Hannibal's Greatest Victory


By Adrian Goldsworthy

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From an award-winning historian of ancient Rome, the definitive history of Rome’s most devastating defeat
August 2, 216 BC was one of history’s bloodiest single days of fighting. On a narrow plain near the Southern Italian town of Cannae, despite outnumbering their opponents almost two to one, a massive Roman army was crushed by the heterogeneous forces of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who had spectacularly crossed the Alps into Italy two years earlier. The scale of the losses at Cannae — 50,000 Roman men killed — was unrivaled until the industrialized slaughter of the First World War. Although the Romans eventually recovered and Carthage lost the war, the Battle of Cannae became Romans’ point of reference for all later military catastrophes. Ever since, military commanders confronting a superior force have attempted, and usually failed, to reproduce Hannibal’s tactics and their overwhelming success.
In Cannae, the celebrated historian Adrian Goldsworthy offers a concise and enthralling history of one of the most famous battles ever waged, setting Cannae within the larger contexts of the Second Punic War and the nature of warfare in the third century BC. It is a gripping read for historians, strategists, and anyone curious about warfare in antiquity and Rome’s rise to power.



Hannibal’s March to Italy and the Campaign in the Po Valley

Possible Locations of the Battlefield

The Battle of Cannae: Phase 1

The Battle of Cannae: Phases 2–5

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ON 2 AUGUST 216 BC the Carthaginian General Hannibal won one of the most complete battlefield victories in history. Outnumbered nearly two to one, his heterogeneous army of Africans, Spaniards and Celts not merely defeated, but virtually destroyed the Roman army opposing them. By the end of the day, nearly 50,000 Roman and Allied soldiers lay dead or were dying in an area of a few square kilometres, whilst between ten and twenty thousand more were prisoners. Less than 20% of one of the largest armies ever fielded by the Roman State survived to reform over the next few weeks. Cannae became the yardstick by which the Romans measured later catastrophes, but only one or two defeats in their history were ever judged to have been as bad. The scale of the losses at Cannae was unrivalled until the industrialised slaughter of the First World War.

Most battles from the Ancient World are now all but forgotten, for military as well as civil education has ceased to be based fundamentally on the Classics. Yet Cannae is still regularly referred to in the training programmes of today’s army officers. Hannibal’s tactics appear almost perfect, the classic example of double envelopment, and ever since many commanders have attempted to reproduce their essence and their overwhelming success. Nearly all have failed. Cannae was the largest in a series of defeats Hannibal inflicted on the Romans, but, though he never lost a major engagement in Italy, eventually he was forced to evacuate his army and Carthage lost the war. The genius of his tactics at Cannae should not obscure the stages of the battle when things could easily have gone the other way and a great Roman victory resulted. Hannibal won the battle through not only his dynamic leadership and the high quality of his army, but also because of a good deal of luck. Cannae was not an exercise in pure tactics, but, like all battles, a product both of the military doctrines and technology of the time and the peculiar circumstances of a specific campaign.

The aim of this book is to place Cannae firmly within the perspective of the Second Punic War and the nature of warfare in the third century BC. The events of this period are poorly recorded in comparison with more recent conflicts, and no official documents survive from either side for the Cannae campaign. Instead we have the narratives of historians, written anytime from seventy to several hundred years after the events they describe. Frequently these sources contradict one another, or fail to tell us things we would wish to know, and so there are many aspects of the campaign and battle which cannot be reconstructed with absolute certainty. Two accounts provide us with the greater part of our information, and it is worth briefly considering these.

The earliest and best was written by the Greek historian Polybius in the second half of the second century BC. Polybius was a one of a group of hostages sent to Rome after the Third Macedonian War (172-168 BC). He became an intimate of Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson of one of the Roman commanders at Cannae, following him on campaign in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC) and witnessing the final destruction of Carthage. Polybius produced a Universal History describing events throughout the Mediterranean down until his own day, and its main theme was to explain for Greek audiences how Rome had so quickly emerged as the dominant world power. His narrative is generally sober and analytical, and he provides us with by far the best description of the Roman army. However, whilst willing to criticise the Romans in general, he is invariably sympathetic to all of the ancestors by blood or adoption of Scipio Aemilianus. Polybius’ account survives intact for the battle itself, but then breaks off and only small fragments survive for the remaining years of the war.

The other main account was written in Latin by Livy in the late first century BC as part of his History of Rome from the Foundation of the City. His narrative is fiercely patriotic, stylistically elegant and intensely dramatic, but far less critically rigorous than that of Polybius. Livy used the Greek historian as one of his sources, but also drew upon a range of other traditions, most very favourable to the Romans and many celebrating the deeds of particular aristocratic families. He is useful because he provides information about some things, for instance Roman elections and politics, which are passed over very briefly by Polybius. In addition Livy’s narrative survives intact for the entire Second Punic War, making him our main source for the aftermath of the battle.

Other sources provide some additional information, but all were written considerably later. Appian wrote a Roman history around the turn of the first and second centuries AD, but his account of Cannae makes very little sense and is of dubious reliability. Around the same time, Plutarch produced a collection of biographical Lives, some of which include accounts of the period. Such late sources need to be used with extreme caution, but it is possible that they preserved a few accurate details absent from the surviving portions of our earlier sources.


Carthage, Rome and The Punic Wars

AT THE START of the third century BC the Republic of Carthage was the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Western Mediterranean. It had been founded, probably in the late eighth century, by Phoenician settlers from Tyre on the coast of modern-day Lebanon. The Phoenicians were the great maritime traders of the ancient world–the Romans knew them as ‘Poeni’, hence Punic–and eventually Carthage came to control trade in the West, dominating the coasts of Africa and Spain as well as Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the lesser islands of the region. The scientific exploitation of the then fertile agricultural land of North Africa combined with the profits of trade to make the city fabulously rich. However, this wealth was not evenly distributed and remained almost entirely in the hands of the small number of Carthaginian citizens, and especially the aristocracy. Preserving their Semitic language, religion and culture, and jealously guarding the privileges of citizenship, the descendants of the Punic settlers remained a distinct élite. In contrast the indigenous population, especially the Libyans, were heavily taxed, exploited as agricultural labour and military manpower, and had no real share in the profits of empire.

Until 265 BC Rome remained a purely Italian power, and had by this time subjugated all of the Peninsula south of the River Po. From very early in their history the Romans displayed a remarkable talent for absorbing others. Enemies defeated in war became subordinate allies and in future supplied men and material for the next generation of Rome’s wars. The Romans were unique in the ancient world in their willingness to grant citizenship to outsiders. Some former enemies became full citizens or citizens with limited rights, whilst others were granted the lesser rights of Latins, each grade being a legal status, rather than reflecting actual ethnic and linguistic distinctions. Each community was tied directly to Rome in a treaty which made clear both its rights and its obligations. The allies helped to fight Rome’s wars and shared, at least to a limited extent, in their profits. As Rome expanded its population grew. The total land owned by Carthaginian and Roman citizens respectively in 265 BC was probably roughly equivalent in size, but the numbers of the former were tiny in comparison to the latter. The obligation of all citizens and allies possessing a minimum property qualification to serve in Rome’s armies gave the Republic immense reserves of military manpower.1

In 265 BC the Romans for the first time sent an army overseas, when an expedition responded to an appeal to intervene in the affairs of a Sicilian city. Carthage, who had long possessed a presence in the island, even if it had never managed to subjugate it completely, resented this intrusion and responded with force. The result was the First Punic War (264–241 BC), an arduous struggle fought on a far bigger scale than either side could have imagined when they so lightly entered the conflict. The war was mainly fought in and around Sicily, with the most important battles occurring at sea, where fleets of hundreds of oared warships clashed in confused, swirling mêlées. In 256 the Romans invaded Africa and threatened Carthage itself, but the initial willingness of the Punic authorities to seek peace withered when faced with what they considered to be extremely harsh Roman demands. The Carthaginians fought on, and managed to destroy the Roman expeditionary force in battle, winning their only major victory on land in the entire war. In the naval war the Punic fleet proved unable to turn its greater experience to tangible advantage, losing all but one of the major battles. Losses were appalling on both sides, the Romans losing hundreds of ships to bad weather, although relatively few to enemy action. In the last years of the war both sides were close to utter exhaustion, their treasuries drained by the costs of maintaining the struggle. In 241 BC a Roman fleet, paid for largely by voluntary loans made by individuals to the state, defeated the last Punic fleet at the battle of the Aegates Islands. Carthage no longer had the resources to continue the struggle and had no choice but to accept peace on terms dictated by Rome, giving up her last territory and influence in Sicily and paying a heavy indemnity.2


The peace between Rome and Carthage lasted almost as long as the First War. From the very beginning some Carthaginians resented the surrender and believed it to be unnecessary. Foremost amongst these was Hamilcar Barca, the commander of the army in Sicily, who for nearly a decade had waged a war of skirmishes, raid and ambush with the Romans. Hamilcar had never fought a pitched battle, and his victories over the Romans were small in scale, but he believed, or affected to believe, that he could have continued to fight for years, and perhaps eventually worn the enemy down. Resigning his command in a public display of disgust at the surrender, he left others to disband his mercenary army. The task was botched, and the mercenaries first mutinied and then rebelled, taking much of the Libyan population with them, for Carthaginian rule, always harsh, had become especially burdensome as they struggled to fund the war with Rome. The resulting Mercenary War was fought with appalling cruelty by both sides and came very close to destroying Carthage. In the end it was ruthlessly suppressed by Hamilcar in a series of campaigns which demonstrated his skill as a commander far more clearly than had the fighting in Sicily during the war with Rome.

The Romans honoured the treaty and did not at first exploit the weakness of their former enemy, rejecting appeals for an alliance from Carthage’s rebellious allies. However, in the closing stages of the rebellion, they seized Sardinia and threatened a renewal of war if Carthage resisted. The Roman action was blatantly cynical and emphasized just how far Carthaginian power had declined since their defeat. More than anything else, this added to the deep sense of humiliation and resentment felt by much of the population. In 237 Hamilcar Barca was given command of the Carthaginian province in Spain and immediately began a programme of expansion. Some areas, especially those containing valuable mineral deposits, were taken under direct rule, whilst others were brought under Punic influence. All of the campaigns and diplomacy were carried out by members of the Barcid family. When Hamilcar was killed in battle in 229, he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, who in turn was followed by Hamilcar’s son Hannibal in 221. It is now hard to know how much independence the Barcids enjoyed in Spain, so that they have been variously depicted as loyal servants obeying the instructions of the Punic authorities and as semi-independent Hellenistic princes. Expansion in Spain brought great wealth–the coins minted in considerable numbers by the Barcids have an especially high silver content–and increased access to the fertile recruiting ground offered by the warlike Spanish tribes. The campaigns to achieve this expansion helped to create the nucleus of a highly efficient army, hardened by long experience of fighting under familiar officers. Once again, it is difficult to know to what extent these benefits were to the Republic as a whole, or served to further the ambitions of Hamilcar and his family.

The Romans viewed the growth of Punic power in Spain with great suspicion. In 226 BC a Roman embassy forced Hasdrubal to agree to a treaty barring Carthage from expanding beyond the River Ebro. The border of the Punic province was still some way south of the river and thus this was not an especially harsh measure, but it demonstrated the Romans’ belief that they were free to impose restrictions on their former enemy whenever they wished. The treaty placed no restriction at all on Roman activity. In 220 Hannibal supported one of the tribes allied to Carthage in a dispute with the city of Saguntum. This was south of the Ebro, but at some point had become an ally of Rome, to whom the Saguntines swiftly appealed for protection. The Romans sent an embassy to instruct Hannibal to abandon his siege of the city, probably expecting him to back down as the Carthaginians had always done in the past. Hannibal continued the assault and finally captured Saguntum in 219 BC after an eight month siege, sacking it and enslaving the population. The Romans protested to Carthage and, when the authorities there refused to condemn Hannibal and hand him over for punishment, declared war at the beginning of 218 BC.3


Hannibal was in his late twenties when he led his army out from his base at New Carthage to begin the Italian expedition in the spring of 218 BC. He was already an experienced soldier, having accompanied the army on campaign under his father and brother-in-law, serving in a variety of increasingly senior roles as soon as he was old enough. Since his elevation to the command in Spain in 221, he had already begun to display the speed of action, tactical genius and inspirational leadership which were subsequently to dazzle his Roman opponents. Our sources tell us a good deal about what Hannibal actually did, allowing us to appreciate his extraordinary talent, but provide little reliable information about his character. No source has survived written from the Carthaginian perspective, although we know that at least two Greek scholars, one of them Hannibal’s tutor the Spartan Sosylus, accompanied his army and recorded its campaigns. Hannibal had some knowledge of Greek culture and history, but it is unclear how important a part this played in his life or to what extent he remained firmly the product of his own Semitic culture.4

The Roman and Greek authors, who wrote in a world dominated by Rome, were sure that a deep hatred of Rome was fundamental to Hannibal’s character throughout his life. Polybius tells us that in the 190s BC, whilst an exile at the court of the Seleucid King Antiochus III, Hannibal told the monarch how his father had taken him to sacrifice at the temple of Ba’al Shamin before leaving for Spain in 237. Hamilcar asked the 9-year-old boy whether he wished to come with him to Spain, and then, when the lad had eagerly begged for the chance to go, led him to the altar and made him swear a solemn oath ‘never to be a friend to the Romans’. The story reaches us at best third hand, and was told by the Carthaginian to reassure Antiochus that he was not secretly meeting with Roman agents. As a result it is now impossible to know whether or not it is true, but the Romans certainly believed that the main cause of the Second Punic War was the enmity of Hamilcar and his sons. Only Hamilcar’s death prevented him from completing the revival of Carthage’s military power and launching an invasion of Italy from Spain, but the project continued to be the main ambition of his family and reached fulfilment under his eldest son.5

Debate continues to rage over the real causes of the Second Punic War, but need not concern us here. What is clear is that, whether or not the war was premeditated, Hannibal had developed a definite plan for how to fight Rome and had spent years preparing for this. In the spring of 218 BC he was able to lead out an enormous army, allegedly consisting of 12,000 cavalry, 90,000 infantry and 37 elephants, to begin a march which would take him across the River Ebro, over the Pyrenees, through Gaul and finally across the Alps into Italy. The First Punic War had been fought largely in Sicily and, although they had raided the Italian coast, the Carthaginians had never struck at the enemy’s heartland as the Romans had done when they invaded Africa in 256 BC. Throughout the conflict the Carthaginians had remained remarkably passive, reacting to Roman moves but seldom initiating a major offensive. Their strategy was based on enduring the Roman onslaughts, persevering in their resistance in the hope that the enemy would become tired and then either withdraw or be vulnerable to attack. This approach had worked in the past, wearing down successive tyrants and mercenary leaders hired by the Greeks of Sicily. It failed against the Romans, who consistently returned to the offensive even after serious defeats, and who were both able and willing to devote massive resources to the war.6

Hannibal intended to fight the new war with Rome in a far bolder fashion than the First Punic War. Preparations were made to defend his Spanish base and Carthage’s North African heartland against attack, but the main effort would be an offensive striking directly at the centre of Roman power in Italy itself. This time the Carthaginians would not attempt simply to endure enemy attacks, but would escalate the conflict and press for a decisive result. Carthage still had a substantial navy, although it may not have been as well trained as it had been before 265, but it had lost its bases in Sicily, Sardinia and the lesser islands of the Mediterranean as a result of the earlier defeat. Oared warships carried an exceptionally large crew in proportion to their size and had little space for provisions. As a result their operational range was small and without the island bases it was impractical for Hannibal to launch and support an invasion of Italy by sea. In addition Rome possessed a powerful navy which may have prevented a landing in the first place. Hannibal therefore adopted the logical alternative of reaching Italy by marching overland from his base in Spain. It was an exceptionally imaginative and highly bold plan. It required the army to force its way over great distances, past considerable geographical obstacles, and perhaps overcome the resistance of hostile peoples, before it was even in a position to strike at the real enemy. Only then could Hannibal begin the task of smashing Rome’s armies, capturing her towns and cities, ravaging her fields, and subverting her allies. The Roman Republic had managed to endure huge losses during the First Punic War and still continue fighting, but then the disasters had always occurred at a distance. Now Hannibal planned to inflict as great, if not heavier, defeats in Italy itself.

Hannibal’s plan was bold and more characteristic of Roman than Carthaginian military doctrine. Even the most pro-Roman of our sources recognized his ability as a general, but also tended to depict him as devious and treacherous, traits they considered to be characteristically Punic. Others, including Polybius, repeated the accusations that Hannibal was excessively avaricious and inhumanly cruel. The first charge may in part have reflected his never-ending need for money to fund his campaign and pay his soldiers. Polybius also suggested that some of the more brutal acts attributed to the general were in fact the work of his namesake, Hannibal Monomachus (the duelist), a vicious individual who was supposed to have suggested accustoming the soldiers to eat human flesh to ease the problems of supplying the army. The character of Hannibal remains surrounded by so much propaganda and myth that it is impossible to separate fact from fiction and say much about the real man.7

INVASION, 218–217 BC

The march to Italy was an epic in itself, but its details need not concern us here. When in November 218 the tired and weary survivors of the army came down from the Alps somewhere near modern Turin, there were only 6,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry left. Though few in number, these were the pick of the army, veterans of years of hard fighting in Spain, who were confident in themselves and their leaders. In time their numbers would be swollen by Gallic warriors from the area, whose tribes had already risen in rebellion against the Romans trying to colonize their territory.

The Roman Senate had not dreamed that the Carthaginians would attempt anything so rash as the invasion of Italy. Two senior magistrates, the consuls, were elected each year to provide both civil and military leadership for the State, and where these men were sent always indicated the Senate’s priorities. In 218 one consul, Titus Sempronius Longus, was sent to Sicily to prepare an invasion of Africa, whilst the other, Publius Cornelius Scipio, was to take an army to Spain and confront Hannibal. In this way the Romans intended to attack Carthage itself and the Punic general who had started the war, putting maximum pressure on the enemy in an effort to force a decisive result. The Senate does not appear to have anticipated that the Carthaginians would do anything other than defend themselves. Ancient states and armies possessed very limited long distance intelligence, and it was some time before the Romans found out what Hannibal was doing. Scipio’s expedition to Spain was delayed when some of his forces were diverted to face the Gallic rebels in the Po valley and others had to be recruited to replace them. When he finally began to ship his army to its destination, he stopped at Massilia (modern Marseilles), the Greek colony in Southern Gaul which was one of Rome’s oldest allies, to gather supplies and intelligence. The consul was shocked to discover that Hannibal’s army was no longer in Spain, but at that moment crossing the River Rhône. A cavalry force sent out to reconnoitre bumped into a similar detachment of Numidian light cavalry from the Punic army and beat them in a brutal skirmish, but failed to discover much information about the enemy. Scipio disembarked his army and marched to confront Hannibal, only to find that he had moved on some days before, which was probably just as well, as the Romans were significantly outnumbered. He returned to the fleet, sent a report to the Senate and, after dispatching the bulk of his forces to Spain under the command of his elder brother Cnaeus, returned to Italy to take command of the troops already fighting the Gauls in the Po valley.

The news of Hannibal’s march towards Italy stunned the Senate, and immediately prompted a change in the Roman plans. Sempronius Longus was recalled from Sicily and instructed to join forces with Scipio in Cisalpine Gaul to confront the invader. It took time to carry out this move and before this Hannibal arrived. Scipio behaved as aggressively as he had on the Rhône and immediately moved to fight the enemy in battle, but he was defeated in a cavalry engagement near the River Ticinus. Scipio’s Roman, Italian and Gallic cavalry were outnumbered and enveloped by the Punic horse. As his troops fled the consul was badly wounded, and only escaped capture when his teenage son, also called Publius, led a body of horsemen to his rescue. The Roman army retreated in some disorder, destroying the bridge across the Ticinus and moving back to a position outside the Roman colony of Placentia (modern Piacenza). In December Scipio was joined by Sempronius Longus, who soon afterwards won an action which had escalated from a minor skirmish. Polybius praised Hannibal for accepting this minor defeat instead of feeding more and more troops into the fighting and allowing a battle to develop which was not under his control. Our sources now claim that there was a dispute between the two consuls, Scipio arguing for avoiding battle until the Roman soldiers had received more training, and Longus for an immediate battle. This caution seems out of character with Scipio’s earlier boldness on the Rhône and before Ticinus. Perhaps his wound had depressed him, but it is more probable that his alleged opposition to fight a battle was intended by Polybius to exonerate him from blame for the subsequent defeat.

Sometime near the winter solstice, Sempronius was lured into fighting a battle on the open plain west of the River Trebia. Hannibal’s army had grown to 10,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry, and thirty or so elephants. The Romans mustered around 36,000-38,000 infantry, but only 4,000 cavalry, many of them demoralized by their recent defeat at the Ticinus. Hannibal had chosen the ground carefully, concealing 2,000 men in a drainage ditch behind the Roman line. The Carthaginian cavalry was divided equally between the two wings, outnumbering their Roman counterparts by more than two to one. The flanks of his infantry line were reinforced by the elephants. In the ensuing battle the legions managed to punch through Hannibal’s centre, but first the Roman cavalry wings and then the flanks of their infantry were overwhelmed and collapsed. The 10,000 Romans who had led the attack in the centre were able to escape in good order, for Hannibal had no reserves to send against them, but the rest were captured, killed or scattered. This first great Carthaginian victory was a major shock to the Romans. Even more importantly it gave momentum to Hannibal’s campaigns and practical support as more and more Gauls joined his army or brought it supplies.


On Sale
May 21, 2019
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Adrian Goldsworthy

About the Author

Adrian Goldsworthy is an award-winning historian of the classical world. He is the author of numerous books about ancient Rome, including Hadrian’s Wall, Caesar, How Rome Fell, Pax Romana, and Augustus. Goldsworthy lives in South Wales.

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