I am really enjoying reading about the various exploits of those who dared to stand against the Roman Empire. Hannibal is a name known to many, and famous for his taking elephants through the Alps. Perhaps the most interesting battle I have come across is the Battle of Cannae.
The scene is Italy, 216 BC. Hannibal has already been victorious against the Romans in Trebia and at Lake Trasimene. The Romans decided to change tack, first trying to trap Hannibal. Matyszak notes:
As Hannibal pillaged Campania, he allowed [the Roman General] Fabius to slip a garrison into Casilinum, near Capua. From here, the river Volturnus blocked Hannibal’s retreat while Fabius waited in the mountains between Casilinum and the colony of Cales. This put Hannibal in a trap. He could not remain in a plain which he had stripped of supplies, nor could he launch his army in a suicidal assault against a Roman army entrenched in a superior position. Yet these appeared to be his choices.
Eventually, it seemed that Hannibal chose to try a night break-out. The Romans saw the torches of the army streaming towards a well-guarded pass. Confident that the garrison there could intercept the attempted break-out, Fabius refused to move from his camp, despite the pleas and imprecations of his subordinates, who saw a chance of breaking the Carthaginians once and for all.
But when Fabius’ garrison carried out their interception, they found thousands of cattle with torches tied to their horns, but no Carthaginian soldiers. Hannibal’s army was streaming through the position which they had abandoned, taking their booty and heading for winter quarters in Apulia.
Following this embarrasing episode the Romans decided to revert to the warfare they knew best – engage and crush the enemy in open battle. Accordingly they gathered together no fewer than eight legions, each of about 5,000 men. Together with their alies and cavalry, they had at least 85,000 men to Hannibal’s 50,000.
Later that Summer, Hannibal took Cannae and seized the corn supplies designated to feed Rome’s massive army. Hannibal was eager for battle with the Romans, as were the two Roman consuls, Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paullus. So on the morning of August 2, 216 BC the two armies faced each other.
What ensued was a classic flanking movement by Hannibal, using Numidian, Spanish and Gallic cavalry to encircle the massive Roman legion formation. The battle resulted in the death of as many as 45,000 Romans on a single day, a figure of deaths on a single day unrivalled until the first day of the Somme offensive in 1916.