At Cannae in 216 B.C.E., the Roman army faced off against the Carthaginians led by Hannibal. Here, “Hannibal won his greatest victory” and caused “one of Rome’s worst military disasters” (Cornell and Matthews, 1982, p. 46). As part of a “renewed effort from Rome” during the Second Punic War, two large consular armies were sent out to crush Hannibal (Matyszak, 2003, p. 95). Tension and conflict were high at this time, with both Rome and Carthage executing bold strategies in attempts to devastate the other, but in the decisive battle at Cannae, Hannibal was the victor.
The two elected consuls of Rome- Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro- were put in charge of the legions for this battle, but it was ultimately the folly of Varro that caused the loss. Aemilius had “argued against a battle, since the surrounding area was flat and treeless, and the enemy had cavalry superiority,” but the inexperienced Varro superseded his advice and marched on the Carthaginian camp (Polybius, 2010 Trans., p. 215). Hannibal launched a surprise attack with his cavalry and light infantry that “caused considerable disruption in the Roman column,” but the Romans were able to recover from the blow (Polybius, 2010 Trans., p. 215). They set up a defensive screen, and it appeared that they “had the advantage all over the field,” especially because Hannibal “had no reserves to speak of” (Polybius, 2010 Trans., p. 216).
After the skirmish ended, the two forces separated and made preparations for the battle that would ensue. The Romans set up two palisaded camps on either side of the river Aufidus, with the Carthaginians setting up only one. With tensions rising and a major conflict inevitable, Varro had all the Roman soldiers form up, with nearly 80,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry (Polybius, 2010 Trans., p. 218). Hannibal moved his own troops (40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry) into a “single, straight line,” but then had them create a “crescent-shaped bulge,” a brilliant tactical move that would come into play later in the battle (Polybius, 2010 Trans., p. 218).
The heavy infantry of the Romans were able to fight back the Iberians and Celts in the center of Hannibal’s army, destroying the crescent bulge. With their lines too thin, Hannibal drew them back and proved his strategic genius. The Romans had unknowingly rushed after the retreating Celts, only to become trapped by the Libyan portions of the Carthaginian army. They were flanked on both sides and completely helpless. As the image below shows, Hannibal defeated the Romans with a “classic envelopment maneuver,” surrounding their forces by collapsing the middle of his own line (GhePeU (Wikipedia), 2006; Matyszak, 2003, p. 95). The Numidian cavalry, which “were most effective and dangerous once they had the enemy on the run,” followed the fleeing Romans and cut them down (Polybius, 2010 Trans., p. 220).
Around 70,000 Romans died in the battle, along with their great leader Aemilius and other generals. Most of those that survived were captured, but a few managed to escape, including the one “largely responsible” for the loss, Varro, who was from then on labeled “a man of no redeeming qualities” (Matyszak, 2003, p. 98; Polybius, 2010 Trans., p. 221). While the Carthaginians sustained thousands of casualties, the Romans suffered far greater.
The impacts of this defeat were severe for the Romans, as their loss was a sign of weakness to their allies. Strong alliances during this time would have been crucial, as Rome and Carthage were involved in the Second Punic War. After Cannae, there were “some defections…among the allies, and large areas of the south [in Italy], went over to Hannibal” (Cornell and Matthews, 1982, p. 46). “[T]he defection of Roman allies in the aftermath of Cannae” allowed Hannibal to continue to fight, although he was “forced to forego his march on Rome” due to “[t]he lack of a permanent base of supply” (Shean, 1996, p. 168; p. 174). In fact, many historians believe that “Hannibal’s best opportunity for a decisive victory was immediately following” the battle fought at Cannae (Shean, 1996, p. 159).
There is no doubt that Cannae was a military catastrophe for the Romans, and it could have meant Rome’s doom, but despite the shift of power in the region, “[t]he Romans’ blind refusal to admit defeat” made them tough to extinguish (Cornell and Matthews, 1982, p. 46). If things had gone the way Hannibal planned, it is likely that Rome itself would have fallen, but the “constitution and…sound deliberation” of the Romans “enabled them to regain dominion over Italy,” enact their revenge on Hannibal and Carthage, and make themselves “masters of the entire known world” (Polybius, 2010 trans., p. 222).
Cornell, T., & Matthews, J. (1982). Atlas of the Roman World. New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc.
GhePeU. (Artist). (2006). Battle cannae destruction [Web Photo]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_cannae_destruction.gif
Matyszak, P. (2003). Chronicle of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.
Polybius. (2010). The Histories (R. Waterfield, Trans.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Shean, J. (1996). Hannibal’s Mules: The Logistical Limitations of Hannibal’s Army and the Battle of Cannae, 216 B.C. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 45, H. 2, 159-187. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4436417