The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

by Robert L. O'Connell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679603795
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/13/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 4,622
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Robert L. O’Connell has worked as a senior analyst at the National Ground Intelligence Center, as a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and most recently as a visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression; Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy; Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War; Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present; and the novel Fast Eddie.

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Chapter One


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).

Table of Contents

List of Maps xi

Cast of Characters xiii

I Traces of war 3

II Rome 29

III Carthage 57

IV Hannibal's Way 84

V The foc and the hedgehog 106

VI Cannae 132

VII Aftershocks 170

VIII The Avengers 199

IX Resurrecting the ghosts 227

Epilogue: The Shadow of cannae 261

Acknowledgments 261

Notes 269

Glossary of Latin, Military, and Technical Terms 289

Index 295

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The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The topic is interesting, but O'Connell takes the conventional, Romanocentric view of the Rome-Carthage conflict. Although he attempts to be evenhanded, he often makes unsupported, judgmental statements and posits them as categorical fact. Many of these are historical boilerplate, even though there's really no way to know them as fact. Example: Hannibal's family hated Rome and was above all motivated by it. Really? How does one prove that? Even if true, what bearing does this assertion have on the overall historical analysis of the conflict between the two empires? Although a decent enough writer, O'Connell's stylistic flourishes were often grating and fell flat. Also, while his almost sole focus on military history is understandable and will be extremely interesting to some, this book was not a particularly enlightening or thorough examination of the conflict between Rome and Carthage. Granted, as implied by the title of the book, the focus is on the Battle of Cannae. However, with so much of the book devoted to the situation and events that led to Cannae, a better historical appraisal of the two empires would have been appreciated. For a much better modern historical analysis of Carthage and its conflict with Rome, I would suggest "Carthage Must Be Destroyed" by Richard Miles. (Unfortunately I think it has only been released in Britain so far.) It is longer and doesn't focus as much on military history (though there is plenty of that too), and since it is written by someone with a background in archaeology, there are many fewer unsubstantiated assertions, and less reliance on traditional stereotypes of the two empires. The main things I took from Mr. O'Connell's book were: 1) Carthage's reliance on mercenaries left it extremely vulnerable when things went bad. 2) Rome's reliance on charismatic generals led to the downfall of the republic. Both those theses were interesting and applicable to the modern era. I was just hoping for more from the book than that.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 218 BCE, Hannibal led the Carthage army using elephants to invade the Roman Empire by climbing over the Alps. Two years later in Cannae, Italy the two enemies fought again using different tactics. The Romans had superior forces and a short supply line. Yet deploying a pincer movement, Hannibal and his army nearly ended the Roman Empire. This is a superb look at the participants of the second Punic War mostly from the military sides of both combatants and the Roman civilian actions and reactions; there is much less on how the people of Carthage felt. Fascinating with a super comparative analysis of Rome the conqueror and Carthage the traders as well as a discerning analysis of the strategies of Hannibal including his "panzer pachyderms" taking the fight to Italy, and the two Roman leader rivals Scipio Africanus who confronts the foe with swamping the battlefield and no regard to collateral damage and Fabius Maximus who wanted to delay the fight to attrite the enemy. Well written, the disgraced Roman survivors of the Cannae massacre were hidden from public view exiled to Sicily until Africanus realized they had a motive to insure victory at Zama in Africa. Mr. O'Connell makes references to modern warfare that can trace its roots to Cannae and how the victors write the history books with little regard to the facts as he debunks the revisionists who wrote over the next few centuries following the salting ethnic cleansing) of Carthage. Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good book - details the efforts leading up to the battle at Cannae and how it all unfolded. Would have given this 5 stars if a little more time had been spent describing the subsequent decade + of Hannibal in Italy.
Schmerguls on LibraryThing 7 months ago
This book tells the story of Hannibal's life and of the second Punic War. It is sprightily written and the research evideneced is impressive. Cannae was fought 2 Aug 216 B.C. The events leading up to it are given in detail and I thought some of the account was dry, except for the crossing of the Alps. The time after Cannae is somewhat doleful for a guy like me who as a youth always was "for" Hannibal, I suppose because his side was the "underdog" and Hannibal is an impressive character.
Shrike58 on LibraryThing 7 months ago
An entertaining popular study of the wars between Carthage and Rome, with particular emphasis on the impact of the great Carthaginian leader Hannibal. While I detect no real problems with the book, the fact is that O'Connell leans heavily on the work of Adrian Goldsworthy and J.F. Lazenby, so if you have already read their studies of the Punic Wars you'll probably find O'Connell a bit redundant.
fnorbury on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Outstanding military history¿the geopolitical context and strategy and the actual experience of march and battle. Theme: An unsupported, family army that won most of the battles, except for the last one, versus a citizen army, that won the war.
JenIanB on LibraryThing 7 months ago
Threading a careful line between academic battles the author gives a modern take on the Battle of Cannae. The initial chapters detailing the Roman and Carthaginian republics can be a bit of a slog but are essential to understanding what follows. Once into Hannibal¿s campaign as the story progresses more rapidly, with clarity and dry humour, it is a pleasure to read. Whilst mentioning the controversies regarding the route through the Alps, the battle itself and its aftermath, the author consciously or not has appeared to follow the principle of "inherent military probability" propounded by Alfred H Burne. All in all a very approachable and enjoyable study of an ancient battle that rightly or wrongly has obsessed military minds for centuries.
deslni01 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
The Ghosts of Cannae details Rome and Hannibal's battle of Cannae, August 2nd, 216 BCE, and the rest of the Second Punic War. This war was brought upon by Hannibal Barca's child-hood desire to watch Rome burn, passed down from his father's personal vendetta. Many are familiar with Hannibal - the Anti-Roman - and his exploits during the Second Punic War - specifically (and most amazingly) marching an army, with elephants, over the Alps to attack Rome. So strong was his strategy and army, even though numerically out-classed, that he spent nearly 16 years on Italian soil without any major defeat. The Second Punic War can be considered "the first world war", in that it had players from Africa, Spain, Italy, Asia Minor and practically any place around the Mediterranean. Most intriguing, the only losses to Rome were on Italian soil; throughout the Roman army's time in Spain, Sicily, Sardinia and Africa, they had no problem fighting the Carthaginians. The reason is simple: Hannibal. Robert O'Connell's book is laid out very simply, with the first few chapters dedicated to leading up to and explaining the major players of the war - Rome and Hannibal/Carthage. The remainder of the book details the Battle of Cannae and its repercussions, how the war dwindled down and ended, and how Hannibal's actions lead to the eventual downfall of the Roman Republic. O'Connell bases the title and ending of the book on the "legiones Cannenses" - the unfairly exiled "Ghosts of Cannae", and how they were able to redeem themselves. The final parts of the book include O'Connell's thoughts on modern scholars' views of the war, as well as the military significance of the battle. Interestingly, the Battle of Cannae has almost been non-existent throughout history until the early 20th century. O'Connell offers great insight into and a very readable account of the Second Punic War. His writing his fluid and moves very quickly. Rather than a reference book for the War, The Ghosts of Cannae offers the reader a fast-paced general overview of the Second Punic War, with the emphasis on the Battle of Cannae. O'Connell also makes a point to analyze and explain how some of the sources must be read against the grain - specifically Livy. This offers the budding, new or part-time historian a glimpse into how and why historians critically analyze documents. For those that have read histories of the period from Goldsworthy, Daly, Lancel, or Lazenby, much of the information seems to be re-hashed and re-compiled, and may seem repetitive. For those who have not read the previous scholars, this is a very interesting read about some of the most interesting characters in Roman history.
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SirByron66 More than 1 year ago
If you enjoy reading about battles and the strategies of battle, then this book is a must read for you.
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