Han­ni­bal smashes the Ro­mans at Can­nae

Carthaginian troops in­flict a dev­as­tat­ing de­feat on their Mediter­ranean ri­vals

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

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

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