New Perspectives on the Battle of Cannae

La Bataille de Cannes - François-Nicolas Chifflart (1863) (An edited transcription of a presentation delivered in Barletta, Italy, on the 2230th anniversary of Hannibal’s greatest victory, 2 August 2014, at the invitation of the Comitato Italiano Pro Canne della Battaglia.)

I’m essentially a psycho-historian; I try to figure out the motivations of historical characters. Not just of Hannibal and the Roman commanders during the wars between Carthage and Rome, but also of the historians who wrote the story. Particularly Polybius and Livy (Titus Livius), for those are the two main sources we have. The history of Hannibal is contained in the writings of Polybius and Livy. If you look at Polybius, you can see that the reason he wrote was to explain to his Greek countrymen why the Romans had been so successful in taking over the Mediterranean world. Polybius was a close friend of Scipio Aemiliano, who was the commander in charge of the destruction of Carthage in the year 146 BCE. He was in the employ of the Aemilian family.

Consequently, any time he wrote about the Aemilian/Scipionic clan, you have to wonder whether he was actually completely objective, or was he beautifying things in order to please his friend and his employers? The other main source is Titus Livius, or Livy, who, by his own admission, was essentially writing to instill patriotism in the youth of the age of Augustus.

Consequently, he made the actions of the Romans more admirable and he allowed himself to invent all kinds of anecdotes and speeches to enliven his narrative, events which he obviously could not have witnessed or recorded, and for which often no other source exists. Consequently, we have to take what he said with a grain of salt.

For instance, when he tells his audience what Hannibal supposedly said to his soldiers, or to Scipio, his enemy, we know that in all likelihood he used his imagination and composed fictional speeches. Now, both Polybius and Livy used some earlier sources, such as Silenus or Coelius Antipater, but they have been largely lost, so we have no way of checking the earlier sources to see to what extent Polybius and Livy followed them accurately and to which extent they changed or modified them to suit their agenda.

For example, there is a story told by Polybius, repeated and distorted by Livy, that Hannibal, when he was a small child, nine years old, swore on an altar to be the eternal enemy of Rome.  Actually, Polybius didn’t say that, he said instead that Hannibal promised to never be a subject of Rome, never be a “friend” of Rome, but Livy changed that into an oath to always hate Rome. Later, all kinds of uncritical historians picked up the Livian version of this unverified anecdote and made the hatred of Rome, on the part of Hannibal, the main motivation for his subsequent actions. I think such assumption is completely wrong.  

I don’t believe that Hannibal hated Rome. I think instead that he opposed the colonialism and the incipient imperialism of the Romans, but did not hate them as a people. The entire story of the childhood oath of hatred is nothing more than an invention. It is a fiction created, in part, by Livy. Interestingly enough, Livy corrected his wording later and went back to the way Polybius described the alleged incident, namely that Hannibal said he would not be a subject or friend of the Romans, rather than an eternal enemy, but the harm was done, and later “historians” cherry-picked the more inflammatory version, so that today almost every book on the great Carthaginian claims, incorrectly, that Hannibal was motivated by his terrible hatred of the Romans.

It is clear that Hannibal’s strategic objective was never the destruction of Rome.  He did not plan to wipe out the Romans from the face of the earth. What he intended, instead, was to stop the spread of the Romans’ predatory colonialism and restrict them to their geographic location in the center of the Italian peninsula.  He actually stated that he came to Italy to liberate the other Italian people from the yoke of Rome, as well as the people of Magna Grecia in the south, originally Greek colonies, and the tribes of the Gauls in the north.

He never intended to march on Rome and destroy the city by the Tiber; that was not his plan. We know from the treaty of Hannibal with King Philip V of Macedonia that his objective was to break up the alliance of Rome with subjugated Italian people, so that the Romans would become isolated and would have to agree to a boundary precluding further militaristic expansion. That was actually his strategic objective.

Now, I could talk for many hours about all kinds aspects of the strategy of Hannibal, but I want to concentrate today on the Battle of Cannae, surely one of the most amazing battles in history and, in my opinion, the most incredible military victory ever, because that is essentially what brings us here together, what brings me to Barletta, on the 2230th anniversary of the Roman defeat at Cannae. There are several questions that have come up in recent research which have led us to a somewhat different understanding from the traditional way in which the event is described.

The first question is, who was really in charge of the Roman army? The traditional account says that there were two consuls, Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro, and that they alternated command; each was the commander on a different day. And on the day of the battle, it was Varro who was in control. Aemilius Paullus didn’t actually want to engage in battle, he was very cautious, but Varro was imprudent and definitely wanted to fight.  Well, that is obviously not so; when Rome created a super army with 80,000 infantry, and as you will see, much more than the 6.000 cavalry usually claimed, they didn’t create it in order to just continue the strategy of Fabius Maximus, of just shadowing Hannibal.

They assembled this enormous army to destroy Hannibal, to confront him and annihilate him on the battlefield once and for all.  So, it is reasonable to assume that both consuls wanted to fight, not just Varro.  And the place where the battle would take place, the plain between the River Aufidus, today’s Ofanto, and the hill where the citadel of Cannae was located, was actually ideal for the Romans. We often read that it was a mistake for Varro to opt for a plain because Hannibal’s more numerous cavalry would be able to maneuver and this would help the Carthaginians.  But, as you will see in a moment, there is evidence that the cavalry of the Romans was much larger than what is reported in most books.

So the Romans didn’t have to worry about Hannibal’s horse because their cavalry was just as good, or so they thought, and at least as numerous. Therefore Varro didn’t make a mistake, if he was in command. Since Aemilius Paullus was on the right side of the Roman Army, commanding the Equites or the Roman horse, which was the place usually assigned to the consul in charge, it seems that he was actually in command that fateful day. Varro was in command of the cavalry composed of Italian allies. There is no way the commanding consul would have chosen to ride along with the second class horse.  The evidence suggests that it was Aemilius Paullus and not Varro who was in command.