The most decisive battle fought by the Roman general Scipio Africanus took place at Zama in what is now Tunisia, sometime in late October, 202 B.C. Scipio faced the Carthaginian army led by Hannibal.
The Second Punic War had started in 218 B.C. when Hannibal led a large Carthaginian army from Spain, across what is now southern France, and over the Alps into Italy to make war on the Roman Republic. For the next 15 years Hannibal rampaged up and down the Italian peninsula, defeating just about every Roman army sent against him, including the annihilation of 80,000 men at the Battle of Cannae. However he was never able to force Rome, which executed a virtual guerilla war against him, to sue for peace.
In the mean time the Romans, including Scipio, while occupying Hannibal in Italy, invaded Spain, then part of the Carthaginian Empire with the goal of seizing it and cutting off Hannibal and his army from his homeland in Northern Africa. This was accomplished by Scipio in 206 B.C.
The Romans resolved to end the war by invading North Africa. Scipio raised an army that consisted of about 34,000 Roman legionaries and just about 9,000 cavalry, Roman and Numidain allies, and landed in North Africa. The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy to lead that country’s army in a last stand against the Romans.
The Roman Army was arrayed with three lines of Roman legionaries in the center and cavalry on the flanks. Hannibal’s forces were arrayed similarly but with a line of war elephants in the front. Hannibal had 50,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 80 war elephants.
Hannibal opened the engagement by sending his elephants to attack the Roman center. Scipio, though, noting that elephants could not turn readily opened gaps in his lines and allowed the elephants to charge through to be dealt with later at leisure.
Next, the Roman and Numidian allied cavalry charged at Hannibal’s flanks and drove off the Carthaginian cavalry, pursuing it off the field. Then the infantry on both sides engaged in a hard, knockdown, drag out fight that was bloody on both sides but with no one gaining the advantage.
The battle ended when the Roman and Numidian allied cavalry returned, having defeated the Carthaginian cavalry, and took the infantry in the rear. The Carthaginians were all but destroyed, though Hannibal was able to escape with some of his men.
Why Zama was Decisive?
Had Hannibal won at Zama, the Carthaginian state might have been able to recover and even go back on the offensive. As Scipio won, Carthage was forced to cede to a humiliating peace which stripped it of its overseas possessions and inhibited its ability to make war. The Third Punic War, which took place decades later, was just an afterthought that ended Carthage as a nation and made North Africa a Roman province.