Cannae, Italy (216 BC)
The history of the Roman legions was one of a virtually unbroken string of victories, at least until the 4th century. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, Rome is more famous for the battles that it lost than the battles that it won; and there is no engagement that Rome lost more famous than the Battle of Cannae. One of the definitive battles of the Punic Wars, it was the high water mark of the Carthaginian empire’s efforts to crush the growing threat of Rome on the far side of the Mediterranean Sea. Under the brilliant leadership of their general, Hannibal, the Carthaginians executed what is still described to the present day as the ‘perfect’ battle: a famous double-envelopment which ended in the almost total annihilation of the far larger Roman army.
After the early years of the consolidation of the Italian Peninsula, the greatest threat to Rome came from Carthage. Carthage, one of the ancient world’s preeminent maritime powers, had an empire which sprawled across North Africa, Spain and the islands of the Mediterranean. By the 3rd century BC, the two expanding superpowers became increasingly competitive and virulent towards each other. Open hostilities broke out in 264 BC, and the subsequent century of conflict between the two came to be known as the Punic Wars.
The wars were fought in three stages, the second being the most famous. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginians were led by Hannibal, one of the most famous generals in world history. Under Hannibal, Carthage seized the strategic initiative from militarily superior Rome, and ravaged the Italian Peninsula and other Roman territories from 218 to 213. During his campaign, Hannibal outmaneuvered and defeated his enemies at three great battles, the last and greatest at Cannae.
In 218 BC, the Carthaginians, along with their Celtic allies, invaded Italy from the north. This unexpected move, which involved moving an army through the as yet roadless Alps, took Rome completely by surprise. Hannibal’s army subsequently defeated the Romans at Trebia, and a year later threatened the capital of Rome directly with their victory at Lake Trasimene. In response, the senate raised one of the largest armies to date to deal with the threat.
The Roman army marched out with over eighty thousand men to try and corner the Carthaginian army of fifty thousand, which were then ravaging southern Italy. The two armies met at Cannae on August 2, 216 BC. The Romans made the poor decision to maintain a strong center but weak flanks. Thanks to superior cavalry, the Roman flanks quickly folded, and the rest of the army quickly surrounded in a perfect double envelopment. The result was the complete annihilation of the Roman army. As many as seventy thousand were killed, and the survivors taken prisoner. The victory allowed Hannibal to continue to threaten Italy for more than a decade before being forced to withdraw.
The exact the site of the battle is not known with certainty, but the prevailing evidence suggests that it took place near the ruins of what was once the medieval town of Canne della Battaglia in the Puglia region. The hilltop where the ruins are offers an excellent vantage point of the battle site. Much of the open flatland in the area, including the ruins of the town, are now part of a large archaeological park. Unfortunately, the museum on the site has very little to do with the battle.
The Cannae Battlefield is located about four miles east of the small town of San Ferdinando di Puglia and about 180 miles east of Rome. The battlefield and ruins of Cannae are an open site. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.viaggiareinpuglia.it (official tourism website of Puglia).
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