The Battle of Cannae

It is said that Fabius, the former dictator, conversed with AEmilius before his departure for the army, and gave him such counsel as his age and experience, and his knowledge of the character and operations of Hannibal, suggested to his mind. “If you had a colleague like yourself,” said he, ” I wouldy not offer you any advice; you would not need it. “Or, if you were yourself like your colleague, vain, self-conceited, and presumptuous, then I would be silent; counsel would be thrown away upon you. But as it is, while you have great judgment and ‘ – sagacity to guide you, you are to be placed in a situation of extreme difficulty and peril. If I am not mistaken, the greatest difficulty you will have to encounter will not be the open enemy you are going to meet upon the field. You will find, I think, that Varro will give you quite as much trouble as Hannibal. He will be presumptuous, reckless, and head strong. He will inspire all the rash and ardent young men in the army with his own enthusiastic folly, and we shall be very fortunate if we do not yet see the terrible and bloody scenes of Lake Trasimene acted again. I am sure that the true policy for us to adopt is the one which I marked out. That is always the proper course for the invaded to pursue with invaders, where there is the least doubt of the success of a battle. We grow strong while Hannibal grows continually weaker by delay. He can only prosper so long as he can fight battles and perform brilliant exploits. If we deprive him of this power, his strength will be continually wasting away, and the spirit and courage of his men waning. He has now scarce a third part of the army which he had when he crossed the lberus, and nothing can save this remnant from destruction if we are wise.” AEmilius said, in reply to this, that he went into the contest with very little of encouragement or hope. If Fabius had found it so difficult to withstand the turbulent influences of his master of horse, who was his subordinate officer, and, as such, under his command, how could he expect to restrain his colleague, who was entitled, by his office, to full equality with him. But, notwithstanding the difficulties which he foresaw, he was going to do his duty, and abide by the result; and if the result should be unfavorable, he should seek for death in the conflict, for death by Carthaginian spears was a far lighter evil, in his, view, than the displeasure and censures of his countrymen.

The consuls departed from Rome to join the army, AEmilius attended by a moderate number of men of rank and station, and Varro by a much larger train, though it was formed of people of the lower classes of society. The army was organized, and the arrangements of the encampments perfected. One ceremony was that of administering an oath to the soldiers, as was usual in the Roman armies at the e commencement of a campaign. They were made to swear that they would not desert the army, that they would never abandon the post at which they were stationed in fear or in flight, nor leave the ranks except for the purpose of taking up or recovering a weapon, striking an enemy, or protecting a friend. These and other arrangements being completed, the army was ready for the field. The consuls made a different arrangement in respect to the division of their power from that adopted by Fabius and Flaminius. It was agreed between them that they would exercise their common authority alternately, each for a day.

In the mean time, Hannibal began to find himself reduced to great difficulty in obtaining provisions for k4` his men. The policy of Fabius had been so far successful as to place him in a very embarrassing situation, and one growing more and more embarrassing every day. He could obtain no food except what he got by plunder, and there was now very little opportunity for that, as the inhabitants of the country had carried of all the grain and deposited it in strongly-fortified towns; and though Hannibal had great confidence in his power to cope with the Roman army in a regular battle on an open field, he had not strength sufficient to reduce citadels or attack fortified camps. His stock of provisions had become, therefore, more and more nearly exhausted, until now he had a supply for only ten days, and he saw no possible mode of increasing it.

His great object was, therefore, to bring on a battle. Varro was ready and willing to give him battle, but AEmilius, or, to call him by his name in full, Paulus AEmilius, which is the appellation by which he is more frequently known, was very desirous to persevere in the Fabian policy till the ten days had expired, after which he knew that Hannibal must be reduced to extreme distress, and might have to surrender at once to save his army from actual famine. In fact, it was said that the troops were on such short allowance as to produce great discontent, and that a large body of Spaniards were preparing to desert and go over together to the Roman camp.

Things were in this state, when, one day, Hannibal sent out a party from his camp to procure food, and AEmilius, who happened to hold the command that day, sent out a strong force to intercept them. He was successful. The Carthaginian detachment was routed. Nearly two thousand men were killed, and the rest fled, by any roads they could find, back to Hannibal’s camp. Varro was very eager to follow them there, but AEmilius ordered his men to halt. He was afraid of some trick or treachery- on the part of Hannibal, and was disposed to be satisfied with the victory he had already won.



This little success, however, only inflamed Varro’s ardor for a battle, and produced a general enthusiasm in the Roman army; and, a day or two afterward, a circumstance occurred which raised this excitement to the highest pitch. Some reconnoiterers, who had been stationed within sight of Hannibal’s camp to watch the motions and indications there, sent in word to the consuls that the Carthaginian guards around their encampment had all suddenly disappeared, and that a very extraordinary and unusual silence reigned within. Parties of the Roman soldiers went up gradually and cautiously to the Carthaginian lines, and soon found that the camp was deserted, though the fires were still burning and the tents remained. This intelligence, of course, put the whole Roman army into a fever of excitement and agitation. They crowded around the consuls’ pavilions, and clamorously insisted on being led on to take possession of the camp, and to pursue the enemy. “He has fled,” they said, “and with such precipitation that he has left the tents standing and his fires still burning. Lead us on in pursuit of him.” Varro was as much excited as the rest. He was eager for action. AEmilius hesitated. He made particular inquires. He said they ought to proceed with caution. Finally, he called up a certain prudent and sagacious officer, named Statilius, and ordered him to take a small body of horsemen, ride over to the Carthaginian camp, ascertain the facts exactly, and report the result. Statilius did so. When he reached the lines he ordered his troops to halt, and took with him two horsemen on whose courage and strength he could rely, and rode in. The three horsemen rode around the camp and examined every thing with a view of ascertaining whether Hannibal had really abandoned his position and fled, or whether some stratagem was intended.

When he came back he reported to the army that, in his opinion, the desertion of the camp was not real, but a trick to draw the Romans into some difficulty. The fires were the largest on the side toward the Romans, which indicated that they were built to deceive. He saw money, too, and other valuables strewed about upon the ground, which appeared to him much more like a bait set in a trap, than like property abandoned by fugitives as incumbrances to flight. Varro was not convinced; and the army, hearing of the money, were excited to a greater eagerness for plunder. They could hardly be restrained. Just then, however, two slaves that had been taken prisoners by the Carthaginians some time before came into the Roman camp. They told the consuls that the whole Carthaginian force was hidden in ambush very near, waiting for the Romans to enter their encampment, when they were going to surround them and cut them to pieces. In the bustle and movement attendant on this plan, the slaves had escaped. Of course, the Roman army were now satisfied. They returned, chagrined and disappointed, to their own quarters, and Hannibal, still more chagrined and disappointed, returned to his.

He soon found, however, that he could not remain any longer where he was. His provisions were exhausted, and he could obtain no more. The Roman would not come out of their encampment to give him battle on equal terms, and they were too strongly in trenched to be attacked where they were. He determined, therefore, to evacuate that part of the country, and move, by a sudden march, into Apulia.

Apulia was on the eastern side of Italy. The River Aufidus runs through it, having a town named Cannae near its mouth. The region of the Aufidus was a warm and sunny valley, which was now waving with ripening grain. Being farther south than the place where he had been, and more exposed to the influence of the sun, Hannibal thought that the crops would be sooner ripe, and that, at least, he should have a new field to plunder.

He accordingly decided now to leave his camp in earnest, and move into Apulia. He made the same arrangements as before, when his departure was a mere pretense. He left tents pitched and fires burning, but marched his army off the ground by night and secretly, so that the Romans did not perceive his departure; and the next day, when they saw the appearances of silence and solitude about the camp, they suspected another deception, and made no move themselves. At length, however, intelligence came that the long columns of Hannibal’s army had been seen already far to the eastward, and moving on as fast as possible, with all their baggage. The Romans, after much debate and uncertainty, resolved to follow. The eagles of the Apennines looked down upon the two great moving masses, creeping slowly along through the forests and valleys like swarms of insects, one following the other, led on by a strange but strong attraction, drawing them toward each other when at a distance, but kept asunder by a still stronger repulsion when near.

The Roman army came up with that of Hannibal on the River Aufidus, near Cannae, and the two vast encampments were formed with all the noise and excitement attendant on the movements of two great armies posting themselves on the eve of a battle, in the neighborhood of each other. In the Roman camp, the confusion was greatly aggravated by the angry disputes which immediately arose between the consuls and their respective adherents as to the course to be pursued. Varro insisted on giving the Carthaginians immediate battle. AEmilius refused. Varro said that he must protest against continuing any longer these inexcusable delays, and insist on a battle. He could not consent to be responsible any further for allowing Italy to lie at the mercy of such a scourge. AEmilius replied that if Varro did precipitate a battle, he himself protested against his rashness, and could not be, in any degree, responsible for the result. The various officers took sides, some with one consul and some with the other, but most with Varro. The dissension filled the camp with excitement, agitation, and ill will.