Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca led an army into Italy during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), with which he won a series of stunning victories against the Romans. The lopsided losses humiliated Rome and shook her hold on the Italy, as allies abandoned their allegiance and either joined Hannibal, or declared neutrality. The Romans appointed a shrewd general, Quintus Fabius Maximus, dictator for 6 months, and he adopted a delaying strategy against the dangerous Carthaginian that became known as “Fabian”. Realizing that Rome’s manpower resources exceeded Hannibal’s, Fabius turned to attrition, whittling the Carthaginian’s forces with skirmishes and raids on his supply lines, while avoiding pitched battle.
That stabilized the situation, but did not sit well with Fabius’ fellow citizens, who wanted to avenge the earlier defeats as soon as possible. When Fabius’ term expired, the Romans amassed 87,000 men, their largest army to date, and marched off to crush Hannibal. Hannibal, who had been frustrated by Fabius’ attrition tactics, was willing to accommodate the Romans and let them try. At Cannae, on August 2nd, 216 BC, he offered the Romans battle, pitting his army of 40,000 men against the Romans’ 87,000.
Hannibal adopted a tactical deception plan that was carried out to perfection. He placed his less disciplined Gauls in the center, in a formation that bulged out towards the Romans, and on either side of the Gauls, he positioned his disciplined African infantry (see map above). As the Romans advanced, the Gauls would give way, until their formation which had started off bulging outwards, bent and bulged inwards, forming a bowl shape or sack. Hannibal reasoned that the Romans, emboldened by their enemy giving ground and scenting victory, would rush into the sack.
Once inside the sack, the African infantry positioned to the Gauls’ sides would wheel inwards and attack the Roman flanks. By then, the Carthaginian cavalry should have defeated the Roman cavalry. It would then turn around, and attack the enemy infantry’s rear, thus completely encircling the Romans. All went as Hannibal had planned, and in a battle viewed to this day as the gold standard for tactical generalship, the Romans were surrounded and nearly wiped out, with only 10,000 out of the 87,000 strong army escaping, while the rest were either slaughtered or captured.