The Battle of Cannae

Essay by Herakles March 2004

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Considered to be the worst defeat ever suffered by the Roman army, the battle of Cannae was fought on the plains of central Italy on August 2, 216 BC. Although a crushing defeat for the Romans, Cannae was Hannibal's finest hour. In fact, the tactics he employed there are still studied and used today. Due to the combination of Hannibal's tactical genius, the superior Carthaginian cavalry, and the poor leadership of the Roman army, the Carthaginians were able to completely defeat the Romans.

For the past fifty years, the Romans and Carthaginians had engaged in a series of struggles known as the Punic wars. The first Punic war was fought primarily over the island of Sicily and ended with a Roman victory in 241 BC. The humiliating surrender terms imposed on Carthage and the unwarranted Roman seizure of Corsica and Sardinia after the war enraged the Carthaginians. It was only a matter of time before another war would erupt.

In 218, the Carthaginian general Hannibal attacked one of Rome's allies in Spain and the Second Punic war had begun. After taking the city, Hannibal proceeded to cross the Alps with his army and surprise the Romans. Although he lost over half of his troops en route, Hannibal was able to achieve strategic surprise. After Hannibal won the battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene against the numerically superior Romans, a temporary dictator was appointed to deal with the Carthaginian threat. Knowing he would lose in pitched battle, the new dictator, Fabius Maximus, refused to fight a decisive battle with Hannibal. Instead, he preferred to use caution and only fight small skirmishes. But to the offensively minded Romans, these policies proved to be unpopular. Thus, when his term was finished, the Romans elected two consuls who campaigned on the promise of defeating...