Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #05: Ghosts of Cannae by Robert L. O’Connell
The story of the Second Punic War is, in many ways, the story of the Carthaginian Barca family. The patriarch was one Hamilcar Barca, a general in the First Punic War who, to put it mildly, did not handle Carthage’s defeat well. According to legend, Hamilcar forced young Hannibal – his oldest son – to take a holy oath to destroy Rome.
After planting the seeds of his enemy’s destruction in his son’s mind, Hamilcar didn’t waste any time. He and his family moved to Spain, then a Carthaginian stronghold, and set about carving out a personal empire. The Barcas were strong, charismatic leaders, and they forged the Carthaginian troops and local tribesman into a fighting force that was loyal to them personally and only nominally to Carthage.
When Hannibal was around 19 years old, Hamilcar died in battle. The son, who was already beloved by his father’s troops, took over and pointed the Barca military machine straight at Dear Old Dad’s greatest enemy: Rome. In a maneuver that would become the stuff of legend, Hannibal marched his army – including a complement of war elephants – over the Alps and into northern Italy. Upon arrival Hannibal proceeded to open up a giant can of whoop-ass all over the unprepared Romans.
The Romans, intent on showing this little punk a thing or two about fighting, raised army after army and took after Hannibal. Hannibal wiped the floor with all of them, in spite of the fact that he was constantly outnumbered. Enraged, the Romans doubled down, raised a gigantic army, and set about forcing Hannibal into a final, glorious confrontation. The result was the Battle of Cannae, one of the two greatest defeats in Roman history. (To get an idea of the scale, the Romans lost more men in one day than America lost in the Vietnam War. It still stands as the greatest loss of life in a single day in all of Western military history.) Hannibal would rampage through Italy for 13 more years before finally returning to Africa and defeat at the hands of the great Roman general Scipio Africanus (himself a Cannae survivor).
Throughout the book O’Connell deftly avoids bogging down in battlefield detail, instead deftly juggling explanations of the Roman and Carthaginian national character, the lives of Hannibal and Scipio, and the effect of Hannibal’s victories on Rome’s standing in Italy and the Mediterranean. The author also describes the plight of the survivors of Cannae, who were viewed as dishonorable – as well as embarrassing – reminders of the defeat. Before the battle, the Roman legionaries were forced to swear an oath that they would not retreat from their duty. Survivors were seen as oathbreakers, and were exiled to Sicily, where they could be more easily ignored. It was these men who would later form the core of Scipio’s army and would finally defeat Hannibal.
My sole complaint is that O’Connell presupposes a familiarity with the First Punic War and with the other campaigns of the Second, often tossing off references without really explaining who or what he’s talking about. I had to refer to the Wikipedia several times for an explanation. O’Connell didn’t do this often, but he did it often enough that it became a mild distraction.
With that being said, Ghosts of Cannae was enjoyable and had a wealth of detail about Carthaginian and Roman life as the Republic was beginning to project itself beyond Italy.