Hannibal’s triumph at Cannae

By 216BC, Hannibal’s Carthaginian army in the Second Punic War had already won victories against the Romans at Trebia and Lake Trasimene. But then came Cannae.

According to Polybius, the Senate, terrified by Hannibal’s successes, sent eight legions against him. It was an unprecedentedly large force: some 80,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 cavalry. It’s possible the sheer size of the army, rapidly expanded with raw, inexperienced soldiers, contributed to the size of its defeat.

Certainly that defeat, when it came, was epic. Hannibal’s was a much smaller, polyglot army of Carthaginians, Celts, Iberians, Libyans, Numidians, and others, with a much higher proportion of cavalry. The forces met at Cannae – a few miles inland of the Apulian coast north west of Bari – on 2 August 216 BC. Hannibal trapped his enemy in a pincer movement. Polybius says that 70,000 Roman soldiers were slaughtered in the dust and chaos; Livy puts the number nearer 43,000.

If Rome was terrified before, what was it like now? But Hannibal did not march against it. We don’t know why. Livy has a cavalryman tell him, “You know how to conquer, Hannibal; but you do not know how to make use of your victory.”

Another writer, Cassius Dio, has Hannibal look back later, crying “Oh Cannae, Cannae!”, as if to say, what might have been.

This piece first appeared in the August 2021 issue of History Today.

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