Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book Review: The Ghosts of Cannae

Robert L. O'Connell, once a member of the American intelligence community, has delivered a gripping and immersive military account of the famed battle of Cannae. However, the real power and authority in this book is found in the pages and chapters that precede the actual battle that serve to set the stage for the massive loss of human life on the banks of the river Aufidus.

For nearly two-thirds of the book, the focus is squarely on contrasting the politics, military culture and psychology of the Carthaginians and Hannibal to that of the Romans. The portrait is painted very early in the book of the Romans and their "determination and force of will", their worthwhile pursuit of glory and honor, and their "disapproving of every kind of deceit and fraud", while the Carthaginians are characterized as a group of misunderstood merchants that were clearly "good at business but bad at war." Perhaps O'Connell was attempting to demonstrate the inevitability of the Roman victory in the Second Punic War despite the impressive string of overwhelming victories by Carthage with these brushstrokes, but his bias is apparent.

The descriptions of each of the armies, their make-up, training, equipment and tactics found within the book are quite remarkable and are always given in the context of the larger unfolding story leading us to Cannae -- The powerbase in Spain of the Barcids, the famed expedition over the Alps and the multiple ambushes by Gaulish tribes and the small victories by Hannibal’s nearly frozen but hardened army when first entering Italy and the subsequent gathering of allies from the local tribes. By the time the book takes us to the fated day in Cannae, we have followed Hannibal's army across Italy winning victory after victory over larger, more "determined" and certainly more confident Roman forces. These victories, according to O'Connell, can be attributed to two primary factors - firstly, Hannibal was a military genius that understood with acute clarity circumstances and enemies, and secondly, the Roman's own belief in their military superiority and their individual drive for glory and honor moved their officers to such brash decisions that Hannibal had no choice but to take advantage of the numerous strategic mistakes.

For those looking for a pure military history and a reckoning of numbers, weapons and tactical formations you may be disappointed. These things are not missing from the book entirely, and I happily highlighted them in different colors for each army, but it is not the primary focus of the book.

The most powerful point in the book came during the description of the aftermath of Battle of Cannae. The author does a commendable job here in reminding us, in haunting detail, that war goes well beyond maps and formations and military leadership - it is ultimately about intense suffering and the massive and tragic loss of human life. In the context of wargaming, it is simply too easy and too convenient for us to lose sight of this point; we turn the suffering of war into an abstraction that is, at best, not mentioned when recreating these wars and, at worst, not even known by the participants. By reducing these conflicts to a series of moves within a game we are committing a grave disservice to history and to those that suffered if we do not at least pause occasionally and remember what we are truly representing on our tables.

O'Connell writes that "we live in an age when killing is cheap, virtually automated; that was far from the case in Cannae. Other than those who succumbed to the heat, each of the men who died had to be individually punctured, slashed or battered into oblivion." At the end of what amounted to a giant knife 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.

The remainder of the book recounts the fate of the Roman survivors of Cannae (Cannenses), the eventual defeat of Carthage by the Romans and the long-term ramifications on Roman society and military culture as a result of Hannibal's campaign in Italy, which is not to be underestimated.

This is well researched and well written book that I highly recommend to those wishing to learn more about the Punic Wars. I very much enjoyed reading and learning from The Ghosts of Cannae.


  1. Another good recomendation, not that my pile really needs any more.


  2. Excellent review! I read this over the summer and like you, I found the aftermath of the battle to be the most riveting part.