Punic, not quite Pyrrhic: Battle of Cannae

When one thinks of reverses for the side in battle with the greater number of resources and a higher probability of winning, purely based on strength of numbers, I believe two historic battles come to one’s mind: the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Cannae. I may write about the former later, primarily on two counts: firstly, it did not quite lead to a decisive defeat for Xerxes’ army, and secondly since it has been written on by so many writer that I feel a few observations on the latter would be something I’d like to present.

As for the title, I intended to present the sense of humiliation and absolute devastation faced by the once so glorious Romans, so much so that they could not even provide a face-lifter, far from making it a pyrrhic victory for the Carthaginians.



The Punic wars were a series of battles fought between the Romans and Carthaginians, due to a conflict of interests between the two civilizations on a number of matters, some historically significant while others were relatively trivial. The Iberian city of Saguntum had an administration comprising of those who aligned by Roman interests as well as Carthaginian sympathizers in the later part of Third Century BC. When the latter were assassinated, Hannibal, one of the best military commanders the world has seen, laid siege on the city with his Carthaginians troops. Given the political treaties of the time, which referred to the Iberian peninsula as the land that demarcated the boundary between the two empires, this was seen as a tectonic shift in established political conditions, and was one of the primary reasons for the beginning of the Second Punic Wars.  Over the next few years, Hannibal commanded a massive force in the region, one which was unmatched in the annals of the Hellenistic world. After the action at Sagantum in 219 BC, he went on to subdue the tribes in the region between the Iberian peninsula to the Pyrenees range in 218 BC, though with some setbacks to his forces. Leaving Iberian personnel in the peninsula, Hannibal moved swiftly on to Gaul, where besides the Battle of Rhone Crossing fought by the pro-Roman Gaul tribe called the Volcae, the Carthaginians were involved in few military activities.

In the meantime, the Romans had mobilized troops under the sons of the Roman consul Lucius Cornelius Scipio: Gnaeus and Publius, who moved swiftly towards Ebro and were taken aback to see the swift advance of the Carthaginians, who had put up camp near the Rhone river. The Romans soon found out the exact location of their enemies after a skirmish with a Carthaginian scouting party. Hannibal cleverly evaded the troops of the Romans, who had begun marching on to the now-known positions of the Carthaginians, and moved towards the Alps.


Scipio Africanus freeing Massive, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Scipio Africanus was Publius’ son, who ultimately defeated Hannibal

Unable to have taken on the Carthaginians near the Rhones, and apprehensive of a possible invasion of Rome itself, the Scipio brothers went in two directions: Gnaeus led his troops to Northern Iberia while Publius moved towards Rome. From the fall of 218 to the spring of 217, the Romans inflicted heavy damage to the Carthaginian positions, with battles such as the Battle of Cissa and the Battle of Ebro River, cutting off Hannibal’s position from that of the Carthaginians near the Iberian peninsula, depriving him of reinforcements later. To get this issue solved, Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal Barca marched towards the Scipio’s and met them in battle in 215 BC in the town of Dertosa, but was defeated in the Battle of Dertosa. The Punic Wars raged on till 201 BC. The Carthaginians lost control of Iberia after Scipio Africanus’ victories in the Battles of Baecula and Ilipa. In a most interesting manner, Hannibal initiated the coup of Tarentum, a major Roman city in 212 BC. Although the Siege of Syracuse was between the Kingdom of Syracuse and the Romans, and hence not directly part of the Punic Wars, I have to mention it since it involved the great Archimedes, who using his contraptions for siege warfare held off the Roman offensive for quite a while before Syracuse fell and Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier. It was in 201 BC that the Carthaginians lost the momentum of the war and Hannibal convinced the Carthaginian administrators to sue for peace.

The Battle of Cannae

After crossing the Alps, Hannibal dealt swift blows to the Romans. To deal with the Carthaginians, Fabius Maximus, the dictator of Rome undertook attrition warfare to deprive Hannibal of supplies. This strategy of avoiding pitched battles to go for attrition warfare is today famously referred to as the Fabian strategy. In 216, Gaius Varro and Lucius Paullus were elected as consuls  and took up the duty to shore up the offensive, including going with the hitherto unheard-of deployment of eight legions for the military activities. The Carthaginians faced a much larger foe, in terms of the number of personnel. Given the unified nature of the Roman army, the consuls alternated at the helm of the personnel. The Roman advance began after Hannibal captured Cannae, important primarily as a supply depot for the Roman forces. After some initial skirmishes by a light unit of the Carthaginians, the victorious Romans marched on under consul Varro, who bullishly moved ahead on to open spaces even though the Romans knew that the Carthaginians possessed a superior cavalry. Paullus, the more prudent of the two consuls, camped near the Aufidus river. The two armies remained in these positions for a few days, before Hannibal took the initiative by attacking the Roman encampment near the river, disrupting the water supplies to the Roman troops and thereby issuing the clearest provocation for the battle to ensue.

Battle of Cannae

Going by the strategy used in the Battle of the Trebia, 218 BC, Varro decided to have a deep infantry line flanked by two cavalry units, to quickly dismantle the center of Hannibal’s formation. Consul Varro put the Principe infantry units behind the Hastati units, much as was widely followed after the introduction of the Polybian system of military organization. Thus, given the depth of the Roman lines, they were almost the same size as their smaller sized opponents in terms of the width of the formation lines. Varro’s plan was simple: press the Carthaginians against the Aufidus river and crush their enemies. Hannibal deployed his army in units, as per the need and qualities of the particular need. His Iberian-Gaulish cavalry made up the center with the battle-hardened African infantry covering the flanks. A most clever way of not being outflanked by Romans was employed by Hannibal: by positioning the units right next to the Aufidus. Hannibal’s idea was to try to break the weak Roman cavalry lines on the flanks and then go around the back of the Roman infantry to attack them from the rear even as they pressed the Carthaginians in the front. The African infantry were supposed to keep the Romans in the centre to be hacked down as, effectively, the Romans were completely encircled. In addition, master strategist that Hannibal was, he also position his troops such that the Romans would be facing the east, with the sun falling on their eyes as they advanced to the battlefield! Also, given the position, the southeasterly winds would blow dust and sand into the faces of the advancing Roman forces! Some strategy, one has to say!

Battle of Cannae 2

The battle itself showed how brilliant the strategy was. As the Romans marched onto the Carthaginians, Hannibal and the central positions intentionally drew back and allowed the Roman forces to press forward. Meanwhile, the Numidian and Gaulish-Iberian cavalry completely routed their counterparts. So, essentially, the scenario was that the Roman infantry was without any protection at the rear, and were completely shut-off when the African infantry was asked to advance toward the rear of the Roman troops. Thereafter, it was a complete rout and the famed Roman legions were broken, and fraction of the Romans were allowed to flee. Thus, ended one of the greatest military campaigns by the strategist and commander par excellence – Hannibal, against a larger force of Romans. It has and shall always remain a chapter of history that’ll be read and re-read over time.

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