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Second Punic War: Battle of Cannae

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Second Punic War: Battle of Cannae

Hannibal

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Conflict:

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

Dates:

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

Commanders & Armies:

Carthage

  • Hannibal
  • 40,000 heavy infantry, 6,000 light infantry, 8,000 cavalry

Rome

  • Gaius Terentius Varro
  • Lucius Aemilius Paullus
  • 87,000 men
  • Battle Summary:

    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 moved south plundering the countryside and working to make Rome's allies defect to Carthage's side. In the spring of 216 BC, Hannibal seized the Roman supply depot at Cannae in southeast Italy. With Hannibal sitting astride Rome's supply lines, the Roman Senate called for action. Assembling a massive army of nearly 87,000 men, the Consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus advanced to face the Carthaginians.

    The two armies met along the banks of the Aufidus River on July 31 and began skirmishing. 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

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