Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae played a major role in the development of Roman military doctrine, which in turn impacted U.S. military doctrine today. Specifically, the battle shaped the Roman Army’s structure and tactical organization for future battlefields and highlighted the need for unity of command. It also forced the Romans to develop a greater level of tactical flexibility for their infantry to prevent their army from getting flanked again. Cannae is the model of success in which every military commander since seeks to emulate, but rarely accomplishes. “Every ground commander” General Dwight D. Eisenhower posited, “seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate in modern war the classic example of Cannae”
The Battle of Cannae occurred near the ancient village of Cannae in southeastern Italy between the Roman Army and Carthage during the Second Punic War. The smaller Carthaginian (African, Gallic, and Celtiberian forces) army led by Hannibal destroyed Roman forces (losses ranging from 55,000 to 70,000) in of the most military historians define it as a classic example of a victorious double envelopment.
The conventional deployment for armies of the time was to place infantry in the center and deploy the cavalry in two flanking “wings.” The Roman command, who normally followed this tactic, chose extra depth rather than breadth for their infantry, hoping to use this concentration of forces to quickly break through the center of Hannibal’s line. Even though the Romans outnumbered the Carthaginians, this depth-oriented deployment meant that the Roman lines had a front of roughly equal size to their numerically inferior opponents. Hannibal, on the other hand, had deployed his forces based on the fighting qualities of each unit, taking into consideration both their strengths and weaknesses in devising his strategy. He placed his lowest quality infantry in the middle, alternating the two across the front line to strengthen it.
Hannibal intended that his cavalry, comprised mainly of medium Hispanic cavalry and Numidian light horse cadres positioned on the flanks, to defeat the weaker Roman cavalry and swing around to attack the Roman infantry from the rear as it pressed upon Hannibal’s weakened center. His veteran African troops would then press in from the flanks at the crucial moment encircling the overextended Roman army and destroy it.
Although the loss at Cannae was a tactical setback for the Roman Army, it provided invaluable strategic lessons in that had Rome not faced such an existential crisis brought on by Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and success at Cannae, the empire might not have endured for as long as it did.