Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

The Overthrow at Cannae

The disastrous defeat at Lake Trasumennus was followed by a change of policy at Rome. Quintus Fabius, who was appointed dictator, was as cautious as Flaminius had been rash. His plan was to watch the enemy, to use all the opportunities which a knowledge of the country and the friendly feeling of the population—for Italy remained firmly faithful to Rome—put in his way. To a certain extent he was successful. While he was in command Rome suffered no disasters. But he was, probably, nothing more than an able soldier. He had nothing like the genius of Hannibal, and when he might have struck a really effective blow at the enemy, he allowed himself to be outwitted. And the Romans had not yet thoroughly learnt their lesson. They wearied of the cautious strategy of Fabius which avoided defeat but did not save Italy from fire and sword. The first result of this revulsion of feeling was putting the dictator's second-in-command—"Master of the Horse" was his official title—on an equality with him. Minucius—for this was his name—was an adventurous soldier of the Flaminius type. He had won some slight successes when Fabius had been absent on official business in Rome, and he now hoped to distinguish himself still more. He took charge of half the army, and pitched a camp for himself. It was not long, however, before he was out-manœuvred by the enemy, and reduced to extremities, from which he was saved by the timely arrival of Fabius. But different views of these events prevailed at Rome—and we must remember that we have one side only of the case. It was affirmed that Minucius had been purposely deserted, and that his reverse was due to the intrigues of the aristocrats. Great popular excitement followed, and the result was that when the Consuls of the new year were elected a violent partisan, Terentius Varro by name, was put in office. Varro, though he could scarcely have been as incompetent as we should suppose from Livy's account, had had no military experience. The aristocrats succeeded in giving him as a colleague L. Ĉmilius Paullus, a soldier of some reputation, but unfortunately much disliked by the commons.

Hannibal was now in Apulia, in Southern Italy, where he probably found the population more sympathetic than in the north, the larger Greek element being not yet reconciled to Roman rule. His headquarters were at Cannĉ, a town on the right or southern bank of the Aufidus. The Roman army, which was under peremptory instructions from home to fight, had probably followed the Via Appia  as far as Venusia, and had then marched eastward. A garrison was probably left at Canusium, a strongly fortified town, about six miles to the west of Cannĉ. An hour's march from Canusium must have brought them within sight of Hannibal. He was encamped outside Cannĉ, the country round him being level and so well adapted for the operations of cavalry, an arm in which he was particularly strong. A difference of opinion now developed itself between the two Consuls. Ĉmilius Paullus was for drawing the enemy into a country less suited to him; Varro, on the other hand, was impatient to fight at once. He ordered an advance, which resulted in a partial engagement, terminating, on the whole, not unfavourably to the Romans.

The final position taken up by the Consuls was this. Two-thirds of the army was located on the north or left bank of the river, the remainder was left on the south, being very nearly in touch with the Carthaginian outposts. It must be remembered that the Aufidus, a shallow and rapid stream, dwindled in summer to a very inconsiderable river which might be forded anywhere without difficulty, at least in this part of its course. The battle was fought on August and, according to the Roman calendar, but as this was very much in advance of the true time, really in the middle of June, Paullus was for a policy of inactivity. He believed that Hannibal would have to shift his ground for want of supplies, and he hoped that he might find a favourable opportunity for delivering an attack. His colleague, however, had a very different view of the situation. Naturally rash and eager, he was irritated by the aggressive movements of the enemy, who did all that was possible to provoke him. The Roman troops, too, were eager to fight, and they soon had their wish.

It was the custom that when the two Consuls were with the army they should exercise the command on alternate days. At early dawn on his day of command Varro gave orders to the force encamped on the north bank of the Aufidus to cross the stream. This done he drew out his whole force in a long line fronting the south. He had in all about 80,000 infantry and 6,000 horse. The Roman cavalry he posted on the right wing along the river bank; the right centre consisted of the Roman foot, which was drawn up in deeper and closer formation than usual; the left centre and the left wing were made up of the horse and foot of the allies. The archers and light-armed generally were in advance of the main line. Hannibal posted his Gallic and Spanish cavalry on his left wing, i.e., opposite the Roman horse, and his African horse on the right. Next the mounted troops on either side was a body of African infantry, equipped with armour and weapons collected from the spoils of Trebia and Trasumennus. The centre consisted of Gauls and Spaniards. Livy speaks of the imposing effect of their stature, for physically these Celtic warriors were greatly superior to their Italian antagonists, and of their general appearance. The Gauls were naked to the waist, the Spaniards clad in linen vests, of dazzling whiteness, edged with purple. In numbers Hannibal was greatly inferior, having only 40,000 infantry. For this disadvantage he was partly compensated by the superiority of his cavalry, both in numbers and efficiency. Of this arm he had no less than 10,000. Livy tells us, though Polybius does not mention the circumstance, that a strong wind from the S.E., locally known as the Volturnus, carrying with it clouds of sand, blew into the faces of the Romans, and greatly incommoded them.

The battle began, as usual, with some indecisive skirmishing between the light-armed troops on either side. The Gallic and Spanish cavalry, on the contrary, soon achieved a very decided success. There was little room for the display of tactics or even for a charge. The combatants came to close quarters, and here the great personal strength of the Celts gave them an advantage. They dismounted and dragged their antagonists from their horses. A valiant resistance was made; it was not till many had been slain in this fierce struggle that any sought safety in flight.

The legionary infantry did not fail to assert its superiority in discipline and effective equipment over the Gallic and Spanish foot opposed to it. The latter fought with conspicuous courage, but failed to bear up against the weight and the orderly advance of the heavy-armed Romans. Had there been a cool-headed soldier in command at this point the success of the legions might have been turned to excellent advantage. Wanting capable leadership it ended in disaster. The pursuit was carried far beyond the point at which, in view of the fact that the cavalry had been driven off the field, prudence would have stopped it. The legions, while they followed the flying Celts, were themselves assailed on either flank by the African contingents, made on this occasion more formidable by the fact that they had a Roman equipment of armour and weapons. Already disordered by their hasty advance, they were still further broken by this attack. But though the line ceased to exist, many of the companies preserved their formation, and, for a time, the conflict was carried on under fairly equal conditions A brilliant charge by the Carthaginian cavalry under Hasdrubal decided the day. He had led his Celtic host in the fierce conflict with the Romans, had afterwards helped the Numidians to beat the allies, and he now threw himself with his victorious squadrons on the rear of the Roman legions. After this there was but little more resistance offered, and the battle became a massacre. Rome never suffered a more frightful loss than she did on the fatal day of Cannĉ. Of the 80,000 whom she brought into the field only three or four thousand escaped. The number of the slain is put by Polybius at 70,000; Livy gives a much smaller figure (40,000), but Polybius is the most trustworthy authority. Many prisoners were taken, some in the camps which they had been left to guard, some at Cannĉ, where they vainly sought refuge. Only those who had the wisdom or good fortune to make their way to Canusium found themselves in safety. Varro, with some seventy troopers, escaped to Venusia. Ĉmilius Paullus died upon the field. Livy tells a pathetic story of his end, which may well be true, though Polybius does not mention it. It runs thus—

One Lentulus, a military tribune, found the Consul sitting on a stone, covered with blood. He offered him his horse. They might both escape. He was himself unwounded and could help his chief. "Do not add," he went on, "to the other disasters of the day the death of a Consul. There will be tears and mourning enough without that." Paullus refused the offer. "Do not waste," he said, "in useless pity your own opportunity of escape. Go and tell the Senate from me to make Rome as strong as possible against the arrival of the victorious enemy. As to me, let me die here in the midst of my slaughtered soldiers. I do not wish again to be brought to trial or to prove my own innocence by accusing my colleague." Here a crowd of fugitives, followed close by the enemy, swept over them. Lentulus escaped, thanks to the swiftness of his horse. The Consul, whom the pursuers did not recognise, was slain.

Punic Wars


Paullus, it will have been seen, is represented as anticipating the immediate advance of Hannibal against Rome. The question whether that advance should have been made has, we might say, been discussed ever since; Livy tells us that Hannibal was strongly urged by his own lieutenants to take this step. Maharbal, who was one of the ablest among them, declared that if he would but start at once he should be feasting in the Capitol in four days' time; and when Hannibal refused to follow his advice, added, "I see that the gods do not give all things to one man. You know how to win a victory, but you do not know how to use it."

It is impossible, of course, to speak with confidence on such a subject. That Hannibal was thoroughly competent to judge of the situation from a soldier's point of view must be conceded. Nor is it difficult to see that, victorious as he had been, his available force must have been greatly reduced. His loss in killed is said to have been 6,000. The proportion of wounded in ancient warfare was far smaller than that which prevails under modern conditions. Still we must make a considerable addition if we would reckon the total of the disabled. He had about 55,000 on the morning of the battle, and could hardly have been able to put more than 30,000 in the fighting line at its close. He thought it better, under the circumstances, to wait for the results of his victory on those who both within and without Italy were watching the course of the war. These were not inconsiderable, but they were not as decisive as might have been expected. And Hannibal seems to have continued to hope for developments which never occurred. Perhaps we may say that it would have been wise to have abandoned the Italian campaign, if, six months after Cannĉ, he still felt himself unable to march on Rome. This is one of the questions upon which the most sagacious of men and the ablest of generals may be mistaken. To abandon Italy would have been to give up the dream of his life, and to this Hannibal could not bring himself, even after it must have become evident to his cooler judgment that Rome was not to be vanquished.