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? – David Thornley Nov 23 '11 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 '11 at 5:15
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    Elephants are heavy herbivores which are terribly suited to fight in battles. – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Nov 23 '11 at 8:06
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    So is horse. Horse can turn and elephants cannot? – user4951 Nov 23 '11 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. – David Thornley Nov 23 '11 at 13:32

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 '12 at 9:01

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.

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