Ancient History & Civilisation



At no point would Cannae disappear from military history, but its memory, especially its modern memory, has taken on a momentum of its own, accelerating the battle to the level of legend, and glorifying Hannibal as its mastermind. Arguably though this has proceeded in the face of one inevitability—all decisive battles produce losers as well as winners, both victims and victors. Two-edged swords, they cut both ways. Hence, those who proclaim Cannae the most studied and emulated of combat encounters1 might have done better to consider that at least some of this energy may have been devoted to avoiding another Cannae, not repeating it.

This seems at least marginally true of the immediate historical context. Since neither Hannibal nor Carthage had much of a future, the memory of Cannae and its perpetuation fell to the losers. To Polybius (a Greek with Roman sympathies) and Livy, the battle was a disaster blamed more on the fecklessness and inexperience of C. Terentius Varro than on the cleverness of Hannibal. As for the rest of the historians—Plutarch, Caesar, Tacitus, Suetonius, Sallust, and Vegetius—the lack of any analysis or even specific mention of the battle among any of them probably indicates a proclivity to overlook what was by all accounting a miserable episode for Rome. In other words, Cannae, to the degree that it was considered at all by subsequent Romans, was memorialized as a warning, not as an opportunity.

As the Dark Ages settled over what had been the empire in the west, and Roman military thought here flickered out, Byzantium alone remained concerned with a systematic approach to warfare. Not only was the establishment in Constantinople extremely interested in military leverage since their forces were frequently outnumbered, but martial practice was compiled and recorded in a series of texts that directly addressed the problems and opportunities of commanders. Under the circumstances, the exploits of Hannibal, and in particular the battle of Cannae, might logically be expected to have been remembered in a favorable light. But for the most part these tactical manuals (e.g., Praecepta militaria of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, or the published portions of theTaktika of Nikephoros Ouranos) remain just that, down-to-earth nuts-and-bolts guides to organizing, equipping, and deploying fighting units in the most efficacious fashion. The most interesting of these, however, the Strategikon, attributed to the soldier-emperor Maurice, does come tantalizingly close to recommending a Cannae-like approach … “Do not mass all your troops in front, and even if the enemy is superior in numbers, direct your operations against his rear or his flanks.”2 Yet the battle is not specifically mentioned, and Hannibal is referred to only twice in unrelated anecdotes. Quite probably the author and others in Constantinople had access to the relevant sources and were aware of Cannae, but the battle does not seem to have been a preoccupation.

It’s not surprising, given the individualized and spontaneous nature of medieval combat, that Cannae appears to play little if any role in shaping European warfare during this period. Neither Hannibal nor the battle are mentioned in the age’s primary military epics—Beowulf, La Chanson de Roland, the Icelandic Sagas, or El Cid—although the subject of the latter epic, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, did reportedly order that Greek and Roman books on military themes be read to his troops before battle for entertainment and inspiration. Another possible acknowledgment of Hannibal and Cannae involved the Battle of Granson in 1476, when Charles the Rash, of Burgundy, tried to withdraw his center in the face of a determined advance by Swiss phalangites, in order to open the Swiss to attacks on both flanks. However, not only did the Burgundians panic and flee, but we have only historian Charles Oman’s word that the appropriately surnamed Charles had the inclination, erudition, and guile to use Cannae as his model.3 Upon reflection, it seems unlikely.

Classical texts rediscovered during the Renaissance do appear to have a martial component, with a number of military theorists having been influenced by ancient sources. Nevertheless, the specific impact of Cannae is hard to pin down. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, makes no reference to either Hannibal or the battle in his Notebooks. Machiavelli does mention Cannae three times4 in his Discourses on Livy, but only in passing, as a defeat that nearly led to Rome’s demise. He blames the defeat on the rashness of Varro, and refers not unapprovingly to the exile of the legiones Cannenses. In The Prince, Machiavelli praises Hannibal for having brought a multiethnic army to a foreign land and avoided desertions,5 but then he castigates Hannibal in The Art of War for “trifling away his time at Capua, after he had routed the Romans at the battle of Cannae.”6 Tactically, Machiavelli’s only relevant observation is that Hannibal was smart to keep the wind and the sun at his back on that fateful day in Apulia.7 If Cannae informed other Renaissance men, it is not readily apparent.


An apparent conversion occurred at the very end of the sixteenth century in the Netherlands when two members of the dominant Nassau family, Count William Lodewijk and his cousin Maurice, prince of Orange, hit upon the principle of volley fire through reference to ancient texts. Specifically, they drew inspiration from the interchangeable formations of the Roman triplex acies, as described in the Tactica of Aelian, as the basis of “countermarching” (troops retreating between ranks after discharging their weapon, and then moving forward upon reloading).8

As the two men painstakingly perfected these maneuvers and taught their troops how to use them, William Lodewijk continued to immerse himself in classical literature, particularly Polybius, and in the process fastened on Cannae. In the spring of 1595, William sent his cousin a brief discourse on the battle, suggesting an order of battle that would cast Dutch troops as triumphant Carthaginians and their enemies the Spaniards as the victimized Romans.9

What appeared plausible in theory took another five years to apply—at the battle of Nieuwpoort—and produced ambiguous results that testify to the complicated nature of the Cannae template. After various vicissitudes the Dutch did achieve a victory of sorts—forcing the Spaniards to retreat with heavy casualties, but leaving themselves in a strategically vulnerable position … hardly a Cannae. In fact, fire-fighting based on volleying and methodical reloading, a model that was destined to dominate European warfare for most of the next two centuries, was not well suited to produce Cannae-like results, since it was based more on attrition than impetuousness, more on cautious deployment than on decisive tactical maneuvering. This left the battle largely overlooked during the military enlightenment, and as late as the writing of Carl von Clausewitz, who does not mention it.10 Even at the outset, reservations appear to have overtaken William Lodewijk, who in 1607 advised Maurice, as he prepared for a new campaign, not to seek a Cannae, but avoid falling prey to one!11


The modern military image of Cannae as what one modern critic12 termed “a Platonic ideal of victory” appears to have originated with the obsession of one man, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the Prussian general staff from 1891 to 1905. Schlieffen’s preoccupation with the battle turned on several factors. One was Germany’s strategic position, caught between two potential adversaries, Russia and France, which made a fast decisive victory over one or the other highly desirable. The second factor was the example provided by his predecessor on the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, who in 1870 at Sedan surrounded the French and captured Emperor Napoléon III through a double envelopment, making a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War nearly inevitable. Finally, all of this was informed by Schlieffen’s reading of ancient history, specifically the first volume of Hans Delbrück’s History of the Art of War, with its extensive description of Cannae. Metaphorically at least, a bulb switched on above Schlieffen’s head, and suddenly Cannae seemed to beam light on everything.

While this revelation could have taken place as early as 1901, it seems more likely that it came as late as 1909, well after the general’s retirement. This is important because until recently it has been assumed that Hannibal’s victory was the inspiration behind the so-called Schlieffen plan, which was supposedly the strategic basis for Germany’s attack through Belgium and into France during the early stages of World War I. Not only has the very existence of the Schlieffen plan as a comprehensive scheme of battle been questioned,13 but it is apparent that the chief of staff’s recommendations for a war against France from 1901 to 1905 were based on a concentration of force against one flank of the enemy, an approach that simply did not fit Cannae’s footprint, despite subsequent efforts to shoe-horn the plan into this context.14

This is not to argue that Schlieffen was not Cannae-obsessed or that he did not come to measure much of recent military history against what he called this “perfect battle of annihilation;” it is simply a question of timing. Schlieffen’s collected works including his Cannae studies were published in 1913, the year of his death. However, they do not appear to have been very influential until after the end of World War I, when they became a touchstone for those who argued that the German Army had lost the first battle of the Marne (and thus the war) because they had failed to keep faith with Schlieffen’s commandments—in the process conflating Cannae and the general’s actual advice.15 This set the tone for a subsequent generation of German military thinkers, a key segment of whom followed Schlieffen “like Thurber’s owl” and dreamed of future Cannaes made all the more plausible by the advent of armored vehicles.16

Schlieffen’s Cannae studies were also influential in military circles outside of Germany during the interwar years. In 1931, for instance, they were translated into English and published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, availing a new cadre of American officers the opportunity to consider the possibilities.

Hence, World War II would feature a cavalcade of Cannae-savvy military luminaries, a number of whom, especially among the Germans, were looking to inflict such a fate on their adversaries. Heinz Guderian conceptualized his tanks as motorized equivalents of Hasdrubal’s cavalry sweeping around the enemy to seal their fate.17 Similarly, in 1941, while in the process of chasing the British army in the direction of Tobruk, Erwin Rommel noted in his diary that “a new Cannae is being prepared.”18

Even in the face of disaster, the Germans stuck to the theme; thus Erhard Raus, commander of the 6th Panzer Division near Stalingrad, less than three months before his army’s surrender, dubbed a successful day’s fighting around an obscure village “the Cannae of Pakhlebin.”19 Seven months later, in July 1943, the German assault on the Kursk salient was intended to achieve a gigantic Cannae—only to result in a disastrous attrition of their attacking armored vehicles on both flanks by the well-prepared defensive-minded Russians. The German Army having been bled white by the dream of Schlieffen’s “perfect battle of annihilation,” Kursk marked the last time the Wehrmacht was able to mount offensive operations on the Eastern Front. Defeat beckoned.

Yet the Germans were not alone in responding to Cannae’s siren song. While the British were more cautious, American commanders were offensive-minded and therefore open to Hannibalic feats of arms. In particular, Dwight Eisenhower had nurtured a lifelong dream of emulating the Carthaginian general’s envelopment of the Romans.20 And for the initial Allied invasion of Germany, Eisenhower envisioned a huge Cannae-like maneuver, employing a double envelopment of the Ruhr.21 George Patton, the most audacious of the major American commanders in Europe, was also a student of military history and very much aware of Hannibal’s feat. Yet his outlook was hardly predictable, and reflects the contingent nature of even so decisive a victory. Writing in 1939, Patton notes: “There is an old saw to the effect that: ‘To have a Cannae you must have a Varro’ … in order to win a great victory you must have a dumb enemy commander. From what we know at the moment, the Poles qualified …”22

World War II ended and was replaced by inconclusive combat in Korea, the standoff of the cold war, and amorphous insurgency in Vietnam; yet the American dream of Cannae lived on, apparently nurtured primarily by forays into ancient military history at U.S. service academies. So it was that after the 1991 Gulf War, victorious General Norman Schwarzkopf was able to proclaim that he had “learned many things from the Battle of Cannae which I applied to Desert Storm.”23 In fact, the general’s famous “left hook in the desert” more resembled the opening German moves in World War I, but no public-relations-conscious war hero was likely to announce that he had prepared another Schlieffen plan, so Cannae it was.

The future remains ambiguous. Given the predominance of anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency, the possibility of maneuver warfare seems, for the moment, distant. Also, given the sophistication of modern intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, the kind of deception necessary to produce truly Hannibalic results may prove very difficult to achieve. But as long as men dream of killing other groups of men in very large numbers, we can rest assured, Cannae will not be forgotten.

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