Winter was nearly over, and spring, the usual time for the new Consuls to begin their duties, was at hand. Fabius therefore resigned his Dictatorship, as the Consuls would be able to carry on the war.
The people had chosen Varro, a man hated by the patricians, to be one of the Consuls. He was the son of a butcher, so it was declared; but be that as it may, his birth had not kept him from holding positions of trust in the state.
His colleague was Æmilius, a member of a noble family, who had, three years earlier, held the post of Consul.
Spring passed, and in summer of the same year, 216 b.c. , Hannibal again marched into Apulia and seized the citadel of Cannæ, where the Romans had stored a large quantity of provisions for the army.
This, Hannibal was well aware, would force the Romans either to retreat or to give battle, for their army now consisted of eight legions, and without food, and a large supply of food, the Consuls would be compelled to take action.
Now Æmilius and Varro commanded the army on alternate days. The patrician Consul, who before leaving Rome had said: "I will rather seek in my conduct to please and obey Fabius than all the world besides," urged Varro not to fight on the plains of Apulia.
Fabius, he knew, would never have risked a battle on the plains, where the cavalry of Hannibal would have every advantage. And his cavalry was without doubt his greatest strength.
But Varro refused to listen to the advice of his colleague. When it was his turn to command, he drew up his army close to the village of Cannæ, and hung his scarlet coat outside his tent. This was a signal that the Consul meant to fight, and Hannibal at once ordered his men to prepare for battle.
As the wind at the time was blowing violently, carrying with it a cloud of dust, the Carthaginians took up their position with their backs to the storm, so that the dust swept harmlessly past them. But it dashed into the faces of the Roman legions, wellnigh blinding them.
In the centre of his army, and a little in advance, Hannibal had placed the soldiers on whom he could least depend. The bravest and most loyal men were in the wings.
This he did because he foresaw that the Romans would first attack the centre, and as the less resolute soldiers fell back, they would press forward. Then, as they continued to push back the Carthaginian centre, Hannibal meant to bid the men on the right and left wings to close in and envelop the enemy.
So when the Romans charged the centre of the Punic army, pushed it well back and were already beginning to think of victory, the wings closed in and charged upon their flanks. Then the centre, seeing how it was supported, took fresh courage, and charged the front of the enemy with sudden determination.
Slowly but surely the Roman infantry was pressed closer and closer together, until they were unable to strike a blow, unable even to move.
Those on the edge were cut down at once, while thousands in the centre were compelled to stand and look on, awaiting their fate.
For a whole day the slaughter never ceased, and when the sun sank there was no longer any Roman army left. Hannibal had cut to pieces wellnigh the whole eight legions, which was the largest army that Rome had ever sent to the field.
Æmilius had been wounded at the beginning of the battle. In spite of this he had tried to remount, to rally his men. But he was too severely injured to be able to sit in his saddle, and he fell again, unnoticed, and was slain.
Minucius, who was on the field, was also killed, as well as eighty senators who had taken part in the battle.
The plebeian Consul, Varro, escaped, with about seventy horsemen, to the town of Venusia, where scattered troops of soldiers gradually rejoined him.
Maharbal, the mast of Hannibal's cavalry, begged to be sent at once to Rome. "If you will let me lead the horses and follow quickly, you shall dine in the Capitol in five days," he said with perfect confidence.
But Hannibal refused to march on Rome, and offered her terms of peace instead.
Then Maharbal turned sadly away, muttering, it is said, these words: "You know how to win a victory, Hannibal, but not how to use it."
The terms offered by Hannibal, Rome in her pride refused, although the loss of her eight legions had left her wellnigh helpless in the hands of her conqueror.
Hannibal seemed indeed not to know how to use his victory. He turned away from Rome, and marched to the wealthy city of Capua, in the south of Italy. The gates were thrown wide to the victorious general, and here he entered and set up his camp.