Development of Land Tactics

During the course of the Punic Wars, there were key developments in military tactics which affected the outcome of the conflict. 

The most notable of these developments was the Carthaginian formation used at the Battle of Cannae, during the Second Punic War, on 2nd August 216 BCE.  

Having crossed the Alps and won a significant battle near the Trebia River, the Carthaginian force led by Hannibal next ambushed and destroyed a Roman army at Lake Trasimene, and then moved into Southern Italy, where they hoped to stir up rebellion among the subjects of Rome, to grow their army and eventually attack the city itself. 

The presence of such a large army among the communities of Southern Italy did not lead to rebellions against Rome, as Hannibal had hoped. However, in August 216 BCE the Romans sent a field army of approximately 85,000 men to drive the Carthaginians out of Italy.

Hannibal’s army consisted of people from the Iberian peninsula, from Gaul, including the Gallic tribes of Northern Italy, from areas around Carthage in North Africa, and from Libya.  A key part of the army was the cavalry, which Hannibal used as his secret weapon. When battle commenced, Hannibal deliberately allowed the Romans to advance quickly against his first lines of infantry, who slowly retreated.  The Romans thought they were winning the battle, until the Carthaginian Cavalry emerged from one side, and approached the Roman army from behind, surrounding them.  

This shock tactic won the battle for Carthage, the trapped Roman army suffered significant casualties. Some estimate that one fifth of all Roman men of fighting age died during the Battle of Cannae. 

After the Battle of Cannae much of southern Italy did then join Hannibal - as much of 40% of Rome’s allies went over to him in the next few years. Roman tactics were to target these rebels through raids and brutal sieges, while trying to prevent Hannibal from coming to their aid. The Romans sacked the major cities of Capua, Tarentum and Syracuse (among many others) after they had joined Hannibal.

However, Hannibal was unable to take advantage of the victory and the Carthaginian army remained in Southern Italy for more than a decade.  The Roman strategy evolved due to their heavy losses - instead of large battles, they sent small forces to tie up Carthaginian armies in Spain and Sicily. 

The Romans also aimed to disrupt Hannibal’s communications with Carthage and other armies, especially in Spain and finally Africa, including when the Romans captured the terms of the secret treaty made between Hannibal and Philip V of Macedon in 215 BC. 

More critically, in 207, the Romans captured Hasdrubal’s messengers and so learned before Hannibal where Hasdrubal’s army planned to advance into Italy. The Romans intercepted him at Metaurus and defeated his army.

Eventually, the Romans appeared to be winning the Second Punic War so Carthage called on Hannibal to return to North Africa to command the whole of Carthage’s army.

battle of zama   ©  Sailko

battle of zama © Sailko

However, fourteen years after the Battle of Cannae, the Romans used Hannibal’s same tactic of surrounding their enemy at the Battle of Zama.  The Battle of Zama was fought at Naraggara, and the Roman General Scipio had advanced his tactics considerably.  He thought of a new way of overcoming Carthage’s elephants, and used Hannibal’s own strategy of bringing his cavalry around the outside of Carthage’s main force to surround them.

The Roman cavalry during the Battle of Zama was led by Masinissa of Numidia.  After the two infantries were engaged in battle, the mounted soldiers drove away Hannibal’s cavalry and then surrounded the Carthaginians and won the battle.