Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Hannibal's Tactics at Zama (202 BC)

The disposition of troops at Zama
Although he was defeated at Zama, the battle shows some indications of Hannibal's tactical genius.

Hannibal could not do what he had done before, but if he had been able to force Scipio into a set battle shortly after he arrived, he would have held the cards because Scipio had practically no cavalry. But his astute opponent knew this, and after Carthage reneged on a peace with the arrival of Hannibal, Scipio's strategic move of laying waste to the hinterland of the Bagradas Valley, which also closed the gap between him  and Massinissa, was brilliantly implemented; Carthage's vital lifeline was assaulted, and Hannibal was compelled to march west before he wanted to.

Hannibal knew he was finally outclassed in cavalry, and that he was up against a great general in Scipio. Furthermore, Scipio had superior cavalry and had amply proven his adeptness with 'boomerang' style tactics before (cavalry leaving the field of battle and then returning at the critical point).

Though the historical sources don't imply this, Hannibal probably deliberately sacrificed his horsemen to lure the Romans and Massinissa off the battlefield, where he had greater chance with his infantry. By using his cavalry units as decoys, however, he was taking a risk, because it still involved their defeat, exposed his flanks, and the Roman/Numidian cavalry could return before he had finished off Scipio's smaller but better body of infantry.

The fact that it was pretty close later shows Hannibal's strategy was not facile. Hannibal was a student of war, and a master of deception. He understood it all, including the strengths and liabilities of the elephants used for war purposes of his time.

Hannibal knew his military history, particularly that of the Hellenistic Kingdoms (he had Greek tutors). He knew what happened to Antigonus when his son, Demetrius Poliorcetes, went off in pursuit of Seleucus' cavalry at the great battle of Ipsus in 301 B.C. It has been suggested that Seleucus did indeed have his horses feign retreat. But, unlike Hannibal, he had 400 elephants that day, so he could deploy some in reserve in case Demetrius returned (which he never did).

The Battle of Zama - Giulio Romano
Did Scipio order his cavalry to merely ride out and ride back in the manner they did?

Why didn't Scipio order a flank or rear manoeuvre with his superior cavalry, in whatever variant, as Hannibal had executed at Cannae? He was certainly capable, and with the superior material than his enemy at his disposal, which supposedly 'vanquished' the enemy horsemen. Scipio doubtless did not wish for the complete departure of his own cavalry. Having driven the enemy away, he no doubt counted on them to attack the flanks of the main Carthaginian body, instead of pursuing a fleeing foe. Scipio has been justly praised for the way he handled the elephants at Zama, but it shouldn't be forgotten that Hannibal certainly knew all about the tendencies and contingencies of elephants in battle. He perhaps didn't have as many as 80 - the number Polybius gives us. If so, why didn't Carthage use any of these beasts in the previous clashes against Scipio?

Anyway, Hannibal surely hoped the elephants would do their conventional stuff, but he easily could have known they would do exactly what they did do - swerve out to the flanks and disrupt things, which would aid his cavalry deception. It is unlikely that Hannibal would assume that things would go smoothly with recently levied war elephants. It is also possible they didn't do as much harm to his cavalry squadrons as the text sources imply. We have a scholarly point of view from Howard H. Scullard, from his book Scipio Africanus: Soldier and Politician Pg. 150,

"...Since it would take longer to convert a nominal into an actual flight than to drive a defeated enemy off the field, and since in fact the Roman cavalry only returned in the nick of time, it seems more probable that the Carthaginians deliberately drew them away. After getting rid of the Roman cavalry, though with little hope that his own could rally against them, Hannibal would throw all his weight against Scipio's numerically inferior infantry. The elephant charge, with which he had hoped to confuse his foe, miscarried somewhat, partly through Scipio's foresight in leaving gaps in his line for the animals to run through, partly because they were always of rather doubtful quality, and here fell afoul of the Carthaginian cavalry. However, they cannot have done great harm to their own side, since their drivers had the means of killing them if they got out of hand...".

Scullard, more than any scholar of this period, wrote a book about elephants in ancient warfare (The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World). We read of this interesting method to neutralise an out-of-control elephant from Livy - by the driver hammering a sharp chisel into the animal's brain - in reference to Hasdrubal at the Metaurus (Book 27.49), in which he states Hasdrubal was the first to use this viable control mechanism. And Zama was fought more than five years later, so why would Hannibal not make use of something that Livy states as being 'the swiftest way of dispatching a beast of such size' once all hope was lost of controlling the animal?

Moreover, Polybius mentions it was only Hannibal's left flank that was specifically impacted by any disruption due to out-of-control elephants. He states (Book 15.12):

"...When all was ready for battle on both sides, the Numidian horse having been skirmishing with each other for some time, Hannibal ordered the drivers of the elephants to charge the enemy. When the trumpets and bugles sounded shrilly from all sides, some of the animals took fright and at once turned tail and rushed back upon the Numidians who had come up to help the Carthaginians, and Massanissa attacking simultaneously, and the Carthaginian left wing was soon left exposed. The rest of the elephants falling on the Roman velites in the space between the two main armies, both inflicted and suffered much loss, until finally in their terror some of them escaped through the gaps in the Roman line with Scipio's foresight had provided, so that the Romans suffered no injury, while others fled towards the right and, received by the cavalry with showers of javelins, at length escaped out of the field. It was at this moment that Laelius, availing himself of the disturbance created by the elephants, charged the Carthaginian cavalry and forced them to headlong flight. He pressed the pursuit closely, as likewise did Massanissa....".

Thus the elephants indeed had drivers on top of them. How could the disturbance hamper the Carthaginian cavalry on Hannibal's right side, being they seemed to be mere spectators the whole time? The elephants on Hannibal's right who escaped 'at length out of the field' after the Roman cavalry showered the beasts with projectiles when they headed towards the right (the Roman left) 'in terror'. It is not stated they escaped by 'rushing back' upon the Carthaginian cavalry, as was Polybius' specific description of some of the elephants' fright and subsequent turning tail upon Hannibal's left cavalry (the Numidians under Tychaeus), which rendered that flank exposed, and never exploited by Scipio and his officers. Did they not 'see the bare flank' on Hannibal's left, or, more likely, did they not have any horsemen to exploit the opportunity because they were all riding off into the desert, chasing a 'defeated foe'?

How did Gaius Laelius, opposing the Carthaginians on the side that witnessed elephants that came their way - scattered off the field by his missile throwers - so easily send the Carthaginian cavalry to flight? Though inexperienced, the Carthaginian contingent was not outnumbered (assuming Masinissa's 4,600 or so strong (if we can sustain the presence of a 600 horsemen under a chieftain named Dacames, which only comes from Appian) was not interdispersed with the Romans on their left (Hannibal's right). The flight seemed immediate.

The answer is they were probably ordered to give ground. Regardless, Hannibal's measure involved his cavalry squadrons being almost certainly defeated eventually. However, by getting Scipio's cavalry off the field of battle, Hannibal would have eliminated the Roman advantage in this arm. For the first time, Hannibal would attempt to win without his cavalry administering any offensive action. 

Hannibal's infantry dispositions at Zama were also unusual, probably becuase he knew he was at a disadvantage here too. He surely wasn't going to try to repeat his tactics at Cannae against a brilliant general who had been there as a 17 or 18 year old, thus wouldn't be taken in. Moreover, Scipio favoured flank attacks with his best troops.


Hannibal formed his infantry akin to a Roman triplex acies, but with his best unit, his veterans, the one unit who could match Scipio's troops, at a further distance than the one between the first and second line. He can be criticised for adopting a style which entailed discipline and drill which the troops of his first two lines (particularly the second) didn't possess, and there was no sound administrative quality behind his formations (there was nothing similar to an optio or signifer etc., thus no coherent command structure); but he didn't intend to apply the deployment the way the Romans usually did, that of the three lines interacting with each other to attend to any contingencies, but rather he tried to keep the three lines as distinct as possible, operating independently. Despite his obvious reputation, he had officers of Mago's old army and the inexperienced Punic contingent speak directly to the troops who had not served with him before.

Scipio could not do to Hannibal what he had so easily done to the other Carthaginian generals the past seven years. Hannibal absorbed Scipio's legions with his infantry, tiring them in the process, hoping to beat him head-on with his veterans. It wasn't to be, as Scipio was too good not to lose his advantage, as Polybius said, and his army was too well-organised and well-drilled.

But who knows what might have been if the first two lines hadn't turned on each other and Massinissa and Gaius Laelius hadn't returned 'providentially', as Polybius also said. 

But the reality is that Scipio decisively won the Battle of Zama, although with the curious result that Hannibal was allowed to continue to live in Carthage.

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