The first sign of them coming would have been a high thin dust cloud characteristic of cavalry on the move. This would have been followed by a lower, far denser particulate envelope thrown up by the infantry and its supply transport.1 The huge army moved slowly southeast toward the flatlands of the Adriatic coast, wary of the kind of ambush that Hannibal had laid for Flaminius and his army at Lake Trasimene. Polybius implies in his history that the Roman leadership had reports that the Carthaginians were already at Cannae, but bitter experience had taught them that Hannibal could show up anywhere.
Not that they were expecting to lose. Despite a string of three shocking defeats, the Roman mood from consul to lowliest of foot soldiers was probably one of grim determination. Setbacks were at the core of their history, but always these setbacks had proved the triggers for eventual victory. If you were a Roman, there was every reason to believe this unfortunate chain of events was but a prelude to success.
Corrective steps had been taken. If anything, during the earlier clashes, Hannibal had held the numerical edge; that was far from the case now. For this occasion the Romans had raised a multitude: a force basically four times larger than a standard consular army, consisting of super-size legions pumped up to five thousand men apiece. Modern sources agree with Polybius’s (3.113.5) estimate that, when cavalry and allied contingents were added, around eighty-six thousand Romans were on their way to Cannae.2 The very size of this juggernaut said a good deal about its intent. In previous defeats the Roman center had broken through, but too late to prevent the wings from being crushed by Hannibal’s cavalry. This time sheer momentum was intended to carry the day much more quickly—it was not an elegant plan, but it was certainly a reasonable one, given the Roman way of thinking about war. Having drifted into southern Italy, Hannibal was not only far from Carthage and his family’s base in Spain, but he was now hundreds of miles removed from the tribes of Gaul that had proved to be his best source of fresh troops. One significant setback would put an end to his invasion of Italy.
The command structure the Romans had put in place left every impression that the intention was to meet Hannibal and crush him. Fabius Maximus’s strategy of delay and harassment had plainly been rejected in the most recent set of elections, and the consuls put in place, Caius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, were (despite Livy’s protestations to the contrary in the latter’s case) committed to a battlefield confrontation.3 The military tribunes, or legionary commanders, assembled for this army have been shown to be considerably more numerous and experienced than was normally the case.4 Perhaps most telling of all, between a quarter and a third of the Roman senate had joined the army, and most other senate members had close relatives serving. While some may have been there purely to enhance their careers, many had valuable military experience to impart, and as a whole there is no denying that a very considerable portion of the Roman leadership class had staked their personal futures on the fate of this army.
To drive the point home, through the ranks an unprecedented step had been taken; Livy (22.38.2–5) tells us that for the first time the military tribunes had formally administered an oath to the Roman soldiers and their Latin allies, legally binding them not to “abandon their ranks for flight or fear, but only to take up or seek a weapon, wither to smite an enemy or to save a fellow citizen.” Win, or die in place; there was to be no alternative. This was a hard message and a very Roman one; for the survivors of Cannae, it would shape the next fifteen years of their lives. For the great majority of the army, however, it was less complicated, since they had less than a week to live.
But for now the Romans could reject the notion that they were marching toward disaster, that their plan and the very nature of their army would be turned against them. They were Romans, and the nature of Rome’s society and Roman history had to reassure them that they were heading down the path to victory. So it’s worth looking into these matters in more detail, for it will clarify why these Romans allowed themselves to be ensnared in the trap Hannibal set for them. Looking more closely will also help explain how they could learn from this bitterest of lessons and eventually overcome him.
The Rome of 216 B.C. was a mass of contradictions, a jumble of paradox, but instead of incoherence its contrariety generated strength and flexibility. Rome was at once stubborn but adaptable. It placed great emphasis on tradition, yet was empirically disposed to change. It was governed by an oligarchy, but cloaked itself in democratic forms. Its state structure was an edifice of jerry-built institutions, which were, nonetheless, functional and resilient. Devoted to the law to the point of legalism, Rome was at heart a society held together by a web of personal patronage—patron-client relationships that stretched far beyond the city walls. For although Rome retained the consciousness of a city-state, it was already something much larger and more expansive. And despite being bound by fetial law, which forbade aggressive war, it was rapaciously devoted to conquest. For those who were defeated, Rome’s startling cruelty coexisted with equivalent acts of magnanimity. And among the defeated, Rome forged a hegemony based on the fiction of alliance, but in the process generated real and tenacious loyalty on the part of the subjugated. Still, in one area Rome was not the least bit conflicted, and that was in its devotion to military power. At rock bottom Rome was a place made by war; warfare was in essence the local industry.
Rome’s economy reflected both the clarity of its military intentions and the ambiguity of its soul. At one level it is safe to call Rome a nation of farmers,5 not the drudges of irrigated agriculture but small freeholders working the land largely on a subsistence basis. Surpluses were generated and there was some commercialization of agriculture, but the business aspect, especially at the level of symbology and public discourse, was not emphasized. Small farms were valued as morally elevating, and in large part this was because they bred good soldiers and helped the state exert control over conquered territory. Rome had consistently sent out colonies of its landless, and as they had reached into the sophisticated economic environment of Magna Graecia, this migration probably had the effect of lowering economic development. But expanding in this way had made strategic sense and, in theory at least, had increased military manpower—the right kind of manpower, troops toughened by a life of heavy work in the fields.
But as with many things Roman, the story was entirely more complex. In the mid-1960s famed historian Arnold J. Toynbee6 put forth the thesis that Hannibal’s depredations in southern Italy ruined the rural economy and depopulated the area, paving the way for latifundia, or large estates, worked by cheap and abundant slaves. This short-circuited Rome’s cycle of rural virtue. Further inquiry, though, has revealed that Rome was already far down the road to becoming a slave-dependent society at least a century earlier.7 And as Rome’s success in war accelerated through the period of the three Punic Wars and beyond, so did the number of war captives who were enslaved and sold, the number possibly reaching into the low hundreds of thousands.8 This was plainly highly lucrative for both the commanders and the state treasury. Meanwhile, among the ranks, the potential for plunder seems to have been an important motivator for erstwhile farmers to turn from their plows and take up their swords.9 And while it is difficult to estimate what percentage of Rome’s metalworking capacity was devoted to the implements of war, we can probably rest assured that the city’s forges were more likely to beat plowshares into swords than vice versa. There were also profits to be made at home from victualing the army, but this was somewhat beside the point. For the senate customarily expected vanquished adversaries to defray a substantial portion of the cost of the campaigns waged against them, generally in the form of food and matériel.10 For Rome at least, there is little doubt that war was the health of the state.
Leadership and governance was a similarly deceptive skein of motivation. Earlier, Rome had undergone a complex process of constitutional development, a struggle of the orders in which plebeians (commoners) had gradually gained rights and power from the patriciate (first families), at least formally. In fact, by 216 “plebeian” and “patrician” no longer meant very much; Rome was really ruled by a combination of powerful families from both orders. Just as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where all pigs are equal, but some are more equal than others, in Rome the people were supreme in all branches of government, but the few and the influential called the shots.11 Thus in the three major assembled bodies besides the senate, the Comitia Centuriata, the Comitia Tributa,* and the Concilium Plebis,† the popular membership could only vote for or against a measure, not debate it. Plus, in the first of these, the Comitia Centuriata, which had the key roles of voting to declare war, to accept peace terms, and to elect the major magistrates (consuls, praetors, and censors), the membership was stacked in a way that reflected an archaic military order that allowed a relatively few wealthy members to have a near majority. Further entrenching the roots of privilege was the patron-client system that underlay so much of Rome’s social order: if you were wise, you did not vote to bite the hand that fed you. This is significant to our story because Livy in particular seeks to tag some of Hannibal’s most notorious consular victims—Caius Flaminius and Terentius Varro—as somehow “popular leaders,” elected over the good judgment of Rome’s betters.12 Contemporary sources view this as hogwash; given the electoral mechanisms at the time, neither Flaminius nor Varro could have been voted into office without the support of powerful elements of the nobility.
Real decision-making resided elsewhere, and that was in the senate. But as was characteristic of Rome, the senate’s clout was based on influence, not formality. This body governed through custom, not law; it had seized preeminence on its own initiative rather than through constitutional enactment.13 Normally senators served for life and numbered around three hundred, regulated by censors, who periodically revisited the rolls. Drawn mainly from the rural gentry, members also comprised all former key magistrates elected to administer the Roman republic.
This was important because some senators were plainly more equal than other senators. Power here was a matter of central position, and at the core was an inner circle of families that possessed ancestors who had risen to consular rank. These nobiles were the true movers and shakers and they belonged to an exclusive club—between 223 and 195 B.C., only five new families managed to climb to this highest rung. Meanwhile, Fabii, Cornelii, Claudians, Aemilii, Atilii, and a handful of other great houses continued to dominate the senate, which in turn dominated the state, particularly in the areas of finance and foreign affairs.
But how and in what direction? This is controversial. Until recently, historians tended to believe that specific policies could be associated with factions grouped around certain key families, and that these associations were consistent over several generations. While this concept was attractive analytically, it was not supported by the ancient sources and has lost favor.14 Still, while senatorial politics were likely more fluid than earlier assumed, it remains possible to see policy factions coalescing around key figures over the short term, who likely represented a great family with numerous supporters. Hence it is plausible to think of Fabians, led by Fabius Maximus, as being consistently disposed toward caution, while the Cornelian element, personified by Scipio Africanus, can be viewed as predisposed toward aggressively confronting Hannibal.15
In more general terms senatorial dominance is easier to explain. Unlike the other assembled bodies, it met continuously and not just when the powers that be decided it was time to vote on something important. Not only was discussion ongoing, but the senate was Rome’s abiding repository of leadership. Unless disgraced or otherwise disqualified, all senators serving in a specific office, such as the consulship, would eventually go back to the general membership of the senate. Thus it became customary for consuls to refer all important matters back to their predecessors. Similarly, magistrates were expected to follow the body’s advice, particularly when it was formally expressed in a senatus consultum, even though, in typically Roman fashion, the senate did not have the power to legislate. It would have taken a bold magistrate to cross an institution where he would have to serve for life after his term of office ended.16
Finally, it is important to emphasize that the senate was all about things military. More often than not issues of foreign policy devolved into questions of “Who are we going to fight?” Despite characteristically couching its campaigns in defensive terms, scholarship points to the senate consciously and continuously looking for new opponents to conquer.17 And while the people retained the final say on matters of war and peace, the decision was profoundly shaped by the senate, which kept an iron grip on diplomacy. Similarly, although consuls were elected by the Comitia Centuriata, it was the senate that decided where they would serve or, more realistically, fight—and what they would fight with, since the senate also determined the size and composition of the forces allocated for each campaign.
This was highly functional and appropriate. For within the body itself, leadership, experience, and prestige largely translated into military leadership, experience, and prestige. When it came to warfare, the corporate wisdom of the Roman senate was impressive. As we shall see, Roman commanders made numerous tactical missteps during the war against Hannibal, but the overall strategic direction—the province of the senate—was hard to fault. Stripped to its essentials, the senatorial approach consisted of three principles: take the offensive whenever possible, keep the pressure on, and never give up. With rare exception, and even when Rome was plainly losing, the senate refused to negotiate with a hostile combatant, except on the basis of the adversary’s submission. During the Punic Wars, the worse things got, the more adamant and determined the senate became. The senate laid out a hard set of rules, and was a stern taskmaster, but it was not necessarily out of sync with those it directed.
Whatever the discordance between rhetoric and reality, between belief and actual conditions, Romans drank deeply from the fountain of patriotism, and, unlike the proverbial Kool-Aid, it made them stronger. This was a society on its way to becoming something entirely more complex, on a path that would lead eventually to civil war and the end of the republic. But at the point when Hannibal descended upon it, Rome was a unified and resilient entity, as tenacious as any other society on the face of the earth. Romans, and to a slightly lesser extent Rome’s allies, believed in Rome and, more to the point, were ready to die for it. They faced defeat after defeat at the hands of a military genius—not with passive endurance but with a grim determination to prevail, a determination epitomized by the survivors of Cannae but emblematic of the entire society.
At the upper echelons, Romans had a passion for public service in the form of elective office—an urge that in the later stages of the republic would reach maniacal proportions and become a key factor in the system’s collapse. But during the struggle with Carthage, political ambition, while intense, remained within traditional bounds. Personal success in Rome was defined by the cursus honorum—literally “course of honors”—the progressive election of an individual to a series of increasingly important magistracies. Polybius (6.19.4) tells us that in order to begin the process young members of the elite had to have participated in ten annual military campaigns (almost always in the cavalry). This is telling. It was a commonplace that Roman generals were politicians, but this also says that the politicians were militarized.
Given Rome’s size, the number of higher offices was remarkably few, and turnover was notably fast—basically one year, following the Warholian rubric and maximizing the number who got to be famous, if not exactly experienced. Other than the ten plebeian tribunes elected to serve as an independent check on power through their capacity to veto any official act, and the four aediles, who were mainly responsible for administration and festivals, the other key elective offices entailed some sort of soldiering. Each year twenty-four military tribunes were voted in and then assigned, six to a legion, to act as a rotating staff of commanders.18 There were eight quaestors, who were mainly financial officers but who also served on the consul’s legionary staff and could undertake independent military duties. The next set above were the praetors, by this time four of them. These officials were originally meant to take over the consuls’ civil duties at home but instead were increasingly detailed for provincial administration and military command.
At the pinnacle of the elective rat-race were the consuls, in positions that not only ratified individual success but ensured their continuing familial influence. There were only two of them—by this time normally a patrician and a plebeian—and during their twelve months in office they were expected to wrestle with the state’s most important problems, which almost always meant they were fighting Rome’s most dangerous enemies. The basis for their power was the imperium, the right to command troops and administer justice. So that no one would miss the point, consuls, and the other few magistrates vested with the imperium, were accompanied by a designated number of lictors—attendants armed with axes bundled with rods called fasces, a badge indicating their chief’s capacity to inflict both capital and corporal punishment.19
As we have seen, the consul’s power was circumscribed by the senate when the consul was within the city, but out in the field he had absolute command. Ordinarily this worked well, but in the emergency of the Second Punic War, consular armies were combined on several key occasions, raising the fundamental question of who was in charge. Cannae was one of those occasions. Perhaps because of a bitter experience with monarchy earlier in their history, Romans were deeply committed to the principle of collegiality and redundancy in their leadership, but they were also a practical people.
So, possibly as far back as 500 B.C.20 they had created the dictator, which at least mitigated the problem of dual authority. A single official, appointed for six months by the consuls, on the basis of a senatus consultum, the dictator had absolute power even within the city, a status symbolized by his twenty-four lictors to a consul’s twelve. Nominated in the dead of night and customarily forbidden to serve on horseback, the dictator had the right to name an assistant with roughly the power of a praetor and named, logically enough, master of horse.21 Dictators were designated to perform electoral and religious duties, but basically the office was a means of focusing military power in the face of disaster. As the frequency and intensity of Rome’s wars increased during the third and fourth centuries B.C., so did the reliance on dictators, culminating in the office’s archetype, Fabius Maximus. Dutifully he stepped down after six months, as was expected of dictators. But ultimately, as the careers of Cornelius Sulla and Julius Caesar would later demonstrate, the power vested in dictators would prove fatal to republican government. For at the heart of the system, even in a time of political stability, military power and glory trumped just about everything else.
As Rome expanded, the wealth and landholdings of its great families grew apace, as did their networks of clients. But all were a means to an end, and that end was prestige, which in turn was a function primarily of military reputation. This was the central motivation of the Roman aristocracy, the universal solvent to nearly any career obstacle, the essence of success on the Tiber. For those holders of the imperium who had won a significant victory over a foreign enemy, the senate might vote a triumph, the veritable crowning achievement of a Roman politico-military career. (Those not meeting these exacting standards might be given an ovation, the bellicose equivalent of a consolation prize.)
The triumph ceremony involved the victorious general, his face painted the same shade of terra-cotta red as statues of Jupiter, riding a chariot preceded by the senate and magistrates, along with the captured enemy leader (frequently on the way to being strangled). This procession was followed by the general’s troops in a grand march through Rome’s streets, lined with cheering crowds pelting the triumphant one with flowers. Meanwhile, within the chariot a slave held a golden wreath above the general’s head and whispered in his ear that he was not a god. The general might have wondered, since there was only one higher Roman honor, the spolia opima, given to a general who managed to kill an enemy leader in single combat and then strip his armor. Although thespolia opima was awarded only three times (once in 222 B.C. to Marcus Claudius Marcellus, of whom we will hear more), it is still worth mentioning, since it serves to illustrate the importance Romans placed on individual combat in their tactical approach. For at a certain level, every man was meant to be a heroic warrior.
If the life of an ordinary male Roman citizen was not exactly the life of a soldier, as was the case among Spartiates, his life was certainly deeply conditioned by things military and especially by military obligations. All able-bodied property holders had to serve—ten years for cavalry and sixteen for infantry—states Polybius (6.19.2–4) who adds, “in case of pressing danger, twenty years’ service is demanded from the infantry.” While military operations were seasonal, and only a minority of citizens were required for the army in a single year, this was still a substantial burden. Even before recruitment, youth were trained by drillmasters to march, run, swim, carry heavy loads, and wield weapons22—which is worth mentioning, since Polybius (3.70.10; 3.106.5) attributed Rome’s early defeats at the hands of Hannibal to legions filled with raw recruits without training. They may have been inexperienced, but they were not likely to have been simply civilians. It is common to refer to Rome’s army as a citizen militia, and this is probably an accurate representation of earlier armies. But by the time the Carthaginians arrived, the army better resembled the great conscript armies of World Wars I and II,23 perhaps even the American version, filled as it was with rural draftees whose prior existence had preconditioned them for combat, with useful skills like hunting and shooting.
But the militarization of Rome was far more pervasive culturally, and even religiously. Basically the Romans worshipped the same fractious warlike gods as the Greeks, but they were particularly given over to divination. When it came to warfare, they were virtually obsessed with the proper taking of auspices and obedience to various portents. To the modern eye there is an unadulterated weirdness in reading Livy as he chronicles the hardheaded Roman moves in the Second Punic War, and then just as seriously runs on about rocks falling out of the sky, two-headed calves, and ravens pecking at the gilding on a god’s statue. Flaminius in particular is viewed as impious, and Livy all but blames the Roman disaster at Lake Trasimene on the consul’s pigheaded disregard of the gods’ obvious displeasure, such as tent standards that were hard to pull up (22.3.12–13).
As the fortunes of war continued to spiral out of their control, the Romans demonstrated a willingness to go to practically any lengths to propitiate the gods, including, after the catastrophe at Cannae, human sacrifice and even outsourcing. Thus, as noted earlier, the historian and statesman Fabius Pictor was sent to Greece to consult with the Delphic oracle as to what had gone wrong with the gods and how specifically they might be appeased. The Romans were still attempting to divine the gods’ wishes fifteen years later, with Hannibal continuing to lurk in the south of Italy. When it was brought to the senate’s attention that a prophecy in the sacred Sibylline Books indicated that a foreign invader might be driven from the peninsula by bringing the image of the Idaean Mother from Asia Minor to Rome, a delegation was dispatched to King Attalus of Pergamum to arrange the transfer (Livy 29.10.4ff). Again following the advice of the Delphic oracle, the Romans chose “the best man in Rome,” Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, to receive the cult figure. While his cousin Scipio Africanus likely played a greater role in ultimately getting rid of Hannibal, the Roman people were presumably reassured.
If the sacred in Rome was soaked in blood and battle, so was the profane. This brings us to the controversial subject of gladiatorial combat. Introduced in 264 B.C. as part of funeral ceremonies, the contests quickly took on a life of their own, and are conventionally seen as exemplifying the cruelty and perversity of Roman social life.24 Disregarding the later excesses of the games, gladiators may well originally have had a more serious purpose. Tactically the Roman army fought as individual swordsmen, psychologically the most demanding kind of combat, in its essence sheer human butchery.25 Participation and success demanded extraordinary conditioning; training helped but it was also necessary to remove the veil of mystery from manslaughter. Gladiators showed Romans how to fight and die at close quarters, quite literally to confront mortality.26 To modern sensibilities this must seem cruel, unnecessary, and ultimately criminal; for at a certain level it is simply impossible to bridge the gap that separates us in time and psychology from the Romans. But it may help our understanding to suggest that gladiatorial combat was, at least initially, in part a matter of instruction and not just popular entertainment. What they were seeking to instill was virtus, or individual martial courage, the quality one scholar calls “the root value of the Romans of the middle Republic.”27
Accentuating the warlike stature of Rome may seem excessive or even irrelevant, since a number of other contemporary societies were also highly militarized. Yet most, particularly those dependent on irrigated agriculture, were basically tyrannies, and their armies were as much a mechanism of social control as they were implements of belligerence. Other societies, such as the Hellenic city-states, had sufficiently managed to enlist the loyalty of their citizenry to create effective and broad-based fighting formations. Yet the Greeks were forever fighting among themselves, and even the later Hellenistic coalitions forged by the more politically ecumenical Macedonians were brittle and ultimately transitory. The Romans were different.
As a matter of policy the defeated were certainly subordinated, but they were not subjugated; in the ancient world this was revolutionary. Rome forged a uniquely sturdy confederation based on the twin principles of incorporation and alliance, always informed by the rubric of “divide and rule.”28 Most remarkably, for peoples in the first category (generally incorporated in central Italy) Rome proffered a complex array of enfranchisements that led up to full citizenship. The rest were allies, not of one another, but of Rome only—each city and state was bound by a separate treaty and granted a customized range of options. Only one provision was standardized: all peoples were required to provide troops to serve under Roman command.
And to ensure they could and did, Romans attempted to literally cement their alliances with a remarkable network of highways, a web of paving stones. One day the empire would be interlinked by a system of more than fifty thousand miles of such roads, but at the time of Hannibal’s invasion this network was limited to the Italic peninsula and struck out in four key directions. The first, the Appian Way (roads were named after the censors who built them, in this case Appius Claudius Caecus), was begun in 312 B.C. and headed south, making the connection to Capua. Later, once the Romans had moved into Magna Graecia, they extended the road into Apulia all the way to Brundisium on the Adriatic at the top of the heel of Italy. To cover the northern flanks, in 241 they constructed the Via Aurelia to the key port of Pisae (modern Pisa) on the west coast facing the Ligurian Sea. Finally, Flaminius, seeking a quick means of reinforcing the northeast against Gallic intrusions, drove an eponymous highway all the way to Ariminum (modern Rimini) far up the peninsula on the Adriatic side.29
Now, in the actual conduct of the Second Punic War, the roads would prove something of a two-edged sword, since the Carthaginians could use them too. But these highways sent a psychological message to Rome’s junior partners that was hard to miss. Expensive and laborious to build, often straight as an arrow, the highways allowed armies to move quickly to trouble spots. (The roadbeds actually were primarily useful for logistics carts; soldiers generally marched along the shoulders.30) These highways made it clear the Romans were building their coalition to last. Once in Rome’s camp, always in Rome’s camp.
Yet this merely diagrams the skeletal structure of the confederation. For as the Romans expanded, they very naturally and almost unconsciously transferred their domestic fixation on patron-client relationships to the dependencies they created through conquest. This was done not just as a matter of state policy, but also through networks of individual linkages between key Romans and their families with equivalents abroad, creating a vast web of personal loyalties and mutually beneficial relationships that resulted in a mass of social rituals and guest friendships.31 What emerged was far stronger and more resilient than the basically parasitic empires characteristic of the ancient Middle East. The confederacy was no commonwealth; Rome was very much the dominant partner. In typical Roman fashion there was an element of ambiguity to the entire scheme, but inclusiveness was not just a façade, and it generated real fidelity.
However, not all were equally loyal and satisfied with their status. When Hannibal crossed into Italy, certain areas to the south of Rome—Samnium, the recently incorporated Greek cities, and Capua, the second city of the peninsula—were restive and prone to secession. But many localities here held firm, as did the Latin heartland and the regions to the north. Because the Carthaginian applied conventional standards of empire to the deceptive Romans, he thought that once he had thrashed them on the battlefield, their allies would fall away like ripe fruit. But in assuming this, he missed a great deal; his analysis was that of seeing an X-ray showing only bare bones, blind to much of the personal connective tissue that held the Roman body politic together.
Hannibal also may not have fully understood what a large body it was. Rome’s wars, particularly the first one with Carthage, were very costly, and keeping so many men under arms would eventually lead to reproduction problems.32 But when Hannibal arrived, the situation was far from acute; quite the opposite. One of the key advantages of Rome’s alliance system—perhaps the key advantage, considering the huge number of casualties the Carthaginian would inflict—was the vast reserves of manpower it provided.33Polybius (2.24.1–17), who gives us a detailed and plausible accounting, estimates “the total number of Romans and allies able to bear arms was more than seven hundred thousand foot and seventy thousand horse, while Hannibal invaded Italy with an army of less than twenty thousand men.” The historian neglects to add the Carthaginian’s six thousand cavalry, but his point still stands. Taking on such a behemoth, no matter what Hannibal’s fighting capabilities, was a Sisyphean task.
Empiricism, not originality, made Rome. The evolution of Rome’s institutions was ultimately driven by what worked; this helps explain the ramshackle cast of what emerged. Romans did not proceed from theory, nor were they too proud to learn from others—even their enemies. They took what they saw, tried it out, and if it was successful, it became Roman. They also learned from their mistakes and their disasters, which brings us to what Romans themselves would have considered most important—the engine of their expansion, the backbone of the state … the legionary army.
The force described in Polybius’s famous section on the Roman military system (6.19–42) was in many ways different from the one overwhelmed by the Gauls at the River Allia in 390 B.C. The Roman military would continue to evolve, and some even maintain that Polybius’s description is actually of the force as it existed in his own time and not at the time of the Second Punic War—although most don’t.34 But only the most radical reinterpretation would attempt to argue that by the time of Hannibal’s invasion one key aspect of the force had not already changed.35
At the core of the army was now the individual foot soldier. This might seem to be a truism; but it is actually critical to understanding why the system was so lethally effective and also how it could be literally crushed at Cannae. That most Roman heavy infantrymen fought in the style of a single combatant has been alluded to earlier; now it is time to go into detail.
This is not meant to imply that the infantryman was a loner, a tactical outlier. He was very much a constrained part of a larger formation, but his combat responsibilities were individualized.36 In Roman terms virtus was balanced by disciplina, which was seen primarily as a brake on excessively aggressive behavior. Together the two operated as the yin and yang of combat comportment for foot soldiers.37
Romans had originally fought as part of a phalanx not much different from that of the Greeks. A densely packed mass protected by shields and armed with thrusting spears, the phalanx moved relentlessly forward seeking to break a rival formation through cumulative pressure and wounding. In other words, the violence it inflicted was that of the group. But as the Romans found at the River Allia, such a formation could be enveloped, and once penetrated from the flanks and rear, its inmates became utterly vulnerable. So over the space of time (the sequence is hard to pin down chronologically) the infantryman was transformed into something much more flexible; the phalangite became a legionary and his lethality was personalized.
It was largely a matter of weapons, or at least how they were employed. Rather than using his spear as a pike, most infantrymen (roughly four out of five) now threw their spears as javelins and then acted primarily as swordsmen—the same sequence followed by Homer’s warriors in The Iliad. They were choreographed not as soloists but as a sanguinary corps de ballet across the forward edge of battle. But if the spirit was Homeric, the details were Roman, worked out mainly through observing their adversaries and figuring out what worked best.
As his formation approached the enemy, for most legionaries the first offensive act was to cast his pilum, borrowed, some Roman historians believed, from the Samnites, among his most indefatigable enemies.38 Polybius maintains that an infantryman carried two types of pila, a thick and a thin version, one being lighter than the other. It may be that one was for longer ranges, but it is difficult to see how he could have held the spare while charging.39 Besides, penetrating power was maximized at around fifteen feet, which would have limited our rapidly closing Roman to one really effective throw. For the pilum was essentially a manually delivered armor-piercing projectile—a four-foot wooden shaft attached to a long slender iron shank tipped with a barbed pyramid-shaped point, which effectively concentrated all the weapon’s momentum at the point of impact. The target could be an exposed appendage or armored body but was more likely to be a shield, which says a good deal about the thought that went into the weapon and its use. Modern experiments have shown the pilum capable of penetrating about an inch of pine.40 If that happened to be your shield, you were instantly in deep trouble, since it would have been nearly impossible to remove the weapon quickly. Designed to bend on impact (so it couldn’t be thrown back), a protruding pilum was clumsy and heavy enough to marginalize your most important item of protection from the murderous infighting that was bound to follow.
Once in close to an opponent, a legionary was doubly dangerous. First, he wielded the gladius hispaniensis, a hefty but well-balanced double-edged short sword something over two feet long, tipped with a long triangular point. Probably adopted from Spanish mercenaries serving with the Carthaginians during the First Punic War,41 the sword was easily capable of tearing away entire limbs with a single blow.42 Yet the gladius was most lethal when inflicting puncture wounds, the ever observant Romans having recognized that a penetration of but two inches anywhere on the trunk was generally fatal.43 Hence the legionary is often pictured in a slight crouch with his right or sword arm farthest from his opponent (the opposite of a modern fencer), poised to deliver an upward thrust at the belly or perhaps at an exposed thigh. But he had a basic problem. His short sword, while versatile and lethal, was still short, meaning that a determined thrust or slash could leave the legionary vulnerable to a devastating counterblow. This has led some to surmise that normally Romans attacked in a deliberate probing way, trying to score a number of lesser wounds.44 Given individual differences in courage and aggressiveness, this is plausible, but the legionary had another means of creating an opening that is often overlooked, his shield.
All Roman heavy infantrymen carried a massive buckler, at the time of Cannae still oval-shaped and approximately four feet long and two feet wide. Also thought to be of Samnite origin, this scutum was carefully constructed of three layers of plywood, each lined up with the grain at right angles to the others for strength. Thicker in the center and flexible at the edges, it was highly resilient to blows but also very heavy. (Reconstructions appear to peg it at about twenty pounds).45 This was compounded by being carried in the left hand with a horizontal handgrip, which, when compared to a vertical handle, made it particularly difficult to wield on the defense. But with an overhand grip this arrangement did enable the user to exert the full force of his shoulder to deliver what amounted to a scutum punch likely to unbalance or even fell an opponent, which might leave the opponent open to a fatal short sword follow-up.
This routine would not have looked much like fencing or the frenzied hacking of cinematic reconstructions, but more like a lethal sword dance, the adversaries darting and executed from multiple angles of attack. It is important to understand that unlike the closely packed phalangites, legionaries were given a considerable patch of personal space to exploit and defend. Sources disagree as to spacing, with Polybius (18.28–30) giving each legionary a six-foot-by-six-foot box, while Vegetius (3.14, 15) reduces his frontage to three feet and adds slightly to the depth; possibly it varied with circumstances. But in any case these dimensions affirm that the legionary was basically on his own, and that he needed room to fight. When robbed of this space in which to maneuver, as happened at Cannae, he was in trouble. This was a demanding form of combat, but with sufficient training, and when operating within the tactical and strategic schemes the Romans devised, it turned legionaries into extraordinarily deadly warriors.
But by the time of the Second Punic War the system was still in transition. Eventually, all legionaries would be armed alike, but at this point the methodical Romans still kept an element of the phalanx in their formations. The oldest and presumably the steadiest one fifth of the heavy infantry, the triarii, brought up the rear and retained the thrusting spear—the idea being to form a barrier of last resort should things not go well with the others.
There were also some variations in defensive equipment, but these were primarily reflective of differences in wealth, not tactical roles. Most important was the differential in upper-body protection, with common soldiers wearing a small nine-inch-square heart protector, or pectorale, while the richer could afford a Celtic-style ring-mail cuirass, likely worn over some sort of padding. Also, Polybius (6.23.12–5) tells us that legionaries employed a single greave, but richer ones might have added a second. Line infantry uniformly appear to have had good helmets, most commonly adaptations of a Gallic design, or Montefortino-type, basically a hemispheric bowl with a neck protector and often equipped with cheek pieces—all topped with an eighteen-inch-tall crest of feathers.46
All told—pilum, gladius, scutum, helmet, greave, chest protection—this adds up to a lot of stuff. The legionary was a heavy infantryman in fact as well as in name. At the high end—if mail was worn—his arms and accoutrements would have amounted to a nearly eighty-pound burden, around fifty pounds if only a pectorale was included.47 This is of some significance to our story; not only did the trapped legionaries who attempted to swim for it at Lake Trasimene sink like stones, but Cannae was fought in the south of Italy in the middle of summer. Heat prostration was bound to have played a role in the slaughter, with, ironically enough, the best-protected Romans suffering the most. Nevertheless, the legionary of the Second Punic War was still very well equipped to do his job, a judgment endorsed by no less of an authority than Hannibal himself, who outfitted his best troops with Roman accoutrements captured at the Battle of the River Trebia and at Lake Trasimene.48
When it came to heavy infantry, the Romans took good care of their soldiers and closely attended to their needs. This is further illustrated when we take the individual legionary and place him in formation. As we saw earlier with the triarii, the Roman military’s transition from the phalanx was only partially complete, and the tactical scheme at Cannae plainly needed further development. Still, the infantry fighting formations that the Romans had evolved—as best as we can figure them out—appear to reflect considerable insight into how fighting49 among large groups of men really took place.
Basically the phalanx was meant for the flat battlefields. Its central problem was keeping together as it moved forward. Unless the men slowed virtually to a crawl, even slight terrain irregularities bent and eventually broke it, as some phalangites got out ahead and others fell behind, leaving fatal gaps for an enemy to plunge into. When the Romans moved into hill country in their attempts to conquer the upland tribes, they solved the problem, as Hans Delbrück famously stated, by giving the phalanx “joints.”50 In essence they sliced and diced it, breaking the formation into small groups or maniples (handfuls), formed by stacking two of the basic administrative units, or centuries (each made up of seventy-two men and led by a centurion), one behind the other. Between the maniples a space was left exactly the width of a century. This way the units could be detoured around obstructions, and confusion within the ranks contained within the maniple.
Of course this left a lot of gaps, which gets us to the second innovative aspect of the so-called manipular order, the slicing part. The Romans lined up their maniples in a triplex acies, cutting the phalanx latitudinally to create three separate formations lined up one behind the other, with some considerable space left between each. At the rear were the triarii, next came the maniples of principes, and at the front were the hastati, the latter two being armed with pila and short swords. When deployed for battle, the maniples of each type were placed directly behind the intervals between the maniples of the line in front, creating a checkerboard pattern, or quincunx (like the number five on dice). This only partially covered the gaps, but it allowed for something even more important and astute.
Nothing is more exhausting than close combat. Driven by a desperate combination of aggression and fear, supercharged with adrenaline, bouts of hand-to-hand fighting are estimated to have an upward limit of about fifteen to twenty minutes before the participants become utterly sapped.51 Therefore, modern sources visualize ancient battles as having been basically episodic, begun with a frenzy of mayhem and then, if neither side broke initially, being paced over a period of hours by a series of time-outs for rest, reorganization, and recommitment, followed by repeated rounds of more fighting. The geometry of the manipular order exploited these physical and emotional limitations by allowing for the replacement of exhausted fighters with fresh ones, while at the same time providing shelter for those recuperating.
Here is how it might have worked. Once deployed in the triplex acies, a legion would approach the enemy in checkerboard fashion at a measured pace until reaching the outer edges of the anticipated combat zone. At this point tactical mitosis would have occurred, with the rear centuries of the first maniples, the hastati, moving to the left and then forward to join the front centuries in the space between each maniple, to form a solid line of fighters half as deep as the original formation. These groups then moved rapidly forward to engage the enemy, throwing their pila and weighing in with their short swords. Within the ranks of the hastati—made up of younger and more eager fighters—legionaries would move forward to replace fallen or exhausted comrades, until the adversary showed signs of breaking or was at least fought to a standstill. Taking advantage of this lull, the rear hastati centuries might resume their original positions behind, and the second line of maniples, the principes, would move through the re-formed gaps ofhastati, repeat the mitosis, and confront the flagging foe with a line of fresh fighters, a tactical one-two. Meanwhile, as the fighting proceeded, the hastati could rest and the entire process could be renewed several times more. If things went really badly or the swordsmen of both of the two front lines became totally exhausted, the maniples of triarii could advance and break apart into a solid line of spears, behind which the others could take refuge. Or so it seems.
Plainly, there are differing interpretations and also questions as to how well the manipular order might have worked in actual battle. A minority of authorities question the intricacies of forming solid lines of fighters, and maintain that the Romans engaged with the original checkerboard pattern.52 This is plainly simpler but seems fatally flawed, since it would have allowed adversaries to rush through the gaps and attack the flanks of the maniples, especially on the sides without shields. Still, close combat is confusing and desperate, and the kind of martial minuet outlined above would have demanded a tremendous amount of discipline, training, and tactical leadership to maintain over the course of an extended battle. It would have been especially so if and when centuries and maniples were asked to retreat in order to perform the necessary rearrangements.53 This meant either marching backward or turning away from the enemy, difficult in the first instance and positively dangerous in the second. This could have been minimized by always moving the lines ahead so that even the maniples could have been re-formed without retrograde motion; but unless the fighting had gone very well, this was likely to have had the unwanted effect of breaking the necessary lulls in combat prematurely. Still, this serves to illustrate that the manipular order was basically for moving forward, not backward. In this way it had not changed fundamentally from the phalanx.
There was the potential for more flexibility. The subdivided nature of the system suggested the possibility of using lines or groups of maniples independently to flank or even swing behind an adversary. But it would require a military genius, Scipio Africanus, to make this flexibility apparent. In the meantime the Romans remained as Hannibal found them and as Polybius (34.9.9) described them, “disapproving of every kind of deceit and fraud, and considering that nothing but direct and open attacks were legitimate for them.” Roman commanders and Romans in general were proverbially offensive, and their style of fighting and their past successes gave them confidence that they could chew through any adversary.
Yet the system itself made it difficult for the Romans to live up to these expectations. The formations demanded a great deal from the soldiers, not only individually, but also corporately in terms of precise coordination. This meant relentless drilling and unit continuity, but typically legions were discharged after a campaign season and new ones raised. Many of those called up would have had previous military experience, but as far as is known, they would not have served together, nor were their immediate commanders the centurions yet professionals.54 So the process was necessarily one of building and rebuilding. Even if we assume Roman troops were individually capable, organizational performance lagged until desperation led to further systematic change.
Then there were the allies. When a legion deployed, it was normally accompanied by an ala of socii, or allies, commanded by Roman citizens. This unit seems to have been around the same size as a legion, but with triple the cavalry. Historical sources are mainly silent as to their military nature, which some believe indicates they were organized and equipped much like Romans.55 But this remains open to conjecture, as do the allies’ levels of training. We do know there were chosen allied troops—a third of the cavalry and a fifth of the infantry—known as extraordinarii, who appear to have been at the general’s disposal, possibly indicating that the rest were less reliable. After all, most of the allied units were made up of those the Romans had already defeated, so how can we assume they were equally effective? When a consular army lined up for battle, typically two Roman legions took the center, with the two alae forming the wings. This position could imply that the alae had a lesser tactical role—holding the flanks while the Romans moved forward and carved the heart out of the adversary. Hannibal characteristically attacked the wings. There were a number of reasons for this, but one may be that he expected less resistance there. Thus while the larger message of the Second Punic War was one of allied loyalty, there is reason to believe that the allies may have been a weak link tactically.
While heavy infantry lay at the core of Roman fighting power, light troops and cavalry also formed an integral part of the legionary system; yet both also fell short in terms of effectiveness. For example, skirmishers played a vital if unsung role in ancient warfare, preying on enemy foragers and exposed infantry, supporting cavalry, and screening heavy formations as they deployed. They were especially effective on broken terrain, and during the fourth century B.C., light troops among the Greeks had assumed an increasingly important tactical role. Subsequently they had become more specialized and professional, until by Hannibal’s day they formed a large pool of available mercenaries, a resource he employed to great effect.
Roman light troops, on the other hand—mostly known as velites (“fast men”)—were plainly less developed at the time of the Carthaginian’s arrival. Originally just a very lightly armed throng, the velites described by Polybius (6.22) were still the youngest and poorest troops in the army. Some historians argue that the velites were really more military servants than soldiers at the time of Cannae, and it was only in 211 that they were reorganized into true light infantry.56 Most disagree, but the velites’ persistent reverses early in the war are also telling. Although a quarter were probably too poor to afford anything much in the way of weapons, the remainder appear to have been fairly well equipped, with a sword, javelins, a decent circular shield, and a helmet sometimes topped with a wolf’s skin for identification. They seem to have had their own officers, and there is evidence that they trained cooperatively with cavalry, but their organization remains a matter of speculation. Most likely they fought in an open order, perhaps attacking in waves.57 But not with very much success.
Velites were pretty clearly the least prestigious class of fighters in the Roman army. For most it seems to have been an apprenticeship, the first step on the way to joining the heavy infantry. Because they were young, they were brave and enthusiastic but also impulsive. Worse for them, in facing Hannibal’s light troops, they would be facing experienced killers, professionals of varying nationality—Balearic slingers, javelin-throwing Libyans, Ligurian lancers, Spanish spearmen—all fighting in their own unique ways, a grab bag of tricks, a miscellany of lethal potential. For velites, one style fit all: throw the javelin and then either retreat or draw near to fight at close quarters with swords as junior hastati.
Also worth noting is the virtual absence of the bow, an ideal weapon for skirmishers bent on harassment. While Hiero of Syracuse reportedly sent the Romans a small contingent, including some archers, before Cannae, nothing more is heard from them.58Otherwise, the Romans eschewed the bow, as did the Carthaginians, a remarkable occurrence given the usefulness of the implement and the desperation of the conflict. Evidently, Homer and his admonition against archers as “foul fighters” cast a long shadow in the western Mediterranean.
But if the Roman velites were “one-trick ponies,” the Romans were also, quite literally, reluctant riders. No one disputes that the republican Roman preferred to fight on foot. But the very strength of the heavy infantry seems to have retarded the development of an effective cavalry—a strange situation, given that the cavalry membership was recruited from the upper classes and service with the horse provided the path to higher office and thus command. While the ethos was probably not that of an adolescent romp, as one critic opined,59 the enterprise seems lacking in serious military purpose. Since combat distinction was the basis of a Roman political career, it has been argued that members of the cavalry were prone to impulsive acts of bravura and had a proclivity for single combat rather than for working together as a disciplined unit.60 Granted, they were organized—into turma of thirty, ten to a legion—but just how well they followed direction is open to question. Restraint was important with horses, since the chief tactic of the headlong charge could quickly lead to stampeding a unit of horses right off the battlefield and into irrelevance. Not only that, but Roman cavalry, being heavily armed and made up of Romans, had a proclivity to jump off their horses and fight it out on foot, thereby sacrificing their central advantage.
This was important, since one of the chief roles of cavalry is reconnaissance; ancient armies were compact in comparison to the territory they covered, and the need simply to find the enemy—preferably before he found you—was not to be dismissed.61 But Rome’s young aristocrats plainly preferred fighting to scouting. Since the allies provided most of the horse, presumably much of this vital scouting was left to them. Yet the monotonous frequency with which Roman armies fell prey to ambushes during the third and second centuries strongly implies that the allies were not much better at reconnoitering than their senior partners. If Rome’s legions were not exactly blind, they were at least nearsighted.
Finally, the fact that the route to command among Romans was through service on the back of a horse raises questions about the leadership of what was essentially an army of foot soldiers. Surely commanders studied and understood infantry tactics, and being mounted provided some advantage in mobility and getting a better view of the battlefield. Still the maniples were the territory of the various grades of centurions, officers fairly low on the totem pole, and everybody above the centurions had a background in cavalry. Other ancient armies were similarly led, but few other armies were so dependent on the success of their infantry. So the potential disconnect between Roman commanders on horseback and their troops on foot in terms of experience is something to be considered, especially since Hannibal was thoroughly schooled in all forms of warfare.
Having looked at the Roman military system in detail, it remains to consider how the different components operated in concert. To explore this, it makes sense to gather up the Roman military’s most characteristic product, a legionary battle force, and take it out for the conceptual equivalent of a test drive, a short notional military campaign.
During this period the Roman combat model of choice was the standard consular army.62 This was most efficient and responsive when configured to be about a quarter the size of the doomed big rig we saw heading for Cannae at the very beginning of the chapter. Its basic engines of destruction were two specifically Roman legions. Each one consisted of six hundred triarii, twelve hundred hastati, twelve hundred principes, and twelve hundred velites, for a total of forty-two hundred foot soldiers, plus an additional three hundred cavalry. These were joined by two alae of allied troops, each roughly of legionary size, along with two associated contingents of cavalry, numbering nine hundred horse respectively. When optional supernumeraries were added, the total force added up to around twenty thousand. While Roman legionaries were notable for carrying heavy loads of their own equipment, it is hard to conceive of each legion needing less than a thousand extra animals to carry and cart necessary equipment and baggage.63
Figuratively speaking, this was a big vehicle with a lot of horse (and mule) power. Out on the via as the force made its way forward, it likely measured in excess of a mile in length, so its road manners were somewhat questionable. It has been argued that prior to the big ambush at Lake Trasimene the legionary order of march was a careless shambling procession, only to be reined in by the firm hand of Fabius Maximus.64 Polybius (6.40.3–14), however, outlines a much more regular procedure, with the extraordinariiplaced at the head of the column, followed by the right allied wing and pack animals, then the first legion with its baggage behind it, trailed by the second legion, which had with it both its own pack train and also the baggage of the second ala, which normally brought up the rear. The cavalry was stationed either behind their respective infantry units or on the flanks of the pack train, to keep the animals together. In times of imminent danger, Polybius adds, the hastati, principes, and triarii formed three parallel columns for quick deployment.
Our consular army was basically an all-terrain vehicle, but the distance it covered was very much subject to the kind of surface it was traversing. On the best roads it was probably capable of a maximum of seventeen to twenty miles a day, with these numbers shrinking progressively as the route deteriorated and the obstacles increased.65
One thing was invariable, however. While there was still plenty of daylight, military tribunes rode ahead to choose and lay out not just a suitable rest area, but the legionary equivalent of a full-service truck stop. Having arrived at the designated spot, the army then spent the next three hours digging a carefully surveyed rectilinear perimeter ditch, forming a rampart, studding it with a palisade, building gates on each side, and then setting up within the enclosed area a precisely configured tent city predetermined to match exactly the army’s organization. Polybius gives us a virtual blueprint of the facility, sparing us few details in a scheme that appears to have left nothing to chance. There was a designated space for nearly every function an army might need to perform in the cause of preventive maintenance—room to eat, sleep, train, assemble, store booty, march in and out, with traffic flow in all circumstances being carefully considered. But the camp was far more than a service center.
Both ancient and modern commentators agree that the methodical construction of a marching camp was among the most characteristic features of the Roman approach to warfare.66 It was a center of motivation, a place of rewards and punishments for a system fervently committed to both. Here, before the rest of the army, men who had deliberately exposed themselves to danger received the decorations so coveted by Roman soldiers and so effective in leading them to risk their lives. Alternately, it was where those who had stolen from comrades, had slept on watch, had disobeyed, had tried to desert, or had proved less than courageous fell prey to savage and generally fatal chastisement, inflicted either by the lictors—flogging with their fasces and beheading with their axes—or by the soldiers themselves.
As much as anything the camp was a state of mind, a psychological weapon—both defensive and offensive. On the one hand it provided the legionary with an orderly bit of home territory, a familiar haven from what was often a very hostile and dangerous outer environment. It was also the nest of the contubernium, the squads of eight men who ate and tented together, reinforcing the small-unit bonds that are at the heart of any successful army. But looked at from the enemy perspective, the marching camp sent an entirely different message. By habitually fabricating a nearly identical fortification at the end of each day’s progress, the Roman army signaled its irrevocable advance and the collective will pushing it forward.67 The Romans were as relentless as their camps were inevitable.
But physically the camps were far from invulnerable. Any palisade of posts and tree branches thrown up in a matter of hours was bound to be fairly flimsy and capable of stopping only small-scale assaults. This inherent weakness has caused some to question the worth of the whole enterprise. There are numerous examples of Roman camps being overrun; yet this almost always occurred after a debacle in the field.68 If an army was sufficiently degraded and demoralized, as happened at Cannae, no camp was likely to protect the survivors.
Still, this misses the point. The camp was essentially a staging area and potential rallying point. This was why Roman commanders customarily accepted battle only a short distance from their base. Their army might take the field rested and in good order, and if worse came to worst they still had a place to escape to. Troops on the run are at their most vulnerable. Any means of cutting short this pursuit and providing time for regrouping was a potential lifesaver. Camps did fall, but many a Roman army reemerged to snatch victory from defeat.
For our own army this is entirely premature. Dawn has broken. The sentries have remained alert beyond the perimeter, and there have been no attempts at harassment to disturb our sleep. Still, the enemy is near, and one glance at the consul’s tent and the red vexillum staked outside it makes it apparent this will not be a day of marching. Before sunrise the consul met with his military council (quaestor, tribunes, and the senior centurion—the primus pilus—of each legion, plus the prefects of the allied brigades),69 and the decision to do battle has been made and orders have been given. Almost immediately the shriek of the horns controlling the velites breaks the morning air as they filter out of camp to set up the screen behind which the heavy infantry will assemble. The cavalry follows almost immediately to join them.
By this time the legionaries have finished their breakfast and are making last-minute preparations—sharpening the edges of their short swords, burnishing their helmets, dressing for battle. They join their centuries and find their place in the avenues between the tent rows, gradually building three great columns of hastati, principes, and triarii in the broad space behind the ramparts, each maniple, legion, and ala positioned where it will belong in the battle line. The individual columns then march out different gates and reassemble in parallel, proceeding lengthwise toward the planned battlefield until reaching a point foreseen to be the Roman left flank. At this juncture all three columns make a ninety-degree turn right, marching parallel to the enemy until the other flank is reached by the head of the respective columns, whereby the triplex acies is in place.
The process sounds simple enough but was likely time-consuming and very difficult, with tribunes racing back and forth on horseback, attempting to keep the columns straight and marching at roughly the same speed. The process finished with the centurions redressing the maniples and attending to their vital spacing—geometry with a cast of thousands. Assuming all went according to plan, the velites would then withdraw through the gaps in the line and the cavalry would take up their positions on the extreme flanks, the allies on the left and the Romans on the right.70 What was left was approximately one mile of death-dealing potential stretching menacingly across the horizon, a serried barricade of sharp instruments, determination, and bad intent. Many armies who faced this spectacle would not live out the afternoon, unless of course you happened to be led by Hannibal. For him it spelled opportunity.
The Roman army described here was like a modern vehicle we might take on a test drive in one more respect; it was replaceable. Should it be wrecked, another just like it could be ordered up and put together. This was at once its great strength and its weakness. Because both its leaders and its fighters were, if not amateurs, then at least temps, many more of roughly the same quality could always be found, promising a numbing succession of legions and near-endless Roman resistance. But when faced with a true virtuoso legion wrecker, about the best that could be achieved was more akin to a stalemate than victory. To rid itself of the succubus of Hannibal, Rome required a general as good as he, and a truly professional army. Both were to be found among Hannibal’s victims at Cannae, but in taking up the general and the professional army, the republic drove the first few miles down the road to republican ruin.
* The Comitia Tributa was composed of citizens, including patricians, though membership was based on ancestry. It was presided over by a consul and sometimes by a praetor or curile aedile. This body elected curile aediles, quaestors, and special commissions, and also passed legislation.
† Befitting of its name, the Concilium Plebis included only plebeians in its membership and was presided over by a tribune of the plebes. The council elected the ten plebeian tribunes, along with the aediles of the plebes and special commissions. It too voted on, but did not debate, legislation.