Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review: The Ghosts of Cannae

The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the darkest hour of the Roman Republic, by Robert L. O'Connell, gives a modern interpretation of one of the greatest battles of ancient history. In 216 BC, a Carthaginian army let by Hannibal Barca utterly destroyed a huge Roman army several times its own size. It ended with an appalling slaughter of the Romans that was unequaled in casualties until the modern battles of World War I. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 soldiers of Rome and its allies were killed by edged weapons in one day of battle.

Yet, although it was a great battle, it was not a decisive one. Carthage and its allies won that battle (and several others), but eventually lost the war. O'Connell tells not only about the battle, but about the series of wars between Rome and Carthage that resulted in the eventual complete destruction of Carthage (the three Punic Wars).

Writing about events that took place more than two thousand years ago has several difficulties. First, the sources from that time that he must rely on are few. The only ancient author who covers the whole period is Livy, who has theatrical tendencies and is overtly pro-Rome. Fragments of a lost work by Polybius cover this period incompletely, but provide a more moderate and perhaps more accurate account, where they are available. Other authors wrote even longer after Livy and Polybius, and can provide only marginal support or confirmation.

Second, the world of the ancients was entirely different from our world in many ways. Not only was their technology less complex, their views of the world were different. Slavery was common and accepted. You knew that if your home city lost a war, you would likely be a slave. Minor cuts and scrapes would result in death in a time without antiseptics, and even without the knowledge of the need for them. The idea of the rule of law was not even thought of.

Third, war was very different. Battles were at short range and deadly, but the deadliness was personal. Soldiers were killed at arms length, by slashing and stabbing. One of the things O'Connell makes clear was the effort and closeness of death in this battle. The Roman army was wiped out, but the Carthaginian army was physically exhausted. Every Carthaginian soldier had to stab or hack to death three Romans with a sword or lance while wearing heavy armor, on a hot day, in only a few hours.

Finally, politics was very different. In the words of Will Cuppy, "Carthage had a government run by rich men and was called an oligarchy. Rome had a government run by rich men and was called a republic." Although the people (often acting as a mob) could not be completely ignored, the actual government of both sides was governed by a web of personal alliances and loyalties among a very small group of men on both sides.

In the end, O'Connell points out two mistakes that made the battle of Cannae a futile victory. First was a basic mistake by Hannibal, one of the few he made in the war. After the battle, the way was open for the Carthaginian army to advance on Rome and threaten the conquest or siege of the great city. Hannibal, calculating rationally on his own power and the size of the city, decided to proceed into southern Italy and try to win over Rome's allies. But O'Connell points out that this was the great chance for the Carthaginians, either to conquer their enemy or to break their will. By turning away, they did neither, and they entered a long, gradual, inevitable decline. They might have lost if they attacked Rome; they were certain to lose if they did not.

The second mistake was cultural. For the Carthaginians, war was an incident which interrupted trade. For the Romans, it was the reason d'etre for the state. Their only goal was victory. If trade suffered, so be it. The Carthaginians failure to understand the implacable nature of their enemy caused it to make mistakes that harmed their cause.

This is a well-written, well-pace book. I highly recommend it to lovers of history. I read it in the Kindle version, and regret the inability to zoom in on the maps. With the hardcover, I would have used a magnifying glass. But the maps are a minor matter. O'Connell writes well, and gives modern readers an excellent insight into the ancient world.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an awful lot of research must have gone into producing this writing! Interesting review!



About Me

Jacksonville, N.C., United States
Retired teacher, motorcyclist, member of the Patriot Guard Riders, the Christian Motorcyclists Association, and the Moto Guzzi National Owners Club.