Sunday, August 2, 2015


Yesterday we discussed the setting of the stage for one of the truly epic battles in human history, the Battle of Cannae.  The battle occurred on this date in 216 BC, but the runup to the battle had been going on for two years.  Indeed, before Hannibal actually calls it a day and leaves Italy, it will be 201 BC.  Hannibal will have had an army in Roman lands for 15 years before he leaves and had it deployed for 17 years.  Not bad generalship, I'd say.

 In any case, he has administered severe defeats to the Romans at the battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimine effectively destroying most of the existing Roman Army.  The capture of military equipment at Lake Trasimine was so great, that the Carthaginian Army sold the equipment they couldn't use to Egyptian traders who then sold it back to the Romans.

In a further dimension of generalship, prisoners were sorted Roman/Non-Roman.  The Roman prisoners were held for ransom while the Non-Romans were released to spread the propaganda that Hannibal and the Carthaginians were fighting the Romans for those peoples freedom as well as their own.

The Romans have engaged in attrition warfare for another year when Hannibal determines a method of forcing a battle.  He seizes the Roman supply depot in Cannae, cutting the Romans off from a critical source of supplies.

The Roman Senate has had enough of the attrition warfare strategy and, as mentioned yesterday, appointed two people to command their newly formed and not well trained army.  After a two day march, they arrive in the vicinity of Cannae and set up camp.

On August 1st, Hannibal "offers battle", which the General of the Day, in this case Paullus, declines.  Now, I really don't understand that terminology, "offers battle".  So, I referred to my old blogging buddy, Mr. Google, who referred me to a document from my past called "On War" by Carl Von Clausewitz who said
"Now as their armies regularly entrenched themselves in their camps, therefore the position in a camp was regarded as something unassailable, and a battle did not become possible until the enemy left his camp, and placed himself in a practicable country, as it were entered the lists."
I think what Carl, (having been forced to read On War in its entirety at SAMS, I feel sufficiently familiar to refer to him by his first name) was trying to say is Hannibal came out of his locker room onto the playing field wanting to get the game started.  The Roman team however stayed in the locker room.  Because the camps were heavily fortified, attacking them was too costly.

Denied Battle, Hannibal decides to stack the deck in his favor by dispatching his Stetson wearers to harass the troops fetching water.  Reports on Roman troop strength reach as high as an unsubstantiated 100,000.  It's August in Southern Italy.  Water is important.

 Staging of forces

August 2nd, Varro will be the General of the Day.  A much more aggressive General (the USAF would say "all velocity, no vector"), he decides to fight and deploys his forces in three long ranks and starts them marching towards Hannibal's forces.

Hannibal has his forces aligned in a V shaped formation with his least reliable infantry at the point of the V closest to the Romans and the Stetson wearers on the outer flanks.

As the forces come together, the Stetson Wearers engage and the Carthaginian Cavalry dominates.  As such they patrol the flanks, keeping the Romans from spreading out and gaining battle space.   

Shortly after the center of the Roman line engages the Carthaginian center, Hannibal gives the signal to begin a slow withdrawal.  As the Carthaginians retreat, the Romans are led to believe that they are winning and continue the advance.  

Protected by the Carthaginian Cavalry, the Carthaginian line begins to widen around the flanks of the Romans.

At this point, the Gaul and Iberian Cavalry have defeated  the Roman Cavalry on the Roman Right and race around the back of the Roman ranks surrounding and destroying the Roman Cavalry engaged with the Numidians.

At this point, the Romans are surrounded. Though the battle was not over, it was lost.

 "So many thousands of Romans were dying... Some, whom their wounds, pinched by the morning cold, had roused, as they were rising up, covered with blood, from the midst of the heaps of slain, were overpowered by the enemy. Some were found with their heads plunged into the earth, which they had excavated; having thus, as it appeared, made pits for themselves, and having suffocated themselves." Cowley claims that nearly six hundred legionaries were slaughtered each minute until darkness brought an end to the bloodletting Only 14,000 Roman troops managed to escape, most of whom had cut their way through to the nearby town of Canusium. Source

In 20 months of fighting, Rome had lost 1/5th of its entire population of male citizens over 17.  Interestingly, Hannibal at this point offered to negotiate a peace treaty on "moderate" terms.  The Romans refused.  A little late to "man up", but better late than never.

The Romans changed their tactics from a closely bunched phalanx to a much more spread out formation which allowed them to maneuver easily.

More importantly, they learned the importance of unified command, eventually appointing Scipio Africanus as the sole commander of the Roman Armies in Africa who would eventually defeat Hannibal.

The Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae -The Bloodiest Battle in History
The Second Punic War
The Battle of Cannae


  1. I believe I begin to see where this might be headed.

  2. Same here... Love the all velocity and no vector... Have known a few of those myself!

  3. Same here... Love the all velocity and no vector... Have known a few of those myself!

  4. Worth noting that Cannae--long touted as the perfect battle of annihilation--was in the end ineffectual, because Carthage could not create the logistic support to follow through and actually persist long enough to defeat Rome--and because Rome would not give up, and kept creating new armies to replace those lost. Exactly the same comments--and lessons-- pertain to Chancellorsville during our, uh, War Between the States. There are lessons there about tactical brilliance and strategic imperatives. Thucydides saw it before it happened. Clausewitz and Mahan after, we ignore them at our peril.

    1. You're absolutely right, thereby demonstrating the Three Levels of Battle. The Tactical, Operational and Strategic. Hannibal was an absolute master of the first two and thereby was able to operate successfully in Italy for 15 years. He knew and attempted to win the Strategic, but eventually failed. So, seems he's been a role model for the US since 1945. Win, often brilliantly, at the tactical and operational yet lose strategically.

  5. (the USAF would say "all velocity, no vector"),

    I like that.


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