While watching other forums, I have learned something about how people go about getting their historical data as it pertains to ancient warfare. People either rely on other interpretations or they mix and match many different primary sources of a subject with no rime or reason. Sometimes, when they see a contradictory fact to a hypothesis, they simply ignore it.
These works are usually well researched. They are interesting in that they can give us insights on a subject that we don’t fully understand. They are our compass for finding those primary sources that, hopefully, hold the answers. There is danger however. As these are secondary sources, they are full of opinion and a healthy does of guesses. They probably draw from a variety of primary sources. Depending on how the author fits the information together, this could be a bad thing.
Primary sources are a good thing. The best primary sources are those that are written closely after the events covered. Polybius is a fantastic Punic war source for example. His treatment of the First Punic war is very generalized. He does us a service by adding only what he knows to his narrative. he adds little in the way of opinion and fluff. The Second Punic war is much more detailed. Polybius interviewed witnesses who actually fought in the war. Massenissa, the King of Numidia, was present at Zama and at the final siege of Carthage during the Third Punic War. As a bonus, he also was serving in Iberia on the side of Carthage. As a rarity, he could provide insight for both sides. Sadly, Polybius is incomplete. Much of his work has been lost. So what are we to do?
Adding other not so contemproary primary sources is the answer. Both Livy and Plutarch comment on events in and around the Punic Wars. Here is where the danger lies. These sources, Livy especially, sometimes make comments about subject matter that they simply could not have known about with any certainty. In Livy’s case, little is known about his sources. In the case of Plutarch, he occasionally divulges the source of his facts. In the life of Pyrrhus, for example, when he gives battle casualties at Heraclea, he mentions two sources, Hieronymus and Dionysius. Hieronymus is the contemporary source for Pyrrhus but his work is lost to history. If this is a glimpse into Plutarch’s methods, we can probably safely use him to fill in the blanks of Polybius. Plutarch is most valuable for adding details of the Macedonian wars as he follows the lives of many Greek leaders and their military exploits. From here we can get numbers of troops at Cynoscephalae, Pydna and Corinth.
Divining from What We Know
Here is a sole source example of the Battle of Zama. Everything I use is drawn from Polybius’ account of the battle, inferred based on what we know about troop deployments and some guesswork.
The battlefield is almost certainly a featureless flat plain. There is no mention of any sort of obstacles other than the vast amount of dead and wounded on the field of battle.
The forces are relatively easy to divine. We can start with the Roman forces since the numbers are practically spoon fed to us. The Roman forces are deployed in 2 contingents. There is the Romans proper and the Numidians under Massinissa. Polybius tells us that the Romans deploy in a consular army of 4 legions. Each legion has 3000 heavy infantry and 1200 light infantry. As well, there is a contingent of heavy cavalry of either 300 Roman horse or 900 allied horse. Each legion is divided into 3 heavy lines of 1200 Hastati, 1200 Princepes and 600 Triari. There is also 1200 Velites deployed to the front. So the entire army would be deployed with 4800 men each in the first two lines and 2400 men in the last line for heavy infantry. They would be covered by 4800 light infantry. The total amount of horse would vary but would not be greater than 2400. The Numidians forces were broken down for use with Massinissa arriving at the head of a force of 4000 horse and 6000 infantry. the horse would be light horse and the infantry would probably be a mix of light and heavy infantry. That last bit is a guess. Nobody really knows for sure. By the namers, the total Roman allied force would be 19,200 Romans and 10,000 Numidians for a total of 29,200 men fo all arms of which up to 6400 would be cavalry.
The Carthaginian force is a bit more problematic. Polybius only gives us the number of the first line. He also tells us that a Numidian Prince joined Hannibal with 2000 horse. The first line is made up of Ligurians, Celts, Mauritanians and Baelerics. Of the four mentioned, two units would probably be classified as light infantry. It would be easy enough to call half of the 12,000 infantry light infantry. That would leave a neat line of 6,000 heavy infantry supported by 6,000 light infantry. In the second line, there were the Citizen troops. these were of dubious quality. we don’t know the number here but 12,000 is a reasonable guess. we will com back to this. The third line is Hannibal’s veterans he had in Italy. We don’t know this number either but Polybius tells us at the end stage of the battle, both sides deployed in line and were nearly equal in strength and spirit. That said, the Roman line we know is 12,000 men less perhaps 1,000 in casualties. There is no reason not to think that Hannibal’s Veteran line is approximately 12,000 men in total. So, with 2 out of 3 lines determined, I suspect that the middle line is, in fact, about 12,000 men. Now we only have the problem of the cavalry. We know on the Punic left, There were 2,000 Numidian Horse. On the right, I have no idea the strength of the Punic Cavalry. A reasonable guess would be 2,000 giving a fair advantage in cavalry to the Roman side of about 2,400 horse. Almost done. There is a matter of 80 elephants. They were deployed across the entire front of the Punic army. Most scenarios I have seen give them escorts, presumably the light infantry from the first line. However, Polybius makes the distinction stating that the light infantry is in the first line and not with the elephants. From here we can add up the final numbers. 36,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 80 elephants. That is a reasonable and plausible amount of troops.
So, from Polybius’ eyes, we have divined a believable scenario without having to go to other sources. A couple of wild guesses but for the most part, I have follow Polybius’ account.
You are probably wondering what happened to the Numidian infantry. Well, given their well documented poor quality, I suspect they were used very sparingly (camp guards maybe?) or they were driven off easily by the rampaging elephants. Nobody knows for sure.