The first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 is infamous for delivering an inglorious record for the British Army; over the course of just 24 hours, 20,000 British soldiers were killed – the highest number in the country’s history.
This enormous toll, which came in the age of mechanised and mass mobilised warfare, is well known. What isn’t well known, however, is that more than 2,000 years before, in the era of the sword, shield and bow, the Republican Roman Army lost 2.5 times that many men in just a single day.
And, as if a death toll of 50,000 wasn’t shocking enough, it was suffered at the hands of a smaller and more lightly equipped Carthaginian army. This battle, which took place at Cannae, was the masterpiece of Hannibal Barca, and is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular military victories of all time.
The Punic Wars
Few tales from history can match the epic grandeur of Hannibal’s march into modern-day Italy during the Second Punic War. It was set against the backdrop of two powers that had grown too big to share the central Mediterranean and as a result came to clash with each other through the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC.
Carthage was a powerful maritime empire based around its capital of the same name which now lies in modern Tunisia. Predating Rome as a major power, by 264 BC (the year of its first clash with Rome), Carthage controlled much of North Africa, Spain and the western part of Sicily.
It was this last province that would cause Carthage to come into contact with Rome, the city-state that had now come to dominate much of Italy after defeating the Greek states of Magna Grecia (modern-day southern Italy).
The first war between the two powers, known as the First Punic War, was fought over Sicily, and proved to be a see-sawing contest that took place on both land and at sea – the latter a theatre of war that the Carthaginians had previously dominated.
In the end, however, the bloody-minded and determined Romans were victorious, much to the disgust of the Carthaginian commander, Hamilcar Barca. Barca made his nine-year-old son, Hannibal, swear that as long as he lived, he would never be a friend of Rome.
After its defeat, the navy and finances of Carthage were in a sorry state. But Hamilcar wasn’t done. Taking his sons with him, he lead an invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in order to subdue the hardy tribes that resisted Carthaginian rule. After the death of his father, 26-year-old Hannibal took command in 221 and immediately made a name for himself.
His youth and energy made him popular with the multinational soldiers under his command, and a string of impressive victories helped subdue the Iberians and ensure that across the Balearic Sea the Romans were paying close attention to the revival of their old enemy.
The central government in Carthage had signed a peace treaty with Rome after their earlier defeat. But now the Roman government declared an alliance with the independent Spanish city of Saguntum, knowing that Hannibal was planning on attacking it.
The young Carthaginian commander was popular enough at this stage to take politics into his own hands, and marched to besiege the city anyway, perhaps thinking of his promise to his father. The government back in Africa had little choice but to support the decision.
A brutal eight-month siege ensued before Saguntum’s eventual bloody fall. Rome demanded an explanation for Hannibal’s actions and by 218 BC the two empires were once again at war – but this time on a far greater scale. In the eyes of the Romans, they had already given Carthage one chance and this time it was all or nothing.
Hannibal’s march into Italy
Hannibal’s reponse to the declaration of war was simple. He would continue his march north through Spain, all the way to the Alps, and on into Rome’s heartland. He had a 40,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 38 war elephants by the time he’d reached the foothills of the Alps – as well as boundless ambition.
But the crossing of the mountains in spring proved a disaster for Hannibal, costing him half of his men and almost all of his war elephants. Most generals would have given up at this stage, or at least limited their objectives.
Hannibal, however, managed to win over the allegiances of many of the Alpine Gauls who had been troubling Rome with their raids for centuries. And he also had a plan to attract Rome’s reluctant southern and northern subjects to his cause.
By the time of his first major battle with Rome at Trebia in December, Hannibal’s army was back up to 40,000 infantry (though they were not well-armoured like their Roman foes). His army was still heavily outnumbered, but it did not seem to matter as the Romans were soundly defeated at Trebia and Lake Trasimene.
This latter victory took Hannibal deep into the fertile lands of Italy and put Rome into a state of blind panic. Had Hannibal struck at Rome then, history could have been very different, but he had no siege weapons and was still waiting for Rome’s allies to defect to even up the numbers.
Amid these circumstances, Quintus Fabius was appointed an emergency dictator in Rome. He pursued a policy of attrition, while refusing to meet the Carthaginians in a pitched battle. These tactics succeeded in frustrating Hannibal for a year, but by 216 BC the people of Rome were growing angry. They wanted victory and this invader to be removed at any cost.
The Romans go to Hannibal
To meet the demands of the people of Rome and take on Hannibal, a Roman army of unprecedented size had to be assembled. Some estimates put the size of this army as high as 90,000 men, though 50-70,000 is considered more likely.
Even so, an army of such a size was hugely impressive for a state still smaller than modern-day Italy in the ancient world. It dwarfed even the highest counts of Hannibal’s forces, which only numbered around 40-50,000.
The Romans’ enemy, meanwhile, was far to the south of Rome, attempting to court the former Greek city-states there, which had little fondness for their Roman conquerors. Hannibal had spent the winter and spring down in these balmy and fertile lands, and his own men had collected the harvest, meaning that they were well-fed and ready.
Eager to take the initiative, Hannibal seized the important supply post at Cannae in the spring, and waited for the Romans to come to him. They obliged.
The Romans were commanded by two consuls named Varro and Paullus, and the accounts of ancient historians tell of Varro winning a minor skirmish along the way to Cannae, which cultivated a dangerous sense of hubris in the days ahead.
Though modern historians believe that Varro’s fairly lowly origins made him something of a scapegoat for later writers, he still had every reason to be confident following the skirmish. Not only did he have more men, but they were also clad in heavy armour and fighting for their homelands against a ragged army of Gauls, Africans and Spaniards who were a very long way from home.
Varro takes a risk
In ancient warfare the deployment of troops was crucial. The standard formation of the times was lines of lighter at the front and then heavier infantry in the centre, with the cavalry protecting the flanks. Varro, however, was wary of Hannibal’s genius and wanted to try something different.
He directed his men in the centre to stand much closer together than was normal, creating a dense fist of armoured men who would smash through the weaker Carthaginian line.
Hannibal, meanwhile, placed his Spaniards and Iberians in the centre and his veteran Africans on the flanks. This meant that, to the Romans, the task of breaking through the middle of the line and dividing the enemy army looked easy.
But Hannibal knew that the battle could be won via the Carthaginian cavalrymen – who he placed opposite their Roman counterparts – rather than in the unequal clash of infantry.
This part of the battlefield was also where the fighting began. As the Roman infantry marched forwards, Hannibal’s horsemen – commanded by his brother Hasdrubal – engaged their counterparts and put them to flight after a brief and vicious struggle.
Hannibal’s African soldiers win the day
By now, the slow-moving Roman infantry was already exposed, but the clouds of dust thrown up by so many thousands of men on a hot August day meant that they were oblivious to the danger. When they met the light Gallic and Spanish infantry in the centre, the Carthaginian general ordered his troops not to engage fully but to retreat steadily in the face of the closely-packed enemy.
The Romans, meanwhile, kept pressing further and further forwards, so enraged by the enemy refusing to stay put that they ignored the veteran Africans, who had remained in place and were now dangerously positioned on the Romans’ flanks.
As Varro’s men advanced, the Africans began to press in on them until eventually they were so pressed together that they could barely swing their swords. Hannibal then gave his Africans the order to charge at the Roman flanks, completely encircling the Roman army and completing the pincer movement – one of the earliest examples of this tactic being used in military history.
Once Hannibal’s cavalrymen had hit the Roman rear to complete the chaos, the battle ended as a contest. The slaughter, however, continued.
Panicking, confused and hemmed in like cattle, thousands of Romans were massacred throughout the morning, with no means of escape with Carthaginians on all sides. Though some cut their way through to the nearest town, the vast majority of the massive army lay dead on the plain of Cannae, and Rome was in a state of numbed terror.
Rome lives to fight another day – just
Following the battle, Rome’s survival seemed genuinely threatened. Over a fifth of all Roman males over the age of 17 had died in a single day, while the old Greek cities, along with King Phillip of Macedon, joined Hannibal after the defeat.
And yet Rome survived. Perhaps its reaction to Cannae is the best demonstration of why Romans came to rule the known world. Refusing to give in, they stopped risking all against Hannibal in open battle, formed new armies and ground him down with a scorched earth policy until he was forced to return to Africa in the face of a Roman invasion.
The new hero of Rome, Scipio Africanus, formed the nucleus of his army with the survivors of Cannae, who had been humiliatingly exiled to Sicily after their defeat, but won redemption at the decisively fought battle of Zama in 202 BC.
As a result, the reasons for the Battle of Cannae’s enduring fame are not political ones, though it did form the climax of the romantic period of Hannibal’s doomed invasion of Italy. It did not topple Rome, nor – ultimately – save Carthage from destruction at the hands of the newer power less than a hundred years later.
However, it has been taught consistently in military academies ever since as the perfect way of destroying a superior force utterly using encirclement, and has fascinated all the great commanders of modern times, from Frederick the Great and Napoleon to Eisenhower, who said, “In modern war, every ground commander seeks to duplicate the classic example of Cannae”.