Battle of Canusium

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Battle of Canusium
Part of the Second Punic War
Battles second punic war.png
Date 209 BC
Location Canusium, Apulia, present-day Italy
Result Inconclusive
Belligerents
Carthage Roman Republic
Commanders and leaders
Hannibal Marcellus
Strength
16,000 approximately 20,000
Casualties and losses
reportedly 8,000 killed more than 5,700 killed

The Battle of Canusium was a three-day engagement between the forces of Rome and Carthage. It took place in Apulia during the summer of 209 BC, the tenth year of the Second Punic War. A larger Roman offensive, of which it was a part, aimed to subjugate and to punish cities and tribes that had abandoned the alliance with Rome after the Battle of Cannae, and to narrow the base of the Carthaginian leader, Hannibal, in southern Italy.

The battle of Canusium was also an episode of the years-long contest between Hannibal and the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus for control over that territory. As neither side gained a decisive victory and both suffered considerable losses (up to 14,000 killed overall[1][2]), the outcome of this engagement was open to differing interpretations by both ancient and modern historians. While Marcellus took a heavy blow at Canusium, he nevertheless checked for some time the movements of the main Punic forces and thus contributed to the simultaneous Roman successes against Hannibal's allies in Magna Graecia and Lucania.

Antecedents: Rome on the offensive[edit]

Since the beginning of the Carthaginian invasion in 218 BC, Rome invested more and more resources first to protect Italy, then to regain territories lost to Hannibal. This is particularly noticeable in terms of manpower. The number of the legions grew steadily, despite the sanguinary routs suffered in the initial stage of the war (see the articles on the battles of the Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae), so that in 210 BC - the year before the clash at Canusium - Rome had 21 legions.[3] Some engaged the Carthaginians and their allies in Sicily, Sardinia, Iberia and Greece, but most were placed in various parts of Italy, still the primary theatre of the Second Punic war.

After their defeat at Cannae, the Romans generally followed the policy of their statesman Quintus Fabius Maximus, who taught them to avoid general confrontations with Hannibal, in order to preserve their own strength and gradually diminish his. They sought to wear him out in a series of smaller engagements and sieges (see Fabian strategy). As evidenced by the unceasing sequence of defeats (e. g. the battle of Herdonia in 212 BC), this strategy was not always followed. One of the generals who did not comply completely was Marcus Claudius Marcellus. He had distinguished himself before the Punic invasion as a conqueror of Cisalpine Gaul. He gained even more prominence in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Cannae, when he repeatedly denied Hannibal entrance to Nola, thus reducing Roman losses in Campania, where Capua defected.[4]

Marcellus' military merits (further increased by the capture of Syracuse) earned him a place among the other seasoned commanders, such as Fabius Maximus, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus and Appius Claudius, whom the Roman people preferred as leaders, expecting that they would make up for the superior quality of the Carthaginian commanding staff.[5] The Carthaginan general found it increasingly difficult to cope with such adversaries. Then in 211 BC, the Romans captured Capua, Carthage's major Italian ally.[6] After the reconquest of Campania, Rome sent its armies to the south and east to attack the other cities that had joined Hannibal. In 210 BC Marcellus, elected consul for the fourth time, subdued several places in Samnium and Apulia, destroying their Carthaginian garrisons,[7][8] and fought Hannibal in an indecisive battle at Numistro.[9][10] The Romans advanced against Tarentum, the main Greek city of southern Italy. It had joined Hannibal several years earlier.

Fabius, consul in 209 BC, made the retaking Tarentum his priority. His colleague, Q. Fulvius Flaccus, and Marcellus, now a proconsul, had the task of keeping Hannibal from assisting the city. Each of the three generals had an army of two legions with their allied auxiliaries. While Fabius advanced to Tarentum, Fulvius marched into Lucania. The third army under Marcellus fought in Apulia. A fourth, not insignificant, force was ordered by Fabius to attack Hannibal's Bruttian allies.[11][12][13]

The three days battle[edit]

It was Marcellus’ lot to confront Hannibal directly, for the Carthaginian general chose Apulia for his main operations after winter's end. Hannibal made the first move by encamping near Canusium, hoping to persuade its inhabitants to break their allegiance to Rome. Canusium was not far from Salapia, a town whose Numidian garrison had been betrayed to and slaughtered by Marcellus the preceding year. Hannibal’s intention was to restore his influence in the area.[14] However, as soon as the proconsul approached, the Carthaginian withdrew from Canusium. The loss of the Numidian contingent in Salapia had deprived him of one of his advantages over the Romans – his strong cavalry,[7] so the open and flat terrain was no longer as favorable as it had been at the time of Cannae. That is why Hannibal retreated, endeavoring to lure Marcellus into an ambush. The Romans, relentlessly pursuing, forced a battle. Initial skirmishes grew to a general battle which ended only when night fell and both sides disengaged and fortified their camps.[12]

On the next day Hannibal decided to stand his ground and in the renewed fighting the Romans were heavily beaten. One of the wings of the first battle line, composed of allied levies, was forced to give ground. Marcellus ordered the legion positioned in the rear to relieve the retreating allies. This proved to be an error, as the ensuing manoeuvre and the continuing Carthaginian advance threw the entire Roman army into disorder. The Romans were put to flight and 2,700 of them were killed before the rest could take refuge behind the palisade of the camp.[2][12]

Marcellus was undaunted by this setback, and although many of his men were wounded, he led them to yet another long and inconclusive fight on the third day. Hannibal's elite Iberian troops were unable to break the Romans, and the Carthaginian brought up his war elephants. At first they produced the desired effect by trampling and scattering the Roman front, but a successful counterstrike by a maniple of hastati turned the beasts against their own troops and caused disorder among the Carthaginian ranks. Marcellus seizing the opportunity, threw his cavalry, kept so far in reserve, into the action. The cavalry charge was followed by an all-out and irresistible infantry attack. Hannibal's forces fell back to their camp with heavy losses (8,000 killed according to Livy). The toll on Marcellus' troops was even heavier than that of the preceding day (3,000 killed and many wounded), so he declined to pursue Hannibal when the latter broke camp and marched south the following night.[2][15]

Consequences: Hannibal on the defensive[edit]

As a result of the battle of Canusium, the army of Marcellus was effectively put out of action. Sparing his soldiers, most of whom were wounded, the proconsul retired to Sinuesa (Campania) according to Plutarch, or Venusia (Apulia) according to Livy, where he was inactive the rest of the summer, allowing Hannibal to traverse southern Italy unchecked. This prompted Marcellus' political enemies in Rome to accuse him of bad generalship and to ask the Senate and People to relieve him of his command. Nevertheless, Marcellus was elected consul once again and was authorized to seek a decisive engagement with Hannibal in the following year.[2][16]

Still in the summer of 209 BC, while Marcellus was fighting Hannibal in Apulia, the army under the consul Quintus Fulvius Flaccus effected the submission of northern Lucania. The other consul, Quintus Fabius Maximus, assaulted the city of Manduria, in the Sallentine. It was hardly 35km away from Tarentum. Having disentangled himself from Marcellus, although the army of Fabius was very close to Tarentum, Hannibal hurried to rescue the city of Caulonia (in the farthest corner of southwestern Italy, for Bruttium was also under Roman attack). Unopposed by the main Roman forces, the Carthaginian commander managed to intercept and destroy near Caulonia an 8,000 strong detachment, that had attacked the Bruttians from Regium,[13][17] and thus retained control over the region. But this fight, delayed him and could not reach it in time to save Tarentum of Fabius Maximus assault. [13][18] He was five miles away when Fabius sacked Tarentum.[17][19]

In the following year (208 BC) Hannibal confronted Marcellus once again in Apulia, for the final time. Marcellus was killed in an ambush at Venusia. Following his death, Rome gave up the idea for a decisive encounter with Hannibal. After the battle of the Metaurus in 207 BC, it was Hannibal's turn to relinquish his hopes for regaining the military initiative. These events led to prolongation of the war in Italy until the Romans invaded Carthaginian territory in northern Africa (see the articles about the battle of Crotona and the battle of Utica).

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Livy, XXVII, 12, 14
  2. ^ a b c d Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Marcellus
  3. ^ Livy, History of Rome, Book XXVI, Section 28
  4. ^ Smith, W., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Vol. 2, p. 928
  5. ^ Delbrück, Hans, Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte, I Teil: Das Altertum, Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin 1964, S. 388
  6. ^ Livy, XXVI, 12-14; Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book XV; Appian, Roman History, The Hannibalic War, 7.43
  7. ^ a b Livy, XXVI, 38
  8. ^ Livy, XXVII, 1
  9. ^ Livy, XXVII, 2
  10. ^ Caven, Punic Wars, pp. 188-189
  11. ^ Livy, XXVII, 7
  12. ^ a b c Livy, XXVII, 12
  13. ^ a b c Caven, Punic Wars, p. 194
  14. ^ Кораблев, И., Ганнибал, Москва, "Наука", 1976, с. 258
  15. ^ Livy, XXVII, 14
  16. ^ Livy, XXVII, 20-21
  17. ^ a b Livy, XXVII, 15-16
  18. ^ Livy, XXVII, 15
  19. ^ Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Fabius
Note
  • All links to online sources were active on October 17, 2007

References[edit]

Note: All links to online sources were active on October 17, 2007

  • Livius, Titus, The History of Rome, Vol. IV (ed. E. Rhys, translated by C. Roberts), University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center
  • Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, The Life of Marcellus (Dryden 1683 translation, Arthur Hugh Clough 1859 revision), available on Wikisource
  • Smith, William (ed.), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, University of Michigan
  • Caven, Brian, The Punic Wars, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1980, ISBN 0-297-77633-9
  • Кораблев, Илья, Ганнибал, Москва, "Наука", 1976, Студенческое научное общество
  • Shepherd, William, Historical Atlas, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911 (part of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin website)