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On the Bookshelf: The Ghosts of Cannae by Robert L. O’Connell

The Ghosts of Cannae

Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

by Robert L. O’Connell

There are certainly more pivotal battles in history than the battle of Cannae, but Hannibal’s tactical masterstroke rings throughout history, or at least throughout modern history, as an example of military genius, the prototype for the concept of the “decisive battle,” and the ideal that military leaders should strive for. If it is the case, as Mark Twain said; “History may not repeat, but it does rhyme”, Generals have been trying to rhyme Cannae in nearly every major battle since Westphalia.

The Ghosts of Cannae is not just about that single battle, but also about Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and the other battles he fought against the Roman war machine. Even more, it is about how those events at the beginning of the Second Punic War, including the stunning defeat at Cannae, shaped the battles at the end of the Second Punic War, including Hannibal’s downfall at Zama, and how the changes in the Roman political and military culture following Cannae set into motion the forces that arguably eventually led to the rise of Caesar and the fall of the Republic.

In truth, the book dwells comparatively little upon Cannae. The eponymous “Ghosts” were the soldiers who survived the slaughter of Cannae, as well as the survivors of other battles where Hannibal humbled the Romans. These soldiers, scorned and distrusted by the Roman political leadership were exiled to Sardinia. Among the Ghosts, the author includes the man who would eventually rise to be the Roman counter to Hannibal’s genius. The general who would gather and lead those cast-off  and spurned soldiers to victory by taking the fight, just as Hannibal had done, into the enemy’s heartland and earn himself the name Scipio Africanus.

As far as history books go, The Ghosts of Cannae is stylistically very easy reading, almost conversational. It contains a wealth of information, though much of it admittedly speculation, and almost all of it written by the victors. The Ghosts of Cannae strives to illuminate the background behind the events of the Punic Wars, including the differences between Roman and Carthaginian cultures, how they fought and how they thought. This contextual approach to the conflict makes it more understandable to speculate on how and why events developed in the way they did. Very recommended.

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