On the morning of August 2, 216 B.C., perhaps the largest Roman army ever assembled prepared for battle on the dusty plain of Cannae, in southeastern Italy.
Commanding this mighty force were both of the elected Consuls for that year: Lucius Aemilius Paullus and his junior colleague, Gaius Terentius Varro. It was unusual for both Consuls to operate in the same theater of war, much less the same battlefield. But these were extraordinary times. They faced an enemy who had for two years triumphed on Roman soil, destroying two Roman armies in battle, killing a Consul of Rome in the process:Hannibal Barca. They were determined that here they would bring him to a final, decisive battle; one favorable to Rome.
The Second Punic War was in its third year. Since its beginning, the war had thus far been one long catalogue of disaster for the Romans.
When war had been declared by the Senate of Rome against its bitter rival, Carthage, it was expected in Rome that this war would follow the same victorious course that the First Punic War had taken a generation before. Namely, that Roman fleets would sweep the sea of Punic opposition; Roman armies would land in Africa; and Carthage would be forced to submit.
But Hannibal, Carthage’s leading statesman and general, had other ideas.
Hannibal Barca (Hannibal: “Grace of Baal”; Barca: “The Thunderbolt”) was the son ofHamilcar Barca, the most successful Carthaginian general in the otherwise stunningly unsuccessful First Punic War. He’d grown to manhood in his father’s camp, surrounded by soldiers. He had learned well the lessons his capable father had taught him; and one of these was an undying hatred for their Roman enemies. Upon a sacred alter, the sons of Hamilcar had all sworn an oath to bring destruction to Rome.
Hannibal took command of his late father’s Army in Spain at the age of 26. Now, five years later, he had fulfilled his father’s wishes, taking the war to the enemy and visiting woe upon the Romans.
At the outbreak of hostilities in 219 BC, he had seized the initiative; leading an army from his base in Spain across the wild, barbarous lands of the savage Gauls. Against all odds he had succeeded in getting his army across the snow covered Alps, to debouch into the plains northern Italy.
There he had defeated the Roman forces that came to stop him: first in a cavalry skirmish at the Ticinus River; then at the River Trebia, where he inflicted a truly major defeat upon aRoman Consular army. After these victories, the Celtic tribesmen of the Po Valley rallied to the Carthaginian standard, joining forces with Hannibal and restoring his depleted numbers.
The following year, he inflicted a third disaster upon Roman arms. At Lake Trasimene, the Consul Flaminius fell into a carefully prepared ambush; the Consul and most of his army perishing along the fog-shrouded shore.
All Rome was stunned by these incredible events: Two armies destroyed, a Consul slain: Rome had suffered defeats before, but not since early in the last Punic War had Roman arms suffered such humiliation.
After the disaster at Lake Trasimene, the Senate turned the conduct of the war over to a temporary dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus; who soon won the nickname of Cunctator(“The Delayer”). He had a different, decidedly “un-Roman” strategy in mind. Roman notions of generalship in the mid-Republic were “Nelsonian”: no Consul could do much wrong who brought his legions to battle against the enemy. But three defeats in two years was quite enough to convince Fabius Maximus that something new was called for against this wily foe.
During the rest of that year, Fabius kept his army just out of reach of Hannibal’s, hovering on its rear and flanks; harassing and delaying the Carthaginian progress through Italy. These tactics constrained Hannibal’s movements and demonstrated to the Italian allies that Hannibal was not free to march where he willed.
But this “Fabian Strategy” of harassment and delay was too un-Roman for the hawks in the Senate. The more bellicose members clamored once more for a decisive confrontation on the battlefield. It was intolerable that an enemy army should defy Rome with impunity on Italian soil.
The following year, the Romans elected as one of the two Consuls Terentius Varro, an outspoken leader of the anti-Fabian faction in the Senate. Varro promised to bring Hannibal to battle and destroy him once-and-for-all. To accomplish this mission, the Senate gave both Consuls of 216 permission to unite their forces into super-army, and crush Hannibal!
THE ARMIES DEPLOY
On the morning of the 2nd of August this massive double-Consular army, nearly 80,000 strong, deployed on the dusty Apulian plain, near the village of Cannae…