Ars Bellica

Battle of Cannae

216 BC

The battle of Cannae was the key battle of the Second Punic War and is still considered a masterpiece of military tactic, the most successful example of an encirclement maneuver accomplished by an army numerically inferior to the opponents.



Hannibal Barca (247-183 BC)


Considered one of the greatest commanders in history, became famous for his victories in the Second Punic War. Son of Hamilcar Barca, who had inculcated hatred against Roma, was born probably in 247 BC. In 25 years, succeeded his brother-in-law Hasdrubal in Spanish territories Government and after two years of the complete conquest of Iberia besieged Saguntum (which fell in 219 BC), the city allied with Rome, starting the Second Punic War that took the name of "war against Hannibal", since he was the undisputed protagonist.

From Spain, crossed with his Army the Pyrenees and the Alps, then came in Italy where he defeated the Roman legions at Ticino (218 BC), at Trebia (218 BC), at Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC). After Scipio's victory in Tunisia was recalled to Africa in 204 BC to defend Carthage and was subsequently defeated by the same Scipio at Zama in 202 BC.

After the final defeat of Zama was exiled in Syria by the Seleucid King Antiochus III in 195 BC and later, after the defeat of the same syrian king by the Romans, in Bithynia by the King Prusias I in 189 BC. Here decided to poison himself in 183 BC, in order not to fall into the hands of the Romans.

Lucius Aemilius Paullus (?-216 BC)


Lucius Aemilius Paullus, patrician of the ancient gens Aemilia, grandson of Marcus Aemilius Paullus, Consul for the first time in 219 BC with Marcus Livius and Marcus Livius with whom he led the second Illyrian war against the Illyrians, led by Demetrius of Pharos. The consuls won the war forcing Demetrius to take refuge by Philip V of Macedon. Soon after, however, the two consuls were because charged of not having divided equally the loot. While Livius Marcus was sentenced Lucius Aemilius Paulus was acquitted.

He was then elected for second time Consul in 216 BC, imposed with fatigue alongside Gaius Terentius Varro, chosen by the people.
With Varro, especially at Cannae, had constant disagreements and conflicts of ideological and military order. He was among the victims of the battle of Cannae. The tradition report that Paul would die heroically, refusing to flee with a horse that had been offered.

Gaius Terentius Varro

Praetor in 218 BC Gaius Terentius Varro was member of an obscure but wealthy family of traders.
He obtained the consulship in 216 BC, with huge margin of votes alongside colleague Lucius Aemilius Paullus, thanks to the support of people tired of the war against Hannibal and tired of the hopeless Fabian tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus.
He was in command of the Roman legions at the battle of Cannae in conjunction with the Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus. He was appointed proconsul in Picenum from 215 to 213 BC, and in 208-207 BC was sent as propraetor in Etruria against the advance of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal. In 200 BC he was sent as Ambassador in Africa.


The site of the battle

The biggest battle of the Second Punic War was fought on 2 August 216 BC at Cannae. Most historians identify the location of the battle the Ofanto River, not far from the city of Barletta, Puglia, Italy.
Some experts, according to recent studies, based on the examination of historical documents on the battle of Cannae and archaeological surveys, have shown that the location of the battle is to identify not at Canne but further north, on the right bank of the river Fortore at Ischia Rotonda near Carlantino on the border between Puglia and Molise (from the pugliese side), not far from Campobasso.
Other historians locate the site of the battle of Cannae in the Celone Valley at Castelluccio Valmaggiore, a little further South. Anyway, the battle of Cannae represents one of the finest examples of tactical full encirclement military history.


The Second Punic War

After completing the unification of Peninsular Italy, the Romans had to compare with Carthage, exceeding them for wealth, military organization and political experience. The dominance was at stake in the Mediterranean: Rome could transform into a Imperial Republic owner of power in the Western Mediterranean or disappearing from the scene almost without leaving trace.

The victory of the first Punic War had averted the risk of a fall and strengthened the Republic over all odds of the Senate and the Roman people. Sicily had become the first Roman province and the collapse of the Carthaginian hegemony had made Rome the increased power of the ancient world.

Carthage, however, does not resign himself to defeat and to remedy the losses, turned to Spain where, on the southern coast, the Phoenicians had for centuries their richest colonies. Aided by the Barcid family, Carthage extended his hegemony within the Iberian peninsula until the line of the River Ebro, taking advantage of the fact that Rome was engaged on other fronts. Concerned by the increasing Carthaginians power in Spain, the Greek colony of Massilia, in 225 BC, persuaded its Romans allies to send an ambassadors to Hasdrubal. The following Treaty, the so-called "Ebro Treaty", established the respective spheres of influence in the Iberian Peninsula, whereby Carthage would not have extended its expansion on the Spanish territory beyond the limit marked by the Ebro river and Rome would maintain control of the northeastern Spanish territory, in defense of the colonies of Marseilles. Rome, however, at the same time had close alliance with Sagunto, Iberian town located south of the Ebro river and then into the sphere of Carthaginian hegemony: this will be the cause of the Second Punic War.

In fact, in 221 BC, the Punic militias in Spain passed to Hannibal, contrary to agreements with Rome. He believed, wrongly, that if Carthage wanted to continue to exist had to regain dominance of the West Sea, and then dispose of Rome by dragging it into the war. Hannibal carried out a policy of aggression and in 220 BC, besieged the city of Sagunto, located south of the Ebro, in an area of Carthaginian influence, but also ally of the Romans. When Sagunto fell and Rome claimed the refund, but the immediate rejection forced Rome to declare war: in March of 218 BC was beginning the Second Punic War.


Hannibal advances towards Rome

Anticipating the Romans who were preparing an offensive in Africa and in Spain, Hannibal with an impressive 26,000 men army, reinforced with excellent Spanish troops well trained to military discipline by campaigning hard in the Iberian Peninsula and with more than thirty war elephants, crossed the Ebro, Pyrenees and headed towards the Alps. Eluding the Roman armies that tried to intercept him in Marseille, crossed the Alps in just fifteen days, probably through the great St. Bernard pass, the Mont Cenis and the Clapier. Was exhausting march, where many men and animals were lost, but find the immediate support of the Boii and Insubres people. In the autumn of 218 BC Hannibal was in the Po Valley bringing the war in the more recent acquisition of the Roman territories.

Hannibal in Italy
Battle of Cannae - Hannibal in Italy (Musei Capitolini)

In December, the elephants of Hannibal (which survived the winter) routed, first on the Ticino and then on Trebbia, the legions of consuls Publius Cornelius Scipio (father of the future "African") and Tiberius Sempronius Longus, while the Carthaginian army increased in numbers for the contribution of the Gauls who flocked to enlist in its ranks.

After the winter of 217 BC passed in Northern Italy, the Carthaginian army broke through the defenses of the Apennine passes and marched on Perugia, pursued along the shores of Lake Trasimeno by the legions of Consul Gaius Flaminius. Hannibal ambushed the roman troops on the morning of June 22, the same Flaminio was among the victims, then defeated the Cavalry of the second Consul, Gnaeus Servilius, who arrived late on the battlefield.

The Carthaginian army, now directly threatened Rome. Seeing itself in danger, the Senate deleted the ordinary courts and appointed as dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus who prevented any decisive battle with the Carthaginians, preferring a tactic of containment and of attrition and therefore to annoy Hannibal by prevent him to supply.

In 216 BC, his term expired, power was restored to the consuls. Were elected Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. The two new consuls, in order not to leave the territory of the Italian allies at the mercy of the Carthaginian army, decided to attack Hannibal in Apulia, where Varro gave battle at the village of Cannae. The defeat that the Romans suffered on that field was terrible, the worst in the history of the Republic.


The armies

The Roman Legion

According to the description given by the historian Polybius (205-115/120 BC) a legion consisted of 4,200 infantry and 300 cavalry.

The infantry consisted of 1,200 hastati, 1,200 principes and 600 triarii all divided into 10 maniples; the remaining 1,200 men, the poor and the young, formed the light infantry of the velites, distributed among the various manipula. The cavalry was organized in 10 departments of 30 Knights. In command of the Legion were six tribunes who responded directly to the consul.

Alongside the Roman legions often advocated Allied quotas, especially Latins and Italians, organized in the same way but with a more numerous Cavalry of 900 men, divided into 30 units. The command of these troops was up to three prefects appointed by the consul.

Combat technique adopted by the Roman legions changed substantially the tactical system of the Mediterranean world, for centuries dominated by Macedonian style phalanx or hoplitic formations. The Legion distributed to the Board on three lines: the first was formed by the units of hastati, separated by a space equal to that occupied by a manipula; the gaps were covered by maniples of principes, which advocated on the second line. In the last rank were the triarii, covering the intervals left by cadres of principes and which constituted the reserve of the Legion. During the early stages of the battle, just in front of the heavy infantry, took place the velites.

The Carthaginian army

The Carthaginians, as known, were merchants, all dedicated to their trade and their activities. Felt so useless and counter-productive to dedicate themselves personally to the practice of arms when they could recruit mercenaries in abundance between populations subject to their rule.

During the Second Punic War recruiting areas were: the African hinterland, from which came the famous numidians light cavalry and the libo-Phoenician heavy infantry; the Iberian and colonial Territories, which provided the Carthaginian armies, fierce light-medium infantry and cavalry.

According to the historian Polybius, Hannibal came in Italy with 12,000 African and 8,000 Spanish infantry, 6,000 Iberians and Numidians horsemen and even with more than 30 elephants.

The victories of the Trebbia and of Ticino made there in his army the Gauls of the Po Valley, driven by hatred towards Rome and the lust for plunder; many Italians of the South joined to Hannibal after the victory of Trasimeno. With this army, made up of different people who had different military traditions but organized and ordered by the genius of Hannibal, the Carthaginian succesfully counter the power of Rome for years.


The opposing forces and deployment

The Roman army encamped on the banks of the Ofanto River, about three miles from the village of Cannae, in which Hannibal had placed his camp.

In front of the Romans, under the command of Hannibal's military genius, was the Carthaginian army composed of contingents from various peoples, consisting of 35,000 infantry including 10,000 African veterans, and 10,000 of excellent numidians, Celts and Iberians knights.

The Roman army at Cannae was composed by eight legions plus other eight allied legions and cavalry wing, up to a total of about 80,000 infantry and 6,000 Cavalry; at their command alternated daily, the two consuls: Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. This situaton at the command created many problems because Varro was impetuous and inexperienced, eager to confront Hannibal, trusting in the superiority of their numbers, almost double compared to those enemies. Aemilius Paullus, instead, was more experienced, agree with the Fabian strategy, to not undertake military action too aggressive and, therefore, more cautious.

The strength and compactness of the enemy army had recommended prudence to the Consul Aemilius Paullus: the defeats at Trebbia and Trasimene were recent and the Republic could not substain the loss of another army. Therefore, at Cannae, he established two camps: the main, further north, on the left bank of the river and the other, smaller, on the right bank of the river where, in relative safety, can examine Hannibal's moves.


Hannibal was able to attract the Romans on this side of the River: placed the field from the left side of the Ofanto to prevent their penetration on the hilly land further South, where his cavalry would have found uncomfortable, then showed his willingness to fight, but in the plain on the right side of the river. With a series of planned expedients, induced the most reckless of the two Roman consuls to attack. He knew the nature of the two Roman consuls and so decided to exploit the vehemence of Varro on the day in which he had the command, having also imagined the tactics that he would choose: to break through the Carthaginian line with just counting on his numerical superiority. Hannibal then crossed the Ofanto with his army and pretended to attack to southern roman camp. Varro, lacking of military acumen, or maybe just for ambition, didn't want to miss the opportunity to give battle and, against the advice of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, deployed the full army.

At Cannae, agreeing to fight on a battlefield chosen by Hannibal, the Romans found themselves in a space too narrow to deploy all their strength. With the subtraction of 10,000 men (two legions) that attacked Hannibal's camp, the romans can deploy about 70,000 infantry: 55,000 heavy and 15,000 light, on three ranks according to the traditional manipulate order. Livy tells us that Varro, at Cannae, deployed infantry manipula much closer and with greater depth. Even Polybius, in his writings, confirms that the Romans manipula at Cannae were more "dense" and much deeper than than usual. In this way, however, prevented the Romans any movement. It is not clear what was the reason for this choice, probably to exert physical pressure similar to that of the Greek hoplites; though many historians disagree with this hypothesis. However, Polybius relates that at Cannae the first Hannibal's line was forced to retreat because "oppressed by the mass", and this seems to confirm the hypothesis. Flanking the two belligerents were the Cavalry contingents: the right side of the River, the Roman cavalry (2,400), to the left the Italian allies (3,600).

Obviously, for Hannibal, the battlefield wasn't limited: on the flanks of his infantry deployment were wide opened two large and comfortable ways, in which his cavalry could maneuver nimbly. Plus to his advantage the light slope that would have facilitated his cavalry charges and the wind that blew from the South-East from the shoulders of his troops by throwing dust in the eyes of the Romans. Knowing how to fight the Romans and expecting the tactic they used, Hannibal knew that to have a hope of winning had first to contain the pressure of massive Legionary columns for the time necessary to allow his cavalry, surely better than the Roman one, to attack the enemy on the rear.

Battle of Cannae - Deployment

So, he divided the Libyan Veterans (10,000) into two units ordered in far deeper ranks than the usual and deploys them to the extremes of its centre but in a backward position. To these veterans, as we shall see, Hannibal will give an important task.
The rest of the heavy infantry (19,000), formed by the Gauls and Iberians mercenaries, was deployed in a crescent, curving out toward the Romans in the middle with the African troops on their flanks in echelon formation, so, with the convergence of the enemy toward the Center, the impact will be less violent and directed. But to do so, the Center should be stronger and more numerous, had to backward without cracking and must resist the pressure as much as possible to give time for the cavalry to operate the outflanking. Times have dictated and punctuated by the action of cavalry, which must overcome the enemy wings and attack the enemy from behind. The cavalry is arranged asymmetrically, a stronger and more numerous wing to the left, the Gallic and Iberian heavy cavalry (6,500), and, at right, the containment unit of Numidian Light Cavalry (3,500).
The deployment is closely tied to the battle plan, is a unique mechanism aimed at the destruction of the enemy army. As we shall see, every step took place exactly as it had planned.


The battle of Cannae

The battle of Cannae opened with a series of cavalry skirmishes: on the left, the Italian Knights failed to engage the elusive Numidians, while on the right, was the Celtic and Iberian Cavalry to charge.

Battle of Cannae - Phase 1

The action of Hannibal's heavy cavalry at Cannae was unusual in the ancient military history: it made three charges throughout the battle, proving to be not only under control, but exceptionally measured in the physical effort. First, on his side, charged the Roman cavalry that, narrow as it was between the river and the advancing infantry, was broken and routed.

Battle of Cannae - Phase 2

Instead pursue the fugitives, the Celtic and Iberian cavalry gathered and, moving behind the back side of the Roman infantry, that was attacking the advanced Center of Carthaginian deployment, charge (that is the second charge) on the rear the Italian cavalry unit that was fighting the Numidians. Meanwhile the Punic Centre had already begun to backward slowly, sporadically attacked by heavy Roman columns, more and more compressed at the Center because of the gradual convergence of the legionaries that instinctivly search for a contact with the enemy.

Battle of Cannae - Phase 3

With the slow and steady controlled retreat of Gauls and Iberians, the crescent of Punic troops buckled inwards as they gradually withdrew. It was what Hannibal waited and hoped. The Roman infantry had pushed too far and, without Cavalry protection now routed, he was flanked by African veterans who caught in the grip, with perfect timing. They quickly shifted their front and charged ont the flanks the roamns bringing the panic in their formations. The trap of Cannae is closed. The Carthaginian heavy cavalry, who had routed the Italian Knights, charge (that's their third charge in this battle) on the rear the roman center. The Numidians, meanwhile, pursuit the fleeing enemy. The Roman infantry was now surrounded, forced to fight in reduced spaces, then the slaughter begins. Each element of the Punic army has provided an essential and indispensable contribution to the successful plan of Hannibal at Cannae.

Battle of Cannae - The final encirclement

Despite the numerical superiority, and the Roman legions were massacred. The battle of Cannae was the worst defeat in the history of Rome, in which fell: the Consul Aemilius Paullus; the previous year's Consul, Gnaeus Servilius; the former master of the Knights Minucius Rufus; and with them, among the crowd of anonymous dead perished, both Quaestors, twenty-nine military tribunes, eighty senators and an unspecified number of Knights. The great Roman army sent to destroy the Hannibal's one, was really destroyed: even if we not accept the numbers, frightening and perhaps excessive of Polybius, who told us of about 70,000 dead, but the smaller casualties reported by Livy, 47,500 infantrymen and 2,700 horsemen, with 19,000 prisoners. Only 15,000 romans escaped, including the Consul Terentius Varro, responsible for the disastrous battle plan.
Hannibal at Cannae had lost 6,000 Gauls, 1,500 Spaniards and Africans and 200 Knights. On that day he had the most brilliant victory of his career as a general and was consecrated as one of the greatest leaders in history.


The consequences of defeat at Cannae

Rome absorbed the blow of the terrible defeat at Cannae with unsuspected energy. Its unchanged supremacy on the sea prevented Carthage and Spain to supply Hannibal's army even with fresh troops. The conflict, after Cannae, turned into a war of exhaustion. Of course the Carthaginian victory at Cannae led to some defections in roman side: Capua opened its doors to Hannibal, Lucani and Bruttii abandoned Rome, as Syracuse. But the Central Italy remained loyal to the Republic and the comeback to Fabian strategy allowed Rome to regain gradually the lost positions in southern Italy.

While Hannibal was in trouble, failing to gain new allies and reinforcements for his army, Rome, with great effort, after the defeat of Cannae, managed to rebuild his army until it have other new 25 legions.
In 214 BC, Syracuse allied with Hannibal and even Philip V of Macedon allied with the Carthaginians against Rome. But in 211 BC the Consul Claudius Marcellus conquered Syracuse and the intervention of Philip V was neutralized diplomatically.

In 210 BC, the young General Publius Cornelius Scipio, son of the Consul that in 218 BC had been beaten on the Ticino, counter-attacked in Spain. Between 209 BC and 208 BC he beated three Carthaginian armies repeatedly.
In 207 BC Hasdrubal, beaten by Scipio, managed to cross the Alps and came in the Po Valley, with the intention of joining his brother Hannibal. But the reigning consuls Gaius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius, faced and slaughtered him in the Metauro Valley. Hannibal could no longer count on reinforcements from Spain and despairing of getting help from the motherland, was forced to retire in Bruzio.
Rome realized that to force Hannibal in leaving Italy, had to move the war in Africa. In 204 BC, Scipio, resuming the project failed fifty years before to Attilio Regolo, threatened Carthage directly in Africa. Having the Alliance with Prince Masinissa of Numidia, in the year 203 BC won repeatedly the improvised Carthaginian armies. The Punic city, once suffered the firsts defeats on its own land, called back home Hannibal.
Finally, on 29 October 202 BC, Hannibal and Scipio faced each other at Zama that, unlike Cannae, sanctioned the definitive defeat of Carthage.
The peace treaty imposed by Rome was tough, although not enough to annihilate completely Carthage. Fundamental clauses provided for the delivery of all fleet with the exception of ten ships and the payment of a strong allowance. Carthage also had to give up all his possessions outside of Africa and recognize alongside its borders the powerful Kingdom of Numidia ruled by Massinissa, a kind of gendarme of Rome in Africa. The Carthaginians also were not allowed to declare war without the permission of Rome.
At that time, Rome could look outside of Italy not just as a Mediterranean power, but as the hegemonic power of the inland sea. Shortly afterwards, other challenges expected the Republic: with Hellenistic heirs of the great Alexander. The way of the Empire was signed.


Battle of Cannae - testimonials

Livy, Ab urbe condita

Hannibal arrived at the foot of the Alps. At the head of the army were the cavalry and elephants that proceeded extremely slowly to the narrow paths; behind was the rest of the army. The ninth day reached the pass, began the descent that proved much more difficult of ascent because during the night had fallen much snow. Down the steep trails, men and horses slips on the snow, uncovering the insidious underlying ice. At a certain point the column found the road blocked by a rock and the soldiers didn't have any way outexcepting splitting the stone. For four days the soldiers worked without a moment of rest, until it was opened a gate, wide enough to let pass the elephants.

Polybius, histories, III, 116

The Romans, until they could, resisted, fighting from all sides against those who had surrounded them, but, once died even the men of the external lines and being pressed in a short space, finally all perished. Among the dead also Marcus and Gnaeus, previous year's consuls, brave men, who even during that battle had proven themselves worthy of Rome. While performing this wasteful fighting, the Numidians, pursue the fleeing Knights, they killed most and dismounted others from their horses. A few survived and escaped in Venosa, among them, the Consul Gaius Terentius, ignoble man, who during his period of Government was able to accomplish nothing of benefit to his own country.