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Cannae: The day Rome got slaughtered

Updated on October 17, 2014

The Carthaginian Meat Grinder

The main lesson is pretty obvious: pride goes before the fall. The Romans were clearly overconfident with their numerical advantage. They got tricked into a massive meat grinder that rendered their numbers useless against a more flexible fighting force. If they stayed with the Fabian strategy of disrupting Hannibal's supply lines and sapping his strength with smaller skirmishes rather than big pitched battles, Hannibal would have been defeated in piecemeal fashion. As history points out this was just not the Roman way. Offense! Offense! Offense!

Eventually, Hannibal did bite off too much and eventually left the Roman Peninsula and was soundly defeated by Scipio Africanus in Carthage at the battle of Zama. Carthage was then reduced to rubble and their ground salted by Roman legions as a symbol of complete annihilation. No civilization grew there again.

Hannibal's case was the classic example of over extension. The Romans, at this time, were too powerful. Even though they lost the battle of Cannae, they had the ability to replenish and re-field a fighting force very quickly. Rome would grow stronger and the Carthaginians would grow weaker over time. It was inevitable from the start.

We have to give Hannibal credit for his bold move to take the battle to Italy. No one ever did this before. He soundly defeated a larger Roman forces with his tactical ingenuity. He became a thorn in the side to the Roman republic for many years.

Many generals look upon the Battle of Cannae as the best example of the double pincer movement orchestrated to perfection. Hannibal went down in history as one of the greatest military generals to ever walk this earth. He may have failed to take Rome, but he became a legend in the process. Many would learn from his example and follow in his footsteps.

Every military buff loves this historic slug fest between the Romans and Carthaginians. Cannae, a battle fought on August 2, 216 B.C. in Southern Italy has continued to fascinate and haunt many throughout the years, especially those who fought in WW I.

Complete annihilation was and is always the goal for any battlefield commander. To envelop an army and systematically decimate it from the flanks caused thousands in WW I to try to outmaneuver each other's trenches and die in the futile process. They vainly attempted to achieve what the Carthaginian general did on that fateful day in 216 B.C. They did not succeed. Millions died.

The battle of Cannae has proven to be a bane to many believers and unbelievers alike. Lee, against all sound wisdom, ordered a massed infantry charge against the center of the Union army at Gettysburg. They were soundly enveloped and destroyed by troops and canon fire from all sides. I think people need to handle Cannae's double envelop wisely when encountering it or using it in battle. Norman Schwarzkopf used this standard flanking movement effectively and systematically enveloped the Iraqi army during Desert Storm.

It's this double edged quality that has intrigued many throughout the ages. War is unpredictable. A great general adapts to his situation and plans accordingly.

Prelude to Cannae

Hannibal, the Carthaginian, started his march from Spain with over 100,000 troops, By the time he crossed over the alps and entered the Po Valley of Italy, his army was whittled down to a hard core 40,000 member elite force. With this army, he fought and defeated larger Roman legions at Lake Trasimene and Trebia.

The Romans, alarmed at these recent defeats, cried for reform. They appointed Fabius Maximus as dictator to deal with the immediate threat. He implemented attrition warfare against the Carthaginian. He felt that in the long run, burning crops, cutting off supply lines, and harassing attacks would slowly defeat Hannibal's over-extended army. Meanwhile, the Romans could replenish their forces, attack him in small skirmishes, avoid long drawn out pitched battles (something Hannibal desired), and slowly bleed him to death.

This was not the ticket for an aggressive, offensive minded people. They surmised that Hannibal would grow stronger by gathering more Italian allies, who, in the midst of instability, would lose their nerve and turn on Rome and give their allegiance to Hannibal instead. We need to understand this one thing about ancient treaties: the Roman empire was held together by a fragile alliance and by promises of protection. If this was put in doubt, the whole thing crumbled, the wall came tumbling down.

In hindsight, the Fabian tactic was the best strategy against a military genius like Hannibal. The plan was already working. The African army was slowly weakening. Patience was needed. Hannibal knew he had to draw the Romans into action soon. It worked.

As predicted, the Roman senate did not renew Fabius' dictatorial rule at the end of his term and command was given back to two former consuls who quickly brought in their brand of aggressive field commanders, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus.

They then raised the largest field army in Roman history: over 90,000 troops (20,000 were civilian volunteers) to squash the intruder. Polybius writes:

The Senate determined to bring eight legions into the field, which had never been done at Rome before, each legion consisting of five thousand men besides allies. ... Most of their wars are decided by one consul and two legions, with their quota of allies; and they rarely employ all four at one time and on one service. But on this occasion, so great was the alarm and terror of what would happen, they resolved to bring not only four but eight legions into the field. -Polybius, The Histories of Polybius.

The Battle

Hannibal had about 50,000 soldiers to meet the oncoming Roman juggernaut. The only advantage he possessed, numerically wise, was with his cavalry, about 10,000 strong. The Romans had about 2400 regular cavalry with 3600 additional allied horsemen (week-end warrior types). This would prove disastrous for the Romans.

Hannibal drew Varro and Paulus to Cannae by placing his armies between the Roman supply depot in Cannae. He then further baited the trap by offering a small skirmish to the advancing Roman army. They soundly defeated the Carthaginian troops. This gave the legions an extra sense of over confidence.

The Romans, upon arriving at the battlefield, built two camps. A smaller force was placed on the opposite side of a river to protect the water bearers and foragers, and the main contingent camped on the flat plain safe from the main Carthaginian force. The Roman army was already tired and hungry.

They did rest for two days, but Hannibal disrupted their water flow and food provision by constantly attacking their smaller, foraging camp.

Hanibal then forced the battle early in the morning on the second day without giving the Romans a chance to eat and hydrate. Hannibal was dictating the time and place of engagement.

The overly aggressive Varro followed the script perfectly by sending his tired and hungry army against a well rested Carthaginian force, relying on the mirage of numerical superiority.

The standard Roman placement of troops had the main infantry massed in the center and the cavalry on the wings to protect their flanks. It was a pretty static method of warfare that relied heavily on the massed infantry to break the center of an opposing enemy force. They were also trained to always take the offensive and push forward into the enemy lines. There was no defensive strategy in the Roman mindset. Hannibal knew this. He banked his strategy on their over aggressiveness.

Varro, hearing reports of some success at the battle of Trebia, added more depth to the infantry force rather than breadth. He felt the flanks were amply protected by his smaller cavalry.

The Romans marched out into a narrow corridor between a mountain range and a river. As they met the Carthaginian force they drove into its center. The Africans then bowed inward and sucked the aggressive Romans into their ever expanding arch. Meanwhile, the numerically superior Numidian cavalry quickly dispatched the Roman horse and attacked the rear of the massed Roman infantry.

It was at this moment that Hannibal closed the noose and released his arching troops into the flanks of the wounded Roman bull. The trap was complete. The massacre began. The Romans were being attacked from the back, the side, and the front. Cohesion and command broke down within the confusion of the multiple attacks. 45,000 Carthaginian troops hacked their way into a tightly packed slaughterhouse.

Historians, of that day, numbered the Roman dead at about 70,000 to 50,000. A safer estimate is about 40,000. Some witnesses reported that they found a few Roman soldiers with their heads buried in the ground. They were trying to suffocate themselves to death because of the futility of trying to fight against an enemy attacking from all sides. It was pitiful.

Hannibal lost about 8000 to 10,000 troops, but his greatest victory was psychological. When news of the defeat reached Rome, the people went into a panic. Hannibal did not take advantage of this situation by marching on Rome and winning an outright victory. He could have done it, but he missed his chance. Rome was in disarray. They were ripe for the picking.

A few years later the Romans regrouped and amassed a larger army that slowly decimated the Carthaginians. Hannibal eventually fled Italy and returned to a very different Carthage. His allies had long died off and Scipio Africanus brought the brunt of the Roman army to his shores. At the battle of Zama, Hannibal and his army were defeated, Carthage was burnt to the ground, land buried in salt. This powerful Roman foe would never rise again.

What did Hannibal achieve? His military strategy was fraught with weaknesses. Eventually, his army would wither on the vine due to the distance between Carthage and Rome. Supply and communication would hamper his foray into the Italian peninsula. At this time, the Roman army could replenish and refit their troops quickly. They were at the height of their powers. From a mathematical point of view, they lost before they even set off from Carthage. Yet, Hannibal taught us this one important lesson: the impossible can be done.

If Hannibal had pressed his attack on Rome after the slaughter at Cannae, he may have pulled off the greatest victory in the history of warfare. Europe would look very different today. Who knows? Armchair historians like myself can always speculate. Whatever the case, Hannibal will always have a special place in the annals of military history. Even though defeated at Zama, he remains as one of the most brilliant generals to ever lead men into battle.


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    • The Minstrel profile imageAUTHOR

      The Minstrel 

      7 years ago from Hawaii

      Bless you lifegate!!!

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      7 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA


      Thanks for the history, and the lesson!


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