Why didn't Hannibal attack Rome after the Battle of Cannae?

Why didn't Hannibal attack Rome after the Battle of Cannae?

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Hannibal Barca defeated 8 Roman legions in the Battle of Cannae. At that time Carthage also had control over Hispania. Why did Hannibal not seize Rome at that time?

Short Answer:

  • His army was too small to either assault or securely besiege Rome
  • Rome itself remain defended by two legions and a large, conscriptable population
  • Marching on and laying siege to Rome was beyond his logistical capacity
  • He cannot realistically defeat Rome while her Latin and Italian allies remained loyal

The traditional analysis is that Hannibal probably could not have taken Rome, and perhaps more importantly, knew that he couldn't, despite his brilliant victories in the field. A complementary analysis is that in recognition of this, his preferred strategy is to disrupt Rome's alliances.

Cities typically fall in one of three ways: being starved into submission, being taken by force, or outright surrendering. Rome was adamantly against peace, as evidenced by their rejection of Hannibal's terms (and probably, due to knowing their own strength). A successful siege was similarly unlikely; despite her devastating defeats, Rome remained very populous with plenty of manpower. While Roman allies in Italy remained loyal, Hannibal's army was too isolated and small to take on Rome on its own.

The prolific Punic Wars writer, Professor John Francis Lazenby from the Newcastle University, offers some convincing arguments about the difficulties Hannibal would have faced at Rome:

Lazeby advances several reasons why Hannibal did not march on Rome: Rome was 400 kilometres away, and there were two legions in the city to defend it, as well as the male members of the population; Rome still had troops and could raise others; whether Hannibal could take Rome quickly was uncertain and a siege could drag on; also Hannibal's aims were to detach the Latin and Italian allies from Rome. Hannibal did not want a war to the death with Rome; the war was about dignitas and imperium, and he proposed peace, though his ambassador to Rome, Carthalo, was turned back by the orders of Marcus Junius Pera, dictator for 216.

- Dillon, Matthew, and Lynda Garland. Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook. Routledge, 2013.

This is AFAIK the predominant view. There are other viewpoints on why Hannibal couldn't take Rome, but I doubt many think that Hannibal had a moment of insanity and chose not to march on Rome for no good reason. For example, Professor John F. Shean argued that Hannibal was limited by logistics.

In any case it is unlikely that Hannibal could have realistically considered marching on Rome from Cannae. Shean convincingly argues that Hannibal's campaigns were largely dictated by his logistical situation, and that after Cannae his army scarcely had supplies for a few days, let alone a three-week march. If he had made it to Rome the subsequent siege could have lasted for months, if not years, posing a logistical nightmare since his army's opportunities for foraging would have been limited by being permanently stationed at one point. Even if Hannibal had wanted to follow up his victory at Cannae by marching on Rome, it is incredibly unlikely that he would have been able to do so.

- Daly, Gregory. Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War. Psychology Press, 2003.

(Refer to map below)

After the Battle of Cannae (2 August 216 BC), Hannibal went immediately to Compsa (1), where he set up a base and took some of forces and sent them on a mission to collect allies in that area. He then gathered his main army and went to Naples (2) where he was hoping to take control of a seaport. When he got to Naples he found it had very strong walls and was determined to resist him, so he passed it by and went to Capua (3), a large city. At Capua the city agreed to ally with him and he occupied the city, although there were dissenters. He then turned south to reduce Nola (4), a smaller city. Nola submitted to Hannibal. However, the Roman Praetor Marcellus (blue dots) coming from Cassino caused Capua to swing back to Rome, then shadowed Hannibal to Nola. Hannibal then abandoned Nola and went first to the coast to see if he could get access to a port, but forces in Naples had become even stronger, so he went on to Nuceria (5), which he besieged and eventually captured by force, burning the city to the ground. Hannibal then returned to Nola (6), which Marcellus had occupied, and invested it, but Marcellus surprised him by sallying forth from the walls unexpectedly, killing a large number of Carthaginians, then retreating back within the walls of the city.

Having suffered this defeat Hannibal left off of Nola and went north to Acerra, which resisted him. He took the city, plundered it and then burned it. He then continued north to Capua and then to Cassino (7), a small town which was a Roman stronghold. He besieged this town, but could not take it (partially because the Volturnum River was part of the defenses), and winter was approaching so he retreated back into Capua where he made preparations to spend the winter.

Thus, Hannibal's campaign of 216 was over with him unable to even take Cassino, much less approach Rome.

So, you can see, Hannibal made every effort to advance onto Rome, but was unable to get past Cassino in 216, despite his success at Cannae.

Hannibal's troops were not numerous enough (about 40,000 after the battle) to have a hope of taking Rome, which had a very large population (somewherere around 200,000) and was well fortified (the Servian Wall).

Romans pulled on him the same trick the Greeks from Syracuse pulled on Carthage some 200 years prior when Carthage was laying siege to Syracuse. The Syracuse tyrant took almost all the men he could spare, sailed to Africa and rampaged around Carthaginian lands which forced the force near Syracuse to withdraw to face him, thus saving the city. Same thing, just Romans won the battle in Africa and Rome was never directly threatened (although Hannibal was "at the gates" he never attacked).

Simply, he did not have the manpower and resources to do so. He could only hope to turn all Latin people to his side and to gain a port so he could get reinforcements. It's amazing what he was able to do with such a little force deep inside enemy territory. Romans were also not sitting on their asses, but were constantly following him around, harassing and taking back cities he just left.

The thing that interests me more is why the Greeks didn't seize the chance and ally with Carthage to finish Rome off, seeing as Rome was a threat to all of them. Maybe they didn't take them seriously yet.

This is all speculation and since Carthage was literally wiped off the map eventually by Rome we can only draw inferences as we don't know what the strategic plans of Carthage were… if any. My educated guess is that Hannibal and his allies and Army had no intention of taking Rome without a follow on attack by a second Carthaginian Army or at least dramatic support from the "vaunted" Carthaginian Navy… neither of which Hannibal nor his Allies received.

His Army and Allies lived well in the Roman Countryside and Rome and her Allies certainly did not. But Rome then attacked North Africa not Hannibal's Army in Italy forcing him and ultimately all of his Army and Allies off the Italian Penninsula.

To answer the original question, let's set up a model of how the siege would have gone and compare it to a model of a field battle.

Pretend for a minute that Hannibal had a 10 man Army in the field against a comparable Roman Force. That 10 man Army would be deployed in a contiguous formation with lateral lines of communication to all parts of the force (in other words, relatively simple to control). Further more they would either be deployed to defend or oriented against a single piece of key terrain. Most importantly, all 10 men are available to defend their key terrain or attack the key terrain against which they are oriented. Hannibal was able to direct his full capability to such combat. It's a 10 on 10 fight with Bill Belicheck coaching the Carthaginians and Greg Schiano coaching the Romans.

PRetend for a minute now that Hannibal has the same 10 men against the Romans inside Rome. Now the romans have a comparable trained military and 20 or 30 more peasants, blacksmiths, slaves, etc who can still swing a sword, hurl rocks, dump boiling oil, etc. To assault these 30 or 40 pax inside their wall Hannibal now has to release 2 of his 10 to build and defend lines of contravallation (fortifications protecting his siege force), 2 of his 10 to scout for enemy reinforcements beyond the contravallation, 2 of his 10 to picket possible escape routes from the Roman wall, and 2 of his 10 build trenches, siege machines (if they are capable), and foraging. Hannibal now has 2 men to assault the Romans 30 or 40 inside the wall.

Hannibal could dominate in the field because his Army was a field Army. He was a maneuver specialist. Siege warfare is not maneuver warfare. He could nor more lead a successful siege against Rome then Hitler could mount an amphibious invasion of Britain.

The answer to this question is very simple. He never thought of taking Rome, he always thought after Rome suffered so many defeats, the Battle of Cannae the worst, he only thought that Rome will Sue for peace after so many defeats, many say the reasons why he didn't attack Rome was his army too small, or he was afraid of soldiers protecting Rome, what are you talking about? In every battle Hannibal's army was smaller in size than the Roman army and he still won because he was a genius and in every battle he had a surprise for Romans, the Battle of Lake(ambush) and the Battle of Cannae show that… So the answer is he could take Rome, but he didn't want too because he thought Rome would sue for peace.

Why didn't Hannibal attack Rome after the Battle of Cannae? - History

By Keith Milton

It could be argued that Hannibal’s hesitation to go after Rome shortly after Cannae was because he lacked a siege train. However, he also lacked something even more important—a well-defined political goal. He merely wanted to punish the Romans and then go back to the way things were something as impossible to fulfill then as it is today. His Numidian commander, Maharbal, perhaps said it best when he told Hannibal that he knew well how to gain a victory but not how to use it.

Hannibal remained in Italy for 13 more years, fighting a few minor skirmishes and occasionally threatening Rome itself. Lack of support from his homeland finally caused him to quit Italy and return to Carthage, the home he had not seen since early childhood.

The prelude to battle

After Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War, a territorial dispute that had devolved into an existential duel with both sides vying for supremacy, the Romans became the de facto dominant power in the region.

Hannibal’s father Hamilcar Barca was convinced that the key to strength, both economic and military, lay in the control of the mineral-rich region of Iberia. After Barca the Elder’s death in 221 BC, Hannibal, by then the commander of the Carthaginian forces, led a mercenary army of Libyans, Spaniards, Numidians and Celts across the Alps into Italy in 218 BC.

Few tales of ancient warfare can compare to the epic grandeur of Hannibal’s march. He was youthful and energetic and commanded the utmost respect from his multi-national army. After taking the city of Saguntum, a Roman ally in southern Spain, he set off with 40,000 infantrymen, 8,000 cavalry and 38 war elephants. He traversed the mountains itching for a fight.

Advancing through Italy, Hannibal’s men took villages along the route and were victorious in two notable battles against the Romans, in Trebia at the Ticino River and at Lake Trasimene (often described as the largest ambush in history). By 217 BC, Carthage held all of northern Italy and the Roman senate started to look over their shoulders, fearing an assault on Rome itself.

In what became a grave strategic error that had the potential to threaten the entire Republic, the commander of the Roman army, Quintus Fabius Maximus’s non-confrontational policy of attrition, essentially annoying Hannibal and attempting to thwart him through the use of strategic movement rather than full engagement, wasn’t working. The senate wanted – needed – more.

5. Battle of Cannae

The Battle of Cannae is one that shows how great of a military strategist Carthage’s Hannibal truly was. Cannae is yet another example of Hannibal inflicting mass destruction to the Roman army trough tactics. The battle took place on August 2nd, 216 BCE in southern Italy (Gabriel 45).

It all started when Hannibal’s men attacked a small Roman force in Cannae in order to provoke them into battle (Gabriel 45). The plan worked, and Tarentius Varro and Aemilius Paullus, both consuls of Rome, soon met Hannibal on the battlefield (Gabriel 45).

The armies confronted one another. The Romans yet again greatly outnumbered Hannibal’s forces with 70,000 soldiers, 6,000 cavalry, and allies from Italian states. The Carthaginians had only 35,000 soldiers, 11,000 cavalry with some allied, a few thousand skirmishers, and allies from Spain, Libya, and Celtic regions (Gabriel 45). As was the norm at the time, both sides formed rank with its soldiers in the middle and cavalry at the flanks (DeSouza 148). Yet Hannibal’s genius manifested itself in the details of his formation. He set the Libyan troops on the rear side flanks so they would come into play only during the latter part of the battle (DeSouza 148). On the Roman side, Varro put his heavy soldiers in the middle to crash and break Hannibal’s front line. Knowing this, Hannibal set his weak and light soldiers in the middle to swiftly move away from the advancing Romans–he knew he had little chance of facing them head on. As his weaker troops retreated (and the formation moved from convex to concave), the Romans became surrounded (DeSouza 148). The idea of surrounding the opponent’s forces is where Hannibal’s ultimate strategy comes into play which leads to a Carthaginian victory. Not just any general can surround and overcome a force that has twice as many men. It took knowledge of his opponent, thoughtful planning, and great military strategy.

Photo courtesy of The Department of History, US Military Academy

As seen from the image above, Hannibal began with a crescent formation with the convex side facing the Roman forces and placed himself in the middle. He knew that the Romans would be drawn to him. The Romans first charged into Hannibal’s weakest line and funneled into the center, as they were lured in by the promise of easily killing Hannibal (DeSouza 148). Meanwhile, the Spanish and Gallic cavalries engaged the Roman cavalry on the left flank while Rome’s cavalry engaged the Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry on the right (DeSouza 148). Yet Hannibal had stationed the majority of his cavalry on his left flank, making it the strongest on the field. Because of this, Hannibal’s cavalry on the left flank defeated its Roman opponent and thus was able to go around behind the Roman army and engage Rome’s cavalry on the right flank as it attacked the Numidian cavalry. Thus, the remainder of Rome’s allied cavalry was surrounded and defeated. The entirety of Rome’s cavalry either died or retreated early on in the battle (DeSouza 148). With no cavalry, Rome was in a fragile state. Hannibal’s lightly armed Spanish and Gallic troops in the center continually retreated back to form a crescent around the Roman forces which continued to funnel into the center of the crescent (DeSouza 148). The strategy was a success.

Photo courtesy of Department of History, US Military Academy

Hannibal’s crescent worked perfectly. Once the Spanish and Gaulish forces on the front middle line were fully retreated, Hannibal’s cavalry attacked the Roman rear flank in order to block potential escape routes (DeSouza 148). In addition, the African infantry which Hannibal had kept waiting in the rear side flanks engaged Roman forces from the side to help fill in any gaps. The Roman forces were fully encircled (DeSouza 148). Completely surrounded and unable to fight in typical formations, the Romans were slaughtered by the Carthaginians (Roth 48).

Rome sustained great casualties on this day. Among the casualties were the consul Paullus, two proconsuls, both quaestors, 29 of 48 military tribunes, and 80 senators, as well as an estimated 50,000 soldiers (Roth 48). The Carthaginians however, lost roughly around 5,000 to 8,000 men, an amazingly small number of casualties considering the forces they faced (Roth 48).

Hannibal’s great military genius is evident in the Battle of Cannae. He went to battle against the mighty Roman army, with forces about half the size of Rome’s forces. He was an underdog in terms of numbers, but his strategy made up for his lack of numbers and size. The crescent trap that he had set on the Roman army worked perfectly. Each step from the formation to the closing of the crescent was done efficiently due to his leadership and mastery in military tactics. If even one step had failed, the outcome of the battle could have been totally different. His success is due to his ability to prevent the Romans from fighting in their normal coordinated fashion in legions. Once the Romans were surrounded, slaughter ensued. One man’s intelligence defeated an army of one of history’s largest empires which consisted of numerous generals, soldiers, politicians, and military masterminds. The amount of destruction he inflicted on the Roman army was unparalleled, and he did so with a relatively small army. It was his innovations and brilliant military tactics that made him the most effective opponent the Roman Empire would face.

Wrecked: How Hannibal Smashed Rome at the Battle of Cannae

Key point: Carthage would win a stunning victory and would continued to reduce Rome's legions. But Rome would refused to surrender and would amazingly win the war--14 years later.

Long ranks of Carthaginian infantry stood on a dusty plain a few miles east of the ruined town of Cannae on August 2, 216 bc. Cavalry massed at each end of the Carthaginian line stood poised to harass the enemy’s flanks. Opposite the Carthaginians, a Roman army was arrayed in similar fashion.

The day was warm, dry, and windy. A seasonal wind known as the libeccio, which blew from the south, sent fine particles of dust into the faces of the advancing Romans. The armies had deployed from their camps north of the River Aufidius to the south side of the twisting waterway.

As combat grew near, many of the Carthaginian troops gripped Roman weapons that they had picked up from a clash at Lake Trasimene the previous year. More than a few wore similarly looted Roman armor. They carried Roman javelins, spears, and gladii. None of them had seen their native lands for many years. Indeed, the only way they might ever see those homes again was to achieve yet another victory. Although outnumbered and deep in enemy territory, their confidence remained high.

The Carthaginian troops had complete faith in their stalwart leader, Hannibal Barca. Hannibal had proved that he was brilliant, bold, and daring. Upon the fields surrounding Cannae that day Hannibal’s name would become deeply etched in the annals of history. What Hannibal would achieve at Cannae would forever mark him as one of the greatest battlefield commanders of all time.

Rome and Carthage had previously gone to war against each other in the First Punic War that began in 264 bc. Over the course of the 23-year conflict, the Romans gradually wrested control of Sicily from the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians, who retreated to the western part of the island, could no longer sustain themselves when the Romans destroyed their fleet in the Aegates Islands in 241 bc. Rome ejected the Carthaginians from Sicily and forced them to pay a heavy indemnity at the peace table.

The Romans emerged from the First Punic War as the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean Sea. Afterward, the Carthaginians began to rebuild their military forces in anticipation of a new war. To finance their armies and fleet, the Carthaginians embarked on a concerted effort to expand economically.

Hamilcar Barca, one of Carthage’s leading generals, masterminded the Carthaginian occupation of Iberia. It took decades and a generation of the Barca family, but by 218 bcCarthage was ready to exact revenge against Rome. The job fell not to Hamilcar, but to his son, Hannibal. When Hannibal was only 10 years old, Hamilcar made him swear an oath of eternal enmity toward Rome.

Hannibal was an astute commander who knew how to inspire men. He once swam a river to encourage his men to follow and slept on the ground as they did. Ready for a rematch with Rome, Hannibal attacked the Iberian city of Saguntum after its leaders chose to ally with Rome. The incident touched off the Second Punic War.

Seizing the initiative, Hannibal led his army north. The Carthaginians crossed the Alps and invaded the Roman heartland with 46,000 troops and 37 elephants. Hannibal recruited Gauls and others enemies of Rome as he marched.

The Romans responded with their legions, each accompanied by another legion raised by a Roman ally in the region. Hannibal’s generalship brought the Romans low at Trebia in 218 bcand at Lake Trasimene in 217 bc. Rome suffered heavy casualties and damage to its reputation from these defeats.

The Romans needed to turn the tide. For that reason, they appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator. Fabius realized his best option was to create time to rebuild the Roman armies, so he avoided pitched battles and sought smaller skirmishes designed to weaken the Carthaginians gradually while building his own strength. While the strategy was reasonable given the situation, it did not sit well with Roman leaders. Rome had a tradition of aggressive military action and their mind-set precluded anything other than the offensive.

The Romans subsequently elected two consuls, Lucius Amelius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. Meanwhile, the Roman Senate authorized the expansion of the Roman army by four legions along with four allied legions. These would join with two existing armies led by the previous year’s consuls, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus. Regulus would be replaced before the battle by Marcus Minucius Rufus. These existing armies shadowed Hannibal’s force while it wintered in Geronium in southern Italy.

The Roman plan was simple. Paullus and Varro would each command the army on alternating days, a Roman custom of the time. They would rendezvous with the two armies in the field and take command of the entire force. Their objective was to bring Hannibal to battle and defeat him, thereby ending the Carthaginian threat. The alternating command may have been Roman tradition, but Paullus and Varro disliked each other and were frequently at odds. Thus, the Roman army had a significant leadership problem.

The two armies were organized and equipped according to their own customs and heritage. The Roman legions were raised by the legio, a levy of citizens ranging from 17 to 49 years of age, who owned property. Rome had a long martial tradition and propertied families were accustomed to military service, training their sons for it. In addition, each Roman ally was expected to raise its own legion to join the Romans on a one-for-one basis. It is believed these units were organized similarly to the Roman legions. During the Second Punic War the legions were raised for a period of one year with new troops rotated through them, so these units began to become permanently established organizations.

Each legion was 4,500 strong with 4,200 infantry and 300 cavalry. By this time the legions were organized into the triplex acies, a system of three lines. The first line was the hastati, 1,200 younger men armed with the pilum, a Roman javelin, and the gladius, a short sword. They also carried a large shield called a scutum and wore a helmet and chest armor. The second line consisted of the principes, another 1,200 men considered in their prime. They carried similar arms and armor to the hastati though some may have worn mail coats called lorica hamata. The third line held the triarii, 600 experienced older men who also carried spears. Each legion also had 1,200 velites, light infantry who would screen the legion and act as skirmishers. These men probably did not wear armor but carried a light shield, a few javelins, and a gladius. These lines would stagger to cover gaps, which also allowed the cavalry or velites to move through the formation more easily.

The wealthiest Romans made up the cavalry. Known as the equites, they guarded the flanks and pursued fleeing enemy soldiers. The 300 horsemen of a legion were divided into 10 turmaes of 30 men each, all well armed and armored. Generals often positioned themselves with the cavalry. In all a well-trained legion was a formidable unit led by trained leaders, the entire force steeped in the militaristic Roman tradition. One flaw of the legions present at Cannae was a lack of training. They were hastily raised and sent into battle before they could be seasoned. The troops also were raised from a wider group due to the desperate need for men after the previous defeats. The property requirements were eliminated, which meant many of the recruits lacked the martial training the wealthier men received.

The Carthaginian army followed different practices based on Carthage’s multicultural nature and experiences. Carthage did not have Rome’s population base and historically paid more attention to its navy. Their society was largely an oligarchy and the army reflected that quality. The Carthaginians drew troops from the various provinces and allied states to round out their army. The army contained a small core of citizen-soldiers surrounded by larger numbers of the allied troops and mercenaries recruited through Carthage’s extensive trading networks. The polyglot Carthaginian army was composed of Carthaginians, Numidians, Libyo-Phoenicians, Iberians, and Gauls. The Carthaginian cavalry at Cannae consisted of Numidians, Iberians, and Gauls. The senior officers were Carthaginians and were drawn from the city’s leading families.

Rather than try to train and organize these disparate factions along a common line, each contingent was allowed to fight according to its native traditions. This allowed the various groups to maintain their cohesion in battle, remaining at the side of their tribal comrades. They also used whatever equipment was familiar to them however, as the campaign stretched out over the years much of the original equipment had to be replaced.

In combat, the Carthaginian infantry often would form into side-by-side columns to help maintain cohesion. This formation mitigated the differences in fighting techniques of the various contingents. These columns contained the Gauls and Iberians in alternating blocks with the Libyo-Phoenicians anchoring them on both ends. In front of this line of columns were the light infantry, which was composed of Balearic slingers and Celts. Four thousand Gallic horsemen were present in the Carthaginian army at the time of the battle. Like the Romans, they took their place on either end of the infantry formation, prepared to screen or charge as needed.

For this mixed formation to succeed, Hannibal had to understand how each contingent worked in order to make the best use of them. He also commanded the respect of the various leaders, who trusted his orders. It was a highly complex arrangement requiring intelligence, planning, and foresight. Luckily for the Carthaginian army, Hannibal possessed these qualities in abundance. He knew how to get the most from each group. He also had a handful of trusted generals. These were his brothers Hasdrubal and Mago, Hasdrubal Gisco, Maharbal, and Masinissa.

Hannibal’s army was experienced and confident the army’s recent victories had boosted its morale considerably. The army functioned well, with the senior leaders controlling the disparate sub-units under Hannibal’s overall control. Hannibal also knew once battle was joined his influence over events was limited, so he engaged in extensive planning beforehand so his men knew exactly what to do.

While Paullus’s and Varro’s armies prepared to march, Hannibal’s army left its winter quarters at Geronium and moved toward Cannae in June 216. This was a deliberate move as the ruined fortress at Cannae was a grain and food storage site serving the entire region. Occupying the area threatened food production for the whole area, something the Romans could not ignore without appearing helpless in front of their local allies. If the Romans did respond, Hannibal would get the battle he wanted. Regardless of whether the Romans appeared or not, the Carthaginians gained. In the interim, they could nourish themselves on Roman food.

The Roman armies of Atilius and Servilius shadowed Hannibal. Word soon reached Rome that he was at Cannae. Paullus and Varro hurriedly finished their preparations and marched out in late June. The entire Roman force rendezvoused about two day’s march from Cannae, only about four months after Paullus’s and Varro’s election as consuls. It was a noteworthy accomplishment considering that Rome had never before fielded such a large army.

The Romans advanced toward Cannae and made camp five miles away, within sight of their opponents. Paullus and Varro succumbed to arguing. Paullus worried that the broad, flat plain was perfect for the cavalry actions at which the Carthaginians excelled. But Varro vehemently disagreed. As the two were alternating command each day, Varro soon had the chance to dispatch a reconnaissance in force to better ascertain Hannibal’s position. The Carthaginians responded with cavalry and light infantry and a sharp skirmish ensued. The Romans suffered initial reverses but quickly recovered, reforming their lines. They drove the Carthaginian troops steadily back until nightfall put an end to the fighting.

This was a good initial success for the Romans, but the advantage was squandered the next day when Paullus took command. He refused to launch a followup foray instead, he split the Roman army and set up a new camp on the other side of the Aufidius River. By doing so, Paullus hoped to better protect the Roman foraging parties while menacing the Carthaginian foragers.

Sensing the approaching battle, Hannibal gathered his troops and gave a speech. He told them he had no need to ask for their bravery because they had shown it three times already in previous battles since arriving in Italy. Hannibal further reminded them of all they had achieved since then. “He who will strike a blow at the enemy—hear me!” said Hannibal. “He will be a Carthaginian, whatever his name will be, whatever his country.” The speech worked, encouraging the entire army about the battle to come.

The next day Hannibal likewise established a second camp on the other side of the river. Paullus was in command and made no response, keeping his army in its own camp. He believed he could wait out Hannibal, not wanting to fight in that location. Soon enough, Hannibal’s supplies would grow low and he would have to march. Some Romans did come out to collect water, and Hannibal dispatched a group of Numidians to harass them. This angered Varro and many in the Roman camp. The situation was bound to change the next day, though, when command of the army switched.

Varro took charge the following morning. He assembled the entire army at dawn on the south side of the river. The Romans drew up into their battle formation facing south toward the Carthaginians. Hannibal had purposely placed his troops generally facing north so that the libeccio blew dust into the Romans’ eyes. The combined legions possessed 40,000 Roman infantry, 40,000 allied infantry, and 6,400 cavalry. Varro detached 10,000 infantry from the main force to remain at the camp, leaving 76,400 to engage the Carthaginians.

The Roman line was organized with each of the four consular armies in line next to each other. The infantry closed up so that they presented a narrower front with more depth to their ranks. This may have been due to the inexperienced men in the two newest armies, who lacked the training and experience to maneuver well in the standard formation. This was not necessarily a bad arrangement, but with the armies of Paullus and Varro on the outside edges of the line, it meant the least experienced troops manned the flanks.

The Roman cavalry took position on the right end of the line, anchored on the river. The allied horsemen deployed on the left end of the line. The light infantry screened the front of the line. Paullus went with the Roman cavalry on the right while Varro was with the Allied cavalry on the left. The two previous consuls stood in the center with their respective armies.

The 50,000-strong Carthaginian army was composed of 50,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. Hannibal deployed his light infantry, both slingers and spearmen, to screen his army as it crossed the river. Once across the river, Hannibal anchored his left wing on the river, placing 6,000 Iberian and Gallic cavalry on the extreme left flank under the command of Hasdrubal. On the extreme right flank were 4,000 Numidian cavalry led by Maharbal. The Gallic-Iberian heavy infantry stood in the center, with Libyo-Phoenician heavy infantry on each side. The Roman army had the greater number of men, but Hannibal’s army was more experienced and had an impressive number of victories to its credit.

The Carthaginian line advanced at Hannibal’s command, with the center slightly forward so the entire line was shaped like a crescent with the depth of the line thinning out near the edges. Hannibal’s line looked mismatched as it marched forward, the Iberians in their linen tunics interspersed with the Gauls, many of whom went into battle shirtless. All of them used large oval shields as protection. It was a polyglot force but it moved well in unison.

The opposing light infantry started the battle. The Balearians used their slings, covered by the spearmen. The Roman velites and their allies fought back and the fighting broke down into a number of small, inconclusive skirmishes all along the space between the two armies, not unusual in ancient combat. Being lightly armed and armored, the light troops in the screens could not last long even against each other and soon they fell back.

Hasdrubal’s Iberian and Gaulish cavalry charged in what Roman historian Polybius deemed “true barbaric fashion,” advancing along the bank of the river toward the Roman horsemen. It was a narrow front, with the river on one side and the infantry on the other, allowing neither force any room to maneuver. Normally, cavalry in ancient times would attempt to outflank by riding around the other force or by making feints. But the constricted space precluded those kinds of maneuvers.

The two groups rode straight into each other. The opposing horsemen were tightly packed. The horses often could not move and many simply stood still next to each other while their riders hacked and slashed at nearby enemies. Some fought so closely they grappled each other off their mounts and had to continue fighting on the ground. At first the Romans managed to put up a spirited resistance, but the violence of the Carthaginian charge took its toll in Roman casualties. Soon the Romans broke and retreated back along the river bank, the only way they could go in the close quarters. Hasdrubal ordered his horsemen to give chase and they pursued, sparing no one. Paullus managed to escape with a small contingent of bodyguards and rode to the center of the Roman line.

As the Roman right-wing cavalry fled in disorder, the infantry made contact. The legions in the Roman center crashed into the Carthaginian center, which was slightly ahead of the rest of their line. Paullus realized the battle was up to the infantry and took position where he thought he could do the most good. He shouted words of encouragement to his men, urging them forward. Each side sought to gain an advantage with its weapons. Men screamed and died, their flesh torn and yielding despite the armor they wore.

At first the Carthaginian soldiers held, fighting well despite their national and tribal differences. The Iberian and Gaulish ranks were too few, leaving their line thin and without the depth needed to maintain their defense. The legions packed their line more densely and now that depth told, forcing the Carthaginians back. Soon their bulging convex line turned into a concave one just as the Roman line now became a wedge. As that wedge grew deeper the Romans on the ends of the line started to draw in toward the center and pushed even harder toward the apparent weak spot in Hannibal’s line. These were the novice troops of Paullus’s and Varro’s armies.

The legionaries kept up the pressure as the Carthaginian center began to retreat. The Roman flanks soon drew in toward the center far enough that they were even with the Libyo-Phoenician infantry positioned to either side of the Iberians and Gauls. Now came a crucial point in the battle. The contracted Roman line focused on the center, where at long last success over Hannibal seemed imminent. This left the flanks vulnerable. Hannibal saw this and took advantage of the situation. The Libyo-Phoenician infantry wheeled toward the shortened Roman flanks and charged in at them, fresh troops crashing into the tightly packed legionaries, many of whom were already tiring from pushing against the center.

Still, the battle was not yet over. The Romans must have kept their discipline, reforming their ranks to deal with the new threat. Such actions would have been hasty and extremely difficult, given the lack of space for the Roman soldiers to maneuver, for as they advanced toward the center they naturally pressed together. Yet the battle was not entirely lost at this point, so the Romans must have succeeded in quickly creating a defensive line in the constricted space. This did leave each individual with less room to use his weapon or position his shield. The Roman line remained coherent but its forward momentum was likely checked, allowing the battered Carthaginian center a brief but crucial reprieve.

While the Roman infantry realigned to deal with this new and dire situation, the 4,000 Numidian horsemen took advantage of the change in fortune to charge at the Roman allied cavalry on the Roman left wing. Varro remained with these Allied riders as the Numidians bore down on them, but the circumstances were different on this side of the battlefield. The field was open for maneuver, as Paullus feared when he first laid eyes on the terrain days earlier.

The Numidians harried their foes, advancing and turning away, a more traditional cavalry tactic. “From the peculiar nature of their mode of fighting, they neither inflicted nor received much harm, they yet rendered the enemy’s horse useless by keeping them occupied, and charging them first on one side and then on another,” wrote Polybius. The fighting between the two cavalry forces went inconclusively for a time, but the scales soon tipped against the Roman allied horsemen when the Numidians received reinforcements in the form of the Iberian and Gaulish riders led by Hasdrubal. Once finished with the Roman cavalry by the Aufidius River, Hasdrubal reformed his men and rode to the assistance of the Numidians, adding his numbers to theirs. Daunted by the overwhelming numbers, the Roman cavalry fled.

Hasdrubal then made a cunning and sage decision. He directed the Numidians to pursue the fleeing Roman allies. This prevented them from reforming and returning to the battle. Next, he regrouped his own troops and together they rode back to the battle, joining the Libyo-Phoenicians.

At that point, the Roman infantry was in serious trouble. It had been abandoned by its cavalry as Hasdrubal’s force rode into its rear. By this time, the Roman rear ranks were probably turned about to face the new threat since the Libyo-Phoenicians were so deep on their flanks. It is also likely the Roman velites light infantry were present in the Roman rear, since they would normally withdraw through the main lines to the rear after they skirmished. These lightly armed and armored fighters were ill equipped to face enemy cavalry. The Carthaginians launched rolling attacks all along the Roman rear line, encouraging the nearby Libyo-Phoenicians as much as they disordered the Romans.

Despite the cavalry attacks and Carthaginian infantry swarming around them, the Romans still held firm. Many of their leaders set the example, including Paullus. He suffered a wound from a sling stone early in the fighting, according to Roman historian Livy. Despite his injury, Paullus moved along the lines, giving encouragement and exhorting his men to stand firm whenever it seemed they might break. Eventually the consul grew too exhausted to remain on his steed and his retinue dismounted with him. The Carthaginians attacked them, angry that the Romans refused to surrender despite the growing odds against them. Paullus’s men were slowly cut down. A few of them climbed back on their horses and rode away, but Paullus was not among them. He stayed behind and fought on until a band of Carthaginians cut him down.

Servilius was also killed about the same time. The loss of both generals caused the Roman infantry to start breaking. Groups of men within the cauldron began trying to push through the surrounding Carthaginians and make their escape. Even this became ever more challenging as the Carthaginian infantry pushed inward. More and more Romans in the outer ranks were killed or wounded and had to be pulled back. Being behind the front ranks provided no safety, however. Sling stones and javelins from the light infantry rained into the Roman center while the spearman and swordsmen around the shrinking perimeter hacked and thrust into legionaries so tightly packed some could not use their own weapons.

This continued until the Romans lost all cohesion and became merely a panicked mob awaiting death from all around them. The outcome was guaranteed as the last men were cut down either in small groups or individually. The immense battle ended with a mass of dead and dying Romans on the field. A few thousand of their infantry managed to break free and escape. They ran off to nearby towns while 300 of the Roman cavalry also escaped. The victorious Carthaginians quickly moved on the Roman camp, killing 2,000 of the troops left to guard the encampment and taking the remainder prisoner.

The battle was a complete disaster for Rome. The Romans suffered 55,000 casualties compared to 5,700 Carthaginian casualties. Paullus, 80 senators, and 21 tribunes were among the Roman dead. Many of the lost equites were also men of standing or wealth. Varro fled with the remaining allied cavalrymen and survived. He rode with 70 other survivors to Venusia. Polybius would recall his conduct poorly in his later writing.

The battlefield was a horrifying scene, covered in the dead and dying. “So many thousands of Romans were lying, foot and horse promiscuously, according as accident had brought them together, either in the battle or in the flight,” wrote Livy. “Some, whom their wounds, pinched by the morning cold, had roused, as they were rising up, covered with blood, from the midst of the heaps of slain, were overpowered by the enemy. Some too they found lying alive with their thighs and hams cut, who, laying bare their necks and throats, bid them drain the blood that remained in them.”

Hannibal achieved a great victory at Cannae. His double envelopment, in which the forces of one army simultaneously attack both flanks of the enemy army in order to encircle it, became a textbook military maneuver emulated by modern commanders. Hannibal destroyed eight Roman legions and their matching allied legions. The defeat came as a terrible blow to Rome and did serious damage to its reputation.

Some of Hannibal’s generals suggested the army rest after achieving such an overwhelming success, but Maharbal disagreed. He suggested the entire Carthaginian army march on Rome immediately and finish the war. Maharbal even volunteered to ride ahead with his cavalry, believing he could get to the city before its citizens knew he was coming. While applauding Maharbal’s motivation and energy, Hannibal chose not to follow up with the immediate attack. “You know how to conquer, Hannibal, but you do not know how to make use of your victory,” responded Maharbal.

There was truth in Maharbal’s words. Hannibal possessed great tactical skill. He set the conditions for the Battle of Cannae and the Romans obliged, allowing Hannibal to dictate the course of the fighting. Over the course of the war Hannibal did this several times, taking advantage of the Romans’ aggressiveness and impatience. Rome’s martial traditions resided in a belief in the offensive, and Hannibal bled them dearly for their inflexibility.

In the wake of Hannibal’s string of victories, the Greek-speaking cities of southern Italy, Sicily, and Macedon renounced their alliance with Rome. But Rome’s other allies remained loyal. Hannibal eventually offered reasonable peace terms, but the Roman Senate rejected them.

Hannibal underestimated the Roman will to continue the fight. It did not occur to him that the Romans would refuse to yield and would never accept defeat. The stakes were simply too high. What is more, the sting of the routs the Roman army suffered brought calls for vengeance against the Carthaginians.

Over the course of a two-year period beginning in 214 bc, Rome ultimately captured the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily. The achievement was the work of Marcus Claudius Marcellus who arrived with a fleet and an army. He had equipped some of his warships with siege engines and ladders to assault the strongly held city from the water.

The brilliant inventor Archimedes developed countermeasures that initially thwarted the Romans. One of these consisted of a hook that could reach out over the water and capsize Roman vessels. The Romans repulsed efforts by the Carthaginians to relieve the city. An elite group of Roman soldiers managed to infiltrate the city. The conquest spelled the end of the independence of the Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily.

By 207 bcHannibal’s army in Rome had lost its ability to conduct offensives owing to shortages of men, money, and equipment. His brother, Hasdrubal, arrived from Iberia with badly needed reinforcements. Marcus Livius led a Roman army that blocked Hasdrubal’s march on the banks of the Metaurus River northeast of Rome. Livius’s second in command was the promising General Gaius Claudius Nero. The Iberian infantry drove back the Roman left wing and appeared close to victory when Claudius Nero conducted a stunning flank attack against the Carthaginian right wing. The Carthaginian cavalry fled the field, which allowed Claudius Nero to roll up the Carthaginian infantry without interference from enemy horsemen. Hasdrubal was among the slain.

The Romans achieved the pinnacle of revenge. A new Roman general named Scipio, who had survived the carnage at Cannae, invaded Iberia to deny it to Hannibal as a source of supply. He captured and sacked New Carthage. Scipio also inflicted a serious defeat on the Carthaginians at Ilipa in 206 bc. Two years later, he landed in Africa where he easily trounced the local forces. Fearing the fall of their great city to Scipio, the Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy.

A grand battle unfolded on October 19, 202 bcon the plains of Zama southwest of Carthage. Hannibal sent his 80 war elephants against Scipio’s troops, but the Romans opened ranks to allow the elephants to pass through where a special force at the back of the army was entrusted with slaying them.

Scipio then hurled his cavalry at their Carthaginian counterparts. They did so in grand fashion, routing the Carthaginian horsemen. Although the Carthaginian infantry performed well in their attack against the Roman foot soldiers, Scipio’s cavalry attacked the Carthaginian rear. It was a decisive victory with 20,000 Carthaginian casualties and 26,000 prisoners. The Romans lost only 6,500 men. This marked the end of the war. Scipio imposed harsh terms on the defeated Carthaginians. For his great victory, Scipio received the honorific “Africanus.”

Hannibal went into exile, but the Romans pursued him wherever he went, demanding his extradition. The Romans trapped him in 183 bc. “Let us now put an end to the great anxiety of the Romans, who have thought it too lengthy and too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man,” he said. With those words, the victor of Cannae and scourge of the Roman Republic took poison rather than suffer capture and humiliation at the hands of his foe.

This article originally appeared in 2020 on the Warfare History Network.

Could Hannibal have sacked Rome after the battle of Cannae 216 BCE?

I love ancient history, especially Rome, and this morning I was reading and thinking about Hannibal's Italian campaign. One comment I read was that the only thing that prevented Hannibal from taking Rome after the Battle of Cannae was self restraint. Considering Hannibal crushed an army of approximately 80,000 Romans, I am left with a couple questions and thoughts. I would love any professional, or informed comments on this subject. I just graduated as a Classics Major so I like to think I am slightly informed of the subject, but I am certainly an amateur.

If Rome fielded such a large army, that could have possibly been the entirety of their conscripted, trained army. As such, if Hannibal immediately marched on Rome, what sort of defensive force could they possibly have mustered? And what did the city of Rome look like in 216 BCE? Were there extensive fortifications. I guess there was the Servian Wall (spelling?), and probably other such things. But I am unsure as to their dimension. I have also heard it been proposed that Hannibal did not bring siege equipment so he could not takes cities. But that doesn't strike me as very convincing. If that was the case could he not build some on site if necessary, or something, Hannibal was pretty clever.

Basically my question is one that has probably tantalized historians for centuries. Why did Hannibal not march on Rome? Was it is own caution and belief in his grand plan of Italian insurrection? And, this is more to my question specifically, if Hannibal assaulted Rome what is the probability he could have taken it? Did Hannibal have the capabilities to take Rome? And did Rome have the means to defend itself in any meaningful fashion?

I know this is terribly long and rambling, but I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read this and comment. Thanks.

Short answer no. Longer answer:

To start, it is an unfortunate fact that any military discussion is somewhat forced in nineteenth century terminology. It is important to keep that in mind.

You are going to see one or two people in this thread claiming he didn't have a siege train, which is technically true but not very helpful. He did have engineers capable of constructing siege equipment, which is generally how pre-modern armies did it in the first place. When the materials you need are relatively simple and everywhere, there is no reason to haul battering rams, catapults, etc. As one example, in a Chinese battle during the Song the defenders started with something like five catapults and during the course of the siege constructed about one hundred more.

So why didn't he attack? The reason lies in the nature of sieges, and the fact that it put him at a complete disadvantage both tactically and in terms of army. The simplest reason is that the Roman, let's call it, heavy infantry was vastly superior to his own. Hannibal did have African infantry contingents that were almost equal to the Roman ones, but his main advantage was in cavalry and skirmishers, which are of much less use during a siege.

the other reason is tactical. Hannibal was a brilliant tactician and strategist, but his methods often relied on quick and decisive action, tricks, ambuscades and the like. He also had a great understanding of his opponents' psychology, which is why he used certain tactics against, say, Fabius, but different ones against more rash opponents. These are all very useful on the battlefield, but sieges are really more about, for lack of a better word, management. It's sort of hard to describe, but it is a completely different set of skills required. Hannibal was not as good at sieges, and the cities he captured he did so primarily through deceit.

Finally, his aims were much more about shattering Rome's alliance than actually destroying Rome.

The Success of the Roman Republic and Empire

The Battle of Cannae, 216 BC, remains one of the greatest military reversals of all time. The Roman army, which outnumbered its Carthaginian enemies and was undoubtedly better equipped, should have logically won an easy victory. However, Hannibal and his army arrived at Cannae coming off two consecutive victories over Roman legions, at Trebia and Trasumennas (Polybius briefly mentions, but never names, a third Carthaginian victory) Hannibal had, indeed, proven to be the greatest weapon Carthage could field.

Hannibal marched his army to the nearby town of Cannae, and set up his camp along the river Aufidus. When he learned of the Roman approach, he sent his cavalry and skirmishing troops to attack the legions while they were still marching in column. The attack was indecisive, and the Romans likewise camped along the Aufidus. Disagreement between Varro and Paulus prevailed over the next several days. On the day of Paulus’s command, the Roman army did not form up for battle the veteran consul knew better than to engage the Carthaginians in an open plain, where the superior Carthaginian cavalry would reign supreme. Furthermore, according to Livy, Hannibal established his camp in such a position that the wind blew a constant butt of dust in the Romans’ direction. Despite these disadvantages, the following day and, according to Polybius and Livy, against the urges of Paulus, Varro formed the Roman legions up for battle in what would become the greatest massacre of a pitched battle in recorded history.

Opposing Forces

According to Polybius, Rome abandoned its tradition of granting two consuls two legions each in the special case of the Second Carthaginian war. Eight legions were amassed by Rome to confront Hannibal the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro were assisted in the command of this huge fighting force by the previous year’s consuls, Marcus Atilius and Gnaeus Servilius. As is predictable in times of great crises, the Roman legions provided were increased in strength from 4000 to 5000 legionnaires each. About 1500 Roman cavalry and 4500 allied cavalry supported these legions lighter infantry was also present.

Hannibal, champion of Carthage, brought to the fight an army of 40,000 infantry containing elements of Spanish, Celtic, and African troops, and 10,000 supporting cavalry, likewise consisting of Spanish, Gallic, and Numidian regiments. Slingers and other skirmishing infantry supported the Carthaginian army.


The Roman army crossed the river Aufidus placing the river on his right, Varro supported his right flank with Roman cavalry, led by Paulus, and his left with allied cavalry. Skirmishing troops and light infantry were arrayed in front of the heavy legionary infantry Polybius confirms this as a standard Roman battle setup.

Hannibal’s formations were much more remarkable. Covering the Carthaginian left flank were Spanish and Gallic cavalry, headed by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal, across from the Roman cavalry. Hannibal arranged his Numidian cavalry on his right flank, opposite Varro and the cavalry of Rome’s allies. Spanish infantry, equipped with large shields and swords designed for Romanesque close order battle, and Celtic warriors, armed with longswords, formed the center of Hannibal’s line. On either side of these European regiments were hardened African contingents, armed with the arms and armor of defeated Roman legionnaires, the core of Hannibal’s infantry. What made the formation of Hannibal’s army unique was its crescent shape, which would prove vital to the battle’s outcome.

The battle begins with standard skirmishing by light troops on either side as the infantry advanced meanwhile, the cavalry corps of each side charged forward, colliding violently in the middle. On the Roman right, Paulus and his Roman cavalry crashed into their Spanish and Gallic opponents. Polybius describes the following engagement: “…The struggle that ensued was truly barbaric for there were none of the normal wheeling evolutions, but having once met they dismounted and fought man to man.” This strange departure from typical cavalry warfare is attributed by Livy to the Aufidus on one side of the fight and the massed heavy infantry on the other. Neither cavalry force would want to circle too far and wind up drowning in the river, nor would they wish a simultaneous engagement with both enemy cavalry and heavy infantry. The Carthaginian cavalry eventually overcame their Roman foes, and chased them from the field. Paulus was not cut down in the pursuit, as he entered the fight of the infantry in the middle of the field, where he believed the battle would be decided. He could not have been more wrong.

The infantry engaged as the Roman cavalry was driven from the field though better equipped and trained, the Roman line could not break the Spaniards and Celts, who they engaged first, as made possible by the crescent shape of Hannibal’s line. However, besides its unique shape, or perhaps because of it, the line was also thinly stretched as the Roman legions pressed inward to the present engagement, their massed numbers and sheer weight broke through the thin line of Spanish and Celtic infantry. The Romans pursued their prey as the Spaniards and Celts fled between the African contingents. Hannibal’s African infantry then collapsed in on the flanks of the Romans, who were now surrounded by fresh and equally well-equipped troops.

On the Roman left flank, Varro and the allied cavalry engaged the Numidians in an indecisive cavalry battle. Polybius and Livy offer conflicting descriptions of this engagement. Polybius claims that the Numidians had a strange style of fighting but were holding their own against Varro, until Hasdrubal arrived fresh from his victory over the Roman cavalry as Hasdrubal charged into Varro’s cavalry, the Roman allies fled. Hasdrubal sent his Numidians after Varro, then turned and launched coordinated cavalry charges into the rear of the Roman infantry with his Spanish and Gallic horses. Livy details a complicated Carthaginian tactic wherein a small force of Numidians pretended to flee the field, hid in the cavalry engagement, picked up Roman equipment from the battlefield, then joined the rear ranks of the Roman infantry when no one would notice. This hidden corps of assassins then cut into the unsuspecting Roman rear.

Whether by skill or guile, the Carthaginian cavalry proved superior to its Roman counterpart. Varro no longer commanded the Roman infantry, who were now pressed by fresh troops from all sides. Paulus went down fighting in this hopeless slaughter, along with Servilius and Atilius, all three of whom Polybius honors as having served their Republic with great courage and valor.

At day’s end, after the Roman infantry had been killed to the last man, Polybius tallies the Roman dead at just over 40,000 infantry and 5000 cavalry. The Carthaginians suffered 4000 dead Celts, 1500 dead Spanish and African infantry, and 200 dead cavalry.


The Battle of Cannae proved two flaws in the Roman war machine, one major and one potential.

The Roman legions lacked sufficient cavalry to reliably defeat a Carthaginian army in the field Hannibal’s cavalry supremacy at Cannae allowed him to launch attacks into the unprotected Roman rear and cut off the only avenue of escape, leading to the slaughter in a single day of the greatest Roman army assembled up to that point.

Cannae also highlighted the potential of conflicting command in Roman armies. The daily transfer of absolute power from one consul to the other led to disaster as Varro had the Senate-given authority to march his army into a disadvantageous battle against Hannibal contrary to all the advice and counsel provided by the more experienced Paulus.

These two flaws resulted in Rome’s inability to muster an army to fight Hannibal on the Italian peninsula not until the successful campaign of Scipio in Africa would Rome escape near catastrophe in the Second Punic War.

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.

Cannae – the bloodiest battle in history

The battle of Cannae (216 AD) was Hannibal's greatest victory and Rome's worst defeat. When we talk to people on our route about Hannibal the two most known facts about him are his elephants and the battle of Cannae.

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Published: November 12, 2009 at 11:06 am

We rode to the site of the battle through endless olive groves and vineyards. The land is flat and featureless, cruisy cycling, and you can easily imagine vast armies manouvering against each other. The battlefield can be viewed from Canne della Battaglia, a medieval town that was abandoned in the 16th century, which sits on a rocky hill and stands out on the landscape as the only high point.

There’s a museum to check out before you enter the ruins of the small town. The site is atmospheric but there is very little in the museum or on the site – and nothing archaeological – that remembers the epic clash that was fought here. One of the information boards suggests that battle of Cannae devastated the area to the extent that the local inhabitants left and didn’t return for many years afterwards. Following a lunch of tomato and mozzarella sandwiches we wandered through the site to the only marker to the battle of Cannae – a column set up in recent times which occupies the best place to view the battlefield.

Hannibal’s tactics in this clash are still taught in military colleges today. Poylbius estimates Hannibal had close to 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry versus the Roman force of 80,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry. He lined up his inferior force with the cavalry on the wings and the infantry in the centre. He positioned his infantry in a convex curve towards the Romans, with the weakest troops, the Celts and Spaniards, at the closest point to the enemy.

The Romans lined up in a similar fashion but due to their superior numbers they deepened their lines creating a vast, heavy force of infantry in the centre. The Romans were commanded by two consuls – Varro and Paullus. Paullus was known to have taken advice from Fabius Maximus ‘The Delayer’ and was not keen to engage Hannibal in battle. Varro on the other hand was eager to prove his valour and take the fight to the invader. The Roman system at this time was to have alternate days of command so when it was Varro’s turn he immediately took his chance.

The battle began. At first the Celts and Spaniards held their line but before too long the heavy Roman infantry broke through. Hannibal’s weak centre now bowed inwards and the Romans surged after the fleeing enemy.

The cavalry clashed on both sides of the infantry. The Numidian cavalry engaged with and inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman force on their wing. Their method of fighting was unusual – they would avoid engaging with the enemy and continually charge and retreat throwing spears and circling away to do this over and over again. Their light armour and great skill allowed them to do this without being caught by the more cumbersome heavy cavalry of the Romans.

Meanwhile Hasdrubal had virtually destroyed the cavalry on the other flank and charged across to support the Numidians. The Roman cavalry on seeing their approach, fled, Hasdrubal (not Hannibal’s brother – Hasdrubal was a popular name!) then left the Numidians to deal with the fleeing enemy and turned to aid the infantry.

By this time the Romans had forced their way deep into the enemy infantry line and now the heavy African infantry were aligned on their sides. The Africans turned and attacked the flanks of the Roman force and soon the Carthaginian cavalry arrived and attacked their rear. The Roman infantry was surrounded – Hannibal’s ‘double envelopment’ was complete. The Roman’s were slaugtered – Polybius estimates that close to 70,000 Roman’s died at Cannae, including Paullus with Varro fleeing the battlefield. To this day this figure stands as the most men killed in a single day’s battle or in a more horrific context the equivalent of the nuclear bomb’s death toll at Hiroshima.

Hannibal also captured 10,000 Romans from their camp. He attempted to ransom these men back to Rome but the senate refused and they were put to death. Taranto and many of the coastal towns came over to Hannibal. Rome feared he would appear at their gates at any moment. But to the surprise of his enemies and his allies, Hannibal decided not to follow up his great win by attacking the eternal city.

Hannibal’s cavalry commander, Maharbal told his boss that if he seized the advantage now he would be dining in the Capitol in a matter of days. When Hannibal refused, Maharbal retorted that Hannibal knew how to win a battle but not how to follow up his victory. Whether Hannibal lost his opportunity to conclusively defeat his foe is still debated by historians today. The war against Rome would continue to be fought in Italy for more than a decade. Luckily our bike ride won’t last quite that long!

Watch the video: Der Fall Karthagos - Imperium - Teil 1