Cannae Aftermath: The Maharbal and Capua Myths

Before we examine the record of Hannibal’s military campaigns following Cannae, to see if it supports the rather bizarre contention that, by spending a single winter in relative comfort, the army of the great Carthaginian was rendered useless and incapable of effective military action, we need to point out an important circumstance. The Romans, having suffered terrible defeats at the Ticino and Trebia rivers in 218 BCE, and at Lake Trasimene the following year, in their panic and consternation elected Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator to lead their army and stop the invader. As mentioned in a previous article, Fabius had the good sense to realize he was no match for Hannibal and wisely limited himself to following him with his army at a distance, refusing to engage the Carthaginians in battle (which led many Romans to regard him as a coward and earned him the derogatory sobriquet of cunctator, or “delayer”). Upon the end of his six-month stint in office, Roman hubris and impatience resulted in the election of a pair of consuls willing to face and eliminate the Carthaginian menace once and for all: Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Caius Terentius Varro. The consequence was the disaster at Cannae, where 70,000 Romans perished. This convinced the Roman Senate of the wisdom of their former dictator and forced a return to the Fabian tactics of following Hannibal at a distance, harassing his foraging parties without engaging him in battle. It must be remembered that in those days it was practically impossible to force an army to battle, unless it was cornered and could not retreat. Typically an army would deploy its forces, offering battle and the enemy, if he accepted, would do likewise, which would allow for the confrontation to commence. It was the Roman protracted avoidance of battle, and not the wintering in Capua, which robbed Hannibal of more victories comparable to that at Cannae. Nevertheless, the often-stated assertion that after his initial victories during 218-216 BCE, Hannibal was contained and rendered unable to achieve further battlefield successes during the following 13 years, is woefully inaccurate.

Hannibal did win further battles, a number of them resulting in casualty figures on the Roman side comparable to those of the battles of the Trebia and Lake Trasimene. He did so every time some Roman general grew arrogant enough to think he could take on the great Barcid, and forgot the lessons of Cannae. These victories are further evidence that give the lie to the contention that Hannibal’s army had degenerated into an undisciplined and ineffective force by wintering in comfort. For instance, in 212 BCE he won the battle of Capua, defeating the consuls Quintus Fulvius Flaccus and Appius Claudius Pulcher, although the Roman army escaped. The same year he was the victor at the battle of the Silarus River, where he destroyed the army of the Roman praetor Marcus Centenius Penula, in Campania—the praetor was killed, and out of 16,000 Romans only 1,000 survived. Even more impressive was Hannibal’s victory at the first battle of Herdonea (also in 212 BCE), where he wiped out the army of another praetor, Gnaeus Fulvius Flaccus, in Apulia, with casualties comparable to those at Lake Trasimene (according to Livy, 25.21.5-10, of the 18,000 men in the Roman army only 2000 escaped). And there were more military successes for the Carthaginians. The second battle of Herdonea took place in 210 BCE, and in that instance Hannibal crushed the army of Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus, who was killed, with the Romans suffering no less than 13,000 casualties (Livy 27.1.4-15). The same year he defeated Marcellus at the battle of Numistro and in 209 confronted him again at the battle of Asculum, following which Marcellus was recalled to Rome on charges of bad leadership. At the battle of Venusium in 208, Hannibal ambushes and defeats the two consuls of that year, Marcellus and Crispinus, the former being killed and the latter dying later from his wounds. These and other victories would not have been possible for an army that supposedly “did not retain a shred of its former discipline” and clearly demonstrate the preposterous nature of the allegations of Livy and Appian.

Polybius records that Hannibal remained undefeated during the entirety of the 16 years he spent in Italy, which is particularly amazing in view of the fact that he was fighting in enemy territory, cut off from his supply lines, and received almost no reinforcements, a feat unparalleled in history. During that period, despite all the hardships he and his soldiers encountered, he experienced no mutiny, rebellion, or desertion. His men remained loyal and followed him till the end without hesitation, a clear indication of their enduring discipline and of the quality of his inspired leadership. We must conclude that the story of the “delights of Capua” was also fabrication of Roman patriotic propaganda.

It is clear, then, that Hannibal’s strategic judgment after Cannae was sound and that he and his men retained their strategic goals and fighting capabilities throughout the remarkable years spent in Italy confronting the might of Rome.

Appian.  Roman History, Volume 1 (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard, 1912.
Barcelo, Pedro. Hannibal. Stratege und Staatsmann. Stuttgart, Germany: Klett-Cotta, 2004.
Egelhaaf, Gottlob. Hannibal. Ein Charakterbild. Stuttgart, Germany: Carl Krabbe, 1922.
Garland, Robert. Hannibal. Bristol Classical Press, 2010.
Goerlitz, Walter. Hannibal. Eine politische Biographie. Stuttgart, Germany: W. Kohlhammer, 1970.
Groag, Edmund. Hannibal als Politiker. Rome, Italy: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider, 1967.
Guerber, H. A. The Story of the Romans. Amerian, 1898.
Lancel, Serge. Hannibal. Paris: Artheme Fayard, 1995.
Lazenby, J. F. Hannibal’s War. Aris & Phillips, 1978.
Livy. History of Rome, Volume 3. London: J. M. Dent, 1905.
Mosig, Yozan and Imene Belhassen. “Revision and reconstruction in the Punic Wars: Cannae revisited.” The International Journal of the Humanities, 4(2), 2006, pp. 103-110.
Polybius. The Histories (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard, 1922.
Shean, John F. “Hannibal’s Mules: The Logistical Limitations of Hannibal’s Army and the Battle of Cannae, 216 B.C.” Historia, 45:2, 1996, pp. 159-187.
Seibert, Jakob. Hannibal. Feldherr und Staatsmann. Mainz am Rhein, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 1997.

© Yozan Mosig, 2012

yozan-mosig-miniAbout The Author

Yozan Mosig is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Kearney and has a deep interest in Ancient History, particularly the period of the Punic Wars, which he has been researching for the last 20 years. His Hannibal Library contains over 10,000 items. Read more about Yozan »