Ancient History & Civilisation


In the next campaign year, 216, with the Romans determined finally to defeat Hannibal, a huge army of 87,000 troops was mustered–a number that dwarfed the Carthaginian force of around 50,000.72 The potency of this impressive mobilization was, however, immediately undermined by the election of two consuls who could not deliver the unity that Rome so sorely needed, for the two men, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, had wildly divergent views on how the war against Hannibal should be waged. Whereas Paullus favoured the old Fabian approach of surrounding Hannibal in his winter quarters and starving him out, Varro was determined to defeat the Carthaginian general in open battle. Even worse, as both consuls went on campaign, each commanded the army on alternate days.73

By the end of July, the Roman army had tracked the Carthaginians down to the small Apulian town of Cannae, and set up camp around 16 kilometres away. On 1 August, after a series of skirmishes, Hannibal marched his troops north across the river Aufidus, set up camp, and then offered the Romans open battle. Paullus, who was in command that day, pointedly refused to accept the challenge, much to the consternation of his colleague.74 The next day, with Varro in command, the Roman army left its main camp on the north bank of the river and crossed to the south, where it drew up in battle formation facing south, with the river to the west. The previous year’s consuls, Servilius Geminus and Atilius Regulus (who had replaced the dead Flaminius Nepos), commanded the heavy infantry in the centre, and Paullus led the right wing, where the cavalry and two legions of infantry were situated. Varro himself took command of the left wing, made up of 20,000 infantry and some cavalry.

Hannibal took time to study carefully the Roman battle line before making a move. Although greatly outnumbered in terms of heavy infantry, he noticed that the Roman infantry in the centre were closely packed together, and would therefore find it difficult to manoeuvre. After crossing the river with his army, he set up a highly unorthodox but tactically brilliant formation. In the centre he placed a series of Celtic and Spanish infantry companies in a shallow-stepped line, and at the end of each line he placed his elite heavily armoured Libyan foot soldiers, thus leaving a deliberately weakened centre, which he was personally to command with his brother Mago. On both right and left wings he placed his cavalry, under the respective commands of his nephew Hanno and the general Hasdrubal.75


The Roman infantry not only had the sun in their eyes, but also the wind blew up great clouds of dust into their faces. When battle started, however, they predictably quickly drove back the Spanish and Celtic foot soldiers, and consequently surged forward into the vacuum at the centre of the Carthaginian formation.

Without a moment’s pause they followed up their broken and hastily retreating foe till they took to headlong flight. Cutting their way through the mass of fugitives, who offered no resistance, they penetrated as far as the Africans who were stationed on both wings, somewhat further back than the Celts and Spaniards who had formed the advanced centre. As the latter fell back the whole front became level, and as they continued to give ground it became concave and crescent-shaped, the Africans at either end forming the horns. As the Romans rushed on incautiously between them, they were encircled by the two wings, which extended and closed round them in the rear. On this, the Romans, who had fought one battle to no purpose, left the Celts and Spaniards, whose rear they had been slaughtering, and commenced a fresh struggle with the Africans. The contest was a very one-sided one, for not only were they hemmed in on all sides, but wearied with the previous fighting they were meeting fresh and vigorous opponents.76

At the same time, the Carthaginian cavalry on the right wing, which had routed the Roman left, now attacked the rear of the Roman right wing, which was thus effectively surrounded. After defeating this force, the combined Carthaginian cavalry then attacked the beleaguered Roman infantry from behind. The Romans were now surrounded, and a bloody slaughter quickly ensued.

Paullus, who had been seriously wounded by a sling shot, tried to rally his troops, but his courageous efforts would prove to be in vain. After a while he became too weak to manage his horse, so his cavalry escort dismounted to fight on foot. Although offered the chance to escape on the horse of a fleeing cavalry officer, he refused to leave his men and was eventually killed.

Cannae was Rome’s greatest military disaster. It is estimated that 70,000 Roman soldiers were killed and another 10,000 captured.77 Livy has left us with a ghastly description of the immediate aftermath:

The next day, as soon as it grew light, they set about gathering the spoils on the field and viewing the carnage, which was a ghastly sight even for an enemy. There all those thousands of Romans were lying, infantry and cavalry indiscriminately as chance had brought them together in the battle or the flight. Some covered with blood raised themselves from among the dead around them, tortured by their wounds, which were nipped by the cold of the morning, and were promptly put an end to by the enemy. Some they found lying with their thighs and knees gashed but still alive; these bared their throats and necks and bade them drain what blood they still had left. Some were discovered with their heads buried in the earth; they had evidently suffocated themselves by making holes in the ground and heaping the soil over their faces. What attracted the attention of all was a Numidian who was dragged alive from under a dead Roman lying across him; his ears and nose were torn, for the Roman with hands too powerless to grasp his weapon had, in his mad rage, torn his enemy with his teeth, and while doing so expired.78

Twenty-nine senior Roman commanders and eighty of senatorial rank had lost their lives. Varro, however, the architect of the disaster, somehow escaped with his life.79

For Hannibal, the path to Rome now lay open. According to Livy, Maharbal, the leader of the Numidian cavalry, urged that the army press on to the city while it had the opportunity:

‘That you may know,’ he said to Hannibal, ‘what has been gained by this battle I prophesy that in five days you will be feasting as victor in the Capitol. Follow me; I will go in advance with the cavalry; they will know that you are come before they know that you are coming.’ To Hannibal the victory seemed too great and too joyous for him to realize all at once. He told Maharbal that he commended his zeal, but he needed time to think out his plans. Maharbal replied: ‘The gods have not given all their gifts to one man. You know how to win victory, Hannibal, but you do not how to use it.’80

For Livy, Hannibal’s delay was in fact to save Rome from destruction, but in reality the Carthaginian troops and animals were exhausted, and Rome was still 400 kilometres away and well served with defensive fortifications that had been rebuilt in 378. Made of tufa blocks, the Roman city wall was over 7 kilometres long and interspersed with towers. Even at its weakest points it was bolstered by earthworks, ramps and ditches. Moreover, the city was defended by two urban legions, smaller groups of marines and other troops, as well as by its inhabitants. The capture of Rome would therefore require a long siege and the deployment of powerful siege engines.81 In fact the actual taking of Rome does not appear to have been one of Hannibal’s key objectives, and he instead sought to continue his policy of marginalizing the city from its Italian and Latin allies, so that eventually, when isolated, exhausted and demoralized, it would surrender and seek terms.82

What Hannibal thus sought was a peace in which Carthage could dictate terms, just as Rome had done in the aftermath of the First Punic War. Towards that end, ten representatives were selected from among the Roman prisoners and were dispatched to Rome to make arrangements for the ransoming of the 8,000 Roman citizens that Hannibal was holding. Before they were released, they all had to swear an oath to return once their mission had been accomplished.83 The ransoming of prisoners was a common feature of contemporary warfare, and was often the first stage on the road to a negotiated peace settlement. The Roman response must therefore have shocked Hannibal, for the Senate refused to see the captured Romans, and a decree was passed which forbade the state or private individuals from paying ransoms. Rome had publicly announced its intention to struggle until the bitter end. Hannibal now had little option but to dispose of the prisoners, for they were a dangerous drain on his already stretched resources. Some were executed, and the majority sold into slavery.84

What sort of terms might Hannibal have sought from Rome? According to Livy, Hannibal claimed in an address to the assembled Roman captives that he did not seek the destruction of their city: ‘All he was fighting for was his country’s honour as a sovereign power. His fathers had yielded to Roman courage; his one object now was that the Romans should yield to his good fortune and courage.’85 This is perhaps an accurate assessment of Hannibal’s intentions in the aftermath of Cannae. In terms of military and propagandistic strategy, the campaign had been a brilliant success. The Roman claims to martial supremacy and to a historical right to rule the Italian peninsula, two of the most important ideological foundations on which Rome’s continued expansion had been built, had been utterly undermined. Indeed, the military campaign had been so extraordinarily successful that it is unlikely that even Hannibal’s most optimistic advisers would have envisaged the speed of the Carthaginian success. Hannibal’s limited objective at this point is thus perhaps easy to appreciate: not the destruction of Rome itself, but rather its relegation to nothing more than a central Italian power, with the Italian cities liberated and Sardinia and Punic Sicily reclaimed for Carthage.

Directly after his greatest military triumph, however, Hannibal had already made his first serious miscalculation, for he assumed that Rome could be forced to negotiate. Hannibal’s hybrid education under Sosylus and other Greek tutors might have well prepared him for the intricacies of Hellenistic statecraft, but the contemporary situation now highlighted just how far removed those tutors were from the brutal realpolitik of the age. Two centuries later, the triumph of Roman obduracy was an incontrovertible fact around which the Greek intelligentsia would construct their own version of how the Roman state had come to rule the world. In the final decades of the third century BC, however, the Mediterranean world was only slowly beginning to discover the realities of Roman determination. For Rome, the Italian peninsula was not merely a piece of conquered territory that could be traded or bartered as political circumstance dictated. It would have been a brave politician who suggested that Rome compromise with its enemies or retreat from the hard-won Italian dominions. The Roman senators whom Hannibal faced had been raised on stories that dwelt extensively on their forebears’ obstinate refusal to negotiate with the enemy, even in the most desperate of circumstances. That some of these tales concerned examples of heroic Roman grit within living memory, such as Appius Claudius Caecus’ refusal to parley with the all-conquering Pyrrhus in 280 BC, only added to their potency. In a society where elite self-representation was so closely associated withmos maiorum, the ways of one’s ancestors, to give up the land won by the blood of one’s forebears was unthinkable.

During the long years of conflict, Carthage had brought Rome to the brink of disaster on more than one occasion. Upon each instance, however, final victory had been snatched from the Carthaginians’ grasp by an enemy who would simply not countenance defeat. The Barcid conquest of the Iberian peninsula had in many respects been an excellent preparation for Hannibal’s later confrontation with Rome. Twenty years of almost continuous military campaigning against determined and skilled opposition had turned Hannibal into an excellent general, and honed the Carthaginian army into a superb fighting force. However, in his moment of triumph, Hannibal’s poor understanding of the Romans’ obdurate mentality now stood in stark contrast to his fine appreciation of their military strengths and weaknesses. Expansion into Spain had helped both to alleviate previous Carthaginian defeats and to compensate for lost territory, but at the same time it had robbed the Carthaginian generals of vital military experience against Rome. If Hannibal had gained such experience, he might not have let the wounded Roman beast escape.

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