Hannibal smashes the Romans at Cannae
Carthaginian troops inflict a devastating defeat on their Mediterranean rivals
In the heat of a southern Italian summer in 216 BC, the greatest armies in the Mediterranean world faced each other across the battlefield. Having completed a stunning march across the Alps, the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, had already defeated the Romans twice. Now, on the field of Cannae, he was going for the hat-trick.
At first, the larger Roman army seemed to be carrying the day, driving back the Carthaginian centre. But they had failed to notice that as Hannibal’s infantry fell back, his flanks were swinging round to encircle the oncoming attackers. Only when it was too late did the Romans realise that they had fought their way into a trap.
“Thousands of Roman soldiers lay there, infantry and cavalry scattered everywhere, united in a death which the blind chances of battle or flight had brought upon them,” lamented the Roman historian Livy. “A few, whose wounds had been staunched by the morning frosts, even rose from among the heaps of dead all covered in blood – only to be slaughtered there and then by their enemies.”
For the Romans, Cannae was an utter catastrophe. “Never when the city was in safety,” wrote Livy, “was there so great a panic and confusion within the walls of Rome.” But their commanders never forgot the lessons of Hannibal’s cunning. It was, wrote the American officer and military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge, a “consummate piece of art, having no superior [and] few equal examples in the history of war”.
Carthaginian troops plunder the Roman dead after Cannae. The battle marked the third humiliating defeat that Hannibal inflicted on the Romans