Hannibal was not ready for battle when the Roman army drew near to him at Zama. He had but just determined to change his camp and move to a better position in which to face the enemy.
Before he had time to carry out his plan, the enemy was upon him, and he was forced to fight in a position with which he was not satisfied.
The elephants belonging to the Punic army no longer terrified the Romans as they used to do, for they had grown accustomed to the animals on many an Italian battleground.
Besides, they had now learned how to elude the onslaught of the heavy beasts, by simply leaving spaces between their companies, through which the elephants could run without causing much damage. These spaces were at the beginning of the battle filled with soldiers, who irritated the elephants with darts and then stepped swiftly aside.
But at Zama, the elephants did not even attack the enemy. Startled by the noise of trumpets and the blowing of horns, they rushed back, instead of forward, upon the Numidian cavalry, which was stationed on Hannibal's left wing. Masinissa seized the opportunity, and before the cavalry had rallied from the shock of the elephants, he charged and put it to flight. The Carthaginian cavalry on Hannibal's right was at the same time routed by Lælius.
Two bodies of heavily-armed troops still faced the Romans.
First came the mercenaries hired by Hannibal. Fiercely they fought and well, although they were no match for their enemy. Nor did they once falter until they began to fear that the Carthaginians were failing to support them.
Then they turned, stricken by sudden panic, and anxious only to force their way through those behind, who they believed had betrayed them.
As the Romans followed them in their flight, all was soon in confusion, the mercenaries and Carthaginians being slain, not only by the Romans, but by each other.
Hannibal, meanwhile, was with a band of veterans whom he had held in reserve.
Those soldiers who had escaped from the Romans now tried to steal in among these veterans, but Hannibal, who had no mercy for cowards, ordered his men to lower their spears and push them away. The desperate wretches then escaped from the battlefield as best they might.
Scipio was now ready to advance against the veterans, and here the struggle was long and stern. For these Carthaginian soldiers were inflexible against every attack. Not one man flinched, but each stood steadfastly at his post until he was killed. Only when Laelius and Masinissa returned from pursuing the enemy's horse and fell upon Hannibal's rear was the battle won.
The number of the slain was terrible. Twenty thousand Carthaginians were said to have fallen, and almost as many to have been taken prisoner, while the Romans did not lose more than fifteen thousand men.
Hannibal escaped to Carthage, leaving his camp to be seized by the enemy.