By Pat Lowinger
In the winter of 1862, the numerically superior Union Army of the Potomac, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside attacked Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the town of Fredericksburg.
The Union Army having already suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands Confederates was being urged by the President and various politicians in Washington to bring an end to Lee’s Army. Under extreme pressure to engage and defeat the rebels, Burnside pushed for a confrontation against an enemy which possessed several tactical advantages. Not surprisingly the Union forces would suffer a crushing defeat. Burnside, as Gaius Terentius Varro before him, had been overconfident in the numerical superiority of his army. In addition, Burnside was pushed by increasing political pressure to quickly engage and destroy the enemy. Perhaps if Burnside had been a more astute student of Military History, particularly the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, he could of avoided the same costly mistakes made by Varro nearly two millennium earlier.
Prelude to Cannae
The Second Punic War was entering a third and bloody year. Both Rome and Carthage had achieved their share of victories. After the initial outset of hostilities both sides initially adopted aggressive strategies which would bring action(s) in the enemy’s home territories. For the Romans, this resulted in the implementation of a sea-borne expedition under the joint command(s) of Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus and Publius Cornelius Scipio to land and attack the Carthaginian strongholds in Iberia.
Meanwhile a large Carthaginian force under the command of Hannibal Barca moved quickly overland from Iberia through Gaul and into Northern Italy. As each belligerent spearheaded campaigns against the other- these two great armies would pass each other unmolested, obscured to the other by what Carl von Clausewitz would latter dub as the fog of war.
The Roman successes in Iberia are noteworthy. In 218 BC, Calvus was able to coax the Carthaginians, who were under the command of Hanno (Hannibal’s nephew) into a battle at Cissa, inflicting a significant defeat upon Carthage. This allowed for Rome to seize control of all territories east of the Ebro River, giving effective control to Rome of the eastern half of Iberia and cutting off any overland supplies which might have been sent to aid Hannibal’s army. In addition to their victories on land, the Roman navy had been able to inflict significant losses upon the Carthaginian fleet at Libybaeum (218 BC) and Ebro River (217 BC).
Despite whatever setbacks Carthaginian forces in Iberia may have been suffering, Hannibal’s army had made significant progress. In addition, Hannibal had been able to form alliances with several Gallic tribes in Northern Italy. With decisive victories against the Romans at the Battle of the Ticinus River (218 BC) and subsequently at the Battle of Trebbia (218 BC) support among the Gallic tribes continued to grow with many more agreeing to aid Carthage against their mutual enemy. Rome’s defense of Northern Italy had been rather costly for the Romans, who had already lost approximately 30,000 men- while Hannibal had reportedly lost less than 5,000.
Lake Trasimene (June 21, 217 BC)
After bolstering his forces with newly acquired Gallic allies Hannibal moved his army south towards Central Italy. Both Polybius and Livy record the Roman reactions to the defeats in Northern Italy and the clear and present danger presented by Hannibal’s army in Italy.  In Rome, Gaius Flaminius was placed in command of the remnants of the Roman army (Legio III and IV) which had survived Trebbia and two newly raised legions (Legio X and XI) which were sent northward with a force of nearly 30,000 men.
In what could be described as a delaying action, Flaminius initially refused to engage Hannibal in open battle. By imposing the Roman army between Hannibal and Rome, Flaminius hoped to buy the time necessary to receive additional reinforcements. Apparently mindful of his key objective- the defense of Rome. Hannibal in turn, feigned a withdrawal of his army into the area of Lake Trasimene- an area of which he was tactically familiar. Abandoning his defensive posture, Flaminius pursued despite the objections of his subordinate commanders. Flaminius ordered his legions to rapidly march north and then eastward along the northern shore of Lake Trasimene.
What occurred next is arguably the single greatest (and largest) ambush in military history. The Carthaginians and their allies attacked from three sides. On the opening day of the engagement, no less than half the Romans were killed, including Flaminius. Hannibal’s own forces had suffered less than 3,000 dead or mortally wounded. The next day, nearly 6,000 surviving Romans surrendered rather than offering battle.
The Politics of Defeat
When news of the Roman defeat at Lake Trasimene reached Rome what can only be described as a state of general panic overtook the city. As described by Livy, the Roman people demanded news about the battle, their status of their loved ones and appeared to have little hope of seeing them again:
The crowds swelled to the proportions of a mass meeting, and when they turned to the place of assembly and the Senate-house and began to call for the city magistrates, then, and only then, just before sunset, the praetor Marcus Pomponius gave his answer: ‘We have been beaten,’ he said, ‘in a great battle.’ From him, they could get no further or more definite information; but rumor was rife, and by scraps of talk picked up from one another they took home the story at the consul and the great part of the army had been killed; the few survivors were either at large, scattered over Etruria, or prisoners in enemy hands. -Livy
When news of the defeat reached Rome, panic began swept the city. In response, the Senate voted to appoint Quintus Fabius Maximus (Fabius) as dictator. In what has come to be known as the Fabian Strategy, Rome’s military forces adopted a defensive strategy designed to specifically avoid any open engagement against Hannibal. Fabius believed that the newly conscripted army, nor its officer corps could defeat the veteran Carthaginians in battle despite any advantage of numerical superiority. Under the dictator’s direction Rome levied four new legions to be raised and the adoption of a policy of scorched earth to deny the Carthaginians means of supporting themselves in the field. In response, Hannibal was able to move his army throughout Italy, but was closely shadowed by Roman scouts who relayed information to the main Roman Army which followed at a safe distance. While effective, many powerful members of the Senate objected to what was quickly becoming termed as Fabian’s defeatist attitude and demanded decisive action be taken against Hannibal. In December of 217 BC, when Fabius’ prescribed term as dictator came to an end it was not renewed by the Senate, instead control of the army reverted to Rome’s two consuls; Marcus Atilius Regulus and the newly elected Gaius Terrentius Varro.
Cannae (August 2, 216 BC)
In the fourteen months that followed their defeat at Lake Trasimene Rome undertook the rebuilding of her legions. “In a step which the Romans had never taken before the Senate moved to put eight legions in the field for the specific task of doing battle with Hannibal and crushing the Carthaginian army by overwhelming force.” By way of logistics, the total manpower of Rome consisted of seventeen legions, only five of which were maintained outside of Italy. Legio V and VI had been deployed in Iberia with Legio VII, VIII and IX being deployed at Sicily and Sardinia. Legio XVIII and XIX were operating in the Po Valley in an attempt to curtail the numerous Gallic uprisings which had following Hannibal’s earlier victories. In order to protect Rome itself, Legio XX and XXI had been deployed as a garrison for the city. The remaining eight legions; I, II, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI and XVII- nearly 80,000 men and an equal number of supporting allies, would bring the strength of the Roman army to nearly 150,000.
In mid 216 BC, Consul Marcus Atilius Regulus would be replaced by Lucius Aemilius Paullus, an experienced military commander who had largely been credited with Rome’s victory in the Second Illyrian War (219 BC). Both Livy and Polybius narrate stark comparisons of Rome’s two consuls. Livy describes Paullus as a largely pragmatic and capable leader resigned to the implementation of a cautious and conservative campaign. Paullus, like Fabius before him had apparently resigned himself to a campaign of attrition which would deny the enemy of much needed supplies and reinforcements A strategy which was largely unpopular in Rome. On the other hand, Varro is portrayed as demagogue, who decried the earlier Fabian Strategy:
Before the troops left Rome the Consul Varro made a number of extremely arrogant speeches. The nobles, he complained, were directly to responsible for the war on Italian soil and it would continue to prey upon the country’s vitals if there were any more commanders on the Fabian model. Instead, he would bring an end on the day he first caught sight of the enemy.- Livy
All eight legions would be deployed to the area east of Cannae, and as prescribed by Roman law and tradition actual command of the Roman army would alternate daily between the two consuls. On August 1, Hannibal had deployed his army to the north of the Aufidus River northwest of Cannae. Hannibal waited until August 2 knowing Varro would be the chief commander of Rome’s forces and that a large portion of the Roman army was comprised of fresh recruits.
What occurred next is well known.
Despite Paullus’ council to the contrary, Varro deploys the bulk of the army north of Aufidus River (Ofanto) and in open battle against Hannibal’s numerically inferior forces (estimated at 50,000). Varro tasked Paullus with holding the Roman Right wing, which abutted the northern bank of the river. Varro advanced the main body of the Roman army against the Carthaginian. Meanwhile, allied Carthaginian cavalry attacked both wings of the Roman army. As the Carthaginian center contracted inwards, the collapsed Roman right wing (Paullus’ cavalry) and left wing (Varro’s cavalry) were driven off. Hannibal then committed his heavy infantry (Africans) to support his flanks as his cavalry forces engaged the now encircled Romans from the rear. In what today what would be considered a classic pincer movement Hannibal gained his greatest victory against the Romans.
Hannibal Ad Portas
The Battle of Cannae had been incredibly costly for the Romans. Nearly 50,000 Romans (and allies) were dead, as were Paullus and numerous other Roman commanders. In one day of battle, no less than one-sixth of the Roman had been killed or captured. Hannibal’s forces had fared very well, having lost no more than 6,000 men. News of the defeat shook Rome to its very core- with no army to protect it, what would be the fate of Rome? Livy ascribes Rome’s providence to a mixture of fate and Hannibal’s failure to consolidate upon his victory at Cannae through the voice of Hannibal’s subordinate Maharbal, “You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory.”
The failures and fortunes of the Second Punic War are well known to us today. Hannibal’s largely victorious forces would return from Italy to North Africa and suffer a bitter defeat at the Battle of Zama – granting the final victory to Rome despite its earlier disasters. For the first two years of the war in Italy, Roman defeat after Roman defeat can be attributed largely due to failure(s) of command. But we must not loose sight of the prevailing politics within Rome. Bold action was all too often the prevailing metric by which the Roman Senate and people measured its military leaders. Whether it was Tiberius Sempronius Longus at Trebbia, Gaius Flaminius at Lake Trasimene or Gaius Terentus Varro at Cannae, the desire for personal glory, overconfidence and strong political pressure for victory was a disastrous mixture.
Following the disaster at Cannae the Fabian Strategy would be hailed a sound and prudent military tactic and would be largely re-adopted against Hannibal’s movements in Southern Italy. Hannibal was forced to attack various Roman or Latin cities which were well defended or forced to engage in inconclusive battles. In the end, Hannibal’s army, in dire need of resupply and reinforcements would be withdrawn from Italy in 203 BC. The battle for Italy would ultimately be decided by the slow and steady grind of attrition. In the end, the Roman victory did not arise out of the jeering clamor of the Senate, but through the prudent and cautious tactics of Fabius.
Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1975.
Fields, Nic, and Steve Noon. Carthaginian Warrior: 264 – 146 BC. Oxford: Osprey, 2010.
Glay, Marcel Le, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996.
Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith., and John Keegan. Roman Warfare. London: Cassell, 2000.
Healy, Mark, Angus McBride, and Richard Hook. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. London: Osprey Military, 1994.
Lendering, Jona. “Hannibal in the Alps.” Livius.org. Accessed May 06, 2015. http://www.livius.org/source-content/hannibal-in-the-alps/.
Lendering, Jona. “Lake Trasimene (217 BCE).” Livius.org. Accessed May 07, 2015. http://www.livius.org/battle/lake-trasimene/.
Livy. The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. England: Penguin Books, 1965.
Macdougall, P. L. The Campaigns of Hannibal. Yardley, Penn.: Westholme, 2007.
Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Edited by F. W. Walbank. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
Smith, Carl. Fredricksburg 1862: ‘Clear the Way!’ Oxford: Osprey, 1999.
 Smith, Carl. Fredricksburg 1862: ‘Clear the Way!’ (Oxford: Osprey), 8-14.
 Ibid., 6.
 Livy. The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. (England: Penguin Books), 22.19-20.
 Ibid., 21. 23-24.
 Ibid., 22. 22-25.
 Ibid., 21. 50.
Lendering, Jona. “Hannibal in the Alps.” Livius.org. Accessed May 06, 2015.
Macdougall, P. L. The Campaigns of Hannibal. (Yardley, Penn.: Westholme), 38-39.
 Ibid., 40-42.
 Healy, Mark, Angus McBride, and Richard Hook. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. (London: Osprey Military), 49-51.
 Livy. The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. (England: Penguin Books), 21. 56.
 Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Edited by F. W. Walbank. (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 3.75.
 Healy, Mark, Angus McBride, and Richard Hook. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. (London: Osprey Military), 57.
 Ibid., 53-54.
 Ibid., 54-57.
 Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Edited by F. W. Walbank. (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 3.84.
 Livy. The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. (England: Penguin Books), 22. 7.
 Ibid., 22.8 & 9.
 Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan), 127-128.
 Healy, Mark, Angus McBride, and Richard Hook. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. (London: Osprey Military), 59-60.
 Ibid., 61-64.
 . The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. (England: Penguin Books), 22. 26.
 Healy, Mark, Angus McBride, and Richard Hook. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. (London: Osprey Military), 65-66.
 Healy, Mark, Angus McBride, and Richard Hook. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. (London: Osprey Military), 73.
 Ibid., 65-66 & 73.
 Livy. The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. (England: Penguin Books), 22. 38-40.
 Ibid., 22.38.
 Livy. The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. (England: Penguin Books), 22. 41.
 Ibid., 22.44.
 Healy, Mark, Angus McBride, and Richard Hook. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal Smashes Rome’s Army. (London: Osprey Military), 76-77.
 Ibid., 80-85.
 Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith., and John Keegan. Roman Warfare.(London: Cassell), 73.
 Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. Edited by F. W. Walbank. (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 3.117.
 Ibid., 15.16.
 Glay, Marcel Le, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell), 79-80.