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Polybius - The Histories
Here follows an excerpt from:
The Histories of
Book III 106-118 (Hannibal in Italy)
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The time for the consular elections was now approaching, and the
Romans elected Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro. On
their appointment, the Dictators laid down their office, and the
Consuls of the previous year, Gnaeus Servilius and Marcus Regulus —
who had been appointed after the death of Flaminius — were invested
with proconsular authority by Aemilius, and taking command in the
field directed the operations of their forces as they thought fit.
Aemilius after consulting with the
Senate at once enrolled the soldiers still wanting to make up the
total levy and dispatched them to the front, expressly ordering
Servilius on no account to risk a general engagement, but to
skirmish vigorously and unintermittently so as to train the lads and
give them confidence for a general battle; for they thought the
chief cause of their late reverses lay in their having employed
newly raised and quite untrained levies.
The Consuls also gave a legion to the
Praetor Lucius Postumius, and sent him to Cisalpine Gaul to create a
diversion among those Celts who were serving with Hannibal, they
took measures for the return of the fleet that was wintering at
Lilybaeum and sent the generals in Spain all the supplies of which
they had need.
The Consuls and Senate were thus
occupied with these and other preparations, and Servilius, on
receiving orders from the Consuls, conducted all petty operations as
I shall therefore not make further
mention of these, for nothing decisive or noteworthy was done owing
to these orders and owing to circumstances, but only numerous
skirmishes and minor engagements took place in which the Roman
commanders had the advantage, their conduct of the campaign being
generally thought to have been both courageous and skilful.
107 All through the winter and
spring the two armies remained encamped opposite each other, and it
was not until the season was advanced enough for them to get
supplies from the year's crops that Hannibal moved his forces out of
the camp near Geronium.
Judging that it was in his interest to
compel the enemy to fight by every means in his power, he seized on
the citadel of a town called Cannae, in which the Romans had
collected the corn and other supplies from the country round
Canusium, conveying hence to their camp from time to time enough to
supply their wants.
The city itself had previously been
razed, but the capture now of the citadel and stores caused no
little commotion in the Roman army; for they were distressed at the
fall of the place not only owing to the loss of their supplies, but
because it commanded the surrounding district.
They continued, therefore, to send
constant messages to Rome asking how they should act, stating that
if they approached the enemy they would not be able to escape a
battle, as the country was being pillaged and the temper of all the
allies was uncertain.
The Senate decided to give the enemy
battle, but they ordered Servilius to wait, and dispatched the
Consuls to the front. It was to Aemilius that the eyes of all were
directed; and they placed their chiefest hope in him, owing to his
general high character, and because a few years previously he was
thought to have conducted the Illyrian war with courage and
advantage to the state.
They decided to bring eight legions
into the field, a thing which had never been done before by the
Romans, each legion consisting of about five thousand men apart from
the allies. For, as I previously explained, they invariably employ
four legions, each numbering about four thousand foot and two
hundred horse, but on occasions of exceptional gravity they raise
the number of foot in each legion to five thousand and that of the
cavalry to three hundred.
They make the number of the allied
infantry equal to that of the Roman legions, but, as a rule, the
allied cavalry are three times as numerous as the Roman. They give
each of the Consuls half of the allies and two legions when they
dispatch them to the field, and most of their wars are decided by
one Consul with two legions and the above number of allies, it being
only on rare occasions that they employ all their forces at one time
and in one battle. But now they were so alarmed and anxious as to
the future that they decided to bring into action not four legions
108 Therefore after exhorting Aemilius and putting before
his eyes the magnitude of the results which in either event the
battle would bring about, they dispatched him with orders to decide
the issue, when the time came, bravely and worthily of his country.
On reaching the army he assembled the soldiers and conveyed to them
the decision of the Senate, addressing them in a manner befitting
the occasion and in words that evidently sprang from his heart.
The greater part of his speech was
devoted to accounting for the former reverses, for it was
particularly the impression created by these that made the men
disheartened and in need of encouragement. He attempted therefore to
impress upon them, that while not one or two but many causes could
be found owing to which the previous battles resulted in defeat,
there was at present, if they behaved like men, no reason at all
left why they should not be victorious "For then," he said, "the two
Consuls never gave battle with their united armies, nor were the
forces they disposed of well trained, but raw levies who had never
looked danger in the face.
But the most important consideration
of all is that our troops were then so ignorant of the enemy that
one might almost say they ventured on decisive battles with them
without ever having set eyes on them.
Those who were worsted at the Trebia
had only arrived from Sicily the day before, and at daybreak on the
following morning went into action, while those who fought in
Etruria not only had not seen their enemies before, but could not
even see them in the battle itself owing to the condition of the
But now all the circumstances are
precisely the opposite of what they were then. For in the first
place we, the Consuls, are both present, and are not only about to
share your perils ourselves but have given you also the Consuls of
last year to stand by you and participate in the struggle. And you
yourselves have not only seen how the enemy are armed, how they
dispose their forces, and what is their strength, but for two years
now you have been fighting with them nearly every day.
As, therefore, all the conditions are
now the reverse of those in the battles I spoke of, we may
anticipate that the result of the present battle will likewise be
the opposite. For it would be a strange or rather indeed impossible
thing, that after meeting your enemies on equal terms in so many
separate skirmishes and in most cases being victorious, now when you
confront them by more than two to one you should be beaten.
Therefore, my men, every measure
having been taken to secure victory for you, one thing alone is
wanting, your own zeal and resolution, and as to this it is not, I
think, fitting that I should exhort you further.
For those who in some countries serve
for hire or for those who are about to fight for their neighbours by
the terms of an alliance, the moment of greatest peril is during the
battle itself, but the result makes little difference to them, and
in such a case exhortation is necessary. But those who like you are
about to fight not for others, but for yourselves, your country, and
your wives and children, and for whom the results that will ensue
are of vastly more importance than the present peril, require not to
be exhorted to do their duty but only to be reminded of it.
For what man is there who would not
wish before all things to conquer in the struggle, or if this be not
possible, to die fighting rather than witness the outrage and
destruction of all that is dearest to him? Therefore, my men, even
without these words of mine, fix your eyes on the difference between
defeat and victory and on all that must follow upon either, and
enter on this battle as if not your country's legions but her
existence were at stake. For if the issue of the day be adverse, she
has no further resources to overcome her foes; but she has centred
all her power and spirit in you, and in you lies her sole hope of
Do not cheat her, then, of this hope,
but now pay the debt of gratitude you owe to her, and make it clear
to all men that our former defeats were not due to the Romans being
less brave than the Carthaginians, but to the inexperience of those
who fought for us then and to the force of circumstances." Having
addressed the troops in these words Aemilius dismissed them.
110 Next day the Consuls broke
up their camp and advanced towards the place where they heard that
of the enemy was. Coming in view of them on the second day, they
encamped at a distance of about fifty stadia from them.
Aemilius, seeing that the district
round was flat and treeless, was opposed to attacking the enemy
there as they were superior in cavalry, his advice being to lure
them on by advancing into a country where the battle would be
decided rather by the infantry.
As Terentius, owing to his
inexperience, was of the contrary opinion, difficulties and disputes
arose between the generals, one of the most pernicious things
Terentius was in command next day —
the two Consuls according to the usual practice commanding on
alternate days — and he broke up his camp and advanced with the
object of approaching the enemy in spite of Aemilius's strong
protests and efforts to prevent him.
Hannibal met him with his light-armed
troops and cavalry and surprising him while still on the march
disordered the Romans much. They met, however, the first charge by
advancing some of their heavy infantry, and afterwards sending
forwards also their javelineers and cavalry got the better in the
whole engagement, as the Carthaginians had no considerable covering
force, while they themselves had some companies of their legions
fighting mixed with the light-armed troops.
The fall of night now made them draw
off from each other, the attack of the Carthaginians not having had
the success they hoped. 8 Next day, Aemilius, who neither judged it
advisable to fight nor could now withdraw the army in safety,
encamped with two-thirds of it on the bank of the river Aufidus.
This is the only river which traverses
the Apennines, the long chain of mountains separating all the
Italian streams, those on one side descending to the Tyrrhenian sea
and those on the other to the Adriatic. The Aufidus, however, runs
right through these mountains, having its source on the side of
Italy turned to the Tyrrhenian Sea and falling into the Adriatic.
For the remaining portion of his army
he fortified a position on the farther side of the river, to the
east of the ford, at a distance of about ten stadia from his own
camp and rather more from that of the enemy, intending thus to cover
the foraging parties from his main camp across the river and harass
those of the Carthaginians.
111 Hannibal now seeing that it
was imperative for him to give battle and attack the enemy, and
careful lest his soldiers might be disheartened by this recent
reverse, thought that the occasion demanded some words of
exhortation and called a meeting of the men.
When they were assembled he bade them
all look at the country round, and asked them what greater boon they
could in their present circumstances crave from the gods, if they
had their choice, than to fight the decisive battle on such ground,
greatly superior as they were to the enemy in cavalry.
As they could see this for themselves
they all applauded and, he continued: "In the first place then thank
the gods for this; for it is they who working to aid you to victory
have led the enemy on to such ground, and next thank myself for
compelling them to fight, a thing they can no longer avoid, and to
fight here where the advantages are manifestly ours.
I do not think it at all my duty to
exhort you at further length to be of good heart and eager for the
battle, and this is why. Then, when you had no experience of what a
battle with the Romans was, this was necessary, and I often
addressed you, giving examples, but now that you have beyond dispute
beaten the Romans consecutively in three great battles, what words
of mine could confirm your courage more than your own deeds?
For by these former battles you have
gained possession of the country and all its wealth, even as I
promised you, and not a word I spoke but has proved true; and the
coming battle will be for the cities and their wealth. Your victory
will make you at once masters of all Italy, and through this one
battle you will be freed from your present toil, you will possess
yourselves of all the vast wealth of Rome, and will be lords and
masters of all men and all things.
Therefore no more words are wanted,
but deeds; for if it be the will of the gods I am confident that I
shall fulfill my promises forthwith." After he had spoken further to
this effect, the army applauded him heartily, whereupon he thanked
them and acknowledging their spirit dismissed them, and immediately
pitched his camp, placing his entrenchments by the same bank of the
river with the larger camp of the enemy.
112 Next day he ordered all his
troops to look to their persons and their accoutrements, and on the
day following he drew up his army along the river with the evident
intention of giving battle as soon as possible. Aemilius was not
pleased with the ground, and seeing that the Carthaginians would
soon have to shift their camp in order to obtain supplies, kept
quiet, after securing his two camps by covering forces.
Hannibal, after waiting for some time
without anyone coming out to meet him, withdrew again the rest of
his army into their intrenchments, but sent out the Numidians to
intercept the water-bearers from the lesser Roman camp. When the
Numidians came up to the actual palisade of the camp and prevented
the men from watering, not only was this a further stimulus to
Terentius, but the soldiers displayed great eagerness for battle and
ill brooked further delay. For nothing is more trying to men in
general than prolonged suspense, but when the issue has once been
decided we make a shift to endure patiently all that men regard as
the depth of misery.
When the news reached Rome that the
armies were encamped opposite each other and that engagements
between the outposts occurred every day, there was the utmost
excitement and fear in the city, as most people dreaded the result
owing to their frequent previous reverses, and foresaw and
anticipated in imagination the consequences of total defeat.
All the oracles that had ever been
delivered to them were in men's mouths, every temple and every house
was full of signs and prodigies, so that vows, sacrifices,
supplicatory processions and litanies pervaded the town. For in
seasons of danger the Romans are much given to propitiating both
gods and men, and there is nothing at such times in rites of the
kind that they regard as unbecoming or beneath their dignity.
113 Next day it was Terentius'
turn to take the command, and just after sunrise he began to move
his forces out of both camps. Crossing the river with those from the
larger camp he at once put them in order of battle, drawing up those
from the other camp next to them in the same line, the whole army
facing south. He stationed the Roman cavalry close to the river on
the right wing and the foot next to them in the same line, placing
the maniples closer together than was formerly the usage and making
the depth of each many times exceed its front.
The allied horse he drew up on his
left wing, and in front of the whole force at some distance he
placed his light-armed troops. The whole army, including the allies,
numbered about eighty thousand foot and rather more than six
thousand horse. Hannibal at the same time sent his slingers and
pikemen over the river and stationed them in front, and leading the
rest of his forces out of camp he crossed the stream in two places
and drew them up opposite the enemy.
On his left close to the river he
placed his Spanish and Celtic horse facing the Roman cavalry, next
these half his heavy-armed Africans, then the Spanish and Celtic
infantry, and after them the other half of the Africans, and
finally, on his right wing, his Numidian horse. After thus drawing
up his whole army in a straight line, he took the central companies
of the Spaniards and Celts and advanced with them, keeping rest of
them in contact with these companies, but gradually falling off, so
as to produce a crescent-shaped formation, the line of the flanking
companies growing thinner as it was prolonged, his object being to
employ the Africans as a reserve force and to begin the action with
the Spaniards and Celts.
114 The Africans were armed in
the Roman fashion, Hannibal having equipped them with the choicest
of the arms captured in the previous battles. The shields of the
Spaniards and Celts were very similar, but they swords were entirely
different, those of the Spaniards thrusting with as deadly effect as
they cut, but the Gaulish sword being only able to slash and
requiring a long sweep to do so.
As they were drawn up in alternate
companies, the Gauls naked and the Spaniards in short tunics
bordered with purple, their national dress, they presented a strange
and impressive appearance.
The Carthaginian cavalry numbered
about ten thousand, and their infantry, including the Celts, did not
much exceed forty thousand. The Roman right wing was under the
command of Aemilius, the left under that of Terentius, and the
centre under the Consuls of the previous year, Marcus Atilius and
Hasdrubal commanded the Carthaginian
left, Hanno the right, and Hannibal himself with his brother Mago
the centre. Since the Roman army, as I said, faced south and the
Carthaginians north, they were neither of them inconvenienced by the
115 The advanced guards were the
first to come into action, and at first when only the light infantry
were engaged neither side had the advantage; but when the Spanish
and Celtic horse on the left wing came into collision with the Roman
cavalry, the struggle that ensued was truly barbaric; for there were
none of the normal wheeling evolutions, but having once met they
dismounted and fought man to man.
The Carthaginians finally got the
upper hand, killed most of the enemy in the mellay, all the Romans
fighting with desperate bravery, and began to drive the rest along
the river, cutting them down mercilessly, and it was now that the
heavy infantry on each side took the place of the light-armed troops
For a time the Spaniards and Celts
kept their ranks and struggled bravely with the Romans, but soon,
borne down by the weight of the legions, they gave way and fell
back, breaking up the crescent.
The Roman maniples, pursuing them
furiously, easily penetrated the enemy's front, since the Celts were
deployed in a thin line while they themselves had crowded up from
the wings to the centre where the fighting was going on. For the
centres and wings did not come into action simultaneously, but the
centres first, as the Celts were drawn up in a crescent and a long
way in advance of their wings, the convex face of the crescent being
turned towards the enemy.
The Romans, however, following up the
Celts and pressing on to the centre and that part of the enemy's
line which was giving way, progressed so far that they now had the
heavy-armed Africans on both of their flanks. Hereupon the Africans
on the right wing facing to the left and then beginning from the
right charged upon the enemy's flank, while those on the left faced
to the right and dressing by the left, did the same, the situation
itself indicating to them how to act.
The consequence was that, as Hannibal
had designed, the Romans, straying too far in pursuit of the Celts,
were caught between the two divisions of the enemy, and they now no
longer kept their compact formation but turned singly or in
companies to deal with the enemy who was falling on their flanks.
116 Aemilius, though he had been
on the right wing from the outset and had taken part in the cavalry
action, was still safe and sound; but wishing to act up to what he
had said in his address to the troops, and to be present himself at
the fighting, and seeing that the decision of the battle lay mainly
with the legions, he rode along to the centre of the whole line,
where he not only threw himself personally into the combat and
exchanged blows with the enemy but kept cheering on and exhorting
his men. Hannibal, who had been in this part of the field since the
commencement of the battle, did likewise.
The Numidians meanwhile on the right wing, attacking the cavalry
opposite them on the Roman left, neither gained any great advantage
nor suffered any serious loss owing to their peculiar mode of
fighting, but they kept the enemy's cavalry out of action by drawing
them off and attacking them from all sides at once. Hasdrubal,
having by this time cut up very nearly all the enemy's cavalry by
the river, came up from the left to help the Numidians, and now the
Roman allied horse, seeing that they were going to be charged by
him, broke and fled.
Hasdrubal at this juncture appears to
have acted with great skill and prudence; for in view of the fact
that the Numidians were very numerous and most efficient and
formidable when in pursuit of a flying foe he left them to deal with
the Roman cavalry and led his squadrons on to where the infantry
were engaged with the object of supporting the Africans.
Attacking the Roman legions in the
rear and delivering repeated charges at various points all at once,
he raised the spirits of the Africans and cowed and dismayed the
Romans. It was here that Lucius Aemilius fell in the thick of the
fight after receiving several dreadful wounds, and of him we may say
that if there ever was a man who did his duty by his country both
all through his life and in these last times, it was he.
The Romans as long as they could turn
and present a front on every side to the enemy, held out, but as the
outer ranks continued to fall, and the rest were gradually huddled
in and surrounded, they finally all were killed where they stood,
among them Marcus and Gnaeus, the Consuls of the preceding year, who
had borne themselves in the battle like brave men worthy of Rome.
While this murderous combat was going on, the Numidians following up
the flying cavalry killed most of them and unseated others. A few
escaped to Venusia, among them being the Consul Gaius Terentius, who
disgraced himself by his flight and in his tenure of office had been
most unprofitable to his country.
117 Such was the outcome of the
battle at Cannae between the Romans and Carthaginians, a battle in
which both the victors and the vanquished displayed conspicuous
bravery, as was evinced by the facts. For of the six thousand
cavalry, seventy escaped to Venusia with Terentius, and about three
hundred of the allied horse reached different cities in scattered
Of the infantry about ten thousand
were captured fighting but not in the actual battle, while only
perhaps three thousand escaped from the field to neighbouring towns.
All the rest, numbering about seventy thousand, died bravely. Both
on this occasion and on former ones their numerous cavalry had
contributed most to the victory of the Carthaginians, and it
demonstrated to posterity that in times of war it is better to give
battle with half as many infantry as the enemy and an overwhelming
force of cavalry than to be in all respects his equal. Of Hannibal's
army there fell about four thousand Celts, fifteen hundred Spaniards
and Africans and two hundred cavalry.
The Romans who were made prisoners were not in the battle for the
following reason. Lucius had left a force of ten thousand foot in
his own camp, in order that, if Hannibal, neglecting his camp,
employed his whole army in the field, they might during the battle
gain entrance there and capture all the enemy's baggage: if, on the
other hand, Hannibal, guessing this danger, left a strong garrison
in the camp, the force opposed to the Romans would be reduced in
The circumstances of their capture
were more or less as follows. Hannibal had left an adequate force to
guard his camp, and when the battle opened, the Romans, as they had
been ordered, delivered an assault on this force.
At first they held out, but as they
were beginning to be hard pressed, Hannibal, who was now victorious
in every part of the field, came to their assistance, and routing
the Romans shut them up in their camp. He killed two thousand of
them and afterwards made all the rest prisoners. The Numidians also
reduced the various strongholds throughout the country which had
given shelter to the flying enemy and brought in the fugitives,
consisting of about two thousand horse.
118 The result of the battle
being as I have described, the general consequences that had been
anticipated on both sides followed. The Carthaginians by this action
became at once masters of almost all the rest of the coast, Tarentum
immediately surrendering, while Argyrippa and some Campanian towns
invited Hannibal to come to them, and the eyes of all were now
turned to the Carthaginians, who had great hopes of even taking Rome
itself at the first assault.
The Romans on their part owing to this
defeat at once abandoned all hope of retaining their supremacy in
Italy, and were in the greatest fear about their own safety and that
of Rome, expecting Hannibal every moment to appear. It seemed indeed
as if Fortune were taking part against them in their struggle with
adversity and meant to fill the cup to overflowing; for but a few
days afterwards, while the city was yet panic-stricken, the
commander they had sent to Cisalpine Gaul was surprised by the Celts
in an ambush and he and his force utterly destroyed.
Yet the Senate neglected no means in
its power, but exhorted and encouraged the populace, strengthened
the defences of the city, and deliberated on the situation with
manly coolness. And subsequent events made this manifest. For though
the Romans were now incontestably beaten and their military
reputation shattered, yet by the peculiar virtues of their
constitution and by wise counsel they not only recovered their
supremacy in Italy and afterwards defeated the Carthaginians, but in
a few years made themselves masters of the whole world.
I therefore end this Book at this point, having now described the
events in Spain and Italy that occurred in the 140th Olympiad. When
I have brought down the history of Greece in the same Olympiad to
the same date, I shall pause to premise to the rest of the history a
separate account of the Roman constitution; for I think that a
description of it is not only germane to the whole scheme of my
work, but will be of great service to students and practical
statesmen for forming or reforming other constitutions.
[End of Book III]