Erik Graff'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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Apr 20, 2013

really liked it
bookshelves: history
Recommended to Erik by: Kelly Kingdon
Recommended for: military historians, Roman Republic fans
Read in January, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

Robert L. O'Connell teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School. That and his years in intelligence may account for the military slant to his The Ghosts of Cannae. Not all of it, however, is devoted to the archetypal victory of 216 B.C.E. The book as a whole spans the First to the Third Punic Wars (264 to 146), giving enough background as regards Rome and Carthage and their principal leaders to accommodate the general reader. It also serves as a biography of Hannibal (248–183/82), the brilliant victor of the battle and abject loser of the war. Still, it is Cannae itself, its setup and its aftermath, which receives closest attention.
Insofar as O'Connell has a general thesis, it is to justify his treatment of a battle which was not in itself strategically decisive. Hannibal's almost perfect fifteen-year string of tactical successes, epitomized by Cannae, is less historically important than Roman responses to it, responses which led to significant changes.
Contrary to Toynbee's assertion in Hannibal's Legacy, Cannae and Hannibal's long residence did not, according to O'Connell, permanently consign the south of Italy to destitution. It did, however, promote the replacement of small family farms with enormous, slave-tended latifundia. It also promoted the professionalization of the Roman military, creating a bond between soldiers and their often charismatic commanders stronger than that obtaining between soldiers and the state—all factors leading eventually to the destruction of the Republic.
An epilogue, framing the canvas of this ancient history, traces the modern acceptation of Cannae as tactically archetypal. Surprisingly, it seems that that did not occur until Alfred von Schlieffen took to writing after his retirement from the Prussian General Staff in the first decade of the twentieth century. Apparently, beyond the classical sources themselves, Cannae was scarcely mentioned during the intervening millennia. Now, of course, Cannae appears regularly in the curricula of military academies.
Such faults as I find in this otherwise readable narrative are in the author's jarring references to modern popular culture and his use of anachronistic slang. Thus figures like Bugs Bunny, Ming the Merciless, Fu-Manchu and the Three Little Pigs are introduced while Hannibal and his siblings are referred to as “the Barcid Boys” ranked against “Team Roma.” I suppose such are intended to be engaging, funny, maybe even illuminating. Indeed, they may work quite well for lectures to twenty-somethings. Ultimately, though, they will date this book.
More seriously, given the admittedly vague sense modern historians have as regards the real feel of Carthaginian society, about which we know little beyond some few Greek and Roman sources, I wonder why O'Connell did not explore possible parallels with the earlier Athenian mercantile empire and the later Renaissance Italian ones. Surely such comparisons would be more profitable than ones to Moriarty and Porky Pig.
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