Book Review: Ghosts of Cannae, by Robert L. O’Connell

Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic, by Robert L. O’Connell, Random House, 2010, $27

Outnumbered and hundreds of miles from his base in Spain, Hannibal accepted battle against a Roman force that must have appeared invincible. And against any other general, the Romans would have rolled over the Punic army assembled on the fields near Cannae. But Hannibal was a military genius who, on this August day in 216 BC, was at the top of his form. He drew the attacking Roman legions deep into the center of his position, then launched his flanks forward in a crushing double envelopment. By the end of the day, nearly 50,000 Romans lay dead or dying. Despite his decisive victory, Hannibal believed the walls of Rome impenetrable and declined to march directly on the city, whereupon his cavalry commander, Maharbal, said disgustedly, “You know how to conquer in battle, but not how to make use of your victory.” So it was that the apparent master of Italy threw away his greatest triumph.

Spared from siege, Rome recovered, raised new legions and dedicated itself to the ultimate defeat of both Hannibal and Carthage. In Ghosts of Cannae the author presents a fast-paced narrative of the entire Second Punic War, the two-decade struggle to determine which would be master of the Mediterranean—Rome or Carthage. Writers have exhaustively covered this story, and the ancient warfare specialist is unlikely to find anything new here, yet the book remains a worthy read, if only for the Cannae battle reconstruction. Given the typically limited firsthand sources, historians find ancient battles notoriously hard to reconstruct, but O’Connell takes the evidentiary challenge head on and provides a reconstruction sure to arouse lively debate among historians.

For the general reader, Ghosts of Cannae is a delight. O’Connell stays true to the sources, synthesizes the best of what other historians have written and gives readers a gripping story. It is refreshing that O’Connell avoids falling into the “cult of Hannibal” trap. He allows that, despite his great victory at Cannae, Hannibal almost single-handedly led Carthage into a greater strategic defeat, leaving it powerless to resist brutal Roman vengeance two generations later. O’Connell maintains his focus on the eventual victors by anchoring his story on the Roman survivors of Cannae and the man who restored their honor, Scipio Africanus.

The Roman Senate banished the approximately 10,000 Roman survivors of Cannae to Sicily, where they languished for most of the Second Punic War—until Scipio arrived in their midst. Understanding the dishonored legions’ deep need to regain their reputation and Rome’s respect, Scipio made them the core of the army he led into North Africa and onto the field of Zama. There they destroyed Hannibal’s veterans, made Rome master of the Eastern Mediterranean and replaced the stain of defeat and dishonor with victory and glory.

In the final tally the Battle of Cannae was an empty victory. After a brief period of panic Rome rebuilt its legions and redoubled its efforts. Thus Hannibal’s win at Cannae proved but a single glorious moment in a war Carthage should never have undertaken.

Many a general is fond of the idea that someday he, too, will one day lead victorious troops in a second Cannae. For the historian looking for an absorbing history of the battle that has enthralled these generals and military historians for centuries, look no further than Ghosts of Cannae.

—James Lacey

One Response

  1. Chris Rushlau

    I’ve just begun the book and savor already the historiographical truism that historians can’t help but write about themselves and their own times. Or is that the Hindu truism, tat tvam asi? Well, the echoes of the Israeli stand (to date) (and did he mention the English stand against the Nazis, as though the Russians didn’t win the Second World War in Europe almost by themselves?) don’t distract me entirely from the argument, nor does his nattering style. (Intelligence officals always bear in mind, I gather, that they just advise–it is the commander who is responsible for what happens.)
    But if I were his commander, I would seize on a word he applies to the Romans–law–and crank some clarity out of him. Without that word, I would describe their cultural glue as racism. O’Connell’s description on 31: “And among the defeated, Rome forged a hegemony based on the fiction of alliance, but in the process generated real and tenacious loyalty on the part of the subjugated.” (It is with such praises ringing that I imagine how Israel is viewing current events in Egypt.)
    But with that word, law, I still can’t escape racism as the main theory. But now it tells us something about law and racism. Racist law is not reasonable. If Hannibal made a soldier’s mistake by not going after Rome itself, as you say–maybe got too up in his own head after such a smashing victory and decided he shouldn’t push his luck–then Rome’s own eventual hollow victory–and that of Christendom–The West–is a hollow victory to this day–since we still can’t decide that law should be reasonable.
    What is reasonable? Racism is arbitrariness (and capriciousness), right? So when we say that you do not get to comment on our law dealing with you (thus defining the master race), that’s racism under law. But that makes us each tremble in our personal armored sandals because we each might end up deprived of our membership in the “we” and banished to the land of the “you”, because there is no rational way to define a master race–the whole point of the device is that it’s arbitrary and capricious. So our own allegiance to the “we” is always conditional. What is the word used commonly in The West for such loyalties? Expedient?
    There is also the fun factor. I suspect that it was never any fun being a Roman. Liddell-Hart says Scipio, victor of Zama, scandalized the Senate by wearing casual attire, enjoying light music, and socializing with the troops. Perhaps he should have quit soldiering and become a critic–if he’d really wanted to help Rome.


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