Battle of Cannae


The battle of Canne of August 2, 216 BC was one of the major battles of the Second Punic War and took place near the city of Canne, in ancient Apulia. The army of Carthage, commanded with extreme skill by Hannibal, surrounded and almost completely destroyed a numerically superior army of the Roman Republic, led by consuls Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro. It was, in terms of combat casualties, one of the heaviest defeats suffered by Rome, second only to the Battle of Arausium, and is regarded as one of the greatest tactical maneuvers in military history.

Reorganized after the previous defeats in the battles of the Trebbia (218 BC) and Lake Trasimeno (217 BC), the Romans decided to face Hannibal at Canne, with about 86 000 Roman soldiers and allied troops. The Romans massed their heavy infantry in a tighter formation than usual, while Hannibal used the tactic of the pincer maneuver. This maneuver proved so effective that the Roman army was annihilated as a fighting force. Following the Battle of Cannae, the city of Capua, once an ally of Rome, and other city-states changed allegiance, siding with Carthage.

Shortly after the beginning of the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal arrived in Italy, crossing the Alps during the winter. He quickly won two important battles against the Romans: the battle of the Trebbia and the battle of Trasimeno Lake, preceded by the victory over the Romans in a minor battle, the battle of Ticino. Especially the defeat at Trasimeno, in which the Roman army was almost annihilated, made Rome tremble; after suffering these defeats, the Romans appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator to deal with the threat. Fabio, aware of the superior military capabilities of the opponent, adopted tactics of attrition to deal with Hannibal, intercepting its supply routes and avoiding to engage in a pitched battle, from his behavior derived its nickname of “Temporeggiatore” (Cunctator), intended in a highly derogatory sense by the Romans, who would have wanted an offensive attitude to avenge as soon as possible the previous defeats.

As soon as the people and the Roman political leadership had overcome the political-moral crisis caused by Hannibal”s initial victories, the wisdom of Fabius” strategy, which seemed sterile and passive and apparently had only favored the consolidation and strengthening of the Carthaginian army on the occupied Italic territory, was questioned. Fabius”s strategy was particularly frustrating to most of the Romans, who were eager to conclude the war quickly and victoriously. There was also widespread fear that if Hannibal continued his plundering of Italy unchecked, Rome”s allies might doubt the Republic”s military might and its ability to protect them from the devastating Carthaginian advance.

Dissatisfied with the strategy of Fabio, the Roman Senate did not renew its dictatorial powers at the end of the mandate, and the command was temporarily assigned to consuls Gneo Servilius Geminus and Marcus Atilius Regulus, who decided for the moment to continue the war with a tactic of waiting. In 216 BC, in new elections, were elected consul Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro, the latter, according to Livy and Polybius, was willing to resume, unlike the prudent Aemilius Paulus, an aggressive strategy to force Hannibal to a decisive battle. They were given the command of an army of unprecedented size, with the aim of defeating the Carthaginian leader in a definitive way.

The consul Varro is presented by the ancient sources as a reckless and arrogant man, determined to defeat Hannibal in the open field. On the contrary, the sources present the other consul, Aemilius Paulus, as prudent and cautious, doubtful about the opportunity to fight a pitched battle on open and flat ground, despite the numerical strength of the legions. The doubts of the consul must have been particularly well-founded, since Hannibal had a cavalry superior to that of the Romans, both in quality and in numbers.

Hannibal, for his part, was aware of his growing logistical difficulties and supply and the risk of a wear and tear of his troops and his prestige in Italy, as well as in the motherland, in case of a grueling war of position; he believed necessary a new great pitched battle to inflict a decisive defeat to the Romans, with which to obtain finally the disintegration of the resistance capacity of the republic and its system of alliances.

The account of the antecedents of the battle of Canne differs substantially in the principal ancient sources; While Polybius, considered by Gaetano De Sanctis far more reliable, narrates the events in a succinct and clear way, Livy in his narrative, in which De Sanctis sees contamination of the tendentious annalist Valerius Anziate, enriches the development of the facts with some dubious episodes, rich in fanciful details that aim to exaggerate the contingent difficulties of Hannibal and to emphasize the discernment of leader of Emilius Paulus.

Polybius narrates that Hannibal, even before the arrival of the new consuls, moved with his troops from Geronius and, judging advantageous to force the enemies to fight at any cost, took possession of the fortress of the city named Canne, in a strategic position with respect to all the surrounding territory. In this the Romans had collected grain and other provisions from the territory of Canusio, and from here they brought them in the Roman camp at Geronio as and when the need arose. According to various writers of the imperial era (I-II centuries AD), the fortress of Canne was located in the Regio II Apulia et Calabria, near the river Aufidus (Hannibal so put between the Romans and their main sources of supply. As Polybius points out, the capture of Canne “caused great havoc in the Roman army, for it was not only the loss of the post and supplies in it that distressed them, but the fact that it dominated the surrounding district.” The new consuls, having decided to face Hannibal, marched south in search of the Carthaginian general.

Livy, on the other hand, describes how Hannibal, besieging the small Apulian city of Geronius, found himself in difficulty: his army”s provisions were sufficient for less than ten days and some contingents of Iberians were thinking of deserting; the Roman army would also have inflicted a local defeat. When both armies, the Roman and the Carthaginian, were camped near Geronius, Hannibal would also have set a trap for the Romans, which would have been foiled mainly thanks to the sagacity of Aemilius Paulus, in contrast to the recklessness of Varro.

At night Hannibal would have pretended to abandon his camp, full of booty, and would have hidden the army behind a hill, ready to ambush, with the intention of hurling against the enemy when he began to loot the camp, apparently abandoned. He would have left many fires burning in the camp, as if to make the consuls believe that the camp was still occupied, with a deception similar to that used by him with Fabius Maximus the previous year. When it was daylight, the Romans soon realized that the camp had been abandoned, and the legionaries forcefully requested the consuls to order the pursuit of the enemies and the sacking of the camp. Varro would also have been of this opinion.

Aemilius Paulus, more prudent, sent out to explore the prefect Marcus Statilius with a squadron of Lucanians. After entering the camp, he reported that it was certainly a trap: the fires had been left burning on the side facing the Romans, the tents were open and all the most precious things left in sight. This tale, however, would have exalted the legionaries” desire for booty and Varro would have given the signal to enter the camp. Aemilius Paulus, doubtful and hesitant, however, had unfavorable auspices from the sacred fowls, and communicated this to Varro, who was intimidated. At first the troops did not obey the command to return to the camp, but two servants, who had been captured earlier by the Numids and had now escaped from captivity, would return at that very moment, reporting that Hannibal”s army was lying in wait. The timely arrival of these men would have restored authority to the consuls; however, Livy notes tendentiously that by now Varro”s “mistaken surrender” (“prava indulgentia”) “had weakened his authority with the soldiers” (primum apud eos

Tito Livio concludes his narration of the antecedents describing a Hannibal in desperate situation, ready to retreat in Gaul, abandoning the big part of his army, and very worried by possible extensive defections among his troops. De Sanctis, however, does not give any credit to the episodes narrated by Livy, in particular, defines “rambling story” the set of background narrated by the Latin historian and “ridiculous and absurd” the alleged stratagem of the abandoned camp, according to him, even Statilius is suspect character and invented by annalists.

The chronology of events, however, according to the story of Polybius is simple and clear: the first day (July 27) the Romans started from Geronius towards the place where the Carthaginians were. Under the command of Aemilius Paulus, arrived on the second day (July 28) in view of the enemies, camped at a distance of about fifty stadiums (about 9.25 km) In the next day (July 29) took the field by order of Varro and advanced towards the Carthaginians, but were attacked by Hannibal while they were marching. Varro successfully repelled the Carthaginian attack and at the coming of the night the adversaries separated. This victory, in reality a simple skirmish without any strategic value, strongly strengthened the confidence of the Roman army and would also strengthen the security and aggression of Varro.

The next day (July 30), by order of Aemilius Paulus, the Romans built two encampments near the Aufidus River: the major one, occupied by two-thirds of the forces, on one bank of the river to the west, and the minor one, with one-third of the forces, on the other bank to the east of the ford. The purpose of this second encampment would have been to protect foraging actions from the main camp and to impede those of the enemy.

According to Polybius, the two armies remained in their respective positions for two days. During the second day (August 1), Hannibal, aware that Aemilius Paulus was at that time in command of the Roman army, left his camp and deployed the army for battle. Emilio Paolo, however, did not want to enter into combat. After the enemy had refused to enter the battle, Hannibal, recognizing the importance of the water of the Aufidus for the Roman troops, sent his Numidian horsemen towards the smaller Roman camp to annoy the enemy and to damage the water supply. Related to this circumstance perhaps is the ruse, not reported by Polybius, that Hannibal would muddy the water to ruin the health of the Romans or even have corpses thrown into it. Hannibal”s cavalry boldly rode to the limits of the smaller Roman camp, causing confusion and the complete disruption of the water supply. The only reason that kept the Romans from immediately crossing the river and disposing themselves for battle would be the fact that the supreme command that day was in the hands of Aemilius Paulus. Thus, on the following day, Varro, without having consulted his colleague, had the battle signal displayed and had the deployed troops cross the river, while Aemilius Paulus followed, since he could not help but go along with this decision.

Hannibal, despite the clear numerical superiority of the enemy, was absolutely eager to fight and, despite the fears and doubts expressed by some of his subordinates, showed confidence and imperturbability in front of the imposing Roman array that was carefully positioned in front of his troops east of the river, where was the Roman minor camp, on the morning of August 2. In fact, according to what Plutarch reports, to a Carthaginian officer named Gisgo who, stupefied, had pointed out how exterminated the Roman army was, Hannibal would have replied ironically: “Another thing that has escaped you, Gisgo, is even more surprising: that even if there are so many Romans, there is not even one among them who is called Gisgo”.

Data regarding the troops involved in ancient battles are often unreliable, and at Canne this was no exception. Therefore, the following data should be treated with caution, especially those concerning the Carthaginian side.


Of these eight legions, about 40,000 Roman soldiers, including about 2,400 cavalry, formed the core of the new army. Since each legion was accompanied by an equal number of allied troops and the allied cavalry numbered about 4,000 men, the total strength of the army that would face Hannibal could not have been much less than 90,000 men. However, some authors have suggested that the destruction of an army of 90,000 men would have been impossible. They argue that Rome probably fielded 48,000 infantrymen and 6,000 cavalrymen against Hannibal”s 35,000 infantrymen and 10,000 cavalrymen. Although no definitive Roman troop numbers exist, all sources agree that the Carthaginian army faced an opposing army having a large numerical superiority. The Roman legions had two thirds of the staff made up of recruits, the so-called tirones, but there were at least two legions formed by experienced and prepared legionaries, from the army of the consul of 218 BC, Publius Cornelius Scipio.

Each legion consisted of 4,200 infantrymen (brought up to 5,000 in the case of particularly serious circumstances) and 300 horsemen. The allied units of socii (or the Alae, since they were placed at the “wings” of the deployment) consisted instead of an equal number of infantrymen, but three times higher in horsemen (900 per unit). The infantrymen were then divided into four different categories, based on social class, equipment and age:

If the Roman army had not been so large, each of the two consuls would have commanded his own part of the army, but since the two armies were concentrated together, Roman law required alternating command on a daily basis. It is possible that Hannibal understood that the two consuls alternated in command of the Roman army and planned his strategy accordingly. In the traditional story Varro held the command on the day of the battle and he would have decided to face the fight in the open field, despite the contrary opinion of Aemilius Paulus: much of the blame for the defeat has been attributed by ancient historians to the recklessness of the popular consul. However, controversy exists regarding who was actually in command on the day of the battle, as some scholars believe that Aemilius Paulus may have been the leader of the army that day.

A detailed list of the cities and of the Italic peoples that participated in the battle of Canne is reported in book VIII of the poem Le puniche of Silio Italico (Never the Italic land was shaken by a greater storm of arms and horses, because they feared the last destiny of Rome and of the people, nor they had more hope to try after this another battle):


The Carthaginian army was composed of approximately 10,000 cavalry, 40,000 heavy infantry, and 6,000 light infantry on the battlefield, excluding detachments. The Carthaginian army was a combination of warriors recruited from different geographical areas. There were 22,000 Iberian and Celtic infantrymen flanked by two corps of African heavy infantry in tactical reserve, consisting of a total of 10,000 Libyans. The cavalry also came from different regions. Hannibal had a cavalry consisting of 4,000 Numidians, 2,000 Iberians, 4,000 Gauls, and 450 Libyan-Phoenicians. Finally, Hannibal had about 8,000 light infantry warriors among slingers from the Balearic Islands and lancers of mixed nationalities. Each of these different groups of warriors brought their own specific military qualities to the Carthaginian deployment. The unifying factor in the Carthaginian army was the strong bond of loyalty and trust that each group had with Hannibal. Although the Carthaginians normally deployed elephants in battles to terrorize the enemy horses and disrupt the infantry, in the battle of Canne there were no elephants, because none of those who had left from Iberia and managed to cross the Alps had survived.

The Carthaginian army used a wide variety of warfare equipment. The Iberians fought with swords, javelins, and other types of spears. For the defense the Iberian warriors carried great oval shields; the Gallic soldiers were equipped in similar way and the typical weapon of these units was the sword. The types of sword present in the two peoples were however different between them: the Gauls had them very long and without point, therefore used for cutting blows; while the Hispanics, used to attack the enemy more of point than of cut, short but manageable, and with the point. The Carthaginian heavy cavalry carried two javelins, a curved sword and a heavy shield. The Numidian cavalry had a light equipment, sometimes lacked even the reins for the horses and did not carry any armor, but only a small shield, javelins and possibly a knife or a longer cutting weapon. The marksmen, as light infantry, carried either slingers or spears. The slingers of the Balearic Islands, famous for their accuracy in shooting, carried short, medium, or long slings, used to throw stones or other types of projectiles. They may have carried a small shield or a simple layer of leather on their arms into battle, but this is uncertain.

The equipping of Libyan infantry lines has been much debated. Duncan Head wrote in favor of the use of short sharp spears. Polybius stated that the Libyans had fought with equipment taken from the previously defeated Romans. It is unclear whether he meant only shields and armor or also offensive weapons. In addition to his description of the battle itself, Polybius wrote that “against Hannibal, the defeats suffered had nothing to do with weapons or formations: Hannibal himself discarded the equipment with which he had begun (and) armed his troops with Roman weapons.” Gregory Daly is inclined to believe that the Libyan infantry copied the Iberian use of the sword during their fighting; also supporting the hypothesis that they were similarly armed to the Romans. Connolly, on the other hand, believed that this infantry was armed with long pikes. This hypothesis was challenged by Head because Plutarch stated that they carried shorter spears than the Roman triars and by Daly because, leaning on Plutarch”s statement, they could not have carried an unwieldy pike and at the same time a heavy shield like the Roman style.


The traditional distribution of the armies of the past consisted of placing the infantry in the center and the cavalry in two “wings” to the side. The Romans followed this convention quite faithfully; Terenzio Varrone was aware of the fact that the Roman infantry had succeeded in penetrating into the center of Hannibal”s army during the battle of the Trebbia and he intended to repeat this maneuver of frontal attack in the center by employing a greater mass of legionaries. So in this battle arranged the lines of infantry by length, rather than by width, and decreased the spaces between the maniples. He hoped in such way to penetrate more easily in the center of the lines of the army of Hannibal exploiting the heavy legionary infantry, able to exercise an irresistible pressure, thanks to its armament and its deployment, in case of frontal impact.

As Polybius writes, Varro deployed the infantry by “arranging the maniples thicker than usual and making them much deeper than wide.” Because of the decision to reduce the size of the army, each legionary had only one meter of space on the sides and each maniple occupied a front line of only about 4.5 meters (15 feet). Each legion deployed on a sixty-man front (each maniple deployed with five legionnaires in front and thirty legionnaires deep), and the entire attack front of the eight Roman and eight allied legions measured about 1,440 meters (1,440 yards) with a depth of a hundred meters (100 feet). In this formation the principes were stationed immediately behind the astati, ready to push forward at first contact to assure the Romans of a united front. It is assumed that the oblique front of the consular troops, in their totality, including therefore the cavalry, was 3,000 meters long, oblique because the plain from north to south was not long enough to do otherwise.

Although they were outnumbered, the Carthaginians, because of the distribution in length of the Roman army, had a front of a size almost equal to that of the enemy. In addition, Aemilius Paulus and Varro adopted a formation of cavalry tight and reinforced in depth with a deployment front of only 600 meters on the Roman right flank and about 1,700 meters on the left, the space reduced due to the characteristics of the terrain. The close deployment of the horsemen should have avoided, according to the intentions of the two consuls, rapid movements and encourage a close and prolonged fight, favorable to gain time waiting for the success of the Roman legionaries in the center of the front.


Fully aware of his superior tactical-strategic skills against the Roman leaders, Hannibal devised a surprising and risky deployment and battle plan from which, however, in case of success, he could expect decisive results on the battlefield. Having immediately understood the intentions of the enemy and the lack of elasticity of his tight formation in view of a frontal attack, Hannibal planned to exploit these weaknesses of the Roman warfare system and to employ his troops, less numerous, but more experienced and more mobile, in a complex pincer maneuver.

Hannibal had deployed his forces according to the particular qualities of combat of each unit, taking into account both their strengths and weaknesses in the development of his strategy. It placed to the center of the deployment the contingents of the allies Gauls, physically vigorous fighters but almost without armor and equipped with heavy swords, and Iberians, soldiers dressed in short white tunics, fierce and well armed, arranging them to form an arc stretched forward. The purpose of this particular disposition was twofold: in this way the Carthaginian leader hoped to attract to the center, against the apparent weak point exposed to the Carthaginian array, the mass of Roman attack, and also the provision arc would allow the deployment of the Iberian-Gallians, consisting of about 20,000 men, to gain time and space to maneuver back under the foreseeable impact of the Roman attack without disintegrating. Falling back, but without losing cohesion, the Ibero-Gallians should, according to Hannibal”s intentions, have forced the Roman legions into a sort of funnel with two open sides where the Carthaginian leader planned to intervene at the appropriate time his African heavy infantry (about 10. 000 men), consisting of the most experienced fighters and armed with panoplies captured from the enemy, also they could be confused with Romans, since the same armor and shields had been of the Romans victims of previous battles. This infantry was deployed by Hannibal on both sides in a position further back than the forward arch of the Ibero-Gallians, as a tactical reserve to be engaged only in the second phase of the battle. These infantrymen had been tempered by many battles, were cohesive, and would attack the Romans from the flanks. John Brizzi describes the ranks of the African infantry, formed by veteran warriors, violent and brutal, armed in part with weapons and armor taken from the Romans, looking impressive and fierce.

On the left side to Asdrubale were assigned about 6,500 soldiers of Iberian-Gallic heavy cavalry, with the task, despite the limited space available for maneuver due to the presence of the river, to rout quickly with the impact and numerical superiority of the weak Roman cavalry led by Consul Aemilius Paulus and on the right side deployed instead the 4. 000 numidi led by Maarbale, horsemen skilled in sudden maneuvers in speed, able to engage and neutralize the Italian cavalry under the command of Varro. Hannibal foresaw that his cavalry, formed essentially for half by Ibero-Gallic horsemen and half by Numidian light cavalry, and fighting alongside the infantry, should first defeat the Roman cavalry weaker and then rotate around the infantry attacking the legionaries behind. Thus, with Gallo-Iberian infantry in front, African heavy infantry on either side, and Iberian, Gallic, and Numidian cavalry behind, the maneuver of encirclement and annihilation would have been completed perfectly.

Troop distribution in the plain

The consuls Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paulus consciously chose to face the battle to the east of the river Aufidus, deploying their huge army to the north of the opposing forces, with the front at noon and the right flank in contact with the course of the river, and believed they could minimize the superiority of the enemy cavalry and the tactical ability of Hannibal thanks to the configuration of the terrain. Varro and Paul believed that the legionaries, numerically superior, would have hard pressed the Carthaginians, until pushing them into the river where, without room to maneuver, they would have died in panic. Bearing in mind that Hannibal”s two previous victories had been largely decided by his skill and cunning, Varro and Paul sought an uncovered battlefield free of pitfalls. The field of Canne seemed to correspond to this need, because it lacked places where to hide troops to ambush the enemy; moreover, the presence of some hills on the left flank of the Romans should have prevented even in this area the agile maneuvers of the Numidian cavalry and avoid maneuvers of bypass in depth.

Hannibal was not worried about his position near the river Aufidus; on the contrary, this factor was used by him to favor his strategy. Because of the river, the Romans would not have been able to perform a pincer maneuver around the Carthaginian army, as one of the flanks of Hannibal”s army was deployed too close to the river. The Romans were hampered on their right flank by the Aufidus River, so the left flank was the only viable route of retreat.

In addition, the Carthaginian forces would maneuver so that the Romans would have their faces facing south. In this way, the morning sun would beat down on either side, very conveniently, and the Carthaginians” back wind would raise dust against the Romans” faces.

In any case, the extraordinary distribution of the army carried out by Hannibal, based on the analysis of the territory and his understanding of the capabilities of his troops, proved decisive.

Beginning of the battle

The battle began with the confrontation between the light infantry that preceded the real pitched battle between the bulk of the two armies; javelins, bullets and arrows were thrown. Probably in this initial phase the Velites were advantaged from the numerical superiority and from the greater precision of shooting. Hannibal decided to launch from the beginning the heavy cavalry commanded by Asdrubale against the Roman cavalry, using as protection a great cloud of dust that probably was created, because of the march of the armies and the initial clash between light infantry, in the center of the battlefield.

The Ibero-Celtic heavy cavalry, lined up on the left flank then violently attacked the Roman cavalry, employing an unusual tactic, but well prepared and not foreseen by the Romans; Asdrubale ordered a hand-to-hand charge. Polybius tells how the Hispanic and Celtic horsemen faced the battle on foot after getting off their horses in what he considers a barbaric method of fighting. The Romans, surprised by the attack, bumped and pressed by the enemies, crushed both in the first lines and in the more backward ones of the deployment, had to get off their horses, probably also because of the difficulty to control them and because they could not maneuver in a too narrow space. In this way, a cavalry battle was transformed into a fight between dismounted horsemen.

It is believed that the purpose of this formation was to break the forward momentum of the Roman infantry, and delay its advance before other developments authorized by Hannibal to deploy his African infantry most effectively. That said, while most historians believe that Hannibal”s action was deliberate, there are those who have called this account fictional, and argue that the actions described represent first the natural curvature that occurs when a broad front of infantry marches forward, and then (when the direction of the crescent was reversed) the retreat of the Carthaginian center caused by the shocking action of meeting the center of the Roman line where forces were greatly concentrated.

After the brief initial phase of the clashes between the light infantry divisions, the Roman legions, led by the consuls Marcus Minucius Rufus and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus, began their massive frontal attack from which the consuls expected decisive results; in close formation, protected by long shields side by side, with the gladius ready on the right hand, the legionaries methodically approached the crescent formed by the Iberian-Gallic infantry, initially hitting only the tip of the opponent”s line-up. With the maniples deployed in deep lines and the most experienced legionaries present in the front lines and in the central areas of the legions, the Romans, over 55,000 soldiers against about 20,000, exerted an irresistible impact against the thin enemy front.

On the right wing of the Carthaginian army, the Numidi strove to engage and hold back the cavalry allied to the Romans and the battle in this sector was prolonged without decisive results. After having defeated the Roman cavalry, the Hispanic and Gallic knights of Asdrubale rushed to the aid of the Numidi and the cavalry allied to the Romans was overwhelmed and dispersed abandoning the battlefield. The Numidi pursued them out of the field. Tito Livio inserts in its narration the episode of a deception of the carthaginian light cavalry:

As the Romans advanced, the wind from the east according to Theodore Dodge or the Volturno from the south according to Livy blew dust into their faces and obscured their vision. While the wind was not a major factor, the dust that both armies created should instead have been a limiting factor for vision. Even if the dust had made vision difficult, the troops would still have been able to see others at close range. Dust, however, was not the only psychological factor involved in the battle. Because the location of the battle was somewhat distant from both camps, both sides were forced to fight after insufficient night”s rest. The Romans faced another inconvenience caused by the lack of proper hydration due to Hannibal”s attack on the Roman camp during the previous day. In addition, the very large number of troops caused an extraordinary amount of background noise. All of these psychological factors made the battle particularly difficult for the infantrymen.

After less than an hour of hand-to-hand fighting between the Ibero-Gallians and the disciplined Roman legions, unbeatable in a frontal clash for the cohesion of the line-up, the ability of the centurions and the superiority of the armament, the Carthaginian lines began to fall back suffering numerous losses.

Hannibal then began the controlled withdrawal of his men into the weak center of the front. The crescent of Hispanic and Gallic troops bent inward as the warriors withdrew. Knowing the superiority of the Roman legionnaires, Hannibal had instructed his infantry to retreat voluntarily, thus creating an increasingly tight semicircle around the attacking Roman forces. In this way, he had turned the striking force of the Roman legions also led by Consul Aemilius Paulus, having survived the cavalry clash, into an element of weakness. Moreover, while the front lines were gradually advancing, most of the Roman troops began to lose cohesion, as they began to crowd forward to accelerate the expected victory. Soon under the pressure of the successive lines the deployment of the legions became even tighter, more massive and compressed, limiting the space and freedom of movement of the legionaries.

In this critical phase, Hannibal and Mago succeeded in the difficult task of avoiding a total collapse of the Ibero-Gallic forces and to maintain a defensive deployment that, despite suffering heavy losses, did not shatter but managed to fall back slowly, preserving cohesion and allowing the Carthaginian leader to complete his bold combined maneuver on the flanks and behind the great mass of legions in close formation also because pressing forward with the desire to crush the Hispanic and Gallic troops as quickly as possible, the Romans had ignored (perhaps due in part to the dust) the African troops that were uncommitted on the projecting ends of the now overturned crescent.

Thanks to the maneuver, although the Ibero-Gallic infantry had suffered losses of over 5,000 men due to the deadly frontal impact power of the Roman legionaries, Hannibal was able to gain enough time to force the Carthaginian cavalry to flee the Roman cavalry on both flanks and to attack the Roman center in the rear. He also caused the Romans to dangerously expose the flanks where the less experienced divisions of the Roman-Italic legions were deployed.

Ecatombe of Roman legionaries

The Roman infantry, now exposed on both flanks due to the defeat of the cavalry, had formed a wedge driven deeper and deeper into the Carthaginian semicircle, advancing into a gap with the African infantry on either side. At this point, Hannibal ordered his African infantry, which he had trained to fight in less tight formations, hand-to-hand with the gladius, renouncing Hoplite tactics, to turn inward and advance against the enemy”s flanks, creating an encirclement of the Roman legions in one of the earliest known examples of pincer maneuver.

When the Carthaginian cavalry attacked the Romans from behind, and the African infantry attacked them on the right and left flanks, the Roman infantry advancing in front was forced to stop. On the flanks, the Roman legionaries found themselves in serious difficulty and, surprised by the appearance of the African heavy infantry, were unable to contain the enemy. Falling back with heavy losses, these lateral units collided with the other lines of the legions, forcing them to stop, increasing confusion and preventing the mass of legionaries from entering into combat due to lack of space.

Therefore, the mass of the legionaries found itself squeezed on all sides, compressed into an ever smaller space, with only the external lines in combat on all sides; the Romans were progressively annihilated by the African infantry on the flanks, by the cavalry behind, by the Ibero-Gallians in front, during long hours of bloody hand-to-hand combat. The legionnaires, crushed against each other, forced to fall back slowly, confused, disoriented by the unexpected turn, tired, were slowly destroyed; with the death of the centurions and the loss of the insignia, the legions disintegrated and dissolved; most of them massed and fell toward the center, small groups were annihilated as they fled in various directions. Polybius is clear in his description of the mechanism of the destruction of the encircled legions, “inasmuch as their outer ranks were continually destroyed, and the survivors were forced to retreat and huddle together, they were finally all killed where they stood.” The Carthaginians continued the massacre of the Romans for about six hours and, according to the narrative of Titus Livius, the physical effort of the annihilation with white weapons of thousands of Romans was exhausting even for the African warriors that Hannibal reinforced with Ibero-Gallo heavy cavalry.

The consul Aemilius Paulus, even if at the beginning of the fight he had been seriously wounded by a sling, decided to remain on the field and to fight until the end; in some points he rekindled the battle, under the protection of the Roman horsemen. Finally he put aside the horses, because he lacked even the strength to be able to stay in the saddle. Livy narrates that when Hannibal learned that the consul had ordered the horsemen to dismount on foot, he would have said: “How much I would prefer that he delivered them to me already tied up!”. The aristocratic consul eventually fell valiantly in the field, targeted by advancing enemies, without being recognized. The carnage lasted six hours.

Cowley states that about 600 legionnaires were slaughtered every minute until darkness ended the carnage.

Escape of Roman soldiers

After the death of Aemilius Paulus, the survivors fled in a disorderly manner: seven thousand men fell back into the smaller camp, ten thousand into the larger one, and about two thousand into the village of Canne itself; these were immediately surrounded by Cartalone and his horsemen, since no fortification protected the village. In the two camps the Roman soldiers were almost unarmed and without commanders; those of the greater camp asked the others to join them, while the tiredness still delayed the arrival of the enemies, exhausted by the battle and engaged in the celebrations for the victory, they would have gone all together to Canusio. Some rejected the proposal abruptly, wondering why they should be the ones to expose themselves to so much danger by going to the main camp and not the others to go to them. Others did not so much dislike the proposal as they lacked the courage to move.

Livy at this point tells the episode of the military tribune Publius Sempronius Tuditus, who would have said to them: “So you prefer to be captured by a greedy and ruthless enemy, that the price of your heads is estimated, and if the price is asked by those who will ask whether you are Roman citizens or Latin allies, so that your shame and your misery will bring honor to others? You will not want it, if you are the fellow citizens of Lucius Aemilius, who preferred to die valiantly rather than to live ignominiously, and of the many valiant men who are crowded around him. But, before the light catches us here and denser enemy turmoil closes our way, let us erupt, opening our way among these disorderly drags who cackle at the gates! With iron and daring we make our way even among dense enemy ranks. Wedged together, we shall pass through these relaxed and dishevelled people as if nothing stood in our way. So come all with me, if you want to save yourselves and the Republic!” Saying this, the military tribune managed to convince a part of the legionaries and with them carried out a sortie; although they were targeted by the arrows of the Numids, six hundred of them managed to repair to the main camp. After they were joined by a large host of soldiers, they arrived at midnight at Canusio. All these details, not present in Polybius, were considered by De Sanctis in part imaginary.

The end of the battle

In the evening, having achieved complete victory, the Carthaginians suspended the pursuit of the enemies, returned to the camp and, spent a few hours of celebration, they went to sleep. During the night, because of the wounded who still lay on the plain, echoed wails and cries. The next morning began the depredation, by the Carthaginians, the bodies of the Romans fallen in battle. Since the deadly and unquenchable hatred that the Carthaginians felt for their enemies had not been appeased by the massacre of 40,000 of them, they beat and stabbed the wounded still alive wherever they found them, as a kind of morning pastime after the hard work of the previous days. This massacre, however, could hardly be regarded as cruelty to the poor victims, for many of them uncovered their chests to their assailants, and invoked the fatal blow that would put an end to their sufferings. While exploring the camp, a Carthaginian soldier was found still alive, but imprisoned by the corpse of his Roman enemy lying upon him. The Carthaginian”s face and ears were horribly lacerated. The Roman, falling on top of him when both were badly wounded, had continued to fight with his teeth, as he could no longer use his weapon, and died eventually, pinning his exhausted enemy with his own lifeless body.

Romans and Allies

Polybius wrote that of the Roman infantry and allies, 70,000 were killed, 10,000 captured, and “perhaps” only 3,000 survived. He also reports that of the 6,000 Roman and allied cavalry, only 370 were able to get to safety.

Titus Livius wrote: “45,000 infantrymen, it is said, and 2. 700 horsemen, half Roman and half allied, were killed: among them were the two quaestors of the consuls: Lucius Atilius and Lucius Furius Bibaculus, and twenty-nine tribunes of the soldiers, some of whom were consuls and had already been praetors or builders (among them Cnaeus Servilius and Marcus Minucius, who had been master of the cavalry the previous year and consul some years before); and also eighty-nine senators or eligible senators for the offices already exercised, who had enlisted as volunteers. 3,000 infantrymen and 1,500 cavalrymen are said to have been taken prisoner. [Other killings and thousands of prisoners will be made among the milites of the two legions left in defense and as a reserve in the camps]” Although Livy does not cite his source by name, it was probably Quintus Fabius Painter, a Roman historian who fought in the Second Punic War who wrote about it. Pittore is the one whom Livy mentions when reporting losses at the Battle of the Trebbia. Thereafter, all Roman (and Greco-Roman) historians largely followed Livy”s figures.

Appian of Alexandria said that 50,000 were killed and “very many” were taken prisoner. Plutarch agreed, “50,000 Romans fell in that battle Quintilian wrote: “60,000 men were killed by Hannibal at Canne”. Eutropius, “20 consular and praetorian rank officials, 30 senators and 300 others of noble descent were taken or killed as well as 40,000 infantrymen and 3,500 cavalry.”

Most modern historians, while considering Polybius” figures to be incorrect, are willing to accept Livy”s figures. Some more recent historians have arrived at much lower figures. Cantalupi proposed that Roman losses were between 10,500 and 16,000. Samuels, too, considers Livy”s figures to be too high due to the fact that cavalry would have been insufficient to prevent the Roman infantry from escaping. He also doubts that Hannibal Barca wanted a high death toll since much of the army was composed of Italics whom he hoped to have as allies in the future.

Towards the end of the battle, a Roman officer named Lentulus, while he was fleeing on horseback, saw another officer sitting on the stone, weak and bleeding. When he discovered that it was Aemilius Paulus he offered him his own horse, but Aemilius, seeing that it was too late to save his own life, declined the offer and urged Lentulus to flee as soon as possible, saying, “Go on, then, yourself, as fast as you can, make the most of your way to Rome. Call the local authorities here, to me, that all is lost, and they must do what they can for the defense of the city. Go as fast as you can, or Hannibal will be at the gates before you.” Emilio also sent a message to Fabio, declining his own responsibility in the battle and declaring that he had done what was in his power to continue the strategy. Lentulus, having received this message, and seeing that the Carthaginians were close to him, left, abandoning Aemilius Paulus to his fate. The Carthaginians, noticing the wounded man, stabbed their spears one at a time into his body, until he stopped moving. The day after the battle Hannibal was pleased to honor the enemy by ordering the funeral of the consul Aemilius Paulus. His body was placed on a high stake and was praised by Hannibal, who threw on the corpse a chlamys woven of gold and a flaming drape of dark purple, gave him the last goodbye: “Go, O glory of Italy, where dwell spirits of distinguished excellence! Death has already given you immortal praise while Fortune still shakes my events and hides the future from me”.

Varro instead took refuge in Venosa with a squad of about fifty knights and decided that he would try to gather there the remains of the army.

Punics and Allies

Tito Livio reports that Hannibal lost 6,000 men. Polybius reports 5,700 dead: 4,000 Gauls, 1,500 Spaniards and Africans, and 200 horsemen.

Hannibal commanded that the splendor of dawn the next day you give burial to the dead companions with funeral pyres.

For a short period of time, the Romans were in complete chaos. Their best armies in the peninsula had been destroyed, the few remaining were severely demoralized, and the only remaining consul (Varro) was completely discredited. It was a terrible catastrophe for the Romans. As the story goes, Rome declared a day of national mourning, as there was no one in Rome who did not have some relation to a person who had died there or who was not at least acquainted with them. The main measures taken by the Senate were to cease all public processions, prohibit women from leaving the house, and punish street vendors, all of these decisions to stop the panic. They became so desperate that, led by the senatorial political class in which Quinto Fabio Massimo Verrucoso had returned to dominate, they resorted to human sacrifice, twice burying people alive in the Forum of Rome and abandoning a large child in the Adriatic Sea. Tito Livio reports that the sacrifice was decreed by the ””decemviri sacrorum”” after their consultation of the Libri Sibillini (libri fatales). Based on the response to proceed with “sacrificia aliquot extraordinaria” (some extraordinary sacrifices), a Celtic man and woman and two Greeks were buried alive in the Foro Boario. Before such bloody rites, Plutarch recalls how in 228 BC, similar human sacrifices had already taken place before the war against the Insubrians (perhaps one of the last recorded cases of human sacrifices that the Romans would have performed, unless the public executions of defeated enemies dedicated to Mars are counted).Lucius Caecilius Metellus, a military tribune, is known to have very desperate for the Roman cause after the battle, so as to believe that all was lost and therefore invited the other tribunes to flee by sea abroad and serve for some foreign prince. Later for this proposal was forced to pronounce an oath of indissoluble loyalty to Rome.

In addition, the Roman survivors of Canne were later reunited into two legions and assigned to Sicily for the remainder of the war, as punishment for their humiliating abandonment of the battlefield. In addition to the physical loss of its army, Rome would suffer a symbolic defeat of prestige. A gold ring was a sign of belonging to the patrician classes of Roman society. Hannibal with his army had collected more than 200 gold rings from the corpses on the battlefield, and this collection was believed to be equal to “three and a half moggia”, or more than 27 liters. He sent, in the hands of his brother Magon Barca, all the rings to Carthage as proof of his victory. The collection was poured on the vestibule of the Carthaginian curia.

Hannibal, having achieved yet another victory (after the battles of the Trebbia and Lake Trasimeno), had defeated the equivalent of eight consular armies (sixteen legions plus an equal number of allies). Within the three seasons of the military campaign (20 months), Rome had lost one-fifth (150,000) of its entire population of citizens over the age of seventeen. Moreover, the moral effect of this victory was such that most of southern Italy was induced to join Hannibal”s cause. After the battle of Canne, the southern Greek provinces of Arpi, Salapia, Herdonia, and Uzentum, including the cities of Capua and Taranto (two of the largest city-states in Italy) all revoked their allegiance to Rome and pledged their loyalty to Hannibal. As Polybius notes, “How much more serious was the defeat of Cannae, compared to those that preceded it, can be seen from the behavior of Rome”s allies; before that fateful day, their loyalty remained unshakable, now it has begun to waver for the simple reason that they despair of Roman power.” In the same year, Greek cities in Sicily were induced to revolt against Roman political control. The Macedonian king Philip V, had promised his support to Hannibal and the first Macedonian war against Rome was therefore initiated. The new king Hieronymus of Syracuse, ruler of the only place in Sicily that was independent, agreed on an alliance with Hannibal.

After the battle, Maarbale, commander of the Numidian cavalry, urged Hannibal to seize the opportunity and march immediately on Rome, saying: “In fact, so that you know how much has been achieved with this day, in five days you will feast as a winner on the Capitol. Follow me, I will precede you with the cavalry, so that they may know you have arrived before they learn that you have marched”. It is said that the refusal of the latter provoked an exclamation of Maarbale: “The gods evidently have not granted to the same person all the gifts: you know how to win, Hannibal, but you do not know how to take advantage of the victory”. But Hannibal had good reasons to judge the strategic situation after the battle differently from what Maarbale did. As the historian Hans Delbrück points out, because of the high number of dead and wounded in its ranks, the Punic army was in no condition to carry out a direct attack on Rome. A march to the city on the Tiber would have been a futile demonstration that would have nullified the psychological effect of Canne on Rome”s allies. Even if his army had been in full strength, a successful siege of Rome would have required Hannibal to subdue a considerable portion of the interior in order to secure his own supply and prevent that of the enemy. Even after the enormous losses suffered at Cannae, and the defection of a number of its allies, Rome still had abundant manpower to prevent this and at the same time maintain considerable forces in Iberia, Sicily, Sardinia, and elsewhere, despite Hannibal”s presence in Italy. As Sean McKnight, of the Sandhurst Military Academy, says: “The Romans probably still had plenty of men available who were willing to enlist, the city would have gathered new troops and defended itself strenuously, committing its army to such a risky venture could have thwarted the victories of the military campaign. But perhaps considering that Hannibal ultimately lost the war, it was a risk he should have taken.” Hannibal”s behavior after his victories at Trasimeno (217 B.C.) and Canne (216 B.C.), and the fact that he first attacked Rome itself only five years later (in 211 B.C.), suggests that his strategic goal was not the destruction of his enemy, but to deter the Romans with a series of battlefield massacres and reduce them to a moderate peace agreement by depriving them of their allies.

Immediately after Canne, Hannibal sent Cartalon to Rome to negotiate a peace treaty with the Senate on moderate terms. Yet, despite the multiple catastrophes that Rome had suffered, the Roman Senate refused to negotiate. Rather, it again redoubled the efforts of the Romans, declaring full mobilization of the Roman male population and created new legions by enlisting landless peasants and even slaves. These measures were so severe that the word “peace” was forbidden, mourning was limited to only 30 days, and the externalization of one”s grief in public was forbidden even for women. The Romans, having experienced this catastrophic defeat and lost other battles, had at this point learned their lesson. For the remainder of the war in Italy, they would no longer have amassed large forces under a single command against Hannibal, as had been the case during the Battle of Cannae, instead they would have used multiple independent armies, still surpassing the Punic forces in the number of armies and soldiers. This war still had occasional battles, but was centered more around taking strongholds and constant combat, according to the strategy of Quintus Fabius Maximus. This eventually forced Hannibal with his shortage of personnel to retreat to Crotone, from where he was recalled to Africa for the Battle of Zama, ending the war with a complete Roman victory.

Role in military history

The Battle of Cannae has remained famous for the tactics followed by Hannibal and for the role it played in the history of Rome. It was perhaps the bloodiest single-day pitched battle ever fought in the West. On this occasion, not only did Hannibal inflict a defeat on the Roman Republic in a manner that would not be repeated for over a century, until the lesser-known Battle of Arausium, but a battle took place that was destined to gain significant notoriety in the field of military history as a whole. As a military historian, Theodore Ayrault Dodge has written:

As Will Durant wrote, “It was a supreme example of military prowess, never surpassed in history and set the lines of military tactics for 2,000 years.” It is, among other things, the first attested use of pincer maneuver in the Western world.

The “model of Canne”

Considered the quintessential example of cunning and maneuvering skill, it is still the most studied battle by military personnel and experts in tactics and strategy. Besides being one of the greatest defeats ever inflicted on the Roman army, the battle of Canne represents the archetype of the battle of annihilation. The clash assumed a “mythical” role also in the strategic science of modern armies; in particular, the German-Prussian General Staff considered the strategic scheme of the battle of Cannae as an ideal point of arrival to be constantly sought in war. As Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in World War II, once wrote: “Every land commander seeks the battle of annihilation; to the extent that conditions permit, he seeks to duplicate in modern warfare the classic example of Cannae.”

The totality of Hannibal”s victory made the name “Canne” synonymous with military success, and today it is studied in detail in numerous military academies around the world. The idea that an entire army could be surrounded and annihilated in one fell swoop has fascinated successive Western strategists for centuries on end (including Frederick the Great and Helmuth von Moltke) who have attempted to recreate their own “Canne.” The seminal study implemented by Hans Delbrück regarding the battle had a profound influence on subsequent German military theorists, most notably the chief of staff in the Imperial Army Alfred von Schlieffen (whose “eponymous plan” to invade France, was inspired by Hannibal”s tactics). Through his writings, Schlieffen taught that the “Canne model” would continue to be applicable in wartime maneuvers throughout the twentieth century:

Schlieffen later developed his operational doctrine in a series of articles, many of which were later translated and published in a work entitled Cannae.

There are three main accounts of the battle, none of them contemporary with it. The closest is that of Polybius, written 50 years after the battle. Livy wrote his own at the time of Augustus, and Appian of Alexandria even later. Appian”s account describes events that bear no relation to those of Livy and Polybius. Polybius portrays the battle as the final nadir of Roman fortunes, serving as a literary device so that the subsequent Roman recovery would be more dramatic. For example, some argue that his casualty figures are exaggerated, “more symbolic than real.” Scholars tend to underestimate Appian”s account. Philip Sabin”s judgment, “a worthless farrago,” is typical.

The Commander of the Romans

In his writings, Livy portrays the Roman Senate as the protagonist of the victorious resistance of the Republic and assigns responsibility for the defeat to the consul Varro, a man of popular origin. Attributing much of the blame to Varro”s mistakes also serves the Latin historian to mask the shortcomings of the Roman soldiers, whose patriotism and valor he idealizes and exalts in his writings. Polybius did the same, trying to exonerate as much as possible the grandfather of his own patron, Aemilius Paulus.

According to Gregory Daly, Varro”s popular origins may have been exaggerated by the sources and he was turned into a scapegoat by the aristocracy. In fact, Varro lacked the powerful descendants that Aemilius Paulus had; descendants who were willing and able to protect his reputation. Historian Martin Samuels has also questioned whether it was actually Varro himself who was in command on the day of the battle, since Lucius Aemilius Paulus positioned himself on the right side. Gregory Daly notes that, in the Roman army, the commander in chief was always deployed on the right. He also points out that, according to Polybius” account, Hannibal in his exhortation before the battle of Zama had reminded his soldiers that they had fought against Lucius Aemilius Paulus at Cannae; the author concludes that it is impossible to be sure who was in command on the day of the clash, but he considers this of limited importance since both consuls shared a desire to face the enemy in a great battle. Moreover, the warm reception Varro received after the battle from the Senate was in stark contrast to the fierce criticism reserved, according to historical authors, for the other commanders. Samuels doubts that Varro would have been warmly received had he been in command and solely responsible for the defeat. Finally, historian Mark Healy states that it could be determined, based on an alternative calculation of the days of the rotation of the consuls” command, that on the day of the battle Aemilius Paulus and not Varro held command over the Roman army.

The place of the battle

On the determination of the exact place in which the battle was fought remains a controversy not completely resolved. It is however out of discussion that the battle has been developed in the territory of the ancient Apulia.

In the Genoese dialect it is common to use an expression that can be translated as “to be in the canes”, with the meaning of “to be in difficulty”: it is a memory of this battle from the point of view of the Romans, who here had a mighty defeat, with consequences on the war itself.

Modern Sources


  1. Battaglia di Canne
  2. Battle of Cannae
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