When Gods Collide – Hannibal and Scipio – Titanic Military Rivalries From The Ancient World


The route of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and his subsequent withdrawal to defend against Scipio’s counter in North Africa

Scipio was present at those early battles as a rising junior officer, and his bravery and stalwartness following each defeat won him many admirers. With Hannibal still running amok in Italy, but crucially unable to invest Rome itself due to the tactics of Fabius Maximus, known by some as “the delayer” and by more complimentary observers as “the shield of Rome”, the Roman Senate decided to shift the focus of the war to the supply grounds of their enemy, and Scipio was dispatched at the head of an army to Spain, reputedly the only man to actually volunteer to do the job.

The Spanish falcata - the weapon of choice for Hannibal's army and a vicious blade with the power of an axe when used correctlyThe Spanish falcata – the weapon of choice for Hannibal’s army and a vicious blade with the power of an axe when used correctly

This pivot was to prove decisive, as Scipio began to do in Spain what Hannibal had been doing for years in Italy. He decisively defeated Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal Barca (who had led the forces that killed Scipio’s father), and won over many of the Spanish tribes with his benevolent and liberal attitude. Hannibal, now unable to receive supplies either from the Carthaginian bases in Spain or in North Africa, was soon completely cut off in Italy and leading a host that was steadily losing irreplaceable veterans with every skirmish and ambush.

Hannibal’s crossing into Italy via the south of Gaul and the Alps was an exceptional act of generalship, but in fact less than 10 of his elephants survived the journey. Interestingly, the Romans would later use elephants themselves for their invasion of Britain in 43 A.D.

Scipio’s reputation rose even further and he was next granted the governorate of Sicily, where he made it clear that he would launch an invasion of the city of Carthage itself. This he did, against the wishes of the majority of the senate, and Hannibal was recalled by his own senate to deal with the threat of a war that was suddenly very close to home.

The two sides met on the plains of Zama, south of Carthage and east of the city of Leptis Minor, and Hannibal came face to face with Scipio for the first time in a pre-battle conference. Neither leader could agree on a mutually satisfactory truce or settlement at the talks, so battle was allowed to proceed.

Hannibal commanded scores of war elephants at Zama, but though they were still magnificent, their impact on the Romans had long since lost the power to terrify 

Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae had relied on cunning and subterfuge, but at Zama he abandoned all pretence of artful manoeuvring and instead commanded on an all-out charge to steamroller the Roman army from the field. Sources say that he had upwards of 80 war elephants to do this for him, but it was clear from the outset of the clash that Roman tactical expertise had evolved from the blundering of the war’s early stages. Scipio set his ranks far apart and also dug hidden traps in front of the line for the elephants’ advance; in addition, when they came within the firing range of the Roman center, loud trumpets were blown to disorientate the animals. Those that didn’t fall victim to the spikes of the traps or panicked at the sound of the horns ran harmlessly through the avenues that the legionaries opened in the lines and were then dealt with in the rear.

Scipio had also ensured that the Roman cavalry was the match of the Carthaginian at the battle, both in numbers and in skill, and Hannibal was forced to watch as all of his usual advantages melted away. The deciding factor of the battle became the contest between the infantry of the two sides, and here the Romans were in their element. Once Scipio’s cavalry had ran the Carthaginian from the field, it wheeled back and attacked the enemy infantry’s rear, smashing it against the invincible Roman shields at the front. Hannibal, so long thought to be unbeatable, had been thwarted, and Carthage’s fate was sealed.

  • Image 1, source: AncientHistoryLists.com
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