Cannae Part IV

This is something the ancient sources—all of them Romans or Roman sympathizers—deny. They would have posterity believe Cannae was, in the words of Polybius (3.117.1–2), “a battle in which both the victors and vanquished displayed conspicuous bravery,” a battle in which the Romans fought stubbornly to the bitter end. Given what has been learned through modern combat studies, this does not seem likely. 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,” writes military psychologist Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, “the bodies of modern soldiers quickly exhaust their capacity to energize and they slide into a state of profound physical and emotional exhaustion of such a magnitude and dimension that it appears to be almost impossible to communicate it to those who have not experienced it.” Were Romans tougher and more stoic than modern combatants? Perhaps, but as far as we know, the mental makeup of the ancients was similar to our own. How else would so many of their recorded deeds make sense to us? It seems, then, that the reason why it was possible to kill so many so fast is that most of the victims faced death without resistance. Would this paralyzing combat fatigue have afflicted everyone, and to the same degree? Probably not. Anecdotal evidence indicates that some would have gone down fighting no matter what the circumstances. But the circumstances were really bad, well beyond the limits of most.

If it is possible to conceive of hell on earth, this human abattoir at Cannae must have been the equal of 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, many of them dressed in now useless chain suits and cooking-pot helmets beneath the broiling sun, without prospect of water, only death offering any relief whatsoever. As time passed, more and more men would have fainted from the heat, slid to the ground, and been trampled beneath the feet of their comrades, their bodies and discarded shields tripping still others who would then have fallen similarly to their deaths. At the outer edges especially, but also in the interior, where javelins rained, the ground would have grown slick with Roman blood, which would have brought down still others. As at Lake Trasimene the hopeless would have begged their fellows to finish them—presuming there was room for even a short sword thrust—or simply would have done the deed themselves. The stink of death and all the bodily functions that accompany it must have come to pervade the atmosphere and compound the wretchedness of those condemned to take their last breaths there. There was no place worse.

Here and there it is possible to catch a glimpse, even if it’s only a statistic, of a shadow of an actual person caught in the grip of this misery. We know that of the forty-eight military tribunes at Cannae, twenty-nine did not survive. Most would have died in this central killing field, since it was their job to lead the legions. Both quaestors, Lucius Atilius and L. Furius Bibaculus, were likely here also, as were Geminus and Minucius—all of them dead. If Paullus had not been killed earlier on the wing, as Livy suggests, then he too met his end here—according to Polybius (3.116.15), “in the thick of the fight.” This brings to mind the fate of Paullus’s son-in-law.

Nineteen-year-old Publius Cornelius Scipio was young for a military tribune, but he had already seen a lot. He had saved his father’s life at Ticinus and had likely been part of the disaster at Trebia, and perhaps even at Trasimene. At Cannae we know he was attached to the Second Legion, and, given his social standing and his relationship to Paullus, it doesn’t seem likely that the young Scipio was with the ten thousand left to guard the camp. So probably he found himself caught in the dwindling remains of the Roman infantry, once again ensnared by Hannibal’s trickery. It must have been a learning experience, but perhaps a futile one in the face of almost certain death. Yet, contrary to all expectations, he would survive and elude capture, as did thousands of others also apparently hopelessly trapped. Here again this seems to have been a matter of mechanics.

Body buildup had to have become the central problem of the Carthaginian executioners, piles of dead obstructing them from getting at more Romans, not to mention all that slippery blood. A point of diminishing returns must have been reached and a new approach required. Logically this would have suggested a change of venue, a shift in the killing field to less cluttered terrain. The controlled release of clumps of legionaries away from the main mass would have effectively served this end. These Romans could then be run down and killed (or taken prisoner). But this also would have opened a window of opportunity for the Romans, who might have organized into wedges capable of defending themselves until they could reach either of the two camps and some sanctuary, however temporary. Many never could have made it, especially if they got separated. But chance, this opening, and the inevitably growing exhaustion of their 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. Young Scipio, it seems, was one of them.

Finally the killing must have trailed off. Polybius maintains that Hannibal rounded up approximately two thousand Romans who had climbed up and hid in the ruins of Cannae, and also captured both Roman camps immediately after the battle.65 While Hannibal may have captured the refugees in the ruins, it doesn’t seem likely that his troops were in any shape to overwhelm a fortified area, no matter how dispirited the inmates. Sleep was probably the only item on their agenda.

If this makes sense, then Livy’s story (22.50.4–12) of what went on in the two Roman camps that night appears believable. Most of the men seem to have been in shock. But those in the larger enclave, having avoided the main disaster and having participated in only a brief failed attempt on Hannibal’s camp, were probably in better shape. These men were still organized and were being led by their officers, who undoubtedly were aware that their present position was untenable. They sent a runner to the smaller camp and ordered them to break out and join forces, so that both elements could slip away under the cover of darkness and make for Canusium, a walled town about twenty-five miles to the southwest. The message fell on deaf ears, until one of the surviving military tribunes, P. Sempronius Tuditanus, made an impassioned speech and got six hundred (Frontinus says it was only sixty-two) men to follow him out to join the others. Not everybody from the big camp was willing to leave. But Livy indicates that some four thousand legionaries and two hundred cavalry in this group arrived safely at Canusium, where they were eventually joined by several thousand other survivors; meanwhile, another forty-five hundred found their way to Venusia, where Varro had taken refuge. All of these men were destined to be reorganized and branded with the stigmatic title legiones Cannenses, the living ghosts of this terrible battle.

How terrible? Dawn of the next day revealed approximately 45,500 legionaries and twenty-seven hundred 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 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 the dirt over their faces shut off their breath. But what most drew the attention of all beholders 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 pause, it is possible to resort to statistics. By way of approximation we can consider each Roman weighed 130 pounds—they were lighter than modern men. Then there would have been well in excess of six million pounds 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.

The fate of the others remaining at Cannae was not much better, particularly if they were Roman citizens. According to Livy’s timetable, Hannibal, after allowing his troops much of the day for looting, next made short work of the two camps, gathering up nearly thirteen thousand prisoners. When these men were added to those taken from the ruins on the hill and to those taken from the battlefield, the total was slightly more than nineteen thousand captives. Many of the Romans would end up as slaves in Greece and Crete, still there more than two decades later—another of Cannae’s many legacies.

Hannibal too was left to wrestle with the outcome of Cannae. The fight had cost him between fifty-five hundred and eight thousand men, but at least half of these had probably been Celts, and the army was basically intact. Meanwhile, his men had recovered gold rings numbering in the hundreds, some taken from captives but most pried from the lifeless fingers of senators and equestrians. In a single day Hannibal had decimated a substantial proportion of Rome’s leadership, a blow that some might well have considered mortal. Maharbal, Hannibal’s brilliantly opportunistic cavalry commander, was apparently one who thought so. Livy tells us (22.51.1–4) that sometime after the battle, amidst the congratulations of the Barcid’s henchmen, Maharbal warned that no time was to 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 a victory, Hannibal, but you don’t know how to use one.”

Assuming the incident actually took place—it was very much characteristic of both men: Maharbal seizing the main chance, and Hannibal the gambler growing cautious in the face of overwhelming good luck—it strikes at the heart of Punic prospects and is therefore hotly debated. On balance, scholarly opinion seems to support Hannibal for not trying it. Some argue that he was short on pack animals and the logistical support needed to move his army 250 miles to Rome with the necessary alacrity. (This argument seems odd, given the journey from Spain and the Carthaginians’ tromp through the swamp.) Other scholars maintain that even if he had gotten to Rome, he couldn’t have done much productive, and he lacked siege equipment. (He could have built some.) Still others are of the opinion that Hannibal was better off trying to break the Roman alliance, win on a solid base of support, and then negotiate. (We shall see how that worked out.) In fact there were many good reasons for not marching on Rome, and only one good reason for going.

Unlike the scholars, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a soldier, thought Maharbal was right. Maharbal seems to have understood that when a more powerful adversary is down, it has to be dispatched. Rome still had huge manpower reserves; there was no such thing as a peace party; this was a state that bargained only with the defeated. Hannibal’s single chance of winning the larger war was to begin marching his army toward Rome. Even if it had taken him a month to get there, the tension in the city would have only built with reports of his coming. And ultimately his appearance outside the walls might have broken the spirit to resist, or might have led to Rome’s sending an ill-prepared force out to another catastrophic defeat and ultimate capitulation. Or not. In the end it still would have been a long shot. But it was his only shot. Instead, Hannibal chose another route, and the war became only a matter of time.


Still, if Rome was not about to collapse, there were certainly cracks … and not just in the façade. At Canusium it seems things almost reached the point of falling apart. The survivors were treated kindly by the locals, especially a wealthy woman named Busa, who gave them food and fresh clothing. Among the survivors were four military tribunes (for some reason Tuditanus is not mentioned): Lucius Bibulus; Quintus, the son of the former dictator Fabius Maximus; Appius Claudius; and Publius Scipio, who, despite being the youngest of the group, emerged as its dominant personality in what was shortly to become a crisis situation.

The episode began when a reliable source informed them that within the group of survivors, a cabal of young nobles led by M. Caecilius Metellus and P. Furius Philus, whose father had shared the consulship with Flaminius in 224, were ready to give up on Rome, abandon Italy, and become mercenaries abroad. When the other tribunes agreed to form a council to discuss this stupefying piece of intelligence, Scipio would have none of it, demanding immediate action. Leading a few followers, he burst in on the conspirators with drawn sword and took them into custody, but not before demanding on pain of death that they swear an oath of allegiance to the state.

The nascent mutiny put down, Scipio and Appius learned of Varro’s presence in Venusia and sent him a message asking if the consul wanted them to deliver their forces to him or wanted them to remain in Canusium. Varro promptly marched his own troops over to them. This may be significant.

Besides the obvious motive of concentrating forces, the reasons for Varro’s decision and the later treatment of the legiones Cannenses could be connected. Had the conspiracy gone beyond the young nobles and extended to the troops, making it necessary for Varro to reach Canusium quickly, in order to stabilize the situation? Or alternatively, did the errant consul rescue his own reputation at the men’s expense, by giving the appearance of restoring order where there had not necessarily been disorder? It’s impossible to know. What is known is that Varro, having exited the battlefield at a full gallop, was later remarkably well treated by his countrymen, while the Cannenses, who left under rather more duress, were effectively banished. Rank certainly has its privileges, but the contradictions here are hard to ignore or explain.

Back in Rome the city’s population was on the ragged edge of panic, “expecting Hannibal every moment to appear,” Polybius (3.118) tells us shortly before he effectively signs off, the remainder of his description of the war surviving only in fragments. For better or worse Livy becomes our primary oracle, framing subsequent events with a dramatist’s eye.

Accordingly, Rome’s streets are described as echoing the wailing of lamenting women, because the initial reports indicated that the Cannae army had been crushed and there were no survivors. The senate met to take measure of the situation, with Fabius Maximus arguing for gathering more intelligence, sending the women indoors, and preventing anyone from leaving the city. It was only after a letter arrived from Varro verifying the disaster—but adding that he was with ten thousand survivors at Canusium and that Hannibal was still at Cannae not doing much of anything—that the cloud of terror began to dissipate and enough traction was gained for the senate to begin serious planning. What emerged was a characteristic combination of superstition, practicality, and adamantine stubbornness.

Existentially, beating back the dread and propitiating the gods called for extraordinary—what we would call barbaric—measures. Perhaps conveniently, two of the vestal virgins were found not to be so. One of the two women committed suicide before she could be buried alive with the other, while the seducer was beaten to death by the pontifex maximus, the chief priest. Meanwhile, the priest’s colleagues were consulting the Sibylline Books for other goddess-calming measures, and found the answer in more live interments—this time two couples, Greek and Celtic, male and female. And if human sacrifice did not prove sufficient, the city fathers thought to send fellow senator and historian Fabius Pictor to Greece to consult the Delphic oracle for more ideas on atonement. In a further attempt to restore emotional equilibrium, the senate officially limited mourning to thirty days, but the senate still had to call off the annual festival to the goddess of the harvest, Ceres, since the rituals required married women who weren’t in mourning, and few were available.79 Rome did regain its composure, but these steps, plainly meant to be viewed as extreme, reflect the degree to which the news of Cannae had shaken the inhabitants.

Yet beneath the veil of ritualistic excess, the senate remained clearheaded, making the leadership and personnel decisions necessary to deal with the immediate crisis and to restore Rome’s capacity to defend itself. Almost immediately the stalwart Marcellus, apparently no longer in Sicily, was sent to Canusium, where he would reorganize the Cannenses and put them back in fighting shape, while Varro was sent specific instructions to return home, possibly to nominate a dictator. (Upon arrival he would be greeted rapturously “for not having despaired of the Republic.” Acidly, Livy reminds us that a Carthaginian arriving back in Carthage under similar circumstances would have been punished with the utmost rigor—that is, he would have been crucified.) The man chosen as dictator was very experienced—M. Junius Pera, a former consul and censor, with the highly capable Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus acting as master of horse. Together they set about rebuilding Rome’s force structure.

In time there would be a huge manpower pool available, but in just two years Hannibal had killed at least a hundred thousand of Rome’s soldiers, and the recruiters on the Tiber behaved as if they were more than a little shorthanded. Just one thousand new cavalry could be raised, a number reflecting Hannibal’s prodigious attrition of the equestrians. To levy more foot soldiers for two new legiones urbanae, the draft age was lowered and boys of seventeen or even younger were called up, along with reinforcements from the Latin allies. Yet more telling was the enlistment of six thousand criminals and debtors, who had to be equipped with the Gallic arms taken by Flaminius for his triumph in 223. Finally, and most significant, the city’s slaves of fighting age were promised freedom upon discharge if they were willing to join the war effort, a call that was answered by eight thousand of them, who were subsequently known as volones, or volunteers. Their owners were compensated with state funds, the cost of which, Livy (22.57.11–12) notes ominously, exceeded the amount that would have been required to ransom the prisoners held by Hannibal.

Back in Apulia, the Carthaginian was in an avuncular mood. As he had after Trebia and Trasimene, he let the allies he held go free, yet again professing his goodwill. He then turned to the Roman captives and sought to explain himself, which was something new. He was not pursuing a war to the death with Rome, he explained; he was fighting “for honor and empire.” Just as his Carthaginian predecessors had yielded to the success of Roman arms, now it was time for Rome to accept defeat in the face of his own skill and good fortune. It was a speech that might have been given by Pyrrhus or any other Hellenistic monarch, a perfectly reasonable speech. The rules of war as he saw them dictated that, after such a string of beatings, the vanquished, presuming they were in their right minds, admit defeat. That was the way the “great game” of the Mediterranean basin was played; it was time Rome got used to it. He was prepared to be generous. The captives were to be ransomed for a reasonable price; ten of their own number would be sent to Rome to work out the details. Carthalo, a Carthaginian cavalry officer, would accompany them to present Punic peace terms. It’s impossible to know if Hannibal really expected his initiative to work, but it seems unlikely that he anticipated the reception that the delegation actually got.

As the group approached the city, the senate had the dictator, Pera, send a lictor to meet them and inform Carthalo that he would not be received and that he had to leave Roman territory by nightfall. So much for a negotiated peace. There was some sympathy for the captives, but not enough. In the speech the leader of the prisoners gave to the senate, Livy (22.59) has him argue that ransoming their number would be cheaper than purchasing the previously mentioned volunteer slaves, and comparing themselves favorably with those who took refuge at Venusia and Canusium, “men who left their swords on the field and fled.”

These pleas fell on deaf ears, especially those of T. Manlius Torquatus. He delivered a savage rebuttal. Although he did concede that the troops at Canusium were better judges of courage and cowardice than the captives, he revealed little regard for either group. The negligence of the captives was twofold: first, “they fled to the camp when it was their duty to stand firm and fight,” and second, they surrendered the camp. It was left unsaid but still implied that all those who had left the battlefield, captives and escapees alike, had violated the oath administered before the battle never to break rank except in the pursuit of duty.

The point, for the moment at least, was that the captives were not to be ransomed. The senate even went so far as to forbid their families to raise money privately to free them. This plainly went against precedent; just the year before, Fabius had paid prisoners’ ransoms with the proceeds from the farm Hannibal had left untouched. The Roman leadership wanted to send a message not just to its own soldiers, but to Hannibal, to shock him with the degree of their determination.85 Whatever he might think, in their eyes this was a fight to the finish.

When the delegation reluctantly returned with the bad news, Hannibal’s mood—though not necessarily his strategy—hardened. Appian (Han.28) maintains that Hannibal had those of senatorial rank fight as gladiators for the amusement of the Africans; some were slaughtered; the rest were sold into slavery. The last, at least, we know was true. Polybius in a fragment (6.58.13) reports that Hannibal lost his joy over the victory at Cannae; he now knew he was in for a long fight.

But as hardheaded and hard-hearted as was the image presented along the Tiber, the Roman leadership still had to work within its means. After Cannae much of southern Italy was leaning toward Hannibal, and Rome needed a presence to fend off the momentum toward the Punic side. The new legiones urbanae and the scratch force of slaves and criminals were not yet trained. The only trained men were the Cannenses.

We next hear of Marcellus in the autumn of 216, first at Casilinum, then at Nola, parrying Hannibal’s thrusts at the latter town with his army of survivors. Livy conflates what was probably a series of desultory skirmishes into a tactical victory featuring a surprise sortie out of the city gates, but even he questions the number of losses inflicted on the Punic force. It was not much in the way of revenge. Still, the Cannenses, now divided into two legions, showed themselves to be once again an effective fighting force and one ready to take the field against its nemesis. If nothing else, the men had amply demonstrated their loyalty to the state. Yet they were not forgiven, even in the face of further disaster.

As the terrible year 216 came to an end, Rome settled down for a change of leadership. But no sooner had L. Postumius Albinus—who had been sent in the spring to Cisalpine Gaul with two legions plus allies to break the rebellious Celts—been elected in absentia to his third consulship than news filtered into the city that he and his entire army had been ambushed and annihilated. To add insult to injury, the victorious Boii beheaded the fallen consul-elect, hollowed out his skull, and subsequently used it as a drinking cup. But more to the point, Rome was down another twenty-five thousand troops. It did not matter; by December of 216, the new legiones urbanae were ready and were given to Marcellus.

No longer needed, the Cannenses would now get what they deserved, at least in the eyes of the senate. Taxes had been doubled so that all soldiers could be paid in cash immediately, except for those who’d fought at Cannae. They got nothing. But this was secondary compared to being shipped to Sicily. Here they would stay until 204, removed from their families and their livelihood, effectively banished. It was a terrible punishment, inflicted upon them because they were seen as having broken an oath never before required, which had made them, technically at least, deserters. Rome had lost a great battle and needed a scapegoat. Rather than blame the strategists and commanders who had planned it, the powers that be turned on the survivors. The logic, the same as for decimation (“pour encourager les autres”), might have made sense at the time. But these ghosts of Cannae would live to haunt the republic. For one day, legionaries would look to their generals and not Rome for a future, and that perspective would spell civil war and absolute rule. This more than anything else was the battle’s legacy.