The Battlefield of Cannae: a Site Visit
The Battle of Cannae in 212 B.C. is perhaps the platonic ideal of what a decisive victory should look like. Western commanders have been trying to replicate it since it happened over two millennia ago. It was the final in a series of crushing defeats suffered by the Romans in the second Punic War to Hannibal Barca the other two being the Battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene; one day I will visit these sights as well. I covered the battle in a post almost exactly five years ago here: https://www.military-history.us/2010/10/rome-and-cannae/. This past summer while on vacation in Italy I finally got around to visiting the site of the battlefield. This is my report of that visit.
There are a couple of sites on the web that attempt to describe how to get to the battlefield. I have to say that all are uniformly sorry and unhelpful. This post is an attempt to rectify that. The site is fairly remote and quite far away from the typical tourist sites on the other side of the peninsula around Naples and Salerno.
The battlefield is outside of the modern city of Barletta on the Adriatic coast of Italy. It is actually only about 20 minutes’ drive from the city center if you know where you are going; we did not at first. The first day I went to visit the battlefield my wife and I spent a few hours driving around aimlessly only to admit defeat. Some further research led me to a map of the location that I compared to the map in my car’s GPS which finally got us there on the final day of our visit.
Before describing what is there I will describe how to get there. The battlefield is in the middle of a modern archaeological park excavating the ancient hilltop town of Cannae itself. The modern name for the town, okay village, is Canna della Battaglia, which means Canna of the Battle in Italian. You would think that would be easy to find, just plug the name into the GPS and go. I thought so too and was wrong. The modern town name was not found by our GPS. This necessitated me doing further research because my wife and I were bound and determined that we were not going to get with 5 miles of the battlefield A.D. then give up. Our stubbornness paid off as we eventually found the place.
Here is how to find the battlefield. The modern name and address as of summer 2015 is Parco Archeologico “Canne della Battaglia”, SP142, 76121 BT, Italy. I have no idea if that address will remain good next year so here are the latitude and longitude of the parking lot for the museum: 41°17’44.65″N 16° 9’12.80″E. An Italian friend of mine told me that a minor sport in Italy is municipalities changing street names on a regular basis and it is certainly true that for many of the places we looked for on vacation the street name we were given and what was in the 2 year-old database of our car GPS did not match reality. As you are driving to the site you will think you are driving on farm roads through vineyards and olive groves and you will be right. There are no signs until you get within a kilometer of the museum and it, the one we saw, said scavi Canne on it with a little picture of some ruins. You will just be tooling along a farm road and voila!, the museum appears as you come over a hill.
There is a tiny little parking lot across the street from the museum that fits maybe 5 cars. When we were there in August 2015, the museum was being renovated. There is a sign outside that says they charged entry but we did not pay a fee. The nice lady at the counter, who did not speak a lick of English or German, our two languages just waved us through and the nice old guy hanging who spoke broken English told us it was free. You have to go through the museum to enter the site itself. We stopped at the museum on the way out.
You enter the site from the southeast corner and have to follow a poorly marked trail to the top of the mesa where the ruins are at. There are a few signs scattered about that describe the history of the site and specific ruins that are in several languages, one of which was English. There are several interesting artifacts just kind of sitting on the side of the trail through the site with Imperial era inscriptions.
After you wander through the complete site you come to the famous (relatively famous) column. It is at the far northwestern corner of the site and looks over the Ofanto River (ancient Aufidius) plain where the battle was supposedly fought. There are some inscriptions on the base of the column in Latin and Greek. The Latin inscription is from Livy Book XXII.54 “No other nation surely would not have been overwhelmed by such an accumulation of misfortune.” and the Greek is from Polybius Book III, 116 “who had borne themselves in the battle like brave men worthy of Rome.” I assume the column is supposed to be similar to the column Hannibal erected at Croton in the year following the battle though I don’t know this for sure.
After walking back to the entrance you have to walk through the museum again on your way out. The museum is full of artifacts found in Cannae itself with a few from the battlefield. There is a Corinthian style helmet similar to what the Carthaginians would have worn as well as an African style crossbar sword and a few Roman Spathas. I am skeptical of the crossbar sword as to me it looks more Norman than ancient and we know that the Normans fought in the area, indeed Robert Guiscard took the town of Cannae in the early eleventh century.
All in all the site is pretty nice. We were the only visitors in the hour or so we were there and had the ruins all to ourselves. It is difficult to find but worth it. It is not hard to imagine how a skillful use of the terrain could have trapped an overconfident Roman army and led to its destruction. I was just happy to have found it as I, like many military historians, have read extensively about the battle and now I am one of the few who can say he has been there.