Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On August 2nd in military history....in 216 B.C.

On August 2nd in military history….in 216 B.C. Carthaginian forces under Hannibal defeat a numerically superior Roman force at the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War. In 218 B.C., Hannibal and his Carthaginian army crossed the Alps close to Briancon in France and descended into northern Italy. He defeated a Roman army at the Battle of Trebbia late that year and then wintered close to Bologna. The next year, he defeated another Roman army at the Battle of Lake Trasimeno. Instead of marching on Rome, he bypassed Rome and headed south to the regions of Apulia and Campania, laying waste to the countryside and trying to provoke an uprising in the peoples subjugated by the Romans.

The Roman Senate war philosophy at the time was to do nothing and hope that Hannibal got bored and went home. In 216 B.C., seeing how this philosophy wasn’t really working, the Roman Senate fielded another army under Consuls L.Aemilius Paullus and C.Terrentius Varro to hunt Hannibal down. At this time, Hannibal and his men were close to the Roman granaries located at Cannae. The battle site is located on the right bank of the Ofanto River, which is close to Canosa di Puglia, about midway between Bari and Foggia on the Adriatic coast. The Roman army consisted from 8 to 16 legions or about 80,000 men strong. Hannibal’s forces consisted of Gauls, Spaniards, Numidians and Carthaginians and numbered around 50,000 men.

Hannibal had been studying Roman military doctrine and had already defeated two Roman armies. Roman military doctrine specified that massed attacks on the enemy should be at the center of their forces to take advantage of the Roman legion’s strengths. Hannibal decided on a plan to take advantage of the Roman military doctrine of "hey, diddle, diddle, straight up the middle". Although there were advantages to massed attacks on the enemy center, this attack left the Roman flanks open, and Hannibal decided to take advantage of this. He had tried this before at the Battle of Trebbia in 218 B.C., and was victorious, but wanted to perfect the tactic. He stationed his troops in a line with his lightly armored troops, the Gauls and Spaniards, in the center with his more heavily armored Carthaginian phalanx troops on their wings and his Numidian cavalry on their wings. The Roman forces were deployed in standard Roman attack formation of troops in rows and columns under the command of Consul Varro (the command rotated between Varro and Paullus on a daily basis).

When the Roman attack came, Hannibal’s lightly armored center gave way to the more heavily armored Roman legions and started pulling back. Although the center did not break, it caused the Carthaginian line to bow in the center as the heavier forces on the wings held their ground. Eventually, as the Roman forces pushed deep into the center of the Carthaginian forces, all the wings had to do was a quick facing movement to attack the Roman flanks. While all these "fun and games" were happening in the Carthaginian center, Hannibal’s cavalry forces had killed or chased the Roman cavalry forces from the battlefield and were free to fall on the Roman rear and faster than you can say "Veni, vidi, vici", the Romans were surrounded and massacred. Of the 80,000 Romans present, about 15,000 escaped death or capture (they were later placed in two special legions in Sicily as punishment). The Carthaginians, who lost about 6,000 men, slaughtered the rest.

The Battle of Cannae, along with other ignoble Roman defeats at Teutoburger Wald and Adrianople, is considered one of the worse defeats in Roman history. But, this is yet another example of "winning the battle but losing the war." Hannibal was not able to capitalize on this victory and defeat Rome. Among the Romans who escaped the slaughter was Scipio Africanus, the general under whose leadership Rome would eventually defeat Carthage at the Battle of Zama, 14 years later in 202 B.C.

For other events in military history on this date, see here.


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