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Hannibal vs. Rome: Why the Battle of Cannae Is One of the Most Important in History

One of the most pivotal battles in Western history, the Battle of Cannae, was fought 2,232 years ago to the year. The Battle of Cannae occurred on August 2, 216 BCE in southeast Italy between Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal Barca and Roman forces led by Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. Both forces also included various allied soldiers. The battle, which ended in a major Roman defeat, is considered to be of great importance because of its tactical lessons for posterity, as well as the fact that it was the closest the Roman state had come to destruction in its history up to that point.

Of course, the Battle of Cannae did not spell the end of the Roman Republic; it not only survived the disaster, but ended up beating and eventually annexing the Carthaginians. Eventually, the Roman Republic became an empire whose cultural, political and legal legacy to the world is incalculable. But Rome might have never learned the lessons of toughness that made it so great had it not faced the existential crisis brought on by Hannibal’s invasion of Italy.

After the Roman Republic beat Carthage in the First Punic War (264-241 BCE), the Carthaginians looked for ways to strengthen themselves militarily and economically. As a result of the war, the Romans became the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean. One way in which this was achieved was the colonization of Iberia, then a mineral-rich region inhabited by various tribes. This effort was spearheaded by a Carthaginian general, Hamilcar Barca. Eventually, by 218 BCE, Hamilcar’s son Hannibal commanded Carthaginian forces in Iberia while using its resources to build up a significant force. That year, the Second Punic War began when Hannibal attacked the cited of Saguntum in Iberia, which had allied with the Romans despite being in the Carthaginian sphere of influence. Hannibal then took the initiative and invaded the Roman heartland of Italy through the Alps with about 38 thousand infantry, eight thousand cavalry and 37 elephants.

Once in Italy, Hannibal had the upper hand, and many tribes that had been conquered by the Romans either failed to assist the Romans or aided Hannibal. Direct confrontations between Roman and Carthaginian forces led to Roman defeats at Trebia (218) and Lake Trasimene (217), the latter of which is often described as the largest ambush in history. The Romans, by then desperate, appointed a dictator, Fabius Maximus, who adapted a non-confrontational strategy, avoiding open battles and engaging in guerilla warfare. However, as Hannibal marched to southern Italy, where he aimed to persuade many Greek and Italian allies of Rome to switch sides, hotter heads prevailed, and Paullus and Varro were elected Consuls. They raised an army of forty thousand Roman legionaries, forty thousand allied infantry, and 2,500 cavalry to confront Hannibal, who awaited them at Cannae.

From the start, even before the battle began, Hannibal demonstrated the strategic genius for which he is remembered for today. For example, he chose to camp his army in Cannae because it was a food magazine for the Romans, and was located in a region where Rome acquired much of its grain supply. These facts put much pressure on the Roman army. After the Romans arrived, Hannibal sent his cavalry to prevent the Romans from accessing water from the only river in the area, thus provoking a fight on his terms.