Skip to comments.The Battle of Cannae - Rome's Darkest Day
Posted on 05/12/2021 8:20:53 AM PDT by LuciusDomitiusAutelian
Republican Rome was pushed to the brink of collapse on August 2, 216 B.C., when the Carthaginian general Hannibal annihilated at least 50,000 of its legionaries at the Second Punic War’s Battle of Cannae.
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When I was young, maybe 12 or so, I was fascinated by Hannibal and his amazing march across the Alps and his descent into Italy where he destroyed several Roman armies. As time went by, I began to see that the real remarkable story was that the Romans were able to survive those calamaties and eventually grind the Carthaginians down as they did all their foes.
Yup. He won the battle”s” but lost the war.
He absolutely ran circles around the Romans and then quit.
I've always thought that perhaps the Battle of the Milvian Bridge had huge future implications because one bit of eventual fallout was the Christianizing of the Empire. The other one that always strikes me as huge, though it was the Eastern Empire, was Manzikert. World might be a very different place if the Byzantines had won rather than the Turks. No subsequent civil war, etc..
I’ve known about Cannae for a long time. And, frankly, I’m not sure I trust the ancient historians.
On the one hand, in Greek hoplite warfare (I’ll get to Rome in a minute), things were like the opposite of a tug of war with a rope (two groups pulling away from each other, hoping to make the other team fall forward). Instead, two shield walls would crash together and push and push and push. Eventually, one shield wall would collapse and the men would fall apart and lose formation and then run and get speared in the back. It was all a question of who would break first.
Rome didn’t use hoplites, and didn’t depend on shield walls. But they weren’t dumb. At Cannae, the Carthaginians were greatly outnumbered by the Romans, yet the Carthaginians managed to surround the Romans, and squeeze them in the middle, pushing and pushing until the Romans had no where to go and just fell apart and were slaughtered.
That’s what they say. I think it would not have been difficult for the Romans to break out of the encirclement at one point or another and make the whole thing fall apart.
Maybe it happened just as they say — but history is full of lies. To read an ancient source and just accept it as the truth is, I think, a bad practice. The earliest source for this battle is Polybius (50 years after the battle) and most people think Polybius used a good bit of dramatic license. Livy wrote about it 200 years later (so how reliable can he be?).
For some reason Hannibal never marched on Rome. Nobody really knows why. Maybe he didn’t think he could take on the city but there was really nothing in his way. As his brother put it, (paraphrased) “Hannibal knows how to gain a victory, but not how to use it”
The Romans were stubborn and defeat was not in their vocabulary. You can thank Scipio (the younger) Africanus for saving Rome. The Senate decided to send an expeditionary force to Spain but no one would take the job. At 24 Scipio took the job and showed himself to be a brilliant tactician. Carthage couldn’t afford to lose their assets in Iberia so they wouldn’t resupply Hannibal so he had to send his brother Hasdribul to fight Scipio and the ruling oligarchs in Carthage cut off Hannibal. Hannibal is an enigma. One of the greatest generals in history driven by hate but not a strategic thinker. Are you familiar with the meeting of Hannibal and Scipio with Antiochus III. Fascinating story?
Absolutely. Constantine’s vision before the battle changed the course of the west for sure and Christianity itself. But in my own opinion, Constantine would have never existed if Hannibal had sacked Rome 600 years before the Goths sacked Rome.
But Hannibal never took Rome...
and Rome destroyed Cathage....
The Romans eventually saw the weakness of the Phalanx and moved to the Maniple system. The Phalanx had one MAJOR flaw, slowness. If you could get around the flanks it was over. If you couldn’t flank them it was almost impossible to defeat. This flaw in the phalanx allowed the Romans to march through Macedonia and Greece and Asia Minor to the east directly after the Punic Wars. Totally agree with you about history and lies. This particular battle is pretty well documented though. The Romans were meticulous record keepers. But anything pre-dating the sack by the Gauls can only be taken as mythology. But you are fundamentally correct about historians. My next post will be about the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest and Arminius. One of the worst losses in Rome’s history. Supposedly left Octavian (Augustus Caesar) in shambles screaming “Varus! Give me back my legions”.
Absolutely. The question no one can answer is why Hannibal never marched on Rome. A question left to ponder forever. We will never know. There was absolutely nothing stopping him. He could have sacked Rome and kept them from ever raising another legion.
You’re obviously correct about Hannibal and Rome. But it is tough to pick out a battle to explain why he never took Rome. Dertosa, maybe? Or perhaps Baecula. If Hannibal’s loser brother Hasdrubal had been able to win either battle, he could have reinforced his brother in Italy and things might have turned out differently.
“Yup. He won the battle”s” but lost the war.”
We’re relearning the same lesson in Iraq and Afghanistan
“Maybe it happened just as they say — but history is full of lies.”
History is written by the victors. Imagine what the history books would look like if the Germans had won.
Carthago delenda est!
Goldsworthy has a good modern look at this battle. Likewise
“The Ghosts of Cannae” is a good book on the aftermath by O’Connel
“The question no one can answer is why Hannibal never marched on Rome. “
I’m guessing it was G-d. He had more important things for Rome to do circa 33 AD.
Are you referring to Pontius Pilate?
Thanks KC Burke. I have his biographies of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar. I’ll have to check that one out. Goldsworthy seems to be becoming the best know scholar and author of Rome producing works that people are actually reading.
I think the classic saying is that to win a battle like Cannae, you needed a genius like Hannibal, and moron like Varro.
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