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


by Robert L. O'Connell

New York: Random House, 2011. Pp. xviii, 310. Illus., maps, personae, gloss., notes, index. $17.00 paper. ISBN: 0812978676

The author of a number of well-received popular military histories, in this work O’Connell takes a fresh look at a well-treated subject, the Battle of Cannae (216 BC) and the Second Punic War, the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC). 

Based on recent scholarship, supplemented by archaeology and even re-enactors and “living history” experiments, this account of the war, the politics, the armies, the personalities and, most centrally, the battle itself, is both thoughtful and thought-provoking.  O’Connell observes that the long-held tradition of a Roman “war party” and a “peace party “is based on very slight evidence, in contrast to far stronger evidence supporting the idea of such a split among the Carthaginians, arguing convincingly that there might not have been a war but for Hannibal and his supporters. 

O’Connell wisely tells the story through people, often discussing matters from the perspectives of individual politicians and commanders on both sides, and occasionally even trying to see things from the level of the common soldiers.  His look at the mechanics of mass slaughter on the scale of Cannae is particularly gripping.  

O’Connell ends by going beyond the second century of the pre-Christian Era to look at the longer term consequences -- “The Ghosts” --  of Cannae, the destruction of Carthage, Roman dominion over the Mediterranean, and the collapse of the Roman Republic, and even to the ways in which the battle echoes to the present, such as its influence on war planning in 1914 and even later.  A good read, for anyone interested in history and particularly for the specialist in ancient warfare or Roman history. 

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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