Cannae is more than just a battle. True, the scale of its slaughter - Adrian Goldsworthy is right to call it ‘one of the bloodiest single day’s fighting in history', when the Romans lost more men killed than the British army on the first day of the Somme in 1916 - and the brilliance of Hannibal's generalship makes it a remarkable one. But its resonance spread far beyond classical Italy, and Cannae, the supreme model of the destruction of a superior force by an inferior one, became an ideal striven after by many commanders. Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906, argued that if Germany was to fight a two-front war 'ordinary' victories were no help to her: she had to win a battle of annihilation. He was fascinated by Cannae: a collection of his writings was published under the title Cannae in 1925.
The Schlieffen plan strove to achieve the strategic envelopment of the French, with the armies of the German right wing swinging round to snap in behind their opponents. If the French persisted in attacking into the 'lost provinces' of Alsace and Lorraine (just the numerically superior Roman infantry bit deep into Hannibal's centre at Cannae) they would simply be doing the Germans 'a kindly favour', and make their own ultimate defeat more certain. The battles of encirclement won by the Germans on the Eastern Front in 1941 were 'super-Cannaes' on a shocking scale, and General Norman H. Schwarzkopf’s plan for the 1990-91 Gulf War was based on Hannibal's concept.
However, like so many battles of ancient and medieval history, where sources are generally incomplete and archaeological evidence is often scanty, Celtic warriors depicted on the Gunderstrup cauldron found in Denmark and dating to the first century BC. Each man blows a tall trumpet (carnyx) which was said to produce a particularly harsh noise. The Gauls serving in Hannibal’s army at Cannae probably looked little different to these men and almost certainly used the carnyx.
Cannae is a clash which has generated more than its fair share of speculation. Adrian Goldsworthy has made a major contribution to our understanding in three distinct respects. Firstly, by his description of the contending forces, using original sources reinforced by the best of recent scholarship. For example, he notes Polybius's comments on the use of heavy and light pila (the Roman throwing spear) but observes that archaeological evidence suggests rather more variety. And he warns against fanciful descriptions of how Roman infantry formations might have closed up from the relatively open quincunx pattern (like the five on a die) just before contact, pointing out that 'there is not a shred of evidence from our sources to support them.' The same principle - painstaking analysis of original sources weighed against military logic - also inspires his careful discussion of the battlefield. Its exact location is a source of controversy, and his discussion of possible sites supports Peter Connolly's suggestion that the fighting actually took place just north of the hills around the town of Cannae.
Lastly, in his description of the combat Adrian Goldsworthy follows the methodology of John Keegan's seminal work The Face of Battle, which was applied to combat in classical Greece by Victor D. Hanson in The Western Way of War, in a penetrating description of what really happened when men hewed and stabbed at one another in sweaty' and breathless close combat. His analysis of the Roman centre at Cannae, where an exceptionally large number of men were formed up on a very narrow frontage, emphasises the psychological benefits conferred by such a formation, especially on inexperienced or patchily-trained troops.
The Roman plan was 'simple and unsubtle, but not unreasonable or by any means inevitably doomed to failure.' It emphasised Roman affection for what Polybius termed 'brute force' and, because it would rely on the flanking cavalry holding on long enough for the infantry to win the battle in the centre, it explains the fact that Varro and Paullus, the Roman consuls, positioned themselves with the cavalry on the flanks. Roman generals ‘tended to station themselves wherever they could most influence the battle and thus usually where they anticipated its crisis to occur, hence the consuls' presence with the cavalry at Cannae.' Hannibal's plan, in contrast, was complex, and made heavy demands on his soldiers. Hannibal also positioned himself at what he saw as the decisive point: in his centre, where his Spaniards and Gauls had to hang on to let the cavalry on the wings complete the encirclement of the Roman army.
Adrian Goldsworthy first considers the battle between the opposing skirmishers, suggesting that, as was so often the case, it inflicted relatively few casualties, although the superior quality of Hannibal’s light troops balanced Roman numerical superiority. He then goes on to examine the cavalry battles on the flanks, where Hannibal's men had the better of things, especially on the Roman right, where Hasdrubal quickly beat his opponents and was soon ready to enter the infantry battle. The Roman infantry attack was prepared by an exchange of missiles before the ranks met with an audible clash. There then followed a period with 'the two front ranks separated by a metre or so, prodding and cutting at each other' to produce the characteristic wound- pattern of injuries to the lower leg, the right arm and the left side of the head. Once a man was brought down he would be finished off with a heavy blow to the head. Despite the brave performance of Hannibal's Gallic and Spanish infantry, the weight of numbers proved too much, and as they broke they suffered heavy losses, and the Romans, their ranks now disordered, pressed forward in pursuit.
But as Hannibal's centre at last collapsed, he committed his fresh Libyan infantry against both flanks of the victorious Roman centre, gripping it like a vice while the Carthaginian cavalry swung in against the Roman rear. Most accounts now conclude, simply observing that the encircled Romans were annihilated. But Adrian Goldsworthy dissects this final phase of the battle as well as he has its earlier elements, reminding us of the grinding physical effort involved in hand to hand fighting with edged weapons, and pointing to the sporadic nature the battle, with local lulls and rallies. He points out that the cost of victory was heavy for Hannibal: fixing a determined opponent to allow time for decisive strikes to be mounted against his vulnerable points is often an expensive business.
If victory was expensive, defeat was exorbitant: the Romans lost around 50,000 men killed. Hannibal did not move rapidly on Rome after his victory, for a variety of reasons, like exhaustion, reluctance to embark upon a lengthy siege and, most significantly, the expectation that Rome would behave like most other city-states under such circumstances and sue for peace. She did not, and although the balance of the war was tilted in Hannibal's favour - most of southern Italy defected to him - he was never able to mint strategic victory from his tactical success. Nor were so many of his subsequent imitators. For a victory like Cannae need not prove conclusive provided the loser retains the political and popular resolve to fight on: the dream of Cannae has too often become a nightmare.