Why did Hannibal attack with elephants from the front? Why not from side?

Also why did the elephants just keep walking through the small gap? Why not wreak havoc in the middle of Roman troops? (like heat seeking missiles)

Why did the elephants just keep charging forward? Why was Hannibal's cavalry routed? Even if they're routed, once the Roman cavalry return, why they don't join in?

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    This question seems incoherent to me. What do you mean by "greedy algorithm" and "coherent unit" here? Is there some sort of game context you're working from? Nov 23, 2011 at 4:23
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    I mean if I ride an elephant and see that enemies are making gap, wouldn't I turn the elephant and home in to the target? Why does elephant need to fight straight anyway?
    – user4951
    Nov 23, 2011 at 5:15
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    Elephants are heavy herbivores which are terribly suited to fight in battles. Nov 23, 2011 at 8:06
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    So is horse. Horse can turn and elephants cannot?
    – user4951
    Nov 23, 2011 at 8:22
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    Elephants and horses aren't the same animals. Horses are a lot more controllable. Even then, it's hard to make them attack formed infantry. Nov 23, 2011 at 13:32

5 Answers 5


The battle of Zama was a seesaw fight for much of the battle. The result of a Roman victory resulted largely from the "fortunes of war."

The Carthaginians had more infantry, the Romans more cavalry, but the Carthaginians hoped to turn their elephants to their advantage. This didn't work, because the Roman Scipio, suspecting that the elephants could only charge in a straight line, ordered his men to get out of their way. They couldn't be used in a flanking maneuver that might have hurt the Romans.

The Carthaginian cavalry led the Romans away on a chase-about, but the more numerous Carthaginian infantry got somewhat the better of the Roman infantry. At just the time they were about to make this advantage felt, the Roman cavalry returned and took the Carthaginian infantry in the rear, completing the Roman victory. This happened exactly at the "psychological moment," shortly after the Carthaginian third line had joined the infantry attack. Earlier, they had been held in reserve, and could have been "turned" to face the Roman cavalry.

Essentially, it came down to a race between the Carthaginian infantry versus the Roman cavalry. The elephants were never really a factor. It could have gone the other way, but didn't.


One theory from Delbrueck:

Hannibal wanted to win the battle with his infantry, which was superior to the Romans, and distract the Roman cavalry. Therefore, he wanted the cavalry clash to happen first, the idea being that his cavalry would be routed, the Roman cavalry would pursue them and be out of the battle, and he could start the infantry battle.

Delbrueck here suggests that Hannibal used his elephants as a way of delaying the infantry battle. Honestly, I can't think of another reason for doing it: elephants were generally known not to be all that effective against infantry, and Hannibal already had the advantage there. Elephants were effective against cavalry, and so the normal use would be to disrupt the Roman cavalry to give the Carthaginian cavalry a chance.

Anyway, the elephants were largely ineffective against the Roman infantry, the Roman cavalry pursued the routed Carthaginian cavalry, and Hannibal's infantry was winning the battle. Then the Roman cavalry, instead of pursuing the Carthaginians further, returned and fell on Hannibal's rear, deciding the battle.

  • +1. I don't know why the elephants are wasted. Those elephants could have flanked the infantry or hit sideways.
    – user4951
    Mar 31, 2012 at 9:01

Publius Cornelius Scipio, who didn't acquire the Africanus until after the battle at Zama used strategies he had developed over time specifically to fight Hannibal. He took on board his errors and adapted. For example he used the same Numidian cavalry that Hannibal had used successfully for many years. The realty was Hannibal lost the battle well before it commenced.

Specific factors

Logistics As others have said for the Romans manpower nor supplies were an issue, for all intents and purposes it had an inexhaustible supply of both. It wasn't a question of Rome having an army, it was more an army having a wealthy state.

"Polybius, a keen observer of the Roman military at its height, remarked that “the advantages of the Romans lay in inexhaustible supplies of provisions and men.” The_Logistics_of_the_Roman_Army_at_War_(264BC_-_235AD J.P.Roth

Pre battle preparations Scipio took a large portion of Hannibal's troops out of the battle well before it commenced. In 203BC he killed around 40,000 Nubidians as a by product of his unsuccessful of the Siege of Utica, it was a lucky break but as they say some people make their own luck. The strategy Scipio used were classic Hannibalistic. Use of terrain, stealth, night manoeuvres, fierce fires to create panic and confusion.

"Forty thousand men perished either from the fire or the enemy, over 5000 were taken alive, including many Carthaginian nobles of whom eleven were senators; 174 standards were captured, 2700 horses and 6 elephants, 8 others having been killed or burnt to death. An enormous quantity of arms was secured, these the general devoted to Vulcan, and they were all burnt.Livy Book 30 vi

Diplomacy Scipio was a skilful diplomat, he was by all reports charming and gracious. Hannibal not so much. The Carthaginian senate confronted with Scipio, who by now had quite a few victories to his name outside their front door with a well supplied army in well fortified winter camp camp the Carthaginian senate it is reasonable to assume started discussing terms well before the battle behind the back of Hannibal.

"as winter was coming on he constructed an entrenched camp on a tongue of land which projected into the sea and was connected by a narrow isthmus with the mainland. He enclosed the military and naval camps within the same lines. The legions were stationed in the middle of the headland; the ships, which had been beached, and their crews occupied the northern side; the low ground on the south side was allotted to the cavalry. Such were the incidents in the African campaign down to the end of the autumn, Livy Book 29 xxxv

On the day Scipio tactics were brilliant. He used long thin lines perpendicular to Hannibal's elephants. Knowing the elephants really had only one mode of attack, charging straight ahead as they charged past they were wounded with sharp lances and javelins. Trumpets and flags caused further confusion, some elephants ran amok among Hannibal's left hand ranks. Scipio used Numidian cavalry, the same one cavalry as Hannibal's and it was suggested this made the difference.

"In attack they charged with fiery £lan, but at once turned on meeting opposition ; not, however, to fly, for they charged again and again, riding up into the very teeth of the foe, but never remaining to fight hand to hand with heavier troops. As a curtain for the army in which they served, and as an element to unsettle the morale of the enemy, they ranked among the best of light horse. They were equally useful on level or broken terrain, and were peculiarly clever in taking advantage of the accidents of the ground for ambush or temporary defense. In pursuit they never tired, and here they were the most dangerous of opponents. Like our own broncos or the Cossack horses, their little nags were wonderful for endurance and activity, and throve on food which would kill a civilized horse. On the other hand, they were cruel, reckless and noted for plundering and rapacity. TA Dodge

"by far the best horsemen in Africa." Livy

the Romans allied with the Numidian king Masinissa who led 6000 horsemen against Hannibal's own in the battle of Zama, where the "Numidian Cavalry turned the scales" Fuller, J.F.C., Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier, and Tyrant. p. 28

  • If Hanibal attacked with infantry first and then use the elephant to flank the Roman he would have won
    – user4951
    Nov 4, 2022 at 7:17
  • 4951 elephants were a blunt instrument, they were not manouravable nor fast. They charged straight ahead to break battle lines and moral. The battle would have been won or lost by the time they were slowed down and turned around.
    – user56240
    Nov 6, 2022 at 21:14
  • how long did battle of zama last
    – user4951
    Nov 7, 2022 at 16:44
  • 4951 an excellent question. Battles were periods of intense physical effort interspersed with period of recovery and re-positioning. Others will know more, my personal reference for battles is Battle of Waterloo which has precise time stamps. It went from around noon to just after 6:00pm. Zama I suggest it is reasonable to assume was a short intense main battle then a lot of mopping up so my guess is around 3hrs. Happy to be corrected.
    – user56240
    Nov 7, 2022 at 17:05

Both Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napoleon by Basil Liddell Hart and The Punic Wars by Adrian Goldsworthy are good sources. Alternatively, wikipeadia...

In a nut shell: superior tactics and strategy.


The other questions explain what happened. Given the asker's comments on those questions, it seems they are unsatisfying, as they do not answer why.

The limits of generalship in antiquity

Bret Deveraux goes into great detail about what a general operating before the advent of telephony (wire or radio-based communications) could accomplish. The series is long, but the summary is:

  • Come up with a plan based on a rough idea of the terrain and the enemy forces, as communicated by scouts, the day before the battle

  • Make sure the troops are lined up according to the plan and (if attacking) give the order to advance

  • Commit reserves to areas of the battle that the general can see need help

That's it.

The rest (how individual units operate once sent forward) happens according to how the soldiers were drilled. Elephantry was drilled to rush forward and break up formations, so that's what they did. Even if Hannibal could see what was happening (remember that this predates binoculars) he wouldn't have been able to get a runner with new orders through the chaos of the battlefield.

Cohesion and the limits of war elephants

Could Hannibal have held the elephants in reserve, and then committed them only when he saw the need (on some kind of Total War style flanking maneuver)?

Not really.

Elephants are not shock cavalry. They are easy to spot, relatively slow, and few in number. They were used to create disorder in the enemy ranks:

Elephants, as a weapon-system ... force infantry to scatter out of the way .. thus rendering the infantry vulnerable. The charge of elephants doesn’t wipe out the infantry, but it renders them vulnerable to other forces – supporting infantry, cavalry – which do.

The reason for elephants to be used this way is the same as the reason Hannibal's cavalry didn't reform after being shattered: breaking unit cohesion is the way to win battles in this kind of warfare.

This is not a weapon you hold in reserve, but a weapon used to define the terms of the engagement. It's also "countered" by units (such as light missile troops) who do not need a tight formation to maintain cohesion:

The goal isn’t to kill the elephant, but instead to panic the animal and drive it off or – better yet – drive it through the enemy – this latter point is notable: ancient military writer after ancient military writer notes how elephants were often as much a danger to their own troops as to the enemy, especially when wounded or frightened.

This, incidentally, is another reason why the elephants could not "simply flank" the enemy even if Hannibal wanted to use them that way. The frontage of the battle for a standard Roman army was around 2.5 km. Hannibal would have had to drive them from wherever he was, all through his rear, then across the battlefield, and back around the enemy flank, all without disrupting his own units trying to fight. There's a reason that not only does Hannibal not do this, but nobody ever does this.

So what about the cavalry?

The combination of these two factors - difficulty communicating and unit cohesion - meant that once a unit dispersed and ran away, it would generally stay dispersed and away. There was no easy way for the officer in charge of the cavalry to rally his scattered survivors to one place; once routed, they were effectively removed from the field as they could no longer function as a fighting force.

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