The Battle of Cannae

In the mean time, the inhabitants of the country into which these two vast hordes of ferocious, though restrained and organized combatants, had made such a sudden irruption, were flying as fast as they could from the awful scene which they expected was to ensue. They carried from their villages and cabins what little property could be saved, and took the women and children away to retreats and fastnesses, wherever they imagined they could find temporary concealment or protection. The news of the movement of the two armies spread throughout the country, carried by hundreds of refugees and messengers, and all Italy, looking on with suspense and anxiety, awaited the result.

The armies maneuvered for a day or two, Varro, during his term of command, making arrangements td promote and favor an action, and AEmilius, on the following day, doing every thing in his power to prevent it. In the end, Varro succeeded. The lines were formed and the battle must be begun. AEmilius gave up the contest now, and while he protested earnestly against the course which Varro pursued, he prepared to do all in his power to prevent a defeat, since there was no longer a possibility of avoiding a collision.

The battle began, and the reader must imagine the scene, since no pen can describe it. Fifty thousand men on one side and eighty thousand on the other, at work hard and steadily, for six hours, killing each other by every possible means of destruction,–stabs, blows, struggles, outcries, shouts of anger and defiance, and screams of terror and agony, all mingled together, in one general din, which covered the whole country for an extent of many miles, all together constituted a scene of horror of which none but those who have witnessed great battles can form any adequate idea.

It seems as if Hannibal could do nothing without stratagem. In the early part of this conflict he sent a large body of his troops over to the Romans as deserters. They threw down their spears and bucklers, as they reached the Roman lines, in token of surrender. The Romans received them, opened a passage for them through into the rear, and ordered them to remain there. As they were apparently unarmed, they left only a very small guard to keep them in custody. The men had, however, daggers concealed about their dress, and, watching a favorable moment, in the midst of the battle, they sprang to their feet, drew out their weapons, broke away from their guard, and attacked the Romans in the rear at a moment when they were so pressed by the enemy in front that they could scarcely maintain their ground.

It was evident before many hours that the Roman forces were every where yielding. From slowly and reluctantly yielding they soon began to fly. In the flight, the weak and the wounded were trampled Under foot by the throng who were pressing on behind them, or were dispatched by wanton blows from enemies as they passed in pursuit of those who were still able to fly. In the midst of this scene, a Roman officer named Lentulus, as he was riding away, saw before him at the road-side another officer wounded, sitting upon a stone, faint and bleeding. He stopped when he reached him, and found that it was the consul Amilius. He had been wounded in the head with a sling, and his strength was almost gone. Lentulus offered him his horse, and urged him to take it and fly. AEmilius declined the offer. He said it was too late for his life to be saved, and that, besides, he had no wish to save it. “Go on, therefore, yourself,” said he, “as fast as you can. Make the best of your way to Rome. Tell the authorities there, from me, that all is lost, and they must do whatever they can themselves for the defense of the city. Make all the speed you can, or Hannibal will be at the gates before you.