The Battle of Cannae

Gregory DiPippo

August 2nd is the anniversary of one of ancient Rome’s great military disasters, the Battle of Cannae, which took place in the year 216 BC, during the Second Punic War. This was the Romans’ third major defeat in as many years after the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal had invaded Italy in 218, and was followed within weeks by yet another, although on a different front.

Cannae is in the southern Italian region of Puglia, about 8 miles from the Adriatic coast, roughly halfway between Bari and Foggia. Hannibal had marched his army south and seized it in the spring, because it was both an important supply depot, and a location from which one could control the surrounding area. The Roman consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro, therefore combined their respective armies, and brought them south and east from Rome to confront him. In the historian Livy’s account, Varro, who had no previous military experience, is the villain of the day, since he caused the disaster by his reckless command decisions, ignoring the better advice of the more prudent and experienced Paullus. It should be noted that many modern scholars view Livy’s account as prejudiced against men of plebeian background like Varro, whose father had been a butcher, and whose political populism clashed with the senatorial ranks that Livy favored. In any event, Paullus was killed towards the end of the battle, while Varro escaped, and continued to play a role in the war, albeit fairly minor, for many years after.

Here is Livy’s account of Paullus’ death, a classic example of Roman courage and stoicism.

“Cn. Lentulus tribunus militum cum praetervehens equo sedentem in saxo cruore oppletum consulem vidisset, ‘L. Aemili’ inquit, ‘quem unum insontem culpae cladis hodiernae dei respicere debent, cape hunc equum, dum et tibi virium aliquid superest, [et] comes ego te tollere possum ac protegere. Ne funestam hanc pugnam morte consulis feceris; etiam sine hoc lacrimarum satis luctusque est.’

Ad ea consul: ‘tu quidem, Cn. Corneli, macte virtute esto; sed cave, frustra miserando exiguum tempus e manibus hostium evadendi absumas. Abi, nuntia publice patribus urbem Romanam muniant ac priusquam victor hostis adveniat praesidiis firment; … Me in hac strage militum meorum patere exspirare, ne aut reus iterum e consulatu sim [aut] accusator collegae exsistam ut alieno crimine innocentiam meam protegam.’

Haec eos agentes prius turba fugientium civium, deinde hostes oppressere; consulem ignorantes quis esset obruere telis. Lentulum in tumultu abripuit equus. Tum undique effuse fugiunt. …

Consul alter, seu forte seu consilio nulli fugientium insertus agmini, cum quinquaginta fere equitibus Venusiam perfugit. …

Haec est pugna [Cannensis], Alliensi cladi nobilitate par, ceterum ut illis quae post pugnam accidere levior, quia ab hoste est cessatum, sic strage exercitus gravior foediorque.”

(The Death of Aemilius Paullus at the Battle of Cannae, 1773, by the American painter John Trumball (1756-1843). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

When Cn. Lentulus, a military tribune, saw, as he rode by, the consul covered with blood sitting on a boulder, he said, “Lucius Aemilius, the one man whom the gods must hold guiltless of this day’s disaster, take this horse while you have still some strength left, and I can lift you (into the saddle) and keep by your side to protect you. Do not make this day of battle still more fatal by a consul’s death; there are enough tears and mourning even without that.”

To these words the consul replied, “Well said, Cn. Cornelius, but take that thou not vainly waste in pity what little time remains in which to escape from the enemy’s hands. Go, announce publicly to the senate that they must fortify Rome and make its defenses strong before the victorious enemy approaches, … Allow me to breathe my last amid my slaughtered soldiers, lest I be liable to judgment when I am no longer consul, or appear as the accuser of my colleague, and protect my own innocence by placing the guilt on another.”

As they spoke, a crowd of fugitives came suddenly upon them, then the enemy, who, not knowing who the consul was, overwhelmed him with missiles. Lentulus escaped on horseback in the rush. Then there was flight in all directions. …

The other consul, who either by accident or design had not joined any of these bodies of fugitives, escaped with about fifty cavalry to Venusia. …

Such was the battle of Cannae, as famous as the disaster at the Allia; although not so serious in its results, owing to the enemy’s inaction, but more serious and more horrible for the slaughter of the army. (Ab Urbe Condita 22, 49 et 50)

“The enemy’s inaction” refers to Hannibal’s decision to take a day to consider his next move, rejecting the plan urged by his cavalry commander Maharbal to march on Rome at once. To this decision, the commander replied, “You know how to win, Hannibal, but not how to use your victory”, and perhaps he was right, since despite this series of crushing defeats in the first years of the war, Rome would recover, and finally bring Carthage to disaster. Livy himself comments, “mora eius diei satis creditur saluti fuisse urbi atque imperio. – that one day’s delay is believed to have been enough to save the city and the empire.”

(Hannibal Counting the Rings of the Roman Knights Killed at Cannae, 1704, by the Flemish sculptor Sebastiaen Slodtz (1655-1726); image from Wikimedia Commons by Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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