How many died at Cannae?
Estimates suggest 20 percent of Roman fighting men between the ages of 18 and 50 died at Cannae. Only 14,000 Roman soldiers escaped, and 10,000 more became captured. The rest died in battle. Hannibal and his Carthaginians lost about 6,000 men.
The Battle of Cannae was a major military engagement between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire during the Second Punic War. It took place in 216 BCE, and it is considered one of the most significant battles in ancient history. The prelude to the Battle of Cannae was marked by several events that led to the confrontation between the two powers.
The Second Punic War began in 218 BCE when the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca invaded Italy with his army, crossing the Alps with war elephants. Hannibal hoped to take the war to the Romans and force them to fight on their home territory. The Roman Republic was a dominant power in the Mediterranean world at the time, but Hannibal was a brilliant military strategist and had several early victories against the Romans.
After winning several battles in Italy, Hannibal’s forces had secured a foothold on the Italian peninsula. In 216 BCE, the Roman Republic decided to take decisive action against Hannibal and sent a massive army to confront him. The Roman army was led by two consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro, who had very different military strategies.
Paullus was an experienced and cautious commander who favored a defensive approach. Varro, on the other hand, was more aggressive and believed that the best way to defeat Hannibal was to engage him in open battle. The two consuls were unable to agree on a strategy, and so they took turns commanding the army.
The Roman army was the largest ever assembled at the time, with over 80,000 soldiers.
Hannibal’s army, by contrast, had only around 50,000 soldiers.
However, Hannibal had an advantage in that many of his soldiers were veterans who had fought together for years, whereas the Roman soldiers were inexperienced and untested.
The two armies met at Cannae, a small town in southeastern Italy. Hannibal had chosen the location carefully, placing his army on a plain with the River Aufidus to his back. This prevented the Romans from attacking from the rear and limited their ability to maneuver.
At the start of the battle, Varro led the Roman army in a massive charge against the Carthaginian lines. Hannibal had anticipated this move and had positioned his best troops, including his Numidian cavalry, on the flanks of his army. As the Roman soldiers charged, the Carthaginian troops on the flanks pulled back, drawing the Romans into a trap.
The Carthaginian troops then closed in on the Roman soldiers, trapping them in a tight circle known as a “pincer movement.”
The Roman army became completely surrounded and unable to escape. The Carthaginian troops then closed in on the trapped Roman soldiers, killing many of them.
With a huge force of 80,000 legionaries – double the size of the Carthaginian infantry – it is difficult to envisage how they could have lost. Despite its size, the Consul Varro had chosen to have a deep line, rather than a long one.
Thus instead of outflanking the Carthaginian army, his line either matched, or was slightly shorter, than theirs. Hannibal’s false retreat of the centre had caused the Roman line to pile into the centre, allowing his smaller force to surround the much larger Roman army.
The Romans never had more than 2,000 men facing the Carthaginian line at any one time, and although the formation was 35 – 50 ranks deep, this counted for nought once the forward momentum war was arrested. Now the numbers worked against the legions, with them pressed together into a crush and unable to draw their swords.
Despite encircling the Roman force, there could be no quick massacre. This was an age without gas, guns and bombs, and so all of the killing of this huge host would have to be done by hand – and at great risk to the Carthaginians.
Some 6,000 Carthaginians would die in achieving the victory, a huge cost to Hannibal’s army that often becomes overlooked in the context of this comprehensive victory. This was not the classic case of breaking an enemy and then cutting them down as they ran – this was encircling and then massacring them.
Once the encirclement was complete, up to 600 Romans would die every minute.
This would be the highest kill-per-minute ratio of any battle until the Battle of the Somme some 2,133 years later. 30,000 gallons of blood would become spilt. Polybius gave the Roman dead at 70,000, with 10,000 captured and 3,000 survivors, with only 370 survivors from the Roman cavalry. Livy gives 45,500 dead infantry and 2,700 dead cavalry, with 3,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry captured, plus 2,000 fugitives at the village of Cannae, 7,000 captured at the smaller legionary camp and 5,800 at the larger.
The Consul Paullus – who had wanted to withhold battle – was among the dead, although he co-Consul Varro escaped. Also among the senior soldiers to perish were two quaestors, 29 of the 48 military tribunes, including the previous year’s Consul Geminus, and 80 Senators.
For many of those trapped in the centre of the giant crush, there was little they could do besides wait to die. With their arms pinned to their sides, their heads made easy targets for Punic javelins. Many fell on their swords, knowing death was their only escape. Many dug holes and buried their heads in the ground.
When the Carthaginian soldiers waded through the battlefield, exhausted survivors and the wounded merely presented their necks to them.
Darkness would be their only escape.
Only 14,000 Romans would escape from the field, including Scipio the Younger who broke out of the encirclement with 500 men and made it to the town of Canusium.
Moreover, a catastrophic loss for Rome – the death of a generation.
Also crippling for the government, so many from ruling positions being killed on the field. It is impossible to imagine what this would have looked like, much less how an ancient society – when populations are far smaller than modern times – could cope with such a loss. This was a plain with the equivalent of a large sports stadium of corpses, the sky dark with crows, the air filled with the buzzing of flies, the air having the metallic taste of blood.
This was more dead in one day than the US lost in the entire Vietnam War.
In conclusion, a devastating defeat for the Romans. It is estimated that around 70,000 Roman soldiers were killed, including both consuls. The Carthaginians suffered only around 6,000 casualties. The Battle of Cannae was a turning point in the Second Punic War, and it marked the peak of Hannibal’s military success. However, Hannibal was ultimately unable to defeat Rome, and the war continued for several more years.
What did the loss mean for the Roman Empire?
The Roman loss at the Battle of Cannae was a significant turning point in the Second Punic War and had far-reaching consequences for the Roman Republic. The battle, which took place in 216 BCE, was one of the most decisive in ancient history, and its repercussions would be felt for years to come.
The most immediate consequence of the Roman loss at Cannae was the loss of tens of thousands of soldiers. Estimates suggest that up to 70,000 Roman soldiers became killed in the battle, including both consuls. This was a significant blow to the Roman army, and it left the Republic vulnerable to further attacks from Hannibal’s forces. The loss of so many soldiers also had a significant impact on the economy and society of the Republic, as many of the soldiers killed were farmers and laborers who formed the backbone of Roman society.
Another consequence of the Roman loss at Cannae was the loss of credibility and prestige for the Roman Republic.
The Romans had long prided themselves on their military prowess. And their ability to defeat any enemy. However, the defeat at Cannae shattered this confidence and left the Republic vulnerable to further attacks from its enemies. The loss also gave Hannibal a significant boost in morale and made it easier for him to recruit new soldiers to his cause.
The defeat at Cannae also had significant political consequences for the Roman Republic. The loss of both consuls in the battle led to a power vacuum in Rome. Which became exploited by various factions and individuals vying for control. This led to a period of political instability in Rome. Lasting for several years. And made it difficult for the Republic to mount an effective response to the Carthaginian threat.
In addition to these immediate consequences, the Roman loss at Cannae also had long-term repercussions for the Republic.
The defeat forced the Romans to rethink their military strategy and tactics. And led to significant changes in the way the Roman army became organized and trained.
The Romans began to focus more on defensive strategies, such as building walls and fortifications, and they also began to train their soldiers more rigorously.
The defeat at Cannae also had a significant impact on the way the Roman Republic viewed itself and its role in the world. The loss shattered the Roman belief in their invincibility and forced them to confront the fact that they were not immune to defeat. This led to a period of soul-searching and introspection in Rome, and it ultimately led to a re-evaluation of the Republic’s values and priorities.
In conclusion, the Roman loss at the Battle of Cannae was a significant event in ancient history and had far-reaching consequences for the Roman Republic. The loss of tens of thousands of soldiers, the loss of credibility and prestige, and the political instability that followed all had significant short-term consequences.
However, the defeat also had long-term repercussions!
As a result, forcing the Romans to rethink their military strategy and tactics!
And furthermore, leading to a re-evaluation of the Republic’s values and priorities.
Despite this defeat, the Romans ultimately prevailed in the Second Punic War. And their empire would go on to become one of the greatest in history.
How many died at Cannae?