Episode 41 – Cannae: Rome’s Darkest Day

Fabius the Delayer might have saved Minucius from disaster at Geronium, but he would not always be there to protect his impetuous colleagues from rushing into trouble. Following Fabius’s relinquishment of the dictatorship, one of the newly-elected consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro, accused Fabius and the patricians of intentionally prolonging the war. Instead of continuing to follow Fabius’s delaying tactics, Varro urged the Romans to immediately engage Hannibal to obtain decisive victory. Despite the protests of his fellow consul, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, Varro’s counsel won out. The Senate raised four new legions in addition to the four which typically served. Fielding the greatest army she had ever raised – 87,000 men total – Rome challenged Hannibal for the third time at the small Apulian town of Cannae.

Monument at the plains of Cannae. A flat, treeless landscape, Cannae was perfect for Hannibal to use his superior cavalry numbers to full effect. Original photo by Wikipedia User Jörg Schulz.
Carthaginian deployment at Cannae. Unusually, Hannibal left his center relatively weak and placed his Spaniards and Gauls – the latter his more unreliable troops – there. The “wedge” formation, as Livy calls it, meant that Hannibal’s veterans were kept in reserve at the tips of the semi-circle. From left to right: Numidian cavalry, one-half of Hannibal’s Libyan spearmen, alternating groups of Gauls and Spaniards in the center, the remaining half of Libyan veterans, and then the Gallic and Spanish cavalry next to the River Aufidus.
Numidian light horse deploy on the Carthaginian right under Hanno and Maharbal.
One-half of Hannibal’s veteran Libyan spearmen, many in captured Roman equipment from Cannae, deploy on the Carthaginian right forming the tip of the semi-circle.
In the center, Hannibal alternates groups of Spaniards and Gauls and takes up his position to lead at the post of danger.
The remaining half of Libyan veterans deploy on the right at the other tip of the semi-circle.
Finally, the Spanish and Gallic cavalry deploy on the Carthaginian left flank, anchoring Hannibal’s flank against the River Aufidus.
The Romans under Varro deploy in a dense formation, concentrating all their men in the center and leaving little room to maneuver. Varro himself commanded the left flank.
Paullus, who had advised against giving battle, commanded the right flank. The previous year’s consuls, Servilius and Regulus, commanded the center.
The outnumbered Roman cavalry held both Roman flanks.
Battle begins with the Roman center crashing into its weakened Carthaginian counterpart. Fierce fighting ensues.
Under extreme pressure from the Romans, Hannibal’s center begins to buckle and turn inside out. Several groups of Gauls and Spaniards turn to flee, drawing the Romans further forward.
Meanwhile, the Roman cavalry near the River Aufidus break after a brief struggle.
The Numidians on the Carthaginian right flank also route their Roman counterparts.
Hannibal’s Libyan veterans swing into action on either flank, attacking the Romans’ exposed sides when the semi-circle turns inside out.
To complete the coup de grâce, the freed Carthaginian cavalry slams into the Roman rear, closing the trap.
The numerically superior Romans are completely surrounded and suffer near total annihilation. Sources estimate that between 50,000 and 70,000 of the original 87,000 Romans who took the field died along with the Consul Paullus, both former Consuls Servilius and Regulus, Minucius, Fabius’s old lieutenant, and numerous other Roman elites. Hannibal’s “double envelopment” at the Battle of Cannae would represent a spectacular military achievement, one which generals from that day to this would be eager to replicate.
Diagram of how the Battle of Cannae transpired. As the Romans drove forward in their dense columns, the Carthaginian semi-circle turned inside out, exposing the Roman flanks to attacks from Hannibal’s African veterans and his superior cavalry. This maneuver allowed for Hannibal’s smaller force to surround the numerically superior Romans and slaughter them almost to a man. Note: The Battle of Cannae took place on August 2, 216 BC, not in 215 BC as indicated by the diagram.
Artistic rendition by John Trumball of the death of Lucius Aemilius Paullus. Cautious and conservative by nature, Paullus had advised against giving battle at Cannae but his more impetuous colleague Varro won out. Paullus died fighting, killed by a hail of spears.
Famous statue from 1704 by Sébastien Slodtz of Hannibal counting the rings of the Roman senators slain at Cannae. Now in the Louvre in Paris, France.

Download: Episode 41 – Cannae: Rome’s Darkest Day on Apple Podcasts

Download: Episode 41 – Cannae: Rome’s Darkest Day on Spotify

Recommended further reading:

The Histories by Polybius

Hannibal’s War by Titus Livius

A Companion to the Punic Wars (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World) Edited by Dexter Hoyos

Hannibal’s Dynasty by Dexter Hoyos

Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

Implacable Enemies: The Barcid Armies at War by Karwansary Publishers

Clash of the Colossi: The First Punic War by Karwansary Publishers

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