TALES FROM THE TRENCHES

02.27.16 5:01 AM ET

The Ancient Battle Generals Still Love To Copy

Cannae for Hannibal was the definition of winning the battle but losing the war. However, his brilliant execution of a double envelopment would obsess tacticians for a millennia.

I went to the most famous battlefield in Western History, and had a surprise. Not a good one.

It is a stomp, well off the path, to get to Cannae.

The main train lines in Italy run up and down the coasts. Going inland, particularly in southeast Italy, is somewhat more episodic. My train had two cars. At the fourth stop, “Battle”, I got off.

This was February, in Italy. Nothing happens in Italy, at least not in February. Particularly in the southeast which is an area not on most tourism routes. At least if you are not a military historian. Life in that section of Italy is slow and still very much timed to the harvest. The harvest in this case being grapes. It is Italy after all.

But this was ridiculous.

I came seeking to understand one of the most important battles in all of Western History, the Battle of Cannae. Fought in 216 BC, this was the Big One. This was the battle that made the “Hannibal” a household name for, what, 2,230+ years or so? An outnumbered invader leading a polyglot army consisting of nearly a dozen “nationalities” (quotes because that concept did not then exist, but roll with it, that is as close as our modern language gets). Smashed the amateur locals so hard that he killed some 50,000 of them. Those “locals”, yea well that was the Romans.

In that century the Romans were still expanding. Italy was, mostly, theirs, though that was not quite concrete yet. They had expanded from their base area into Sicily and what is now southern France (which is where the name of “Provence” comes from, it was the first Roman province). They even moved across southern France to the edges of what is now Spain. That is where they ran into trouble.

It was in Sicily and southern Spain that they ran up against an established power, the Carthaginians.

The Carthaginians were descendants of an ancient sea-going people known as the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians had lived in what would now be called Lebanon, but as merchants will, they expanded, not long after the Pyramids were built. By the time period in question, their descendants held sway across large swathes of the Mediterranean Sea. These descendants, the Carthaginians, were no joke. Theirs was a trade empire, but one that defended itself with some gusto, fighting a nearly constant series of wars against the Greek colony city-state of Syracuse over the course of nearly 200 years. And now the Romans were horning in. That led to some wars. Three in fact, but the biggie in historical memory was the Second Punic War. (The Romans call them “Punics.” Since they won, we use their words, eh?)

So there I was, an American Army Lieutenant Colonel, former professor of military history, a man who had taught the history of this history-changing battle to countless students, getting off the train at the stop for what is probably the most famous battle in all of Western military history… I expected a mega-version of what one finds at, say, Gettysburg or Yorktown. Museums, placards, guides, and hordes of tourists regardless of the time of year. Imagine my surprise on getting off of that commuter train: A two story brick building, closed, and a dirt road. No signage, no arrows, no directions. That was all. Not kidding. To the north was a wide plain of grapes, destined for wine, to the south a slight rising ridge. 

Italy does not do battlefields well.

Cannae is famous for two reasons. First, an outnumbered army kicked the crap out of a numerically superior army. Second, competence matters.

So here is the deal: This Carthaginian general, Hannibal, commanded a coalition of troops. Their supporting state, Carthage, was in North Africa, but the empire stretched across the Mediterranean, which led to the polyglot army. Hannibal’s army had Spaniards, North Africans, “Gauls” (from southern France), elephants, the whole lot. It was a massive hodgepodge, and what made it work was Hannibal himself. Holding this collection of warriors from across the Mediterranean meant the application not just of money, but persona charisma and leadership. The fact that he won every battle certainly added to his aura as well.

Hannibal famously brought his army and his elephants into the Italian peninsula via a pass through the Alps two years earlier. He won two battles after that. Crushing, hard core victories, but the dang Romans just kept coming. That was sort of their problem. For this fight, in 216 BC, they raised yet another.

Some 85,000 Romans and their allies, homogenous in all but name, faced Hannibal at Cannae. He had a mixed force of 50,000 at best, and probably less than that. Yet Hannibal utterly crushed the Romans, killing an estimated 50,000 of them (estimates do vary, in no small part because historians love disputing things, and ancient history can be dodgy in the numbers), including about 80 Roman Senators or those of the Senatorial class. And because this victory was so horrifically successful, it went down in history as the epitome of ‘how to win.’ Then, for better or worse, military leaders for more than 2,200 years tried to figure out how to emulate that victory.

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Hence my surprise at finding a dirt road, no sign, and nothing but grape fields when I got off the train.

I walked out to the paved road a short distance away and, laughing at myself for my assumptions, went towards the grape fields on the wide open plain. Obviously, that must have been where the battle occurred. Still, nada. No tourism site, no hotels, no pubs, nothing but an empty T-Intersection in the middle of a grape vineyards. But I could at least see some road signage.

So here is the scene: about 200 yards down I arrived at that crossroad, and happily, some relevant signage. “Cannae” was, apparently, up the hill behind me. Huh? That could not be right. This battle took place beside the river. But there was no other information, so I walked. Still carrying my military-issue kit bag, I trudged up the hill. I still assumed I would find a museum to explain the battle, find lodging, perhaps a nice bistro. It was about 1,000 yards before I saw anything. A museum, dark and shuttered. I burst out laughing. Seriously?

As I walked past, resigned to at least exploring uphill, lights came on and a head popped out of one of the doors. In rapid Italian (which, being rapid, I did not understand) I was beckoned into the museum by hand signals. It was dedicated to the Roman era village/city up on the bluff above, Cannae, excavated by Mussolini in the 1930s. Nothing about the battle at all. The curator insisted I sign the guest book. I was the first person to visit since early December, two and a half months earlier.

This was the site of Hannibal’s signature victory? One of the most famous battles ever? How could this be?

Bottom line: Italy does not do military history all that well. Actually, they do not do it at all.

Go to any village and you can get a 50-500 page book explaining the history of the local church. That same sacred place may be next to a battlefield that changed or influenced Western, and Human, history…and even the locals will be only vaguely aware of the issue. Not much to be done about that, it is just how Italy rolls. You should know that before you go.

But back to Hannibal.

From the heights, where the ruins of the long-abandoned Roman town of Cannae still look out over the valley to the north, I could at least grapple with the terrain. It was, essentially, flat and plain. A river, which has changed course in the past few thousand years, flowed down the middle.

Hannibal put one of his flanks on that river, which was probably further to the north at that time. By doing that Hannibal could be sure that the Romans, who had so many more men, could not overlap him on that side. In accordance with then-current practice, both sides put cavalry on the outer edges of their main infantry lines. But Hannibal’s cavalry was better.

In the middle of his infantry line he put his most rowdy freewheeling troops, Gauls (umm, yea, the wild-and-crazy troops of that era were French), and on both ends of his infantry line he put his disciplined troops, those he had from Spain and North Africa. Then he moved the Gauls forward with instructions that they were allowed to, and should, pull back under pressure. The instructions to the hard corps troops on the flanks were to stand fast. Hannibal himself was front and center in order to control his risky effort.

So he started with an arched line bent to the West. Sort of U-shaped.

The Romans, that day, were commanded by a moron named Gaius Tarrentius Varro.  We do not need to go into that, though it is a fascinating story.  What is important is what he did. He basically fell right into Hannibal’s battle-plan. He attacked, recklessly. The Carthaginians slowly gave way in the center, just as Hannibal planned, but only in the middle. At the same time Hannibal’s better cavalry beat back the Roman cavalry (always a weak point for the Romans) out on each end of the line. Now there was a straight line, and then, the Romans were inside a reverse of that original “U” as the center continued to pull back but the more disciplined infantry of the Carthaginian flanks stayed put.

Up to that point the Romans thought they were winning.  But the “reverse U” formed by the hard-core troops of Hannibal on the sides and the cavalry coming in from behind was now closing a trap. That is when the Gauls stopped pulling back and held fast.

The “reverse U” became an “O”, and the Romans were screwed. Packed in so tightly that only some could even swing a sword, they became mere meat. This was to become known in military history, theory, and doctrine, as a “double envelopment.” It led military leaders from Napoleon to the Germans of WWI and WWII, including our own boy George Patton, to try over and over again to try to replicate the fight, and hope for the same results.

Tactically it was one of the most lopsided victories of history. Hannibal’s problem was that while he was a great tactician and battlefield commander, he sucked when it came to strategy. Following this crushing victory he was unable to finish the war. Instead the Romans were the ones who finally found a strategist in the form of a Senator named Quintus Fabius Maximus (from whom we get the term “Fabian Strategy”). In the end Hannibal could never again lure the Romans into a large battle on his own terms, though he roamed the Italian peninsula for nearly 17 years. Ultimately he was forced to return to Africa to defend Carthage itself when the Romans did an end-run and attacked there. In that final battle, at a place called Zama, Hannibal finally lost. Which is sort of why you can visit Rome, but not Carthage, now.