The Ghosts of Cannae: a review

The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

By Robert L. O’Connell

In southern Italy, in 216 BC, during the Second Punic War, Carthaginian troops confronted the largest Roman army yet sent onto a field of battle. What followed was one of the most famous military victories in history – the battle of Cannae. It is a battle many have sought to emulate, won by a general whose name still resonates two thousand years later.

Hannibal Barca, a son of Carthage, humbled Rome as no one had before or would again, killing at Cannae almost 50,000 Roman troops in one day; a slaughter that still stands as the single bloodiest day of battle in military history. For good or bad it is admired for that very reason: mass and unbalanced death, executed with a fierce and merciless precision that stunned the ancient world and has since beguiled generations of militarists. It is regarded as perfect.

Yet to view Cannae as purely a military event worthy only of a macabre voyeurism does the pivotal historical importance of the sixteen-year Second Punic War a huge disservice. Robert O’Connell, a military historian of high standing, understands that Cannae wasn’t just a singular event, rather a fulcrum point in a larger war which, ultimately, propelled Republican Rome down the path to Empire. It was a battle that, over sixteen years, loomed as a shaming nadir, forcing Rome to gradually invest power in the individual genius of its politicians and generals; a choice that would culminate with the likes of Marius, Sulla, Pompey and, finally, the Caesars.

Fittingly, O’Connell tells the narrative of Cannae and the Punic Wars through the towering personalities of Hannibal and Scipio; avatars of their rival states, laying bare the character and culture of a nascent Rome and long established Carthage, and elucidating the vast distinctions of the two and the vital roles those differences would make to the conflict’s outcome.

The Second Punic War remains a struggle of compelling and seemingly illogical reversals that doomed an entire culture, vaulted such names as Hannibal and Scipio Africanus into the historical record while defining the next millennia for Europe. And Cannae lies at its centre, a gruesome slaughter on an unimaginable scale that had immense political and social consequences. O’Connell captures these subtleties beautifully, evoking a sense and scale of the period, not just grim statistics of the clashes involved. The reader feels the presence of the people involved, the environment in which it all took place, coming to understand just how important that time was. O’Connell keeps his and the reader’s eyes firmly on the bigger picture, showing a rich, visceral and captivating time in history that bears more than passing analogous value to the modern world. The Ghosts of Cannae is a vivid and enthralling read that will capture the imagination of anyone with even the faintest interest in the forces of history.

Marcus Greville

Paperback, $29.99. Buy this book and we will send it freight free anywhere in NZ.

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