The Battle of Cannae

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.