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Jacob Abbott

The Battle of Cannæ

T HE battle of Cannæ was the last great battle fought by Hannibal in Italy. This conflict has been greatly celebrated in history, not only for its magnitude, and the terrible desperation with which it was fought, but also on account of the strong dramatic interest which the circumstances attending it are fitted to excite. This interest is perhaps, however, quite as much due to the peculiar skill of the ancient historian who narrates the story, as to the events themselves which he records.

It was about a year after the close of the dictatorship of Fabius that this battle was fought. That interval had been spent by the Roman consuls who were in office during that time in various military operations, which did not, however, lead to any decisive results. In the mean time, there were great uneasiness, discontent, and dissatisfaction at Rome. To have such a dangerous and terrible foe, at the head of forty thousand men, infesting the vicinage of their city, ravaging the territories of their friends and allies, and threatening continually to attack the city itself, was a continual source of anxiety and vexation. It mortified the Roman pride, too, to find that the greatest armies they could raise, and the ablest generals they could choose and commission, proved wholly unable to cope with the foe. The most sagacious of them, in fact, had felt it necessary to decline the contest with him altogether.

This state of things produced a great deal of ill humor in the city. Party spirit ran very high; tumultuous assemblies were held; disputes and contentions prevailed, and mutual criminations and recriminations without end. There were two great parties formed: that of the middling classes on one side, and the aristocracy on the other. The former were called the Plebeians, the latter the Patricians. The division between these two classes was very great and very strongly marked. There was, in consequence of it, infinite difficulty in the election of consuls. At last the consuls were chosen, one from each party. The name of the patrician was Paulus Æmilius. The name of the plebeian was Varro. They were inducted into office and were thus put jointly into possession of a vast power, to wield which with any efficiency and success would seem to require union and harmony in those who held it, and yet Æmilius and Varro were inveterate and implacable political foes. It was often so in the Roman government. The consulship was a double-headed monster, which spent half its strength in bitter contests waged between its members.

The Romans determined now to make an effectual effort to rid themselves of their foe. They raised an enormous army. It consisted of eight legions. The Roman legion was an army of itself. It contained ordinarily four thousand foot soldiers, and a troop of three hundred horsemen. It was very unusual to have more than two or three legions in the field at a time. The Romans, however, on this occasion, increased the number of the legions, and also augmented their size, so that they contained, each, five thousand infantry and four hundred cavalry. They were determined to make a great and last effort to defend their city, and save the commonwealth from ruin. Æmilius and Varro prepared to take command of this great force, with very strong determinations to make it the means of Hannibal's destruction.

The characters of the two commanders, however, as well as their political connections, were very dissimilar, and they soon began to manifest a very different spirit, and to assume a very different air and bearing, each from the other. Æmilius was a friend of Fabius, and approved of his policy. Varro was for greater promptness and decision. He made great promises, and spoke with the utmost confidence of being able to annihilate Hannibal at a blow. He condemned the policy of Fabius in attempting to wear out the enemy by delays. He said it was a plan of the aristocratic party to protract the war, in order to put themselves in high offices, and perpetuate their importance and influence. The war might have been ended long ago, he said; and he would promise the people that he would now end it, without fail, the very day that he came in sight of Hannibal.

As for Æmilius, he assumed a very different tone. He was surprised, he said, that any man could pretend to decide before he had even left the city, and while he was, of course entirely ignorant, both of the condition of their own army, and of the position, and designs, and strength of the enemy, how soon and under what circumstances it would be wise to give him battle. Plans must be formed in adaptation to circumstances, as circumstances can not be made to alter to suit plans. He believed that they should succeed in the encounter with Hannibal, but he thought that their only hope of success must be based on the exercise of prudence, caution, and sagacity; he was sure that rashness and folly could only lead in future, as they had always done in the past, to discomfiture and ruin.

It is said that Fabius, the former dictator, conversed with Æmilius before his departure for the army, and gave him such counsel as his age and experience, and his knowledge of the character and operation of Hannibal, suggested to his mind. "If you had a colleague like yourself," said he, "I would not offer you any advice; you would not need it. Or, if you were yourself like your colleague, vain, self-conceited, and presumptuous, then I would be silent; counsel would be thrown away upon you. But as it is, while you have great judgment and sagacity to guide you, you are to be placed in a situation of extreme difficulty and peril. If I am not mistaken, the greatest difficulty you will have to encounter will not be the open enemy you are going to meet upon the field. You will find, I think, that Varro will give you quite as much trouble as Hannibal. He will be presumptuous, reckless, and head strong. He will inspire all the rash and ardent young men in the army with his own enthusiastic folly, and we shall be very fortunate if we do not yet see the terrible and bloody scenes of Lake Thrasymene acted again. I am sure that the true policy for us to adopt is the case which I marked out. That is always the proper course for the invaded to pursue with invaders, where there is the least doubt of the success of a battle. We grow strong while Hannibal grows continually weaker by delay. He can only prosper so long as he can fight battles and perform brilliant exploits. If we deprive him of this power, his strength will be continually wasting away, and the spirit and courage of his men waning. He has now scarce a third part of the army which he had when he crossed the Iberus, and nothing can save this remnant from destruction if we are wise."

Æmilius said, in reply to this, that he went into the contest with very little of encouragement or hope. If Fabius had found it so difficult to withstand the turbulent influences of his master of horse, who was his subordinate officer, and, as such, under his command, how could he  expect to restrain his colleague, who was entitled by his office, to full equality with him. But, notwithstanding the difficulties which he foresaw, he was going to do his duty, and abide by the result; and if the result should be unfavorable, he should seek for death in the conflict, for death by Carthaginian spears was a far lighter evil, in his view, than the displeasure and censures of his countrymen.

The consuls departed from Rome to join the army, Æmilius attended by a moderate number of men of rank and station, and Varro by a much larger train, though it was formed of people of the lower classes of society. The army was organized, and the arrangements of the encampments perfected. One ceremony was that of administering an oath to the soldiers, as was usual in the Roman armies at the commencement of a campaign. They were made to swear that they would not desert the army, that they would never abandon the post at which they were stationed in fear or in flight, nor leave the ranks except for the purpose of taking up or recovering a weapon, striking an enemy, or protecting a friend. These and other arrangements being completed, the army was ready for the field. The consuls made a different arrangement in respect to the division of their power from that adopted by Fabius and Flaminius. It was agreed between them that they would exercise their common authority alternately, each for a day.

In the mean time, Hannibal began to find himself reduced to great difficulty in obtaining provisions for his men. The policy of Fabius had been so far successful as to place him in a very embarrassing situation, and one growing more and more embarrassing every day. He could obtain no food except what he got by plunder, and there was now very little opportunity for that, as the inhabitants of the country had carried off all the grain and deposited it in strongly-fortified towns; and though Hannibal had great confidence in his power to cope with the Roman army in a regular battle on an open field, he had not strength sufficient to reduce citadels or attack fortified camps. His stock of provisions had become, therefore, more and more nearly exhausted, until now he had a supply for only ten days, and he saw no possible mode of increasing it.

His great object was, therefore, to bring on a battle. Varro was ready and willing to give him battle, but Æmilius, or, to call him by his name in full, Paulus Æmilius, which is the appellation by which he is more frequently known, was very desirous to persevere in the Fabian policy till the ten days had expired, after which he knew that Hannibal must be reduced to extreme distress, and might have to surrender at once to save his army from actual famine. In fact, it was said that the troops were on such short allowance as to produce great discontent, and that a large body of Spaniards were preparing to desert and go over together to the Roman camp.

Things were in this state, when, one day, Hannibal sent out a party from his camp to procure food, and Æmilius, who happened to hold the command that day, sent out a strong force to intercept them. He was successful. The Carthaginian detachment was routed. Nearly two thousand men were killed, and the rest fled, by any roads they could find, back to Hannibal's camp. Varro was very eager to follow them there, but Æmilius ordered his men to halt. He was afraid of some trick or treachery on the part of Hannibal, and was disposed to be satisfied with the victory he had already won.

This little success, however, only inflamed Varro's ardor for a battle, and produced a general enthusiasm in the Roman army; and, a day or two afterward, a circumstance occurred which raised this excitement to the highest pitch. Some reconnoiterers, who had been stationed within sight of Hannibal's camp to watch the motions and indications there, sent in word to the consuls that the Carthaginian guards around their encampment had all suddenly disappeared, and that a very extraordinary and unusual silence reigned within. Parties of the Roman soldiers went up gradually and cautiously to the Carthaginian lines, and soon found that the camp was deserted, though the fires were still burning and the tents remained. This intelligence, of course, put the whole Roman army into a fever of excitement and agitation. They crowded around the consuls' pavilions, and clamorously insisted on being led on to take possession of the camp, and to pursue the enemy. "He has fled," they said, "and with such precipitation that he has left the tents standing and his fires still burning. Lead us on in pursuit of him."

Varro was as much excited as the rest. He was eager for action. Æmilius hesitated. He made particular inquiries. He said they ought to proceed with caution. Finally, he called up a certain prudent and sagacious officer, named Statilius, and ordered him to take a small body of horsemen, ride over to the Carthaginian camp, ascertain the facts exactly, and report the result. Statilius did so. When he reached the lines he ordered his troops to halt, and took with him two horsemen on whose courage and strength he could rely, and rode in. The three horsemen rode around the camp and examined every thing with a view of ascertaining whether Hannibal had really abandoned his position and fled, or whether some stratagem was intended.

When he came back he reported to the army that, in his opinion, the desertion of the camp was not real, but a trick to draw the Romans into some difficulty. The fires were the largest on the side toward the Romans, which indicated that they were built to deceive. He saw money, too, and other valuables strewed about upon the ground, which appeared to him much more like a bait set in a trap, than like property abandoned by fugitives as incumbrances to flight. Varro was not convinced; and the army, hearing of the money, were excited to a greater eagerness for plunder. They could hardly be restrained. Just then, however, two slaves that had been taken prisoners by the Carthaginians some time before, came into the Roman camp. They told the consuls that the whole Carthaginian force was hid in ambush very near, waiting for the Romans to enter their encampment, when they were going to surround them and cut them to pieces. In the bustle and movement attendant on this plan, the slaves had escaped. Of course, the Roman army were now satisfied. They returned, chagrined and disappointed, to their own quarters, and Hannibal, still more chagrined and disappointed, returned to his.

He soon found, however, that he could not remain any longer where he was. His provisions were exhausted, and he could obtain no more. The Romans would not come out of their encampment to give him battle on equal terms, and they were too strongly intrenched to be attacked where they were. He determined, therefore, to evacuate that part of the country, and move, by a sudden march, into Apulia.

Apulia was on the eastern side of Italy. The River Aufidus runs through it, having a town named Cannæ near its mouth. The region of the Aufidus was a warm and sunny valley, which was now waving with ripening grain. Being further south than the place where he had been, and more exposed to the influence of the sun, Hannibal thought that the crops would be sooner ripe, and that, at least, he should have a new field to plunder.

He accordingly decided now to leave his camp in earnest, and move into Apulia. He made the same arrangements as before, when his departure was a mere pretense. He left tents pitched and fires burning, but marched his army off the ground by night and secretly, so that the Romans did not perceive his departure; and the next day, when they saw the appearances of silence and solitude about the camp, they suspected another deception, and made no move themselves. At length, however, intelligence came that the long columns of Hannibal's army had been seen already far to the eastward, and moving on as fast as possible, with all their baggage. The Romans, after much debate and uncertainty, resolved to follow. The eagles of the Apennines looked down upon the two great moving masses, creeping slowly along through the forests and valleys, like swarms of insects, one following the other, led on by a strange but strong attraction, drawing them toward each other when at a distance, but kept asunder by a still stronger repulsion when near.

The Roman army came up with that of Hannibal on the River Aufidus, near Cannæ, and the two vast encampments were formed with all the noise and excitement attendant on the movements of two great armies posting themselves on the eve of a battle, in the neighborhood of each other. In the Roman camp, the confusion was greatly aggravated by the angry disputes which immediately arose between the consuls and their respective adherents as to the course to be pursued. Varro insisted on giving the Carthaginians immediate battle. Æmilius refused. Varro said that he must protest against continuing any longer these inexcusable delays, and insist on a battle. He could not consent to be responsible any further for allowing Italy to lie at the mercy of such a scourge. Æmilius replied, that if Varro did precipitate a battle, he himself protested against his rashness, and could not be, in any degree, responsible for the result. The various officers took sides, some with one consul and some with the other, but most with Varro. The dissension filled the camp with excitement, agitation, and ill will.

In the mean time, the inhabitants of the country into which these two vast hordes of ferocious, though restrained and organized combatants, had made such a sudden irruption, were flying as fast as they could from the awful scene which they expected was to ensue. They carried from their villages and cabins what little property could be saved, and took the women and children away to retreats and fastnesses, wherever they imagined they could find temporary concealment or protection. The news of the movement of the two armies spread throughout the country, carried by hundreds of refugees and messengers, and all Italy, looking on with suspense and anxiety, awaited the result.

The armies maneuvered for a day or two, Varro, during his term of command, making arrangements to promote and favor an action, and Æmilius, on the following day, doing every thing in his power to prevent it. In the end, Varro succeeded. The lines were formed and the battle must be begun. Æmilius gave up the contest now, and while he protested earnestly against the course which Varro pursued, he prepared to do all in his power to prevent a defeat, since there was no longer a possibility of avoiding a collision.

The battle began, and the reader must imagine the scene, since no pen can describe it. Fifty thousand men on one side and eighty thousand on the other, at work hard and steadily, for six hours, killing each other by every possible means of destruction—stabs, blows, struggles, outcries, shouts of anger and defiance, and screams of terror and agony, all mingled together, in one general din, which covered the whole country for an extent of many miles, all together constituted a scene of horror of which none but those who have witnessed great battles can form any adequate idea.

It seems as if Hannibal could do nothing without stratagem. In the early part of this conflict he sent a large body of his troops over to the Romans as deserters. They threw down their spears and bucklers, as they reached the Roman lines, in token of surrender. The Romans received them, opened a passage for them through into the rear, and ordered them to remain there. As they were apparently unarmed, they left only a very small guard to keep them in custody. The men had, however, daggers concealed about their dress, and, watching a favorable moment, in the midst of the battle, they sprang to their feet, drew out their weapons, broke away from their guard, and attacked the Romans in the rear at a moment when they were so pressed by the enemy in front that they could scarcely maintain their ground.

It was evident before many hours that the Roman forces were every where yielding. From slowly and reluctantly yielding they soon began to fly. In the flight, the weak and the wounded were trampled under foot by the throng who were pressing on behind them, or were dispatched by wanton blows from enemies as they passed in pursuit of those who were still able to fly. In the midst of this scene, a Roman officer named Lentulus, as he was riding away, saw before him at the road-side another officer wounded, sitting upon a stone, faint and bleeding. He stopped when he reached him, and found that it was the consul Æmilius. He had been wounded in the head with a sling, and his strength was almost gone. Lentulus offered him his horse, and urged him to take it and fly. Æmilius declined the offer. He said it was too late for his life to be saved, and that, besides, he had no wish to save it. "Go on, therefore, yourself," said he, "as fast as you can. Make the best of your way to Rome. Tell the authorities there, from me, that all is lost, and they must do whatever they can themselves for the defense of the city. Make all the speed you can, or Hannibal will be at the gates before you."

Æmilius sent also a message to Fabius, declaring to him that it was not his fault that a battle had been risked with Hannibal. He had done all in his power, he said, to prevent it, and had adhered to the policy which Fabius had recommended to the last. Lentulus having received these messages, and perceiving that the Carthaginians were close upon him in pursuit, rode away, leaving the consul to his fate. The Carthaginians came on, and, on seeing the wounded man, they thrust their spears into his body, one after another, as they passed, until his limbs ceased to quiver. As for the other consul, Varro, he escaped with his life. Attended by about seventy horsemen, he made his way to a fortified town not very remote from the battle-field, where he halted with his horsemen, and determined that he would attempt to rally there the remains of the army.

The Carthaginians, when they found the victory complete, abandoned the pursuit of the enemy, returned to their camp, spent some hours in feasting and rejoicing, and then laid down to sleep. They were, of course, well exhausted by the intense exertions of the day. On the field where the battle had been fought, the wounded lay all night mingled with the dead, filling the air with cries and groans, and writhing in their agony.

Early the next morning the Carthaginians came back to the field to plunder the dead bodies of the Romans. The whole field presented a most shocking spectacle to the view. The bodies of horses and men lay mingled in dreadful confusion, as they had fallen, some dead, others still alive, the men moaning, crying for water, and feebly struggling from time to time to disentangle themselves from the heaps of carcasses under which they were buried. The deadly and inextinguishable hate which the Carthaginians felt for their foes not having been appeased by the slaughter of forty thousand of them, they beat down and stabbed these wretched lingerers wherever they found them, as a sort of morning pastime after the severer labors of the preceding day. This slaughter, however, could hardly be considered a cruelty to the wretched victims of it, for many of them bared their breasts to their assailants, and begged for the blow which was to put an end to their pain. In exploring the field, one Carthaginian soldier was found still alive, but imprisoned by the dead body of his Roman enemy lying upon him. The Carthaginian's face and ears were shockingly mangled. The Roman, having fallen upon him when both were mortally wounded, had continued the combat with his teeth when he could no longer use his weapon, and had died at last, binding down his exhausted enemy with his own dead body.

The Carthaginians secured a vast amount of plunder. The Roman army was full of officers and soldiers from the aristocratic ranks of society, and their arms and their dress were very valuable. The Carthaginians obtained some bushels of gold rings from their fingers, which Hannibal sent to Carthage as a trophy of his victory.