Second Punic War: Battle of Cannae

he Death of Aemilius Paullus by John Trumbull
Battle of Cannae. Public Domain

Battle of Cannae - Conflict:

The Battle of Cannae took place during the Second Punic War (218-210 BC) between Rome and Carthage.

Battle of Cannae - Dates:

The battle occurred on August 2, 216 BC at Cannae in southeast Italy.

Commanders & Armies:

Carthage

Rome

  • Gaius Terentius Varro
  • Lucius Aemilius Paullus
  • 54,000-87,000 men

Battle of Cannae - Background:

After the start of the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal boldly crossed the Alps and invaded Italy.

Winning battles at Trebia (218 BC) and Lake Trasimene (217 BC), Hannibal defeated armies led by Tiberius Sempronius Longus and Gaius Flaminius Nepos. In the wake of these victories, he moved south plundering the countryside and working to make Rome's allies defect to Carthage's side. Reeling from these defeats, Rome appointed Fabius Maximus to deal with the Carthaginian threat.  Avoiding direct contact with Hannibal's army, Fabius struck at the enemy's supply lines and practiced the form of attritional warfare that later bore his name. Unhappy with this indirect approach, the Senate did not renew Fabius' dictatorial powers when his term ended and command passed to the consuls Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Marcus Atilius Regulus (Map).  

In the spring of 216 BC, Hannibal seized the Roman supply depot at Cannae in southeast Italy. Situated on the Apulian Plain, this position allowed Hannibal to keep his men well fed.

With Hannibal sitting astride Rome's supply lines, the Roman Senate called for action. Raising an army of eight legions, command was given to the Consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. The largest army ever assembled by Rome, this force advanced to face the Carthaginians. Marching south, the consuls found the enemy encamped on the left bank of the Aufidus River.

As the situation developed, the Romans were hampered by an unwieldy command structure which required the two consuls to alternate command on a daily basis.

Battle of Cannae - Preparations:

Approaching the Carthaginian camp on July 31, the Romans, with the aggressive Varro in command, defeated a small ambush set by Hannibal's men. Though Varro was emboldened by the minor victory, command passed to the more conservative Paullus the next day. Unwilling to fight the Carthaginians on open ground due to his army's smaller cavalry force, he elected to encamp two-thirds of the army east of the river while establishing a smaller camp on the opposite bank (Map). The next day, aware that it would be Varro's turn, Hannibal advanced his army and offered battle hoping the lure the reckless Roman forward.  Assessing the situation, Paullus successfully prevented his compatriot from engaging. Seeing that the Romans were unwilling to fight, Hannibal had his cavalry harass the Roman water-bearers and raid in the vicinity of Varro and Paullus' camps. 

Seeking battle on August 2, Varro and Paullus formed up their army for battle with their infantry densely packed in the center and the cavalry on the wings.

The Consuls planned to use the infantry to quickly break the Carthaginian lines. Opposite, Hannibal placed his cavalry and most veteran infantry on the wings and his lighter infantry in the center. As the two sides advanced, Hannibal's center moved forward, causing their line to bow in a crescent shape. On the Hannibal's left, his cavalry charged forward and routed the Roman horse (Map).

Battle of Cannae - Rome Crushed:

To the right, Hannibal's cavalry was engaged with that of Rome's allies. Having destroyed their opposite number on the left, the Carthaginian cavalry rode behind the Roman army and assaulted the allied cavalry from the rear. Under attack from two directions, the allied cavalry fled the field. As the infantry began to engage, Hannibal had his center slowly retreat, while ordering the infantry on the wings to hold their position.

The tightly packed Roman infantry continued to advance after the retreating Carthaginians, unaware of the trap that was about to be sprung (Map).

As the Romans were drawn in, Hannibal ordered the infantry on his wings to turn and attack the Roman flanks. This was coupled with a massive assault on the Roman rear by the Carthaginian cavalry, which completely surrounded the Consuls' army. Trapped, the Romans became so compressed that many did not have space to raise their weapons. To speed the victory, Hannibal ordered his men to cut the hamstrings of each Roman and then move on to the next, commenting that the lamed could be slaughtered later at the Carthaginian's leisure. The fighting continued until evening with approximately 600 Romans dying per minute.

Battle of Cannae - Casualties & Impact:

Various accounts of the Battle of Cannae show that 50,000-70,000 of the Romans, with 3,500-4,500 taken prisoner. It is known that approximately 14,000 were able to cut their way out and reach the town of Canusium. Hannibal's army suffered around 6,000 killed and 10,000 wounded. Though encouraged by his officers to march on Rome, Hannibal resisted as he lacked the equipment and supplies for a major siege. While victorious at Cannae, Hannibal would ultimately be defeated at the Battle of Zama (202 BC), and Carthage would lose the Second Punic War.