2 – Battle of Cannae (216 BC)
The Battle of Cannae was Rome’s biggest ever defeat regarding scale of casualties. Despite happening over 2,000 years ago with primitive weapons by today’s standards, Cannae remains one of the bloodiest battles in history. It was the greatest triumph of Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general, and should have been a decisive blow in the Second Punic War. Instead, Rome learned a valuable lesson and showed tremendous resilience to recover and ultimately defeat its enemies.
Hannibal had started the Second Punic War with an attack on the city of Saguntum in southern Spain. Within a couple of years, the Roman had suffered heavy defeats at Trebia and Lake Trasimene and worse was to follow at Cannae in 216 BC. Hannibal had utterly confused the Romans with his cunning tactics to date, but instead of taking a step back to analyze the enemy, the angry Romans sent yet another army to its slaughter.
At the town of Cannae, two Roman consuls, Caius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus led a force of 50,000-86,000 (depending on the source) against Hannibal’s army which had between 40,000 and 50,000 men. At this stage in history, the Romans still stubbornly believed that superior numbers could overwhelm the enemy and so they lined up in a âtraditional’ formation with light infantry up top masking the heavier infantry with cavalry on the wings. Hannibal tricked the Romans by initially placing his light infantry in the front to conceal his heavier infantry which was set up in a crescent formation.
As the battle commenced, Hannibal’s light infantry suddenly fell back as the Romans came forward. The Romans believed this was a sign of success and marched headlong into the Carthaginian general’s trap. Hannibal’s infantry moved to both sides of the crescent and his cavalry charged at the enemy. As the battle unfolded, the Carthaginians were skillfully maneuvered so that their army surrounded the Romans.
It was a complete massacre as the Romans lost anywhere from 44,000 to 70,000 men. Few, if any, armies have ever suffered a bigger defeat in the history of warfare. Hannibal’s genius was confirmed at Cannae, but he was unable to press home his advantage. Publius Cornelius Scipio (aka, Scipio Africanus), was a survivor of Cannae and he used the knowledge gained during the battle to turn the tables on Hannibal 14 years later.