Book Review: Zama by Mir Bahmanyar.


Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (22 Sept. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472814215

The Battle of Zama is nowhere near as famous as the battle of Cannae. Nevertheless it is one of the most important battles in African and Mediterranean military history. It was fought on a large scale, and saw the end of the second Punic war. Which had seen Hannibal gain military ascendancy over Rome, and yet overall achieve nothing but a sting of spectacular victories without political reward. Very soon the Roman refusal to offer battle to Hannibal meant that their own skilled general’s such as Scipio were able to trounce the Carthaginians in Spain and turn the tide.

First off the author give the origins of the campaign. Unusually this includes an overview of the first Punic War and the Mercenary Revolt that saw Carthage lose its possessions in Sardinia which is interesting reading, and indeed the mercenary revolt was a key motivator in the struggle. Moving on, the beginnings and course of the 2nd Punic War are discussed up to the Invasion of Africa by Scipio and then the opposing commanders are described. This briefly touches on Hannibal’s mysterious ethnicity and wisely, given the lack of evidence, resolves on keeping an open mind and not simply ruling out a Phoenician/African mix in the great commander.

Concepts about the operational capability of the Roman army have matured over the last ten years. Nevertheless we shouldn’t let the horse bolt either. Bahmanyar puts forward a fresh and convincing example of Punic era manipular tactics, supported by two or three modern scholars. The crux is the distance required by a Roman soldier to fight in. Polybius put this as a circumference of three feet in either direction. Bahmanyar however thinks that this is only a benchmark and that once committed to a fight, Roman units deployed with 3ft intervals, would extend into an open order with up to 9 feet between soldiers and engage the enemy.
I’m going to keep an open mind about this, as the scheme has some attractions to it, but yet I feel we should remain cautious as Polybius is quite clear that he thought 3ft gaps sufficient for a “loose” formation. Given the superiority the Romans usually enjoyed over Celtic peoples who required great space with which to swing their swords, anything wider would have played to “barbarian” strengths.
The author argues that this method would allow for a freedom of movement not available in closer order. Creating the space necessary for the rotation of fighting lines that the manipular army employed. In reading I was somewhat persuaded, but given the lack of actual contemporary sources referencing this wider formation, at lest to my knowledge, I’d prefer to see this as being part of the tactical tool kit open to a Roman commander when faced with broken or hilly terrain.
Another fresh perspective on the manipular system is the observation on the famous non continuous battle lines employed by the legions. It is I think once more a theoretical (because no ancient source is cited) supposition that the “posterior” century of the maniple (there are two centuries, prior and posterior, traditionally described as forming one behind the other) would cover the intervals in the line which would normally allow the maniple to manoeuvre. Again, it’s an interesting theory, backed up by some scholars, however, because it has been traditionally established that the reserve or succeeding legionary lines formed up to cover these spaces, the idea of decreasing unit depth would at first glance seem unnecessary, once more I’d hazard to suggest that we take this as an option rather than a “factory setting”. Polybius is on record as writing that the Roman army was so successful because of its flexibility, from a single man right up to the largest unit.
Essentially we can find some fresh insights on Roman flexibility here, even if it is not perhaps as definitive as the author hopes it might be.

Bahmanyar then investigates the polyglot nature of the Carthaginian forces. Which runs as one would expect. It’s always interesting to read through opposing forces in the Punic wars, this time I was struck at how much better armed a Celtic noble would be than his average Roman counterpart, at the very least these great warriors would be accountred to a level on par with the wealthiest member of the triarii. On the whole this account credits a greater level of effectiveness than other authors attribute to Hannibal’s mercenaries.

All of this is used to visualise the battle of Zama. Before that happens there is a fairly in depth discussion of numbers, frontages and deployments; a theme that keeps cropping up during the narrative of the battle, as is common in reconstructions of ancient battles much of the author’s theories regarding the course of the action are based on deductions on a mathematical basis. The action therefore is described with logic and detail, according to assertions in tactics and deployment already made. Hannibal’s strategy is hinted at, and the possibility of a grand plan based on a favourable moment is flirted with. It would seem that Hannibal’s rather less than dazzling performance at Zama can be put down to his deciding that his army was not up to scratch. In the end the infantry fought each other to a standstill in a simplistic slogging match. Which says much for what Hannibal might have achieved for Scipio opted for a less measured straight up face to face fight. However despite both sides jealously guarding their reserves, the Carthaginian’s trademark cunning is nowhere to be seen, and though he did come close Scipio handled his army better in the end. The day was saved for Rome, and a Pyrrhic victory for Hannibal ruined, by the intervention of Scipio’s Numidian allies and the superhuman stolidity of his first line infantry.

The artwork, here provided by Peter Dennis, is full on and action packed. Putting the viewer in the middle of the action and in one scene over their heads. There are some excellent tactical and organisational diagrams covering the Roman army. And the 3D maps as usual offer a simplistic alternative to the main text, as well as giving a mental image as to the course of the battle.

Given the new theories arising, that argue that the battle was made up, new scholarship defending its factual basis is very necessary.


The Greatest General.

I don’t care whether it’s reliable or not. One of the greatest stories of the ancient world is that of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus meeting before the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, and their subsequent meeting in Ephesus years later when Hannibal was in exile under the protection of Antiochus III King of Syria. As part of a diplomatic embassy to Syria, sometime around 194 or 7 BC Scipio talked with Hannibal, the Roman asked the Carthaginian who he thought the greatest general in the world was, the answer is priceless, and at the same time extremely gracious. If it is true, then it shows the respect these two great Generals had for one another, if not, then it’s still a great story.

“Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general of all time. Hannibal replied: ‘Alexander, King of the Macedonians, because with a small force he routed armies of countless numbers, and because he traversed the remotest lands. Merely to visit such lands transcended human expectation.’ Asked whom he would place second, Hannibal said: ‘Pyrrhus. He was the first to teach the art of laying out a camp. Besides that, no one has ever shown nicer judgement in choosing his ground, or in disposing his forces. He also had the art of winning men to his side; so that the Italian peoples preferred the overlordship of a foreign king to that of the Roman people, who for so long had been the chief power in that country.’ When Africanus followed up by asking whom he ranked third, Hannibal unhesitatingly chose himself. Scipio burst out laughing at this, and said: ‘What would you have said if you had defeated me?’ ‘In that case’, replied Hannibal, ‘I should certainly put myself before Alexander and before Pyrrhus – in fact, before all other generals!’ This reply, with its elaborate Punic subtlety, and this unexpected kind of flattery…affected Scipio deeply, because Hannibal had set him (Scipio) apart from the general run of commanders, as one whose worth was beyond calculation.
Livy, The History of Rome from its Foundation XXXV.14″

The Historian Appian also tells this story in his History of the Rome.

” It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia.”
To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus,” because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible,” he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these.”

Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “To myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Spain and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules. I invaded Italy and struck terror into all of you, laid waste 400 of your towns, and often put your city in extreme peril, all this time receiving neither money nor reinforcements from Carthage.”

As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a delicate manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.”

Hannibal was a man of dry wit and great intelligence. And it fits his charachter to reply in such a subtle way. For he names Scipio as a greater general than Alexander by not mentioning him. Had I defeated you I would have been greater than Alexander says it all. Yet Livy may have wanted it to read that way, Hannibal would never have put a Roman above himself which gives the story credibility, yet between the lines he admits to Scipio’s greatness, which would doubtless please a Roman audience. Why be so subtle? Well if it’s just a story, then it’s because the Romans had a grudging respect for Hannibal, they saw in him a worthy opponent who had brought out the best in them, by bringing them so low, and outright slander would have been seen as unworthy. Of course there is another interpretation. Arrian says that Hannibal noticed Scipio’s jealousy, so was this incredibly generous reply instead a sarcastic barb? You greater than I? Yeah, right!

So there is a case for both reality and fiction, given that ancient writers almost never quoted actual words, rather they took the basis and embellished from it, we will probably never know. But for me, it happened and it’s one of my favourite stories of the ancient world.