As with so many other aspects of the Second Punic War, there is some doubt over the precise chronology of the Cannae campaign. The battle itself occurred on 2 August, and, as far as we can tell, the months in 216 were broadly in line with the modern calendar. Polybius tells us that Hannibal remained in his winter quarters at Gerunium until the year's crops had ripened sufficiently to be harvested and consumed by his soldiers. In this century that would place his move sometime in early June. If the third century BC and modern calendars were running reasonably closely, and assuming that the climate and hence the agricultural year were also essentially the same then as now, then this would mean that there were around seven to eight weeks of campaigning before the battle. Even a little variation in either of these factors could alter this by several weeks. Polybius tells us little about this period, his account only becoming detailed in the days immediately before the battle. Livy recounts a series of incidents, largely intended to demonstrate Varro’s inexperience and rashness, but these make very little sense and appear to be inventions.16
When Hannibal left Gerunium he headed south into the fertile region of Apulia. He was followed at some distance by the Roman army which had observed the Carthaginians throughout the winter months. This remained under the command of Servilius Geminus and Atilius Regulus, the consul and suffect (replacement) consul for 217. A series of messages went back to Rome, reporting Hannibal's movements and asking for instructions. The two commanders explained that they could not remain too close to the enemy without being forced to fight a battle. The Senate's reply instructed them to wait until the new consuls arrived with their legions. Thus the Carthaginian army was virtually unmolested as it moved along the coastal plain and captured the hilltop town of Cannae, about 100km (60 miles) from Gerunium. Cannae was not the largest settlement in the region, nearby Canusium being significantly larger, and had probably suffered in the campaign of the previous year for it was now abandoned, although it was still being used as a supply dump by the Romans. A rich store of produce from the surrounding area fell into Punic hands, providing Hannibal with a most valuable bounty which reduced his need to move and forage for some time. The town's site also provided a good vantage point overlooking the flat plain to the north, the direction from which the Roman army would come.
We do not know how long it took the Carthaginians to move from Gerunium to Cannae, but once there Hannibal appears to have sat and waited for the Romans, perhaps for several weeks. There was no significant force to prevent him from moving wherever he liked in Southern Italy so the reason for this decision must be connected with his objective for the year's campaign. The Punic invasion of Italy was still precariously placed. Hannibal had won victories and suffered no significant reverse, but had failed to make allies apart from the Gallic tribes of the Po valley, with whom he had long since lost contact. So far all his blandishments to Rome's allies, and his kind treatment and release without ransom of allied soldiers taken prisoner, had not prompted the defection of any community. There was no reason to believe that a repeat of the previous year's foray across the Apennines would produce greater results. His battlefield victories and depredations had not as yet had a serious impact on the Romans, whose spirit was undiminished and resources scarcely dented. It is hard to know just how much, or how little, information was available to ancient generals when they made their plans. In his account of the winter, Livy mentions the arrest and mutilation of an alleged Carthaginian spy in Rome itself, claiming that the man had been there throughout the war. It seems probable that Hannibal had some idea of the large army the Romans had raised for this year, but it is impossible to be certain. If the Romans had decided to confront him in battle, then he could not be seen to avoid this threat, since no community would defect to an invader who lacked confidence in his ultimate victory. Hannibal's main objective was to meet and destroy the main Roman army or armies as he had in the last two years. Cannae, in open country well suited to his superior cavalry and where for the moment his men could live off the captured supplies and grain harvested from the fertile farmland nearby, offered an ideal spot to seek battle. The very willingness of the Punic army to wait there rather than camp in a strong position showed their confidence and acted as a challenge to Roman pride.17
Livy tells us that Paullus and Varro brought their forces to join the field army whilst it was still near Gerunium. On learning of this and of Varro's impulsive temperament, Hannibal attempted to lure the Romans into a trap by very visibly abandoning his camp, but concealing his army in ambush nearby. The whole story makes very little sense and is certainly to be rejected in favour of Polybius' version, which has the new consuls joining the army further south about a week before the battle. In one respect, however, Livy's account is certainly to be preferred, for Polybius claims that both Geminus and Regulus remained as proconsuls with the army and fell in the battle. Since Regulus survived to hold the censorship in 214, it is best to accept Livy's claim that he asked to be relieved because of age and returned to Rome before the battle.18
The new an d old armies united, the two consuls led the combined force south. On the second day of their march they came within sight of Hannibal’s army about 8km (five miles) away. The tread of so many men and animals in the Roman column must have thrown up an immense cloud of dust from the dry Apulian soil which would have made their approach visible from even further away. At some point during the next days, one of Hannibal's staff, a man named Gisgo, is supposed to have commented nervously on the size of the enemy host. Hannibal looked solemn and then quipped that even though there might be a lot of men over there, none were called Gisgo, dispelling the tension in laughter, though some of this may have been sycophantic. The route followed by the Romans is not altogether clear, but it may be that the new consuls had joined Servilius somewhere near Arpi. It is possible that they marched south along the coastal plain of Foggia for most of the way, and certain that the last stretch was across the open ground north of the River Aufidius. Cannae itself lay on a line of hills to the south of the river, but the ground to the north is very flat, with only the gentlest of gradients sloping down to the sea. The area then, as now, was highly cultivated and virtually treeless. Livy tells us that the Roman commanders took great care to reconnoitre the route they were following which suggests that some of the lessons of the last two campaigns had been learnt. Careful patrolling and the openness of the country ensured that any ambush was unlikely to succeed, so that Flaminius’ mistake would not be repeated.19
Yet now that they were close to the enemy, Paullus is said to have been deeply unhappy about the ground and it is at this point in Polybius' narrative that the dispute between the consuls begins as they argued over where to fight the planned battle. Hannibal had more and better cavalry than the Romans, and Paullus believed that it was most unwise to fight him in open country so suited to mounted action. His preference was to move into more broken ground, probably in the hills to the west, and choose terrain where infantry rather than cavalry would be the decisive arm. Roman legions operated best on reasonably open ground, so it is likely that Paullus was most concerned with having some protection for the army's flanks. Varro appears to have disagreed and Polybius put this down to his inexperience, but it should be pointed out that Paullus’ plan was not as simple as it seemed. In the first place the Roman anny was exceptionally large and of very mixed experience, making it slow and clumsy. Such an army would have difficulty in out manoeuvring Hannibal's tightly controlled and cohesive forces and forcing him to fight on unfavourable ground. Feeding the Roman army was also a major problem, especially since the enemy now had possession of their most important supply dump in the area. Paullus’ plan w'ould mean keeping the entire army concentrated for a long time until its commanders had created an opportunity and it is highly questionable whether it would have been possible to supply it effectively.20
Next page:The Romans follow Hannibal to Cannae. They most probably kept to the coastal plain, where the ground would not permit Hannibal to repeat the success of his ambush at Trasimene. As they came closer Hannibal sent out his cavalry and light troops to harass the advance. In spite of this, the Romans pushed on and camped north of the River Aufidius, later sending a detachment across to the other bank. Hannibal then moved his own base to face the main enemy camp.
On the next day it was Varro's turn to command and he led the army nearer to the enemy in spite of his colleague's objections. Hannibal sent out cavalry and light infantry to harass the advancing Roman column. These caused some confusion, but when the Romans formed up some close order infantry, perhaps the extraordinarii - the picked allied troops who normally led the advance - and supported them with velites, the enemy were driven back. Sporadic fighting continued till nightfall, without either side winning a marked advantage or inflicting serious casualties, but the Romans' progress was dramatically slowed by the need to form and maintain a fighting line, and it is unlikely that the column had made more than a few kilometres by the end of the day. Paullus was still supposedly reluctant to fight in this terrain, but on the next morning he assumed command and led a further advance to camp close to the enemy. According to Polybius, the consul felt that he was now too close to disengage the army. Some modern scholars have doubted this claim and gone on to suggest that there was no real division of opinion between the consuls, but that is to misunderstand the difficulty of withdrawing in the face of the enemy. This was always a highly dangerous operation, especially so for a large and unwieldy army like the Roman army in 216, and one faced in open country by superior cavalry. To retreat without a fight from an enemy, especially an outnumbered enemy, was also deeply dispiriting. At present the Romans were enthusiastic and eager to fight, but such spirit could prove very brittle. On balance, Polybius was probably right to say that the Romans were by this time committed and could not really pull away without battle.21
It is possible that Paullus had misgivings, but the decision had already been made for him and he proceeded to make the best of the situation. He camped with the main force, about two thirds of the army, on the north bank. Hannibal still appears to have been positioned on the high ground around Cannae on the other side of the river. The remaining third of the Roman army was sent across to the southern or right bank of the Aufidius about a mile (1.6km) from the main camp, but somewhat further from the enemy. The willingness to send some troops across the river to the same side as the enemy demonstrated the Romans' determination and aggressive intentions. From this position they could more easily protect any foraging parties they sent to this side of the river, whilst threatening any of the enemy who attempted to do likewise. The dispositions of the Romans' camps were in themselves offensive acts, as they attempted to control as much of the surrounding area as possible. In practical terms this might cause the enemy supply problems, but more immediately it was part of the attempt to build up their own soldiers' confidence and diminish that of the enemy.
Apparently on the same day, Hannibal countered the Romans' aggressive moves by giving his men an encouraging speech and, more importantly, advancing to camp on the same side of the river as the Roman main camp. The most likely location for this is the long, flat topped ridge on which the modern town of San Ferdinando di Puglia now lies, for it is higher than the plain, giving it good defensive qualities, and close enough to the river to offer a convenient water supply. This was another statement of confidence, showing his willingness to close with and put pressure on the enemy, and his belief in victory. This careful, almost ritualized manoeuvring was typical of the formal battles of this period, each commander gradually building up the morale of his men giving them as many advantages as possible for the coming battle.22
The next day, 31 July by the modern calendar, the Carthaginian commander ordered his men to rest and prepare themselves for battle. Weapons and armour were cleaned, blades sharpened and as much effort as was practical on campaign taken to 'dress up' for a battle. On 1 August the Carthaginian army marched out and deployed in battle formation on the left bank of the river facing the Roman camp. It was once again Pauilus' day of command and he refused to risk a battle. Covering forces were placed in front of each of the Roman camps, but they did not move far from the ramparts and nothing was done to provoke a battle. Hannibal kept his army deployed for several hours, but was largely content with the moral impression created by the enemy's refusal to fight, knowing that this would encourage his men. As was usual in these situations, he did not press the issue or attack the camps directly. The only move made was to dispatch the Numidian cavalry across the River Aufidius to threaten the smaller Roman camp. The light cavalrymen harassed the parties - probably mainly consisting of servants - out drawing water, panicking them and chasing them back into the camp itself. This was humiliating for the Romans, reminding them of the confidence the enemy had displayed earlier in the day by their offer to fight a battle in the open plain. It also challenged the very reason for the smaller camp's existence, which was supposedly to guard Roman foragers and threaten those of the enemy. Polybius and our other sources tell us that Varro and many of the Romans felt shamed by their failure to counter the Numidian raid. Perceptively, the Greek historian also suggests that the soldiers were chafing at the delay, knowing that a battle was coming and wishing to get it over with.23 Polybius claims that messages were received in Rome announcing that the consuls were facing Hannibal near Cannae and that skirmishes between the outposts were occurring regularly. The city was tense, but given the distance involved, it is unlikely that the news reached Rome much before the battle occurred, for on 2 August Varro decided to fight.24