Part 3 of a series on historical events that are widely overrated in aspects of their impact and yet actually underrated and deeply misunderstood. The decisive victory Hannibal Barca won over the Roman Republic at Cannae in 216 BC was the crown jewel of his many achievements, and has been studied so often that perhaps it’s now cliché. I retell the story to focus on why it was so significant in that war and why it still has lessons for us, despite what modern scholars might think.

Check out this episode!

  • Hannibal
  • Cannae order of battle
  • Carthaginian mercenaries
  • war elephant with infantryman
  • Spanish cavalry
  • Numidian

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Show Notes

  • Carthage was the natural rival to Rome’s power. Carthage was a maritime empire centered in modern day Tunisia and covering North Africa.
  • Carthage had an excellent navy. Rome was the major power in Italy after driving out the Celtic Gauls.
  • 1st Punic War: Rome defeated Carthage under general Hamilcar and this established Rome as the front runner over Carthage. Both were in competition to colonize Spain.
  • Hannibal is Hamilcar’s son.
  • Rome had every advantage over Carthage: more troops, maniple legion.
  • Carthage had more money, but that was it.
  • Hannibal came as close to defeating Rome as anyone did in the first 1000 years of Roman history.
  • Hannibal is known as the dude who could win battles, not the war. Also known for war elephants that he brought across 2 major mountain ranges.
  • History sidenote: there’s a movement to tell the peoples’ history, but that often includes devaluing and degrading the rulers and great men who were major players in history.
  • Anachronism: you have to try to put your bias aside and not judge people of the past according to everything civilization has come to develop inbetween.
  • SPQR by Mary Beard – one of the prominent modern Roman history scholars, guilty of anachronism.
  • Cannae was Hannibal’s greatest victory and part of a great test to Roman civilization.
  • Hannibal crosses the Pyrenes and Alps to take the Romans by surprise.
  • He picked up the Gauls and fought the first battle of Trebbia – where/after which most of the elephants die.
  • Hannibal’s strategy was to pry away Rome’s allies, but he misread the situation; the allies never lost their faith in Rome.
  • In Rome, 2 consuls raise biggest Roman army ever assembled: 8 legions + allies (85,000 guys).
  • Hannibal had 50,000 guys: Celts, Spaniards, African levies.
  • Hannibal was outnumbered and Roman troops were superior.
  • However, Hannibal had the better cavalry and he drew up a clever battle plan.
  • During the Battle of Cannae, the sun was in the Roman army’s eyes and dust was blowing too.
  • Hannibal had set up his army with the Celts + Spaniards in the center, they were the worst men in the group and historically, you would put your best guys in the center.
  • While the Celts were very brave, they were unreliable and not trained as well.
  • He put the veteran Carthaginians on the flanks with the best troops on the very outside.
  • Rome went straight for the center and put themselves into a double envelopment. As the Celts gave way, the Carthaginian flanks push in from the sides. The Roman legions were surrounded on three sides, with many of the troops stuck in a crush. Their cavalry was driven off and then they were completely surrounded.
  • 70,000 Roman soldiers were killed in one day: the greatest loss of life in a single battle in a single day in the history of the world.
  • In 27 months, Rome lost 120,000 of their best young men.
  • After this loss, Rome changed a lot of laws to allow more men to join the military: freeing slaves, giving amnesty to criminals, getting rid of property owner requirement.
  • Fabius Maximus: Rome’s own unconventional leader. Desperate times promote people with different solutions.
  • Fabian tactics: delaying, harassing, not directly fighting. The anti-Roman approach, but it worked.
  • Scipio defeated Hannibal.
  • Carthaginians lost 2nd Punic War but they make a traumatic impact on Romans.
  • Cato the Elder: Carthage must be destroyed.
  • Rome became world power after knocking off Carthage.
  • Singular ability of Hannibal: How do I turn my greatest weakness into a strength?

For Further Awesome Reading…


Complete Roman Army

In The Complete Roman Army, Goldsworthy writes an accessible and detailed account of the evolution of Roman arms, with plenty of visuals to help the general audience understand how things looked. In Roman Warfare, the Roman ethos over the development of their civilization is also effectively captured.

Roman Warfare

Livy: The Early History of Rome

Polybius: The Histories

Both Polybius and Livy were historians under the Roman thumb, who were expected to write accounts that reflected well on Roman development. Their bias has to be taken into account, but they remain invaluable sources for the rise of Rome. Polybius in particular had a great influence on the subject of history and the idea that it should be a rational discussion of causes and effects. I can remember my first time reading him, while on a plane in 2002—excellent history, even translated and read out of context over 2000 years later!