In the biggest and most notable of the Punic war battles, the battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., Hannibal used a novel military strategy that impressed scholars and historians for decades afterwards. It is still regarded as one of the best military plays in history. Basically, Hannibal pretended to have a weak and undefended center, and when the Roman army took the bait, so to speak, Hannibal’s troops wrapped around them on all sides and encircled them.
The Romans responded as best they could but were viciously defeated by Hannibal. But, this story is not about Hannibal and his military accomplishments, which were many. It’s not about his superior cunning in Cannae that day. Rather, this is a story about the losers of this war – the Romans. Their story is one that goes to show that being defeated is not the end.
To skip to the end of the story, a few years later in 202 B.C., Hannibal was finally defeated by the Romans at the battle of Zama (in present-day Tunisia), led by Scipio Africanus the Elder. It took some time for them to make their comeback, but the Romans got their revenge, and in 146 B.C., all of Carthage was destroyed. A hundred years after that, Rome would become a powerful empire, and their renewed vigor came in large part from their astounding retaliation after Cannae.
So how exactly did they come back from such a defeat? To understand what was so important about both the loss at Cannae and the battles that followed and to see what this ancient military event could teach us about resilience, we need to understand what war was like in those days. Kings would typically take their armies to a battlefield and square off directly, one army against another. It was brutal. The troops would fight, and the winner would take all after killing the opponent or forcing their surrender. It’s like chess: the war is over when one team is checkmated.
The bloodshed that unfolded at Cannae was something most people today cannot envision. The Carthaginians slaughtered the Romans, and the fields ran with their blood. Roman historian Titus Livius (or Livy) claimed that, “Some were discovered lying there alive, with thighs and tendons slashed, baring their necks and throats and bidding their conquerors drain the remnant of their blood. Others were found with their heads buried in holes dug in the ground. They had apparently made these pits for themselves, and heaping the dirt over their faces shut off their breath.” For a Roman soldier, nothing mattered more than service to the republic, honor to their families, and the courage to uphold the national Roman spirit. Defeat was so unthinkable that suicide was a preferable option.perior strategy and lost just:
Yet the public was told to limit their mourning to 30 days. Though the Romans were defeated, they refused to give up. After the 30 days of national mourning, there were to be no more tears. The senate in Rome flatly refused any peace offerings from Hannibal and would not pay any ransom for prisoners taken at Cannae. Instead, they got to work planning.
Every citizen was put to work making weapons. The debilitated army was pieced back together again by lowering the recruitment age and enlisting convicts and even slaves who were promised freedom if they fought for Rome. They would return to Cannae, and they would return stronger.
Rome had nearly been annihilated in one of the biggest battles in history … but they weren’t out of the game yet. Hannibal had been an audacious and formidable enemy, who had managed to lead his army to rampage across the countryside, destroying legions of Roman soldiers, but the Romans would simply have to do better.
Initially, in retaliation, they attacked supply lines supporting Hannibal’s army, avoiding the kind of “pitched battles” that Hannibal was an expert at waging. But this was just a stalling tactic. They soon elected Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus as co-consuls and gathered together their new army – the largest the republic had ever seen. They marched into southern Italy and seized a supply depot near Cannae. Hannibal had 40,000 infantry and 10,00 cavalries (and, sadly, far fewer war elephants, since many had now died).troops and:
Scipio Africanus the Elder, leading what must have been the most epic comeback mission of living memory, had under his command several Roman soldiers who had been thrashed at the battle of Cannae and were now looking to redeem themselves. The Roman soldiers were now far superior in training and number – plus they had something to prove.
Hannibal may have won the previous battle with a flourish of impressive tactics, but his army was now considerably spent – the men were tired, their resources were dwindling, and even the horses had been killed at the time to stop the Romans from seizing them. On top of this, Hannibal and his troops responded late to the new threat advancing on them, leaving Scipio to choose the site to their advantage. While Hannibal had seemed to have so sure an upper hand, his advantage had all but evaporated in a flurry of poor planning.
According to Livy, Hannibal reportedly said to Scipio, “What I was years ago at Trasimene and Cannae, you are today.” And he was right. Scipio had the advantage of well-trained, driven troops who arranged themselves into maniples, which were impenetrable infantry units. Though war elephants seem like a formidable enemy, in reality, they were not trained enough to attack in a coordinated, flexible way and ended up causing more chaos than they were worth. The innovative maniple layout allowed the troops to clump together and form gulleys down which the elephants ran to avoid them, passing through harmlessly. Some elephants, frightened by the trumpeting, ended up crushing their own cavalry. The Roman troops unleashed an attack that was swift and powerful, crushing every line of attack the Carthaginians could muster.he Romans, however, lost only:
Carthage was decimated and surrendered to Scipio, ceding to the Romans’ demands and offering up their warships to be publicly burnt. Rome set an indemnity payment from Carthage of 10,000 talents, which was more than three times the size of the indemnity claimed at the end of the first Punic war, so many years prior. Hannibal himself fled and was not seen in Carthage for many years and never again commanded in battle. For his victory, Scipio was awarded the title of “Africanus” to commemorate a glorious new era in the empire. Hannibal was a formidable enemy, and by defeating him, Rome asserted its supremacy as uncontested master of parts of Africa, Spain, and the Hellenistic East.
Today, historians see this final Punic battle as the one that cemented Rome’s new reign and ended the sovereignty of Carthage forevermore. From there, Rome could increase control over the Mediterranean and, in leaps and bounds, build their empire. What we see in this story is that, even if you are an accomplished leader like Hannibal and pull off the perfect example of military annihilation on your foes, they may be even more determined to come back again and win once and for all.
What can we learn from this epic saga of triumph after defeat? Are we to conclude that Hannibal did something wrong and that Scipio was somehow smarter? No. After all, years on, Hannibal was given his own statue in the Roman pantheon of admirable military commanders and admired for his efforts. He was, after all, a worthy adversary that had inspired the Romans to step up and be more than anyone thought they could be.
What we can see from this chapter in history, however, is the power of not only refusing to be defeated but using loss and failure to inspire you to be even better. The Roman republic could have fallen back, sunk into self-pity, and spent the next few decades licking its wounds. But it didn’t. There was public acknowledgment of the agony and anguish that the loss at Cannae had caused , but this was limited. After the tears were dried, there was work to do.
What the classical heroes of old can show us is that action can be an amazing healer. After your world comes to pieces, you might not know what to do with yourself. In each of our lives, we have to face the personal and psychological equivalent of the battle of Cannae – the death of a loved one, divorce, financial ruin, a serious health scare or accident, natural disasters, trauma or all of these. Many times, we are bested by someone or something that shines genuine light on our flaws – we might discover that we have underestimated a challenge or that we’re paying dearly for our foolishness.
Either way, the Romans’ response to Cannae is a powerful example. Don’t dwell too long on what has been lost. Mourn, but let it be limited – instead, empower yourself by making plans. If things didn’t go your way, don’t get mired in blame, victimhood, or self-pity. Instead, ask honestly what went wrong and how you can be better next time. “Don’t get mad, get even,” comes to mind. The Romans weren’t just mourning their loss of the thousands of troops. They were mourning the attack to their identity as a powerful and capable republic. It was a matter of pride.
Sure, you don’t want to be driven by your ego alone, but if you can channel any sense of wounded pride into some useful action, then you allow yourself to get back up and continue fighting. The Romans never cried foul or played victim. They had been beaten, fair and square, and they allowed the sobering realization of their defeat to energize them, not demoralize them. As a commander, Hannibal had acted commendably. Instead of belittling his fair achievement, they would rise to his level – and higher.
If you want a masterclass in resilience, take a page from the Romans’ attitude during this period. Don’t be a sore loser, ever. They may have been severely crushed in battle and had both their pride and their nation left in tatters, but this did not undermine their dignity. They pulled together the resources they had, they planned and strategized, they worked hard, and they came back again, ten times stronger than before.
Scipio, it turns out, did not have a glittering military career for too long after the glorious triumph at Zama, and he died young. Rather, it was the Roman people’s spirit of persistence, bravery, and discipline that acted as the real hero in this story. The “secret to winning” is not somehow to find a way never to lose. The Romans lost. Badly. But that loss wasn’t the last thing they did. In fact, losing was precisely what allowed them to double down and come back even better than before.
Losing is only a true loss if you accept it as the final word and give up. If you lose but choose to learn, to grow, to be stronger than you were before, then it is not really a loss at all but a cherished lesson. Some people think that, to be resilient, you need to forgive the past, forget it, and move on. This may be true for some, but for the Romans, their path to reclaiming their power was to hold onto the past and use it inspire and drive them to something better.
Your failures don’t define you. How you respond to them does. The entire fate of the Western world was changed forever that day in Zama. Individually and collectively, the Romans made a decision that they would not agree to be defined as losers. They would rewrite their story the way they wanted, and if that meant that they had to create an army more sophisticated than any they had had before, then so be it – that’s what they would do. How much sweeter the victory when you know how much it cost you to rise to the challenge of winning that victory!
Imagine Chris, who’s always dreamt of a glittering music career – or at least recognition for his talents. One day, after years of finetuning his craft, he books a gig where he is fully intending to blow away the audience with his novel musical style. On the night, he completely flops. The crowd hates it, and near the end of his set, he even gets booed and hurried along off the stage. It’s a crushing blow to his self-esteem, and late that evening, he is in full despair, vowing to give up forever and never try again.
In the morning, however, he wakes up with a different view on things. As much as it pains him to admit it, the audience was right: he can see now that he has a lot to learn and needs to go back to the drawing board. Not letting his wounded ego get the better of him for too long, he is soon practicing again and shrugging off the embarrassment. It takes him almost 5 more years before he tries again – but when he does, the crowd really is blown away. Inwardly, he thanks all those people who booed him the first time around. It was harsh, but it taught him something that he might not have learnt otherwise – to be better.
Scipio and the Roman army’s lessons:
• Don’t give up. Failure, loss, and disappointment are not the end of the line. Learn, try again, and do better the next time around. Have the courage to accept what can be improved and, instead of dwelling on the pain of your defeat, get proactive and start doing.
• It’s cowardly to blame others for your shortcomings or to get angry at life in general for not being fair. If you’ve been justly beaten, accept it graciously. Don’t be a bad loser. In fact, if you can, try to welcome even painful challenges in life as an opportunity to learn and be better. Like the Romans, we can all build monuments to those who have taught us our most difficult lessons.
• Hard work is a wonderful remedy for pain and loss. Resilience is not just about passively accepting your lot – you can empower yourself by taking action, and this will make any hardship 100 times easier to bear.