The seventh annual Society of Ancients Battle Day, Saturday 17 April 2010

Sycamore Hall, Drayton Road, Bletchley, Near Milton Keynes, MK2 3RR

Zama 202 BC


He ordered each officer to address his own men, bidding them rest their hopes of victory on him and the army he had brought with him; while he bade their officers remind the Carthaginians in plain terms what would happen to their wives and children if the battle should be lost. While these orders were carried out by the officers, Hannibal himself went along the lines of his Italian army and urged them "to remember the seventeen years during which they had been brothers-in-arms, and the number of battles they had fought with the Romans, in which they had never been beaten or given the Romans even a hope of victory…”

Polybius, Histories, 15.11, as found in the Perseus Digital Library at




The chosen battle for 2010 is a very well-known, well-analysed and much written about battle – not least in Slingshot! My first “live event” exposure to the Society of Ancients was at the Punic Wars weekend, back in 1989. I visited the venue (the hall used by the late lamented Slough Barbarians) in the afternoon of the Zama refight, a big game using 15mm figures and WRG 7th Edition rules. The battle report subsequently appeared in Slingshot. More recently Patrick Waterson’s prize-winning article in the January 2009 Issue 262 of Slingshot “Amazed was I ere I saw Zama” provided some interesting insights and a fresh view. And now I see the latest issue of Miniature Wargames has part one of a refight article by Chris Hahn inspired by our forthcoming Battle Day.


So arguably all this makes this year’s Battle Pack less necessary than usual, and you will see that it is therefore commensurately shorter. Many of you will be able to access the source material and various modern interpretations for yourselves, but I suspect that the orders of battle will all be fairly similar.


The venue for this year’s Battle Day is once again Sycamore Hall in Bletchley. It has a large hall for the games, a side room for the talks, and a bar! Last year we saw the benefit of the new lighting that had been fitted, which was a great improvement especially at the far end of the hall.


As ever, we welcome anyone who wants to organise a game on the day. Typically a group of one or more get together to put on a game, but also usually have capacity to allow others to join in on the game. We also welcome those that want to turn up and join a game they like the look of on the day, and also invite you to “book in advance” for the game using your preferred rule set. Once again we are holding the cost at £7 per attendee, juniors free, to go towards venue and table hire. And of course, we will be awarding the usual, and now much-coveted, prizes in the usual hap-hazard and judgemental way! Apologies to last years winners of the painted figures – the painter is still trying to find time to finish them (that would be me).


Now, on to the meat of the Battle Pack, which should provide the necessary information for you to plan your version of the battle with your chosen rule set.



The Sources

The secondary sources are Polybius (Histories, Book 15), Livy (History of Rome, Book 30, Chapters 32-35), and Appian (History of Rome: The Punic Wars, Sections 40-47). However, the account of the deployment and battle by Appian is discounted by most academics as being a fantasy, and I would suggest following suit. However, his numbers on each side are often used as an input into determining the orders of battle, as otherwise we have little else to go on.


For my summary, I have relied heavily on two SoA authors: The overview and analysis of Zama given in “Lost Battles” by Phil Sabin – which almost renders my Battle Pack redundant, since the essential information for the refight is contained there - and the description in “The Punic Wars” by Adrian Goldsworthy. Both of these learned gentlemen will be attending the Battle Day, so you will have the opportunity to talk to them on the day about the battle.



The Campaign Background

I will be brief here. Scipio crossed to Africa in 204 BC to carry the war to Carthage, where he defeated a Carthaginian army at the Battle of the Great Plains. The rulers of Carthage began peace negotiations, but meanwhile recalled Hannibal and his army  from Italy. Once their renowned general was back, negotiations were broken off and Hannibal instructed to prepare for battle.


Both generals clearly wanted a decisive encounter, and the preliminaries to the main event see them setting up for a “classic” ancient battle. The two sides camp a few miles apart, the generals meet for a parley (no doubt each wanted a look at their famous and respected opponent), and then they draw up their armies opposite each other.



The Terrain

This year the terrain is very straightforward. The battle was fought on a great plain, with no significant terrain feature mentioned at all, never mind affecting the battle. You might ask how I think we will award the prize for best terrain – will it be for the cleanest green cloth, or perhaps the tasteful blending of brown hues on polystyrene tiles? Well, I don’t really know! Over to you…



The Armies

Unfortunately, there are not really any reliable figures for the sizes of the armies. I read the relevant Polybius, Livy and Appian, and have relied on the interpretation by Sabin (which refers to the Goldsworthy account) on which my suggested orders of battle are based. Feel free to adapt your own interpretation.



The Romans

Sabin suggests 23,000 Roman and Italian infantry and 1,5000 cavalry, based on Appian. He was joined shortly before the battle by Masinissa and his Numidians - 6,000 foot and 4,000 cavalry.


So how do we organise our 23,000 Romans and Italians? One way is to split them between velites, hastati, principes and triarii in the 2:2:2:1 proportions. Another is to assume the standard two Roman and two Italian legions system and assume they had been made over strength for the campaign. Combining these two approaches would give you four over strength legions each of 1,640 velites, 1,640 hastati, 1640 principes, and 820 triarii. On the other hand you could assume five legions and these figures become around 1300 and 650 respectively, or six legions and then you get 1,100 and 550 (which is a just below strength “Polybian” legion). Another alternative is to assume that Scipio has strengthened his close fighting troops (but not his veteran triarii who would have a natural limitation in size) so one could reduce the velites proportion and increase that of the hastati and principes.


Which ever way one chooses to go, there is little doubt that these are all very experienced, well-trained and highly capable troops, and should be graded appropriately in your chosen set of rules – be it “veteran”, “A class”, “superior” or whatever. There should be no distinction between the Romans and Italian allies.


The 1,500 Roman and Italian cavalry should be what ancient wargamers would typically call “heavy cavalry”, wearing some form of breastplate and helmet, armed with spear and carrying a largish round shield. The “Polybian” organisation has 300 cavalry per Roman legion and 900 per allied Italian. This would give too much cavalry even on the four legion assumption. I would suggest making no distinction between Roman and Italian, and perhaps assuming five units each of 300. Again, these should be high quality troops.


Turning to the allied Numidians, we can find no mention at all of the 6,000 foot in the accounts of the battle. So what to do? I would suggest either excluding them entirely (my preference), or making them such poor quality that they can have minimal influence. If you have already painted hordes of the chaps, well, get them on the table somehow! Be very careful not to make the Numdian cavalry too hard to break by using the Numidian foot to bolster the number of men in the right wing.



The Carthaginians

Sabin again relies on Appian for the total numbers – 50,000 men. We see Polybius giving him 2,000 Numidian cavalry, and 12,000 infantry in the first line, and 80 elephants at the head of the army..


Apparently a total of 4,000 cavalry is the accepted figure, so with no further comment we will take 2,000 allied Numidians under Tychaeus, and 2,000 Carthaginian heavy cavalry. Both should be average quality.


Numbers for the foot is less straightforward. As mentioned above, Polybius gives 12,000 for the first line, made up of Ligurians, Celts, Baliarians, and Mauretani. These are the surviving mercenaries from Mago’s army previously defeated as they attempted to join Hannibal in Italy. They fought well, so should have at least an average rating. The last two groups mentioned are skirmish foot, which Sabin suggests should be integrated with the elephants. The vast majority of the 12,000 should be in the main battle line though.


The second and third lines cause more difficulty, as we have no numbers. If we believe Appian that Hannibal had 50,000 and then deduct the cavalry and first line, we are left with 34,000 to be divided between the two lines. Sabin’s discussion covers two theories – one that the three lines were equal in size, and one that the third line had 15-20,000. Sabin compromises with 15,000 for the third line.


The quality of these two lines is an important question. The second line, which probably should be 15-20,000, is generally viewed as having performed very badly, and following Sabin should be graded as levy or the equivalent (this relative grading may make the actual size a little less relevant). However, the quote from Polybius in the battle account below suggests to me that an alternative view is that it was more a failure of cooperation between the first two lines than the poor quality of the second line that caused the problems – certainly the actual effect of the second line on the Romans was significant as it seems to have disrupted the hastati enough for the principes to be ordered forward.


The third line is famous for being made up of Hannibal’s “veterans”. Again, scholars debate just how many of these were really veterans of all Hannibal’s campaigns, and how many Bruttian refugees of a more average quality. This is up to the game organisers to decide – Sabin goes 50:50 but many may choose to accord them all veteran status.


By the way, I won’t even dignify Livy’s shameless “Macedonian legion” propaganda with a discussion of it.




Let’s go straight to Polybius and Livy  to see what they say.


Polybius says of the Romans:

Scipio placed his men on the field in the following order: the hastati first, with an interval between their maniples; behind them the principes, their maniples not arranged to cover the intervals between those of the hastati as the Roman custom is, but immediately behind them at some distance, because the enemy was so strong in elephants. In the rear of these he stationed the triarii. On his left wing he stationed Gaius Laelius with the Italian cavalry, on the right Massanissa with all his Numidians. The intervals between the front maniples he filled up with maniples of velites, who were ordered to begin the battle; but if they found themselves unable to stand the charge of the elephants, to retire quickly either to the rear of the whole army by the intervals between the maniples, which went straight through the ranks, or, if they got entangled with the elephants, to step aside into the lateral spaces between the maniples.


Of Hannibal’s deployment he later says:

Meanwhile Hannibal had put his men also into position. His elephants, which numbered more than eighty, he placed in the van of the whole army. Next his mercenaries, amounting to twelve thousand, and consisting of Ligurians, Celts, Baliarians, and Mauretani; behind them the native Libyans and Carthaginians; and on the rear of the whole the men whom he had brought from Italy, at a distance of somewhat more than a stade. His wings he strengthened with cavalry, stationing the Numidian allies on the left wing, and the Carthaginian horsemen on the right.


Livy says, covering Scipo first:

Then he drew up his men, the hastati in front, behind them the principes, the triarii closing the rear. He did not form the cohorts in line before their respective standards, but placed a considerable interval between the maniples in order that there might be space for the enemy elephants to be driven through without breaking the ranks. Laelius, who had been one of his staff-officers and was now by special appointment of the senate acting as quaestor, was in command of the Italian cavalry on the left wing, Masinissa and his Numidians being posted on the right. The velites, the light infantry of those days, were stationed at the head of the lanes between the columns of maniples with instructions to retire when the elephants charged and shelter themselves behind the lines of maniples, or else run to the right and left behind the standards and so allow the monsters to rush on to meet the darts from both sides. To make his line look more menacing Hannibal posted his elephants in front. He had eighty altogether, a larger number, than he had ever brought into action before. Behind them were the auxiliaries, Ligurians and Gauls, with an admixture of Balearics and Moors. The second line was made up of Carthaginians and Africans together with a legion of Macedonians. A short distance behind these were posted his Italian troops in reserve. These were mainly Bruttians who had followed him from Italy more from the compulsion of necessity than of their own free will. Like Scipio, Hannibal covered his flanks with his cavalry, the Carthaginians on the right, the Numidians on the left.



So a match between the two, and very clear. As I said before, a classic set-piece ancient battle. The Roman foot in the centre, in their traditional three lines (see later for comments on the maniples set up), faced by the Carthaginian foot also in three lines, preceded by the 80 elephants. Numidians on the Roman right, faced by Hannibal’s Numidians. Roman and Italian cavalry on the Roman left, faced by Hannibal’s Carthaginian cavalry. There seems not to have been any significant overlap be either side (none is mentioned), so the infantry lines should be broadly similar in length. No outflanking is mentioned even for the final battle between Hannibal’s third line and the Roman foot, which is interesting. It suggests to me that a good proportion of the Roman foot was no longer capable of engaging in combat, since in theory there was enough Roman foot to outflank the Carthaginian line. The unusually heavy casualties for a victor suffered by the Romans gives further credence to this idea. Alternatively, Hannibal’s line was lengthened by rallying survivors of the first two lines.



The Battle

The key points of the battle are as follows:

The Carthaginian elephants attacked across the length of the line, but Scipio’s ingenious deployment leaving lanes between his maniples results in minimal damage to the Roman foot, and in fact the routing elephants seem to have caused fata disruption to the Carthaginians cavalry. Immediately following this, the two cavalry wings of the Roman army charged and routed their opponents – however, the victorious pursuing cavalry would not be able to return to the battlefield until much later.


Meanwhile the first lines of infantry clashed. This seems to have been a very hard fight, with the hastati eventually winning. The second line of Carthaginians failed to move up in support of the mercenary first line, and fighting seems to have broken out between it and the survivors of the first line. Despite this, the following up hastati were once again handled roughly, and the principes were called forward to steady the line. This they did, and the remnants of the first two Carthaginian lines fled. In the words of Polybius:


The whole affair being now a trial of strength between man and man at close quarters, as the combatants used their swords and not their spears, the superiority was at first on the side of the dexterity and daring of the mercenaries, which enabled them to wound a considerable number of the Romans. The latter, however, trusting to the steadiness of their ranks and the excellence of their arms, still kept gaining ground, their rear ranks keeping close up with them and encouraging them to advance; while the Carthaginians did not keep up with their mercenaries nor support them, but showed a thoroughly cowardly spirit. The result was that the foreign soldiers gave way: and, believing that they had been shamelessly abandoned by their own side, fell [p. 148] upon the men on their rear as they were retreating, and began killing them; whereby many of the Carthaginians were compelled to meet a gallant death in spite of themselves. For as they were being cut down by their mercenaries they had, much against their inclination, to fight with their own men and the Romans at the same time; and as they now fought with desperation and fury they killed a good many both of their own men and of the enemy also. Thus it came about that their charge threw the maniples of the hastati into confusion; whereupon the officers of the principes caused their lines to advance to oppose them. However, the greater part of the mercenaries and Carthaginians had fallen either by mutual slaughter or by the sword of the hastati. Those who survived and fled Hannibal would not allow to enter the ranks of his army, but ordered his men to lower their spears and keep them back as they approached; and they were therefore compelled to take refuge on the wings or make for the open country.


So now came the final combat. There appears to have been a lull in the battle as Scipio reformed his army for the final assault. Perhaps a counterpunch from Hannibal at this point might have caught the Romans before this was complete? But in fact he chose to await the attack. Scipio ordered forward the Roman principes and triarii onto the flanks, while recalling the remaining hastati from pursuit by means of trumpets. The two lines charged each other and a long and hard struggle ensued. Eventually the returning Roman cavalry took the Carthaginians from the rear, Polybius implying that the whole line was virtually wiped out in battle and the following pursuit. Hannibal fled and the Romans looted his camp. The battle to be master of the Mediterranean was over.



The Aftermath

Polybius says 20,000 Carthaginians were killed and almost as many were taken prisoner – which helps confirm our initial sizing of their army. More importantly, over 1,500 Romans were killed – an unusually high number for a victorious army, and demonstrating just how long and sustained the fighting was, and how close the result.



Some Issues for Game Organisers

So on the face of it, a relatively straightforward battle. Well, no. There are a number of areas where Game Organisers will have to consider how their chosen rules will reflect the history.


The first is the troop types used to represent the Carthaginian foot. The first line of mainly mercenary Ligurians and Celts  - these are more likely to fight in their native manner, but there are various ways of interpreting what this was. For example, Celts are sometimes viewed as close order foot, sometimes “loose order” (whatever that means). The second line should probably be some form of close order foot – probably spearmen. Hannibal’s veterans in the third line are more problematical. That they are close order foot ready to battle to the death in toe-to-toe combat is not in doubt. But as a wargamer we need to decide how to classify them for our chosen rules – and be wary of using a troop-type that cannot stand up to Roman legionaries. The “captured Roman equipment” story is well-known and in order to ensure a close fight then I see a strong argument for treating them identically to the Romans.


Next we have the elephants. Hannibal positioned them to cover his infantry line, but we will need to decide how many elephant models to use and how to space them out, with some light infantry support in between them. Also, the “elephant running amok” rules so beloved of wargamers should be used with care – depending on how many elephants one model is representing.


The “elephant lanes” created by Scipio, and indeed the entire manipular system, is traditionally a stern test of ancient wargames rules, and few seem to pass it – not least because we are are not really sure how it actually worked, so modelling it becomes even harder.


The main challenge may be how one allows Hannibal’s veterans to be still standing waiting for the final conflict when both cavalry wings and the first two infanty lines have already run away. These days, most rule sets have an “army defeated” measure which would have the Carthaginians lose  by this moment. This challenge is equally applicable to the Romans – they need to be able to fight on until the trarii are committed, since the eventual defeat of the hastati and principes was clearly a planned for event in the Roman deployment. One answer may be to treat each line as a separate army (in some ways that is exactly how the Carthaginian army fought, and Goldsworthy makes comments about this).


How one deals with the pursuing and then returning Roman (or potentially Carthaginian) cavalry could affect things – some rules will be better than others at slowing down the rallying process, and it is worth giving some consideration to this.


Finally, the control and command issues need to be considered. It is clear to me that Scipio had much more control over his entire army in this battle than did Hannibal – in fact the latter does not seem to have been able to influence much of the battle at all. How should this be treated – should a more inspiring and dynamic Hannibal be allowed to work more closely with the first two lines? How can we reflect the Roman control?



End piece


So there we are. Now we need to raise our armies and march to the plains to confront our enemies amidst the blood and sand. See you on the 17 April…


Download the Battle Pack as a Word Document