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The third battle in Moment of Battle‘s list of the 20 pivotal battles of history is the fight between Rome and Carthage at Zama.

As I read some of the reader reviews of Moment of Battle, I noticed some common criticisms. One is similar to my own; some readers seem bothered by the apparent assertion that these are the twenty battles that shaped the world. One even said he couldn’t bring himself to actually read the book, having been so irritated by the premise. Of course, as I speculated, this is likely just a form of marketing slapped on top of an already completed work.

Another angle of criticism is in the actual selection of the twenty battles. Framing history through the depiction of a list of battles is no new idea. In fact, I’ve come to see that it may be an unstated goal of the writers to make a modern point by deliberately following the template of The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathan to Waterloo (1851). This structure has been repeated many-a-time since then. This category of criticism ranges from the book having fallen short compared to earlier works, to simply the wrong selection of battles, to the Western Civilization -focus of this work. Again, I think the mistake is one of expectations rather than execution.

One obvious departure from the theme, as promised by the marketing hype, becomes evident in the selection of Zama as the key battle. Clearly, it is the Second Punic War as a whole that really makes the turning point in this case. One might debate about which is the key battle in the conflict, but that hardly changes the overall thesis. One could go so far to argue that, because no one battle in the war stands alone, it does not make sense to look at Zama, or any other individual battle, in isolation. In terms of the world-changing impact, we are mostly looking at the overall conflict between Rome and Carthage and the consequences of Rome emerging as the victor. Consistent with the title and the theme, the tactics of the battle as Zama are discussed in detail, but the chapter also walks us through bigger picture.

Perhaps more than anything, it is the ability of Rome to recover from setbacks, raise new armies, and renew the fight which was the decisive factor in its triumph. Rome’s persistence, both in defeat and in pursuit of final and total victory, propelled some 80 years of war, diplomacy, and great statesmen towards the seemingly inevitable conclusion of Carthage’s total destruction.

The authors also begin to hint at another factor that was key to the centuries of Roman ascendancy; the Roman military system that could field highly-disciplined armies. A key to Scipio’s victory was that he could could field Legions similar in capabilities to those lost at Cannae. The Roman training system and the tactical use of the formations allowed Rome to raise new legions and deploy them effectively. Contrast that with Hannabal’s army at Zama, where his infusion of inexperienced infantry hampered the ability to use his veterans to their full effectiveness. The legionary fighting system, according to the authors, is one of the key pillars holding up the power of Rome. Future chapters in the book tie the fall of Rome to the deterioration of its military as well as the rebirth of Roman drill in the gunpowder age.

The battle itself is described in sufficient detail to be interesting and informative. More along the lines of Marathon (as opposed to Gaugamela), Scipio’s victory did not have one particular decision which determined the outcome. If anything, Hannibal may have made some mistakes that might have cost him the battle. More accurately, the Roman system simply outclassed and outlasted the Carthaginian one. That is, Rome was able to continue raising effective legions and project their power onto the African continent well after Hannibal’s army reached its zenith and began to decline.

Grand Strategy

Even though the chapter is called Zama it is, as I said above, clear that this is really about the Second Punic War. The story is first how Hannibal was ultimately unable, despite brilliant generalship and decisive victories, to translate his victories in battle into defeating the Roman Republic in war. As such, it is tempting to want to step back and look at the bigger picture. For whatever reason, the Punic Wars were never a major focus for either my reading or my game playing in years past. If I wanted to get started now, what is available from a “campaign” standpoint?

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Laying siege in Spain and Italy.

One game that I’ve long thought getting into but just never have is Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War. It’s been out for nearly a decade and has a free demo version. By my reckoning, the demo consists of the full game but without save capability.

I long ago downloaded the demo but for years never found the time to install and play it. When I finally did get it installed, I found even the tutorial scenarios to be pretty detailed, being new to the system. I played a little bit of the tutorials but even these simplified games would have benefited from being able to save progress to pick back up on another night. I’ve always wound up giving up before really getting into the game.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage is a strategic-level representation of Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy along with the associated fighting in Spain and Africa. The game is limited in that you can only play as Carthage against the AI’s Rome. As the Carthaginian, you build armies and move them from province to province in an attempt to defeat Rome’s forces. When opposing armies meet, there is a multi-round combat involving some minor tactical decisions, the result determining which side is victorious on the strategic map.

On the plus side, I really like the art style. To me, the hand-painted map look is more aesthetic than all but the best of animated, 3D graphics. It draws me in to the period. The short-and-sweet tactical battles also would seem to be a big plus. However, a little experience with them suggests there is actually less to them than meets the eye. Each round in a battle results in either losses, routs , or both, as determined by the game’s algorithms. I havw to assume it is related to the relative strengths of the two armies, but the variability is pretty high. If losses are inflicted upon you, you must remove the number of units indicated. Also, if your army is large enough, you may have to chose which are your “front line” units and which wait back as reinforcements. There are no true tactical considerations based on things like terrain or unit type.

I realized that what it all feels like is a board game mechanic. It is complicated enough to be engaging but yet simple enough that you could play out a battle in 5-10 minutes with cardboard squares and a pair of dice. As a matter of fact, there are card-drive board games depicting the campaigns of Hannibal but I’ve never played them. Nothing I’ve read, though, suggests Hannibal: Rome and Carthage is a computer implementation of a board game. Still, it does have that feel. It is also worth pointing out that the simple mechanic means that an AI can handle and even optimize play, making for a more challenging single-player experience.

Which brings me to the show-stopper. I often come really, really close to buying and playing this game but one of the on-line reviews complains that that AI is too challenging. Even on “easy”, the reviewer says, the game is very difficult to beat. If true, this would make the game unplayable for me. I don’t want a new part-time job trying to master a Punic War computer game. Given its look and these mechanics, I had hoped for some lighter game play that would nevertheless allow me to explore the historical arc of Hannibal’s triumphs and ultimate defeat. A game that’s impossible, even on the easiest settings, would quickly frustrate me.

At the same time, I already have an handful of games that offer one form of Hannibal campaign or another. Alea Jacta Est: Hannibal Terror of Rome is another stab at this same space, but at a considerably greater level of detail. Both The Great Battles of Hannibal and Field of Glory II have campaign wrappers that generate detailed battles based on strategic-level decisions. The problem is, reproducing the brilliance of Hannibal’s campaign is no easy feat and is particularly challenging to do as a casual exercise over a weekend. Even Hannibal was unable to make it work. Reproducing Scipio’s achievments might be a little easier. The problem is that, in either case, if you’re going to have to be reproducing not only their successful tactics but the right strategic choices as well, you probably need to read up quite a bit on the 2nd Punic War. Moment of Battle did not present that level of detail.

The Great Battle of Scipio?

The Great Battles of Hannibal was the second in the three-part Great Battles series, following a year after the release of The Great Battles of Alexander. It contains a dozen scenarios for significant battles of the Punic Wars. The engine is improved from the first version of the game and the Romans have new features, but mostly we’re looking at the same game we saw with Alexander.

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The battlefield catches the eye much better than Alexander’s. Terrain like this is also difficult to use. How does one find the Celts for the trees?

Before jumping into Zama, I wanted to try some of what lead up to that key confrontation. Shown above, I take Hannibal’s side in the ambush at Lake Trasimene. This fight is one where Hannibal nullified much the organizational advantage of the Roman legions by attacking while Flaminius had his legions in column.

Myself, I was unable to beat the scenario in my first go-through. I was also reminded how difficult it was to manipulate the circa-1997 graphics with semi-3D units hidden among the wooded terrain. I do see it is easier to get that sense of perspective by playing the sequence of historical battles, as opposed to engaging with a strategic layer that randomly generates battle scenarios. Not only does it take an extra level of synchronicity to achieve the historical result, but in most cases the historical outcome was the unlikely product of a particularly brilliant general who as also, perhaps, lucky.

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Africa is better for Panzers and Legions. Disrupting the Carthaginian right at Zama.

With some Italian battles under my belt to put me in the mood, I jumped into the Zama battle, this time playing as Scipio. Once again, I lost the first time through, but for different reasons. While playing I thought to myself that the scenario was too easy. Perhaps it was only intended to be played as Hannibal? I thought that right up until I was declared the loser. The reason I lost is that the computer Hannibal in this battle is extremely passive. Taking one’s time, slowly picking away at the Carthaginian flanks (see screenshot above), isn’t an option when the scenario itself is turn limited.

The Zama scenario makes for a nice comparison between Great Battles and Field of Glory II. In Field of Glory II, I did win the first time through. That always makes me happy, although it doesn’t mean it is necessarily a better game. The Field of Glory II version of the battle played out more like the real battle. I’ll come back to that, but first to what Great Battles gets right.

You may remember that Great Battles is structured around a command system. Rather than simply taking turns, the players’ generals are activated in a semi-random order. Generals, generally, move their own units, although they can also direct other troops outside of their command hierarchy, but within their zone of control, at additional cost. In Alexander, one key to Alexander’s victories is his superior command capabilities. The flank where Alexander operates has a significant advantage, particularly when the player is able to coordinate command between Alexander and his subordinates.

Scipio’s Roman army functions very differently. Scipio himself start the game in the back directing the Triarii, who typically would be held in reserve for most of the battle. The core of the legions, the Hastati and Principes, are commanded by very weak generals. However, these formations are different than the commands of Alexander’s generals. As before, the group move commands allow the entire line to advance in formation. There are also legion-specific commands. One such is the “manipular line extension,” which creates a solid infantry line from the checkerboard-style formations in which a legion initially deploys. The group actions simulate the superiority of the Roman system when operating according to standard drill.

In Great Battles of Hannibal, running one’s commanders back and forth, trying to finesse a tactical maneuver, such as a flanking or an echelon attack, just won’t work. The commanders of the Hastati and the Principes don’t have the command points available to them. On the other hand, simply executing group attacks over and over will break up your lines and cause sections of your formations to route and, again, the weakness of the generals means they can’t rally those running troops. You have to be willing to give up fine-grained control while also anticipating what the computer is going to do when you turn over to it the authority to move your units.

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Only two units of elephants? Surprisingly, it actually worked out better.

By contrast, Field of Glory II doesn’t have a particular representation of the manipular system. The Roman army is deployed in its historical three-class staggered lines, but there are no special rules to make you keep it that way. The group command, of course, still exists, but it works identically to how it did with Alexander’s army in Field of Glory II. Beyond that, the most obvious difference in this scenario is the much smaller number of elephants. In Great Battles, in HPS’s Punic Wars, and any other depiction of this battle that I can remember, the Carthaginian army is deployed with a solid line of elephants at its front, prepared to assault the Roman line. In Field of Glory II, as shown in the above screen, there are only two elephant units, across a frontage where one would expect, maybe, seven or eight of them.

Despite that initial oddity, Field of Glory II seems far more able to track the historical arc of the battle. First, the Carthaginian AI is not passive, as in Great Battles. The battle opens, as it should, with a charge forward by Hannibal’s elephants. When they do charge, there is a fair bet they’ll take off after the Velites, heading through open channels rather than assault the heavy infantry of the Roman main line. This key aspect of the Roman victory, their ability to defuse the elephant charge, helps to give this battle its unique characteristics.

Similarly, the cavalry in Field of Glory II felt more like the actual battle. At Zama, Scipio used Masinissa’s Numidian cavalry on his right flank similarly to how Hannibal had deployed the same to defeat Rome. Initially, Scipio’s cavalry chased the numerically-inferior Carthaginian cavalry from the field, leaving the an all-infantry match-up behind. Hannibal believed his weight of numbers would allow him to prevail at that point. Scipio had anticipated that the Carthaginian cavalry would flee and had instructed his cavalry not to abandon the field. The timely return of the Roman horse was critical to victory. In Great Battles, the cavalry engagements feel pretty standard. In Field of Glory II, by contrast, although the horses never left the map, it did feel a bit more like forces in the wings were fighting their own fight. Field of Glory‘s pursuit system helps out here.

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The battle will come to an end before the Triarii engage.

The progression of the infantry battle in Field of Glory II also follows the historical description. After the elephants and skirmishers scattered, the Hastati engaged, initially having an advantage. As the second line of Carthaginians came into play, however, those newly formed militia units began overwhelming the Hastati, who were already worn down after defeating Carthage’s front line. Before Hannibal could obtain the advantage, I moved up my Principes to shore up my attack. At that point, the use of fresh troops plus the returning cavalry put me over the top in terms of the game’s route threshold. Notably, and this was the case with both Field of Glory II and Great Battles, the Carthaginian army broke before my Triarii engaged. In Field of Glory II, in fact, I believe the line of Hannibal’s veterans, his reserves, were also uncommitted.

The route threshold-based victory does cause the history buff to miss out on one last feature of the Battle of Zama. To win, Scipio did commit his reserves. He reorganized his forces into a single line of infantry, Hastati in the center, Triarii on the wings, and Principes sandwiched between them. Moment of Battle criticizes* Hannibal for not taking advantage of this window, during which the Romans were disarrayed, to launch a counterattack. Once Scipio had his full force in a lien of battle and, at the same time, his cavalry back in play at the rear of the nemy, Hannibal’s fate (as well as that of Carthage) was sealed.

While the rise of Rome is distilled down to a single battle, at least as far as the chapter heading goes, the fall of Rome gets three chapters. We are presented with three great battles which, the authors explain, lead to the fall of Rome.

At Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD), Varus’ loss of three legions marked the end of Roman expansion. It also marked an end to the inevitability of Roman victory. Per the book, however, Rome’s dominance would continue for almost four more centuries until the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD) saw Germany, again (this time in the form of the Goths), defeat the forces of Roman Empire. The importance of Adrianople is how it eliminated the core military might of the Eastern Roman Empire. The failure of Emperor Valens to simply wait for reinforcements from the Western Empire (because he underestimated the strength of the Goths) also led to the permanent separation** of the Empire into its Eastern and Western halves. From a military technology standpoint, Adrianople is seen as a shift from infantry to cavalry as the driving force of the ancient battlefield, leading the the supremacy of the medieval knight. In Scipio’s time, it was the superior doctrine and training that caused the Roman legion to dominate the western world’s battlefields. In Valens’ time, the abandonment of the doctrine blunted the effectiveness of the legions.

Of interest, the credit for the rise of Rome belongs entirely to Rome. Scipio’s victory is attributed to his brilliance as a commander, not to whatever mistakes were made by Hannibal. Similarly, however, the loss in the Teutoburg Forest and again at Adrianople are credited to Rome and her mistakes as opposed the brilliance of the Germanic commanders or the technology of the barbarian armies.

The final nail in the Roman coffin, at least per Moments, is portrayed with the Battle of Yarmouk. Nevertheless, despite the massive defeat at Adrianople, the Byzantine Empire soldiered on for another two-and-a-half centuries before their third defeat. At Yarmouk, the forces of Islam defeated the Byzantine empire after a massive, 5-day battle. Again, Constantinople would live on for another six centuries, but this marked the end of the dominance of the Empire-formerly-known-as-Rome in the Middle East. More importantly, it marked the beginning of the dominance of Arab/Muslim civilization, a dominance that continues in the region to the present day. The victory was also the start of Muslim expansion. Conquering armies of Islam would flow through Europe itself, threatening the heart of Christianity. Moment of Battle argues that the Caliphate may have been lucky in its timing, hitting the non-Muslim empires at the moment of their lowest ebb.

They say its better to be lucky than smart. Hannibal and Scipio both may have explained that it is even better to be both.

*The book also criticizes Hannibal for not having come to the battle with a strategy other than attempting to win through his numerical superiority. Hannibal had employed brilliant tactics in his great victories over Rome but, at Zama, it was left to Scipio to demonstrate superior generalship.

**In Valens’ reign, he controlled only the Eastern Roman Empire, a split that had existed for almost a century. However, his successor, Theodosius the Great, was the last emperor to rule over both halves.