On the evening of the 2nd of August 216 BC, Hannibal Barca stood at the apex of opposition to Rome, for no man or nation would ever represent more of a threat to Rome as he stood that evening. On the field of Cannae in southern Italy his Carthaginian army of 50,000 had defeated the largest Roman army ever assembled, 86,000 strong. By doing so Hannibal cemented his place in the pantheon of great generals by using the Roman strength against them, fully surrounding and butchering them until 50,000 Roman soldiers lay dead on the field, only losing 5,700 of his own troops.
Before continuing with this article I believe it’s worth pausing to think about what all this means and to do so I will use a more modern perspective. The British offensive on the 1st July 1916 known as the battle of the Somme is one of the worst British military operations in history during which 18,105 soldiers were killed for little gain and is one of the bloodiest days in modern warfare. As horrific as this event must have been it doesn’t even scratch the surface of Cannae. First, consider that this was an age before mechanical warfare which allowed higher rates of casualties to be inflicted and, to a large extent removed the intimate contact with the enemy that was present in Ancient warfare. To kill a man in ancient warfare you needed to get close, close enough for a spear where you are as vulnerable to death as your combatant. It took just under 6 hours of fighting for 55,700 men to be killed, one at a time with spears and swords, this is simply an unfathomable level of brutality. At the battle of the Somme the front line in which casualties were sustained was roughly along 16 miles, so effectively there were just over 1,000 casualties per mile. At Cannae 50,000 Romans were killed in an area no bigger than 2 square miles, not to mention another 5,700 Carthaginian dead. The scale and magnitude of this loss of human life and the means in which it was done is something that luckily for us is hard to fully comprehend. It truly was a battle of annihilation.
It was not my intention for the above sentiments to hijack this article but I feel that it was necessary when as we often read books in which casualties are reduced to numbers written in ink. But when we stop to reflect on the mechanisms of those casualties we take a glimpse into the workings of the human soul, and just for a second, see the horrors we are capable of inflicting on each other. After those sobering thoughts, I will now return to the narrative of this article and in doing so, join me by pouring one out for the homies who didn’t make it.
That evening Hannibal stood in his tent surrounded by his commanders who were in understandably high spirits and urged Hannibal to allow both himself and the Troops some rest. Then the cavalry commander Maharbal stood up and said:
“Sir, if you want to know the true significance of this battle, let me tell you within five days you will take dinner, in triumph on the capitol. I will go first with my horsemen. The first knowledge of our coming will be the sight of us at the gates of Rome. You have but to follow” Livy
Here Maharbal is urging Hannibal to capitalise on this victory by marching on Rome, either to destroy the city or force a surrender. Hannibal commended his commander’s spirit but said that he needed time to properly assess his options. This was a defining moment in which Hannibal could have forced an end of the second Punic war with a Carthaginian victory. However, Hannibal delayed and did not march on Rome during the aftermath of the battle of Cannae and many including Livy believe that it was this single decision that was the salvation of the City and the Republic. However, in more recent years, there has been a trend of modern scholars defending Hannibal’s actions believing that practically, Hanibal would not have been able to take Rome if he had marched directly after Cannae. Therefore, whether or not Hannibal made the right choice not to march on Rome was the right one will be the subject of this article.
Hannibal takes the fight to Italy
If we are going to pass judgment on Hannibal’s actions we first need to consider what he was trying to accomplish. The most obvious problem with this is that we can never be 100% of his plans, although he did write extensively including a military manual, unfortunately, they have not survived. Despite this Hannibal’s plan certainly involved two key features. First, he was intent on taking the fight to the Roman heartland, Italy. The first conflict between Rome and Carthage had been fought on foreign soil placing little stress on Rome. However, by taking the fight to Italy any level of defeat places the Romans in a much more severe situation. British Prime Minister Nevile Chamberlin said that the events leading up to World War II were ‘a quarrel in a country far far away between people of which we know nothing’. Hannibal was determined to ensure that this war would not be fought in some distant land, it was to be fought in Rome’s heartland. This bold strategy is arguably what Hannibal is most famous for, Crossing the Alps in winter with his 50,000 strong army and 40 elephants. Another key part of his strategy was to force Rome’s allies to abandon her, thus massively reducing the power Rome could muster and increasing support for Hannibal. Although Rome had conquered the Italian peninsular there was still great resentment in the northern Gallic tribes and in the south Greek settlements, notably Tarentum who had a history of forming alliances with foreign enemies of Rome, notably Pyrrhus of Epirus in the early 3rd century.
When Hannibal crossed the Alps he was well aware of how costly it would be, however confident he would be able to recruit Gauls to bolster his army he drove them at a relentless pace. When they reached the highest point and could see Italy he proclaimed that they had done the unthinkable and when they got into Italy allowed them to rest and allowed extra rations for a week. Because he knew that within a month they would be fighting and killing Romans. Quick decisive victories were critical for Hannibal if he was to draw the allies of Rome over to his side. In the next two years, he soundly defeated two Roman armies first in 218 BC at the river Trebia where he inflicted 26,000 Roman casualties and then at the Lake Trasimene (217BC) where a further 30,000 were killed. Then the following year in 216 BC was the battle of Cannae where 50,000 were killed. The Roman loss of over 100,000 men in these three consecutive defeats represented roughly 10% of the male population between the ages of 17 and 60, a truly staggering statistic. Hopefully with the magnitude of Hannibal’s campaign in Italy further illuminated the dire situation the Romans were in after Cannae is clear. And it is to these events we will now turn.
Cannae: The aftermath
Despite the enthusiasm from Maharbal Hannibal was probably right not to march on Rome immediately as there were still multiple issues that he had to consider and deal with. For example, he still had to capture the Roman camp which was nearby, the survivors had fled there and including a small garrison left behind, there were still 10,000 Roman soldiers at the camp. Simply heading straight to Rome and leaving this force would have defiantly been a big mistake. As it turns out once the camp was surrounded the Romans surrendered. However, this gave Hannibal another headache, what to do with the prisoners. He ended up sending envoys to Rome to negotiate the ransom, this was a pretty common practice in the ancient world but to Hannibal’s dismay, the Romans refused to ransom their prisoners, utterly against showing any sign of defeat. Therefore Hannibal sold the vast majority into slavery and executed the rest unless they were not Roman citizens but merely allies of Rome in which case they were released in an attempt to curry favour with the allied cities of Rome.
Then there’s the small issue of how far away Cannae is from Rome. It is roughly 250 miles away from Rome, remember the last time you walked 250 miles? Didn’t think so, quite far isn’t it? Also take into account the effect of the ‘Fabian strategy’, named after Quintus Fabius Maximus which included burning all available crops and food in order to starve Hannibal a march of this distance would not have been easy, not to mention that his army was no doubt tired and battered after 3 years of constant campaigning. However for argument’s sake, even if Hannibal did make it to Rome the chance he would be able to successfully take the city was slim at best. As I will cover later Rome was already mobilising its citizens for the defence of the city and Rome had strong walls which could be effectively defended. Any assault on the city would no doubt result in massive casualties for Hannibal and would likely drag on for months if not years, Hannibal would not have been able to sustain this effort.
These are the views now held by many modern scholars who believe that Hannibal made a sensible and correct decision by not attacking Rome, and are largely based on logistical issues mentioned above and over 2,000 years of hindsight. No doubt the same scholars would have said that marching over the Alps would not have been a logistical possibility had Hannibal not done it. What we mustn’t forget is that in war fortune often favours the bold.
Rome and her Allies
The survivors of Cannae fled to the various surrounding towns while they recovered and tried to figure out what to do next. Some soldiers were talking of either surrender or fleeing Italy until a young officer named Publius Cornelius Scipio (super hint: I’d remember that name). Scipio rallied the soldiers and ensured they lived to fight another day. Meanwhile, in Rome, there was widespread panic as information about what had happened reached the city in dribs and drabs. The Senate met in the curia hostilia to discuss emergency measures as they were sure that Hannibal would press his victory and march on Rome. Quintus Fabius Maximus proposed numerous measures aimed at first, maintaining control of the city, sending scouts to find out the whereabouts of Hannibal and to offer slaves freedom if they went into the army. This was quite a controversial move as arming 8,000 slaves was more expensive than ransoming the Prisoners mentioned earlier. Such was the disdain for Hannibal and even showing any sign of weakness or defeat.
This was already becoming a Roman trait that was evident when the Gauls sacked the city in 390 BC and more recently when Pyrrhus invaded and fought the Romans in two indecisive battles. So it can be argued that Hannibal should have recognised this, however, this is a harsh criticism. By all standards of the ancient world, Hannibal had won the war, if any other nation would have succumbed if they suffered these defeats. However, the Romans held firm and it became an immense source of pride for future generations that their ancestors kept fighting and didn’t surrender.
The effect of Cannae on Rome’s allies was profound, almost immediately all of the southern traditionally Greek settlements allied themselves with Hannibal and the Gauls in the north were in open revolt. The most important of the cities to align with Hannibal was Tarentum in the south and Capua, a significant city not too far south of Rome. Tarentum had been the city to ask Pyrrhus to fight the Romans for them and Capua was a far too significant a city too close to Rome for Hannibal to be in control of and thus became an immediate target for recapture. Perhaps even more significant was the fact that Phillip V of Macedonia signed an alliance with Carthage almost immediately after Cannae. So not only did Hannibal have support within Italy but also from other sovereign states. The Greeks and Macedonians (that distinction itself is a slippery slope) were wary of Roman power and were concerned that conflict was in the future. Ironically by siding with Carthage in this manner, it would ensure that Greece was the target of Rome’s next conquest after the conclusion of the second Punic war. However, for Hannibal, it meant that he could establish a loose base of operations in the South without having to worry about constantly foraging for food, it also gave him access to important ports where he could receive reinforcements from Carthage.
All of these defections immediately after Cannae speak volumes, Livy states that it is these reactions that show the significance of Cannae, simply put, everyone thought Hannibal would bring the war to an end in the coming months in not weeks. But Rome would once again demonstrate its indomitable will and slowly, steadily, relentlessly dragged themselves from the abyss.
The Roman recovery
Perhaps the most alarming city to defect to Hannibal was Capua which at this time was a relatively large city and very close to Rome (113 miles). Due to Hannibal not marching on Rome the Romans had time to recover, recall foreign armies and muster a fresh force. A key feature of the second Punic war was the fact that Rome always seemed able to replenish their forces extraordinary quick despite heavy losses. Traditionally nations had one standing army and if it was significantly defeated then they would sue for peace, effectively a conditional surrender. In the first Punic war, Carthage had suffered one major defeat and been forced to surrender, in contrast to Rome who had suffered far worse and still been able to fight on. Hannibal must have been incredibly frustrated that he was unable to bring the conflict to an end. Despite defeating three armies in consecutive years, causing a widespread defection of its allies and being able to move with almost absolute impunity in their country. By all the standards of ancient warfare, he had done more than enough to win the war.
The Roman’s besieged the Carthaginian garrison Capua the year after Cannae, whilst Hannibal remained in the south. Only when the situation was dire and Hannibal was accused of abandoning his garrison force did he march north to try and relieve the siege. However Rome refused to meet Hannibal in battle, rather they frustrated him and returned to the ‘Fabian strategy’ which had worked so well before Rome decided to try and destroy Hannibal at Cannae. The Fabian strategy relied on refusing Hannibal a battle (arguably because it was clear that he was a gifted general). Simply burn all the crops and make sure that no food is available for Hannibal’s army and starve them into submission, Fabius believed that if the Romans did this then Hannibal and his army would fade away. The issue with this strategy is that it’s not a very noble strategy. The Roman way was to defeat the enemy in battle, overcome with force. Not to mention that literally, the only thing anyone cared about in the classical world was winning a battle and gaining honour. After the disaster at Cannae Rome returned to the Fabian strategy. Slowly Rome was learning from its most dangerous enemy and later generations would say that Carthage and Hannibal was the wet stone on which Rome was sharpened and forged into a dominant world power.
Hannibal at the Gates
Hannibal had not been able to engage the Romans in battle since Cannae despite several attempts and the situation in Capua was getting desperate. Due to this Hannibal decided to roll the dice and, march to Rome, finally. It can be debated whether or not this was a bluff intended to draw the Romans from Capua or it was a legitimate assault. Either way, it doesn’t matter. By this time it was 211 BC, 5 years after Cannae and Rome was no longer a nation on the brink. Due to Hannibal’s lack of intent after Cannae, they had been able to recover and it seems that they were not very concerned that Hannibal was literally camped outside of the city. This time there was no mass panic, rather it was a city who was prepared and who believed that the worst was over and sooner or later Hannibal would be defeated. This is evident in the fact that Rome still maintained the siege of Capua, not sending a single man to aid in the defence of Rome.
An anecdote that illustrates the above sentiments is that a Roman scout was captured and when asked about the mood inside the city Hannibal was informed that land was being sold and it so happened that the piece of land that Hannibal was camped on had been sold and that it hadn’t depreciated in value. This was how confident the Roman people were that Hannibal would be defeated. Hannibal realising that Capua was going to fall and he couldn’t possibly take Rome retreated to the south before he was trapped between two armies. Hannibal had stared at the city of Rome from a nearby hill with an army at his back, and Rome hadn’t flinched, Hannibal had bluffed, and Rome called. I wonder at that moment what he would have given to be in the same situation five years earlier after the battle of Cannae when Rome was ripe for the taking.
Final years and Defeat
Hannibal would never be able to reproduce the feats of his early campaign culminating in his victory at Cannae. Over the years Hannibal was slowly bottled up in south Italy whilst Rome had great success in Spain, eventually leaving only North Africa (modern-day Tunisia) in Carthaginian hands. In 203 BC Hannibal was recalled to Africa to defend against a Roman invasion and was finally defeated at the battle of Zama in 202 BC by non-other than Publius Cornelius Scipio. This effectively ended the Second Punic War as Carthage couldn’t maintain a war effort and Scipio was given the name ‘Scipio Africanus’. Hannibal went into self-exile and carried on fighting Rome first in Macedonia then later Syria until he eventually committed suicide rather than be captured. Scipio also faced an ignoble end in self exile from Rome, he suffered the fate of many a war hero in peace times. His popularity had made him too popular and therefore dangerous and he was constantly dragged through the courts. It is reported that his gravestone read ‘ungrateful country you shall not even have my bones’. A sad ending for two of the most captivating characters in the classical world, who gave so much for their countries and in the end were discarded when they weren’t needed.
It is my opinion that Hannibal was right not to advance directly onto Rome in the aftermath of Cannae due to the obvious logistical issues that he was facing. However, I don’t think it can be argued that by not marching at all on Rome he effectively let them off the hook. The question that can never be answered is what Rome would have done in the face of Hannibal at the gates of Rome. History suggests that they wouldn’t have surrendered but this was a far more severe situation than any other previously encountered. It is easy to say with hindsight but as Shakespear said in his play Julius Caesar “There is a tide in the affairs of men, when taken at the flood leads on to fortune”. In my mind, the aftermath of Cannae was the tide ready to be taken at the flood by marching on Rome which Hannibal did not take.
Cast your mind back to the conversation between Hannibal and Maharbal after Cannae. Upon hearing Hannibal was not going to march on Rome Maharbal proclaimed:
“Hannibal, you know how to win a victory, but you do not know how to use your victory”
Perhaps this comment by Maharbal sums up Hannibal perfectly, and while we revere Hannibal as one of the greatest generals of all time the ultimate aim of a battle is to win the war. And in this case, Hannibal was found wanting. As a result in a little over 50 years the descendant of Scipio Africanus, Scipio Aemilianus would preside over the complete utter destruction of Carthage and its people, sowing salt into the earth so nothing would ever grow there again. As he did so recalling lines from the Illiad about the destruction of a great city and it’s people; weeping as he did so knowing eventually this would be the fate of his city one day. Rome proved to be as uncompromising in victory as they had been in defeat, and they emerged from the Punic wars as the dominant power in the Mediterranean world.
Oliver J. Hallett
Goldsworthy, A., 2012. The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC. Hachette UK.
Livy, T., 1972. The War with Hannibal: The History of Rome from Its Foundation (Vol. 145). Penguin UK.
Miles, R., 2011. Carthage must be destroyed: The rise and fall of an ancient civilization. Penguin.
Polybius., Scott-Kilvert, I. and Walbank, F., 2003. The rise of the Roman empire. London: Penguin.