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History Files: Hannibal and the Battle of Cannae

Updated on January 2, 2013

Hannibal Barca

There are no real images known of Hannibal Barca, this bust is one of the many creations which bear the name of the famous Carthaginian leader.
There are no real images known of Hannibal Barca, this bust is one of the many creations which bear the name of the famous Carthaginian leader.

The Road to Cannae

The Second Punic War between the Roman Republic and Carthage took place between 218-201 BCE. The war was at first dominated by the army of Hannibal Barca and his brother Hasdrubal. The Barcid brothers crossed the Alps with their armies from Spain, then a province of the North African city state Carthage. The Barcid army proceeded to defeat every Republican Army which came to face them.

Many of us conjour up thoughts of Hannibal crossing the Alps leading an army full of elephants. Elephants however were only a small part of the army, and a costly small part too. Wounded and frightened elephants could inflict more damage on friendly forces in the heat of battle than they did on the enemy. By the time of Cannae, Hannibals elephants were long dead, he was however left with a strong army of more traditional forces.


The Carthaginians at Cannae

The army of the Carthaginians at Cannae was made up of two elements, cavalry and infantry. Hannibal was in overall command of the army, Maharbalbal commanded the cavalry.

The infantry was made up from several nations, the core of the army was a body of Libyan infantry, these men fought very much like Greek Hoplite Phalanx. They were heavily armoured and carried a twenty foot long pike. Also in the heavier infantry section were Spanish Celtic warriorss whose main armament was a long sword. Light infantry comprised of javelin throwers and slingers from several tribes in both the Pyrennes and Northern Italy who joined Hannibal along the way. The Cavalry comprised light horse archers, the Numidian Cavalry who harrassed enemy troops from a distance and Heavy Spanish Cavalry who acted as shock troops, armed with long swords and shields they would hit an enemy in the flank and/ or rear at the appropriate time.


Roman Republican Army at Cannae

 The Republican army as present at Cannae was not a professional army. At this time Roman citizens had to serve in the army for a period. Wealthier Patricians (old monied families) and Citizens might serve in the cavalry; it being expensive to feed and support a horse as well as oneself in the army. Citizens of more modest means would serve in the heavy infantry, while the youngest and poorest might serve in the light infantry.

Roman cavalry was poor, the mounted Roman was more like motorized infantry. He would ride the horse to near contact with the enemy and then dismount to fight in single combat.

Light infantry often used javelins to harras an enemy.

The heavy infantry fought in more formal formations called maniples (literally handfuls)  a maniple would have between 120 and 160 men. Each man would carry up to 3 pillae, a long spear like object and be armoured with helmet, breast plate or overlapping metal plates over the chest and a large wood and metal bossed shield, usually ovoid at this time, not the familiar rectangular shield of the Imperial time. Each man would also carry a short sword. Maniples marched into battle separated from each other by clear channels. These channels allowed for troops tiring at the front to move to the rear allowing fresh troops to move into the fighting line.

As the maniples approached an enemy each soldier would throw his pillum, the pillum might spear an enemy directly or if it stuck in an enemy shield the wide head on a thin shaft made it almost impossible to remove from a shield, encumbered by the pillum dragging on his shield an enemy might be forced to throw the shield away. Upon contact with the enemythe Roman soldier would stab into the enemy from behind his own shield, the line creating a saw like action forcing the enemy back on their own second line and so on.

Cannae August 1 216 BCE

The Roman Army at Cannae was led by the Consul Varro. Varro was not a professional soldier but was eager to destroy Hannibal who had already destroyed several Roman Armies sent to face him.

The location of Cannae is not known for sure, it was in Southern Italy and was on a narrow plain between a river and a range of low hills. What is almost certain is that in mid summer the weather was hot and the Roman soldier had a lot of equipment to carry into battle.

Hannibal set his army in what appeared to be a thin line anchoring his flanks with the river and Maharbal and his cavalry near the hills, Hannibal placed his Celts in the center to draw on the Romans, his Libyan and Heavy Spanish Infantry in two blocks guarding the flanks but invisible to the Roman commander.

Varro did as was demanded of him his infantry was placed in one block with flanking cavalry. The narrowness of the plain meant that the maniples were packed more closely than usual, but given the thin line he saw in front of him Varro saw a quick victory.

The Romans advanced late in the morning, Maharbal quickly engaged the Roman cavalry with his Numidian cavalry and chased off the Romans with some support of the Heavy Spanish cavalry.

Unperturbed by the loss of his cavalry Varro continued to advance his infantry towards the waiting Carthaginian center. As they had in the past the Roman light infantry launched their javelins and ran back to the rear as the Heavy Infantry advanced. They too then launched their pillae at the waiting celts. Then rapidly closed to fight hand to hand. The Celts slowly gave up ground falling slowly back, drawing the Romans closer and closer to the waiting Libyans and Spanish Infantry.

Behind the Romans Maharbal had ceased chasing the Roman cavalry and was regrouping.

By mid afternoon the Romans were getting hot and exhausted, their formation was packed and those on the flanks must have noticed the small numbers of Heavy Cartheginian Infantry appearing on the flanks, Finally the Celts stopped their withdrawl. The Libyans and Spanish Infantry on the flanks of the trap turned in. The Roman steamroller could not go into reverse, and even if it could at that moment Maharbal and the Cavalry slammed into the Roman rear.

It was now all over save for the killing.


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    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 4 years ago from london

      Read a little about Hannibal and saw a movie some time ago. Interesting General with much courage.

    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 5 years ago from California USA

      Hello JKenny, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Yes it is very true. If Hannibal had moved to seize the initiative following Cannae we may not have been talking today of a Roman Empire. After the defeat of Rome here its future hung by a thread. The Romans however seized the fact that they had lost and moved to win the war. Hannibal thinking the war all but won moved to wait for the end in comfortt.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Great article Bretsuki, its amazing to think how close the Romans came to destruction before they had even gotten started. Very well written and extremely informative. Voted up etc.

    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 5 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Great hub, I love Roman history and this article did not disappoint. Voted up, and sharing.

    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 6 years ago from California USA

      LOL :)

    • davenmidtown profile image

      David Stillwell 6 years ago from Sacramento, California

      That is exactly how England lost the Revolution here in America.

    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 6 years ago from California USA

      The Civil War is fascinating, I really enjoyed it. In my final paper I even got my hometown in England a mention, the Confederate Commerce Raider CSS Alabama was Built in Birkenhead, England, crewed by Englishmen under Confederate officers.

      True about Scotland, but as an Englishman, I warn you to take the Scots view of things with a big pinch of salt. The English are loving, kind, and very honest with a very high regard for fair play in all things. LOL

    • davenmidtown profile image

      David Stillwell 6 years ago from Sacramento, California

      I am just getting into the Civil War as a historical study/hobby. Another country with great war history is Scotland.

    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 6 years ago from California USA

      Hello davenmidtown, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      Yes, the American Civil War was a big part of my B.A. degree. I have read quite a bit on the Tennessee battles. I have also visited the battlefields at Nashville, Franklin and Fort Donelson. They are really interesting places, I would like to go to Chatanooga someday too.

    • davenmidtown profile image

      David Stillwell 6 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Great hub! Have you studied any of the American Civil War history? The Battles that were fought in Tennessee are pretty epic. You may enjoy those.