The Battle of Cannae- from the Book of Mistakes

By Christopher (Moon) Mullins

  The Battle of Cannae (2 August 216 BCE) was the decisive victory of the Carthaginian army over Roman forces at Cannae, southeast Italy, during the Second Punic War (218-202 BCE).

In 216 BCE, Roman military tactics were still in their infancy. The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca (l. 247-183 BCE), who was already known for his unorthodox tactics against Rome, counted on the Romans relying on the traditional tactics and formations that had worked so well for them in the past and used their very strengths to defeat them. The typical Roman formation was to position light infantry toward the front masking the heavy infantry and then coordinating light and heavy cavalry on the back wings.

Background – The First Punic War

The first Punic war toppled Carthage and elevated Rome as the new power in the region. The city of Carthage in North Africa was the superpower of the Mediterranean. Rome was a small European trade city on the River Tiber when the two came into conflict over Sicily, parts of which both controlled in 264 BCE. The resulting First Punic War toppled Carthage and elevated Rome as the new power in the region. Carthage was burdened with a heavy war indemnity and their general Hamilcar Barca (l. 275-228 BCE), who had led the army against Rome, went to Spain to raise funds from the Carthaginian-controlled silver mines there to help pay this debt.

However, Hamilcar’s intentions were to regroup, reequip, and resume the war with Rome. He brought his son Hannibal (and later his younger son Hasdrubal Barca, l. c. 244-207 BCE) with him to help subdue the Iberian tribes and control the silver mines. When Hamilcar was killed in battle in 228 BCE, command of the Carthaginian forces went to his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair (l. c. 270-221 BCE), who chose diplomacy over military action in dealing with the Romans. In 226 BCE, the Ebro Treaty was signed between Carthage and Rome, agreeing on the boundaries in Spain between Carthaginian and Roman territories. Both nations agreed they would remain in their regions and leave the other in peace. Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated in 221 BCE; however, and command passed to Hannibal, who, as a young man, had sworn to his father never to make peace with Rome.

Hannibal’s Aggression & Rome’s Response

Hannibal started the Second Punic War when he attacked the city of Saguntum, a Roman ally, in southern Spain in 218 BCE, placing it under siege and taking it for Carthage. The Romans, citing the Ebro Treaty, demanded Hannibal be arrested and turned over to them, and when Carthage refused, war was declared.

Instead of waiting for the Romans to send forces to Spain, Hannibal decided to take the battle to them on their ground. He marched his army over the Alps into Italy, leaving Hasdrubal in command of the forces in Spain. Once on the Italian plains, he began advancing through Roman territory taking small cities and villages and defeating Roman forces as he encountered them; at Trebia at the Ticino River (218 BCE) and again at Lake Trasimene (217 BCE). By 217 BCE, Hannibal held all of northern Italy, and the Roman senate feared he would march on Rome.

The Romans began to panic, fearing too little was being done by the consul, Quintus Fabius Maximus (l. c. 280-203 BCE), who had been made dictator in this time of crisis. Fabius decided on a policy of harassing Hannibal and trying to thwart his plans through strategic movements and brief skirmishes rather than full engagement, earning him the nickname (“the delayer”).

The Romans wanted direct action and discernible results. In 216 BCE, the younger consul Minucius Rufus was elected to command with another called Fabius. Minucius called for a confrontation with the invading Carthaginian army, and Fabius gave him command of half the Roman forces and told him to do his best. Minucius was swiftly defeated by Hannibal, who used tactics that the Roman command could not understand until it was too late, surprising him in an ambush near the town of Gerione. Minucius’ forces were scattered, and he had to be rescued by Fabius. According to the historian Will Durant: “The Romans could not readily forgive him [Hannibal] for winning battles with his brains rather than with the lives of his men. The tricks he played upon them, the skill of his espionage, the subtlety of his strategy, and the surprises of his tactics were beyond their appreciation. “ After the defeat of Minucius, Fabius resigned, and Rome scrambled to find another army to fight against Hannibal.

New Command & Prelude to Battle

The two consuls Lucius Aemilius Paulus[1] (d. 216 BCE) and Caius Terentius Varro (served c. 218-200 BCE), who replaced Fabius, both favored abandoning his delaying tactics and meeting Hannibal head-on in battle. Varro called for immediate engagement despite Fabius’ warnings that Rome could not defeat Hannibal in open combat. Paulus, who seems to have had doubts about Varro’s proposal, feared that the people would ridicule him as Fabius had been and so reluctantly agreed with the strategy of confrontation. Scholar Ernle Bradford comments: The senate was determined that year on a battle. They had the support of the people. All sections of the population, although there was a great division among them – a division that men like Varro had fostered – were determined to avenge the defeats that Rome had suffered in the campaigns of the previous two years and to expunge the slight that had been cast upon the Roman name by the presence of the Carthaginian general and his army in the land of Italy. Not only did their honor and traditions call them out to offer their services, but it also seems that plebeians and aristocrats alike realized that Rome, not just the city but the whole concept of Roma Eterna, had reached a crisis point. Revenge was calling!

While the Romans were arguing strategy and forming plans, Hannibal was on the move and took the significant supply depot of Cannae at some point in early 216 BCE. With Cannae under his control, he expanded his reach to the surrounding regions. In a panic, the Romans demanded an immediate response, and in July of 216 BCE, Paulus and Varro led a force of over 80,000 against Hannibal’s less than 50,000 at Cannae.

Varro commanded one half of the force and Paulus the other. As they marched, Hannibal ambushed Varro’s command but was beaten back. Varro claimed this skirmish as a great victory, which improved the morale of his troops, but Paulus was beginning to have second thoughts about the coming fight. He realized it was too late to back down and encamped his troops, approximately one mile (2 km) away from Hannibal’s army.

The Faceoff

The opposing forces faced each other for two days. Hannibal sent small raiding parties to harass the Romans. On the day of battle, Hannibal disguised his intentions by placing his light infantry of Gauls at the front to mask his heavier infantry, whom he positioned in a crescent formation behind them. At a given signal just before the battle, the light infantry fell back to form two wings of reserves. Hannibal’s light and heavy cavalry were positioned at the extreme wings of the position. Hannibal had spent the past two days observing the Roman legions and positioned his forces to exploit all potential weaknesses in his adversaries.

Following their usual understanding of battle in which superior forces would overwhelm by sheer strength, the Romans arrayed their forces in traditional formation with light infantry masking the heavier cavalry to the wings. Because Hannibal had been in position first, his location dictated the Roman deployment and field of battle. The Roman army, therefore, was curtailed on their right flank by the Aufidus River, with a hill to their rear, leaving the area to their left flank as the only avenue of retreat should the battle go against them. However, Varro was confident of victory and formed his lines, so it appeared his forces only matched or were even less than Hannibal’s while massing his infantry in the center behind the front line.

Battle of Cannae – Initial Deployment

When the Roman legions began their march toward the Carthaginian lines, the Carthaginian infantry fell back before them. The Romans took this as a positive sign that they were winning and pressed on. The Carthaginian light infantry, who had fallen back, now took up position on either end of the crescent formed by their heavy infantry. Simultaneously, the Carthaginian cavalry charged the Roman cavalry and engaged them.

The Roman infantry continued their charge into the enemy’s ranks but could not use their superior numbers precisely because of their traditional formation. Those soldiers massed behind the front line and further toward the back of the ranks merely served to push those before them onward. This would normally have served to break the enemy’s lines at the center, but Hannibal carefully withdrew that center toward the wings as the Romans continued advancing. At the same time, the Carthaginian heavy cavalry drove back the Roman cavalry, opening a breach in the lines to the rear of the infantry.

As the cavalry forces engaged and the Roman infantry continued advancing, Hannibal signaled for the trap to close. The light infantry, which formed the ends of the crescent of the Carthaginian line now moved up to form an alley in which the Roman forces found themselves trapped. The Carthaginian cavalry fell upon the Roman infantry from behind, the light infantry attacked from the flanks, and the heavy infantry engaged from the front.

Battle of Cannae – Destruction of the Roman Army

The Romans were surrounded and were almost annihilated. Out of the over 50,000 who took the field, 44,000 (88%) were killed, and those who survived fled through the area of their left flank and managed to escape to Canusium. Hannibal lost 6,000 men, mostly the Gauls, who had made up the front lines. According to Durant: It was a supreme example of generalship, never bettered in history. It ended the days of Roman reliance upon infantry and set the lines of military tactics for two thousand years.

Just as the Romans had earlier learned from their adversary Pyrrhus, they would now learn from Hannibal, but before the lesson could be internalized, they would have to deal with their almost overwhelming grief.


Hannibal’s victory at Cannae completely demoralized Rome and threw the city into a full-blown panic. So many men had been killed that there was no family which had not lost one of their own or a close friend. Mourning rites continued throughout the days while the Romans tried to understand what had caused the defeat and finally resorted to human sacrifice to appease their gods.

Fabius was formerly ridiculed for his tactics and was now hailed as a hero. At the same time, Varro was villainized as a fool whose rash behavior and overconfidence had cost Rome its bravest soldiers and citizens. Fabius’ efforts at this time restored some semblance of order. He decreed that mourning rites should be conducted within the home, thus bringing order to public life, and should be concluded within a month. Afterward, a public ceremony purifying Rome of its complicity in the deaths at Cannae further relieved the people’s guilt and allowed them to begin to move on.

Revenge was paramount in many people’s minds, however, and this sentiment came to be via Scipio Africanus (l. 236-183 BCE), who volunteered to lead Rome. Scipio had lost his father, Publius Cornelius Scipio (d. 211 BCE), and uncle, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio (l. 265-211 BCE), at the Battle of Upper Baetis in Spain fighting against Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal. Hence, his interest was personal as well as professional.

Scipio defeated Hasdrubal Barca in Spain, driving him over the Alps toward Hannibal in Italy, who, by this time, was engaged by the proconsul Gaius Claudius Nero (l. c. 237 – c. 199 BCE).

Nero defeated Hannibal at the Third Battle of Nola in 214 BCE but could not win any significant battle. He defeated Hasdrubal, however, killing him at the Battle of the Metaurus in 207 BCE, and Scipio then drew Hannibal away from Italy by threatening Carthage itself.

At the Battle of Zama in North Africa in 202 BCE, Scipio would leverage his lessons learned and use Hannibal’s tactics from Cannae to defeat him and win the Second Punic War. Roman skill on the battlefield, through which they became masters of the world of their day, can be traced directly back to Scipio Africanus and his adaptations of Hannibal’s strategies at Cannae.

Hannibal’s victory, however, would haunt the Romans for centuries afterward, and mothers would chastise their children, threatening that Hannibal would come for them if they did not behave, long after both generals were gone. Whether domestically or militarily, Hannibal’s ghost would significantly impact Roman culture long after Cannae.

A.  Battle of Cannae

B.  Carthegenians versus the Roman Legions. The Battle of Cannae was a major battle in the Second Punic War between the Roman Republic and Carthage, fought on 2 August 216 BC near the ancient village of Cannae in Apulia, southeast Italy.

C.  Number of Casualties and lives lost, 44000 experienced Roman Soldiers

D.  Prolonged the war Yes or No? Yes

E.   Responsible parties- Paulus and Varro were defeated at the hands of Hannibal.

F.   Lessons Learned

  • Varro was villainized as a fool whose rash behavior and overconfidence had cost Rome its bravest soldiers and citizens.
  • Simple plans are quite often the best. The simpler the plan, the more the subordinates can understand and execute them.
  • Hannibal placed himself at the center of the attack to draw in the Roman forces. The leader was in front of the ongoing battle, side by side with his troops, and he was still able to command his troops and commanders and move them into position effectively.
  • The Battle of Cannae was a major turning point in the Second Punic War. It showed that Hannibal was a brilliant military commander and severely affected Roman morale. The Romans would eventually recover from this defeat, but it would take them many years to do so.
  • Roman skill on the battlefield, through which they became masters of the world of their day, can be traced directly back to Scipio Africanus and his adaptations to Hannibal’s strategies at Cannae.

G.  Most glaring factor. The Romans massed their heavy infantry in a deeper formation than usual. Hannibal placed himself in the center, leveraged the situation, and immediately ordered and implemented a double envelopment tactic. The Roman commanders did not realize their mistake in time: the Carthaginian infantry’s crescent formation now surrounded them at the front, and Hannibal’s cavalry was driving into their rear. Roman soldiers were so tightly packed in this Carthaginian trap that they could not swing their swords. Hannibal’s forces drew them into the kill zone, surrounded and slaughtered them in depth.

One key to Hannibal’s success was his ability to gain and retain the trust of his troops. … Hannibal also was skilled in making allies. His goal in Italy was to break away Rome’s allies and win them over to the fight against Rome. It took great wisdom to win these political victories.

Anecdote: Before Hannibal’s greatest battle and Rome’s worst defeat in history, Cannae, he stood with his Commanders overlooking a terrifying sight, Roman Legions and cavalry that outnumbered them two to one, “one of his Commanders, Gisgo, a Carthaginian of equal rank with himself, told him that the numbers of the enemy were astonishing; to which Hannibal replied with a serious countenance, “There is one thing, Gisgo, yet more astonishing, which you take no notice of.”

And when Gisgo inquired what that could be, Hannibal answered, “in all those great numbers before us, there is not one man called Gisgo.”

This unexpected jest of their general made all the company laugh, and as they came down from the hill, they told it to those whom they met, which caused a general laughter amongst them all.”

What military strategy did Hannibal use in battle?

When the Romans massed their heavy infantry. Hannibal realized what was happening and ordered/manipulated his forces into a double envelopment formation. Using this tactic, he could surround the enemy, trapping the majority of the Roman army, who were then slaughtered.

What formation did Hannibal use?

A Crescent Formation. However, he had to be able to read the strategy the Romans were using. It took knowledge of his opponent, thoughtful planning, and great military strategy. As the image provided shows, Hannibal began with a crescent formation with the convex side facing the Roman forces and placed himself in the middle. He knew that the Romans would be drawn to him.

BTW: Hannibal is still studied today because of his unparalleled ability to strategize and get inside his opponent’s mind in battle.

Why didn’t Hannibal take Rome after Cannae?

There were many reasons why Hannibal did not march against Rome immediately after Cannae. Rome was a large city, defended by huge walls, which Hannibal’s troops would have been unable to breach, lacking siege equipment. Besides, his numbers were insufficient for a successful siege.

What did the Romans think of Hannibal?

Even After his death, the Romans still had animosity towards him; Roman writers told wrote stories of Hannibal being a vicious and barbaric villain, even though in reality, he would usually ransom Roman POWs and release non-Roman POWs without ransom immediately after a battle, and even perform funerals for the slain enemy.

Why was Hannibal considered a military genius?

Simple plans are quite often the best. The simpler the plan, the more the subordinates can understand and execute them. The more complicated the plan the more likely it is to be stuffed up. Hannibal Barca knew what he was doing, so he is considered a military genius.

Additional commentary:

Hannibal spent about 17 years trying to subdue Rome. In retrospect, his greatest error was in not attacking Rome directly after the Battle at Cannae. Some experts speculate that he lacked siege equipment and didn’t attempt to invade Rome. Historians also say that he didn’t want to destroy Rome, just split off city-states to reduce its power.

The Battle of Cannae was a foreshadowing for the Battle of Zama (202 BCE), the victory of the Romans led by Scipio Africanus, the Elder, over the Carthaginians commanded by Hannibal. The last and decisive battle of the Second Punic War effectively ended both Hannibal’s command of Carthaginian forces and Carthage’s chances to oppose Rome significantly. Scipio had lost his father and uncle to the Carthaginians and was as determined to get even as his Cannae veterans were.

During this battle, Scipio developed a plan to counteract Hannibal’s devastating use of charging elephants. Scipio had studied Hannibal’s tactics in previous battles. He developed tactics to defeat him at Zama finally. Scipio used loud horns when the Carthaginians sent in the elephants! The horns scared the charging elephants into retreat, causing havoc in the advancing Carthaginian lines.

For those of you who are film buffs. This is the battle Patton is speaking of in North Africa when he retells a reincarnation vision he has had; he describes the aftermath of the battle scene to his military aide, his jeep driver, and Omar Bradley, wherein the Romans annihilated the Cathegenians and women with wooden carts appeared to loot the dead for clothes and other items.

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