The Battle of Zama, By An Unknown 16th-century Artist

This curious painting was created by an unidentified 16th-century artist from the Netherlands. The anonymous artist either copied this scene from a work by the Italian painter, Giulio Romano (d. 1546), or instead referenced a print of Romano’s work that was created by the Dutch printmaker, Cornelis Cort (c. 1533-1578). Whatever the case, all of the artworks (be them originals, prints, or hand-painted copies) drew inspiration from the Battle of Zama, which was fought between Rome and Carthage in the year 202 BCE.

Leading the Roman forces at that time was a man named Publius Cornelius Scipio. He landed tens-of-thousands of Roman warriors in North Africa around 204 BCE to take the fight directly to Carthage in the closing years of the Second Punic War. Meanwhile, Hannibal Barca—Carthage’s brilliant general—was still menacing the Italian countryside, as he had been doing since 218 BCE. Hannibal’s sojourn in Italy, however, came to a close in 203 BCE, when he was called back to Africa to defend the heartland of Carthage against Scipio’s campaigns. Unfortunately for Hannibal, his recall put him on a reactive footing, allowing for Scipio and the Romans to position themselves on favorable terrain and to steer the course of the warfare to come. Additionally, the Romans and their Numidian allies at that time had a steep cavalry advantage over the Carthaginians—a weakness that Hannibal attempted to sure up with unruly war elephants. Despite the different numbers of horses and elephants, the Roman and Carthaginian forces were said to have been quite equal in manpower when they eventually met face to face at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE.

A Roman historian named Livy (59 BCE-17 CE) dramatically described the scale and consequential nature of the battle: “[T]o decide this great issue, the two most famous generals and the two mightiest armies of the two wealthiest nations in the world advanced to battle, doomed either to crown or to destroy the many triumphs each had won in the past” (Livy, Roman History, 30.32). In the ensuing showdown, Scipio’s cavalry advantage proved vital, whereas Hannibal’s elephants apparently did less harm to the Romans than they did to his own army. The Greek historian, Polybius (c. 200-118 BCE), described the battle:

“Since they were equally matched not only in numbers but also in courage, in warlike spirit and in weapons, the issue hung for a long while in the balance. Many fell on both sides, fighting with fierce determination where they stood, but at length the [Roman aligned] squadrons of Masinissa and Laelius returned from their pursuit of the Carthaginian cavalry and arrived by a stroke of fortune at the crucial moment. When they charged Hannibal’s troops from the rear, the greater number of his men were cut down in their ranks, while of those who took to flight only a few escaped…” (Polybius, The Histories, 15.14).

Hannibal was one of the Carthaginians who lived to fight another day. Yet, after Zama, Carthage was compelled to sue for peace with Rome. In the ensuing negotiations, Carthage was forced to dismantle its navy, pay hefty quantities of war reparations, and formally cede Carthaginian territory in Spain to the control of the Romans. Such is the history behind the artwork featured above.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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