Time Capsule #24

Annihilation at Cannae (pt. 3), the denial of death, and planting trees.

Hello friends,

Today we examine the 3rd and greatest major defeat of the Romans by Hannibal during the 2nd Punic War. We have certainly saved the best for last.

Happy Sunday and enjoy.


✏️ Annihilation — The Battle of Cannae (August 216 BC)

After the battles at the River Trebia and Lake Trasimene, the Roman people were desperate to put a stop to the menacing Hannibal. But yet again, the Romans would taste defeat again, this time one of unprecedented scale — at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.

Following the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BC, which we covered last week, the Romans were in a tough position. Having had 2 armies destroyed on two different occasions, a military solution to the situation was desperately needed. That year, the senate appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus as dictator to deal with the threat. However, his tactics of attritional warfare and avoidance of pitched battles (consequently known as the Fabian strategy) did not sit well with the Roman people who wanted a quick victory, and his dictatorial powers were not renewed for the following year. In the consular elections of 216 BC, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus would be elected to joint-command the massive Roman army being readied to face Hannibal. The senate raised a total of 16 legions and expanded the size of each legion. On the day of the battle, the Roman army would field a total of 80,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry (including allies). Hannibal himself would field roughly 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry — almost a 2-1 difference in numerical strength.

In the spring of 216 BC, Hannibal quickly took the initiative. He marched his army to Cannae, the home of a vast supply depot, and placed himself directly in between it and the Roman army. The two consuls (who were accompanied by the proconsuls Gnaeus Servilis Geminus — consul from last year’s battle at Trasimene — and Marcus Atilius Regulus, who replaced the slain Flaminius) swiftly marched to confront him.

Paullus and Varro, according to the [debatable] sources at the time, were two vastly different characters. Paullus is described as a sensible and cautious commander, whilst Varro is portrayed as an overconfident and reckless man from a lesser background. Because of Roman law at the time, unified command under 1 individual was avoided to prevent the rise of dictators, and both consuls had to share command of the army. In fact, control of command was alternated between the two consuls on a daily basis; this would result in difficulties with regard to strategic decision-making and tactical battlefield decisions. Early skirmish victories by the Romans would curry favour for Varro’s zealous approach leading up to the Battle of Cannae.

On 2 August 216 BC, Hannibal positioned his army at Cannae to the east. His left flank was guarded by the River Aufidus, and he deployed his army in a peculiar formation. In his center, he placed his Iberian and Gallic allied infantry in an alternating fashion, under the direct command of himself and his brother Mago. His elite African spearmen were placed on the ends of the line. On the left flank, he placed his Iberian and Gallic cavalry under command of Hasdrubal, and on the right his elite Numidian cavalry under Hanno. His position to the east placed the hot morning summer sun directly in the eyes of the Romans. Behind his infantry were the infamous Balearic slingers.

The Romans themselves took a simple, but slightly different approach to the conventional formation of the times. Given the larger-than-usual number of troops, communication was going to be an issue. The Romans, therefore, placed their large infantry force in 3 deep lines to reduce the communication lines and concentrate their forces in the center — the Romans hoped to break through the Carthaginian front line with sheer force, as they had at the Trebia. On either flank were cavalry ready to confront their Carthaginian counterparts.

As the armies advanced towards one another, the Carthaginian line, whether by accident or by design (again, widely debated), began to form a convex crescent shape, with the center facing towards the Roman line. This would result in the first contact being made by the Iberian and Gallic infantry at the center.

The battle began with a fierce cavalry engagement on the flanks. The Carthaginians, with their superior numbers, got the best of the Roman cavalry and sent them fleeing backwards, particularly on the Carthaginian left. The Numidians, being the skirmishing masters they were, kept the Roman cavalry on the right flank busy until the left flank could swing over to aid in the fighting. Meanwhile, in the center, the Roman infantry line clashed with the Carthaginian center. The sheer weight and numbers of the Roman line began to push back the Iberian and Gallic infantry, turning the initially convex line into a concave pocket which drew the Romans in deeper and deeper. The Roman line was already very deep, resulting in a densely packed formation that made fighting and maneuverability difficult. As the Carthaginian line continue to cave in, Hannibal completed his masterstroke.

Hannibal’s elite African infantry on the edges of the line sprung into action, turning on the enemy and partially enveloping the Roman line. At the same time, the Carthaginian cavalry returned from the engagement on the flanks, having won handily, and smashed into the back of the Roman infantry. This completed the full encirclement of the Roman infantry block, and what ensued was pure chaos. Panic set across the Roman lines, who were unable to break through the center. Hannibal and his army chopped at the Romans from all sides, giving them no way of escape. At day’s end, 70,000 Romans would lay dead, and Hannibal would hand the Romans their greatest military defeat in history.

Never when the city was in safety was there so great a panic and confusion within the walls of Rome. I shall therefore shrink from the task, and not attempt to relate what in describing I must make less than the reality. The consul and his army having been lost at the Trasimenus the year before, it was not one wound upon another which was announced, but a multiplied disaster, the loss of two consular armies, together with the two consuls: and that now there was neither any Roman camp, nor general nor soldiery: that Apulia and Samnium, and now almost the whole of Italy, were in the possession of Hannibal. No other nation surely would not have been overwhelmed by such an accumulation of misfortune.

Livy, on the Roman Senate's reaction to the defeat

If the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene caused panic, this latest defeat at Cannae caused pandemonium. Rome had just had its best armies destroyed, and lost multiple consuls in a single day. National mourning set in for weeks; there were few, if any, Romans who did not know or were not related to a person who had died at Cannae. Human sacrifices were made to the gods in an attempt to curry their favour. The fear and worry were more than palpable.

Within 3 campaign seasons, Hannibal had killed 20% of the adult male Roman population. But the Romans were a stubborn and resilient bunch: when even moderate peace terms were offered, they were refused outright. Instead, the Romans mobilized the entire adult male population, raised new legions, and even enlisted peasants and slaves into the ranks. Rome would learn the harsh lessons doled out by Hannibal, and would eventually get the better of him at Zama, some 14 years later.


📸 Photo of the Week

A big tree takes time to grow.


📖 Book of the Week — The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

This 1973 work by Ernest Becker is an examination of the concept of death from a philosophical and psychological perspective. He proposes that our fear of death is not only terrifying but one of the strongest motivational forces for human existence and civilization. Being the only animal conscious of its own impending death, human beings have the tendency to pursue goals and projects that repress this deep fear in us. We chase grandiose goals and the ‘heroic’ status that comes with great success and accolades in an attempt to immortalize ourselves. Drinking and drugs can also distract us from the finitude of our lives.

But in the end, all is dust and bones. And that is a tough pill to swallow when you really think about it.

The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.

Ernest Becker


💭 Quote of the Week

The one who plants trees knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.

Rabindranath Tagore


🔭 Sunday Best

A Guide to Getting Unstuckhow to get back on track when things fall off the rails.

The Power of Small Teamsa list of great accomplishments by small companies and teams.

Completing Girard, Antidotes to Apocalypsean unfinished manuscript.


💡 Food for Thought

No one is pure evil.


Until next time,

AT