202 BC: Scipio Uses Hannibal’s Spies Against Him

The battle of Zama in 202 BC was the end of the line for Carthage’s brilliant general Hannibal Barca and the Second Punic War. After the Roman victory, Carthage faced terms more punitive than those of the notorious Treaty of Versailles: they were disarmed of their naval and military power, and subject to fifty years of tribute. When the Carthaginians made their final tribute payment, the Romans would soon demand the Carthaginians further disarm — and then  destroy the Carthaginian city, civilization, and people utterly in the Third Punic War.

In the  Battle of Zama which decided the Second Punic War, and greased the skids for the complete elimination of Carthage in the Third, there were many reasons for Roman victory. The Romans had logistical advantages, a better field position, far superior infantry (n quality, at least), and at least equal cavalry, thanks to some Numidian horsemen changing sides. But the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio enlarged those advantages by playing a trick on Hannibal Barca, his Carthaginian counterpart.

Now, what we know the battle is limited to the tales told by two Roman historians, Livy and Polybius, writing from a position far away and after the fact. The site of the battle has never been confirmed or even found. And the two of them  disagree about some details of this tale. But in most things, their two stories are consonant.

Plus, it’s a good story!

in ancient times spies were as much a part of warfare as they have been ever since, and then, as now, or perhaps, even more than now, a spy faced great risk with little prospect of reward. So three Carthaginian spies, who fell into the hands of Roman patrols shortly before the battle, must have commended their souls to their heathen gods and braced themselves for a miserable death.

The key question Hannibal needed the answer to, his EEI or CCIR to use more modern acronyms, was this: had Scipio’s infantry and Masinissa’s Numidian cavalry joined forces? In that case it would be better to refuse battle. Or was the enemy camp one of the forces, alone? In the latter case the African had the advantage over his Italian enemy.

In Hannibal’s Last Battle, Carey writes:

These three spies were taken prisoner by the Romans about the same time that Masinissa arrived at the camp with Numidian reinforcements. This force consisted of 4,000 light cavalry and 6,000 infantry.

Here the Roman historians’ stories diverge, and the authors consider what that signifies:

Polybius and Livy differ on the timing of these events. Livy maintains that the spies arrived after Masinissa, and reported back their numbers, while Polybius states that the Numidian king arrived the next day unobserved by the spies.320 Both authors agree that Scipio ordered the spies to be treated well and given guided tours of the camp and to report back to Hannibal what they observed. Polybius’ account would make sense if it were Scipio’s intention to mislead Hannibal into believing the Roman’s were weak in cavalry. This may be why Hannibal continued to march west towards Scipio. Livy’s account would ring true if the spies returned to Hannibal’s camp with intelligence on Roman troop strengths that worried the Punic general.

Of course, there’s another possibility: Scipio was simply playing a dominance game with Hannibal, the equivalent of a ballplayer trash-talking his opposite number, or a gorilla beating his chest. In any event, Hannibal met Scipio five or six days’ march west of Carthage, at the still unlocated field of Zama, and the two leaders met between their armies, with only each one’s dragoman in attendance.

Hannibal regretted that Rome and Carthage had ever pursued conquest on the other’s side of the great sea; was there any way to resolve the nations’ open issues without bloodshed?

Scipio’s response was long, flowery, and recounted a litany of Carthaginian misdeeds relative to Rome, ending with an offer of the only terms that would prevent the battle: unconditional surrender.

The fact is that you must either put yourself and your country unconditionally into our hands, or else fight and conquer us.

(This would have been known to Roosevelt and Churchill, both better educated than their modern counterparts, when they made their “unconditional surrender” decision in World War II).

With no way to avoid the defeat except by fighting, the fight was on, and the next day they fought. Hannibal survived and was not captured, but the Carthaginians wound up unconditionally surrendering.

At first, the Romans planned to destroy the city and enslave the citizens, but they were talked around to simply imposing harsh terms. Cary reports:

The terms Scipio set to end the Second Punic War were very harsh, no doubt set as a reminder to the Carthaginians of the truce which they broke when the convoy was attacked off the coast of Carthage in early spring 202. According to the treaty Carthage would:

  • Lose all territory outside of Africa and recognize Masinissa as the king of a greatly expanded Numidia.
  • Reduce her fleet to only ten triremes.
  • Have all her war elephants confiscated.
  • Pay an annual indemnity of 10,000 silver talents for fifty years.
  • Refrain from making war outside of Africa unless Roman permission was obtained.
  • Return all Roman prisoners and deserters without ransom.
  • Supply Rome with three month’s worth of food and supplies and pay the occupying Roman army’s wages until the treaty was ratified by the Roman Senate.
  • Pay reparations for the loss of the convoy and its supplies.
  • Finally, Scipio demanded hostages from the leading Carthaginian families to ensure their cooperation

The Roman prisoners were freed, but the fate of the deserters was different — crucifixion for Romans, or beheading for Rome’s foreign levies, as the wages of treason.

The Carthaginians met the terms, but war came soon after the tribute’s half-century ran out. The Romans had rejected an offer to repay it early, in 191 BC, because they wanted to keep their Mediterranean rival on a short leash. The Romans threatened to invade again, and demand the Carthaginians disarm. When the Carthaginians did so, handing over 200,000 sets of individual arms and equipment and 2,000 siege machines, the Romans invaded anyway, and took the city after a three-year siege, destroying it utterly in 146 BC.

To exit, here is a wargame-produced simulation of the battle of Zama in its context of the Punic Wars.



Carey, Brian Todd. (Allfree & Cairns, maps). Hannibals Last Battle: Zama and the Fall of Carthage. Barnsley, South Yorks., England: Pen & Sword, 2007.

11 thoughts on “202 BC: Scipio Uses Hannibal’s Spies Against Him

  1. Davy Crockett

    For those interested, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the Punic Wars titled Punic Nightmare is extremely entertaining.

  2. tom

    You wrote:
    “(This would have been known to Roosevelt and Churchill, both better educated than their modern counterparts, when they made their “_unconventional_ surrender” decision in World War II).”

    I think this should read “unconditional”.


  3. jim h

    seems like terms of that nature could be levied upon modern combatants. Pax Americana.

    I do wonder, with the Roman tradition of punishments, if the spies being treated well was ever a 1984-esque correction of a mistake. you know, they actually made it out with the information but the Roman superiority could not be challenged later? (sort of a The Narrative but for ancient civilizations.) something like that would go a long way in reinforcing the Resistance Is Futile approach they loved.

    1. John M.

      America has imposed those terms of surrender on opponents, within living memory, as Hognose points out. We haven’t imposed those terms on any parties recently because we haven’t wanted to. Highfalutin language about “lawful combat” and “winning of hearts and minds” has just been convenient cover for our Progressive Elite not having anybody they really wanted to subjugate lately. Nobody wept for Heroshima or Nagasaki, and to this day no one weeps for Dresden.

      -John M.

      1. bloke_from_ohio

        “…our Progressive Elite not having anybody they really wanted to subjugate lately…”

        Don’t trot that line out in the Levant. Over there each group is convinced the USA is hell bent on working with their mortal enemies for the sake of exterminating them and stealing their stuff. The Shias accuse us of working with the Sunnis and vice versa. The fact that the region is an utter hell hole that nobody actually wants is kind of lost on them I guess.

        1. John M.

          They can ask the Massachusetts Indians what it’s like to be completely subjugated by the Progressive Elite. If they can find any who are available for comment.

          -John M.

      2. S

        Maybe not in this life, but you’re forgetting The Judgement to come. Lots of surprises in store there, no excuses, and lots of gnashing. Teeth will be provided.

  4. Keith

    That recreation came from the SEGA game Rome-Total War. The battle scenes in it were so good the History Channel used them to illustrated a series on Rome’s battles back when the game was new.

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