THE BATTLE OF CANNAE

 

Hannibal Barca

HANNIBAL

 

 

 

 

Fought in the summer of 216 BC between the forces of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and a Roman army under the dual command of Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius  errentius Varro. The battle of Cannae was to be Hannibal's finest hour and the worst defeat ever suffered by Roman military arms.

After a miraculous crossing of Italy's northern Alps, Hannibal's army, comprising a mixture of Gaul's, Spaniard's, Numidian's, Celt's and Carthaginian's proceeded into the interior of the country, easily defeating Roman forces at the battles of the Ticinus and Trebia rivers in 218 BC. Continuing southward Hannibal then defeated a Roman army sent against him at lake Trasimenus in 217 BC. 

In an attempt to convert Rome's allies to his cause, Hannibal choose to bypass the capital city of Rome and ravage the countryside, where he came up against yet another Roman army barring his passage at Cannae. Hannibal carefully studied the situation and had some misgivings, for this Roman army was double in size to any other he had yet encountered.   

The field at Cannae was flat and wide open, the two opposing armies would have no surprises to offer one another. Hannibal, with an army of 45,000 men (35,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry) would face a much larger Roman army numbering 80,000 men (75,000  infantry and 5,000 cavalry).  

Both Roman commanders Paullus and Varro, had agreed before hand that each would command the army one day in turn, it was on the day of battle that Varro would find himself in overall command. Varro decided the Romans would utilize their overwhelming superiority in numbers to attack and crush Hannibal's center

On the Roman right flank stood the Roman cavalry 3000 strong which faced Hannibal's Celts and Spaniards numbering 7,000 horseman. On the Roman left flank were some 2000 cavalry supplied by Rome's allies which were opposed by Hannibal's 3,000 Numidian cavalry.

Varro formed up his infantry into three extremely deep lines so as to bring their full weight to bear on Hannibal's center. Hannibal's infantry line was convex in formation protruding outward towards the Romans with the wings bending back from the Carthaginian center. 

Hannibal placed his African infantry on the corners of this convex formation to be sure these forces would not be engaged in the battle to soon, he then formed up his cavalry on the outer flanks of the African infantry.

Although puzzled by this formation, Varro was still confident in that before him stood a motley collection of mercenaries representing over five different nationalities. This  was an army that fought solely for pay, the Romans were fighting for their very homeland against an invader. 

Adding to Varro's overconfidence was that under his command was the largest army Rome had ever put into the field. Varro thus believed that his superiority in numbers combined with a massive frontal attack would punch through Hannibal's center and easily win the day for Rome. Varro thus ordered his troops to advance.

 

Cannea Map

 

                                

BATTLE LINES AT CANNAE

 

 

 

 

The entire Roman army now lumbered forward, as they came within range of their foe they hurled their javelins into the front ranks of the enemy, causing heavy casualties. The Romans then unsheathed their swords and the two infantry lines collided. The weight of the Roman attack on the Carthaginian center soon began to achieve its  main goal as Hannibal's line began to fall back, so as to straighten and then slowly recede into the shape of a concave line.

Believing that Hannibal's front line was in retreat and about to break, Varro continued pouring his forces into the concave. Hannibal now ordered his African troops on his flanks to move forward and form a line along the side the Roman attack. As the Romans continued to advance they began to lose cohesion and mobility as their ranks became more and more constricted. 

Hannibal now ordered both his cavalry wings forward to attack the cavalry formations protecting the Roman flanks. The Roman horseman were easily driven from the battlefield, leaving Paullus wounded and dying. Meanwhile on the Carthaginian right, the Numidian's and the cavalry of Rome's allies were engaged in fierce  combat with neither gaining an advantage.

After chasing the Roman horseman from the battlefield, Hannibal's left wing cavalry commander Hasdrubal, reorganized his cavalry and charged back across the plains, to strike Rome's allied cavalry from the rear.

These horseman would quickly find themselves caught between the two Carthaginian forces and chose to give up the fight and flee, taking the Roman commander Varro with them. With Paullus dead or dying and Varro now absent, the Roman army found itself leaderless and without overall command at a critical moment in the battle.

By this time the Roman's had advanced deeper into the concave, with the rear infantry ranks continually pushing forward against the backs of their comrades. As the Romans continued blindly onward they became confined and packed together within an ever shrinking area. As a result they lost the ability to maneuver or use their weapons effectively. 

Hannibal's African infantry forming on the sides of the Roman attack now began to turn inward, constricting the Roman infantry ever further. Hasdrubal once again reformed his cavalry and began to attack the Roman's from their rear. The Roman army was now totally encircled with every Roman now fighting for his very survival.

The Roman pocket was steadily reduced in size as tens of thousands were slain. When the slaughter was finally over the Roman army which started the battle with such high expectations of overall victory, had been utterly annihilated.

The Carthaginian victory at Cannae marked the apex of Hannibal's military carrier. 50,000 Roman's now lay dead, with 20,000 others taken prisoner and 10,000 barely escaping with their lives. Carthaginian losses numbered a mere 6,000 men.

The war however would continue for another fourteen years until Hannibal's recall to defend Carthage itself,eventually culminating in Hannibal's complete defeat at the battle of Zama in 202 BC, which would end the war in absolute victory for Rome. 

After the war Hannibal's very survival was feared by the Roman's and he was forced to flee. When the Roman's caught up with him in 183 BC, he committed suicide rather than surrender.

         

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