Ancient History & Civilisation

Hannibal's Dilemma and the Aftermath of Cannae

Hannibal spent 3 August gathering booty and mopping up the survivors in the Roman camps, who capitulated without putting up much of a struggle, most of them still too stunned by the scale of the disaster. Once this was completed the Carthaginians buried their own dead, and are said also to have given a proper burial to Paullus, although the rest of the Romans were left: where they fell. In the towns round about, dazed remnants of the Roman army began to gather. Varro had only seventy horsemen still with him when he took refuge in Venusia. A much larger group numbering thousands had fled to Canusium, where four tribunes, including the 19-year-old Publius Scipio and the son of Fabius Maximus, took charge. Scipio is supposed to have drawn his sword and threatened to kill some young aristocrats who were speaking of fleeing abroad, forcing them to take an oath pledging never to abandon the State. Eventually nearly 10,000 men mustered in the small town and Varro arrived to resume command. The question was, what would Hannibal do now?24

Livy was in no doubt about what he should have done. He describes Hannibal's officers clustering around him and congratulating him on his victory, telling him that

' ... since he had concluded so great a war, he should allow himself and his weary soldiers to rest for the remainder of the day and the following night. Maharbal, the cavalry leader, reckoned that they ought not to delay. 'No,' he said, 'so that you will appreciate what this battle has achieved, in five days' time you will feast as a victor on the Capitol! Follow on! I shall go ahead with the cavalry, so that they will only hear of our approach after we have arrived.' This idea was too great and joyful for Hannibal to grasp immediately. And so he praised Maharbal's attitude; yet he needed time to consider his counsel. Then Maharbal said, 'Truly the gods do not give everything to the same man: you know how to win a victory, Hannibal, but you do not know how to use one.' This day's delay is widely believed to have saved the City and the empire.25

The scene is probably imaginary, and Polybius does not even mention Maharbal in his account of the battle, although it is possible that he was the unnamed commander of the Numidians. Whether or not Hannibal should have led his army on Rome immediately after Cannae became a commonplace of Roman oratory, and generations of schoolboys learned rhetoric by composing speeches on this theme. It is unfortunate that Polybius' continuous narrative ends with Cannae, and none of the surviving fragments from his later books deal with Hannibal's movements and intentions in the immediate aftermath of the battle. Modern commentators have continued to debate the matter and some, notably Field Marshal Montgomery, agreed with Maharbal's verdict. However, most now take the opposite view and argue that an advance on Rome was both impracticable and unlikely to succeed. In the first place Cannae is nearly 250 miles from Rome and it is questionable whether even a small body of cavalry could have covered this distance in five days. It is also argued that Rome was not entirely defenceless and an apparently impressive array of forces in or near the city have been listed, utterly insufficient to fight an open battle, but strong enough to defend fortifications. This, it is argued, would have made it extremely difficult for Hannibal to take the city by direct assault, and he could not afford a long siege, when it would be difficult to feed his army and he would have had to fight off relief attempts by Rome's still numerous armies. In addition to this the belief that Hannibal's strategy was to break Rome's power by causing her allies to defect suggests that it was wiser for the Punic army to stay in the south of Italy, where many communities were disaffected and would soon join him.26

It is probably correct that Hannibal would have been unable to capture Rome if its defenders had put up any sort of resistance. The crucial but unanswerable question is whether the Romans would indeed have fought, or felt forced to sue for peace with the invader who had arrived outside their walls in the wake of his massive triumph. Any other contemporary state would certainly have done so, as Carthage did with Regulus in 255 and would do again with Scipio in 204 and 202. Hannibal now posed a greater threat to the Roman Republic than any other foreign power would ever do throughout its entire history. That on other occasions the Romans endured great defeats without ever losing their belief in ultimate victory does not prove that they would have done so in 216. Nor does their solid defence against Hannibal's actual appearance outside the city in 211, since Rome's fortunes had been greatly revived by this time. Certainly, if any state could have coped with such pressure, then it was Rome, but it is impossible to know that they would have done so.

Hannibal did not attempt to march on the city in 216. Instead his army remained for some time near Cannae, resting and recovering from the exertions and their own heavy losses. Hannibal himself had been very active during the battle and was almost certainly physically and mentally exhausted in the days afterwards. His main concern was to organize the ransoming of the 8,000 or so Roman citizens taken prisoner. A price was agreed and ten representatives chosen from amongst the captives to go to Rome and arrange matters with the Senate. The delegation took oaths to return to the Punic camp regardless of the outcome. With them went one of Hannibal's officers, a certain Carthalo.27

Exchanges of prisoners had been occurring since the beginning of the war and this regular communication between the opposing armies is too often forgotten. Quickly they had revived the conventions of the First War, when the side which had more prisoners to return was paid per head for them and when more than one Roman consul seems to have undergone a period of captivity. Lucius Cincius Alimentus seems to have been captured in the early stages and ransomed, going on to hold the praetorship in 210. According to Livy he cited conversations with Hannibal as the source for some of his statements in his subsequent history of the war. When discontent was at its highest with Fabius Maximus' cautious strategy in 217, his opponents in the Senate denied him money to pay for the ransom of prisoners after he had agreed the details of the exchange with Hannibal. The dictator sent his son back to Rome to sell one of his rural estates, and used this money to redeem the captives. This incident seems to imply that ransoms were normally provided by the State, but it is possible that the old obligation for a man's clients to aid his family in providing the necessary money was still sometimes employed.28

In August 216 the situation was different. The Romans had few, if any, Punic prisoners to exchange, whilst Hannibal had thousands of captives, many of high rank. An important feature of all peace treaties ending conflicts between the great states and kingdoms of the third century BC dealt with the terms by which each side's prisoners would be returned. The amount paid to redeem captives was as much a gauge of victory and defeat as the forfeiture of territory or the payment of an indemnity. The addition of Carthalo to the delegation of prisoners suggests that Hannibal expected to begin peace negotiations with the Roman Senate, for by the standards of the day he had very clearly won the war. In the last two years he had incited rebellion on Rome's northern frontier, and won three major bat-ties. He was free to roam at will through the territory of the city and her allies, laying them waste and destroying whatever forces had been sent against him, including now the largest army Rome had ever fielded. In the two years of war, the Romans and their allies had suffered at least 100,000 casualties, over 10 per cent of the population eligible for military service. Casualties amongst Rome's political elite had been especially severe. In the first two years of this war at least one third of the Roman Senate had been killed in battle, and many of those left had lost family members. The catastrophes at sea in the First Punic War had never in this way struck at the heart of Rome's elite. Hannibal repeatedly stressed that he was not fighting to destroy Rome, but for 'honour and power', desiring to remove the limitations imposed on Carthage after the First War and reassert her dominance in the western Mediterranean. He had by this time proved his military superiority and made it clear that if the Romans refused to accept defeat and seek terms, he could continue to inflict real damage on their population and their property. The Romans were beaten and ought to have the sense to realize it.29

The Senate refused even to see Carthalo and sent messengers ordering him not to enter the city. Both the Punic emissary and his master were shocked by this outright rejection. Similarly Pyrrhus had been equally surprised when after defeating the Romans in battle he had naturally attempted to begin negotiations to conclude a peace, only to have the Senate declare that they would never treat with an enemy still on Roman or allied soil. In 216 the Romans reinforced this refusal to concede defeat by a public demonstration of their continued determination. A vote was narrowly carried in the Senate that the State would not pay the ransoms for the prisoners taken at Cannae, nor would it permit private citizens to redeem family or friends. Tradition held that some of the ten delegates from the captives tried to remain in Rome, having attempted to circumvent their oath by returning to the Punic camp on some pretext before resuming their journey, but that the Senate had them sent back to Hannibal. In an alternative version of the story they were allowed to remain, but publicly humiliated and ostracized by the rest of the population. Hannibal had some of the 8,000 captives executed and sold the rest into slavery. Soon afterwards the survivors of Cannae were formed into two legions which were sent to Sicily and not allowed discharge or to return to Italy until the end of the war. Some were in fact still serving twenty years later.30

The determination of the Roman people under the leadership of the Senate to continue the war in spite of the catastrophe at Cannae was a source of immense pride to later generations of Romans. The Roman aristocracy justified its right to rule by the obligation of its members to lead in war. In the first two years of the war they had paid the price of this duty, suffering disproportionately high losses. Thus Livy's dramatic portrayal of a city stunned by the scale of the disaster probably is not far from the reality. As after Trasimene, news of another disaster soon arrived to add to the despair. Postumius, the praetor sent to Cisalpine Gaul to restrain the Gallic tribes whose aggressive raiding had gone unchecked since Hannibal's arrival, had been ambushed and the bulk of his two legions and allies massacred. The praetor had been beheaded, his skull cleaned and gilded to be used as a vessel in tribal rituals. Yet still the Romans refused to compromise and come to terms with Hannibal. That a few men panicked and despaired should not surprise us; what is truly remarkable is that the majority remained so determined to fight on. Roman victory was still over a decade away and there were other disasters still to come before this was achieved, but with hindsight this was the most serious crisis the Romans faced during the war and the nearest they came to defeat. Whether or not the immediate advance of Hannibal's army on the city after Cannae would have been just enough to tip the balance and shatter Rome's will to resist must remain one of the great unanswered questions of history.31

Rome's refusal to negotiate can only have surprised and perhaps discouraged Hannibal, but on balance his situation in late August 216 seemed very good. His army had fully established itself in Italy and displayed its superiority over the best that Rome had sent against it. Soon most of southern Italy would defect to him, and the Gallic tribes of the Po valley remained in open revolt. There was no reason to think that continued pressure on Rome would not eventually force her to acknowledge defeat.

Within a short time the Romans started to recover from the shock and take practical measures to rebuild their strength. A levy was carried out to form new legions, enrolling many 17-year-olds and even younger soldiers. It may have been around this time that the minimum property qualification for military service was lowered to include poorer citizens. Soon there were at least four legions at Rome, although Livy suggests that these were slightly under strength in cavalry, an indication of the severe losses suffered by the equestrian order. An appeal was made to the slave households of citizens, promising freedom and the franchise on discharge for those willing to fight Hannibal; in response 8,000 volunteers (volones) came forward and made up two legions, their owners receiving compensation from the State. Another 6,000 men were provided from criminals awaiting punishment and debtors, all of whom were promised amnesty if they were willing to fight. Equipment was in short supply, so the Romans went to the temples of the city and stripped them of the many trophies of foreign armour and weapons from past triumphs, giving the newly raised troops a motiey appearance. The released criminals were issued with Gallic weapons and armour captured by Flaminius in 223.32

When Varro was recalled to the city he received a rapturous reception, Senate and People praising him for 'not having despaired of the Republic'. Whether or not he caused the defeat at Cannae and whatever the circumstances of his flight during the battle, in its aftermath he had behaved as a Roman commander should, regrouping his soldiers to renew the struggle, and refusing to admit defeat or negotiate with the enemy. Varro assisted in the organization of Rome's renewed war effort, and continued to hold commands for the remainder of the war, although he never again led an army in a major battle. The surviving praetors were also heavily involved in the raising and equipping of the new legions and the contingents of allies to support them, but overall command was once again invested in a military dictator. This was Marcus Junius Pera, who had been consul in 230 and censor in 225, with the able Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus as his Master of Horse. Near the end of the campaigning season of 216, Pera was able to lead a field army of 25,000 men out of the city.33

As after Trasimene, the Romans paid great attention to their religious duties. Mourning was officially limited to thirty days by the Senate, but even so they allowed the annual festival to the goddess Ceres to lapse, since this could only be performed by married women who were not in mourning. Two Vestal Virgins were accused of breaking their vows of chastity and in the tense atmosphere were condemned to the traditional punishment of being buried alive, although one girl managed to commit suicide before the sentence was imposed. One of their lovers was scourged so severely that he died as a result. The Sibylline Books were consulted to discover how this offence to the goddess could be propitiated and as a result the Romans made one of their rare recourses to human sacrifice, burying alive a Greek and Gallic man and woman in the Forum Boarium. Fabius Pictor, the later historian, was sent to the famous oracle of Apollo at Delphi in Greece to seek guidance on how the Romans could best restore the favour of the gods and whether as a People they would survive the recent disasters. Polybius found the Romans' obsessive adherence to obscure religious rites at times of crisis rather odd, and certainly un-Greek, but we should never doubt its importance to the Romans themselves.34

By the end of the campaigning season of 216 the war in Italy had irrevocably changed. Throughout southern Italy many states defected to Hannibal, including parts of Apulia, nearly all of Samnium and Bruttium, and, most disturbing of all, Campania. The Carthaginian army now had bases from which it could draw supplies and was no longer forced to keep moving simply to feed itself. It also had allies to protect from Roman retribution, a pressing need if other communities were to be persuaded to rebel against Rome. Like the land operations in Sicily during the First War, the Italian campaigns now became dominated by fortified towns and strongholds. The Romans strove to protect their remaining outposts in enemy-held territory whilst steadily attacking their rebellious allies, as Hannibal attempted to overcome these last bastions of Roman authority in the south and defend his new allies. Pitched battles were less common in these years, and invariably fought to protect or threaten a city or town, not with the primary object of destroying the enemy's field army. Skirmishes, blockades and sudden raids were the most common activities for both sides. Much of the campaigning took place in the rugged country of central Italy, near the Apennines, terrain which made it exceptionally difficult to force a battle on an unwilling opponent. The Romans' massive resources of manpower came into play in these years more than ever before, as they fielded unprecedentedly large numbers of legions. Yet unlike 216, these were not massed into one great army, but dispersed into several forces, each not much bigger than a conventional consular army, which operated simultaneously in several theatres. The odds were against Hannibal in this type of warfare, despite his continuing ability to outwit and surprise his opponents. Ultimately he could not match the enemy's numbers and one by one the armies formed by his Italian allies were cornered and defeated, although the Romans were never able to inflict more than minor reverses on Hannibal himself and his mercenaries. In 211, in an effort to lure the Romans away from his beleaguered allies in Capua, Hannibal once again surprised the enemy and made a rapid march to Rome, camping outside the walls of the city. In contrast to 216 the city was well defended, with more troops hurrying to its aid. Later tradition claimed that an auction was held to sell the piece of land on which Hannibal's army had actually camped and that the plot went for the normal market price. Hannibal's response was to hold his own auction and sell off the major banks based around the Roman Forum. Having achieved nothing, for the blockade of Capua had not been interrupted, Hannibal was forced to march away as his food was beginning to run short and sizeable Roman forces were approaching. Whatever threat he had posed to Rome itself was at last laid to rest, but the war was far from over.35

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