The plain beside the River Aufidius must have been a truly ghastly sight after the battle. Over 50,000 men lay dead or dying in an area of little more than a few square kilometres, many of the bodies horribly disfigured from blows with edged weapons. Many wounded survived to the next day, as the stench of blood and corruption grew worse in the sun's warmth. Whilst the Romans and Italians were dispatched by Punic soldiers, the Carthaginians received whatever medical care was offered by their comrades. Many of the Gallic warriors in the army were accompanied by their wives and families and we must imagine these women searching for their husbands amongst the heaps of bodies that night and the next morning. Other figures moved amongst the dead and dying to plunder anything of value. There is a nightmarish quality about many of the descriptions of the aftermath of Cannae, Livy saying that the carnage was 'shocking even to enemies'. He describes the masses of bodies, infantry and cavalry intermingled, the wounded begging for death as an end to their suffering, and other men who had scraped holes in the ground and buried their heads to smother themselves. The Carthaginians are supposed to have found a live Numidian, ‘his nose and ears ripped’ where the Roman who had lain on top of him had bitten at his enemy with his dying breath. Later sources would invent further horrors, claiming that Hannibal bridged the River Aufidius with Roman corpses. The reality of Cannae was probably even more appalling than such horrific inventions, for it remains one of the bloodiest single day’s fighting in history, rivalling the massed slaughter of the British Army on the first day of the Somme offensive in 1916.1
There is very little direct skeletal evidence for the battles of the Ancient World, but the few surviving battlefield graves show a very similar distribution of injuries to bones excavated from the sites of other battles fought predominantly with edged weapons. This skull found at the site of the Battle of Wisby, fought in Sweden in 1361, shows the kind of head injuries those at Cannae could have expected.
Cannae was a stunning blow to the Romans. The greatest army ever fielded by the Republic, which had marched so confidently into battle, had been almost annihilated. The survivors, clustered in the dubious sanctuary offered by the ramparts of the Roman camps, were mostly in shock, and only a few were capable of any effort to escape. The men in the larger camp had played little part in the battle, apart from an abortive attack on Hannibal's camp, and were presumably still in organized units and led by their officers. They are supposed to have sent a message to the other camp, instructing the men there to cross the river and join forces, so that both groups could then move to Canusium in the west. The nervous survivors in the smaller camp expressed little enthusiasm for this plan, but Livy tells us that one tribune, Publius Sempronius Tuditanus, managed to persuade 600 men to break out and cross the ford, brushing aside the few parties of Numidians - probably more interested in looting than fighting - who got in their way. According to another source, a mere sixty-two men followed Tuditanus and another tribune, Cnaeus Octavius. Joined by a part, but not all of the garrison of the larger camp, this force then escaped to Canusium, having to pass Hannibal's camp en route. From a later passage it appears that these numbered around 4,000 infantry and 200 cavalry.2
Polybius claims that Hannibal reduced the Roman camps on the evening of the 2 August and also rounded up several thousand fugitives who had taken shelter in the ruins of Cannae itself. In Livy's version it was not until the next day that Hannibal moved against the Roman encampments and this seems rather more likely, for his army can only have been utterly exhausted at the end of the battle. Roman resistance was feeble and the camps soon surrendered, giving up all their equipment and possessions apart from a single tunic per man, and agreeing to pay a ransom according to status. The terms of the surrender made it very clear that Hannibal’s victory was overwhelming. About 12,800 men were taken into captivity from the two camps and 2,000 in Cannae itself to add to the 4,500 captured on the battlefield. As with the casualties, these were probably a half-and-half mix of Romans and allies, although it is just possible that some of the latter were more willing to surrender, aware that Hannibal had treated allied captives very favourably in the last two years.3
Varro had fled to Venusia in the west, but had only a small number of cavalrymen (seventy according to Polybius; fifty in Livy) with him. The largest group of Roman survivors was the one at Canusium, where they were given shelter by the inhabitants and then benefited from the largesse of a local woman named Busa who distributed food, clean clothing and money. Livy's account makes no more mention of Tuditanus, and, according to him, command devolved on four military tribunes, Quintus Fabius Maximus (the dictator's son and himself subsequently consul in 213), Lucius Bibulus, Publius Cornelius Scipio (son of the consul of 218 BC wounded at Ticinus), and Appius Claudius. Scipio and Claudius, although the youngest of the group - Scipio was still in his teens - assumed command through force of personality and their continued confidence. Panic threatened to break out when it was revealed that a group of young noblemen were planning to flee abroad, believing that the Republic was doomed. They were led by Marcus Caecilius Metellus, a member of a very distinguished family, and Publius Furius Philus, whose father had been consul with Flaminius in 223 BC. Scipio arrested Metellus and his followers and, sword in hand, made them join him in a solemn oath never to abandon the Republic or even permit others to speak of doing so.4
Slowly in the days that followed, more bedraggled fugitives came in to join the parties at Venusia and Cannae. Within a short time Varro had mustered another 4,500 men at Venusia, who were provided for generously by the population of the town. The tribunes at Canusium, hearing a report of the consul's survival and his rallying of this force, sent a messenger to request instructions. Rather than have them join him at Venusia, Varro himself shifted his command to Canusium, moving somewhat nearer the enemy in the process. Livy mentions that around 10,000 men were gathered in the town, but it is not clear whether this was before or after the consul and his forces arrived. Something resembling a field army was being reassembled and in the end two legions were formed from the survivors of Cannae. It was a pitiful remnant of the huge army which had begun the campaign, and far too weak to approach Hannibal.5