How Failure at the Battle of Cannae Nearly Destroyed the Roman Republic

By John Trumbull (1756-1843) - Yale University Art Gallery - The Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae, Public Domain,
March 2, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Battle Of CannaeRomeCarthageHannibalSecond Punic War

How Failure at the Battle of Cannae Nearly Destroyed the Roman Republic

A terrible loss.

By 207 bcHannibal’s army in Rome had lost its ability to conduct offensives owing to shortages of men, money, and equipment. His brother, Hasdrubal, arrived from Iberia with badly needed reinforcements. Marcus Livius led a Roman army that blocked Hasdrubal’s march on the banks of the Metaurus River northeast of Rome. Livius’s second in command was the promising General Gaius Claudius Nero. The Iberian infantry drove back the Roman left wing and appeared close to victory when Claudius Nero conducted a stunning flank attack against the Carthaginian right wing. The Carthaginian cavalry fled the field, which allowed Claudius Nero to roll up the Carthaginian infantry without interference from enemy horsemen. Hasdrubal was among the slain.

The Romans achieved the pinnacle of revenge. A new Roman general named Scipio, who had survived the carnage at Cannae, invaded Iberia to deny it to Hannibal as a source of supply. He captured and sacked New Carthage. Scipio also inflicted a serious defeat on the Carthaginians at Ilipa in 206 bc. Two years later, he landed in Africa where he easily trounced the local forces. Fearing the fall of their great city to Scipio, the Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy.

A grand battle unfolded on October 19, 202 bcon the plains of Zama southwest of Carthage. Hannibal sent his 80 war elephants against Scipio’s troops, but the Romans opened ranks to allow the elephants to pass through where a special force at the back of the army was entrusted with slaying them.

Scipio then hurled his cavalry at their Carthaginian counterparts. They did so in grand fashion, routing the Carthaginian horsemen. Although the Carthaginian infantry performed well in their attack against the Roman foot soldiers, Scipio’s cavalry attacked the Carthaginian rear. It was a decisive victory with 20,000 Carthaginian casualties and 26,000 prisoners. The Romans lost only 6,500 men. This marked the end of the war. Scipio imposed harsh terms on the defeated Carthaginians. For his great victory, Scipio received the honorific “Africanus.”

Hannibal went into exile, but the Romans pursued him wherever he went, demanding his extradition. The Romans trapped him in 183 bc. “Let us now put an end to the great anxiety of the Romans, who have thought it too lengthy and too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man,” he said. With those words, the victor of Cannae and scourge of the Roman Republic took poison rather than suffer capture and humiliation at the hands of his foe.

This article originally appeared in 2020 on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia.