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The Second Punic War: The Battle Of Cannae

Updated on November 7, 2012

The Man Who Hated Rome

Hannibal, the legendary Carthaginian general who very nearly destroyed the fledgling Roman Empire.
Hannibal, the legendary Carthaginian general who very nearly destroyed the fledgling Roman Empire. | Source

More On Hannibal

Introduction

After their defeat in the First Punic War (264-241 BC) the Carthaginians began attempting to expand and develop possessions in Spain to compensate for the territorial losses in Sicily and Sardinia. Much of this was carried out by the famous Barca family, especially Hamilcar, the distinguished young general of the previous war with Rome and his son, Hannibal. Under the Barcas, the Carthaginians utilised the mineral and manpower resources that Spain had to offer them.

The Romans watched the Carthaginian subjugation of Spain with a certain amount of trepidation and so, in 226 BC, a treaty was concluded that placed Spain south of the Ebro River in the Carthaginian sphere of influence and leaving the territory to the north in the Roman sphere. But the treaty was to be short lived. By 221 BC the Carthaginian Empire had once again ascended into affluence and rebuilt its army, composed mainly of Carthage’s Libyan subjects, Numidian mercenaries and levies from subject Spanish tribes. At this time, the Carthaginians led by Hannibal, supported one of their allies against Saguntum, a town located south of the Ebro. They besieged and eventually took the town in late 219 or early 218 BC. Unfortunately, the Romans claimed a pre-existing alliance with Saguntum and demanded that the Carthaginians desist and turn Hannibal over to them. The outraged Carthaginians responded defiantly, proclaiming that they would do no such thing and so began the Second Punic War.

Hannibal's Invasion Route

A map showing the invasion route taken by Hannibal's Carthaginian army.
A map showing the invasion route taken by Hannibal's Carthaginian army. | Source

The Second Punic War

Hannibal quickly took the offensive and launched an invasion of Italy with an army of 59,000 men including 9000 cavalry. He moved quickly and thereby avoided Roman efforts to intercept him in Gaul. The swift passage of his army was not, however, without consequences and Hannibal entered Italy in November of 218 BC with a force that was greatly weakened by campaigning, only 6000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry had managed to survive the gruelling trek over the Alps. The Carthaginian strategy was for Hannibal to quickly seek battle and he triumphed in a cavalry skirmish at the Ticinus River, forcing the Romans to withdraw. The following month, Hannibal fought the set piece battle of the war when he lured a Roman army across the Trebbia River. He managed to pin the Romans down by using his infantry, Hannibal then called in his superior cavalry and a hidden force to attack the Romans in the flanks and rear respectively. The Romans were decisively routed, losing as much as three quarters of their force of 40,000 as casualties or prisoners of war.

Hannibal was in control of northern Italy and in the spring of 217 BC began his march into central and then southern Italy. Although the Romans tried to keep Hannibal and his army contained in the north, he managed to give them the slip. The Carthaginians were pursued by a Roman army and, along the shores of Lake Trasimene on the 21st June; Hannibal sprung an ambush on the Roman troops. The Romans, caught between the lake and the marauding Carthaginians were totally smashed, losing as many as 15,000 men.

Key Battles Of The Second Punic War

A map showing the key battles of the Second Punic War, including Cannae, Trebbia and Lake Trasimene
A map showing the key battles of the Second Punic War, including Cannae, Trebbia and Lake Trasimene | Source

Fabius Maximus

A statue of the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus.
A statue of the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus. | Source

Fabius Maximus

Having suffered two catastrophic defeats, the Romans took the rather unusual step of suspending their constitution, under which the state and army were controlled by two annually elected consuls, and elected a dictator who would direct the Roman course of the war with supreme power for a period of six months. The man elected was called Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabius devised a strategy based upon the Romans avoiding battle with Hannibal while shadowing his army. This so called ‘Fabian Strategy’ allowed the Romans to trade space for time while making it difficult for Hannibal to disperse his forces during the winter. Since the Romans and their allies controlled most of the towns, this posed some logistical difficulties on the Carthaginians. Hannibal had hoped that his victories would convince many of Rome’s Italian allies to abandon her, but in fact most remained steadfast in their loyalty to the Romans. Moreover, time favoured the Romans in that it allowed them and their allies to muster a huge army from their significant reserves estimated to be nearly 250,000 men. The Roman army was composed of citizen soldiers who were conscripted annually to train and prepare for the coming battle with the Carthaginians. The Romans followed Hannibal’s army into Apulia, Samnium and Campania. The strategy seemed to be working since Fabius’ second in command was even able to inflict a defeat on the Carthaginians in a major skirmish while the latter were dispersed in order to forage. The Romans, however, were not happy with Fabius’ strategy, especially since Hannibal had managed, on more than one occasion to outmanoeuvre and out-think the Romans when they seemingly had him contained.

A Roman Legionary

These reenactors are actually wearing Roman uniform dating from the first century AD. The soldiers that fought Hannibal wore bronze helmets and greaves, a sign of Greek influence.
These reenactors are actually wearing Roman uniform dating from the first century AD. The soldiers that fought Hannibal wore bronze helmets and greaves, a sign of Greek influence. | Source

Hannibal's Balearic Slingers

This is a depiction of Hannibal's famous slingers that hailed from the Balearic islands (Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza).
This is a depiction of Hannibal's famous slingers that hailed from the Balearic islands (Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza). | Source

The Campaign And The Armies

Although Fabius’ terms as dictator expired at the end of 217 BC, his successors basically continued to avoid Hannibal, waiting for reinforcements to arrive under the new consuls for the year 216 BC. The new consuls were Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. Paullus was a man of some considerable military experience who had seen action fighting against the Illyrians and had held the consulship on a previous occasion. He had even been awarded a triumph for the campaign. Varro was less experienced but was apparently a popular politician with much support amongst both the aristocracy and the common folk. The consuls, elected in March, had spent the spring raising additional troops and joined the army watching Hannibal in Apulia sometime in July. When they arrived, the army under their command was the largest the Romans had ever put in the field. It was composed of eight legions, 40,000 infantry and 2400 cavalry, and an equal number of Italian allies totalling 40,000 on foot and 3600 on horses. About half of the Roman force probably had some experience but the remainder were freshly levied troops with only modest training, who had not seen combat.

Hannibal meanwhile had spent the winter at the town of Geronium where he remained until he could collect some of the local grain harvest. He then moved some 60 miles towards the town of Cannae near the mouth of the Aufidius River. Cannae was a Roman supply depot and allowed him to control Apulia via the Aufidius River valley. At this point the Carthaginian army numbered about 40,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 cavalry. About 16,000 of his infantry were veterans from the arduous crossing of the Alps and the victories that had followed. Around 10,000 of the men were Libyan; there were 6000 Spaniards and another 16,000 who were Celts that had been recruited in northern Italy. The remaining infantry were light troops recruited from a variety of sources. Hannibal’s cavalry consisted of perhaps 2000 Spanish and 4000 Celtic heavy cavalry and 4000 Numidian light horse. By the end of July, the Romans had advanced on the Carthaginian army at Cannae. The Romans had been cautious in their advance, not wishing to repeat the mistakes that had cost them dearly earlier in the conflict. By the 1st August the Romans had encamped within view of the Carthaginian positions. The majority of the Roman forces were north of the Aufidius River, facing Hannibal’s encampment, but a smaller force that occupied a camp south of the river.

Battlefield Positions

A map showing the position of the two opposing forces at the start of the battle. The Romans are in red. The map also shows the initial Roman attack.
A map showing the position of the two opposing forces at the start of the battle. The Romans are in red. The map also shows the initial Roman attack. | Source

Dispositions

On the 1st August, Hannibal deployed his troops north of the river and offered battle to the Romans. The two consuls alternated command and on that day Paullus was in charge. He decided not to accept the offer of battle, probably because Hannibal had formed up north of the river and, positioned himself so that the terrain favoured him and, most likely, his superiority in cavalry. On the next day, when Varro was in command, the Romans deployed their army, with the exception of 10,000 left to guard the main camp, south of the Aufidius, and offered battle. Hannibal obliged and both sides arrayed their battle lines.

The Romans arranged themselves according to their customary order of battle. Light infantry, known as velites, were arrayed before the main line. Behind them, legions and allies were deployed by companies known as maniples in three supporting lines. This formation was known as the acies triplex or triple battle line in which the maniples of each line were placed so that the maniples of the line behind could move up in support, this gave the acies triplex the appearance of a chess board. There was, however, one difference from a normal acies triplex in that the maniples were deployed in much deeper formations than was normal. One reason for this is that the Romans intended for the legions to have the depth to punch through the Carthaginian heavy infantry. Another factor may have been that the massive size of the Roman army at Cannae required deeper formations and a narrower frontage. The main infantry lines were protected by cavalry on the wings, the Roman horsemen on the right and the Italian horse on the left. Roman commanders placed themselves with this cavalry. Paullus leading the Romans, while Varro lead the Italians.

Hannibal arrayed his forces in such a way so as to maximise his advantages, especially his more numerous and better cavalry, while minimising his weaknesses, in particular his overall numerical inferiority. He deployed his light infantry as a screen before his main line to counter the Roman velites. The centre of his line was formed of alternating units of Spanish and Celtic infantry, probably hoping that the veteran Spaniards would stiffen the notoriously brittle Celts. Moreover these troops were placed in a concave formation so that the centre of the line was closer to the enemy than those moving along the wings. On either side of the Spaniards and Celts, were the Libyan veterans, placed in deep columns. Protecting the left flank of the infantry line were the heavy cavalry, Celts and Spaniards. The right flank was held by the nimble Numidian light cavalry who were experts at skirmish tactics. Hannibal placed himself in the centre of the battle line leaving the cavalry wings to his subordinate commanders.

An Reenactment Of The Battle By The BBC

How A Roman Army Was Destroyed

A map that show how Hannibal's forces (in blue) destroyed a Roman army.
A map that show how Hannibal's forces (in blue) destroyed a Roman army. | Source

The Death Of Paullus

A painting drawn by John Turnball in 1773 showing the death of Roman Commander Aemilus Paullus
A painting drawn by John Turnball in 1773 showing the death of Roman Commander Aemilus Paullus | Source

The Battle And Aftermath

The battle began with a clash of the opposing light infantry, who engaged with missile weapons including javelins and slings. Neither side seemed to have gained much of an advantage over each other, and as two main opposing battle lines approached each other, the light infantry retired behind their respective heavy infantry. Meanwhile, on the flanks the Spanish and Celtic cavalry rushed forward to engage the Roman horsemen in close combat. On this flank the advantage lay with the Carthaginian troopers who were more numerous and probably more heavily armed, and protected by extra armour. The result was that the Roman cavalry was routed. Paullus was wounded and thrown from his horse during the fighting and eventually killed. On the other flank, the Numidians engaged the Italian troopers in a prolonged skirmish with neither side gaining the upper hand. Unfortunately for the Italians, the Celtic and Spanish horsemen, rather than continuing their pursuit of the Roman cavalry, rode across the rear of the Roman army and attacked the Italian horse in the flank as the latter were still engaged with the Numidians. This was too much for the Italians who broke and fled. The pursuit of the Italians was left to the Numidians, while the Carthaginian heavy cavalry reformed in the rear of the Roman army.

As the cavalry battles were underway, the two infantry battle lines became engaged. In the initial combat the Romans began to gain the advantage. The exposed centre of Celts and Spaniards was severely pressed by the Romans, especially as more Roman maniples moved in to attack the apex of the concave formation. Although these soldiers were hard pressed by the Romans, they did not break. At the same time, the veteran Libyan troops pushed forward until they were pressing on the flanks of the legionary battle line which had pushed itself forward to attack the Celts and Spaniards. The result was a massive double envelopment of the Roman legions. As the Libyans attacked the flanks, the Roman formations could no longer maintain the momentum to drive back the Spanish and Celtic infantry in the centre. The near destruction of the Roman army was virtually complete when the Spanish and Celtic heavy cavalry charged into its rear. The resultant casualties were mind boggling; the Romans listed around 50,000 killed including the Consul Paullus and more than 20,000 prisoners making Cannae one of the bloodiest defeats by a European army on a single day of battle.

Despite scoring a crushing victory over the Romans, Hannibal was unable to convince Rome’s allies to desert her, leaving Rome with significant manpower resources. The Romans opened new theatres of operations in Spain and Africa that eventually gave them ultimate victory over Hannibal and Carthage.

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    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi watergeek, I remember playing a video game years ago that simulated Hannibal's battles, and I remember the Celts were represented as naked warriors. So, I've always had a fascination with Hannibal's battles, because I have Celtic heritage. Thanks for stopping by.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 4 years ago from Pasadena CA

      I'm not normally into battles, but the suggestion of Celtic involvement got me reading. It's an engaging article, worth the read. Good job.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Karthikkash, very glad you liked it. Appreciate you taking the time to visit and comment.

    • karthikkash profile image

      Karthik Kashyap 4 years ago from India

      Nice hub :) I love information about historical battles, especially pertaining to ancient Europe. This one is definitely informative. Voted up..