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RomanLegionary
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levi_smiles
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The Battle of Zama Didn't Happen as Documented

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 2/27/2018 Category: Education
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 3,302 times Debate No: 109810
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (8)
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RomanLegionary

Pro

The Battle of Zama was supposedly the last battle of the Second Punic War. In the beginning of the battle, the elephants of Carthage supposedly charged at the Romans, were scared away by the loud noises of the Romans, attacked the Carthaginian left flank, and routed them. This is already flawed logic as the people who rode on the elephants were equipped with chisels to kill the elephants if they were to try to kill any of their own soldiers.

After this, the Roman right flank cavalry was said to have chased the Carthaginian left flank cavalry. The Romans then committed all of their forces to fighting the Carthaginian first two lines, and the Romans were all tired while Hannibal had an untouched third line of veterans. According to the story, Hannibal let the Romans take hours combining their army into a single line. This is another example of flawed logic, why would the man who mastered the Trebia, Lake Trasimine, and Cannae not do anything while the Romans are reforming their entire army? After this the Romans supposedly did the hammer and anvil on the Carthaginians.

Now, since I have gotten the events in the battle out of the way, I would like to talk about the numbers. According to the Romans, Hannibal started with 100 war elephants, lost half while crossing the alps, lost more when fighting in Italy, went to Africa to defend Carthage, and arrived there with the same number of elephants he started off with. Not only was Polybius being dishonest, he was being really lazy.

I look forward to seeing your argument.
levi_smiles

Con

I"ll take a stand in defense of Polybius, the father of Roman historiography. He earned that title because he believed in carefully documenting his sources, interviewing the witnesses and traveling to the sites where history was made. We have no primary sources for Zama, no surviving accounts from the actual participants. Polybius was a Greek calvary commander taken hostage by Rome. He served first as a tutor, then a military advisor to Scipio Aemilianus, grandson of the victorious Roman general of Zama. He fought in the Third Punic War and was present at the Sack of Carthage. Of the 3 surviving classical sources only Polybius interviewed soldiers from both sides of the battle, only Polybius visited the battleground. Livy mostly relied on Polybius 100 years later to write his history and Appian, 100 years after Livy, did not document his sources. Perhaps Polybius was not perfect in objectivity but he was certainly sympathetic towards Hannibal. If we toss out Polybius as dishonest or lazy, then we must likewise toss out almost everything we know of Hannibal- crossing the Alps, Cannae, Antiochus III- because Polybius is the font from which the biography of Hannibal flows.

I"ll take exception, therefore, to Pro"s odd qualifications- Zama was "supposedly" the last battle, the calvary "was said" to have given chase. No history contradicts Polybius on these points. History defers to Polybius as the historian closest to the events. Accurate or not, there is no more instructive account on which to build a substitute narrative. Fortunately for us, Polybius was not demonstrably dishonest or lazy. He was, for his time, as expert and meticulous a documentarian as we could hope for.

Pro proffers three problems with the Polybian account (unsurprisingly, two are about elephants- everybody gets so charged up about the elephants):

1. The elephant drivers were trained to kill their elephants if the beasts went bezerker, making a charge into friendly ranks impossible .

Response: We don"t know for certain this was true at Zama but yes, killing a rogue elephant was a practice documented in contemporary battles. The trouble with Pro"s argument is that both sides were familiar with the tactic and likely targeted the rider first. In fact, killing the rider was the best way to panic an elephant at distance- much less dangerous than stabbing up close. Drivers steered the elephants with mouth hooks and chains like a horse"s bridle. Without a rider, elephants looked for an escape from the melee and the best route might very likely have been through friendly lines. Polybius only says that some of those 80 elephants advancing on thousands of archers and slingers, tens of thousands of javelins and spears, turned left and disrupted the allied Numidians who were supporting the elephant charge. I think it"s safe to assume that those drivers were either dead or dismounted.

The remaining elephants, whether many or few, engaged the Roman skirmishers and by all accounts there was much carnage on both sides. An unspecified number of elephants reached the Roman lines but Scipio (probably to Hannibal"s surprise) deployed his maniples perpendicular to Hannibal"s line and in rows rather than the usual checkerboard quincunx formation. This encouraged the elephants to pass down the alleys, flanks exposed, without disrupting Scipio"s formation. That was an old school Greek tactic developed by Alexander and it is to young Scipio"s credit that he knew and relied on his military history.

Livy states that the surviving elephants swung around to crash the Carthaginian calvary on the right, Polybius has the survivors exiting the field. 11 elephants are thought to have survived the gauntlet.

2. Hannibal still has 100 elephants at the Battle of Zama, discrediting Polybius" account.

Response: Pro"s characterization of Polybius" is quite wrong. Polybius sets the number of elephants who survived the Alps at 27. The next time we get an elephant count is at the end of 216 BC, when we read that Hannibal has only one elephant left which he rides in triumph into Capua. No historian claims that the 80 (not 100) elephants at Zama are the same as the roughly 40 (not 100) elephants Hannibal led out from Spain 16 years earlier. Hannibal returned to Africa with 4,000 horse but no elephants are mentioned. Importantly, the 80 elephants at Zama we"re reported to be undertrained and inexperienced at battle.

3. Hannibal"s third line stood idle for hours while the Romans reformed and advanced.

Response: I can"t find any account that tells how long it took for Scipio to reform but two or three hours is plausible. Unlike Pro, I find Polybius" narrative fairly credible.

For Hannibal, Zama was a battle of desperation. Carthage had already lost all of its European settlements and alliances, lost control of the sea lanes and ports, lost the better part of their Numidian allies by civil war and betrayal, lost their main African army at the Battle of the Great Plains. Scipio was closing in on the City of Carthage itself when Hannibal rushed home with the men he had left to him from the Italian campaign to make a last stand. He had little time to muster what conscripts and mercenaries he could and few choices of battlegrounds where the inexperienced elephants might count for something.

Of the 12,000 men he brought from Italy, 4,000 were Numidian calvary. 2 or 3,000 were Italians who had turned against Rome and couldn"t be trusted not to turn again to save themselves. That left only 5 or 6,000 trained and trusted infantry which Hannibal made his third line. The first line was mercenaries, the second line new recruits from Carthage. In all these first two lines were about 24,000 but their equipment and training was all patchwork and they"d had no time figure out how to fight cohesively. Hannibal"s Italian allies made the vanguard.

Hannibal"s plan was all shock- hit Scipio with elephants, then grind the Romans with the first two inferior lines. Pro says the third line was untouched but Polybius states that were forced to fight their own men at Hannibal"s command, to prevent their panicked, retreating comrades from disrupting the third line they killed them or forced them to the wings. All these tactics were militarily sound but they failed to achieve the necessary effect on the steady Romans.

Scipio"s men were better trained and better armed. Many of his Romans were survivors of Cannae, dishonored but experienced soldiers of the Fifth and Sixth Legion, hungry for redemption and revenge. They"d been winning battles all year under Scipio and knew if they won at Zama, they could go home rich and victorious.

When the first phase was over, when the slaughter of the rookies was complete, Hannibal"s best 6,000 still faced an intact army of something like 25,000 Romans. Between them were 20,000 dead lying in heaps, making any orderly advance of phalanx impossible. 6,000 calvary were to his rear so no retreat or maneuver was possible. Hannibal had no choice but to wait for the Romans to slowly reform and advance over the uneven ground. By all accounts, Hannibal"s last army fought excellently, even without hope, until most were dead or captured.

So, no. I don"t find that any of these arguments discredit Polybius to any significant degree. In the absence of a better history or more compelling arguments by my opponent, I"ll stick to Polybius as the best available account of the Battle of Zama.
Debate Round No. 1
RomanLegionary

Pro

Thank you for accepting my debate.

Your first point is that if I consider Polybius to be biased and untrustworthy, it means that I have no reason to believe that the accomplishments of Hannibal were true. I would not consider this to be true though, because the Romans would have literally no reason to lie about how Hannibal managed to defeat the far superior Roman armies due to poor Roman commanders. That part of the war is more likely to cause people to think more poorly of the Romans, it is very likely that Polybius wanted to defend Scipio Africanus in specific.

Also, I definitely went a bit overboard on the word "supposedly," I did not try to imply that the battle of Zama wasn't the last battle of the Second Punic War, I was simply trying to express that there is a lot about what is documented of the battle that can be considered very sketchy.

About the targeting of the riders, I find your point to be valid, however, there still are lots of issues about the supposed 80 elephants in the battle. I also apologize for saying that there were 100 elephants before crossing the alps, I honestly don't know why I typed that. I meant to type 50 elephants. The problem that I have with the idea that there were lots of untrained elephants in the Carthaginian formation is that it is really odd to suggest that Hannibal would have taken so many highly untrained elephants. If there were any elephants that Carthage would have brought, they would not be numerous, definitely not numerous enough to screw up the entire Carthaginian left flank and allow the Romans to get behind Hannibal's forces. Also, keep in mind that the Romans even agreed Hannibal's forces were not nearly as strong as the force he originally took to Italy. The idea that Hannibal was able to fight with twice as many elephants as he was able to fight with when he had a fresh army fully ready for fighting is illogical.

And lastly, I am going to talk about the third point. When I used the word "untouched," I meant that his third line was fresh by the time it engaged with the Romans and that it had not really engaged in any serious fighting. You didn't seem to mention the reason behind Hannibal seeing a very evident opportunity for hours and not at all acting upon it. Hannibal surely had enough time to engage with the opposing army.
levi_smiles

Con

Pro: Your first point is that if I consider Polybius to be biased and untrustworthy, it means that I have no reason to believe that the accomplishments of Hannibal were true. I would not consider this to be true though, because the Romans would have literally no reason to lie about how Hannibal managed to defeat the far superior Roman armies due to poor Roman commanders. That part of the war is more likely to cause people to think more poorly of the Romans, it is very likely that Polybius wanted to defend Scipio Africanus in specific.

Con: I think you have missed my point. I"m saying that Polybius made Hannibal famous. Yes, we would likely know his name and his great battles but Hannibal"s biography- his childhood oath, his lost eye, his treaty with Scipio- those details were reported by Polybius. Others may have told better or different accounts. In fact, there were almost certainly Greek and Phoenician versions of Hannibal is we will never get to read. If we throw out Polybius, Hannibal is reduced to a name, a date, a statistic. Polybius made Hannibal a legend.

Consider Vercingetorix, the Arverni chieftain who fought Julius Caesar at the Battle of Alesia. Every detail we know of the man comes from Caesar"s commentaries. Was Caesar an objective biographer? Of course he wasn"t - they were enemy combatants, Caesar may have even been the man who strangled Vercingetorix to death. But if we throw out Caesar as biased, we have nothing. We might not even know Vercingetorix"s name.

Consider Mithridates or Decebalus, great generals who battled Roman legions for decades with many great victories but who are far less legendary in our time because either no Roman wrote a compelling biography or that compelling biography did not survive. We just don"t have documents of their strategies, their speeches on the eve of battle, so we think of those great figures less. Arminius, the victor of Teutoberg Forest was little more than a name until Tacitus" history was rediscovered in the 14th century.

Sure, Polybius is Roman historian writing for a Roman audience and we must take that bias into account. But without Polybius, the Battle of Zama is just a place and a date and you and I would not be having this debate. Yes, Polybius was a friend of the Scipios but he was also a general who knew what it was like to be conquered by Romans. He clearly admired Hannibal and gave him a good story, even if only, like Vercingetorix, to make his conquest by Romans the more praiseworthy.

Pro: Also, I definitely went a bit overboard on the word "supposedly," I did not try to imply that the battle of Zama wasn't the last battle of the Second Punic War, I was simply trying to express that there is a lot about what is documented of the battle that can be considered very sketchy.

Con: We agree the details are sketchy. History belongs to the victorious and the story of the defeated is seldom properly told.

Pro: The problem that I have with the idea that there were lots of untrained elephants in the Carthaginian formation is that it is really odd to suggest that Hannibal would have taken so many highly untrained elephants. If there were any elephants that Carthage would have brought, they would not be numerous, definitely not numerous enough to screw up the entire Carthaginian left flank and allow the Romans to get behind Hannibal's forces.

Con: Well, Polybius would seem to agree. He only claims "some" elephants hit the left flank and credits Masinissa"s Numidians with driving off the left flank.

Pro: Also, keep in mind that the Romans even agreed Hannibal's forces were not nearly as strong as the force he originally took to Italy. The idea that Hannibal was able to fight with twice as many elephants as he was able to fight with when he had a fresh army fully ready for fighting is illogical.

Con: Not really. We have to assume that the breeding and training of war elephants was mostly conducted at Carthage. Female elephants don"t tolerate the presence of male elephants for long periods outside of mating and will instinctively flee an enraged male. War elephants were always male. Elephants were difficult to transport and difficult to replace. Therefore, elephant production was slow, expensive, and centralized. Hannibal probably took every elephant he could over the Alps but it"s reasonable to assume that number was far less than what he could muster in Africa and he had to share with his brothers (Mago had 32 elephants at Ilipia. Hasdrubal had 10 at Metaurus). When Hannibal rushed home in 202 BC, Carthage had already lost its home army with all of its equipment after Scipio"s sneak attack and the subsequent Battle of the Great Plains. We don"t know for sure (because Polybius doesn"t say) but must reasonably assume that the best trained and experienced elephants available to Carthage were destroyed before Hannibal"s return. It makes sense that Hannibal took anything he could to fight at Zama and emptied the stockades of their leftover, unready elephants. Just like most of his infantry, Hannibal had superior numbers but of substantially inferior quality. I"m sure Hannibal would have traded in a snap his 80 elephants at Zama for those 27 tried and true elephants who entered Italy.

Pro: And lastly, I am going to talk about the third point. When I used the word "untouched," I meant that his third line was fresh by the time it engaged with the Romans and that it had not really engaged in any serious fighting. You didn't seem to mention the reason behind Hannibal seeing a very evident opportunity for hours and not at all acting upon it. Hannibal surely had enough time to engage with the opposing army.

Con: I did say but I can expand.

At the end of the first phase, Hannibal had about 6,000 infantry to Rome"s roughly 25,000. Let"s assume the Carthaginians had some advantage in skill nullified by the Roman advantage in morale. Applying Lanchester"s Law of force concentration that gives the Romans a 17:1 advantage. If Hannibal advanced over uneven terrain, Scipio would have a powerful advantage even if he couldn"t get his hastati organized in time, even if the calvary failed to return. Scipio"s advantage in ranged attacks alone might have finished off a phalanx marching over uneven terrain and the Carthaginians were almost certainly getting pelted by velites even as they awaited the coup de grace. Yes, Hannibal"s army was doomed by standing still but the pace of destruction would only have been increased by maneuver in any direction. Hannibal"s decision to stand was the best play available with a losing hand. If Hannibal had engaged, the only result would have been fewer dead Romans.
Debate Round No. 2
RomanLegionary

Pro

You stated in a previous argument that if I do not trust Polybius's info on the battle of Zama, I have no reason to believe in Hannibal's accomplishments such as the battle of Cannae. When I said it would not benefit Polybius to lie about that, I did not miss your point, I explained that that argument was not valid.

Caesar's information about Vercingetorix is not a good example of having reason to trust people like Polybius' documents. Caesar lied about a lot of stuff i.e. when he claimed that the people in Britain were secretly giving the Gauls supplies. You can not claim that this is a misinterpretation of your point as I am trying to prove Polybius lied a bit about the battle of Zama, which is exactly what Caesar did with the Gauls.

I am not arguing against the claim that Polybius made Hannibal famous, I am arguing against the claim that his documents on the battle of Zama were accurate.

"We agree the details are sketchy. History belongs to the victorious and the story of the defeated is seldom properly told."

This statement doesn't work in your favor as you are agreeing that the battle of Zama didn't happen as documented. You have just agreed that I am correct about the battle of Zama.

In this statement:

"Well, Polybius would seem to agree. He only claims "some" elephants hit the left flank and credits Masinissa"s Numidians with driving off the left flank."

you agreed that Polybius lied about the number of elephants by agreeing that the elephants were not numerous enough to mess up the Carthaginian left flank.

"Well, Polybius would seem to agree."

This is not me taking one point out of context as if the Romans targeted the elephant riders, there would be a lot more elephants than "some" messing up the Carthaginian left flank. Because of this, you either have to agree that Polybius lied about the number of elephants helping the Romans beat Hannibal's army or the number of elephants Carthage took to the battle, both resulting in the battle of Zama not happening as documented.

You make a good point about the reason for Hannibal having so many elephants at Zama, but you still need to keep in mind that Polybius contradicts himself (as I just mentioned).

About your last point, Hannibal didn't have to stand there, he could have tried to retreat, or even better, not fight in the battle of Zama in the first place. Hannibal had a very good idea of when to fight and when not to when he was campaigning in Italy, do you believe that that skill just went away as soon as he went back to Africa? The point that Hannibal had to engage to prevent Carthage isn't either good (in case you plan on using it). Fighting in the battle of Zama doomed Carthage, but if he didn't fight it then although Scipio would ravage parts of Carthage, he would have at least had a good chance to prevent his defeat. Again, this is unlikely to have been a stupid decision as he was capable of making such decisions in Italy.

I enjoyed debating this topic with you. Good luck with your final argument as well as arguments of yours in future debates.
levi_smiles

Con

Pro: You stated in a previous argument that if I do not trust Polybius's info on the battle of Zama, I have no reason to believe in Hannibal's accomplishments such as the battle of Cannae. When I said it would not benefit Polybius to lie about that, I did not miss your point, I explained that that argument was not valid.

Con: So Polybius accurately reports Cannae but is dishonest when it comes to Zama? We"ve agreed that Polybius may be biased but as I"ve pointed out, Polybius has reputation for careful documentation sufficient to earn him the appellation "Father of Roman historiography". He"s certainly given Hannibal a fairly heroic biography. I"ve demonstrated why I find Polybius" account plausible and countered your claims of illogical narrative. Nor have you offered an alternative narrative or contradictory report. You seem confident that Hannibal must have used his elephants and infantry to greater effect than Polybius says but I can"t tell why. We know Hannibal suffered a catastrophic loss and sued for a humiliating peace so the outcome matches the description.

Pro: Caesar's information about Vercingetorix is not a good example of having reason to trust people like Polybius' documents. Caesar lied about a lot of stuff i.e. when he claimed that the people in Britain were secretly giving the Gauls supplies.

Con: Seems plausible enough, tribes traded across the English Channel long before the Romans arrived. I"m not therefore certain Britain aided Gaul but I have no rationale or counter-claim that refutes Caesar and Caesar is my only source. You may be certain Caesar lied about this but I need a more dissuasive argument.

Pro: You can not claim that this is a misinterpretation of your point as I am trying to prove Polybius lied a bit about the battle of Zama, which is exactly what Caesar did with the Gauls.

"We agree the details are sketchy. History belongs to the victorious and the story of the defeated is seldom properly told."

This statement doesn't work in your favor as you are agreeing that the battle of Zama didn't happen as documented. You have just agreed that I am correct about the battle of Zama.

Pro: Nope. We agreed that we should be skeptical regarding single-sourced ancient accounts with little archeological evidence. Saying that witness testimony is sometimes unreliable does not count as proof of guilt or innocence in court. We don"t discount credible witnesses without evidence of lying. Simply saying, "It may have happened otherwise" does not amount to "this must be false".

Pro: In this statement:

"Well, Polybius would seem to agree. He only claims "some" elephants hit the left flank and credits Masinissa"s Numidians with driving off the left flank."

you agreed that Polybius lied about the number of elephants by agreeing that the elephants were not numerous enough to mess up the Carthaginian left flank.

Con: In R1, you stated that Polybius describes the elephants as routing the left flank. But Polybius said no such thing. Polybius says some elephants hit that line, but it was Masinissa"s horsemen who routed the left flank. You got Polybius"s account wrong then argued against the claim nobody made. In R2, you changed your argument from "drivers would have spiked their elephants" to "there must have been fewer elephants" at least, not enough elephants to turn the flank. Polybius agrees with you, the elephants did not turn the flank- Masnissa did.

Pro: This is not me taking one point out of context as if the Romans targeted the elephant riders, there would be a lot more elephants than "some" messing up the Carthaginian left flank.

Con: How do you know? Based on what?
Polybius responsibly keeps the number vague because all he could find out that at least some elephants charged the left, not enough to break the line. You"ve now claimed that the number must be either less or more than "some".

Pro: you either have to agree that Polybius lied about the number of elephants helping the Romans beat Hannibal's army or the number of elephants Carthage took to the battle, both resulting in the battle of Zama not happening as documented.

Con: What I see is that Polybius gave us specific numbers of elephants when he had good information, a few of which I"ve related (11 elephants survived Zama, 27 came down from the Alps, Mago had 32, etc). He does not have a good report of the number of Elephants who hit the left flank, he only knows that some did because that"s what some soldiers he interviewed told him. He does not claim more than he knows. You have argued both that the elephants could not have crashed the line AND that if they crashed the line there must have been more than "some." Some could be five or fifty, you don"t know the number either except to say that you"re confident that number must be wrong. Frankly, I don"t find your argument persuasive.

Pro: About your last point, Hannibal didn't have to stand there, he could have tried to retreat,

Con: Nope, calvary in the rear. To retreat, Hannibal would have to break formation to move in column, easy pickings for a calvary charge.

Pro: or even better, not fight in the battle of Zama in the first place. Hannibal had a very good idea of when to fight and when not to when he was campaigning in Italy, do you believe that that skill just went away as soon as he went back to Africa? The point that Hannibal had to engage to prevent Carthage isn't either good (in case you plan on using it). Fighting in the battle of Zama doomed Carthage, but if he didn't fight it then although Scipio would ravage parts of Carthage, he would have at least had a good chance to prevent his defeat. Again, this is unlikely to have been a stupid decision as he was capable of making such decisions in Italy.

Con: But he did fight at Zama and lost. Even the greatest generals make catastrophic mistakes. Would you argue Napoleon did not go to Russia because he demonstrated genius at Austerlitz? Would you argue that Lee could not have ordered Pickett"s Charge because of Chancellorsville?

I"ve already states that Carthage was doomed before Hannibal came ashore. In some other debate, I"d even argue that Carthage lost because Hannibal pursued glory across the Alps, leaving Spain and Africa exposed.

Pro: I enjoyed debating this topic with you. Con: Thanks and likewise.
Debate Round No. 3
8 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 8 records.
Posted by levi_smiles 3 years ago
levi_smiles
Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam
Posted by ILikePie5 3 years ago
ILikePie5
Damn Levi, I didn't know you were a Roman history person
Posted by RomanLegionary 3 years ago
RomanLegionary
If you mention what Polybius said, I don't require citations. If I doubt something then I can look it up. I will post my next argument tonight when I have a computer with me.
Posted by levi_smiles 3 years ago
levi_smiles
@RomanLegionary

Thanks for an excellent topic. I could read and talk about Rome that was for 3 lifetimes and not grow bored.

I followed your lead and left out citations but mostly I relied on Polybius, Livy, Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Wikipedia. If you wish a citation for any particular, I"ll be happy to update in comments. I look forward to your reply!
Posted by RomanLegionary 3 years ago
RomanLegionary
I will look more into it.
Posted by ILikePie5 3 years ago
ILikePie5
The Roman discipline could avoid that as far as I know
Posted by RomanLegionary 3 years ago
RomanLegionary
I believe that in those scenarios, the elephants were trained to charge at the Romans diagonally.
Posted by ILikePie5 3 years ago
ILikePie5
Interesting. I am very fond of Roman history specifically the military aspect. From what I"ve read, the Romans under Scipio Africanus simply let the elephants charge. However, when they did charge, a gap was made in the Roman lines and the elephants were stabbed to death.
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