After a victory of epic proportions at the Battle of Cannae, the assumed logical step for Hannibal and the Carthaginian army would be to march on Rome and overtake the capital. With 20/20 hindsight, it is in fact quite obvious that Hannibal’s failure to capture Rome “cost him his one good chance of final victory” and eventually led to his downfall (Matyszac). Livy has recorded that while congratulating him on an incredible victory, Hannibal’s general Maharbal stated:
“That you may know, what has been gained by this battle I prophesy that in five days you will be feasting as victor in the Capitol. Follow me; I will go in advance with the cavalry; they will know that you are come before they know that you are coming” (22.51). Livy records that Hannibal “told Maharbal that he commended his zeal, but he needed time to think out his plans” (22.51). To this Maharbal replied: “The gods have not given all their gifts to one man. You know how to win victory Hannibal, you do not how to use it” (22.51).
One can only speculate his true motivation behind the decision not to march on Rome, but clues exist that help to illustrate a clearer picture of Hannibal’s judgment.
One of the most fundamental, yet easily overlooked reasons behind Hannibal’s decision is his supply of food. Prior to Cannae, Hannibal lacked the sustenance necessary to support an army. At this time he was not receiving any support from Carthage and his troops spent much of their time foraging across the Italian countryside (Shean, 185). Hannibal’s strategy once in Italy focused largely on relying upon Rome’s resources (Lazenby, 43). Shean states that “logistical problems had dogged him throughout his early campaigns in Italy [and] the victory at Cannae brought no immediate relief to these problems” (185). It is not difficult to imagine why Hannibal chose not to drag an already battered, poorly provisioned and underfed army on a 250 mile march to attack a walled and fortified city. Even after a catastrophic defeat, the Romans still had an advantage of an “inexhaustible suppl[y] of provisions and of men” (Lazenby, 43). According to Shean, “Hannibal’s failure to move on Rome stemmed from the least glamorous and most mundane reason of all: no food” (185).
Maharbal’s eager exclamation of Hannibal dining as a victor in Rome within five days is indeed a pretty sentiment, but would be logistically next to impossible. The distance Hannibal’s forces would be required to cover the between Cannae and Rome within five days would equate to a pace of fifty miles per day, as opposed to the usual pace of Hannibal’s army which hovered around nine (Lazenby, 41). After such a sprint across the Italian countryside, it is highly unlikely that his troops would be able to accomplish anything significant once they reached Rome—a city that was by no means left unfortified or lacking in able-bodied civilians (Lazenby, 41). Hannibal would not only face many who would have already seen military service, but many armed slaves, and all who would rise to defend their country, honor, wives and children (Lazenby, 41; Polybius, par. 109).
It is impossible to pinpoint a single motivation for Hannibal’s decision not to attack the capitol. Food, logistics and manpower may have all contributed to the objections against taking the city. Hannibal may have recognized his disadvantage in the particular type of “trench warfare” that would have been required to take Rome (Lazenby, 41). It is also a possibility that the victory at Cannae left Hannibal with the impression that the “war was already won” (Matyszac, 38). Whatever the reason behind the decision, “that day’s delay is believed to have saved the City and the empire [of Rome]” (Livy, 22.51).
Knox, E.L. Skip. The Punic Wars: Battle of Cannae. Boise State University History of Western Civilization. 15 Feb 2012. http://www.boisestate.edu/courses/westciv/punicwar/09.shtml
Lazenby, John. Was Maharbal Right?. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. 22 Feb 2011. Web. 16 Feb 2012. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2041-5370.1996.tb01912.x/abstract
Livy. Livy’s History of Rome: The Disaster of Cannae. Book 22. University of Virginia Electronic Text Center. Web. 15 Feb 2012.
Matyszac, Philip. The Enemies of Rome From Hannibal to Attila the Hun. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004. Print.
Polybius. The Battle of Cannae, 216 BCE. Book III. Fordham University Ancient History Sourcebook. Web. 15 Feb 2012.
Shean, John F. Hannibal’s Mules: The Logistical Limitations of Hannibal’s Army and the Battle of Cannae, 216 B.C.. Franz Steiner Verlag, 1996. 16 Feb 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4436417
Wikipedia contributors. “Hannibal.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.