Total Envelopment: The Destruction of the Roman Army at Cannae
By: Matthew A. Perry
Ancient warfare was much different than the modern form of combat that soldiers know today. Very often, soldiers are hundreds of yards away from each other when hostilities begin, but in ancient warfare, it was always hand to hand and face to face combat. One of the most celebrated armies of the ancient world was the Roman army in the empire period, but they were at the center of one of the most devastating losses in the entire history of warfare.
Psychology is a huge aspect of all warfare; one must balance themselves when in combat and this has been true as long as there has been armed conflict. It is difficult to imagine for a civilian like myself what battle is like and the mental toll it takes upon people. I would argue that one of the most hellacious and terrifying battles in world history is the battle I will be discussing in this article. Soldiers were surrounded on an ancient battlefield, they saw death coming for them, and they had zero chance to fight back. There was no way out, they were surrounded by a tactical genius, and this genius’ soldiers were hacking, with impunity, their foes. Slowly, as the day moved on, the soldiers on the outside of the formation were slaughtered, and the Carthaginians moved into the belly of the beast. Those poor souls that stood and waited for death for hours at this battle went through a mental torture that is hard to fathom today. So how did a small North African army completely slaughter the most powerful force in the known world? How could the Romans allow their soldiers to be hacked to pieces by little more than a barbarian tribe? It is time to explore the most costly Roman defeat in their Empire’s history, the Battle of Cannae.
In the 3rd century B.C. the Roman Empire was at war with a conglomeration of city-states from northern Africa under the command of the Carthaginian General, Hannibal. There is no doubt, Hannibal was brilliant, and he struck a decisive blow from the onset of the war. Hannibal pulled off one of the gutsiest and impressive army movements in recorded history, he took his entire army across the sea, and, with war elephants in tow, crossed his entire army over the Alps and invaded Italy from the north, which was completely unexpected. The two armies would meet many times in the Italian countryside, and Hannibal moved further south, and by 216 B.C. Hannibal had his army near the southern settlement of Cannae.
In taking Cannae, Hannibal had cut a major supply line for the Roman Army under their new consuls of Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. These two men were extremely weary of Hannibal because their political and military careers hinged upon the defeat of the Carthaginians. Varro and Paullus only gained power over the military because the Roman Senate fired the previous commanders for their lack of fight and their inability to destroy Hannibal’s army. In August of 216, the two Romans were closing in on Cannae and were about to engage Hannibal in battle. Hannibal had somewhere between 40 and 50 thousand men under his command. These men were seasoned and hardened troops, the absolute finest warriors that Carthage could bring to the field. The Romans greatly outnumbered the Carthaginians with around 80,000 men, but large portions of the army were not seasoned recruits.
The two sides met on an open plane which was common for ancient warfare, Hannibal struck the first psychological blow with his unique formation. Instead of the traditional straight lines and blocking his men into geometric shapes, Hannibal took the unique formation of what looked like a left pointing wedge. The point of the wedge faced the Roman Army. Hannibal also had his cavalry near the center of the fight with large portions of his infantry on the wings of the wedge. Hannibal invited the Romans to pour their infantry into the middle of his formation and hoped that the two consuls would take the bait.
As the two armies came together, Hannibal moved his cavalry and engaged the Romans on the flank. The Romans took the bait and poured their soldiers into the middle of the wedge shape, hoping to push the Carthaginians so far back that it would cause a retreat, and they could kill Hannibal’s soldiers at will. Hannibal stood with his soldiers in the middle and slowly moved them back a few paces at a time; he was inviting the Romans further into his formation and imploring his men to fight as they moved back. This was when the great trap was closed, as the Romans pushed further in, Hannibal brought the wings of his army and shut the Romans in like a vice. The Romans were trapped, they had nowhere to go, Hannibal had achieved the most coveted battlefield maneuver of any ancient warrior, the total envelopment.
Think of the horrific nature of this battle, as I stated before, ancient warfare was hand to hand combat; these two armies were literally on top of each other. Hannibal and his men had the Romans so thoroughly defeated and trapped, that they had no place to go. The Carthaginians began hacking at the Romans soldiers on the outside of the formation and slowly worked their way into the center of the Romans. Casualty numbers are impossible to fathom with ancient sources, with some claiming that only 300 Romans survived out of the 80,000, but one thing can be said for sure, Hannibal had pulled off the most impressive, and destructive victory over the Roman Empire in its history. It was unfathomable to the Romans that these people from North Africa could have destroyed the most vaunted and celebrated army of the ancient world.
Unfortunately for Hannibal and his people, his army would soon lose steam and would be defeated by the Romans in the second Punic War. The two would fight again in the Third Punic War, with yet another Roman victory. Carthage would cease to exist after this defeat, but their military prowess on the battlefield of Cannae lives today.