The battle of Cannae was the last great battle fought by Hannibal in Italy. This conflict has been greatly celebrated in history, not only for its magnitude, and the terrible desperation with which it was fought, but also on account of the strong dramatic interest which the circumstances at tending it are fitted to excite. The interest is perhaps, however, quite as much due to the peculiar skill of the ancient historian who narrates the story, as to the events themselves which he records.
It was about a year after the close of the dictatorship of Fabius that this battle was fought. That interval had been spent by the Roman consuls who were in office during that time in various military operations, which did not, however, lead to any decisive results. In the mean time, there were great uneasiness, discontent, and dissatisfaction at Rome. To have such a dangerous and terrible foe, at the head of forty thousand men, infesting the vicinage of their city, ravaging the territories of their friends and allies, and threatening continually to attack the city itself, was a continual source of anxiety and vexation. It mortified the Roman pride, too, to find that the greatest armies they could raise, and the ablest generals they could choose and commission, proved wholly unable to cope with the foe. The most sagacious of them, in fact, had felt it necessary to decline the contest with him altogether.
This state of things produced a great deal of ill humor in the city. Party spirit ran very high; tumultuous assemblies were held; disputes and contentions prevailed, and mutual criminations and recriminations without end. There were two great parties formed: that of the middling classes on one side, and the aristocracy on the other. The former were called the Plebeians, the latter the Patricians. The division between these two classes was very great and very strongly marked. There was, in consequence of it, infinite difficulty in the election of consuls. At last the consuls were chosen, one from each party. The name of the patrician was Paulus AEmilius. The name of the plebeian was Varro. They were inducted into office, and were thus put jointly into .possession of a vast power, to wield which with any efficiency and success would seem to require union sand harmony in those who held it, and yet AEmilius and Varro were inveterate and implacable political foes. It was often so in the Roman government. `The consulship was a double-headed monster, which spent half its strength in bitter contests waged between its members.
The Romans determined now to make an effectual effort to rid themselves of their foe. They raised an enormous army. It consisted of eight legions. The Roman legion was an army of itself. It contained ordinarily four thousand foot soldiers, and a troop of three hundred horsemen. It was very unusual to have more than two or three legions in the field at a time. The Romans, however, on this occasion, increased the number of the legions, and also augmented, their size, so that they contained, each, five thousand infantry and four hundred cavalry. They were determined to make a great and last effort to defend their city, and save the commonwealth from ruin. AEmilius and Varro prepared to take command of this great force, with very strong determinations to make it the means of Hannibal’s destruction.
The characters of the two commanders, however, as well as their political connections, were very dissimilar, and they soon began to manifest a very different spirit, and to assume a very different air and bearing, each from the other. AEmilius was a friend of Fabius, and approved of his policy. Varro was for greater promptness and decision. He made great promises, and spoke with the utmost confidence of being able to annihilate Hannibal at a blow. He condemned the policy of Fabius in attempting to wear out the enemy by delays. He said it was a plan of the aristocratic party to protract the war, in order to put themselves in high offices, and perpetuate their importance and influence. The war might have been ended long ago, he said; and he would promise the people that he would now end it, without fail, the very day that he came in sight of Hannibal.
As for AEmilius, he assumed a very different tone. He was surprised, he said, that any man could pretend to decide before he had even left the city, and while he was, of course, entirely ignorant, both of the condition of their own army, and of the position, and designs, and strength of the enemy, how soon and under what circumstances it would be wise to give him battle. Plans must be formed in adaptation to circumstances, as circumstances can not be made to alter to suit plans. He believed that they should succeed in the encounter with Hannibal, but he thought that their only hope of success must be based on the exercise of prudence, caution, and sagacity; he was sure that rashness and folly could only lead in future, as they had always done in the past, to discomfiture and ruin.