In 218 BCE during the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca crossed the Pyrenees and then the Alps onto the Italian Peninsula. He proceeded to defeat the Roman Republic in a series of stunning battles, including his masterpiece, the double envelopment at Cannae. However, Hannibal could not capture Rome due to his lack of siege equipment, the guerilla tactics of Roman general Fabius Maximus, and the resilience of the Roman system that kept pumping out citizen armies to face the Carthaginians.
After a 16 year impasse, Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio attacked and conquered all of Hannibal’s Iberian possessions, and in 203 BCE crossed into North Africa to take the fight to Carthage. Hannibal was recalled from the Italian peninsula to face him. On 15, 16 or 19 October, 202 BCE, Scipio and Hannibal met on the plains of Zama, outside of modern day Tunis.
Hannibal outnumbered Scipio in infantry, although the mercenary quality of the Carthaginian army was less than the veteran Roman citizens in their legions. Hannibal also had 80 war elephants but Scipio had more and better cavalry due to his Numidian allies. At the start of the battle, Hannibal unleashed his elephants but the Romans were prepared. They blew their horns loudly which terrified the elephants and some rampaged back through the Carthaginian left. Scipio also ordered gaps in the formation and any elephants that continued to charge were simply let through the lines and dispatched later. The battle then joined and the legions held. Roman and Numidian cavalry routed the remains of Hannibal’s left wing and then fell upon the Carthaginians from behind. 20,000 Carthaginian soldiers were killed and another 20,000 captured.
After the battle, Scipio asked his guest Hannibal who were the three greatest generals in history. Hannibal replied either Alexander of Macedonia or Pyrrhus of Epirus, and then himself. Scipio, slightly jealous, then asked if that would be so had he won the battle. Hannibal graciously replied then he would be the greatest, mollifying Scipio by implying that he had defeated someone more talented than Alexander the Great.
The Roman victory at Zama removed the last peer competitor to the Romans in the western and central Mediterranean basin and gave them free rein in the area for the next 500 years.