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Battle of Cannae

(2 August 216 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Illustration showing Hannibal fighting in the front line at the Battle of Cannae
Hannibal fighting from the front at Cannae by Peter Dennis.

Battle of Cannae (216 BCE) was the biggest defeat of Roman army in history. Manoeuvre from Cannae was an innovative solution of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general.

Background of events

After Hannibal passed through the Alps and reorganized the troops, the whole Italy in danger. Thus the Senate sent two consular armies, one of Publius Cornelius Scipio and the other of Sempronius Longus, but they were defeated by the River Trebia in 218 BCE.
With this victory Hannibal opened his way to central Italy. Senate, concerned about the course of the war, appointed two new consuls, Servius Geminius and Flaminius. They tried to bar the road through the Apennines for the Punic army, but Hannibal completely surprised the Romans as he crossed the swampy valley of the River Arno. Thanks to this manoeuvre, he set a trap for the Flaminius’ army on Lake Trasimeno, where in 217 BCE there was a great battle. As a result, 15 000 Roman soldiers and the consul himself died.

Hannibal’s route of invasion.
Autor: The Department of History, United States Military Academy | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Hannibal’s brilliant victories forced the Senate to set up a dictator that had been an unused organ for a long time. Fabius Maximus became one. He followed a very wise policy of avoiding major battle with the Carthaginians, for which he gained the nickname Cunctator.

The Carthaginian infantry was armed as the Greek hoplites.

Hannibal, who could not attack well fortified Rome, attacked the fields of Italian peasants, thus depriving the capital of food supplies. However, he deliberately avoided the fields belonging to the Fabius family, which led to changes among the authorities. In Rome appeared suspicions that the consul belonged to some conspiracy. As a result, Senate appointed the second dictator, Minucius Rufus, and in 216 BCE the position of dictator was replaced by appointing two new consuls: Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. They received the order to finally eliminate the problem of Hannibal’s army.
The Roman Republic, in order to have a powerful army, mobilized the greatest forces in its history. The Roman army was assigned to two consuls and on them depended the fate of the campaign. Both commanders: Paullus and Varro at the head of their powerful army set off “where they heard, the enemies camped” (Polybos), that is near the city of Cannae in Apulia in the south-east of Italy.


Roman forces consisted of 8 Roman legions and another 8 legions of allies from all over Italy. In total, Roman forces numbered, taking into account some shortages, around 86.000 people:

  • 81.000 infantry
  • 6000 cavalry (2400 Roman citizens and 3600 allies)

10 000 people were detached to cover the camp, but still the Roman army was definitely more numerous than its rival (in the battlefield the Romans had about 76 000 people).

The Carthaginian army was smaller and had 50.000 people in total:

  • 32.000 heavy infantrymen
  • 8 000 light infantry
  • 10.000 riders

Roman tactics assumed a strong charge with the center consisting of three casts of heavy infantry. On the flanks, the Roman cavalry would stop the impact of the much stronger Punic cavalry, preventing it from encircling Roman troops. At that time, a huge wave of Roman infantry was to get through the center of Hannibal’s army and massacre everything on its way. With such a turn of events, even a strong cavalry of the Carthaginians would not change the fate of the battle. The right wing of the cavalry, consisting of 2400 Roman citizens, was taken over by Aemilius Paullus. The left flank, commanded by Terence Varro, consisted of 3600 elite cavalry allies.

Hannibal’s tactics was based on forming the infantry into the half-moon buckled towards the Romans line. In the center of the formation, there were 22 000 light-armed Gauls and Iberians. On the sides of this formation there was the heavy Carthaginian and Libyan infantry. On the right wing stood 4 000 light-armored Numidian cavalry, and on the left, 6000 strong, Gallic and Iberian cavalry, led by Hasdrubal and the Greek Sosylos.
Hannibal’s plan was to put up a shallow infantry center, on which he would focus all the momentum of the Roman strike. The thin line of infantry was supposed to then retreat and draw Roman infantry into the giant double pliers. At both ends of the Iberian and Celtic battle lines, stood strong detachments of the best Hannibal’s infantrymen, Libyans (5 000 soldiers). At that time the cavalry would deal with the weaker and less experienced Roman cavalry and attack the infantry from behind.


The battle began with the confrontation of skirmishes from both sides. The firing of Hannibal’s archers and slingers caused a lot of damage to the Roman light infantrymen (velites) before they approached the distance which allowed them to use javelins. After the long exchange of fire, the light infantry was withdrawn.

Roman legions after the withdrawal of the velites for their formations moved to attack in a close order. After reaching the right distance, the legionaries threw the pila. Thousands of javelins fell on the Gauls and Iberians, sweeping their first ranks. The legionaries drew their swords and started the attack. The light infantry staggered under the terrible charge of an iron ram. Immediately, the weak Iberian-Gallic infantry began to withdraw under the pressure of the legions. Their arch bent to the other side and he began to retract. The Roman army was moving forward, going deeper and deeper into Hannibal’s army. The resistance was weak. The quick retreat of the enemies seemed to be caused by the powerful formation of their army. The legions continued to hammer deeper and deeper into the ranks of the enemy, still having the impression that victory was already in their hands. But when they were pursuing retreating Iberians and Gauls, they were actually stretching their line, creating slowly a semicircle around the enemy.
The legionaries did not pay much attention to the troops of the heavy African infantry that stood there. It is possible that Roman soldiers simply did not see them. Their order was oriented east, so the sun was shining in their eyes, and the wind raised huge clouds of dust on the army. At the order of Hannibal, the heavily armed Libyans crashed on the flanks of the Roman infantry. Disorganized troops crumbled, and the attack on the Carthaginian center was stopped. The trap slammed.

The first phase of the battle.
Autor: Piotr Tysarczyk | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

The second phase of the battle.
Autor: Piotr Tysarczyk | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Meanwhile, the clash on the wings also began. Hasdrubal’s heavy-duty cavalry on the left wing fell on Paulus’s cavalry. With the advantage in quantity on this section of the front and definitely better training, Carthaginians quickly forced the Romans to flee. At that time, the light Nubian cavalry on the right wing led a slow battle with the elite of the Roman cavalry. After the victory on the left wing, Hasdrubal moved on Varro’s army, taking Roman cavalry with two fires. Under the pressure of stronger opponents, the second wing of the Romans also rushed to escape, followed by the Numidian cavalry. After eliminating the hostile cavalry, according to Hannibal’s wishes, Hasdrubal struck from the back on the victorious Roman infantry.

Hannibal counting the rings of Roman equites who died during the battle.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

Surrounded from three sides, the Roman army was unexpectedly attacked from behind by Hasdrubal’s cavalry. The charge completely surprised the Romans. Hannibal’s trap slammed shut. Panic broke out.
Varro escaped when Paulus tried to control the chaos and form an array that would defend his troops. However, his efforts were ineffective. The legionaries were thrown into a chaotic mass. There was no hierarchy among the soldiers, no one commanded. There was a fight for life and death. legionaries inside could not even take part in the fight. They looked helplessly at the death of their companions and waited for their turn. The defeat was inevitable.

The battle turned into a bloody massacre. When the clash of the weapons finally died away and the dust began to fall, the eyes of the winners were shown a terrible battlefield with mountains of corpses. Between 52.500 and 75.000 Romans and allies were killed and 10.000 were taken prisoners. Only 14 500 managed to avoid the trap. In addition, 2 700 riders died. Among the fallen were three of the four most important Roman commanders: consul Paulus, proconsul Servilius Geminus, former dictator (magister equitium) Minucius Rufus, two quaestors – Lucius Atilius and Lucius Furius Bibaculus, 29 of 48 military tribunes and 80 prominent men of Rome.
Carthaginian losses according to Polybius numbered only about 5 700 people: 4 000 Gauls, 1 500 Iberians and Africans, and 200 riders.


The battle of Cannae turned out to be the greatest military disaster in the whole of Roman history. After the “defeat of the Cannae”, Rome was horrified. At the suggestion of Rome’s dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, known as Cunctator, various religious rites were used to reverse the wrath of the gods. There were even victims. Two vestals were condemned to death for breaking their vows of chastity, which contributed to drawing gods anger. Two, Gaul and Greek, couples were buried alive, symbolizing hostile nationalities.

The Senate, shocked by such a huge defeat, returned to the strategy of avoiding major battles in Italy. Instead, it was decided to carry out an offensive in Spain, where the young consul Publius Cornelius Scipio, later named African, went. Much time had to pass before the Romans believed again that they could defeat the army commanded by Hannibal.

Death of Aemilius Paullus, John Trumbull

The meaning of the battle of Cannae for the Romans

When in 217 BCE Quintus Fabius Maximus became a dictator, he decided to avoid an open confrontation with the army of Hannibal, leading the war against the Carthaginians to exhaustion. This was criticized by many Roman notables. Such tactics of Fabius caused that he was given the nickname Cunctator.
Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 3.0.

When in 217 BCE Quintus Fabius Maximus became a dictator, he decided to avoid an open confrontation with the army of Hannibal, leading the war against the Carthaginians to exhaustion. This was criticized by many Roman notables. Such tactics of Fabius caused that he was given the nickname Cunctator.
Hannibal’s great victory did not bring any major benefits and final settling. The error he made was not to march to Rome, the heart of the Roman state. Certainly, capturing the capital would have forced the Romans to accept peace and a final defeat in the war. Hannibal, however, was afraid that he would not be able to get to Rome and gave up this venture. Instead of specific actions, he focused on acquiring allies in southern Italy, which was a big and decisive mistake in his campaign. Carthage finally suffered a devastating and extremely costly defeat in the conflict.

The weeks after the catastrophic defeat at the Cannae were the hardest test for the Roman Republic. In recent battles, the Romans lost 100.000 soldiers, in addition, the country was weakened by the betrayal of some dependent cities in southern Italy. The allies then came to the conclusion that Hannibal would remain in Italy forever, and would make peace with him more willingly as he had promised not to take anyone into the army by force. Rome lost all of southern Italy except for the Roman and Latin colonies and the Greek coastal towns. The hardest charge was the betrayal of Capua, which turned to the side of Carthage, tormented by the prospect of taking Rome from the primacy of the Italian cities. What is more, many countries from areas outside Italy, which had been watching the conflict with interest, but remained neutral, prepared to join their forces to the victorious side. As a result, Rome faced the threat of new wars: in Macedonia, Sicily, Sardinia and Spain – which would force the Republic to make new military recruitment.

The battle of Cannae remained forever in the Romans’ memory as they never forgave the victory of the Carthaginians. In this critical situation, the Romans remained calm. The Senate took the helm of the state in his hands, proving that he rightly had primacy in Rome, and the Roman people proved to be the leader in Italy. The atmosphere in the senate is illustrated by the attitude of the chamber toward consul Varro, who was a political parvenu, not welcomed in the ruling groups. Varro escaped unharmed from the battle of Cannae. He gave great service, bringing troops to their units who managed to escape from the battlefield. When Varro returned to Rome to submit his command, the Senate expressed his thanks to him that he “did not doubt in the Republic.” Varro’s greeting was both an official statement that not everything was lost, and an appeal to close the ranks. In such an atmosphere, Roman people were ready to suffer all sacrifices. A request for joining the army was made with such a great desire that until the end of 216, the losses suffered at Cannae were compensated. Over the next five years, the number of Roman legions engaged on various fronts reached a level so far unseen, rising in 212 to twenty-five. At the same time, the people took the burden of a wealth tax (tributum) on themselves without any opposition. Prosperous families gave their slaves to serve in the land army or navy, made benefits in money or in nature, commenting with the promise of their return in the future, and the soldiers did not ask for the payments. Nevertheless, the authorities of the Republic could not cope with the costs of maintaining a huge army and fleet in constant readiness. There was a need to depreciate the coins, and over the years the Roman “as” became lighter, and the legions serving abroad had to rely only on their resourcefulness. However, no one said anything about the peace. The soldiers who deserted from the battlefield at Cannae were punished with 12 years of constant service in Sicily, in humiliating conditions. Fearing that negotiations about the prisoners could lead to peace talks, it was decided to leave Roman prisoners in captivity and not offer a ransom for them.

Hannibal accepting the Romans’ surrender.
Autor: Aleksander Jeżow

With the same patriotism, the Romans put aside inner conflicts. In the first years of the war, the Roman strategy was influenced by the disputes between the state of senators, always prone to caution, and people who demanded more energetic actions. After the battle of Cannae, the decisive voice in state affairs was left to the Senate, and although his claims to influence the election of consuls were occasionally denied, the Senate was casting candidates for the commander’s positions, recommending them to tried and deserved people (including Fabius Maximus, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, Claudius Marcellus). As a result, the Senate managed to achieve the uniformity and continuity of state leadership, which was rather unusual because in the Roman system there were no institutional and practical premises to implement these principles.

The determination given by the Romans did not affect their faithful allies. Without a word of protest, they provided military contingents without attempting to get Rome any new privileges. In fact, the Cannae proved to be one of the least decisive battles amidst the great battles in universal history.

  • Holmes Richard, Wielkie bitwy i kampanie
  • Kęciek Krzysztof, Dzieje Kartagińczyków, Warszawa 2007
  • Lancel Serge, Hannibal
  • Sikorski Janusz, Kanny 216 p.n.e., Warszawa 1984
  • Zieliński Tadeusz, Rzeczpospolita rzymska, Katowice 1989

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