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Map Location Cannae 216 BC
Cannae 216 BC - Map Location and Proximity to Rome
History Channel


Battle of Cannae — August 2, 216 BC

The Battle of Cannae was part of the Second Punic War.

Cannae was an ancient town in southern Italy (see map location above.) The flat plain of Cannae was perfect for cavalry warfare.

And here is the ancient battlefield of Cannae today:

Cannae Battlefield Today
Cannae Battlefield Today
History Channel

Almost 130,000 men and 16,000 horses were squeezed into this battle field just two miles square.

Who Fought the Battle of Cannae?

Carthage and Rome fought each other in a battle for supremacy in the Mediterranean.

Hannibal led the Carthaginians and their allies - Africans (Numidians), Gauls, and Spaniards.

The Romans were led by two commanders: Paullus (Lucius Aemilius Paulus) and Varro (Gaius Terentius Varro.) Paulus' commanded with a cautious strategy. Varro's strategy was more aggressive. These two men took turns leading the army on alternate days. On August 2, 216 BC, it was Varro's turn to command.

All in all, the fighting of the Battle of Cannae took only 4 hours.


Who Won the Battle of Cannae? Who Lost?

Hannibal and the Carthaginians won. Rome suffered its worst defeat ever.


Cannae 216 BC - Map Location Apulia (Puglia), Southeastern Italy
Cannae 216 BC - Map Location Apulia (Puglia), Southeastern Italy
Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon
Click map to enlarge (huge map)


Why Was the Battle of Cannae Fought?

After crushing the Romans at the Battle of the Trebia in 218 BC, Hannibal repeated his victorious performance in 217 BC at the Battle of Trasimene.

While continuing rolling down through Italy, Hannibal and the Carthaginians rested on the Adriatic Sea, less than 100 miles from Rome.

In desperation, the Romans decided to gamble everything on one great battle.

Check here for Hannibal's invasion route:

Hannibal's Invasion Route 218 BC - Map
218 BC Hannibal's Invasion Route
Click map to enlarge

For more background information to this battle check the
Second Punic War.


The Contestants in Comparison

The Romans were going for broke and presented Hannibal with a massive army, twice as big as anything that had faced him before.

Cavalry: Hannibal had 10,000 horsemen. The Romans had 6,000. Hannibal's advantage.

Infantry: Hannibal had 40,000 men. The Romans had 70,000. Rome's advantage.


The Battle of Cannae Commences

The Romans lined up with an unusually deep and therefore narrow formation.

In his book The Roman Army at War, Adrian Goldsworthy states that,

At Cannae, the unusually ill-trained and inexperienced Roman legions were deployed far deeper than was normally the case.

What was going on?

Victor Davis Hanson, California State University, Fresno, further enlightens us,

Either through wisdom or utter folly, the [Roman] consuls had agreed to stack the legions to create depth. They had given up flexibility in exchange for power.


What was the Carthaginians' formation?

Outnumbered but not outwitted, Hannibal devised a trap. He had his troops line up in a crescent formation. He seemed to be inviting an all out attack on his outnumbered force. Together with his Gallic and Spanish infantry, Hannibal positioned himself at the most vulnerable part of the line, at the center where the fighting would be the fiercest.

Strangely, Hannibal left his best troops, the Numidian spearmen in reserve on the flanks of his army. He positioned his cavalry on the wings.

Battle Formation Cannae 216 BC
Battle Formation Cannae 216 BC
History Channel

The battle commenced. Skirmishers ran forward. Legions advanced. The men of Carthage, outnumbered two to one, braced for impact.

Hannibal sent his heavy cavalry straight for the Roman horsemen under Paullus. Fighting was fierce and brutal. Meanwhile, Hannibal's Numidian cavalry charged the Roman left wing under Varro.

While the cavalry fought, the 8 legions of Roman infantry rolled forward towards Hannibal's position. When they got within 15 yards, each legionary threw his spear.

Then they advanced drawing their swords and collideded with the Carthaginian crescent. Hannibal suffered dreadful losses as the legions hacked their way deeper. Defeat seemed inevitable. Hannibal's center was forced back, but it did not break.

For the Romans it seemed that one more push would bring the victory. When they realized that Hannibal's crescent had become a circle, it was too late. What had happened?

The Roman advance had been sucked into the center of the crescent, the Numidian spearmen from the flanks had turned around from both sides to envelop the Romans.

Hannibal's cavalry had defeated the Roman horsemen on both flanks and moved around behind the enemy.

The vast Roman army was completely encircled.

The large body of Romans couldn't move and thus couldn't use their weapons properly. Neither could they retreat. Had they kept their wits they could have made a breakout. But panic set in and they were massacred en masse. Only 14,000 Romans escaped.

Paullus was killed. Varro and five hundred cavalry fled to Venusia, today's Venosa, ten miles from Cannae (see map above.)


Here are the battle maps:

216 BC Battle of Cannae - Phase One, Two, and Three
216 BC Battle of Cannae - Phase One, Two, and Three


Battle of Cannae 216 - MAP - Initial Attack
Map of the Battle of Cannae 216 BC - Initial Attack

Battle of Cannae 216 BC - Final Attack - MAP
Map of the Battle of Cannae 216 BC - Final Attack



What Was So Special About the Battle of Cannae?

The Battle of Cannae was the bloodiest battle the ancient world had ever seen.

With regards to military strategy, Hannibal pulled a classic double envelopment.

Victor Davis Hanson, California State University, Fresno:

"What happened at Cannae should not have happened. Military strategists could not envision that a numerically inferior army could surround ... a numerically superior force. The very idea that someone like Hannibal could pull that off was just audacious."


What Were the Casualties of the Battle of Cannae?

Over 100,000 men fought. Over half of them died.

Between 44,000 and 50,000 Romans and 6,000 to 10,000 Carthaginians were slaughtered. That's roughly 200 men each passing minute.

Only 14,000 Romans could escape and 10,000 Romans were captured.

On top of it, the Romans lost important men:
The consul Aemilius Paulus was killed, 20 other consuls and praetorians were killed, 30 senators were either captured or killed, 300 nobles were killed, and 40,000 infantrymen and 3,500 cavalrymen lost their lives.


After the Battle of Cannae

News of the defeat terrified Rome. The remaining senators packed their bags and were ready to take flight. The city was now at Hannibal's mercy. But he refused to march on it, maybe because of exhaustion. He had just fought the greatest battle of his life and lost many of his men. It is disputed whether an immediate attack on Rome would have given Hannibal the city. Some say, it would have been a big gamble. Others say, that there is no doubt that it would have been a victory for Hannibal and his men.

Be that as it may, instead of attacking Rome, Hannibal lead his army for the next fourteen years around Italy. The moment had passed. He was too weak to conquer Rome, and too strong to be defeated in battle. He had dealt Rome three massive blows but Rome was still standing.

Moreover, Rome bounced back and a re-vitalized Roman army attacked Carthage. Hannibal was summoned back to organize the defense but was defeated at the Battle of Zama, in North Africa.

The ancient historian Florus says that it was as if the Romans rose from the dead after the Battle of Cannae.

Rome won the war and went on to rule the world.


The Battle of Cannae — Sources

In the third book of his Histories, Polybius wrote on Hannibal's actions in Italy.

His narrative, however, is not completely above suspicion.

Go here to read Polybius' account of the Battle of Cannae.


Polybius 200-118 BC




Livy reports on the Battle of Cannae at the end of book 22 of his History of Rome.

Go here to read Livy's account of the Battle of Cannae.


Livy 59-17 BC



And these pictures show what's left today of the ancient village of Cannae:

Ancient Village of Cannae Today
Ancient Village of Cannae Today
History Channel


Ancient Village of Cannae Today
Ancient Village of Cannae Today
History Channel


Ancient Village of Cannae Today
Ancient Village of Cannae Today
History Channel





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