The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic
By Robert L. O’Connell. 336 pp. Random House, 2010. $26.99.
Reviewed by Byron J. Nakamura
The life-and-death struggle between Rome and Carthage during the Second Punic War of the third century bc proved a watershed for both civilizations. For Carthage, the conflict spelled the end of its overseas empire and its economic preeminence; Rome’s triumph, meanwhile, set in motion its conquest of the Mediterranean. During the early course of the war, however, a Roman victory had not been certain. The invasion of Italy by Carthage’s magnificent general, Hannibal Barca, had crushed all Roman opposition and culminated in the Battle of Cannae in 216 bc, a rout in which the Roman army suffered higher casualties in a single day’s fighting than any other Western army before or since. Even after his defeat 14 years later by Roman general Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama, Hannibal conjured images of terror, with the phrase Hannibal ad portas (Hannibal at the gates) used to frighten naughty Roman children. In the realm of military tactics, Hannibal’s “double envelopment” of his Roman foes at Cannae would become the holy grail of battlefield maneuvers for such heralded generals as Alfred von Schlieffen.
The Battle of Cannae and Rome’s war with Hannibal have never lost their appeal; they continue to be featured in books, films, and even on commemorative coins. But Robert L. O’Connell’s book The Ghosts of Cannae stands apart from most recent treatments. O’Connell vividly tells the story of the conflict by following the fortunes of the Roman soldiers who survived the massacre at Cannae—from their defeat on the battlefield and decade-long exile on the island of Sicily to their eventual redemption when they served as a crucial element (the legiones Cannenses) of Scipio’s army and helped defeat Hannibal at Zama. Historians have often overlooked Cannae’s survivors, or “ghosts,” even treating the Roman soldiers of both battles as separate entities. Yet O’Connell’s approach makes clear that Rome’s defeat at Cannae and its victory at Zama were linked through those soldiers who fought in both. Even Scipio Africanus had been a young officer at Cannae; he learned from that experience, adopting Hannibal’s own tactics and using them against him.
O’Connell—a former U.S. intelligence analyst who’s now a respected military historian (and contributing editor to MHQ)—is at ease with the military dimensions of the Hannibalic war. His treatment of its religious aspects is less persuasive, betraying a modern sensibility that discounts the importance of religious ritual and belief for ancient peoples. Also, the author’s presentation of some aspects of the Carthaginian civilization remains wedded to rather outdated scholarship. These are but minor quibbles, however. O’Connell’s observations are often insightful, and his prose is captivating. And for its respectful treatment of the contributions and sacrifices of the ordinary Roman soldier, The Ghosts of Cannae is a valuable addition to the field.
Byron J. Nakamura teaches Roman and Greek history at Southern Connecticut State University.