Preparations for Battle -- Battle of Cann -- Total Defeat of the Romans -- Roman Losses -- Hannibal's Strategy
Hannibal, when his scheme failed, returned forth-with to his camp, thus showing that his retreat was feigned, but this did not teach Varro to suspect every movement of Hannibal. Hurrying armed as he was to the praetorium, he complained in the presence of senators, centurions, and tribunes that milius had made a pretence about the omen in order to snatch a sure victory from the city, either hesitating from cowardice or moved by jealousy toward himself. While he was thus venting his wrath the soldiers standing around the tent listened to him and joined in the censure of milius. The latter nevertheless continued to give good advice to those within, but in vain. When all the others, Servilius alone excepted, sided with Varro, he yielded, and on the following day he himself drew up the army in order of battle as commander, for Varro yielded to him that title. Hannibal perceived the movement but he did not come out of his camp because he was not quite ready for battle. On the next day both armies came down to the open field. The Romans were drawn up in three lines with a small interval between them, each part having infantry in the centre, with light-armed troops and cavalry on the wings. milius commanded the centre, Servilius the left wing, and Varro the right. Each had a thousand picked horse at hand to carry aid wherever it should be needed. Such was the Roman formation.
Hannibal had previously observed that a stormy east wind began to blow in that region regularly about noon. So he chose the ground where he should have the wind at his back. Then on a wooded hill cut by ravines he placed some cavalry and light-armed troops in ambush, to whom he gave orders that when the battle was joined and the wind had risen, they should fall upon the enemy's rear. With them were placed 500 Celtiberians who had, in addition to the long swords at their belts, short daggers under their garments. These they were not to use till he himself gave the signal. He divided his whole army into three lines of battle and extended his horse at long distances on the wings in order to outflank the enemy if possible. He gave the command of the right wing to his brother Mago, and of the left to his nephew Hanno, retaining the centre for himself on account of milius' reputation as an experienced commander. He had 2000 picked horse and Maharbal had 1000, who were ordered to move about and give assistance wherever they saw any part of the army in difficulties. In making these arrangements he protracted the time till about the second hour so that the wind might come to his aid the sooner.
When all was in readiness on either side the commanders rode up and down the ranks encouraging their soldiers. The Romans were exhorted to remember their parents, wives, and children, and to wipe out the disgrace of former defeats. They were admonished that this battle was the last hope of safety. Hannibal reminded his men of their former exploits and their victories over these same enemies, and said that it would be shameful to be vanquished now by the vanquished. When the trumpets sounded the foot-soldiers raised a shout and the archers, slingers, and light-armed troops advanced and began the battle. After them the legions took up the work. Now began a great slaughter and a great struggle, each side contending valiantly. Presently Hannibal gave the signal to his horse to surround the enemy's wings. The Roman horse, although inferior in number, advanced against them, and extending their line of battle to a dangerous thinness, nevertheless fought valiantly, especially those on the left toward the sea. Hannibal and Maharbal together now led against them the cavalry they had kept around their own persons, with loud barbarian shouts, thinking to terrify their enemies. Yet the Romans received the shock without flinching and without fear.
When Hannibal saw that his manoeuvre had failed, he gave the signal to his 500 Celtiberians. These passing out of their own line of battle went over to the Romans, holding out their shields, spears, and swords in the manner of deserters. Servilius commended them and at once took possession of their arms and stationed them in the rear, in their tunics alone as he supposed, for he did not think it best to put deserters in chains in the sight of the enemy, nor did he have any suspicion of men whom he saw with nothing but their tunics, nor was there time to take counsel in the thick of the fray. Now some of the African cohorts made a pretence of flight toward the mountains, uttering loud cries. This was the signal to those concealed in the ravines to fall upon the pursuers. Straightway the light-armed troops and cavalry that had been placed in ambush showed themselves, and simultaneously a strong and blinding wind rose carrying dust into the eyes of the Romans, which prevented them from seeing their enemies. The impetus of the Roman missiles was lessened by the opposing wind, while that of the enemy's was increased and their aim made surer. The Romans, not being able to see and avoid the enemy's weapons nor to take good aim with their own, stumbled against each other and soon fell into disorder of various kinds.
At this juncture the 500 Celtiberians, seeing that the expected opportunity had come, drew their daggers from their bosoms and first slew those who were just in front of them, then, seizing the swords, shields, and spears of the dead, made a greater onslaught against the whole line, darting from one to another indiscriminately, and they accomplished all the greater slaughter inasmuch as they were in the rear of all. Now were the Romans in great and various trouble, assailed by the enemy in front, by ambuscades in flank, and butchered by foes amid their own ranks. They could not turn upon the latter on account of the pressure of the enemy in front and because it was not easy to distinguish these assailants, for they had possessed themselves of Roman shields. Most of all were they harassed by the dust, which prevented them from even guessing what was taking place. But (as usually happens in cases of disorder and panic) they considered their condition worse than it was, the ambuscades more dreadful, and the 500 more numerous than 500. In short, they imagined that their whole army was surrounded by hostile cavalry and deserters. So they turned and broke into headlong flight, first those on the right wing where Varro himself led the retreat, and after them the left wing, whose commander, Servilius, however, went to the assistance of milius. Around these the bravest of the horse and foot rallied, to the number of about 10,000.
The generals and all the others who had horses, although surrounded by Hannibal's cavalry, dismounted and fought on foot. They charged the enemy with fury and performed many brilliant exploits, the fruit of military experience, being nerved by the energy of despair. But they fell on all sides, and Hannibal, darting hither and thither, encouraged his soldiers, now exhorting them to make their victory complete, now rebuking and reproaching them because, after they had scattered the main body of the enemy, they could not overcome the small remainder. As long as milius and Servilius survived the Romans stood firm, although giving and receiving many wounds, but when their generals fell they forced their way through the midst of their enemies most bravely, and escaped in various directions. Some took refuge in the two camps where others had preceded them in flight. These were altogether about 15,000, whom Hannibal straightway besieged. Others, to the number of about 2000, took refuge in Cann, and these surrendered to Hannibal. A few escaped to Canusium. The remainder were dispersed in groups through the woods.
Such was the result of the battle between Hannibal and the Romans at Cann, which was begun after the second hour of the day and ended within two hours of night-fall, and which is still famous among the Romans as a disaster, for in these few hours 50,000 of their soldiers were slain and a great many taken prisoners. Many senators who were present lost their lives and with them all the military tribunes and centurions, and their two best generals. The most worthless one, who was the cause of the calamity, had made good his escape at the beginning of the rout. The Romans, in their two years' war with Hannibal in Italy, had now lost, of their own and their allied forces, about 100,000 men.
Hannibal gained this rare and splendid victory by employing four stratagems in one day: by the force of the wind, by the feigned desertion of the Celtiberians, by the pretended flight, and by the ambuscades in the ravines. Immediately after the battle he went to view the dead. When he saw the bravest of his friends lying among the slain he lifted up his voice and wept, saying that he did not want another such victory. It is said that Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, made the same exclamation aforetime, when he too gained a victory over the Romans in Italy, with like loss to himself. Some of those who escaped from the battle and who had taken refuge in the larger camp and in the evening had chosen Publius Sempronius as their general, forced a passage through Hannibal's guards, who were exhausted by weariness and want of sleep. These men, to the number of about 10,000, made their way to Canusium about midnight. But the 5000 in the smaller camp were captured by Hannibal the following day. Varro, having collected the remains of the army and sought to revive their fainting spirits, put them under the command of Scipio, one of the military tribunes, and himself hastened to Rome.