Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps in 218BC was a miraculous feat, but his finest hour came over two years later!
His arrival in Cisalpine Gaul sent a series of shockwaves through the peninsula that would only grow in intensity the further he headed south. Everywhere he went, Hannibal triumphed. Each victory was bigger and more glorious than the last until, at the Battle of Cannae, in 216BC, the Romans were dealt such a severe blow that European and Mediterranean history could easily have been changed for ever.
At the Battle of Trebia in 218BC and the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217BC, Hannibal easily out-thought and out-manoeuvred Rome's legions and their impulsive generals, Tiberius Longus and Gaius Flaminius.
The Battle of Lake Trasimene ranked as one of the Roman Empire’s greatest ever military disasters, with around 30,000 legionaries being killed or captured by the Carthaginian invaders. Rome itself was now at Hannibal’s mercy and drastic action was required. The decision taken was to bring back the role of Dictator, and Quintus Fabius Maximus was entrusted with the job of saving the patria.
Fabius was a man with a plan, though not a plan that the Romans liked. It was a plan that went against the very grain of Roman military thinking and against the whole essence of what being Roman stood for. Fabius’ plan was to delay, to avoid, to wear down but never to enter into a battle with the Carthaginians.
Hannibal tried to lure him into traps, to bait him and to inspire bellicose thoughts, but Fabius resisted temptation. The more he kept Hannibal at an arm's length, however, the more the Roman people derided him, not realising that his tactics, soon to go down in history as Fabian Strategy, were having the desired effect. The Senate too, had had enough, and at the beginning of 216BC, Fabius the Dictator was replaced by two Consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemelius Paullus.
The two new Consuls, spurred on by public sentiment, raised a fighting force of somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 men (no one seems to be able to agree on the exact number). This massive army was soon marching towards Puglia, where Hannibal was waiting just outside the town of Cannae, about 70km north of modern-day Bari.
When the two Consuls arrived, however, they were unable to agree on the best tactics. Paullus reasoned that the flat surrounding land was ideal for Hannibal’s expert cavalry and that it would therefore be better to steer the battle to hillier ground where horses would be less effective. Varro, on the other hand, noting that the Roman army was nearly twice as large as Hannibal’s, was impatient to restore Rome’s pride immediately, there and then.
Each victory was bigger and more glorious than the last until, at the Battle of Cannae in 216BC, the Romans were dealt such a severe blow that European and Mediterranean history could easily have been changed for ever.
The two Consuls had equal powers and neither could overrule the other, so who would take the decision? According to Roman tradition, supreme command of the army alternated between the two Consuls on a daily basis and it was on Varro’s watch that the massive Roman army lined up against the cunning Hannibal and his forces.
Varro initially deployed a conventional 3-line maniple formation but on closer inspection of the opposition soon changed plan, packing his troops close together. His reasoning was that Hannibal had set out his troops in a semi-circle with the apex of the curve nearest to the Roman lines. The centre of the curve was made up of the weaker Spanish and Gallic soldiers and it was the prospect of easily hacking through this soft underbelly that convinced Varro to mass his men in a more central position... Round one to Hannibal: Varro had taken the bait, hook, line and sinker!
What Varro hadn’t understood was the role of Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry and his battle-hardened Libyan soldiers, located at the wings of this semi-circle, further away from the Romans.
Battle commenced and, predictably, the Romans started well, easily pushing back the Spanish and Gallic troops in the centre. In the heat of the battle, however, Varro failed to realise that, whilst his men were pushing back the centre of the semi-circle, the wings, where the cavalry and the Libyan troops were, remained stationary. In effect, the semi-circle was being inverted and the Romans were soon surrounded on three sides. As reality dawned, Hannibal’s cavalry, who had made short work of their Roman counterparts, attacked from the rear... The slaughter began...
At least 50,000 Roman and allied soldiers died, while Hannibal lost only around 6,000 men. Paullus, who had opposed such a battle, remained in the fray, preferring to die rather than live with the shame of surviving such a disaster. Varro had no such honour and fled back to Rome.
By inflicting such as humiliating defeat on the mighty Roman Empire, Hannibal had proved himself to be one of the greatest ever military strategists. The course of the Second Punic War was at a crossroads and Hannibal was directing the traffic. Why he didn’t march on Rome afterwards nobody knows. And whether he could have taken the capital had he tried is pure speculation.
What we do know is that when the Second Punic War came to an end, some 14 years later, Hannibal was defeated, Carthage was razed to the ground and its fertile fields ploughed through with salt. Rome’s greatest rivals were no more and the foundations were well and truly laid for nearly 700 more years of the Roman Empire.