When you mention the Second Punic War, there is a good chance that few people will know what you are talking about. Mention Hannibal and his elephants, and you start getting many more people who have any idea what you are referring to. However, Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps is only part of what was known as the Second Punic War, which lasted from 218 BCE to 202 BCE. A first Punic War had taken place from 264 BCE to 241 BCE.
Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, was a military commander who led Carthaginian troops during a portion of the First Punic War. He also led Carthaginian troops successfully during several other battles and ultimately ended up dying in battle in 228 BCE. His hatred of Rome and his desire to defeat them in battle is believed to be one of the things which shaped Hannibal’s mentality and caused him to head from Carthage to Italy with his elephants in tow.
After crossing into Italy, Hannibal had managed to defeat the Roman military in several battles: the Battle of the Trebia and the Battle of Lake Trasimene. The Romans were not used to being defeated in battle and were not overly pleased that Hannibal had managed to win two battles. Because of this, they decided to appoint Fabius Maximus, a Roman politician, to the position of Dictator in order to handle the problem. This meant that he was able to take measures beyond those normally allowed a military commander in order to deal with threats to the Empire.
Fabius decided he wasn’t going to take Hannibal on directly. After all, doing so had simply led to Roman defeat and Maximus was not interested in having that happen while he was in charge. He ended up cutting off supply lines and avoiding any pitched battles against the Carthaginians. As a result of these tactics, Hannibal was able to regroup and prepare for a fight. Hannibal was able to hang around in Italy, enjoying the terrain and preparing for battle against the Romans. After all, if they wanted to go home, they would have to go back over the Alps and no one was really interested in making that trek again.
Finally, the Romans decided to put an end to Hannibal’s Italian tour. They gathered eight legions together along with allied troops and members of the cavalry. Approximately 90,000 Roman troops took the field against Hannibal’s total of 45,000 troops. The battle was to take place in 216 BCE at a town known as Cannae.
The battle was brutal. According to some historical accounts, the Romans outnumbered the Carthaginian troops and were armed with typical Roman arms and armor. The Carthaginians were armed with a variety of different weapons and protected by a variety of different types of armor. Hannibal was able to encircle the Roman forces and catch them in a pincer movement. They trapped the Romans and were able to slaughter them. It was reported that only 14,000 Roman troops were able to escape the battle.
Cannae remains perhaps the most massive and terrible of all Roman military losses and ended up causing Rome to completely rearrange and rethink its military structure.