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Battle of Cannae

The Battle of Cannae, August 2, 216 BC, was a decisive battle of the Second Punic War. A Carthaginian army under Hannibal destroyed a numerically superior Roman army under the consuls Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro near the town of Cannae in Apulia (SE Italy). The battle is famous for Hannibal's tactics as much as for the role it played in Roman history.

Table of contents
1 Prelude
2 Battle
3 Aftermath
4 References


At the start of the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal boldly crossed into Italy by traversing the Alps during winter-time and quickly won two smashing victories over the Romans at the Battle of Trebia and the Battle of Trasimene. After these disasters the Romans appointed Fabius Maximus as dictator, who set about fighting a war of attrition against Hannibal, cutting off his supply lines and refusing to engage in pitched battle. These tactics proved unpopular with the Romans, though, who in 216 appointed two consuls with the express purpose of fighting a decisive battle against the Carthaginians.


The consular forces at the battle amounted to 16 legions, 8 of them Roman plus an equal number of Latin allied legions, for a total of 80,000 men. Subtracting 10,000 for those left to guard the camp, the Romans brought to the field the following forces:

Opposing them was a Carthaginian army made up of: The conventional deployment for armies of this time was to place infantry in the center and split the cavalry between the wings. The Romans followed this fairly closely, but chose extra depth rather than breadth for their infantry (resulting in a front of about equal size to the numerically inferior Carthaginians) in the hopes of quickly breaking through Hannibal's center.

Hannibal in his turn modified the conventional deployment by placing his lowest quality infantry (Iberians and Celts) in the middle, and his better quality infantry (African mercenaries) either just inside or behind his cavalry on the wings. Polybius describes the weak Carthaginian center as deployed in a crescent, curving out toward the Romans in the middle, but some historians have called this fanciful, and say it represents either the natural curvature that occurs when a broad front of infantry marches forward, or else the bending back of the Carthiginian center from the shock action of meeting the heavily massed Roman center. In any case, when battle was joined, the Carthaginian cavalry drove the Roman cavalry off on both flanks and attacked the Roman center in the back, causing it to halt its forward charge. At the same time the veteran Carthaginian infantry flanked and boxed them in on the sides, creating an encirclement of the Roman infantry in an early example of the pincer movement. The trapped Romans were hemmed in and almost completely slaughtered. Polybius claims that 50,000-60,000 Romans died - including the consul acting as their general and the two men who had served as consuls in the preceeding year - 20,000 were captured, and 16,000 escaped (among them the future Scipio Africanus Major). For their part the Carthaginians lost 6,000 men, the Celts and Iberians accounting for about 5,000 of these. A map of the battle can be found in Atlas of Classical History.


It is easy for a reader to be numb to the size of numbers, or because Rome won this war in the end assume this was "just another wound", but Livy preserves an image to show just how devastating this battle was to Rome. Hannibal had his men collect the gold ringss from the corpses on the battlefield, and sent this collection to Carthage as proof of his victory; this collection was poured before the Carthaginian Senate, and was judged to be "three and a half measures." A gold ring was a token of membership in the upper classes of Roman society. Let the reader reflect just how many thousands of rings this collection must have included!

Though one of the most crushing victories in all of military history, Hannibal's triumph proved the high-water mark of Carthaginian fortunes in the war, as no decisive strategic advantage followed from it. Despite his policy of leniently treating Rome's Latin allies in an attempt to enduce their defection to his side, only Capua, Syracuse, and a few other cities in the Hellenistic south of Italy did so following Cannae; the rest of Rome's allies held firm. Hannibal was too weak numerically and lacked the siege equipment to attack Rome itself, and so he offered to negotiate a peace treaty on non-outrageous terms. Despite the multiple catastrophes it had suffered fighting him, though, the Roman Senate refused to parley and instead raised a new army to defend Italy and another army to take the offensive against Carthage's holdings in Spain. See Second Punic War for the complete strategic follow-on to the battle and the conclusion of the war.