It is morning on August 2nd, 216 BCE. The Carthaginian army under Hannibal has deployed on the plain of Cannae, by the Aufidus River, facing the massive Roman army led by Consuls Aemilius Paullus and Terentius Varro. The Roman forces outnumber the Carthaginians by practically 2 to 1, but Hannibal will prevail, literally annihilating the largest army ever fielded by Rome. How was this possible? What were Hannibal’s orders to the commanders of the different portions of his multi-ethnic army prior to the beginning of the battle? We do not know, but we can speculate.
To Hasdrubal, commander of the heavy Gallic and Iberian horse: “You must destroy the Roman cavalry between the Aufidus and the right Roman infantry flank, with the greatest urgency. The Equites are led by the Consul Aemilius Paullus himself, but you outnumber them 2 to 1. As soon as you crush their cavalry, do not pursue the escaping survivors, but ride as fast as possible behind the battlefield and fall upon the Allied horse on the Roman left wing. The Numidians will have been keeping them in check until your arrival. Once they are routed, leave the pursuit to Hanno and Maharbal’s horsemen. You must turn again with the heavy horse, and descend upon the rear of the Roman army without delay. It is essential that you implement these orders exactly and as soon as possible.” “Yes, my General!”
To Hanno and Maharbal, commanders of the Numidian horse: “As soon as the battle starts you must deploy against the Allied horse, although it outnumbers you greatly. Do not charge at them, but engage in the circling and hit and run tactics in which you excel, so as to keep them confused and in place. This is essential for the success of my battle plan. You will not have to wait long until Hasdrubal and his horsemen come riding like the wind behind the battlefield to assist you. Attacked from two sides, the Allied horse will break, as they do not have the discipline of the Romans. Pursue them and wipe them out as they try to run away. Do you understand?” “Yes, our General!”
To the commanders of the Iberian and Gallic infantry forces deployed in the middle, supervised by Mago Barca: “Your center will push forward in the middle, until you form a semicircle. When the Romans attack, only the center of their formation will make contact and those on the sides will drift towards the middle. Fight hard, but slowly and gradually give way, so that the Romans in the center continue to advance, thinking they are pushing you back and hoping you will break, which you will not. I will be right there, with you, in the center, don’t let me down. Gradually your retreating center will turn your formation into a sack into which will pour the Romans, thinking they are winning. When I give the signal, stop retreating and fight like lions to stop the Roman advance. Don’t worry, it will be easy, because by then they will be attacked from the sides and from the back, compressing their formation further, until they lack even the space to wield their weapons. Victory will be ours. It is critical that my orders be implemented to the letter. Do you understand?” “Yes, our General!”
To the commanders of the elite African infantry, wearing Roman armor and weapons captured the previous year after the victory at Lake Trasimene: “You will stay back as the battle starts, for you are my reserves and will come down like hammers on the Roman flanks at the right moment. Half of you will wheel in and attack the Roman left flank and the other half the Roman right flank. They will be confused by your appearance until it is too late. Push them in with spear and sword, so that their army becomes compressed until it is immobilized. You will be like unstoppable lion claws crushing them from both sides. Do you understand?” “Yes, our General!”
To the leaders of the Balearic slingers lined up as skirmishers ahead of the rest of the army: “Our observers report that the Romans have a few hundred archers this time, probably Cretans. You have the range over them, and are also more accurate than any archer with your missiles. The moment you notice them stepping up, unleash a storm of stones and metal and bring down as many as you can. Strike also down the velites, but then focus on the Roman right wing, where the commanding consul will be. Bring him down if you can! You are vital to our victory today! Do you understand?” “Yes, our General!”
The perfect implementation of Hannibal’s orders by all his officers and soldiers, in clockwork fashion, resulted in what is perhaps the most amazing military victory in recorded history. Over 70,000 Romans lost their lives on that fateful day, with Hannibal’s own losses numbering around 5,000, mostly from the Gauls in the center of his formation. These were regarded as the least reliable units, but were directly under his personal command and did not break despite the desperate pressure of the Roman juggernaut.
Cannae was the perfect battle of double envelopment, and continues to be studied at military academies throughout the world. It has been imitated many times, although no one has ever been able to match or exceed the battlefield mastery demonstrated over 2230 years ago by the immortal Hannibal.
Daly, G. Cannae: The experience of battle in the Second Punic War. Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2002.
Delbrueck, H. Warfare in Antiquity. University of Nebraska, 1975.
Goldsworthy, A. Cannae: Hannibal’s greatest victory. Cassell, 2001.
Healy, M. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal smashes Rome’s army. Osprey, 2000.
Livy. History of Rome (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.
Mosig, Y. and I. Belhassen. “Revision and reconstruction in the Punic Wars: Cannae revisited” in The International Journal of the Humanities, 4:2, 2006, pp. 103-110.
Polybius. The Histories (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.
Von Schlieffen, A. Cannae. E. S. Mittler & Sohn, 1936.
© Yozan Mosig, 2015
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