The Second Punic War: The Years 202-201 BCE

Scipio Africanus.


  • Publius Cornelius Scipio wins a decisive victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama;
  • The Romans dictate incredibly harsh peace terms to the Carthaginians, which are nevertheless accepted;
  • End of the Second Punic War;
  • Scipio receives the agnomen ‘Africanus’.

It was clear that the Second Punic War was drawing to a close. The Romans had reduced the number of legions in the field to just 16. The new consuls for this year, Marcus Servilius Geminus and Tiberius Claudius Nero, were ambitious men. They were preying on Scipio’s command and asked the Senate to draw lots for the provinces of Italy and Africa. Scipio’s principal ally in the Senate seems to have been Quintus Caecilius Metellus, the consul of 206 BCE, who watched over his friend’s interests. The tribunes of the plebs also made sure that Scipio’s African command was reaffirmed by the people. Nevertheless, Nero was given command of 50 warships and allowed to sail to Africa. But it would be Scipio who would finish the war this year.

The Battle of Zama: prelude

Hannibal was busy forming a new army at Hadrumetum. The Carthaginian general had plenty of infantry, but was relatively short on cavalry. He therefore sent a message to one Tychaios, a relative of King Syphax, to provide him with extra horsemen. 2.000 Numidian troopers joined the Carthaginian ranks. Hannibal’s new army was basically made up of three separate armies. The first part comprised what were probably the survivors of Mago’s botched Ligurian campaign: Ligurians, Celts, soldiers from the Balearic Islands and Mauretanians. The second part was made up of recently levied African troops and Carthaginian citizens. Citizens were rarely used to fight Carthage’s wars, but these were clearly times of need.[1] The third and most important part of Hannibal’s army was his veteran army from Italy. These three parts had not yet fought any battle together and the men were complete strangers to one another. Hannibal had to take that into account while devising his battle plan.

Map of North Africa (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Equipment of a Republican military tribune.

Scipio was still furious that the Carthaginians had violated the truce and no longer accepted the voluntary surrender of African cities. They were all stormed and the inhabitants were sold as slaves. The desperate Carthaginians now urged Hannibal to leave Hadrumetum and stop the Romans. Hannibal decided to comply. He marched his army to Zama, which was located a five days march southwest of Carthage. He sent out three men to spy on the Roman camp, but these were taken prisoner by the Romans. To their utter surprise, Scipio ordered a tribune to show them around in the camp and instructed the spies to tell Hannibal about everything that they saw. The next day, Masinissa arrived with 6.000 infantry and 4.000 cavalry.[2] Scipio now broke camp and moved to a new location near the town of Naraggara. Although the ensuing battle is known throughout the world as the Battle of Zama, it was actually fought here, at Naraggara.

Hannibal had sent an invitation to Scipio to meet before the battle and if our sources are correct, the Roman commander did not decline. The two greatest generals of the Second Punic War met at a location between the two camps. Hannibal and Scipio were only accompanied by an interpreter. Although both spoke excellent Greek, they apparently preferred to negotiate in their mother tongue, Hannibal in Punic and Scipio in Latin. No agreement was reached. The next day, on 19 October of this year, the two armies would fight the decisive battle of the war.

The Battle of Zama: battle

Hannibal’s battle plan was simple. Since he was outnumbered in cavalry, he had to make use of his superiority in infantry. He would first use his more than 80 battle elephants to cause confusion in the Roman front ranks. Then he could send in his first and second line of infantry. If he could wear down the Roman hastati and principes (and their comrades in the allied alae), then perhaps he could finish the job with his veterans from Italy, who would be more than a match for the triarii. This was the only occasion on which Hannibal, by simple necessity, deployed his army in three lines, much like the acies triplex of the Romans. Against a conventional Roman army led by a conventional Roman general, this plan might have worked. But Hannibal was up against Scipio, one of the most brilliant Roman generals ever and commander of a veteran army of soldiers eager for victory.

Veles (source: Europa Barbarorum)

Hastatus (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Princeps (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Triarius (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Scipio deployed his men in the acies triplex formation, but made one important change. The Romans usually formed up in a checkerboard formation (quincunx), covering the intervals between the maniples of hastati with maniples of principes. But Scipio now positioned the principes directly behind the hastati, and the triarii behind the principes again. As a result, there were wide lanes in the Roman battle line that ran all the way to the rear of the army. These would be used to neutralise the elephants. Scipio filled the intervals between the maniples of hastati with velites and ordered them to surge forward and engage the elephants with their javelins.

The Carthaginian elephant charge quickly turned into a failure. Many animals were frightened by the blaring trumpets and horns used by the Romans, others were hurt by the javelins of the velites. These light troops were driven back, but many took cover behind the hastati and peppered the elephants from both sides. Elephants that stampeded through the lanes caused little damage and were quickly taken care of. Already at the beginning of the battle, some of the elephants had panicked and charged into the ranks of the Numidian cavalry provided by Tychaios. These men were positioned on the left flank of the Carthaginian army opposite Masinissa’s Numidians. The king sensed an opportunity and charged home, quickly driving his fellow Numidians off the field. Not much later, frightened elephants also wreaked havoc among the Carthaginian horsemen on the Carthaginian right flank. Laelius, who was now serving as a quaestor and commanded the Roman and Italian cavalry on the Roman left, immediately attacked and drove the Carthaginian horse off the field. Laelius and Masinissa then both enthusiastically pursued their fleeing adversaries. With both of his flanks gone, Hannibal now had to rely solely on his infantry.

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage.

Both commanders ordered their infantry to advance, the Romans banging their shields with their swords to intimidate the enemy. The Ligurians, Celts and other mercenaries in the first line of the Carthaginians fought well. These men – there may have been some 12.000 of them – had given the Romans a hard time in Liguria. They managed to inflict casualties on the hastati, but the Romans kept pushing forward and the mercenaries were not properly supported by the second line. In fact, fighting seems to have broken out between the retreating mercenaries and the Africans and Carthaginians in the second line. The second line did eventually engage the Romans and caused some confusion in the ranks of the hastati, but the acies triplex system worked well and the principes kept their ranks and properly supported their comrades in the front line. The Romans ultimately routed both the mercenaries and the Africans and Carthaginians. Hannibal ordered his veterans to lower their spears and to prevent the survivors from joining their ranks. The survivors therefore had no option but to flee to the flanks. This may seem like a harsh decision, but it did ensure that Hannibal’s third line of some 15.000 veterans remained fully intact.

The battlefield was now littered with piles of corpses and very slippery. The victorious hastati had started pursuing the fleeing enemies, but Scipio had a trumpet sounded to recall them. The hastati had probably lost much of their formation and Scipio needed to reform his battle line before he could advance again over such difficult terrain. The Roman commander had the wounded evacuated to the rear and formed up his army in a single line, with the hastati in the centre, the principes to their left and right and the triarii on the flanks.[3] Then he gave the signal to advance and the Roman line clashed with Hannibal’s veterans. For a long time, the battle was undecided, with neither side managing to gain the upper hand. But then Laelius and Masinissa returned to the field with their victorious cavalry and charged Hannibal’s men in the rear. Their arrival decided the battle. The Romans won a decisive victory, killing some 20.000 Carthaginians and taking another 20.000 prisoner. The Romans themselves lost 1.500 men, perhaps some five percent of their army. Their casualties were by no means light, but the men from the “Cannae legions” that were still serving in the Roman army now had their revenge.

The Battle of Zama: aftermath

Carthaginian pendant.

After the battle, Hannibal fled to Hadrumetum and later returned to Carthage. Scipio pillaged the enemy camp and then sent Laelius to Rome to report to the Senate and people about the victory. All of Rome rejoiced at the news of Scipio’s victory. Three days of public thanksgiving were ordered.

The Carthaginians humbly asked for peace, possibly on Hannibal’s advice, and Scipio ordered them to come to Tunis, where he would make his camp again. The meeting probably took place at the end of December, after the Romans had cut to pieces an army led by Vermina, King Syphax’ son, on the first day of the Saturnalia (i.e. on 17 December). The Carthaginians again sent their entire Council of Elders to negotiate. But there was little room for negotiations: Scipio simply dictated the peace terms, which were incredible harsh. The Carthaginians were allowed to continue to live under their own laws and to keep their cities and territories in Africa, but other than that, they were humiliated. They had to:

  • give back the ships and provisions that had been confiscated in violation of the truce;
  • release all prisoners of war and return all defectors and runaway slaves to the Romans;
  • surrender their entire fleet to the Romans, save ten triremes;
  • surrender all their elephants to the Romans;
  • accept that it was prohibited for them to wage war without Roman permission;
  • return to King Masinissa what had been rightfully his;
  • provide the Romans with food for three months and pay the soldiers’ wages until word had been reached from Rome about the peace agreement;
  • pay an indemnity of 10.000 talents of silver, more than thrice the sum agreed after the First Punic War. The Carthaginians had 50 years to pay this huge sum, which amounted to 200 talents per annum;
  • surrender 100 hostages to the Romans, aged between 14 and 30 years.

Although there was some opposition against these terms in the Council of Elders, most of the Elders realised this was an ‘offer’ they simply could not refuse. Hannibal himself certainly advocated accepting the terms, and he was even reported to have dragged an opponent of the treaty off the speaker’s platform, disgusted by the man’s foolish attitude. A three-month truce was agreed and a Carthaginian delegation was sent to Rome to finalise the peace agreement.

The end of the Second Punic War

Although he had been allowed to sail to Africa with a fleet, the consul Tiberius Claudius Nero had never reached the continent. He had been caught up in several storms and had only managed to get as far as Sardinia. Gaius Servilius Geminus, the consul of 203 BCE, had been nominated to lead the consular elections, but these had to be cancelled time and time again because of bad weather. As a result, there were no new consuls yet when the Carthaginian envoys arrived in Rome in March of 201 BCE. The envoys were bluntly told to wait until new consuls had been properly elected.

Remains of the temple of Bellona (in the foreground).

A few days later, Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus and Publius Aelius Paetus were duly elected. Lentulus tried to get Africa as his province, but once again the tribunes stood firm to defend Scipio’s interests. Once these affairs were settled, the Carthaginian envoys, led by one Hasdrubal Haedus, were summoned to temple of Bellona for a meeting with the Senate. The Senate decided to accept the peace terms and the treaty, but its decision was suddenly vetoed by the consul Lentulus, a rare occasion of the use of a veto by a consul.[4] Livius states that the matter was then referred to the people by the tribunes, and the people overwhelmingly voted in favour of peace.[5] They also voted in favour of Scipio making the peace on the spot in Africa and then taking the army back home. Lentulus’ plans were once again thwarted. The Senate gave Scipio and a committee of ten men a mandate for granting peace and filling in some of the details that had been left open in the treaty. The priests known as the fetiales were sent to Africa to formalise the peace treaty.

The Second Punic War was now over. Warships and elephants were surrendered, and the ships were taken out to sea and burned. 4.000 prisoners of war were released, among them a senator named Quintus Terentius Culleo. The defectors were also handed over to the Romans, who treated these men harshly. According to Livius, those with Latin status were beheaded, while Roman defectors were crucified. If Livius is correct, this is a rare example of Roman citizens being crucified. They were normally spared this slow and agonising death, but then again, these defectors were considered traitors of the worst kind. Scipio and his committee then began settling the remaining affairs, for instance the return of lands and property to King Masinissa.

The Romans had come close to defeat during the Second Punic War. They had lost tens of thousands of men and many important commanders: Flaminius, Paullus, Sempronius Gracchus, Fulvius Centumalus, Marcellus, Quinctius Crispinus and the Scipio brothers. But they had shown incredible tenacity and resilience and had managed to turn an imminent defeat into a resounding victory. The Romans had reduced Carthage, once a powerful mercantile empire, to a humble client state. Carthage had lost most of its independence in foreign affairs and now also had to tolerate a strong and unified Numidian state ruled by King Masinissa on her borders. Scipio received the agnomen Africanus and held a splendid triumph in Rome, depositing 123.000 pounds of silver in the treasury. It is not entirely clear whether King Syphax was paraded in the triumph. Polybius says that he was, and that he died soon afterwards in prison, but Livius reports a different tradition that he had already died in Tibur before the triumph took place. What is certain, is that the grateful senator Culleo participated in the triumph, wearing the felt cap (pilleus) of a freedman.

Drachme of King Philippos V (source: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.)

Rome was at peace for the moment, but as an expansionist state, she would soon be at war again. This time her opponent would be the king that she had not been able to defeat during the Second Punic War: King Philippos V of Macedonia.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 84;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 300-309;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 315-318.


[1] Livius’ claim that some 4.000 Macedonians fought for Hannibal should be dismissed (Livius 30.26 and 30.33). If they had been present in Africa, Polybius would surely have mentioned them. He does not.

[2] Livius claims that Masinissa’s reinforcements had arrived on the day that the spies were taken prisoner (Livius 30.29).

[3] The allied alae, which must have been present at Naraggara as well, are never mentioned in our sources.

[4] Livius 30.43: “senatus consulto intercessit”. See Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 84.

[5] This passage in Livius’ work (Livius 30.43) is puzzling. Declaring war and making peace were matters that were decided by the comitia centuriata, the assembly of the centuries. Since this was a meeting of the entire populus Romanus, the tribunes of the plebs were not allowed to convene it. Livius suggests that the matter was discussed in the concilium plebis, which voted on a tribal basis. This makes sense if the meeting of the popular assembly had indeed been called by the tribunes, but the concilium did not normally vote on peace treaties.


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