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Representing the Battle of Zama to Create an Iconic Event*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 November 2015

Frances Billot
The University of Auckland
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This article compares the use of certain literary, structural and historical features by Polybius, Livy and Silius Italicus in their representations of the battle of Zama in 202 BC between the Romans and Carthaginians. It is argued that through their application of these features they present the battle as an iconic event and position it as a grand finale to the Second Punic War. The comparisons highlight some of the literary constructs in Polybius’ Histories and illustrate how some later authors adapt and possibly respond to Polybius’ presentation.

Similarities in presentation to emphasise the importance of the battle do not necessarily mean that the authors convey the same message over the long term effects of its outcome. For example, where Polybius’ special treatment of the battle of Zama, Hannibal and Scipio reflects his belief in the pivotal role the Roman victory played in changing the balance of power across the ancient Mediterranean world (15.9.2, 10.2), Silius Italicus’ special treatment may also be read as presenting the outcome of the battle in terms of causing a shift in power balance, in this case within the city of Rome, and leading to the development of the principate and the one-man rule of imperial Rome (17.653-4, 3.261-4).

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 2014

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An early form of this paper was delivered at ASCS 33, the conference of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies Conference, held in Melbourne, Australia, in February 2012. I am grateful to the audience for their discussion of it, and in particular to the anonymous reviewers for Antichthon for their comments on different drafts.


1 Cornelius Nepos (Hann. 5) is the earliest extant author who gives the battle its familiar title, Zama; Silius Italicus uses the same name (Pun. 3.261). The exact location is uncertain. Livy (30.29.9) locates it near Naraggara, and Polybius (15.5.3) at a place named Margaron. Whatever the historicity, it is the name ‘Zama’ which endures.

2 Florus, , Epitome of Roman History, Loeb edn (Cambridge MA 1929, 1995 repr.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; translation adapted from Edward S. Forster (trans.) (1995 repr.) 113. Latin and Greek quotations and translations are taken or adapted from the Loeb editions, unless indicated otherwise.

3 OED Online, s.v. ‘iconic’, draft additions, September 2006.

4 Mehl, A., Roman Historiography (transl. Mueller, H-F.) (Stuttgart 2011) 9Google Scholar: ‘For Greeks and Romans, historical narratives were . . . works of literature.’ For overviews of Roman historiography, see Kraus, C. Shuttleworth and Woodman, A.J., Latin Historians (Oxford and New York 1997) esp. 5181Google Scholar for Livy; Wiseman, T. Peter, Clio’s Cosmetics: Three Studies in Greco-Roman Literature (Leicester 1979)Google Scholar esp. part 1, with reviews by Cornell, T.J., JRS 72 (1982) 203-6Google Scholar, esp. 204; J. Briscoe, CR New Series 31.1 (1981) 49-51, esp. 49; Mellor, R., The Roman Historians (London and New York 1999) 1124Google Scholar; Gill, C. and Wiseman, T.P., Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (Exeter 1993) 88121CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also for Livy, see Luce, T.J., Livy: The Composition of his History (Princeton 1977) 139229Google Scholar. For an overview of Polybius’ historiographical style, see Davidson, J., ‘Polybius’, in Feldherr, A. (ed.), The Roman Historians (Cambridge 2009) 123-36Google Scholar; Marincola, J., Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Alan E. Astin, ‘Sources’, in CAH 2 8.3 and 4 (Cambridge 1970, 1982, 2005 repr.) 9-10, prioritises Polybius over Livy as the source text for this period; Silius is not mentioned, even in the section ‘literary texts’. F.W. Walbank’s powerful A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols, (Oxford 1957-1979) and lifetime of scholarship overshadow discussions of Polybius as a literary text; his comparisons of Polybius and Livy are usually discussed in terms of Livy’s use of sources. Also Tränkle, H., Livius und Polybios (Stuttgart 1977)Google Scholar; Moore, T.J., Artistry and Ideology: Livy’s Vocabulary of Virtue (Frankfurt 1989)Google Scholar; Hoyos, B. Dexter, ‘Generals and Annalists: Geographic and Chronological Obscurities in the Scipios’ Campaigns in Spain, 218-211 BC’, Klio 833 (2001) 6892Google Scholar; id., Introduction, in Livy: Hannibal’s War Books 21-30 (trans. Yardley, J.C.)(Oxford 2006)Google Scholar; id., Hannibal: Rome’s Greatest Enemy (Exeter 2008) 5; ‘[Livy’s] historical and analytical skills were limited’; Briscoe, J., review of Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius Volume iii, Commentary on Books xix-xl (Oxford 1979)Google ScholarCR 30.2 (1980) 189-91, esp. 190; A. Brian Bosworth, ‘Plus ça change: Ancient Historians and their Sources’, Classical Antiquity (2003) 167-98, esp. 168. Cf. Luce (n. 4) esp. 139-229. For discussion of Livy’s sources, see Walsh, Peter G., Livy, his Historical Aims and Methods (Cambridge 1963)Google Scholar esp. chap. 5; Mellor (n. 4) 67 calls Livy’s praise of Polybius at 30.45 a ‘unique accolade’. This does not mean that Livy prioritises Polybius over others; the citations above show that Livy more frequently acknowledges a preference for Polybius in the fourth decad. His praise of Polybius at 30.45.7 is balanced against his strongest criticism of Polybius at the end of the fourth decad - over Polybius’ dating for the death of Hannibal (39.52.1). Levene, D.S., Livy on the Hannibalic War (Oxford 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 242: Livy turns the battle into a fundamental struggle between two existential enemies.

6 Momigliano, A., Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Chicago 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost) Accession Number 461217 68-77; Davidson (n. 4) 123-36; Marincola (n. 4); id. (ed), A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (Maiden MA and Oxford 2007), Blackwell Reference Online. 24 August 2012 http://www.blackwell, esp.‘Introduction.’

7 For Silius Italicus and historiography, see Gibson, B., Silius Italicus: A Consular Historian?, in Augoustakis, A. (ed.), Brill’s Companion to Silius Italicus (Leiden 2010)Google Scholar; also Ahl, F.M., Davis, M. and Pomeroy, A., ‘Silius Italicus’, ANRW II 32.4 (Berlin 1986) 2492-561Google Scholar. Both works would be valuable starting points for other aspects of the Punica.

8 Marincola (n. 4) 29

9 Cicero and Livy had respect for Polybius while acknowledging his shortcomings, especially a bias for the Scipio family: Cicero, De Off. 3.113.7; Fam.; Att.; Liv. 30.45.7, 33.10.10, 34.50.6, 36.19.11, 39.52.1, 45.44.20. Brutus was writing an epitome of Polybius before the battle of Pharsalia (Plut. Brut. 4.8).

10 See also Levene (n. 5); id. Religion in Livy (Brill 1993).

11 Luce (n. 4) 31; Burek, E., Wege zu Livius (Darmstadt 1967)Google Scholar; id. Historische und epische Tradition bei Silius Italicus (Munich 1984) and review by D.C. Feeney, CR 35.2 (1985) 390-1 ; Ahi, Davis and Pomeroy (n. 7); Gibson (n. 7).

12 Moore (n. 5).

13 Levene (n. 5).

14 Burck (1984 n. 11); Campbell, D.J., ‘The Birthplace of Silius Italicus’, CR 50.2 (1936) 57Google Scholar; Von Albrecht, M., A History of Roman Literature II (Leiden 1997) 293Google Scholar: ‘Livy takes pride of place’; McGuire, D.T., Acts of Silence: Civil War, Tyranny and Suicide in the Flavian Epics (Zürich 1997) 53Google Scholar; Nicol, J., The Historical and Geographical Sources Used by Silius Italicus (Oxford 1936)Google Scholar concludes that Livy was the main source for the history in the poem.

15 Ahi, Davis and Pomeroy (n. 7) 2506; Marcus Wilson, ‘Ovidian Silius,’ Arethusa 37.2 (2004) 236; Spaltenstein, F., Commentaire des Punica de Silius Italicus (Geneva 1986) 10Google Scholar.

16 Wiseman, , The Myths of Rome (Exeter 2004) 177Google Scholar; see 174-7 for the Scipio myth more generally, 338-9 for references and citations; Walbank, , ‘The Scipionic Legend’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 13 (1967) 5469Google Scholar.

17 Paton, W.R. (trans.), rev. Walbank, F.W. and Habicht, C., PolybiusThe Histories Vol. IV Books 9-15, Loeb edn (Cambridge MA 1922, repr. 2011) 539-41Google Scholar.

18 Walbank (1967 n. 4) 444 describes the anachronism as indicating that the Second Punic War was not yet of interest beyond the western Mediterranean, despite Agelaus’ warning (Polyb. 5.104).

19 Admittedly Polybius’ increasingly fragmentary text makes it impossible to judge with certainty; nevertheless it appears that his narrative moves directly from the battle to negotiations: 15.15 notes Hannibal’s escape to Hadrumentum; 15.17-19 has Scipio in discussion with Carthaginian envoys and giving terms that Hannibal urges the Carthaginians to accept. Cf. Cornelius Nepos who says that Hannibal continued warfare in Africa for some years after the battle of Zama (Hann. 5).

20 Gibson (n. 7) 52.

21 Ahl, Davis and Pomeroy (n. 7) 2505-11; Cowan, R., ‘Virtual Epic’, in Augoustakis (ed.) (n. 7) 335Google Scholar; Fears, J.R., ‘The Theology of Victory at Rome: Approaches and Problems’, ANRW 17.2 (Berlin 1981) 736826Google Scholar, at 779: ‘the literary image of Scipio assumes various attributes of Hellenistic kingship. Ennius celebrated Scipio as invictus and thus associated the victory with the person not Rome as a society.’ Marks, R., From Republic to Empire. Scipio Africanus in the Punica of Silius Italicus (Frankfort am Main and New York 2005)Google Scholar argues that Silius Italicus presents Scipio as a positive role model for Domitian.

22 Parens; perhaps Silius is being cynically ironic, given the treatment of Scipio in his later life; nonetheless, it links Scipio’s victory to the development of the principate.

23 Duff, J.D. (trans.), Silius ItalicusPunica II, Loeb edn (Cambridge MA 1934, 1989 repr.) 463Google Scholar.

24 Walbank (1967 n. 4) 446: ‘there are more problems – sources, chronology, site, numbers and tactics – over Zama than for any other battle in the war.’ This is a quite remarkable statement considering how much space Polybius devotes to it.

25 Jacobs, J., ‘Metus hostilis and the Fall of Rome in the Punica’, in Miller, J.F. and Woodman, A.J. (eds), Latin Historiography and Poetry in the Early Empire: Generic Interactions, Mnemosyne, Supplements, Volume 321 (Boston MA 2010) 138Google Scholar.

26 In respect of the meeting, Walbank (1967 n. 4) 451 writes: ‘the meeting is possible . . . but . . . might be derived from Ennius’; Paton (trans.) (n. 17) 533 n. 16; at n. 17 and n. 18 acknowledges Hannibal’s and Scipio’s speeches as unlikely to be historical; Goldsworthy, A., The Punic Wars (London 2001) 301Google Scholar, accepts the meeting but not the speeches; also Seibert, J., Hannibal (Darmstadt 1993) 465Google Scholar. Cf. Mellor (n. 4) 61: ‘Though that meeting is fictitious . . . [Livy] . . . encapsulates the confrontation better than any description of battle tactics.’

27 Val. Max. 3.7.1d cites the event as an example of Scipio’s self-confidence and intention to break the enemy psychologically. Walbank (1967 n. 4) 450 notes the parallels to Xerxes’ treatment of three Greek spies in Hdt. 7.146.7, and Laevinus’ treatment of Pyrrhus’ spies in Dion. Hal. 19.11, Zon. 8.3.6, Frontin. Strat. 4.7.7. Goldsworthy (n. 26) 301: Scipio’s treatment of the spies was either to convince Hannibal that Masinissa had not yet arrived (Polyb. 15.3) orto demoralise Hannibal because Masinissa had arrived (Liv. 30.29.1-10).

28 Adapted from Moore, F.G., (trans.), Livy History of Rome Vol. VIII, Loeb edn (Cambridge MA 1949, 1955 repr.) 473Google Scholar.

29 Cf. A. Rossi, ‘Parallel Lives: Hannibal and Scipio in Livy’s third decad,’ TAPA 134.2 (2004) 359: Livy’s Hannibal has some distinct non-Polybian characteristics.

30 See McGushin, Patrick, The Transmission of the Punica of Silius Italicus (Amsterdam 1985)Google Scholar.

31 Duff (trans.) (n. 23) 460, n. a: ‘that some verses . . . have been lost here seems . . . certain . . . Further it is known that Scipio and Hannibal met in conference before the battle . . . it is inconceivable that Silius should pass over an incident so dramatic.’

32 Appian’s description of the meeting between Scipio and Hannibal is similar to this meeting – the two are said to part after exchanging threats (Pun. 7.39).

33 Gibson (n. 7) 67; Luce (n. 4); Miller, N.P., ‘Dramatic Speech in the Roman Historians’, G&R 22.1 (1975) 46, 51-3Google Scholar; Mehl (n. 4) 21; Marincola (2005 [2007] n. 6) esp. chap. 9.

34 Walbank (1967 n. 4) 452 noted the sense of hindsight underlying Hannibal’s expectation that Scipio would not show magnanimity: ‘Hannibal’s speech might be derived from Ennius Ann. 312-13 . . . but . . . its Hellenistic sentiments are commonplace, the parallelism slight and the Ennian context uncertain.’

35 Rossi (n. 29) 1.

36 Moore (n. 5) 60 says that Scipio is given the highest praise when Livy couples pietas and virtus in Hannibal’s speech (30.30.13). That depends how much value is placed on praise voiced by an enemy in private conversation (30.32).

37 Kraus and Woodman (n. 4) 60.

38 A: dispositions; B: speech; r: Roman; c: Carthaginian: see Appendix (below, pp. 75-6).

39 Unlike Livy, Polybius does not record a defeat of Hannibal by Marcellus outside Nola. Plutarch wrote that Polybius specifically rejected presenting Hannibal as being defeated in Italy in favour of being undefeated because of the effect on his representation of Scipio (Plut. Comp. Pelop. and Marcell. 1.4-7). Plutarch cites a number of other Latin and Greek authors who counter Polybius, including Livy, Caesar, Cornelius Nepos and King Juba.

40 Walbank (1967 n. 4) 456 on Scipio: ‘little but commonplaces . . . there may be some anachronism’; cf. 459 on Hannibal.

41 Luce (n. 4) 27 n. 58 on sequence of speeches: Book 21: Scipio ’ Hannibal, Book 30: Hannibal ’ Scipio.

42 Serrati, J., review of Hoyos, Dexter, Hannibal’s Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 BC (London 2003)Google Scholar, in JRS 95 (2005) 250: ‘Hannibal spent many years in Spain . . . [and] may have spoken local dialects as well as Punic . . . and Greek from his tutor. ‘ Cf. an unlikely claim by Kaplan, R.D., Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (New York 2003) 34Google Scholar: ‘Hannibal could only communicate through interpreters.’

43 Walbank (1967 n. 4) 459; also Paton (transi.) (n. 17) 551 n. 19.

44 Paton (trans.) (n. 17) 493.

45 Goldsworthy (n. 26) 305.

46 Polybius (15.11.4-6) may have prepared his audience for this analogy earlier when he described Hannibal ordering his officers to address their own contingents in the army while he addressed the Carthaginians.

47 Walbank (1967 n. 5) 464 notes that the sense is changed by Liv. 30.35.7 where Hannibal’s mercenaries are the unstable element placed in the centre. Frontin. Strat. 2.3.16 says Hannibal put his Italians in the rear because he distrusted their loyalty. The logic seems odd: those least trustworthy are unlikely to be stationed at the rear where they can attack from behind (cf. Cannae).

48 Paton (trans.) (n. 17) 501.

49 Walbank (1967 n. 5) 464 summarises the arguments for the origins in either a Hellenistic epigram, or the killing of Eurypylus by Neoptolemus or a quotation from Theognis.

50 For a discussion on Polybius’ use of luck and personal merit, see Fears (n. 21) 760-1.

51 Levene (n. 5) 88-90 and 238 discusses the application of this allusion by Livy and Polybius. He argues that Livy makes the dissonance a factor of greater significance than Polybius for the outcome of the battle ’ to support his tenuous argument that Livy equates the Romans to Homeric Greeks.

52 Adapted from Moore (trans.) (n. 28) 487.

53 Boyle, A.J. and Sullivan, J.P., (eds) Roman Poets of the Early Empire (London 1991) 303Google Scholar.

54 Ahl, Davis and Pomeroy (n. 7) 2518 note the link to Lucan: ‘another Scipio confronts Caesar . . . at Thapsus: the battle that Lucan says the ghosts of Carthage will have their fill of Roman blood (Luc. 6.309-311).’

55 For discussions of the battle, see Lazenby, J.F., Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War (Oklahoma 1998) 193232Google Scholar; Goldsworthy (n. 26) 298-309; Bradford, E., Hannibal (London 1981) 193203Google Scholar.

56 Paton (trans.) (n. 43) 498, n. b alerts the reader to a possible interpolation. It is preferable that editors retain the original text, note the difficulties here, and leave readers to decide on interpretation.

57 Miller (n. 33) 46, 51-3 argues that Livy used Polybius for this episode; also Chaplin, J., Livy’s Exemplary History (Oxford and New York 2000) 25Google Scholar; Burck (1967 n. 11) 440-52 writes that the ‘Hannibal speech’ before the battle of Zama is the closest that Livy comes to simply reproducing Polybius. Against, Tränkle (n. 5) 241, who argues for Polybius and Livy using a mutual source.

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