Battle of Cannae (216 BC), contested between the ancient Mediterranean powerhouses of Rome and Carthage, is usually considered as a particularly bloody episode – which had (possibly) resulted in the highest loss of human life in a single day in any battle recorded in history. Suffice it to say, it was a momentous scenario of history that not only showcased the ingenuity of military generalship for one side (Carthaginians) but also the long-term effects of cultural tenacity for the other side (Romans). And now this massive scale of human confrontation has been presented from a tactical perspective in a brilliantly conceived animated short by YouTuber Historia Civilis.
1) The forces of Hannibal in Italy –
While the video does a great job of describing the Roman army at the Battle of Cannae, we should understand how the army of Hannibal was markedly different by virtue of its heterogeneous composition. In fact, Livy attested to Hannibal’s leadership skills by mentioning how the general managed to not only control his mercenary army (which had been described as ‘a hotch-potch of the riff-raff of all nationalities’), but went on to win victories over the Roman forces for fifteen straight years – and that too within the confines of Italy. The irony in this case related to how the same folks who fought for money and plunder, grouped together to forego such things in favor of innumerable hardships for their chosen leader. This certainly speaks highly of the potent charisma demonstrated by Hannibal all throughout these rigorous years spent in a foreign land.
To that end, since we are talking about the ‘mercenaries’, the Carthaginian army that cross over from the Alps, mostly consisted of African (including Liby-Phoenicians and Numidians), Iberian (including the Balearic islanders) and Celtic soldiers – with their vastly variant cultures being integrated into a nigh professional force that regularly triumphed over the more homogeneous Romans. And intriguingly enough, Hannibal and his officers didn’t force any scope of uniformity on their ‘rag-tag’ army. On the contrary, the commanders expected each of the cultural domains to bring its own set of ‘native’ skills and expertise on the battlefield – thus resulting in the ultimate ‘counter’ army that could thrive in most tactical scenarios.
2) Strategy translating to tactics – the ‘pilum fodder’
The video explains how the Romans strengthened their center by massing columns that had greater depth and lesser frontage at the Battle of Cannae. On the other side, Hannibal opted for quite an opposite tactic of rather ‘weakening’ his center – and this part of the Carthaginian army was mostly composed of Gauls. Now from the logical viewpoint, Hannibal must have known that this Carthaginian position would incur greater number of casualties, given the Roman penchant for advancing straight-on to the main enemy lines after discharging their deadly ‘pila‘ (javelins). But still the general took the gamble, and centrally positioned his expendable ‘pilum fodder’ Celts – an audacious tactical ploy that we will discuss later in the article.
Now the question arises – why was Hannibal’s evaluation of (most) Celtic soldiers seemingly so harsh? Well part of it possibly had to do with the erratic political affiliations of many Celtic tribes in Cisalpine Gaul, many of whom proved to be unreliable during the course of the Second Punic War. As for the warfare side of affairs, while the well-armored Celtic cavalry forces (mostly derived from their nobles and retainers) were crucial to the success of some Carthaginian engagements in Italy, many of their Gaulish infantrymen counterparts were generally considered as an undisciplined bunch that favored individual bravery over group-based tactics. These Celtic men were often armed with long slashing swords and protected by only oval, leather-covered shields; while few even went to battle entirely naked. Furthermore, we should also take note of how Hannibal’s initial army consisted of only the African and Spanish troops, while the Celts were recruited ‘later’ on the way to Alps and beyond. So there might have been a strategic scenario in Cannae where Hannibal wanted to preserve his ‘core’ army of Spaniards and Africans (for future battles), while the rank-swelling yet ill-equipped Celts were given the task of directly facing their long-known adversaries – the Romans.
3) The Carthaginian cavalry –
The video makes numerous mentions of the Carthaginian cavalry and their presumed superiority both in terms of numbers and quality. But as with the main force of Hannibal, very few of these noted cavalrymen actually hailed from Carthage. To that end, the right flank of Hannibal’s army at Cannae was covered by the Numidian riders armed with only javelins. Espousing daredevilry on horseback, they probably rode without reins – instead using just a rope around the horse’s neck and a small stick to give it commands. In many cases (like at the Battle of Trebbia), Hannibal utilized their nigh-perfected mobility and zig-zag maneuvering ability to draw the attention (and ire) of the Romans. Such skirmishing tactics, often mixed with vocal insults, in turn forced the roused Roman to give battle even when they were under-prepared.
The left flank of the Carthaginian side was shielded by the ‘heavy’ variety of the aforementioned Celtic horsemen. Usually derived from their nobles and retainers, many of these these cavalrymen were richly attired in expensive mail and helmets – and thus fulfilled the role of the pseudo shock mounted troops (a task that was paramount in the Battle of Cannae). Hannibal also fielded Spanish cavalry forces, who were mounted atop stout horses, but were armed in a similar fashion to their infantry counterparts – with short falcata swords and smaller spears. They mainly served as medium cavalry useful for sustaining the initial charges, while also being flexible enough for pursuing retreating enemy forces.
4) The extraordinary ‘convex-crescent’ –
Hannibal proceeded on to array his entire army* (of 35,000 – 40,000 infantrymen and around 10,000 cavalry) into ‘tailored’ formations that were dedicated to countering the superb infantry quality and numerical advantage of Romans, who had probably fielded somewhere between 50,000 – 63,000 infantrymen* (along with around 6,400 cavalry – combining both the Romans and allied forces). Now it should be noted that among these 35,000 infantrymen under Hannibal’s command at Cannae, the ‘crack’ experienced soldiers from Africa and Iberia – who had originally crossed the Alps, only numbered around 14,000 men. Thus the remainder bulk of the infantry comprised the Celts and other assorted lightly-armed troops. As for Carthaginian cavalry forces, the seasoned Spaniards and Numidians formed the majority of 6,000 horsemen, while the remaining 4,000 were formed by the ‘elite’ Celtic cavalry derived from their nobles and retainers.
Now one of the first counter-measures of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae was to put his ‘heavy’ cavalry forces (of Celts and Spaniards) on the left flank, to directly oppose (and clear out) the Roman cavalry under consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus. On the right flank, the Numidians were deployed and expected to carry out their unorthodox style of luring in the Roman-allied cavalry forces and then dispatching them with well-timed javelin throws. But the biggest surprise came from the infantry formations of Hannibal. Instead of opting for the traditionally strong center, the Carthaginian general deliberately arrayed his most ‘expendable’ Celtic soldiers along the middle portion, and they were complemented by alternate companies of Spanish and Celtic soldiers in the successive flanks. Finally, the two ‘hidden’ wings of the infantry were filled by the heavy African troops (Liby-Phoenicians) who were possibly attired in ‘Roman’ style, with armors that were stripped off the dead Roman soldiers in the previous encounters. As for their tactics, some historians have talked about how these crack troops adopted the phalanx formation – though we are still not sure of their exact maneuvers.
After arranging his entire line, Hannibal commanded his central body of troops to slightly move forward while keeping their links with their successive flanks. As a result, a convex-crescent of formations emerged from the Carthaginian side (showcased in the image above), with the two wings thinning out and covering the heavy African troops.
5) The ‘Trap’ –
By the time the massed Roman columns (which were kept deeper, thus reducing their width) reached the Carthaginian lines, Hannibal’s heavy cavalry forces on the left flank (headed by Hasdrubal) had already pushed back the main Roman cavalry force commanded by their consul. As a matter of fact, Aemilius Paullus was himself injured by a sling-shot, and thus had to dismount – thus dealing a crippling blow to the morale of the proximate Roman soldiers. This allowed a gap to emerge on this side, and Hasdrubal took advantage of the retreating enemy to push through the momentary disconnect between the Roman cavalry and infantry lines on the left. He expertly traversed the ‘gap’ and wheeled around his fresh cavalry forces to meet the Roman infantry lines at their unguarded rear positions. On the other flank (right), the Numidians were successful in disrupting the Roman allied cavalry forces under the other consul Gaius Terentius Varro. They did so by their idiosyncratic fighting methods of zig-zag maneuvering and false retreats. Finally, a fresh detachment of heavy cavalry from the left joined their Numidian comrades, and together they successfully drove away the panicked Roman allied cavalrymen from the field.
However as mentioned in the video, in spite of the reversals of their cavalry forces, the main Roman infantry lines maintained their cohesion and pushed forth the ‘weak’ Carthaginian center with aplomb. The previously convex-crescent had now bulged ‘backwards’ into a concave with the disciplined Roman legions making short work of their mostly Celtic adversaries. But therein laid the audacious tactical trap sprung by Hannibal. That is because as the Romans pushed further in, they were met with alternate companies of Celtic and Spanish forces – soldiers who operated in distinct styles of warfare, with the boisterous Celts using their long slashing swords and the deft Spaniards using their short stabbing swords. This alluded to a confusing set of tactics to counter for the legions, since they had to continually adapt to the ‘changing’ nature of the enemy – thus limiting their progression while exacerbating their fatigue levels.
Finally, when the concave had ‘bulged’ sufficiently, Hannibal commanded his crack African troops from the hidden wings to join in the fray; and these (possible) phalanxes plunged deep into the tattering Roman flanks. The ‘coup de grace’ was then dealt by the Hasdrubal’s wheeling cavalry – as they struck the rear lines of the Roman infantry, thus completely surrounding the enemy inside a rough circle. By this time the Romans were so pressed for space that many of them didn’t even have room for swinging their swords. The end result of the Battle of Cannae, according to Livy, amounted to around 50,000-70,000 Roman deaths (though few modern estimates put down this figure to around 40,000) and 20,000 prisoners, while the Carthaginians suffered only 8,000 casualties.
6) The Paradox of Cannae –
Interestingly enough, it was the Battle of Cannae that was ultimately responsible for Hannibal’s unceremonious call back to Carthage (in 203 BC) after 15 years of remaining undefeated on Italian soil. In the post years of the Cannae incident, the Roman leadership came to a realization that they couldn’t counter Hannibal’s genius in conventional warfare. As a result, they reverted to the defensive Fabian strategy (named after Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus) which basically entailed a guerrilla-warfare type scenario with internal lines of communications. In other words, the Romans rigorously avoided open-field battles, while resorting to hit-and-run and harassing tactics that afflicted the stretched Carthaginian lines and patrols who were regularly dispatched for foraging.
This predicament was further exacerbated when Hannibal had to provide garrisons for the newly defected cities in south of Italy. This took away much of his precious manpower that had already deteriorated due to previous battles, skirmishes and attrition. Moreover, since much of Hannibal’s army was composed of mercenaries of different nationalities – they were neither suited to siege warfare or garrison duty, and thus many of them started to desert en masse. So slowly but surely, the once grand expeditionary force that made its way to Italy via the Alps, was now only a shadow of itself. By 203 BC, even chances of arriving reinforcements from Carthage or Iberia went slim, with both of his brothers being soundly defeated. And ultimately, Hannibal himself had to answer the desperate call from his own Barcid war party, which was one of the two major political factions of Carthage. So the general and some of his trusted mercenaries finally decided to set sail for Africa. And thus ended the epoch of Hannibal in Italy – paradoxically brought on by his incredible victory at the Battle of Cannae.
The Roman tenacity for ‘comebacks’ was also demonstrated by the Battle of Zama, 14 years after the disastrous Battle of Cannae. This time around, it was Scipio Africanus who took the war to the North African heartlands of Carthage (just like Hannibal did in Italy), and the Romans sealed the outcome of the Second Punic war by defeating Hannibal in the major encounter.
7) The Perspective –
At the end the video offers a context of how the Battle of Cannae possibly snatched away a significant chunk of the Roman male population. In terms of sheer numbers, the baleful day probably accounted for over 40,000 Roman deaths (the figure is put at 55,000 by Livy; and 70,000 by Polybius), which equated to about 80 percent of the Roman army fielded in the battle! On a comparative note, the worst day in the history of the British Army usually pertains to the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where they lost around 20,000 men. But the male population of Rome in 216 BC is estimated to be around 400,000; and thus the Battle of Cannae possibly resulted in the deaths of around 1/10th – 1/20th of Roman male population (considering there were also allied Italic casualties), while Britain had a male population of around 20 million at the beginning of 1901. So objectively, from the numerical context, Britain lost around 0.001 percent of its male population in the country’s bloodiest single-day military encounter, while the Romans lost anywhere between 5-10 percent of their male population in their bloodiest encounter for a single day.
*The numbers mentioned in the article are estimates – compiled from both ancient and modern sources.
The article was composed from the excerpts of our previous article – 10 things you should know about the Battle of Cannae.
Video Source: Historia Civilis (YouTube)