Strategic Formations of the Battle of Cannae

August, 216 B.C: near the small township of Cannae, a mere two hundred fifty miles from Rome, Hannibal of Carthage and his army prepared for battle. They were faced off against the legions of Aemilius Paullus and Caius Terrentius Varro, the Consuls of Rome. Under normal circumstances, one consul and a couple of legions was enough to stir optimism in a Roman victory. “On the occasion in question, however, they were so alarmed and terrified that they decided to send not just four, but eight Roman legions into battle at once” (Polybius 213) as well as both of their consuls. These were also extended legions, each consisting of 5000 infantry and 300 cavalry instead of 4000 and 200 respectively (Lancel 104). Legionary command alternated every other day for Paullus and Varro, who disagreed on nearly everything. On August 2, 216 B.C., it was Varro’s turn to command the army. Just after sunrise, he led his troops out onto the battlefield, forming a continuous line facing south. Aemilius commanded the right wing of 2,400 Roman cavalry posted near the river Aufidus. Center force of 55,000 heavy infantry  and forward center position of 15,000 light infantry(McKnight 7) was commanded by the previous year’s consuls, Atilius and Servilius (Polybius219). Varro headed the Allied cavalry of 3,600 on the left wing. In total, the Roman army was a force of approximately 86,000 men.

Hannibal’s army of 50,000 was much smaller than that of the Romans. However, he also had cavalry superiority, which was perfect for the flat and treeless battlefield they would be fighting on. Hasdrubal was in charge of the Spanish and Gallic cavalry of 6,500 on the left wing near the river. Hannibal and his brother, Mago, commanded the center of 10,000 Libyans, 6000 Spaniards, and 1,250 Gauls/Celts as well as the 11,500 light infantry that took up the forward position. Right wing made of  3,500 Numidian cavalry was commanded by Hanno (McKnight). The fighting had begun: it was Hasdrubal’s Spanish/Gallic cavalry versus Paullus’ Roman cavalry near the river, the main bodies of infantry in the center, and Hanno’s Numidian cavalry versus Varro’s Roman Allied cavalry on the opposite side.

Varro’s plan was to smash through the Carthaginian center using sheer weight of numbers. To further this ideal, he reduced the gaps between the maniples in each line and made each maniple very deep (Goldsworthy 97) increasing its power but sacrificing its order and flexibility. Hannibal took his straight line of infantry and moved the center forward, making a crescent shaped line that protruded out toward the enemy (Polybius 218).

Outcome and movements of the Roman and Carthaginian armies

 Near the river Afidus, Hasdrubal’s cavalry engaged Paullus’ Roman cavalry. Varro hoped that the cramped space between the river and the flank of the river army would cancel out any advantage Hasdrubal may have had in making a mobile attack. However, the Gauls and Spaniards were used to fighting in close quarters (McKnight 11). Their ferocity decimated the Roman cavalry, whose survivors were chased along the riverbank and slaughtered. Paullus escaped and rejoined the main conflict in the center.

 The Roman line of infantry had become much thicker in the center, since Hannibal’s formation provoked the Romans to attack there first.  The thin crescent line of Gauls and Spaniards began to fall back under the pressure of the densely packed maniples. As they gave way and swiftly retreated, the Romans chased after them. Exploiting their supposed success, maniples from behind as well as large numbers from the sides were drawn into the struggle. The Roman infantry was now more like a frenzied crowd than an organized body of soldiers. (Goldsworthy147)

 Meanwhile, the Numidian Cavalry on Hannibal’s right wing attacked the Roman Allied Cavalry facing them. The Numidians harassed them from all sides, taking turns at throwing javelins and then running away. They did not inflict or sustain any major damage but at the same time distracted the Roman allies from aiding the infantry in the main conflict.

 Hasdrubal’s cavalry had regrouped and came over to assist the Numidians. The outnumbered Roman Allies panicked and fled. The remaining Allied horsemen were picked off by the pursuing Numidians, whose peculiar tactics became more dangerous once they had the enemy on the run (Polybius 220).

During this time, the Roman legions rushed right into Hannibal’s trap. In pursuit of the fleeing Gauls and Spaniards, the Romans had continued so far forward that they exposed both flanks to the heavy Libyan infantry. Having not yet fought, these eight to ten thousand troops were fresh and in good order (Goldsworthy 148). Startled by the energetic attack from the Libyans on either side, the Romans stopped dead in their tracks and turned to face their attackers. The Gauls and Spaniards returned, walling them in from three sides.  

With the Allied cavalry being taken care of by the Numidians, Hasdrubal’s horsemen joined the main conflict. Closing in and attacking from the back served to boost morale for Hannibal’s troops as well as demoralize and terrify the Romans. They were now surrounded on all sides, unable to escape because of their packed formations. Inner maniples may not have realized the danger until the men in front of them were cut down; the victorious Carthaginians annihilated the remaining Roman army rank by rank from the outside in.

Works Cited

Polybius. The Histories. Trans. Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print

Goldsworthy, Adrian. Cannae. London: Cassell & Co. 1988. Print.

McKnight, Sean. Holmes, Richard., ed The Hutchinson Atlas of Battle Plans. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998. Print.

Holmes, Terence M. “Classical Blitzkrieg: The Untimely Modernity of Schlieffen’s Cannae Programme.” The Journal of Military History 67.3 (2003) 745-771. Web. 15 Feb. 2012

Lancel, Serge. Hannibal. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

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