Battle of Cannae

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Coordinates: 41 ° 18 ′ 23 "  N , 16 ° 7 ′ 57"  E

Battle of Cannae
The cauldron battle at Cannae.png
date August 2, 216 BC Chr.
place at Cannae in Apulia
output Carthaginian victory
consequences No political consequences; Rome's alliance system remained in place and Hannibal was militarily unable to attack Rome directly
Parties to the conflict

Roman Empire



Lucius Aemilius Paullus
Gaius Terentius Varro


Troop strength
16 legions:

8 legions (5,000 men each) and as many allies → 80,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 cavalrymen

40,000 foot soldiers (40% Celts) and 10,000 cavalrymen

50,000 (according to Livius ) to 70,000 (according to Polybius ) dead and at least 10,000 prisoners

8,000 dead

The battle of Cannae took place on August 2nd, 216 BC. Chr. On the slopes of the Murge near the mouth of the river Aufidus instead. The Carthaginian army under Hannibal destroyed the Romans , outnumbered by 16 legions, under the leadership of the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro .

Due to the skillful tactics of Hannibal and the size of the victory, the battle is considered one of the most important in the Second Punic War and went down in world history. To this day it is taught as a prime example of an all-out battle at military academies, and the phrase "to suffer a cannae" represents a crushing defeat.

Today the former battle zone between the cities of San Ferdinando di Puglia and Barletta in Apulia can be identified. However, the exact time and place information is controversial, as there are no direct contemporary reports. The oldest account of the battle comes from Polybius , who was born about fifteen years after the event, but wrote his history only about seventy years after the battle.


At the beginning of the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian military leader Hannibal led his troops and war elephants across the Alps to Northern Italy. In the Battle of Trebia and the Battle of Lake Trasimeno , he inflicted painful defeats on the Romans. Fabius Maximus was then appointed as their commander , who, however, avoided any further open field battle with the Carthaginian army and allowed Hannibal to go through central Italy without confronting him. With this strategy Fabius Maximus aimed to exhaust the Carthaginian army due to supply problems. The Roman population disliked this apparently indecisive approach, which is why they called it cunctator ( Eng . "The procrastinator"). In 216 BC Two consuls were appointed in rotation with the express order to put Hannibal to battle, as he had cut off Rome from its vital grain supplies in the south.

The two consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro replaced each other as commanders day by day. In their actions immediately before the battle, the different characters of these two people were also expressed. The tactics of the Romans fluctuated - when they finally faced the Carthaginians near Cannae in Apulia and only the small river Aufidus (Ofanto) separated the two armies - day after day between careful action and brisk zest for action. On the day of the battle, Varro was in command and, according to the current state of knowledge, led the Roman troops to the south bank of the river. Because this terrain is hilly, it put the cavalry at a disadvantage .


Army strengths

The two consuls had 16 Roman legions , eight of which were Roman citizens. The remaining eight legions belonged to allied cities. The assessment of the actual army strength fluctuates in the sources. Assuming, however, that this corresponds to a troop strength of 80,000 men and that 10,000 were deployed to guard the camps, the following forces faced each other on the banks of the Aufidus River: The Romans had 55,000 infantry , 8,000 to 8,000 9,000 light infantry and 6,000 cavalry . The Carthaginian army, on the other hand, consisted of 32,000 heavy infantry, 8,000 light infantry and 10,000 cavalry.

The stages of the battle

Lineup of the Romans

The conventional use of such units was to place the infantry in the middle, while the cavalry parted and formed the respective wings. The Romans also used this tried and tested formation of troops at Cannae. They chose, however, to stagger the infantry deeply so that the infantry front was as broad as that of Hannibal's significantly outnumbered infantry. The aim of the Roman infantry was to break through the Carthaginian series of battles quickly in order to use the strength of the legionnaires in individual combat.

The Roman cavalry was the decisive weak point in this battle, which Hannibal tackled with his tactics. Since the Roman horsemen in the republican era came from the wealthier classes, because the Roman soldiers at that time had to pay for their equipment themselves, they were traditionally very few in number, which is why the allies had to provide three times the number of cavalrymen. Each Roman legion usually had around 300 horsemen, the allies 900, a ratio of 1: 3. They were usually only used to cover the flanks of the legions.

Formation of the Carthaginians

Hannibal's way to Cannae

Hannibal, however, modified the traditional line-up: He placed the less powerful infantry units ( Iberians and Celts ) in the middle, with a slightly sickle-shaped arrangement , and the more battle-savvy troops (African mercenaries) on the wings behind the cavalry. In a variant of the crooked order of battle , he also massively reinforced the cavalry on the left flank in order to have the decisive attack carried out here, while he assigned the Numidian cavalry on the right flank a purely defensive role.

Course of slaughter

When the Roman legions opened the attack, Hannibal systematically gave way to the center of his initially crescent-shaped bulging formation, consisting of Iberian and Celtic foot troops. The Romans advancing in the center were then gripped by the Carthaginian troops lined up on the flanks - the Roman attack slowed down and finally came to a standstill instead of making a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, the cavalry units on both sides met. While the Numidians held out the Allied cavalry as planned thanks to their mobility, the Iberian and Celtic horsemen allied with Hannibal, together with the Carthaginian cavalry commanded by his brother, proposed a full attack against the Roman cavalry of the right wing and beat them out of the field. Then they rushed to the aid of the Numidians on the other flank, fell in the rear of the now outnumbered ally cavalry and blew them up. While the Numidians pursued the fugitives, the Carthaginian, Iberian and Celtic horsemen fell in the rear of the Roman legions, encircling them between themselves and the Carthaginian infantry and decided the battle for themselves, despite the numerical superiority of the Roman numerals, as the legions did not mutually support each other could unfold. The legionnaires were huddled together, confusion broke out, and most of the Roman army was killed. The Roman legions were deeply echeloned and were supposed to spread out on the battlefield, but they were compressed on it. Standing in up to 26 rows, most of the legionaries could not intervene in the direct battle that was taking place in the rows in front of them. Only when these ranks were fought down did they face numerically superior opponents and thus had no chance.


According to Polybius, around 70,000 of the 80,000 Roman soldiers were killed, including the consul Aemilius Paullus and a consul from the previous year, Gnaeus Servilius Geminus ; 10,000 were captured. Livy states that about 50,000 of the Romans fell. Only a few escaped, including Varro, who was in command that day, and Scipio Africanus , who fourteen years later was to defeat Hannibal at the Battle of Zama .

According to the prevailing view, the Roman survivors were summarized in the legiones Cannenses (even if the existence of the legiones Cannenses is disputed in isolated cases ). According to Livy, the number of soldiers who formed the Legiones Cannenses is said to have been around 14,500. Assuming a Roman troop strength of 80,000 men, the Roman losses through death and imprisonment would be around 65,000 men, which is roughly the same as Polybios' figures.

Carthage lost about 6000 fighters, including 5000 Celts and Iberians.

Seibert points out that the alleged differences between the two consuls are only attested later, and therefore suspects that they were inventions to absolve Lucius Aemilius Paullus of responsibility, since as a patrician he was a member of a higher social class, while Varro was out the plebeian class came. The news that Paullus did not want to accept the battle also deserves no faith. Both consuls acted in accordance with the senate and the council of war consilium , because neither would have been able to command such a huge army on their own.


The size of the armies involved may seem unimpressive and one might be tempted to assume - because Rome eventually won this war - that it was just "another wound", but Livy delivered a picture that shows how devastating this defeat was for Rome was: Hannibal had his men collect the gold jewelry from the bodies of the fallen on the battlefield and sent this collection to Carthage as proof of his victory; the collection was poured out before the Carthaginian Senate and was estimated at "three and a half measure" (6048 pieces). A gold ring was a sign of belonging to the upper classes of Roman society.


While Hannibal's triumph was on the one hand one of the most crushing victories in all of military history, the zenith of Carthaginian fortunes in war was also reached, and the Carthaginians did not gain any decisive strategic advantages from it. From Rome only the southern Italian regions in Apulia , Samnium, Lucania and Bruttium fell away, in winter 216/215 Capua , 214 Syracuse , 212 Taranto , Metapont and Thurii . Despite all the setbacks, the Roman alliance system did not collapse in central Italy, it remained in its core.

Hannibal's troops were too few and lacking in siege material to attack Rome itself, so he offered to negotiate a peace treaty on moderate terms. Despite the multiple catastrophes Rome suffered in the fight against Hannibal, the Roman Senate refused to negotiate with him. Instead, he raised a new army to defend Italy and another to attack the Spanish possessions of Carthage. The battle of Cannae therefore had no further political or military impact.

The developments related to Cannae are presented in more detail in the article on the Second Punic War .


Ancient monument commemorating the Battle of Cannae

After the Battle of the Trebia , Hannibal fought what is known to be the second encompassing battle in history in Cannae and thus proved to be a superior tactician over the Romans, who competed in traditional manipulation tactics with a strong center.

The battle of Cannae has become the proverbial one for suffering a crushing defeat. In modern times , especially in the Prussian General Staff and through Alfred von Schlieffen , the great, decisive battle, a so-called Super-Cannae, derived from Hannibal's tactics, became a doctrine of warfare.

The US American General Norman Schwarzkopf also named Cannae as a model for the Iraq invasion during the Second Gulf War .

The difference between modern tactics and Hannibal's lies in the effects. Modern units should be cut off from supplies with the encirclement and thereby rendered incapable of fighting. At that time the encirclement was used to condemn the central units of the enemy to inactivity, to immobilize them and thus to fight the enemy from the outside in.

place and time

Both the time and the place of the battle are uncertain. Regarding the time: The calendar dates of that time do not match the astronomical dates. The battle of the Trebia took place around the winter solstice (December 20, 218 BC) (Polybius; astronomical date), but only shortly before the new consuls took office on March 1, 217 BC. Chr. (Calendar date). On the astronomically defined solar eclipse of February 11, 217 BC Chr. Been this new consuls in office; the calendar March 1st fell before the astronomical February 11th. The Battle of Lake Trasimeno is dated June 22nd according to the Roman calendar, but was still influenced by the floods that occurred in spring. It can therefore be assumed that the Roman calendar was one and a half months ahead of the astronomical calendar, so that the battle of August 2nd, 216 BC. BC (based on today's calculations) in June 216 BC Took place.

Today's town of Barletta is advertised as “Canne della Battaglia” and thus equated with the site of the battle. There is no archaeological evidence of this, however, as the mass graves found on the site date from the Middle Ages. Based on calculations of the marching performance according to Polybios and the evaluation of the reports of ancient historians by Giuseppe De Marco, the battle must have taken place further north on the Fortore river near the city of Carlantino . An alternative position of the battle was suggested by Mario Izzo near Castelluccio Valmaggiore on the so-called "Lago di Sangue".


The battle is treated more or less in detail in every representation of the Second Punic War or the life of Hannibal.

  • Gregory Daly: Cannae: The Experience of Battle in the Second Punic War. New York 2002.
  • Johannes Kromayer , Georg Veith : Ancient battlefields. Building blocks of an ancient war story. III 1. Berlin 1912.
  • Jakob Seibert : Hannibal. Darmstadt 1993.
  • Michael Alexander Speidel : half moon and half-truth. Cannae, August 2, 216 BC Chr. In: Stig Förster, Markus Pöhlmann , Dierck Walter (ed.): Battles of world history. From Salamis to Sinai. 3. Edition. Munich 2003, pp. 48-62.
  • Jahuda L. Wallach: The dogma of the battle of annihilation. The teachings of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and their effect in two world wars. Frankfurt am Main 1967.
  • Robert L. O'Connell, "The Ghosts Of Cannae. Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic." Random House, 2011.

Web links

Commons : Battle of Cannae  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Polybios , Historien 3,107,9-12.
  2. Peter Connolly, The Roman Army , p. 11.
  3. Polybios, Historien 3,117,5.
  4. Livy 22.59.5.
  5. Beversdorff: The armed forces of the Carthaginians and Romans in the Second Punic War. P. 37 ff.
  6. Ulrich Kahrstedt : History of the Carthaginians from 218-146 (= History of the Carthaginians. Vol. 3). Weidmann, Berlin 1913, p. 461.
  7. Seibert: Research on Hannibal , p. 296.
  8. Seibert: Research on Hannibal , p. 189, note 32.
  9. Seibert: Research on Hannibal , p. 159, note 7.
  10. Kay Rademacher, in: Rom, Die Geschichte der Republik, Geo Epoche, Issue No. 50, 2011, p. 59.
  11. Storia Capitanata, paragraph 4.