From the Publisher
“A masterpiece of style, imagination, and erudition.”—Victor Davis Hanson, author of A War Like No Other
“Outstanding . . . [a] superb chronicle of events that shaped the fate of Western civilization.”—Booklist
“[O’Connell] is able to put himself and his reader on the ground at Cannae, gagging in the heat of a southern Italian midsummer, assailed by an overload from every one of the five senses.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Dramatic and comprehensive . . . O’Connell has established the new standard for studies of the second conflict between Rome and Carthage.”—Publishers Weekly
“[O’Connell] writes with clarity about an era shrouded in speculation.”—Providence Journal-Bulletin
An author needs to ask what he can bring to the topic that is new. The distinctive edge of The Ghosts of Cannae is Robert L. O'Connell's consistently professional instinct for the behavior of men and units on the battlefield. He is able to put himself and his reader on the ground at Cannae, gagging in the heat of a southern Italian midsummer, assailed by an overload from every one of the five senses.
The New York Times
Military historian O’Connell (Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression) has established the new standard for studies of the second conflict between Rome and Carthage. In dramatic and comprehensive fashion, he describes the rivalry, based on temperament and territory, that led to the slaughter at Cannae in 216 B.C.E. and beyond. Focusing chiefly on Hannibal and his Roman nemesis Scipio Africanus, he also awards proper consideration to Fabius Maximus, whose strategy of attrition and delay could have saved countless Roman lives. Differences in Roman and Carthaginian tactics, armament, and philosophy are explained, as is the importance of religious belief to both cultures. O’Connell shatters the popular myth of the invincibility of the Carthaginians’ fabled elephants, the “panzer pachyderms.” The “ghosts” of the title are the Roman survivors of Cannae, who were unwanted reminders of defeat. They were banished to Sicily until Scipio Africanus incorporated them into the army that achieved the final Roman victory at Zama. Unfortunately, a lack of sources restricts O’Connell’s ability to provide much information on the Carthaginian home front, but ample attention is given to the political maneuvers that shaped Roman policy. 6 maps. (July)
Readable study of a 2,000-year-old battle that still reverberates today. On Aug. 2, 216 BCE, in southeastern Italy, a massive Roman army faced down a smaller, apparently weaker Carthaginian force led by Hannibal. Two years earlier, Hannibal had famously led that force, war elephants and all, over the Alps into Italy, devastating the armies of the Roman Republic. At Cannae, he nearly finished the job, using a pincer movement to surround the Romans and nearly annihilating them. Contemporary accounts of the battle, such as those by Livy, aren't really contemporary at all, following it by a century and more. O'Connell (Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present, 2002, etc.), a former analyst with the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency, has his work cut out for him in sorting out what is reliable from what is fabulous or moralizing in the records of the past. Perhaps surprisingly, he gives fairly solid marks to Polybius of Megalopolis, who came nearly 75 years after and had access to now-lost Carthaginian accounts of the battle. The "ghosts" of the title are the Roman survivors of the battle, who crossed the sea with Scipio Africanus and sowed Carthage's fields with salt, erasing it from the map in an act that can only be considered genocide. O'Connell pointedly contrasts Carthaginian and Roman society, the one commercial and the other bellicose, and at several points he likens the Punic Wars to the transcontinental slaughter of the two world wars. He also notes that modern generals continue to study Cannae as a textbook example of smart, fluid strategizing. "[F]or the Allied invasion of Germany," writes the author, "Eisenhower envisioned a huge Cannae-like maneuver, employing a double envelopment of the Ruhr," and George Patton likened the Polish army in 1939 to the unfortunate Roman consular army at Cannae. A wide-ranging account of the battle that sets it in the larger context of the Punic Wars and the rise of the Roman Empire. Agent: Carl Brandt/Brandt & Hochman Literary Agency
Read an Excerpt
Traces of War
Polybius of Megalopolis peered down from a pass high in the Italian Alps and caught sight of the rich green Lombard plain far below. It was exactly the same inviting panorama Hannibal had shown his half-starved, half-frozen, thoroughly discouraged army seventy-three years before, exhorting them to stay the course on what would prove to be an amazing path of conquest. Quite probably enough bits and pieces of that weary host remained visible for Polybius to be sure he was in the right spot; a certitude denied future chroniclers, and giving rise to one of ancient history’s most enduring and futile controversies: Where exactly did Hannibal cross the Alps?1 Polybius, for his part, was free to concentrate on questions he found more important. It was his aim—an endeavor that would eventually fill forty books—to explain to his fellow Greeks how a hitherto obscure city-state on the Italian peninsula had come to dominate, virtually in the course of a lifetime, the entire Mediterranean world. But if Rome stood at center stage in Polybius’s inquiry, Hannibal and Carthage were his foils. Each in their own way had nearly put an end to Rome’s ambitions. Both by this time were dead, obliterated by Rome, but it was the challenges they had posed and the disasters they had inflicted that Polybius found most compelling. For no matter how bad things had gotten, Rome had always responded, had picked itself up out of the dustbin of history and soldiered on. And it was in defeat more than victory that Polybius saw the essence of Rome’s greatness.
It never got worse than Cannae. On August 2, 216 b.c., a terrible apocalyptic day in southern Italy, 120,000 men engaged in what amounted to a mass knife fight. At the end of the fight, at least forty-eight thousand Romans lay dead or dying, lying in pools of their own blood and vomit and feces, killed in the most intimate and terrible ways, their limbs hacked off, their faces and thoraxes and abdomens punctured and mangled. This was Cannae, an event celebrated and studied as Hannibal’s paragon by future practitioners of the military arts, the apotheosis of the decisive victory. Rome, on the other hand, lost—suffering on that one day more battle deaths than the United States during the entire course of the war in Vietnam, suffering more dead soldiers than any other army on any single day of combat in the entire course of Western military history. Worse yet, Cannae came at the end of a string of savage defeats engineered by the same Hannibal, Rome’s nemesis destined to prey on Italy for another thirteen years and defeat army after army and kill general after general. Yet none of this would plumb the depths reached on that awful afternoon in August.
It has been argued that Polybius, aware of Cannae’s enormous symbolic import, deliberately structured his history so as to make the battle appear as the absolute low point in Rome’s fortunes, thereby exaggerating its significance.2 Yet, not only do sheer numbers argue the contrary, but also Rome on this day lost a significant portion of its leadership class, between a quarter and a third of the senate, the members of which had been anxious to be present at what had been assumed would be a great victory. Instead it was a debacle by any measure, so much so that a case can be made that Cannae was even more critical than Polybius believed, in retrospect a true pivot point in Roman history. Arguably the events of this August day either initiated or accelerated trends destined to push Rome from municipality to empire, from republican oligarchy to autocracy, from militia to professional army, from a realm of freeholders to a dominion of slaves and estates. And the talisman of all of this change was one lucky survivor, a young mili- tary tribune named Publius Cornelius Scipio,* known to history as Africanus. For at the end of many more years of fighting, Rome still would need a general and an army good enough to defeat Hannibal, and Scipio Africanus, with the help of what remained of the battlefield’s disgraced refugees, would answer the call and in the process set all else in motion.
* Typical Roman names of the late republican period had three elements: a praenomen, or given name (in this case Publius), chosen from a limited list and having no family connotation; a nomen, referring to the gens or clan name (Cornelii); and, finally, the cognomen, or family within the clan (Scipio).
From the Hardcover edition.