This is the story of the Battle of Cannae, which more than two millennia after it happened, remains the benchmark for leadership and tactics!
Leadership and tactics – qualities as important in war as they are in the modern boardroom!
The battle was fought between the Romans and the Carthaginians in 216 BC and was part of the Second Punic War. The Roman Empire was one of the greatest empires – in terms of reach and impact – in the history of the world. On the opposite side was Carthage, led by Hannibal. Hannibal would go down in history as one of the greatest generals ever, and he proved that in Cannae, when he defeated a mighty Roman army, solely relying on superior tactics and leadership.
The Romans outnumbered the Carthaginian troops, almost two to one, were better equipped and armoured and they fought the battle in their preferred terrain, an open filed. The Carthaginians however had better and more cavalry. The Romans relied on numbers, as they always had and were burdened by the opposing views of their two generals.
The Carthaginians, meanwhile, had one absolute leader, Hannibal. And Hannibal was an amazing tactician. He placed his cavalry on the wings, and had a thin inviting infantry line in the centre. He had a river on one side, that made sure that he couldn’t be flanked from that wing. And he faced away from the morning sun and wind direction, ensuring that Romans had to deal with both the sun and the dust blowing in the wind. And finally, he was right in the front-line himself, leading his troops. A risky manoeuvre otherwise but important for this plan.
When the battle commenced, he tempted the Romans to charge straight at his centre and when they did, he coordinated his planned and organised retreat – making it seem as if the Romans were gaining ground – but not losing formation. Meanwhile, his better cavalry charged and decimated the Roman cavalry, who were left without infantry support. Before the Romans realised, they had walked into a trap. The retreating centre of Hannibal’s army had formed a semi-circle, the flanks pivoted and enveloped the sides and the cavalry, free from decimating their Roman counterpart, came back and attacked from the rear. The entire Roman army was trapped in a Carthaginian circle and annihilated.
Remember Jon Snow fighting Ramsay in Game of Thrones? It was a direct lift from Cannae!
Hannibal had inferior numbers, resources and equipment but won so comprehensively that according to estimates, Rome lost about twenty percent of her adult male population in that battle. This is a testament to his leadership, resourcefulness and tactics and a shining example for leaders and tacticians of the future!