The Romans elected (216 B.C.) Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro. On their appointment, the Dictators laid down their office, and the Consuls of the previous year, Gnaeus Servilius and Marcus Regulus who had been appointed after the death of Flaminius were invested with proconsular authority by Aemilius, and taking command in the field directed the operations of their forces as they thought fit.
Aemilius after consulting with the Senate at once enrolled the soldiers still wanting to make up the total levy and dispatched them to the front, expressly ordering Servilius on no account to risk a general engagement, but to skirmish vigorously and unintermittently so as to train the lads and give them confidence for a general battle; for they thought the chief cause of their late reverses lay in their having employed newly raised and quite untrained levies. The Consuls also gave a legion to the Praetor Lucius Postumius, and sent him to Cisalpine Gaul to create a diversion among those Celts who were serving with Hannibal, they took measures for the return of the fleet that was wintering at Lilybaeum and sent the generals in Iberia all the supplies of which they had need. The Consuls and Senate were thus occupied with these and other preparations, and Servilius, on receiving orders from the Consuls, conducted all petty operations as they directed.
All through the winter and spring the two armies remained encamped opposite each other, and it was not until the season was advanced enough for them to get supplies from the year’s crops that Hannibal moved his forces out of the camp near Geronium. Judging that it was in his interest to compel the enemy to fight by every means in his power, he seized on the citadel of a town called Cannae, in which the Romans had collected the corn and other supplies from the country round Canusium, conveying hence to their camp from time to time enough to supply their wants. The city itself had previously been razed, but the capture now of the citadel and stores caused no little commotion in the Roman army; for they were distressed at the fall of the place not only owing to the loss of their supplies, but because it commanded the surrounding district. They continued, therefore, to send constant messages to Rome asking how they should act, stating that if they approached the enemy they would not be able to escape a battle, as the country was being pillaged and the temper of all the allies was uncertain. The Senate decided to give the enemy battle, but they ordered Servilius to wait, and dispatched the Consuls to the front. It was to Aemilius that the eyes of all were directed; and they placed their chiefest hope in him, owing to his general high character, and because a few years previously he was thought to have conducted the Illyrian war with courage and advantage to the state. They decided to bring eight legions into the field, a thing which had never been done before by the Romans, each legion consisting of about five thousand men apart from the allies. For they invariably employ four legions, each numbering about four thousand foot and two hundred horse, but on occasions of exceptional gravity they raise the number of foot in each legion to five thousand and that of the cavalry to three hundred. They make the number of the allied infantry equal to that of the Roman legions, but, as a rule, the allied cavalry are three times as numerous as the Roman. They give each of the Consuls half of the allies and two legions when they dispatch them to the field, and most of their wars are decided by one Consul with two legions and the above number of allies, it being only on rare occasions that they employ all their forces at one time and in one battle. But now they were so alarmed and anxious as to the future that they decided to bring into action not four legions but eight.
Therefore after exhorting Aemilius and putting before his eyes the magnitude of the results which in either event the battle would bring about, they dispatched him with orders to decide the issue, when the time came, bravely and worthily of his country. On reaching the army he assembled the soldiers and conveyed to them the decision of the Senate, addressing them in a manner befitting the occasion and in words that evidently sprang from his heart. The greater part of his speech was devoted to accounting for the former reverses, for it was particularly the impression created by these that made the men disheartened and in need of encouragement. He attempted therefore to impress upon them, that while not one or two but many causes could be found owing to which the previous battles resulted in defeat, there was at present, if they behaved like men, no reason at all left why they should not be victorious.
“For then“, he said, “the two Consuls never gave battle with their united armies, nor were the forces they disposed of well trained, but raw levies who had never looked danger in the face. But the most important consideration of all is that our troops were then so ignorant of the enemy that one might almost say they ventured on decisive battles with them without ever having set eyes on them. Those who were worsted at the Trebia had only arrived from Sicily the day before, and at daybreak on the following morning went into action, while those who fought in Etruria not only had not seen their enemies before, but could not even see them in the battle itself owing to the condition of the atmosphere. But now all the circumstances are precisely the opposite of what they were then.
For in the first place we, the Consuls, are both present, and are not only about to share your perils ourselves but have given you also the Consuls of last year to stand by you and participate in the struggle. And you your selves have not only seen how the enemy are armed, how they dispose their forces, and what is their strength, but for two years now you have been fighting with them nearly every day. As, therefore, all the conditions are now the reverse of those in the battles I spoke of, we may anticipate that the result of the present battle will likewise be the opposite. For it would be a strange or rather indeed impossible thing, that after meeting your enemies on equal terms in so many separate skirmishes and in most cases being victorious, now when you confront them with your united forces and outnumber them by more than two to one you should be beaten. Therefore, my men, every measure having been taken to secure victory for you, one thing alone is wanting, your own zeal and resolution, and as to this it is not, I think, fitting that I should exhort you further. For those who in some countries serve for hire or for those who are about to fight for their neighbours by the terms of an alliance, the moment of greatest peril is during the battle itself, but the result makes little difference to them, and in such a case exhortation is necessary. But those who like you are about to fight not for others, but for yourselves, your country, and your wives and children, and for whom the results that will ensue are of vastly more importance than the present peril, require not to be exhorted to do their duty but only to be reminded of it. For what man is there who would not wish before all things to conquer in the struggle, or if this be not possible, to die fighting rather than witness the outrage and destruction of all that is dearest to him? Therefore, my men, even without these words of mine, fix your eyes on the difference between defeat and victory and on all that must follow upon either, and enter on this battle as if not your country’s legions but her existence were at stake. For if the issue of the day be adverse, she has no further resources to overcome her foes; but she has centred all her power and spirit in you, and in you lies her sole hope of safety. Do not cheat her, then, of this hope, but now pay the debt of gratitude you owe to her, and make it clear to all men that our former defeats were not due to the Romans being less brave than the Carthaginians, but to the inexperience of those who fought for us then and to the force of circumstances“.
Having addressed the troops in these words Aemilius dismissed them.
Next day the Consuls broke up their camp and advanced towards the place where they heard that of the enemy was. Coming in view of them on the second day, they encamped at a distance of about five miles from them. Aemilius, seeing that the district round was flat and treeless, was opposed to attacking the enemy there as they were superior in cavalry, his advice being to lure them on by advancing into a country where the battle would be decided rather by the infantry. As Terentius, owing to his inexperience, was of the contrary opinion, difficulties and disputes arose between the generals, one of the most pernicious things possible. Terentius was in command next day the two Consuls according to the usual practice commanding on alternate days and he broke up his camp and advanced with the object of approaching the enemy in spite of Aemilius’s strong protests and efforts to prevent him. Hannibal met him with his lightarmed troops and cavalry and surprising him while still on the march disordered the Romans much. They met, however, the first charge by advancing some of their heavy infantry, and afterwards sending forwards also their javelineers and cavalry got the better in the whole engagement, as the Carthaginians had no considerable covering force, while they themselves had some companies of their legions fighting mixed with the light-armed troops.
The fall of night now made them draw off from each other, the attack of the Carthaginians not having had the success they hoped. Next day Aemilius, who neither judged it advisable to fight nor could now withdraw the army in safety, encamped with two-thirds of it on the bank of the river Aufidus. This is the only river which traverses the Apennines, the long chain of mountains separating all the Italian streams, those on one side descending to the Tyrrhenian sea and those on the other to the Adriatic. The Aufidus, however, runs right through these mountains, having its source on the side of Italy turned to the Tyrrhenian Sea and falling into the Adriatic. For the remaining portion of his army he fortified a position on the farther side of the river, to the east of the ford, at a distance of about two miles from his own camp and rather more from that of the enemy, intending thus to cover the foraging parties from his main camp across the river and harass those of the Carthaginians.
Hannibal now seeing that it was imperative for him to give battle and attack the enemy, and careful lest his soldiers might be disheartened by this recent reverse, thought that the occasion demanded some words of exhortation and called a meeting of the men. When they were assembled he bade them all look at the country round, and asked them what greater boon they could in their present circumstances crave from the gods, if they had their choice, than to fight the decisive battle on such ground, greatly superior as they were to the enemy in cavalry. As they could see this for themselves they all applauded and, he continued:
“In the first place then thank the gods for this; for it is they who working to aid you to victory have led the enemy on to such ground, and next thank myself for compelling them to fight, a thing they can no longer avoid, and to fight here where the advantages are manifestly ours. I do not think it at all my duty to exhort you at further length to be of good heart and eager for the battle, and this is why. Then, when you had no experience of what a battle with the Romans was, this was necessary, and I often addressed you, giving examples, but now that you have beyond dispute beaten the Romans consecutively in three great battles, what words of mine could confirm your courage more than your own deeds? For by these former battles you have gained possession of the country and all its wealth, even as I promised you, and not a word I spoke but has proved true; and the coming battle will be for the cities and their wealth. Your victory will make you at once masters of all Italy, and through this one battle you will be freed from your present toil, you will possess yourselves of all the vast wealth of Rome, and will be lords and masters of all men and all things. Therefore no more words are wanted, but deeds; for if it be the will of the gods I am confident that I shall fulfil my promises forthwith“.
After he had spoken further to this effect, the army applauded him heartily, whereupon he thanked them and acknowledging their spirit dismissed them, and immediately pitched his camp, placing his entrenchments by the same bank of the river with the larger camp of the enemy.
Next day he ordered all his troops to look to their persons and their accoutrements, and on the day following he drew up his army along the river with the evident intention of giving battle as soon as possible. Aemilius was not pleased with the ground, and seeing that the Carthaginians would soon have to shift their camp in order to obtain supplies, kept quiet, after securing his two camps by covering forces. Hannibal, after waiting for some time without anyone coming out to meet him, withdrew again the rest of his army into their intrenchments, but sent out the Numidians to intercept the water-bearers from the lesser Roman camp. When the Numidians came up to the actual palisade of the camp and prevented the men from watering, not only was this a further stimulus to Terentius, but the soldiers displayed great eagerness for battle and ill brooked further delay. For nothing is more trying to men in general than prolonged suspense, but when the issue has once been decided we make a shift to endure patiently all that men regard as the depth of misery.
When the news reached Rome that the armies were encamped opposite each other and that engagements between the outposts occurred every day, there was the utmost excitement and fear in the city, as most people dreaded the result owing to their frequent previous reverses, and foresaw and anticipated in imagination the consequences of total defeat. All the oracles that had ever been delivered to them were in men’s mouths, every temple and every house was full of signs and prodigies, so that vows, sacrifices, supplicatory processions and litanies pervaded the town. For in seasons of danger the Romans are much given to propitiating both gods and men, and there is nothing at such times in rites of the kind that they regard as unbecoming or beneath their dignity.
Next day it was Terentius’ turn to take the command, and just after sunrise he began to move his forces out of both camps. Crossing the river with those from the larger camp he at once put them in order of battle, drawing up those from the other camp next to them in the same line, the whole army facing south. He stationed the Roman cavalry close to the river on the right wing and the foot next to them in the same line, placing the maniples closer together than was formerly the usage and making the depth of each many times exceed its front. The allied horse he drew up on his left wing, and in front of the whole force at some distance he placed his light-armed troops. The whole army, including the allies, numbered about eighty thousand foot and rather more than six thousand horse. Hannibal at the same time sent his slingers and pikemen over the river and stationed them in front, and leading the rest of his forces out of camp he crossed the stream in two places and drew them up opposite the enemy. On his left close to the river he placed his Iberian and Celtic horse facing the Roman cavalry, next these half his heavy-armed Africans, then the Iberian and Celtic infantry, and after them the other half of the Africans, and finally, on his right wing, his Numidian horse. After thus drawing up his whole army in a straight line, he took the central companies of the Iberians and Celts and advanced with them, keeping the rest of them in contact with these companies, but gradually falling off, so as to produce a crescent-shaped formation, the line of the flanking companies growing thinner as it was prolonged, his object being to employ the Africans as a reserve force and to begin the action with the Iberians and Celts.
The Africans were armed in the Roman fashion, Hannibal having equipped them with the choicest of the arms captured in the previous battles. The shields of the Iberians and Celts were very similar, but their swords were entirely different, those of the Iberians thrusting with as deadly effect as they cut, but the Gaulish sword being only able to slash and requiring a long sweep to do so. As they were drawn up in alternate companies, the Gauls naked and the Iberians in short tunics bordered with purple, their national dress, they presented a strange and impressive appearance.
The Carthaginian cavalry numbered about ten thousand, and their infantry, including the Celts, did not much exceed forty thousand. The Roman right wing was under the command of Aemilius, the left under that of Terentius, and the centre under the Consuls of the previous year, Marcus Atilius and Gnaeus Servilius. Hasdrubal commanded the Carthaginian left, Hanno the right, and Hannibal himself with his brother Mago the centre. Since the Roman army, as I said, faced south and the Carthaginians north, they were neither of them inconvenienced by the rising sun.
The advanced guards were the first to come into action, and at first when only the light infantry were engaged neither side had the advantage; but when the Iberian and Celtic horse on the left wing came into collision with the Roman cavalry, the struggle that ensued was truly barbaric; for there were none of the normal wheeling evolutions, but having once met they dismounted and fought man to man. The Carthaginians finally got the upper hand, killed most of the enemy in the mellay, all the Romans fighting with desperate bravery, and began to drive the rest along the river, cutting them down mercilessly, and it was now that the heavy infantry on each side took the place of the light-armed troops and met. For a time the Iberians and Celts kept their ranks and struggled bravely with the Romans, but soon, borne down by the weight of the legions, they gave way and fell back, breaking up the crescent. The Roman maniples, pursuing them furiously, easily penetrated the enemy’s front, since the Celts were deployed in a thin line while they themselves had crowded up from the wings to the centre where the fighting was going on. For the centres and wings did not come into action simultaneously, but the centres first, as the Celts were drawn up in a crescent and a long way in advance of their wings, the convex face of the crescent being turned towards the enemy. The Romans, however, following up the Celts and pressing on to the centre and that part of the enemy’s line which was giving way, progressed so far that they now had the heavy-armed Africans on both of their flanks. Hereupon the Africans on the right wing facing to the left and then beginning from the right charged upon the enemy’s flank, while those on the left faced to the right and dressing by the left, did the same, the situation itself indicating to them how to act. The consequence was that, as Hannibal had designed, the Romans, straying too far in pursuit of the Celts, were caught between the two divisions of the enemy, and they now no longer kept their compact formation but turned singly or in companies to deal with the enemy who was falling on their flanks.
Aemilius, though he had been on the right wing from the outset and had taken part in the cavalry action, was still safe and sound; but wishing to act up to what he had said in his address to the troops, and to be present himself at the fighting, and seeing that the decision of the battle lay mainly with the legions, he rode along to the centre of the whole line, where he not only threw himself personally into the combat and exchanged blows with the enemy but kept cheering on and exhorting his men. Hannibal, who had been in this part of the field since the commencement of the battle, did likewise.
The Numidians meanwhile on the right wing, attacking the cavalry opposite them on the Roman left, neither gained any great advantage nor suffered any serious loss owing to their peculiar mode of fighting, but they kept the enemy’s cavalry out of action by drawing them off and attacking them from all sides at once. Hasdrubal, having by this time cut up very nearly all the enemy’s cavalry by the river, came up from the left to help the Numidians, and now the Roman allied horse, seeing that they were going to be charged by him, broke and fled. Hasdrubal at this juncture appears to have acted with great skill and prudence; for in view of the fact that the Numidians were very numerous and most efficient and formidable when in pursuit of a flying foe he left them to deal with the Roman cavalry and led his squadrons on to where the infantry were engaged with the object of supporting the Africans. Attacking the Roman legions in the rear and delivering repeated charges at various points all at once, he raised the spirits of the Africans and cowed and dismayed the Romans. It was here that Lucius Aemilius fell in the thick of the fight after receiving several dreadful wounds, and of him we may say that if there ever was a man who did his duty by his country both all through his life and in these last times, it was he. The Romans as long as they could turn and present a front on every side to the enemy, held out, but as the outer ranks continued to fall, and the rest were gradually huddled in and surrounded, they finally all were killed where they stood, among them Marcus and Gnaeus, the Consuls of the preceding year, who had borne themselves in the battle like brave men worthy of Rome. While this murderous combat was going on, the Numidians following up the flying cavalry killed most of them and unseated others. A few escaped to Venusia, among them being the Consul Gaius Terentius, who disgraced himself by his flight and in his tenure of office had been most unprofitable to his country.
Such was the outcome of the battle at Cannae between the Romans and Carthaginians.
(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.II, Book III, Loeb Classical Library)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus