The Mystery of Cannae: Re-examining Hannibal's Greatest Victory

Was the plain of Cannae, next to the Aufidus River (today’s Ofanto) really a poor choice of battleground for the Romans? Hannibal was a master of the ambuscade, and had surprised the Romans both at the Trebbia and at Lake Trasimene, where he hid his entire army in ambush. Clearly, the Romans needed a battlefield where Hannibal could not hide forces or spring a surprise attack from some unexpected angle. Cannae was perfect for this—a plain allowing no shelter for hidden forces to launch an ambuscade. The argument that the plain offered ideal terrain for the deployment of cavalry, Hannibal’s strongest contingent, and that although in infantry the Romans outnumbered the Carthaginians 2-to-1, Hannibal had numerical superiority in horse, is also flawed.  We have already established that such superiority was fictitious, and that in reality the Romans had parity or even numerical superiority in cavalry as well. The plain of Cannae offered the Romans the perfect field to use their enhanced equestrian forces and their massively superior infantry, with no worries of a surprise ambush. Both Aemilius Paullus and Varro would have approved of the battlefield.

A key factor that points toward Aemilius Paullus having been in command is his position at the start of the battle. As Seibert points out, the traditional place for the commanding consul would have been with the Roman horse on the right wing, which is precisely where Aemilius Paullus was. He could also have been with the infantry, but most certainly as commanding consul he would not have been on the left wing, with the allied cavalry (the horse supplied by the Italian allies of Rome), a position of less honor and distinction. It was Varro who was positioned on the left wing, a clear indication that he was not the commanding consul that day.

There is an additional factor that points to Aemilius Paullus, and not Varro, as the consul in command, namely that the former, injured in battle, when offered the opportunity to escape when it was clear that defeat was inevitable, refused to leave. His choice of certain death makes sense if he felt disgraced and responsible for having caused the greatest calamity in the history of Rome. Varro, on the other hand, fled with a small surviving contingent of the allied horse, and, upon returning to Rome, was received with open arms and thanked for “not despairing of the Republic,” hardly the reception he would had received had he been in command and thus responsible for the massacre. That this was not an uncharacteristic act of largesse on the part of the Roman Senate is confirmed by the fact that Varro held further command during the war years that followed—it is unthinkable that further forces would have been entrusted to Varro, had he been considered the incompetent and disgraced commander responsible for the crushing defeat of the Roman legions at Cannae.

But why do the classical records distort the identity of the commanding Roman general? In the case of Polybius, our otherwise most reliable source, it must be remembered that he was in the employ of the Aemilian family. It is possible that he may have intentionally changed the name of the consul in charge to protect the honor of the patrician family he served, as well as the memory of Aemilius Paullus, who, in his version of the battle, appears as a wise and prudent man, a hero who sacrifices himself to die with his soldiers. Varro was the obvious scapegoat on whom to blame the defeat. And as for Livy, who wrote two centuries after Cannae, his patriotic zeal in praising the virtues of the Republic to inspire the Roman youth of his day would naturally have inclined him to follow Polybius, protecting the honor of an aristocrat and blaming the calamity on a plebeian demagogue.

A third controversial point concerns the different casualty figures given by Polybius and Livy for the Battle of Cannae. Which, if any, is credible? Most historians agree that the casualty figures recorded in various ancient sources for battles in Antiquity are greatly exaggerated. The exception is Cannae, due to the nature of the double envelopment that resulted in the destruction of the Roman army. Even Delbrueck, who in his History of Warfare is very skeptical of such numbers, accepts as credible the enormity of the losses at Cannae.

Polybius (3:117) states that only 70 of the allied cavalry managed to escape with Varro and that 300 others “reached different cities in scattered groups.” He further indicates that some 10,000 Romans were captured, “but not in the actual battle, while only perhaps three thousand escaped from the field to neighboring towns.” He adds: “All the rest, numbering about seventy thousand, died bravely.” As for Hannibal’s losses, Polybius lists “about four thousand Celts, fifteen hundred Spaniards and Africans, and two hundred cavalry,” or a total of 5,700. Livy (22:49), on the other hand, gives a lesser figure for the Roman losses (about 50,000) and a larger for the Carthaginian dead (8,000). How believable are these figures, and why is there such a large discrepancy between Polybius’s numbers and the ones reported by Livy?

Some historians, such as Goldsworthy (2001) and Daly (2002), in their respective books on Cannae, have balked at accepting the Polybian figures, because they seem larger than possible if one assumes that the Romans had only 6,000 cavalry. The total strength of the Roman army would then have been 80,000 infantry plus 6,000 horse, or 86,000, and Polybius’s figures, 70,000 fallen, plus 10,000 prisoners, plus up to 10,000 survivors, would total about 90,000, which would constitute an impossibility. But we have already established that the real cavalry strength of the Romans at Cannae was, in all likelihood, somewhere between 9,600 and 12,800—quite a bit more than the 6,000 cited by most authors (who fail to heed the hint in Polybius’s qualifier “over,” indicating that the number was greater than 6,000). Taking the revised figures into account, the total strength of the Roman army at Cannae was between 89,600 and 92,800m and Polybius’s casualty numbers create no contradiction.

Livy, on the other hand, followed Polybius’s 6,000 figure literally, and, faced with the apparent contradiction, gave a much lower number for the Roman fallen, about 50,000 (45,000 foot soldiers and 2,700 horsemen). Livy does not actually name his source, and some think it may have been the now lost account of Quintus Fabius Pictor. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Livy’s explicitly stated motivation in writing his history of Rome was to inspire patriotism in the Roman youth of his day. The creation of a fictional numerical superiority in the Carthaginian horse, plus a sharp reduction in the number of Roman dead, allowed for the greatest shame of Roman arms to be substantially diminished.

Due to the overall greater reliability of Polybius’s account over Livy’s, it seems reasonable to agree with Delbrueck and accept that, indeed, 70,000 Romans and a little over 5,000 of Hannibal’s men died on the plain of Cannae, on that fateful day of August 2, 216 BCE. The Roman dead included the consul in command, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, two quaestors, 29 military tribunes, the proconsuls Servilius and Minucius, and at least 80 men of senatorial rank. It was the worst disaster Rome had ever experienced. Incidentally, it should be added that the 10,000 Romans that were captured, mostly when they surrendered in the Roman camps following the destruction of the army at Cannae, are not indicative of that many soldiers having been kept in the camps and not actually participating in the battle. Instead, it is reasonable to assume that many of them managed to escape from the battlefield before the completion of the fatal encirclement, and then took refuge in the camps.

The scale of the losses at Cannae is staggering. Over 75,000 men perished in a single day of combat. Not until the scale of destruction of the major battles of World War I in the 20th century, over 2,100 years later, were these terrible numbers surpassed. And those modern battles inflicted their death tolls with machine guns, bombs, cannons, tanks, and poison gas. Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae resulted in losses comparable to the casualties resulting from the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in a single day of hand-to-hand combat with swords and spears.

We will analyze how Hannibal managed to achieve his devastating victory against the overwhelming odds stacked against him in another article.

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© 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 »