Episode 52 – The Battles of Vienna and Zama

Moving on over to the Battles bracket we have two world-changing military clashes, one, the Battle of Vienna, halted the Muslim advance led by a former contestant, Sulieman the Magnificent, into Europe in 1529. The other, the Battle of Zama, ended the threat to the Roman Republic in 202 BCE by their long-time rival, Carthage.

My resources are the usual for this bracket. They begin with Battles that Changed History by Dougherty and team, 100 Decisive Battles by Paul K. Davis and Battle by R.G. Grant.

Let’s start today’s episode with the Battle of Vienna.

The Siege of Vienna
The Siege of Vienna

Before we get into the details, I’d like to clear up what we will be talking about today. Some historians classify Vienna as a siege and not a classic battle. I think that is being a bit too narrow in scope, so I am going with the entirety of the clash which began on September 27, 1529, and ended on October 14th of the same year. This two and a half weeklong battle between the Ottoman Empire, led by Suleyman the Magnificent, with his 250,000 troops, and the 16,000 Austrian forces led by Archduke Ferdinand, marked the high-water mark of the Ottoman expansion into Europe. It is also supposedly the beginning of the long and slow decline of their power, ending with their collapse after World War I in 1922.

We are now in the post-Byzantine era, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, just 76 years earlier. Europe in the 1520s was a hot mess of political and military intrigue with two leading players, Francis I of France and a contestant in an earlier episode Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor among other positions. The two of them battled over lands that were in the Franco-German corridor as well as Italy, mainly the northern portion. This constant fighting weakened both sides allowing for a third power, the Ottoman’s to flex their muscles in Europe.

Francis, after losing several key battles to Charles, looked east and decided that Suleyman, the Ottoman Sultan, would be a good ally against his rival. The lands that Suleyman was eying was in the regions around the Holy Roman Empire, particularly Hungary. After defeating the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs on August 29, 1526, the Ottoman’s were looking further west, particularly at the city of Vienna.

After Mohacs, Suleyman had control of south-eastern Hungary, but he wanted more. King Louis II was killed at the battle and had no heirs. His brother-in-law, Archduke Ferdinand I of Austria, brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, claimed his right to the throne, but this was only acknowledged by the western section of Hungary. The Ottoman’s placed their man, John Zápolya, from Transylvania on the seat. Conflict was in the air.

Adding to all of these problems for Charles was his poor relationship with Pope Clement VII, the former Giulio de Medici. That and the Protestant Reformation which was sweeping through the Holy Roman Empire, we see a gaping hole in their ability to respond to the upcoming invasion and siege of Vienna.  

Suleyman, on the other hand, wasn’t without issues as the Persians were a thorn in his side as we learned in the episode about him. While out campaigning against his Islamic foes, a rebellion in Hungary broke out which caught the Sultan’s attention. After he was able to defeat the Persians temporarily, Suleyman turned around and headed towards Vienna, hoping to not only control all of Hungary but Austria as well.

One of the things that the Ottoman’s were well known for is their siege artillery. They had the most massive cannons in the world and the most effective siege tactics as was evidenced by their capture of the invincible city of Constantinople. This force was headed towards Vienna whose walls were only a small fraction of the size of the one-time capital of the Byzantine Empire.

As history points out to us time and time again, the weather seems to play a crucial part in many military battles and invasions. We see this with the numerous failed attempts at invading Russia, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the Battle of Britain being delayed because of cloudiness. The Battle and Siege of Vienna was also aided by weather, this time by one of the wettest summers anyone could remember. This meant that all of the supply wagons had to slog their way through the mud as did the hundreds of thousands of soldiers which led to a great deal of sickness and disease running rampant through the troops.

The most significant benefit to the defenders of Vienna was how the rains made it impossible for the Ottoman army to bring in their great guns to bear against the city’s walls. Many of their largest cannons were abandoned along the way because they just couldn’t move them. Supplies for the massive army were late in coming, and their best weapons were unavailable. This should have sent warnings to Suleyman that things were not going to go as planned, but he was far too confident in his winning streak to believe that there was any chance he would lose. To further bolster his ego, his army crushed the city of Buda, slaughtering 20,000 people in their wake.

As for the Viennese defenders, they knew their walls were incapable of stopping the Ottoman cannons as they were in disrepair. The began to fill in gaps with dirt, and any refuse they could come up with including the dismantling of the suburban housing around the city and putting everything they could find on and around the walls. They gathered as much food as possible to allow them to withstand a prolonged siege. They also sent out the women and children towards the west to lower the necessary foods needed to continue fighting. 

Count Philip of Austria was the leader of the resistance along with Graf Nicholas zu Salm-Refferscheidt and William von Roggendorff. They moved their artillery to key positions as well as putting their men in the best spots to repel any attacks. While preparing for the battle, they called out to their allies to send reinforcements, but no one was coming. Charles was busy trying to hold on to Italy and was wary of taking any troops away from his borders with France or the Pope. Vienna was on its own.

Little did the defenders know that when Suleyman arrived with his large force, all he had was 300 small cannons, none with the capacity to do much if any damage to the city walls. What the Ottoman’s tried instead of pounding with artillery, they tried to dig under the walls, fill the tunnels with gunpowder than blow a hole for the troops to pour into the gaps. This was countered by the Viennese as they had a defector from the Ottoman’s in their city that told them when and where the tunnels were to be dug allowing them to destroy them before they could be filled with explosives.

While some mines went off, none allowed for a breach in the walls large enough for more than a single file of horses or troops to move through. Starting on September 27, 1529, the wave after wave of Ottoman Janissaries, the best fighters in their army, were repulsed. It has been estimated that between 14 and 20,000 of them were killed in action.

With no supply wagons making it to the vast army, disease-ravaged through the forces making life miserable. One more attempt was made on October 14th, but that too was repulsed. Suleyman had no other choice but to withdraw. The city of Vienna was saved by a force which was five percent the size of their opponents.

Had they lost the city, Suleyman could have wintered within the walls and had a place to launch attacks into the German heartland. Europe had been saved by the heroic actions of 16,000 men.

Battle of Zama
Battle of Zama

Next up is the Battle of Zama, fought in 202 BCE, between a Roman army led by Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, against the Carthaginian army led by the seemingly unbeatable General Hannibal Barca. This battle was the culmination of the Second Punic War which had been going well for the Carthaginians and disastrous for the Romans.

Starting in 218 BCE, the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome was for the domination of the area around the Mediterranean Sea. During the war, over 40% of Rome’s allies switched over to Carthage, hundreds of thousands of Rome’s best fighters died, and their Empire was on the brink of disaster. It was at their lowest point that they decided to adopt something known as the Fabian strategy. 

Developed by Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, it was a plan to avoid any head-on encounters, especially with Hannibal, and basically adopted the use of skirmishes to cause attrition, disrupt supply and affect the morale of the opposing side. In addition, the Romans decided to attack allies and other Carthaginian generals who were inferior to Hannibal.

Over the years, Rome began to regain territory, dissuade former allies from supplying their opponent with men or food, and force Carthage to wonder whether Hannibal was helping the cause out or whether he was in it for himself. After 16 years of rampaging through Roman territory, winning battle after battle, no one seemed to have the edge.

Enter Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, a young general who captured Carthago Nova, now known as Cartagena, Carthage’s capital city in Iberia, in 209 BCE. Scipio decided to go after the other general’s in the area which culminated in Scipio’s decisive victory at the Battle of Ilipa in Spain in 206 BCE over the armies led by Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Gisco. Now the Roman general had another target in mind, one that would end the war, one way or another. Scipio targeted Carthage itself although this would need the approval of the Roman Senate. 

At first, as was typical of the administrative body of the Roman Republic, the Senate was very reluctant to send a large contingent of soldiers across the Mediterranean to Africa. They felt that it might leave them open to an attack on Rome itself from Hannibal. Scipio and his supporters were able to point out that an attack on Carthage would likely cause a recall of their top general to protect them, relieving the Roman mainland from their greatest threat. So, in 205 BCE, the invasion of the Carthaginian territory began.

First, Scipio needed a local ally, and he found it in the Numidian leader Massinissa over Syphax who went with the Carthaginians. The Numidian’s were superb horsemen, so gaining cavalry support was critical in the upcoming battle.  

The Roman Senate was getting uncomfortable with Scipio’s successes, so they tried to tempt him back to Rome with a tribute to be held in his honor. The General knew that it was a ruse to relieve him of his command. In 204 BCE he was going to end this war whether the Senate liked it or not.

Before Zama, Scipio went head to head with Hasdrubal Gisco once again, this time on the African coastline. Syphax was with the Carthaginian general when their Roman counterpart asked for peace terms. It was a total ruse as Scipio and Massinissa attacked their sleeping enemies and destroyed their camp. While the commanders escaped, the Carthaginian army was finished. This was the event that forced Carthage to recall Hannibal from Italy. Scipio’s plan worked. Now for the hard part, to defeat a general in battle that had never lost to a Roman army.

There is a saying that if you do the same thing over and over and keep getting the same results and try it again, expecting a different outcome, you’re a fool. Scipio Africanus was no fool. He studied Hannibal as he was at the carnage that was the Battle of Cannae, which was a Roman debacle. Scipio knew that a full-frontal assault against the Carthaginian army would be a foolish mistake, but something the Romans had done over and over. This time would be different.

Scipio needed to provoke Carthage into action so he marched along the coast and burned down every village he could find. This so outraged the leaders of Carthage that they ordered Hannibal to fight the Romans as soon as he landed in Africa. The general knew this was folly as his men were exhausted and the new men, Hannibal recruited were too raw to face a strong, well trained Roman army. He was overruled, so he gathered his troops and prepared them to meet his longtime adversaries just like he did for the past 17 years. Hannibal’s men trusted in him as he hadn’t let them down yet.

Scipio devised a plan that would take into account Hannibal’s previous encounters with Rome and turn them against him. So, when on the morning of that day in 202 BCE, the exact day we do not know, the Roman army looked to be lined up the same way they did every time they face Hannibal. Except for this time, they did something completely different. 

Carthage was famous for using war elephants in the initial phases of a battle. What Scipio did was to line up his men in the typical fashion or multiple rows of soldiers, but this time he left gaps every so often, hidden behind the first two rows. The Roman troops used a system of putting themselves into columns for the first time ever so when the elephants charged, and they did, the men in the first line who weren’t part of a column, just moved to the side and let the giant beasts walk on by. The Romans harassed the elephants, so much so, that many turned around and attacked the Carthaginian army.

Facing each other now without elephants involved, Hannibal had 45,000 infantry with 3,000 cavalry while Scipio had 35,000 infantry and 9,000 cavalry. Massinissa with his Numidian cavalry was to attack and drive off Syphax’s horses which he did. He then turned around and attacked Hannibal’s army from the rear. Scipio pushed his men at the Carthaginian army, which met him with fierce resistance. At this point, with superior numbers, Hannibal should have won the battle, but for some unknown reason, the second line of his troops hesitated in moving forward. This caused the first line to think they were being abandoned, which led them to turn around and retreat.

The second line was ordered not to allow the retreat, but it caused mass panic, so they too decided to turn around. The third line also stopped the retreat. This caused mass confusion and led to the Romans moving on, turning the battlefield into a bloodbath. There was still hope for Carthage, but the cavalry charge from Massinissa’s Numidian’s proved to be too much, and the battle was over.  

The Roman losses were manageable considering the ferociousness of the battle as they had 2,000 dead with 4,000 wounded. The Carthaginians had 20,000 dead with 15,000 captured. Hannibal and some of the other top commanders fled the scene. For all intents and purposes, the Second Punic War was over, and Rome was victorious.

The aftermath of the Battle of Zama was the total capitulation of the city of Carthage with its eventual destruction just a few years later. They would never be a threat to Rome again, which gave the Empire complete control of the Western Mediterranean. Scipio Africanus had reversed all of the Roman losses suffered to Hannibal over 17 years in one day.

Time to head on over to the scorer’s table.

In the Battle’s bracket, we begin with the 15 points for the number of people involved in the battle. With Vienna, we have 250,000 Ottoman’s and 16,000 Austrians involved. At Zama, we have a total of 91,000 men for both sides combined. This would give Vienna 15 points with Zama receiving 10.

Next up is the 20 points for how the battle affected the rest of the world in their time. Vienna allowed Europe to breathe a big sigh of relief for the first time in 75 years. France and the Holy Roman Empire realized that they dodged a bullet and that constant warfare, for at least the time being, needed a break. While Vienna would be attacked again by an Ottoman army in 1683, but that would be a crushing loss for the Turks.

Zama ended the threat to Rome from the Carthaginians which freed them up to expand elsewhere. Rome discovered who their real allies were and who their enemies were based on which side they took in the Second Punic War. They crushed those who opposed them and took in those who stayed with them. 

For these reasons, I am giving 20 points to each battle. 

Next up is the 25 points for how the battles affected world history. Vienna, while a European victory, did not stop the Ottoman’s from staying in eastern Europe as their hold on part of Hungary would last for many decades afterward. While it began the decline of the Turks, it would be a very gradual one, taking hundreds of years to come to its conclusion.

Zama, on the other hand, would allow Rome to continue its expansion and hegemony over the Mediterranean and beyond. Without Zama, we might not have had a Roman Empire. Without the innovative changes in the Roman army from maniples deployed in a checkerboard fashion to one with columns, the Romans may never have conquered lands so great as they would over the coming centuries. For these reasons, I’m giving Zama 25 points and Vienna 15.

Now for the 40 points for how the battle affected their country for the better. With Vienna, it depends on what side you’re on. If you’re an Ottoman, it was a near disaster. For the Austrians, it was a win, a significant win, but one that was not entirely decisive.

With Zama, it created an atmosphere in Rome that no matter what the obstacle, they could achieve eventual victory over anyone, no matter how many losses piled up along the way. It created pride in the army that would last a very long time. Zama gets 40, Vienna 30.

The final score gives us the winner, who will move on to the second round to face the winner of the battle between Stalingrad and Gettysburg, and that will be Zama 95 to 80 over Vienna.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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