Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Battle of Cannae by Robert L. O'Connell

August 2, 216 B.C.

The moment of Hannibal's killer epiphany had arrived. The order went out, and man by man the Africans on both the left and right sides pivoted inward, dressed their ranks, and in unison fell upon the Roman flanks, most likely the location of the least-experienced citizen and allied troops. There was little the Romans could do in response besides turning as individuals to face the threat, their formations were too compressed and disorganized to maneuver effectively. They were reduced to a crowd of loners trying to fight off a coordinated engine of destruction. Meanwhile, the emotional shock waves rippled inward, spreading paralysis throughout the Roman ranks and halting the forward momentum of the entire army. Their fate was all but sealed.

The Numidian cavalry wheeled around and headed towards the rear of the Roman infantry, a soft mass of up to twenty thousand velites , most of them adolescents and very lightly protected . Without room to throw their javelins, and with no avenue of escape, they were the perfect prey for heavy cavalry. Terrified by the horses and the slaughter of their comrades, they recoiled inward, exposing their backs and hamstrings to spear thrusts and sword slashes while they pressed desperately against an ever more compacted and undifferentiated human mass.

Tactically the battle was over, but the killing had just begun. The Roman army (between sixty-five and seventy thousand Romans and allies) was still too large and full of fight to be taken prisoner; besides, with its leadership immobilized in the press, it had no means of surrender. The only choice was its effective extermination, a task the Carthaginians accomplished through systematic butchery almost until the sun set on this terrible day, still the worst in the entire military history of the West. The Roman suffered more battle deaths on this one day than the U.S. during the entire course of the war in Vietnam.

The process beggars description. The Romans were finished off from the outside in, peeled like an onion. We live in an age when killing is cheap, virtually automated; that was far from the case at Cannae. Other than those who succumbed to the heat and lack of water, each man who died had to be individually punctured, slashed or battered into oblivion. In order for the necessary killing to be accomplished in the eight hours that Appian estimated the fighting lasted, over one hundred men had to be killed every minute. Yet even this astonishing figure underestimates the swiftness and profusion of the slaughter, since it assumes the killing took place throughout the day and not in a great spasm toward the end, as it actually happened.

While Hannibal's skirmishers – the Numidian foot soldiers and Baleric slingers let loose a hail of javelins, stones and heavy throwing spears onto the stationary mass, the infantry of Libyans, Gauls and Spaniards continued their grim work around the perimeter. One modern source in an otherwise believable reconstruction of the carnage describes victims 'dispatched with frenzied blows, usually to the head." This seems to miss the mindset implied by the quantity and rapidity of the butchery. Hannibal's soldiers were practiced killers, very likely most had adopted the cooler, utilitarian approach of the predator of the most prodigious and ruthless sort. They would have known how to kill quickly and efficiently. If a victim's back were turned, then a spear thrust to the kidneys would have been so painful as to instantly paralyze, and would have killed within seconds through massive internal bleeding. Or if the victim were facing forward, an equivalent stab to the lower abdomen would have produced the same results almost as fast.

Given what has been learned through modern combat studies, it seems unlikely that the Romans fought stubbornly to the bitter end. Even among elite units, when sufficient casualties have been suffered, the whole group slides into a state of apathy and depression more extreme than is encountered in almost any other kind of human experience. “Unable to flee and unable to overcome the dangers through a brief burst of fighting, posturing, or submission the bodies of modern soldiers quickly exhaust their capacity to energize and the slide into a state of profound physical and emotional exhaustion of such a magnitude and dimension that is almost impossible to communicate to those who have not experienced it.”* Though a few Romans probably went down fighting, the circumstances at Cannae were beyond the limits of most human beings in any age.

If it is possible to conceive of hell on earth, this human abattoir at Cannae must have been equal to any hell that history in all its perversity has managed to concoct. Thousands upon thousands packed together, unable to move, beset by the cries of those in extremis, dressed in useless chain suits and cooking-pot helmets beneath the broiling sun, without prospect of water, only death offering any relief whatsoever. As time passe, more and more men would have fainted from the heat, slid to the ground, and been trampled beneath the feet of their comrades. At the outer edges the ground would have grown thick with blood, the stink of death and all the bodily functions pervaded the atmosphere and compounded the wretchedness of the condemned. There was no place worse.

Body build-up had to become the central problem of the Carthaginian executioners, piles of dead obstructing them from getting at more Romans, and all that slippery blood. Logically this would have suggested a change of venue, a controlled release of clumps of legionaries away from the mass. These Romans could then be run down and killed or taken prisoner. But chance, this opening, and the inevitably growing exhaustion of the Carthaginian tormentors would have collaborated to sweep away from this disaster the core of a class of survivors who would live to fight another day ('The Living Ghosts of Cannae”, branded as cowards by the Senate and banished to the Island of Sicily for twenty years, who would eventually follow another survivor- Publius Cornelius Scipio- to defeat Hannibal on his home ground.)

The dawn of the next day revealed approximately 45,500 legionaries and 2,700 cavalrymen strewn about a space not much larger than a single square mile. As the Carthaginians set about despoiling the bodies and searching for their own among the dead and half dead, even they were shocked by their handiwork. Livy, the ancient cinematographer, leaves us a scene as surreal as any other in military history:

“Here and there amidst the slain there started up a gory figure whose wounds had begun to throb with the chill of dawn, and was cut down by his enemies; some were discovered lying there alive, with thighs and tendons slashed, baring their necks and throats and bidding their conquerors to drain the remnant of their blood. Others were found with their heads buried in holes dug in the ground. They had apparently made these pits for themselves, and heaping dirt over their faces shut off their own breath. But what most drew attention was a Numidian who was dragged out alive from under a dead Roman, but with a mutilated nose and ears; for the Roman, unable to hold a weapon in his hands, had expired in a frenzy of rage, while rending the other with his teeth.”

If this does not give you pause, it is possible to resort to statistics. By way of approximation we can consider that each Roman weighed 130 pounds – they were lighter than modern man. Then there would have been well in excess of six million pound of human meat left to rot in the August sun – the true fruits of Hannibal's tactical masterpiece, at least for an air force of vultures.

Livy tells us that sometime after the battle, amidst the congratulations of Hannibal's henchmen, Maharbal warned that no time should be lost, and held out instead the prospect of dining in the enemy capital within five days. “Follow me: I will go first with the cavalry, that the Romans may know that you are there, before they know you are coming!” It was the most audacious of proposals. March on Rome! Finish it now!. When Hannibal hedged and refused to make an immediate decision, Maharbal's reply was equally impulsive: “So the gods haven't given everything to one man; you know how to win victory, Hannibal, but you don't know how to use one.”

During the sixteen years Hannibal was in Italy, he destroyed four hundred towns and killed three hundred thousand of Italy's men in battle, figures perhaps derived from the list he erected in bronze at Hera's temple at Croton just before he set sail for Carthage in 203. Aboard the ship carrying him away and at last forever, Livy tells us, “he repeatedly looked back upon the shores of Italy and, accusing gods and men, called down a curse upon himself...because he had not led his soldiers, bloodstained from the victory at Cannae, straight to Rome.” If Maharbal was in earshot, he would have been sorely tempted, but wise not to add, “I told you so.”

The Romans learned a lot from their failures in the long struggle against Hannibal's invasion. They introduced tactical flexibility into their battlefield formations, began to play the hedgehog to Hannibal's fox, professionalized their armies, most importantly retaining successful commanders for longer terms of office than previously allowed, and remained doggedly determined to defeat Hannibal at whatever cost and despite continued setbacks. In the end, this spelled the end of the Republic and the rise of the imperium.


  1. *Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman

    On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

    On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace

    Stop teaching our kids to kill : a call to action against TV, movie & video game violence

    founded the Killology Research Group ,

  2. whoop whoop!!!! love this, really helped me with my history homework, got me a A*, thanx!!