The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca is widely regarded as one of the greatest generals that mankind has ever produced. Much of his storied success comes from his victory over the Roman consul Caius Terentius Varro at the Battle of Cannae. To give some background to the importance of a battle from 216 BCE, the German strategic maestro of World War I, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, used Cannae as the baseline of his encirclement plans on the Western Front. Over two thousand years after Hannibal fought the battle of Cannae, the battle was being used as the template for a grand strategy in a global combat. Generals have idolized and attempted to imitate Hannibal’s success ever since the battle ended, and for good reason.
The Schlieffen plan, basically a plan to hold the French and allies at the border between Germany and France, then roll the German military who was not fighting on the front through Belgium and take the French from behind, completing an encirclement and effectively eradicating the Allied resistance in the West, allowing Germany to deal with the East and South unmolested.
Before Cannae even begins, more background information needs to be provided: Hannibal had crossed the Alps into Italy and was slowly encroaching further and further South and East into the Roman sphere of influence. Hannibal had beaten most of the Roman generals in head on combat with his superior cavalry (horses, mostly Numidian riders from Africa) and hardened infantry. The Romans elected a dictator to guide them through the war, selecting a cautious general named Fabius as the commander. Fabius chose to not meet Hannibal on the Carthaginian’s terms, instead Fabius kept his troops at a distance, safely able to check Hannibal’s actions, but not meeting him in open combat. Fabius was one of the last forces between Hannibal and Rome’s capital.
Hannibal’s army was like a swarm of locust, everything they crossed over was pillaged and eaten. Hannibal was running low on supplies, especially food, and there was little more that could be taken from the Roman land. Perhaps the greatest instance of Hannibal’s genius happened at the Battle of Ager Falernus. Fabius held the high ground in a rocky patch of Italy, and behind him lay the material wealth of Rome. Hannibal could not retreat back over the lands he had come through because they were barren, but he only had two options to get past Fabius. Either to fight Fabius on the high ground, or to slip around him on the one other mountain pass and attempt to ford a large river with his massive army and baggage train without being caught by the Romans. Fabius was in the most perfect position he could ever have wanted to be. If Hannibal charged him, Rome would score a monumental victory; if Hannibal ran for the river, the Romans could take the Carthaginians from the rear and crush them against the river. By all accounts, it was a victory assured.
Never fight a guy with the high ground. It’s a bad plan.
Hannibal had his men tie torches to the horns of oxen, and set the horde of cattle stampeding off towards the river by cover of night. Roman guards saw a giant slithering line of torches and a huge cloud of dust charging towards the river and assumed Hannibal had decided to run. The Roman garrison on the high ground charged down the mountain towards the river, at which point Hannibal’s men slipped behind them and passed Fabius’ forces with minimal distress, pushing deeper into Italy after sidestepping the Romans again.
One of the first instances of “Battle Cattle”
According to historian Theodore Dodge, after passing Fabius at Ager Falernus, Hannibal and his men moved towards the Italian city of Cannae because it was laden with breads and grains. Out of interest in food for his forces, Hannibal turned to Cannae, where he was met by the Roman forces led by two consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Caius Terentius Varro. Hannibal had roughly 50,000 men at his disposal, whereas the Romans were attacking with nearly 86,000; Dodge reminds readers that the armies of Carthage were hardened veterans, while the armies of Rome at this time were populated with green recruits and slaves. Hannibal met the Romans on the plains of Cannae, keeping his left side to a river, perhaps to prevent flanking from that side.
The above image shows the basic plans of the battle. The Romans wished to use the tactics from the battle of Marathon, where crushing the center of the enemy’s army would split forces in two and make it easier to flank and crush the two halves. Hannibal had sufferend huge losses to the Romans earlier in the Second Punic War from a similar tactic. In anticipation of this, Hannibal arranged his troops in a convex arrangement and slowly had the line retreat from the center to pull the Roman forces in. All the while, Hannibal’s cavalry forces faced the Roman cavalry on the right flank.
The Roman troops were drawn into the bowl of Carthaginians, just as Hannibal had planned. At the same time, the Numidian cavalry crushed the Romans, then wheeled and struck the Roman infantry from behind. There was nowhere to run, there was no room to fight. Men piled deeper into the bowl away from the cavalry as they swiped in, while men shied away from the spears of the Carthaginian infantry.
Much of this scene in the most recent season of Game of Thrones took cues from the Battle of Cannae. The crush of men running from certain death, oftentimes getting so jammed in that the soldiers couldn’t even raise their weapons or arms to defend themselves.
Classic encirclement tactics, first used by Hannibal to grand success.
Theodore Dodge writes that at this point, the battle was over, but the slaughter had just begun. Hannibal lost 6,000 men in the fighting, but the Romans lost upwards of 70,000. The Romans in the senate of Rome were utterly stunned by the loss, and generals for all of history since then have tried to replicate the tactic because of the monumental and brutally efficient victory that it had gained Hannibal. There are however, several factors to consider that could take away from Hannibal’s success. Varro, the Roman general, over-packed his troops in the center. He wanted to have more men to throw at the center of Hannibal’s armies, so he doubled the number of men per square foot, reducing the space between legionaries from five feet to two and a half feet. Roman legions were largely successful because of their mobility and versatility, but Varro undid the benefits of the formations in favor of pressing more flesh into the front lines. Secondly, the prudent general would oftentimes keep a reserve of troops who would wait on the wings and assist any troops who were flagging or struggling. This reserve could have broken the encirclement or delayed the cavalry enough to have turned the tide of battle in Rome’s favor. Thirdly, Hannibal’s cavalry was the greatest on the field, but most of the success of the battle relied on the Numidians winning the day. If the cavalry of Rome had held or inflicted heavy losses on the Africans, the flank of the horses would not necessarily have been as severe. That is not to say that Hannibal was a poor general, by all accounts he planned this battle to perfection, but much of the success was predicated upon the failures of the Roman armies as much as it was on the successes of Carthage. Hannibal was either exceptionally lucky in his predictions or preternaturally skilled at reading his opposing commander. That was the Genius of Hannibal.
Theodore Ayrault Dodge, Hannibal, (Barnes & Noble, 2005) originally published in 1889.