CANNAE IN HISTORY

Cannae was Hannibal's greatest triumph, but there was nothing inevitable about the course of the battle in spite of the brilliance of his plan. There was no guarantee that Hasdrubal's cavalry would be able to smash through the Roman horse quickly enough, for the confined space between the River Aufidius and the infantry in the centre limited the advantage derived from their numerical superiority. Hasdrubal was required not simply to rout the Roman cavalry, but also then to rally his men, keeping them in good enough order to perform further complex manoeuvres and mount other attacks. Throughout history it has been the exception rather than the rule for cavalry to operate in such a controlled manner, for the very speed and exhilaration of the charge foster disorder. Similarly, Hannibal knew that defeat of the Gallic and Spanish infantry in the centre was inevitable, but required them to hold out for just the right amount of time. If they broke too soon, before the Romans had become wearied and disordered in a prolonged combat, then the enemy foot would break through with such force that it was unlikely the Libyans would have the power to stop them. In the event the very numbers of the Roman infantry, and the deep and closely packed formation they had adopted, worked against them, merging the individual maniples into an unwieldy crowd utterly incapable of reacting to a changing situation. This process took time, and until its later stages the Roman foot continued to create a massive forward momentum, which there was no assurance that either the first Punic line or the Libyan reserves would be able to halt. In the event everything went Hannibal's way, but things might easily have been different.

The Punic Wars, and Hannibal in particular, captured the imagination of many generations. This sixteenth century work, now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, gives a fanciful interpretation of the battle of Zama.

Cannae has long held a peculiar fascination with soldiers and scholars alike. As recently as the Gulf War in 1991, the UN Commander General Schwartzkopf claimed to have drawn inspiration for his brief and devastatingly effective land offensive from Hannibal. During the Second World War Rommel was not the only German officer to desire or claim to have inflicted a ‘Cannae’ on the enemy. Earlier in the century Von Schlieffen, the architect of the plan used for the German invasion of France in 1914, was obsessed with Hannibal's victory, studying the battle time and time again for inspiration as he painstakingly drafted and re-drafted his grand design. The resultant plan bore only a superficial similarity to the Carthaginian’s tactics at Cannae and was conceived on an infinitely grander scale. It also failed.

Other battles where an enemy has been enveloped on both sides, surrounded and suffered terrible casualties are sometimes likened to Cannae, whether their outcome was the product of chance or deliberate design. The battle of the Falaise Gap in August 1944 is one such victory, but, when it is remembered that this was the culmination of months of fighting in Normandy and fought between armies of many hundreds of thousands over a huge frontage, the similarities with the single day's fighting on a narrow plain beside the Aufidius seem to recede. Cannae was a battle very much of its time. It was a formal affair, preceded by days of cautious manoeuvring, as the rival commanders strove to give their own soldiers confidence and as many advantages as they could. Battles were too important to be risked lightly, though both sides expected them to be the decisive element in a campaign. Hannibal excelled in this type of fighting and even here, where the actual battlefield was chosen by his Roman opponent, he was able to turn this to his advantage. He won because he was able to exploit the superiority of his own army and senior subordinates and overcome the numerical advantage of his opponents. His tactics were an ingenious and imaginative response to the local situation, but it was only through his own and his officers' leadership and skill, along with the bravery of his soldiers, that they proved successful.

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