As the lumbering legions charged forward to clash with Hannibal’s advanced center, due to the convex formation adopted by the Carthaginians, only the Romans in the center were able to make initial contact, with the result that the rest, anxious to engage, began converging toward the middle. The Iberian-Gallic center, under the direct command of Hannibal and Mago, began the most delicate and critical part of the Punic battle plan, a disciplined and gradual withdrawal without breaking. The Carthaginian line slowly became flat and then gradually concave, slowly giving in like quicksand. The Romans, thinking they were winning, continued to advance into what gradually transformed into a sack, not realizing that they were being trapped, until it was too late. At the critical moment, Hannibal sounded the signal for the heavy African infantry reserves to wheel in and charge from the sides, starting to compress the Roman juggernaut from right and left, halting its advance and creating confusion as the Romans could not tell friend from foe. It is unlikely that they were equipped with sarissas like a Macedonian phalanx, as some have claimed, but they wore captured Roman armor and weapons. It was they, and not Hasdrubal’s heavy cavalry (as argued by Alessandro Barbero in a recent study), who compressed the already closely packed Roman formation from the flanks. The Carthaginian center under Hannibal and Mago reversed its retreat and the Roman army, compressed from all sides, became gradually immobilized.
Unable to move forward, pressed together from right and left by the elite Libyan veterans clad in Roman armor, and with retreat cut off by Hasdrubal’s heavy cavalry that had closed in from the rear, the largest army ever fielded by Rome was pinned, gradually being crushed from all sides, until soldiers had hardly enough space to wield their swords. Significantly, only those at the borders of the trapped army were able to fight, with the rest, in horror, having to wait their turn to die. No surrender was possible under the circumstances and so, gradually, in one afternoon, the great army of Paullus and Varro was literally annihilated. All that was left of the proud legions of Rome was the nightmare scenario of a square mile littered with the bodies of 70,000 men, dead or dying. The irresistible battering ram had been completely swallowed by the quicksand conjured by the magician of the battlefield.
Hannibal had achieved the impossible: the double envelopment and destruction of a larger army by a much smaller force. The massive casualties resulting from this epic engagement were not matched until the carnage of World War I in the 20th Century, the result of the overwhelming fire power and destructive effect of modern weaponry. The Battle of Cannae is widely regarded as the most brilliant and devastating military victory in history and is still assiduously studied in academies throughout the world. Many have attempted to emulate Hannibal’s tactics over the years, with varying measures of success, but no one has ever been able perfectly to replicate Hannibal’s masterpiece.
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© Yozan Mosig, 2012.
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