This painting, by the American artist John Trumbull (c. 1756–1843), was inspired by the famous Battle of Cannae, fought in 216 BCE during the opening years of the Second Punic War (c. 218-201 BCE) between the rival ancient superpowers of Rome and Carthage. In the inaugural year of the war, Carthage’s great military leader, Hannibal Barca, crossed the Alps into Italy, after facing harassment from Pyrenean, Gallic, and Alpine peoples, not to mention further punishment from the weather. Despite suffering losses on his mountainous march, Hannibal’s army remained strong enough to repeatedly defeat challenges from the Roman military in 218 and 217 BCE. In 216 BCE, while Hannibal was threatening strategic local water and food supplies at Cannae, the Romans decided to make a bold gamble by dispatching Rome’s two consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro, with a huge army that was nearly double the size of Hannibal’s own force. Nevertheless, people who gamble big are vulnerable to huge losses.
The Battle of Cannae, it can be said, was Hannibal’s masterpiece of troop and terrain management. Virtually nothing was left unchecked in Hannibal’s masterminding of advantages for his outnumbered force. He controlled the region’s water and food supplies; the dusty winds harmlessly hit his army’s back, whereas they irritated the eyes of the Romans; and he forced the battle to occur along a valley and river that made it awkward for the Romans to comfortably deploy their massive army. These were some of the terrain advantages that empowered the Carthaginian army. Yet, Hannibal’s managing and maneuvering of his troops during the battle were what really cemented the fame of Cannae. When the battle commenced, Hannibal’s smaller army pulled off an impressive maneuver known as a double envelopment. Simply put, Hannibal lured the Romans deep into a crescent-shaped formation, and before the Romans realized that they were beginning to be dangerously outflanked by the edges of the Carthaginian crescent, Hannibal sent his cavalry to attack the Romans from behind, completing the encirclement of the Roman army. A massacre ensued, and according to the ancient sources, between 55,000 and 70,000 Romans died on that battlefield, including the consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus. The Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), recorded an account of how Paullus was said to have died:
“The whole force was now broken and dispersed. Those who could, recovered their horses, hoping to escape. Lentulus, the military tribune, as he rode by saw the consul Paullus sitting on a stone and bleeding profusely…The two men were still speaking when a crowd of fugitives swept by. The Numidians were close on their heels. Paullus fell under a shower of spears, his killers not even knowing whom they killed” (Livy, History of Rome, 22.49)
It is this scene of the defeated consul, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, sitting helplessly on a rock as the circle of Carthaginians tightens its stranglehold on the Roman army, that the artist, John Trumbull, paints in the artwork above. As the quote conveyed, Paullus would be killed before the day was over, along with the vast majority of the Roman army that had been deployed for battle. The other Roman consul, Gaius Terentius Varro, was able to escape the slaughter and returned safely to Rome with other survivors.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Livy, (Roman History) The War with Hannibal, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.