibal, who had fought for 15 years in Italy, must have realized that the war no longer made sense and could not be won, and that all the Carthaginians could hope for at this point was a reasonable peace. He sailed to return to Africa, probably in the fall of 203.

During the armistice, 200 transports carrying supplies for the Roman forces in Africa, escorted by 30 warships, were severely damaged by a storm, within sight of Carthage, where the population was suffering starvation. While the warships managed to survive the tempest and reach the Promontory of Apollo, a number of the scattered and damaged Roman ships were towed to Carthage by Carthaginian vessels (Livy 30:10). Scipio reacted with outrage, claiming that the hope for peace and the sanctity of the truce had been violated. His delegates, sent to Carthage to protest, were threatened by a mob, but managed to escape unharmed. Scipio prepared to continue the armed conflict. The Roman historians, of course, neglect to mention that the Carthaginian envoys to Rome had also been mistreated, and that the Roman senate had failed to ratify the peace treaty (Livy 30:25, 10), so that the responsibility for the renewal of hostilities did not lie only with the Carthaginians—Rome had also acted in bad faith.

Meanwhile, Hannibal disembarked at Leptis (Livy 30:25, 10) late in 203 and moved to Hadrumetum (Livy 30:29). “From there, after he had spent a few days that his soldiers might recuperate from sea-sickness, he was called away by alarming news brought by men who reported that all the country round Carthage was occupied by armed forces, and he hastened to Zama by forced marches” (Livy 30:29, 1-3). Polybius, whom Livy probably follows in the above, writes: “The Carthaginians, when they saw their towns being sacked, sent to Hannibal begging him not to delay, but to approach the enemy and decide matters in a battle. After listening to the messengers he bade them in reply pay attention to other matters and be at their ease about this; for he himself would judge when it was time. After a few days he shifted his camp from the neighborhood of [Hadrumetum] and advancing encamped near Zama. This is a town lying five day’s journey to the west of Carthage” (15:5, 10).

The exact location of Zama remains the subject of research and speculation. It probably was not Zama Regia, about 90 miles west of Hadrumetum, as some have suggested, or Naragarra, favored by others. Even the classical record lacks unanimity. While Nepos gives Zama as the name of the place, Polybius refers to it as Margaron, Livy as Naragarra, and Appian as Killa. As we will see in the following article, this lack of specificity has important implications.

The military potential of Hannibal and Scipio at “Zama” was similar—each commanded about 40,000, but Scipio, with the arrival of Massinissa at the head of a contingent of 4,000 Numidian riders, was vastly superior in cavalry. When we add to this the fact that over two thirds of Hannibal’s forces were unseasoned, the illusion of apparent equality promptly dissolves. And yet, the Carthaginian side counted with the genius of Hannibal, which practically tipped the scales.

Hannibal and Scipio Before Zama

Before Zama, Hannibal and Scipio had never met directly, either in battle or in a face to face encounter. Roman historiography has constructed an anecdote suggesting that Hannibal asked Scipio for a personal conference prior to the battle, and Polybius as well as Livy pretend to transcribe in detail what was said, although neither was there. The exchanges reported may be largely or totally imaginary—at least some parts are patently absurd, as we will see below.

According to the Polybian account, as the generals meet, Hannibal speaks first, offering terms of peace, and counseling Scipio not to give in to arrogance and thus reject an offer made in good faith. This is plausible, although the words put in Hannibal’s mouth at the start of his alleged statement are unlikely: “In the first place we went to war with each other for the possession of Sicily and next for that of Spain” (Polybius 25:6, 6). He might have said instead something like this: “We went to war initially when Rome intruded in the Carthaginian province of Sicily, and at the end of that conflict, when we were putting down a terrible rebellion of mercenaries, you, Romans, used the opportunity to steal Corsica and Sardinia from us; next we went to Spain, to be able to secure the means with which to pay the unreasonable tribute you demanded from us, but you imposed the Ebro as a limit beyond which we were not allowed to pass, and yet you made a treaty with Saguntum, a city south of the Ebro and thus within our agreed territory, a city which, with your encouragement, persecuted and massacred citizens loyal to Carthage, which forced me to lay siege to it and take it by force. Upon this, it was you, Romans, who used this as an excuse to declare war….” The matter of the guilt for the start of the Second Punic War has been debated for many years (e.g., Rudat, 2006; Hockert, 2005; Reutter, 2003; Barcelo, 2000; Hoyos, 1998; Kolbe, 1934), but the preceding would, in all likelihood, have been the position embraced by the Carthaginians, and is supported by most of the scholars listed above.

Scipio’s reply is not only arrogant, but absurd, and certainly would not have been left unanswered by Hannibal. According to Polybius, Scipio states that “neither for the war about Sicily, nor for that about Spain, were the Romans responsible, but the Carthaginians were evidently the authors of both, as Hannibal himself was well aware [my italics—Hannibal would have had a hard time not laughing aloud at this bit of Roman propaganda, which obviously Scipio could not have believed himself]. The gods, too, had testified to this by bestowing victory not on the unjust aggressors but on those who had taken arms to defend themselves” (15:8). A most unlikely statement, for surely Scipio would have realized that in that case the gods must have favored Hannibal, who until then had emerged victorious every single time, not to mention that the gods must have been asleep in 211 BCE, when both Scipio’s father and his uncle were killed in battle in Spain (Livy 25: 34-35).

Next, Polybius reports that Scipio supposedly went on to claim that the Carthaginians had broken the previous peace agreement: “We jointly sent envoys to Rome to submit [the terms] to the senate […] The senate agreed and the people also gave their consent. The Carthaginians, after their request [for peace] had been granted, most treacherously violated the peace” (15:8, 8-10), which, if we follow the later account by Livy, given above, was not the case at all. Scipio, allegedly, ends by demanding unconditional surrender: “Either put yourselves and your country at our mercy or fight and conquer us” (15:8, 14).

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 20 years. His Hannibal Library contains over 10,000 items.

2 thoughts on “The Road to Zama: The Heroization of Scipio and the Betrayal of Massinissa

  • Mr. Mosig, of your on top of an elephant that is charging or inning amuck it is going to be very difficult to kill it or make it move left or right! Moreover, Hannibal fed his elephants wine and stabbed them in their ankles before battle. An inebriated enraged elephant is virtually impossibility for its rider to control!

  • Phillip Jones

    Mr. Mosig, if you’re on top of an elephant that is charging or running amuck it is going to be very difficult to kill it or make it move left or right! These are six ton animals ! Moreover, Hannibal fed his elephants wine and stabbed them in their ankles before battle. An inebriated enraged elephant is virtually impossibility for its rider to control!


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