Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Holy Shit, Cannae!

Battle of Cannae
Who was the greatest military commander in human history? It's not a totally fair question since human history is a really long time and the whole Shoulders of Giants thing makes it hard to compare today's military mind's to yesterday's, but there still seems to be one name that constantly creeps up: Hannibal Barca. You know, the one who "crossed the Alps on elephants" (though there weren't actually that many of them, and almost all of them died in the journey). When you look at his record, he's a damn good candidate for the honor.

Hannibal Barca
Here he is turning a symbol of Roman authority on its head. I wonder if that's a metaphor.
 Of particular concern is his victory at the Battle of Cannae, where he faced an army double the size of his own, consisting of the most powerful heavy infantry in the world, on unfamiliar lands - and utterly crushed them. Let me set the scene.

Rome and Carthage were locked in a nasty feud for control of the Mediterranean. Hannibal, the top general of Carthage, was coming off of a pretty sweet victory at Lake Trasimene, where he had ambushed and routed a Roman army led by one of the two Consuls, the chief executives of Rome. Rome was laying low for a year, opting to avoid large confrontations and instead picking off Hannibal's army little bits at a time. The people of Rome were unhappy with that strategy. They wanted a big, juicy victory they could sing songs about. The government responded by raising an enormous army of around 90,000, under the joint command of the two new Consuls.

Cannae itself was a critical supply depot, and Hannibal kicked off the festivities by snatching it right out of Roman hands. The Consuls were a bit cross about that, so they decided it was time to lay the smack down on this Carthaginian asshole. Everything looked awesome for Rome up until the day of the battle.

Hannibal was a genius with preparation, and was always able to finagle himself into the right environmental position to get an advantage. On this day, he managed to find a spot where the wind and sun were at his back - which meant the sun and dust would go straight into Roman eyes. That was step one.

Step two was his cavalry. Numidians were, at the time, the very best horsemen in the Mediterranean, and they were on Hannibal's side. They were one of his key strengths, and were guaranteed to chase off the Roman cavalry.

Step three was the feet on the ground, and this is where he showed his masterstroke. Roman infantry typically put their strongest units in the center, where they could punch a hole straight through the enemy line. Hannibal responded by putting his weakest units in the center, but stacking it heavily.  The result was like a big, umbrella-shaped cushion. When something strong hit the center, the shape would bulge at the sides. And that's exactly what happened.
Cannae Formation
Ha! This is gonna be awesome.
 When the Romans hit the center of Hannibal's formation, it looked to them like they were winning hard. Everyone was retreating in front of them, so they just kept pushing. What they couldn't see (remember that dust and sun from earlier?) was that the enemy to the left and right was pushing forward just as much as them. Before long, Hannibal's army inverted its shape and wrapped halfway around the Romans.
Cannae Action

That's when the cavalry came back.
The wildebeasts are the Numidians
Oh ff...
 By the time the Numidian horses charged almost literally up the asses of their army, the Romans were shitting themselves in panic. Never before in recorded history had an army been so thoroughly surrounded on the field, and no matter where they looked, there was no escape. Morale might be the single most important element of any battle, and despite being a bigger force and having stronger soldiers in general, this encirclement sent Roman morale into a free fall.

By the time the dust had cleared, up to 75,000 Roman soldiers were dead, and up to 10,000 were prisoners. Hannibal's losses were somewhere around 5,000. It was one of the most crushing and humiliating defeats of all time, and it very nearly caused the collapse of Rome. Luckily for classicists, Hannibal didn't really have the means to capture cities, so he was unable to press his advantage. Eventually, Rome rebuilt and eked out a major victory against Hannibal that led to Carthage's surrender under grossly unfair conditions.

The Battle of Cannae is remembered today largely because holy shit, how did he pull that off? Specifically, because military academies ask that very question (albeit phrased more politely) to all potential officers.

If you're curious about what happened next, the name Hannibal became synonymous with "boogie man" in Roman culture, and Carthage was so intensely reviled that Cato the Elder, a prominent statesman, ended every single speech he gave, no matter what the topic, with the phrase, "Furthermore, I am of the opinion that Carthage should be destroyed."

Holy shit.

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