Great Scipio heir of glory, when his sword
Drove back the troop of Hannibal in flight
(Divine Comedy, Canto XXXI)
Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern
The Battle of Zama ended Second Punic War, and began the era of Roman conquest that would usher in Roman rule throughout the Western world. This Second Punic War threatened the very existence of Rome, as Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy in hopes of rising a local rebellion and march on Rome itself. Confounded by Hannibal's extraordinary crossing of the Alps and his conquest of Italy, the Roman general Scipio formulated an aggressive plan. He would desert Italy altogether. The war needed to be taken away from Roman soil, and the surest way accomplish this would be to invade Africa and take Carthage, Hannibal's home. Hannibal fell for the trap, and left Italy straightway to follow Scipio and save his homeland. Both armies faced off on October 19, 202 BC in what became history as the Battle of Zama.
War elephants from Africa had made Hannibal's army uncommonly lethal (according to ancient standards) during the invasion of Italy. Scipio knew he must arrange his army in a new way to combat such colossal opposition. Both armies were about 35,000-40,000 strong, and among Scipio's forces were Italian and Numidian cavalry divisions. He placed his infantry in three lines, with reserves being put in the rear. However, these lines were not continuous, and Scipio left gaps along the length of his infantry block (see battle plan image below). Velites (Roman light infantry) filled parts of these gaps. The Numidian cavalry were placed on Scipio's right, while the Italian cavalry formed Scipio's left wing. Hannibal put his elephant corps up in front of his infantry and his cavalry to either side. Hannibal's mercenaries formed the front line, troops from Carthaginian territories (Liby-Phoenicians) created a second line, and 15,000 veterans of the Italian invasion formed the third line.
After some cavalry skirmishes, full fledged battle began with Hannibal's elephant charge. Hannibal hoped that this mashing beginning would disorganize the Roman lines (as it had done in the past), but Scipio's infantry gaps gave the Romans the room they needed. The Velites (Roman light infantry) drew the elephants into the gaps, and Scipio's order to blow all the Roman trumpets confused the elephants. They stamped through the gaps (see battle plan image below) and even ran over some of Hannibal's own cavalry. To say that the elephant charge had been completely harmless to the Roman infantry would be untrue, but they didn't cause the harm that Hannibal needed them to.
The Roman infantry now began their composed advance. Scipio still kept his reserves in back in order to more effectively respond to the Hannibal's troop movements later in the battle. Scipio's cavalry engaged Hannibal's cavalry with such superior force that Hannibal's cavalry turned and fled. Much to Scipio's dismay, the Roman cavalry decided that chasing a fleeing enemy wildly on horseback would be a more energizing way to pass the time of day than attempting to penetrate Hannibal's massive infantry block, and they accordingly deserted the Romans just when victory appeared to be in the wind. Now, it was infantry to infantry. Hannibal's mercenaries soon put an end to the Roman initial advance, but Roman orderliness proved to be a more enduring tactic. The tiring mercenaries were eventually dismayed by the invincible and persistent Roman line, and forced to give ground. However, persistence was also a "virtue" of the Hannibal's second line, and the mercenaries found themselves in a sort of vise with only the sides open for escape. They fled sideways, and the slow Roman advance soon forced Hannibal's second line to move sideways as well.
Scipio threw out his reserves on each side to engage the extended flanks. Hannibal's center was not to be trifled with, and these troops were certainly some of the best in the world. They began hammering the Roman center, trying to eat their way out through the middle. The Romans at the center had been fighting for a long time, but the Carthaginian middle was fresh and clean; anxious to see victory and organized enough to possibly achieve it. Scipio was in danger of losing his center; his most important position in the battle. However, whether the Roman cavalry had destroyed all they could of the Carthaginian horsemen or were bored of carrying on the chase any longer, the Roman cavalry returned to the battle and immediately set to work on Hannibal's center from behind. This quickly brought the battle an end, and the Romans gained the victory.
Roman victory at Zama meant the beginning of conquest for Rome. It proved the future strength and endurance of the Roman military. Although this conquest was a far cry from liberty (even to the point of oppression and tyranny for many), Roman expansion would become incomprehensible to the founding of the Western world. The "peace" of Rome during Augustus's rule was unseen to civilization before, and would become a jumping off point for Western order.
Top image of Schlacht_bei_Zama_Gemälde_H_P_Motte from Wikipedia
Battle plan images from roman-empire.net