Battle of Cannae II

Battle of Cannae II

In the Battle of Cannae on August 2, 216 BCE, Hannibal Barca’s Carthaginians destroyed two Roman armies in perhaps the most famous double envelopment in history. In 264 Roman troops crossed the Strait of Messina between Italy and the island of Sicily to aid Messina against Carthage, initiating the First Punic War (264–241). The war saw Rome take to the sea, winning naval battles over Carthage at Mylae in 260 and over Economus in 256. The tide of battle shifted several times, but after another Roman victory off Sicily, Carthage surrendered. By the terms of the Peace of Catulus, Carthage agreed to return all Roman prisoners and deserters, pay a heavy indemnity, and surrender its possessions in Sicily to Rome.

An uneasy peace of 23 years followed, during which Carthage’s great general Hamilcar Barca consolidated Carthaginian power in Spain. Hannibal (247–183), Hamilcar’s son, continued his father’s efforts. The Second Punic War (218–201) has been called the contest of one man against a nation, for it was Hannibal, largely unaided, who carried the war to Rome. The treaty ending the First Punic War had divided Spain into spheres of influence, with Rome to be dominant north of the Ebro River and Carthage to be dominant below the river. A bone of contention between the two arose in Saguntum, a city south of the Ebro River on the Mediterranean coast and thus in Carthaginian-assigned territory but with a government that favored Rome. The 28-year-old Hannibal took Saguntum after a eight-month siege in 218. Its leaders appealed to Rome, which declared war. Putting together a large force, in the spring of 218 Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees into southern Gaul and fought his way east through the Gallic tribes. In an amazing feat, Hannibal battled hostile tribes and the elements to cross the Alps with his army in October 218. He arrived in Italy with perhaps 26,000 men and 15 war elephants. For the next 16 years, Hannibal campaigned in Italy.

His strength bolstered by disaffected Gauls in northern Italy who joined his army, Hannibal marched through the Po Valley and throughout southern Italy, destroying all Roman armies sent against him. Following a series of Roman defeats (at Ticinus and Trebia in 218 and at Lake Trasimene in 217), Rome selected Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator for six months. He chose to avoid decisive battles in which he might come up against Hannibal’s superior cavalry, for which he came to be known as “Cunctator” (the delayer).

Impatient, in 216 the Romans replaced Fabius with two consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. Normally Varro and Paullus would have had independent commands. This time the Senate ordered them to combine their forces in order to meet and defeat Hannibal once and for all. Together they commanded eight enlarged legions (5,000 infantry and 300 cavalry rather than 4,000 infantry and 200 cavalry). The troops first underwent a period of training, but by late summer they moved near to Hannibal at Cannae, in northern Apulia on the Adriatic coast. Counting their allied forces, Varro and Paullus commanded some 87,000 men, one of the largest land armies of antiquity. Against them Hannibal had 50,000 Carthaginian and allied troops (40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry).

The consuls alternated command daily, and on August 2 Varro, who then had the command, ordered both armies to engage the Carthaginians. Paullus reluctantly complied. The consuls led their forces onto an open plain on the right bank of the Aufidus River, Paullus having detached some 10,000 of his men to guard his camp. Varro positioned the Roman cavalry on both flanks, and since his forces were far superior in numbers, he arranged the infantry in a more compact center mass than was the custom, with short distances between the maniples in deep formation. Varro’s intention was to launch a powerful drive through the Carthaginian center, smashing a wide hole. He would then use his superior numbers to annihilate first one Carthaginian wing and then the other.

Hannibal drew up his army in a linear formation. His cavalry, which was superior to the Romans, was on the flanks, with his brother Hasdrubal commanding the Spanish and Gallic cavalry on the left and the Numidian cavalry on the right. The infantry was in the center, and Hannibal placed his best-trained African heavy infantry on either side, with the center formed of Spanish and Gallic infantry in a convex position. Hannibal personally supervised its slow planned withdrawal before the heavy Roman pressure.

While he lured the Romans forward, Hannibal ordered his flanking cavalry to destroy their counterpart Roman cavalry units. The Roman center pinched out the forward bulge in the Carthaginian line, collapsing it inward. With the Romans apparently having broken through, Hannibal ordered his African infantry on each side of the line to wheel in.

Hannibal’s cavalry then returned from their pursuit of the Roman cavalry and closed behind the close-packed Roman infantry, who were blinded by the dust kicked up on the dry plain. Over the next several days the Carthaginians attacked both Roman camps and killed or captured many more Romans; only about 14,500 men got away, Varro among them. The Carthaginian side lost 5,700 dead of whom 4,000 were Celts, but two or three times this number were probably wounded. Hannibal’s daring double envelopment of a numerically superior enemy was one of the greatest tactical masterpieces of all military history. Never again did Roman commanders allow a full army to be drawn into open battle with Hannibal. Instead, those forces that remained in the field harassed Hannibal’s supply lines and inhibited the provisioning of his forces. Cannae was a disaster for Rome, but the fact that Rome was able to recover from it says much for the Roman state.

Hannibal was later criticized for not having marched on Rome after the victory, but Rome was a large fortified city, and Hannibal could not have besieged it effectively. Instead, he sought to induce revolts against Rome. Much of southern Italy, including Capua, did indeed revolt, as did Syracuse in Sicily. The Gauls also rose in the north and wiped out a Roman army sent to reconquer them. Yet most Roman subjects in central Italy remained loyal. Many decades of effective Roman government and extensive grants of citizenship outweighed the catastrophes, and the Romans continued the fight.


Caven, Brian. The Punic Wars. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1980.

De Beer, Gavin. Hannibal: The Struggle for Power in the Mediterranean. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.

Healy, Mark. Cannae, 216 B.C.: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. London: Osprey Military, 1994.

Lazenby, J. F. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.