Well, not quite yesterday, but August 2, 216 B.C.—also a Wednesday, like yesterday.
A good day. Depending on what side you were on—Roman or Carthaginian.
Second Punic war, most important battle. My Latin and Greek high school teacher (he also taught History) told his pupils of this and many other battles. Took Latin and Greek for 5 years; could read almost as good as English—not because of me, but because our teacher was so good. We’d get a mix of ancient dead languages and ancient battles (lots of “dead” in those battles too). Xenophon, adventure stories, but in Greek. Also once showed us a film (in ancient Greek, not quite the same as modern Greek) of Odysseus’ travels—the best part for us 15-year-old boys was when Odysseus is tied to the mast of his sailing vessel and being called to/enticed by the Sirens/Vestal Virgins.
Anyways, Cannae, the skinny:
- 86,000 Roman and allied troops
- double envelopment tactic by the Carthaginians on an open plain (WW2 generals, including Eisenhower, spoke of the tactic)
- spoiler alert: if the Carthaginians show up on an open plain, early in the morning, from the east (i.e. sun in your eyes, not theirs), dust blowing in from the east as well, with a river on one flank (so no escape route there), and they show up with elephants (here, 37)—take a raincheck, take a pass—even if you have a significant numerical superiority (86K v. 40/50K)
- well, the Roman army was not in to rainchecks; about 15,000 out of 86,000 escaped, and they were mainly from garrisons/camps not part of the battle; of the cavalry, 6,000 Roman and allied, 370 survived.
- and, I know you’re about to ask, “were the Scots there?” Well, firstly, we were everywhere—Plains of Abraham, yup, both sides. Aide-de-camp for Le General Montcalm, a Scot, Le Chevalier Johnstone. So yes, we were at Cannae, folded in with Balearic slingers, as Celts. Those slinger guys were fearsome (they could accurately hit an opponent at 1,300 feet, and were fatal at 400) so best stick close to them so’s not to get sling-shotted by mistake. Modern-day baseball pitchers/tennis players delivering their “ace” serve? Such wusses in comparison. Who would you rather fight the Romans with, Aemillius from Apulia, Herminius from Herdonia, or Guillermo from Galicia (AKA “Bullseye Bob”)?
One story from the Carthaginian side: on the morning of the battle, as both sides were forming up, one of Hannibal’s officers, called Gisgo, said he was “astonished” at the size of the Roman army (the Romans normally fought with two legions; they had eight that day), to which Hannibal responded, “There is one thing Gisgo, yet more astonishing, of which you take no notice; in all these great numbers before us, there is not one man called Gisgo”, which “provoked laughter that spread through the Carthaginian ranks”.
A subsequent military historian (Theodore Dodge) described Carthage’s tactics as follows:
“…The position was such as to place every advantage on Hannibal’s side. The manner in which the far from perfect Hispanic and Gallic foot was advanced in a wedge in echelon… was first held there and then withdrawn step by step, until it had reached the converse position… is a simple masterpiece of battle tactics. The advance at the proper moment of the African infantry, and its wheel right and left upon the flanks of the disordered and crowded Roman legionaries, is far beyond praise. The whole battle, from the Carthaginian standpoint, is a consummate piece of art, having no superior, few equal, examples in the history of war.”
Some articles for you to read about “this day in history” (well, yesterday):
- Ancient Rome’s Darkest Day: The Battle of Cannae
- History & Society—Battle of Cannae
- Slaughter at the Battle of Cannae
And even a couple of (basic) videos:
- Battle of Cannae/216 BC Rome vs Carthage/One of Hannibal’s Greatest Victories
- Battle of Cannae, 216 BC/The Carnage
- Decisive Battles—Battle of Cannae
Apart from the passable analogy as to what we do as lawyers (well, litigators), that superior tactics and solid preparation can lead to a positive outcome for the client, even if one’s opponent’s position(s) look initially strong, there is another possible lesson that arises herein: post-battle commentators disagree as to whether Hannibal should have immediately marched on Rome (he did not) as his commanders encouraged (his commander Maharbal told him, “You know how to gain a victory, Hannibal, you do not know how to make use of it.”). As a contemporary military historian (Robert O’Connell) wrote,
“…there were many good reasons for not marching on Rome, and only one good reason for going.”
Those of us in the business of appellate litigation, assisting a client in deciding to go/not go to the C.A./S.C.C., certainly get that one.
And as for Rome v. Carthage at sea, sea battles? That’s another big long story. Crazy stuff, but all true. For example, in the sea battle of the Aegates (the Aegates Islands being 15-40 kms west of Sicily) the Carthaginians brought 50 war quinquereme, on which 160 oarsmen each (plus fighting marines, and cavalry too) that could go up to 8+ knots, and cruise at 4 knots for “voyages up to a week”. Carthage built a specially designed circular stone and wood harbour for their warships—30 ships capacity inside, and 170 ships on the outer ring. And this was 200 B.C.; and, even though later invaded and wrecked by the Romans (sorry for another spoiler alert), some of the original launch ramps for ships are reasonably intact, and still visible today. Carthage is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, in Tunisia.
Here is an artist’s impression of what the harbour looked like: click here.
And here it is today: click here.