Ancient warfare was very different from the modern form of combat that soldiers know today. In modern times soldiers are often hundreds of yards away from each other when hostilities begin, while in ancient warfare much more of the fighting was hand-to-hand and face-to-face combat. One of the most celebrated armies of the ancient world was the army of the Roman Republic. However, in one key battle that army was defeated in what would become known as one of the most devastating losses in the entire history of warfare.
Psychology is a huge aspect of all warfare; one must balance themselves when in combat and this has been true as long as there has been armed conflict. For a civilian like myself, it is difficult to imagine what battle is like and the mental toll it takes upon people. I would argue that one of the most hellacious and terrifying battles in world history was the battle I will be discussing in this article. Soldiers were surrounded on an ancient battlefield, they saw death coming for them, and they had zero chance of escape or mounting an effective counterattack. There was no way out, they were surrounded by a tactical genius, and this genius’s soldiers were hacking the Romans down with impunity. As the day moved on, the soldiers on the edge of the Roman formation were killed, and the Carthaginians inevitably cut their way to the center. Those poor souls that stood and waited for death at this battle went through a mental torture that is hard to fathom today. So how did an outnumbered North African army completely humble the most powerful force in the known world? How could the Romans allow their soldiers to be hacked to pieces by what some Romans may have regarded as little more than a ragtag horde of barbarian tribes? It is time to explore the most costly defeat in the Roman Republic’s history, the Battle of Cannae.
In the 3rd century B.C. the Roman Republic was at war with a conglomeration of city-states from northern Africa under the command of Hannibal, a brilliant Carthaginian general. Seizing the initiative, Hannibal struck a decisive blow at the onset of the war. He pulled off one of the gutsiest and most impressive logistical feats in recorded history, taking his entire army across the sea, with war elephants, and crossed over the Alps to invade Italy from the north. This was completely unexpected. The Romans and Carthaginians would meet repeatedly in the Italian countryside as Hannibal moved further south, and by 216 B.C. Hannibal had his army near the southern settlement of Cannae.
On the next page, the stage is set for battle.