Mike W's Reviews > The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal & the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

The Ghosts of Cannae by Robert L. O'Connell
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's review
Oct 09, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: history
Read from September 22 to October 09, 2010

O'Connell offers a vivid account of the 2nd Punic War. The book begins, surprisingly, with a sort of biological account of the origins of war. It then goes on to recount Hannibal's spectacular invasion into Italy through the Alps and his alliance with the Gauls. The decisive battle comes at Cannae, where a massive Roman army is annihilated, and the Romans who escaped were disgraced and banished from Rome--except for the inept general Varro, who was inexplicably given a warm reception in Rome.

Hannibal smashes the Romans again and again, frequently employing tricks like ambushes and confusing formations to make up for numerical inferiority. As O'Connell points out, the Romans experience their only success with the strategy of harassment and attrition employed by Fabius Maximus. The Romans found these "Fabian tactics" unpalatable, but stuck with them when it became clear that headlong collisions with Hannibal only brought disaster. At least until Scipio came along.

Scipio (later Scipio Africanus) had learned from watching Hannibal's exploits for years. He knew that the usual Roman approach to war--solid but conventional and uninspired--would not work against Hannibal. So Scipio first went to Spain and cut Hannibal's supply lines. Then he persuaded the Senate to permit him to attack Carthage itself and so force Hannibal to abandon Italy and return to Africa.

It worked. Scipio smashed Hannibal's army--which took its first serious defeat. As O'Connell emphasizes, Scipio had cobbled together an army however he could, and included among his soldiers "the ghosts of Cannae"--that is, the disgraced losers from Cannae who were finally vindicated when they crushed Hannibal's army once and for all. The Carthaginians quickly sued for peace.

Scipio was a conquering hero. The ghosts of Cannae had their honor restored. But Hannibal, after a brief stint in Carthage, spent the rest of his life drifting from city to city until he was finally assassinated 20 years later by the Romans, who still hated him for the destruction he had wrought.

O'Connell argues that Hannibal got some measure of revenge, since his invasion fatally weakened the Republic and paved the way for dictators and generals to take control. This is an interesting and provocative thesis, since the Roman Republic did not collapse until much later. O'Connell also emphasizes that, for all his brilliance as a tactician, Hannibal was not a great strategist. For all the battles in which he routed the Romans in the field, he never had a clear plan for defeating Rome. He seems to have hoped to find allies in Italy and to force the Romans to sue for peace. If so, these were serious miscalculations. The Roman allies were more loyal to Rome than that, and the Romans themselves were more determined and resilient.

O'Connell also argues that the fabled war elephants were not really much of a factor and were so unpredictable in battle that they were as likely to trample Carthaginians as Romans. He makes his case well, but this reviewer finds it difficult to believe that a general as shrewd and circumspect as Hannibal would fail to notice over a course of years that his war elephants were doing at least as much harm as good in his army.

So, in sum, this is an excellent account of the Second Punic War, and is well worth reading.
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