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marcus silanus

Cannae and the Roman Republic

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The purpose of this topic is to stimulate debate with respect to the Roman defeat at Cannae in the context of her eventual victory over Carthage. Which factors in the character and the demographic of the Roman Republic allowed it to emerge from such a catastrophic defeat to become the eventual victor?

 

Some of the available information is apocryphal and some is fact. No-one doubts the tactical genius and double bluff of Hannibal, but where did he go wrong in not being able to exploit the defeat of the largest Roman army that had ever taken to the field?

 

This topic is wide open to embrace a discussion of tactics, strategy, politics etc. It is also serious because Cannae is one of those turning points in history when what should have happened, but did not, decided the direction of a continent and by extension the culture of millions to the present day.

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Hannibals attempt to take on Rome was in effect a 'bltizkrieg' in ancient times. Such fast attacks have always relied on achieving a knock-out blow, because once the war becomes drawn out, the isolation of your troops becomes a significant disadvantage.

 

This is what happened to Hannibal. Notice that he remains mobile. His army is always on the move. Despite his string of victories he does not indulge in capturing cities. Although the Romans panicked with cires of "Hannibal at the gates", the carthaginian general had little opportunity to lay siege. Had he done so, he would have been trapped in situ, and he knew it. His forces were mercenaries by and large but make no mistake, these were men happy to earn a living from violence and had joined Hannibal for the express purpose of going to war.

 

Even the hardships of the alpine crossing hadn't deterred the majority. The story goes that whilst desperately short of food, one his generals suggested that his men should learn to enjoy human meat, something Hannibal wouldn't entertain. Apocryphal? Possibly, but there's no doubt the Carthaginian army was not having a good time. Unlike the Romans, Hannibals army had no supply line. His men would have to forage for food and water as they went. It was therefore important to remain mobile because to do otherwise would reduce his army to starvation once they had cleaned out the immediate area.

 

So Hannibal attempts three things.

 

1 - Outflank and suprise the Romans. He achieved a success. His march over the Alps was unexpected and although he suffered cobsiderable losses en route, he did suprise Rome who hadn't planned on such a large force attacking from that direction.

 

2 - To whittle down Roman forces for eventual victory. In this he came so tantalisingly close. The Roman defeats such as Trasimene and Cannae caused huge losses to the legions, such that 'green' troops were being hurriedly raised and sent to plug the gaps. Hannibals failure of course was that the Roman recruitment pool was large enough to withstand these losses - but it must be noted they were becoming desperate for soldiers at short notice.

 

3 - To attempt to intimidate the Romans into surrender. The Romans are losing battles, they fear for the worse, and Hannibal is marching across Italy at whim. Sooner or later he would surely turn on Rome itself? Hannibal was gambling that the Roman senate would seek peace terms if he created enough havoc. No doubt there were some senators who would have considered such a choice - historically, they had once before during the sack of Rome in 392BC - but in that case, the gauls had strode into the senate house itself. Rome in Hannibals day was a tougher nut to crack, and he was hoping to achieve a similar result without raising a siege to the city, thus tying down his forces and making them more vulnerable to Roman counterattack. In short, Hannibal failed in this objective.

Edited by caldrail

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Some of the available information is apocryphal and some is fact. No-one doubts the tactical genius and double bluff of Hannibal, but where did he go wrong in not being able to exploit the defeat of the largest Roman army that had ever taken to the field?

 

Against any other enemy Hannibal would surely have been victorious. The battle of Cannae should have been decisive.

 

''Certainly there is no other nation that would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of calamity.''

Livy

 

The mind boggling thing is that the Romans still had the courage to fight on after Cannae.

They had already lost about 40 000 men in the battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene. And then about another 50 000 at Cannae.

The losses are appalling in bare numbers. Set off against the total population of the Roman Republic at the time it's even more amazing.

 

Formosus

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The reason the Roman Republic survived the disaster at Cannae and Hannibals invasion was the nature of the Roman confederacy. The Latin and Oscan peoples of Italy were united with Rome voluntarily, not by compulsion, and the power and resilience of so large a coalition was nearly invincible.

 

Rome was the aknowledged leader of the Italian peoples since the Gallic invasion of the 4th century BC. When the Gauls swept into Italy Rome played the role Athens had played in Greece when the Persians invaded. She stepped up to lead the national defense and payed the price in 390BC. Unlike Athens, however, Rome did not take advantage of her leadership position to exploit and interfere with her allies. Instead Rome led the military coalition and left thier internal affairs alone. She took up the causes of her allies as her own and defended them against Gauls, Carthaginians, Illyrian pirates and Pyrrhus. Certianly there were problems from trime to time, but overall Rome managed the alliance well and even began the inclusion of individuals, and eventually, whole allied states into the citizen body of Rome - something unthinkable to the Athenians.

 

Hannibals intent in invading Italy was to break up what was believed to be an empire of subject states who hated thier overlord and were anxious to throw off her domination. In fact the Roman alliance was nothing of the kind, only Capua and the least civilized peoples of Lucania and Bruttium deserted the alliance. Even the Etruscans and the Samnites, who had struggled longest and hardest against Rome, stayed loyal to the leader of Italy and opposed the foriegner. As long as the majority of the allied states remained loyal, Rome could mobilize nearly unlimited rescources of men and supplies from all Italy and Hannibal could be forced to keep on the move and thus unable to besiege and take cities, and eventually be crowded into a corner of Italy and contained.

 

The Second Punic War illustrates the limits of purely military success and the importance of understanding exploiting the political as well as the military enviornment.

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The purpose of this topic is to stimulate debate with respect to the Roman defeat at Cannae in the context of her eventual victory over Carthage. Which factors in the character and the demographic of the Roman Republic allowed it to emerge from such a catastrophic defeat to become the eventual victor?

 

Some of the available information is apocryphal and some is fact. No-one doubts the tactical genius and double bluff of Hannibal, but where did he go wrong in not being able to exploit the defeat of the largest Roman army that had ever taken to the field?

 

This topic is wide open to embrace a discussion of tactics, strategy, politics etc. It is also serious because Cannae is one of those turning points in history when what should have happened, but did not, decided the direction of a continent and by extension the culture of millions to the present day.

The Carthaginian campaigns in Italy from the Punic War II had many parallels with WWII Operation Barbarossa; an invading army with vastly superior net military performance that is nevertheless utterly contained and neutralized by an immense and painful logistic effort from the invaded power.

An obvious difference is that the Wehrmacht had no major defeat for just six months from the beginning of the invasion, while Hannibal's army had to wait for full seven years until the fall of Capua.

Most of the examples of undefeated armies for comparable lapses that eventually lost their wars (eg, the French in Spain in the early XIX century or the Americans in Vietnam in the middle XX century) were facing mostly irregular forces and controlling most of the disputed territory, including almost all the main urban centers; the Romans preserved a fully functional state that remained in control of most of Italy even after Cannae.

 

The main reasons why Rome was not defeated at Punic War II by Carthage, Macedonia and their allies after so much time were mostly included within such immense logistic effort:

- More than anything else, the vastly superior recruiting potential from Italy in comparison with their enemies, presumably in the order of four or five Romans & allies for each Punic subject.

- The Fabian strategy, basically the Roman version of scorched earth.

- The full development of the Roman position warfare, both defensive and offensive.

- The ferrous and merciless Roman control over the other Italian populations, hardly always "voluntary", as attested by Capua, Syracuse, the Lucanians, and the Bruttians, among others..

- The permanent and uncontested Roman naval supremacy over almost all the Mare Nostrum, effectively connecting the multiple theatres of war for themselves and isolating their opponents at the same time.

- The huge supply support from Sicily and (fundamentally) from the nominally neutral Egypt.

- A rather long line of active Roman allies, notoriously Pergamon, the Aetolian League, Sparta, Massalia, and multiple Celtic, Iberian and African nations.

The odds were clearly favorable to the Roman side at 218 BC, and it's an outstanding tribute to the military abilities of Hannibal and his army that they were able to hold the Romans against the ropes for so long.

 

More than for their possible political consequences, the battle of Cannae is famous as the ideal model for the annihilation battle from a numerically inferior attacker, since its own era through the Reanaissance and Von Schlieffen up to present day; paradoxically, we know very little for sure about it, as is the case for many other ancient battles; even the debate on which side of the Aufidius river did the battle take place is still ongoing (the right bank seems to be mostly favored).

There

Edited by sylla

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The Carthaginian campaigns in Italy from the Punic War II had many parallels with WWII Operation Barbarossa; an invading army with vastly superior net military performance that is nevertheless utterly contained and neutralized by an immense and painful logistic effort from the invaded power.

No similarity whatsoever. Barbarossa was a landgrab, the Punic Wars a struggle for commercial dominance between rival cities. Furthermore, the ugly face of racism was a contributory factor, there were two very different political ideologies at work (though both were, admittedly, dictatorships). The Punic Wars were fought between oligarchic democracies.

 

Most of the examples of undefeated armies for comparable lapses that eventually lost their wars (eg, the French in Spain in the early XIX century or the Americans in Vietnam in the middle XX century) were facing mostly irregular forces and controlling most of the disputed territory, including almost all the main urban centers; the Romans preserved a fully functional state that remained in control of most of Italy even after Cannae.

Because Hannibals campaign was not directed at capturing territory. The whole point was to force the Romans to consider surrender.

 

- The Fabian strategy, basically the Roman version of scorched earth.

Nonsense. The Fabian Strategy was a delaying tactic to buy time. The Russian 'scorched earth' policy did that, but also forced Germany to extend their supply lines to breaking point across terrain rendered useless to them.

 

The odds were clearly favorable to the Roman side at 218 BC, and it's an outstanding tribute to the military abilities of Hannibal and his army that they were able to hold the Romans against the ropes for so long.

Hannibal must have understood at the outset of his campaign that he had a limited time to complete his objective. If you want modern comparisons, the concept was similar to Japan attacking Hawaii. An intended knock-out blow, but disastrous in the long term if the objective wasn't successful. Hannibal attempted to subdue Italy enough to force the Roman senate to seek terms. He didn't need to conquer territory (which he couldn't hold onto), only subject the Romans to a defeat bad enough to convince them that surrender was the best option. The senate had members made of stronger stuff.

 

There's simply no way Cannae 216 BC can be reconstructed as any modern battle, let say like Waterloo 1815; our main sources are irremissibly biased and confused by their own propagandistic agendas:

Cannae is the most studied battle ever. The reconstructions are available in the press, right off the shelf. The alternative explanations are all very well but where's the evidence?

 

Cannae's account is atypical for being described mostly from the Carthaginian standpoint;

Naturally, since Hannibal is depicted as the noble adversary, the leader with initiative, and forms the focus for that sequence of events.

 

The description of the Lybian units armed with captured Roman weapons is particularly problematic, because they have been usually regarded as phalanx-like (ie, lancer) units, which would have then been hardly adequately trained for the use of the Roman gladius.

Roman style weapons were in common use in the mediterranean. As today, military fashion tends to spread.

 

On the Roman side, the main problem would be the deliberate attribution of absolutely all the responsibility for the disaster to Varro, presumably for being both a novus homo and a survivor, as if there were no other three commanders with consular or proconsular powers in the field;

Standard Roman practice was to swap command of an aggregated army between the senior commanders. On the day of Cannae, Varro was the man in charge. Since his lack of operational insight led directly to their defeat, he can hardly be declared innocent of failure.

 

the dispassionate review of the raw facts of the campaign show no manifest disagreement from any commander, a hardly surprising fact as they were presumably following direct Senate's indications.

Hardly. The two generals at Cannae, Paullus and Varro, were representing the Senate and appoinrted to command in the field. The Senate had no direct control over events.

 

In fact, the plurality of command seems like a better explanation for the mostly delayed and uncoordinated Roman response.

Nonsense. Roman maniples were expected to use their initiative, not to rely on HQ. During the battle, the maniples did indeed respond to their situation by wheeling to meet the enemy flanks, and ironically it was this that broke the coherence of the Roman formation and with it any chance of Varro retaining control of his army.

 

Contrary to the prudent Polybius, ancient historians as a whole tended to give the full (or almost full) responsibility for any battle's outcome to the commander on the field.

Of course they did. The commander decided on the course of action the army was to take. His decisions, made before the battle, directly affected it's outcome. It's a mistake to see ancient armies as being directed by generals in much the same way as Napoleon might. Once battle began, the ancient general had little control and may well be involved in the fighting personally, and if needed to rally troops, his viewpoint was very restricted and consequently the actions of individual partitions becomes noteworthy. However, no sensible junior commander is going to upstage his general by claiming his actions won it. That's an accolade a gratified general might accord if he felt the honour was worthy... and politically safe.

 

Knowing better than that, we can reasonably infer that the overall quality of the legionaries and their training was in one of its lowest points ever in 216 BC, after the huge veterans' slaughtering of the previous two years and the exhaustive recruitment; Italian allies overall proportion probably raised to 2/3 from a regular

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The mind boggling thing is that the Romans still had the courage to fight on after Cannae.

They had already lost about 40 000 men in the battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene. And then about another 50 000 at Cannae.

The losses are appalling in bare numbers. Set off against the total population of the Roman Republic at the time it's even more amazing.

 

Formosus

 

That's what made Rome perhaps the greatest civilisation in history: their dogged persistence and their refusal to accept defeat.

 

A number of other factors also contributed to Rome's eventual success and annihilation of Carthage:

 

1. Rome had access to a large pool of men which allowed them to raise troops faster than the Carthaginians could. To put things in perspective Carthage was fighting Rome in the Italian Peninsula and the Iberian Peninsula, Rome was not only fighting Carthage, but also the Seleucid Empire, the Macedonian and the Celts and despite massive losses in Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae they were still able to field well trained legions with great support auxilary units supplied by their allies.

 

2. Roman legions had far superior training in comparison to Carthaginian merceneries. Carthage's successes in my point of view was thanks to their heavy infantry and Massinissa's Numidians forces. When Massinissa allied himself with Scipio Carthage lacked the cavalry support they were used to and this is evident in the Zama. The Roman quickly became accustomed to Hannibal's elephants and I believe he would have still achieved victory without them but what was key to his success was the cavalry.

 

3. Carthage could not supply Hannibal with relief forces. Focus was to strengthen forces in the Iberian Peninsula. The task was further complicated when Carthage lost supremacy of the sea.

 

But the biggest reason why I believe Carthage eventually lost the war was because their generals simply did not receive the kind of support the consuls did during the Punic War. Regardless of what defeat the Romans were dealt with, regardless of fighting on other fronts, the Senate's focus was the greater glory of Rome.

Edited by Anakin

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2. Roman legions had far superior training in comparison to Carthaginian merceneries.

A myth, caused by the introduction of superior and more consistent training from the Marian Reforms onward. The Roman legions of the time weren't as well trained as their image depicts. Furthermore, the work of Vegetius tends to reinforce this image but incorrectly, since he collated all the various training methods used over the centuries and implied this was standard since the beginning. Not so.

 

The Roman legion at the time of Cannae still used the 'consular' style formation of hastatii, principes, and triarii, each composed of increasing age and experience. Nor was the Roman legion at this time a permanent institution. Legions were formed for the annual season or a particular campaign. They were, to all intents and purposes, a militia until 107 BC.

 

PS - Before I forget, I should point out that some of the Carthaginian mercenaries were very good troops, the gauls in particular were well regarded.

Edited by caldrail

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Because Hannibals campaign was not directed at capturing territory. The whole point was to force the Romans to consider surrender.
Actually we simply don Edited by sylla

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2. Roman legions had far superior training in comparison to Carthaginian merceneries.

A myth, caused by the introduction of superior and more consistent training from the Marian Reforms onward. The Roman legions of the time weren't as well trained as their image depicts. Furthermore, the work of Vegetius tends to reinforce this image but incorrectly, since he collated all the various training methods used over the centuries and implied this was standard since the beginning. Not so.

 

The Roman legion at the time of Cannae still used the 'consular' style formation of hastatii, principes, and triarii, each composed of increasing age and experience. Nor was the Roman legion at this time a permanent institution. Legions were formed for the annual season or a particular campaign. They were, to all intents and purposes, a militia until 107 BC.

 

PS - Before I forget, I should point out that some of the Carthaginian mercenaries were very good troops, the gauls in particular were well regarded.

The Gauls in Hannibal's and other Barcid armies were allies, not mercenaries.

 

The actual mercenary nature of most ethnic non-Punic soldiers on the Carthaginian armies of Punic War II is not adequately attested by any source and in all likelihood it was a derogatory chauvinistic denotation from their enemies.

 

In fact, many of such "mercenary" units changed sides virtually overnight as Roman "auxiliary" units, sometimes more than once, eg, the Ilergetes and the western Numidians.

 

Please note that as essentially nothing is known about the training of any unit from the Carthaginian army, they can hardly be compared with the Romans.

Edited by sylla

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Please note that as essentially nothing is known about the training of any unit from the Carthaginian army, they can hardly be compared with the Romans.

 

Mercenaries made-up a large part of the Carthaginian army as well as troops supplied by allies, i.e. Celts, Numidians etc, unless there was a direct threat to the city. Whilst we may not have a clear indication of Carthaginian units we do have an idea of allied and mercenary units and the unit make-up of the various Carthaginian armies in the Punic War which we can use in our discussion.

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Please note that as essentially nothing is known about the training of any unit from the Carthaginian army, they can hardly be compared with the Romans.

 

Mercenaries made-up a large part of the Carthaginian army as well as troops supplied by allies, i.e. Celts, Numidians etc, unless there was a direct threat to the city. Whilst we may not have a clear indication of Carthaginian units we do have an idea of allied and mercenary units and the unit make-up of the various Carthaginian armies in the Punic War which we can use in our discussion.

Again, that is the Romans late description, extremely biased and chauvinistic, as they widely used such statements to embarrass Carthage and support their pretended inherent ethnic superiority.

 

Just check out Polybius' Histories, actually written after Carthage disappeared, when nobody could speak for the Punic side.

 

The actual mercenary nature of most of such units (many of them eventually accepted as auxiliary by the Romans almost automatically) is not well attested by any source.

 

In fact, the military nature and status of the Punic "mercenary" and the Roman auxilia were presumably analogous.

 

And of course, we don

Edited by sylla

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Please note that as essentially nothing is known about the training of any unit from the Carthaginian army, they can hardly be compared with the Romans.

 

Mercenaries made-up a large part of the Carthaginian army as well as troops supplied by allies, i.e. Celts, Numidians etc, unless there was a direct threat to the city. Whilst we may not have a clear indication of Carthaginian units we do have an idea of allied and mercenary units and the unit make-up of the various Carthaginian armies in the Punic War which we can use in our discussion.

Again, that is the Romans late description, extremely biased and chauvinistic, as they widely used such statements to embarrass Carthage and support their pretended inherent ethnic superiority.

 

Just check out Polybius' Histories, actually written after Carthage disappeared, when nobody could speak for the Punic side.

 

The actual mercenary nature of most of such units (many of them eventually accepted as auxiliary by the Romans almost automatically) is not well attested by any source.

 

In fact, the military nature and status of the Punic "mercenary" and the Roman auxilia were presumably analogous.

 

And of course, we don

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Maybe I am misinterpreting what you are saying but are you disagreeing with the fact that a greater portion of the Carthaginian army was made up of allied nations and mercenaries during the Punic War?

The Carthaginian armies from Punic War I & II (but not III) were indeed made up mostly from non-ethnic-Punic / non-citizen Carthaginian subjects; it's their "mercenary" nature what is in dispute here.

 

A mercenary (mistophoroi "men-for-pay" in Greek) is usually defined as a private soldier for hire, auctioning himself for the highest bid, like the Athenian Xenophon and the Greek Ten Thousand in Persia, the Rhodian slingers, the Cretan Archers, or even the Spartan Xanthippus in Carthage itself (Punic War I).

 

There's no evidence that the vast majority of the Lybian, Numidian or Iberian soldiers that fought under Carthaginian command were in such condition; even the famous Balearic slingers seem to have been only attested within Punic units before Zama. Their recruitment and military condition seemed to have been much more like the Roman auxilia.

 

The Insubres, Boii and other Gauls in Trebbia, Thrasymene and Cannae (no less than two thirds of the Carthaginian effectives for the latter battle) were Carthaginian allies fighting under their own commanders (the Insubrian Ducarius was the most famous); they had been fighting against Rome for many years, including the Telamon debacle. They were clearly no mercenaries either.

Edited by sylla

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