Cannae Aftermath: The Maharbal and Capua Myths

If we now imagine this brilliant general, an educated and cultured person from a society that settled disagreements through compromise and negotiation, standing on the bloody field of Cannae, littered with 75,000 dead and countless wounded and maimed, we can speculate that the spectacle was not one in which he would have taken pleasure. While acknowledging the necessity of achieving victory in the face of a ruthless and intransigent enemy, his emotions were probably closer to revulsion and consternation. In this mindset, for him to contemplate now the destruction of a great city, resulting in hundreds of thousands of additional deaths, men, women, and children, would not have resulted in eagerness to implement such macabre vision (quite the opposite, by the way, seems to have been the case with Scipio Aemilianus, the architect of the destruction of Carthage 70 years later, whose only regret after killing over half a million people, as reported by Polybius, who was there, was the thought that someday Rome herself might suffer a similar fate!). An immediate march against Rome was then incompatible, not only with Hannibal’s goals and intentions, but also with his character and personality.

But would it have made sense to attempt such a march at all? Rome was a large city, defended by huge walls, which Hannibal’s troops would have been unable to breach, lacking siege equipment. Besides, his numbers were insufficient for a successful siege. Parking his relatively small army in front of the walls of Rome would have allowed them to be trapped between the city’s defenses and reinforcements arriving from all corners of the peninsula, and would have accomplished nothing but his own destruction. It must be remembered that, while Hannibal was in a foreign land, cut off from his supply lines, and unable to receive reinforcements, the manpower potential of the Roman federation was in excess of 700,000!

There was still another reason why Hannibal could not have simply marched on Rome right after the battle of Cannae. As John Shean argues quite convincingly in a well-known paper, the logistical limitations of Hannibal’s army would have made such move impossible at that point in time. Without a permanent base of supply, Hannibal did not have the resources to feed his animals and men on a march of over 200 km without adequate preparation. Additionally, he had to take care of an indeterminate, but certainly large, number of wounded.

There is also a further socio-cultural and political reason for why Hannibal would not have contemplated such an action, even had it been feasible. In the tradition of the Mediterranean world of his day (Greek, Macedonian, and Carthaginian), a defeat such as the one inflicted on Rome at Cannae would have led inevitably to a negotiated peace. Rome, having been repeatedly defeated in the field and having had its greatest army annihilated, would have been expected to agree to peace terms that would have included some concessions and compensation paid to the victor. But the Romans refused to negotiate, and, showing a total disregard for human life, even that of their own citizens, refused to ransom their own captured soldiers, branding them as cowards simply due to the fact that they were still alive! This attitude was something Hannibal could not have foreseen. Once it became apparent, Hannibal continued with his original plan of liberating the people subjugated by Rome in order to gradually achieve the defection of Rome’s allies. He almost succeeded. His strategy was sound, and the causes for its ultimate failure can be found, not in some intrinsic weakness in his plan, but in two factors. The first one was the reluctance of the people of Capua, Tarentum, and other liberated cities, to actually serve in Hannibal’s army and risk making the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their newly gained freedom (Hannibal having agreed not to force such a service). The other consisted of the myopic and misguided policies of his mother city, Carthage. The Carthaginian senate repeatedly failed to fully support their greatest field commander, showing more concern for the protection of their silver mines in Spain than for the resolution of the struggle in the Italian peninsula, the war theatre in which final victory or defeat would have been decided.

Marching on Rome in the aftermath of Cannae was thus logistically impractical, strategically suicidal, philosophically unacceptable, and psychologically incompatible with Hannibal’s cultural upbringing and personality.

The second myth to be examined in this article is the alleged degradation of the Carthaginian fighting forces as the result of exposure to the delights of their winter quarters following their greatest victory. Capua, the second largest city in the Italian peninsula, had grown weary of the Roman yoke, and in 216 BCE, following Hannibal’s crushing defeat, at Cannae, of the largest Roman army ever assembled, opened its doors and welcomed him as liberator. This was an important defection from the Roman alliance and a clear indication that his plan to separate Rome from its subjects and allies appeared to be working. Hannibal and his army established winter quarters at Capua that year, an event that became a cause célèbre for classical historians Appian and Livy, who claimed that wintering among the comforts offered by the city destroyed the moral fiber of the Carthaginian army, to the point that they were unable to win any further victories. They supposedly found the climate, the food, the women, the hot baths, and the entertainment so alluring that they lost their discipline and their battle readiness, growing fat and lazy. This well-known contention has entered popular literature to the point that, as Guerber points out, “when people think too much of ease and not enough of duty, they are said to be ‘languishing in the delights of Capua’.” Is there any truth to this story, or is it merely another example of Roman patriotic propaganda?

Livy is quite explicit in his colorful description of the incident (History of Rome, 23.18): “Hannibal settled in Capua as his winter quarters. There he kept his army under shelter for the greater part of the winter. A long and varied experience had inured that army to every form of human suffering, but it had not been habituated to or had any experience of ease and comfort. So it came about that the men whom no pressure of calamity had been able to subdue fell victims to a prosperity too great and pleasures too attractive for them to withstand, and fell all the more utterly the more greedily they plunged into new and untried delights. Sloth, wine, feasting, prostitutes, baths, and idle lounging, which became every day more seductive as they became more habituated to them, so enervated their minds and bodies that they were saved more by the memory of past victories than by any fighting strength they possessed now … the wintering at Capua was a great mistake on the part of Hannibal [for it] deprived him of the strength to win [further] victory. It certainly did look as if he left Capua with another army altogether; it did not retain a shred of its former discipline. A large number who had become entangled with women went back there, and as soon as they took to tents again and the fatigue of marching and other military toils had to be endured their strength and spirits alike gave way just as though they were raw recruits. From that time all through the summer campaign a large number left the standards without leave, and Capua was the only place where the deserters sought to hide themselves.” Appian, a Greek historian from Alexandria, was clearly influenced by Livy, and even suggests that Hannibal himself was corrupted by the Capua experience, “abandoning himself to unaccustomed luxury and love-making.” This unusual statement, written some 250 years after Cannae, is in all likelihood a fabrication, for, as Robert Garland points out in his recent biography of Hannibal (p. 95), the allegation that Hannibal “strayed from his military objective” or engaged in promiscuous sex has no corroboration in the classical record. There is certainly no mention of such events in the account of Polybius, the more reliable historian of the Second Punic War.