Sunday, August 2, 2020

Winning the Battle but Losing the War, the Battle of Cannae

Winning the Battle but Losing the War, the Battle of Cannae

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Cannae, fought in 216 b.c. between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian army under the command of Hannibal Barca. Having led his forces from Spain over the Alps into Italy (including with his famous elephants), Hannibal had continued to prevail. Cannae was the third in a series of battles including Trebia (218 b.c.) and Lake Trasimene (217 b.c.). After the disaster of the Battle of Lake Trasimene, the Romans had appointed a dictator, Fabius. Well aware of how the Roman armies had done in direct opposition against the forces of Carthage, he developed a plan of attrition, minor strikes against the Carthaginian forces while avoiding set piece battles, all in an effort to wear out the foreign forces. While the program was of itself successful, the Romans grew tired of a purely defensive position and sought once again a direct conflict. That would take place at Cannae, on the Eastern (Adriatic) coast of Italy, in the region of the “ankle” of the “boot.”

The Romans, who enjoyed numerically superior forces, expected a resounding victory, finally bringing Hannibal and his army to heal. The opposite would take place. Through carefully arranged his forces in opposition to the Romans and what appears to have been a well managed strategic retreat in the front line troops, the Romans were drawn into a pocket and ultimately encircled by the Carthaginian forces. Hemmed in from all sides, it is reported that the Romans did not have the space within which to swing their weapons, and the still commonly used long spears of the Roman phalanx (technically a maniples) were rendered ineffective.

Casualty figures from ancient battles are notoriously unreliable. The Roman historian Polybius reported a casualty rate at the battle in excess of what he reported as the initial count of the Roman forces. Regardless, all eight legions were rendered militarily ineffective. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his book Cannae, suggests that probably 50,000 corpses littered the battlefield.

In response, numerous communities, particularly in Southern Italy, threw off their allegiance to Rome and shifting it to Hannibal. For all intents and purposes, the Second Punic war should have been over with Carthage victorious. Rome, however, refused to negotiate with Hannibal, and set about raising new armies. Those armies, ultimately under the command of Scipio Africanus, would attack Carthage itself. The war ended with a negotiated peace after the Battle of Zama in 202 b.c.

The Third Punic War would break out about fifty years later, and in it Carthage was finally destroyed. Almost certainly its fields were not salted.  An excellent review of the Punic Wars is Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization.

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