Zama, Tunisia (202 BC)
The Battle of Zama was the climactic engagement of the Second Punic War, effectively putting an end to the power of Carthage and cementing Rome’s supremacy in the western Mediterranean for the next six centuries. Because of this it is considered to be one of the defining events of the expansion of the Roman Empire. It was one of the largest battles fought in early North African history, and also the last battle fought by Hannibal, one of the greatest military commanders of ancient times. The battlefield, located in the desert of modern Tunisia, was visited by General Patton in 1943 during the North African campaign (where he famously claimed to have fought at the Battle of Zama in a previous life).
For over a decade, the armies of Carthage under the renowned leader Hanibal had ravaged the Italian Peninsula during the Second Punic War. Although they were finally able to isolate Hanibal’s armies in southern Italy, the Romans could not force the Carthaginians into a decisive engagement or drive them from Italy altogether. So in 207 BC, the Romans, under their own brilliant commander Scipio Africanus, changed tactics. While keeping Hanibal occupied, they launched an all-out offensive against Carthaginian territories in Spain and North Africa.
In 206 BC the Scipio routed the Carthaginians at the Battle of Ilipa, thus securing Iberia for Rome and severely crippling Hanibal’s supply base in Europe. Flush with success, Scipio returned to Rome, was elected Consul and began to prepare for the conquest of the city of Carthage itself. In 203 BC, a large Roman force landed in North Africa. The army included troops which had survived the disaster at Cannae a decade earlier.
Hanibal returned to Carthage with what troops he could, raised fresh forces (including large numbers of mercanaries) and prepared to meet the Roman onslaught. After a long period of preparation and maneurvering, the two armies met at the field of Zama on October 19, 202 BC. The result was almost as big of a disaster for Hanibal as was his victory at Cannae.
The Romans, now very familiar with Hanibal’s tactics, matched the Carthaginians perfectly. They survived the onslaught of the war elephants by simply letting them pass through the Roman lines, than finishing them off with cavalry reserves. Despite a valiant effort, the Carthaginians were outmaneuvered, surrounded and slaughtered. After the battle, Carthage sued for peace, accepting a humiliating defeat that forever crippled their power and which eventually led to their absorption into the Roman Empire.
Thanks to the movie Patton, the Zama Battlefield is popular for military history buffs, though off the beaten path. The battle site itself is largely a broad, flat field with a wide view all around. It is dotted with trees and a few markers of the battle sites (the film Patton incorrectly places Zama near the ruins of Carthage, but there are few ruins at the site).
The Zama Battlefield is located just outside of the modern-day city of Jama in the Tunisian Desert, approximately sixty miles southwest of Tunisia and the ruins of Carthage. Although the field is well known, specifics of the battlefield are sketchy. Zama is an open site. There is no charge for admission. Web: www.tourisme.gov.tn (official tourism website of Tunisia).