The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic (Anglais) Broché – 13 septembre 2011
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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.
Revue de presse
“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
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The Ghosts of Cannae is a study of that battle--the worse defeat in Roman history, and a battle that cost more lives than any other single engagement in Europe, up to and including the Battle of Somme. More Romans died at Cannae on August 2, 216 BC than Americans did during the whole of the Vietnam War. O'Connell undertakes to explain the entirety of Cannae, from the events, the cultural, social and political pressures that led to the engagement to the rippling after effects of the Roman defeat which would eventually shake the foundations of the Republic itself.
It was ". . . a terrible apocalyptic day," writes military historian Robert L. O'Connell at the beginning of The Ghosts of Cannae, ". . . 120,000 men engaged in what amounted to a mass knife fight." That statement encapsulates what makes O'Connell's account of this ancient Roman battle at once so compelling, enlightening, and readable. The author possesses a rare talent among scholars to bring remote and seemingly academic facts down from their rarified heights and put them, vividly and viscerally, right in front of the reader. And it doesn't get more visceral than 50,000 men, lying gutted on the field of battle on a hot summer day.
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History is written by the victors and the losers just fade away. The curious reader will want to understand why Hannibal and his followers took the route they did, why they wanted to attack Rome where they did, and why it all mattered. This is a book not just about Hannibal, but about Hasdrubal, Scipio Africanus and Quintus Fabius Maximus. Maps are included to show the progress made by Hannibal from Spain to Italy. What should have been a vicotry for Hannibal turned out to be a deafening defeat, and O'Connell goes into impressive analysis of why Hannibal's strategy failed. Although I can't verify all facts in this book, this is an easy-to-read and inquisitive narrative of the Second Punic Wars and the aftermath. A non-military-trained historian would be able to understand O'Connell's work.
I just finished a semester of Ancient History and found this book perfect for some citations on the Roman Republic. I enjoyed this book. It is not too heavy into military tactics, nor is it too scholarly for everyman's history fan. But the author also asks the "How" and "Why" of the strategies used by the commanders and why they all failed.
Perhaps more scholared readers may find this book repetitive or perhaps long in the introduction as the Second Punic War and Hannibal's crossing of the Rhone don't happen until half-way into this book, however for someone who just enjoys a good historical read, this book is ideal. Robert O'Connell clearly has a passion for military history and the Ancient Romans. If you want to know more about the Second Punic War and read some analysis, this book is perfect.
This book examines Rome and Carthage, a bit of history of the first Punic war, some excellent coverage of Hannibal and the battle itself, and the subject of the title. The "Ghosts" of Cannae, namely the Roman survivors who were given short shift by the republic..
He does all of this in a prose stile that really works, he turns a phrase with the best of them and approaches the problems with the surviving accounts of both the battle and ancient history without disrespecting them.
He spends a fair amount of time talking about the effects of the battle and how it shaped all the various parties. His suggestion connecting the battle with the eventual fall of the republic is an interesting proposition.
His epilogue about how Cannae has become a fixation of some modern soldiers was the only weakness, not because it is bad but because I wanted more of it. The worst part of this book is the fact that it ended.
I can't recommend this volume enough, buy it.
I remember Hannibal from history classes long ago but didn't recall the Battle of Cannae - even had to look up the pronunciation which surprisingly turns out to be kan-EE (the emphasis can actually be on either syllable). Hannibal really was the star of this book for me, and I found it rather boring (almost stopping for something else) until it reached his trek into the Alps. Then the book takes off and was almost impossible to put down as he explains Hannibal's military strategies, and how he adapted and took advantage of situations (like positioning his troops upwind so the dust blew in the Romans faces). While I think O'Connell tries to make the book accessible for those without much knowledge of early Roman history, some prior exposure might be useful to follow the narrative. I also appreciated that O'Connell explains the limitations on the record from that early time, and throughout debates on the merits of various records and why or why they might not be reliable. His writing style is... well, I guess I could say 'interesting' - I thought it sounded like it was written by a twenty-something instead of a seasoned historian - but it works and makes it very readable. Maps, a 'list of characters,' and glossary of important terms are also helpful for those of us not familiar with ancient military history. In the end, a very enjoyable book (now I'll have to find something on Archimedes and the battle of Syracuse, which sounded very interesting...).
Unfortunately, O'Connell's writing is tinctured with corrosive cliches whereby one must always "drive home" a point, Roman officials are trapped in a "rat race" and certain types of Roman soldiers are "one-trick ponies." Indeed, there are jarring uses of modern idioms which O'Connell no doubt thought would help to make his book more accessible and relevant to the casual reader--a creature, I fear, that has been exterminated through the toxic carpet bombing of television and video games--at the expense of alienating more serious readers of history. So, Roman officials serve just one year thereby allowing rapid turnover with the result that everyone may have Warhol's 15 minutes of fame (alluded to here with the clunky phrase, "the Warholian rubric")while, elsewhere, Roman patriotism is contrasted with drinking the "proverbial Kool-Aid." In other words, to use yet another tired phrase, O'Connell has fallen between two stools (one of which does not exist).
The book is an enjoyable read, easily approachable for someone who has never heard of the Punic Wars but still satisfying for someone starting out with a good knowledge base. O'Connell makes excellent use of his ancient sources and marshals his information into a coherent and compelling narrative.
The writing flows well and is easily followed, making the book a fairly quick read. I found some of O'Connell's turns of phrase a bit bizarre, though. At one point, he says that republican Romans followed the "Warholian rubric" when it came to turn-over of their government officials. He also describes Hasdrubal Barca's escape from C. Claudius Nero as "a vanishing act worthy of Bugs Bunny," though he goes on to assure us that Nero was no Elmer Fudd! While I assume many folks reading this book will understand what O'Connell is talking about, I somehow doubt references to Andy Warhol will make much sense to someone reading Ghosts of Cannae fifty years from now. Admittedly, I suspect readers even 100 years from now will be familiar with Bugs and Elmer. As 20th century cultural artifacts, Looney Tunes are worlds more potent and long-lived than anything Andy Warhol ever did.
While I am no scholar of republican Rome, I felt that O'Connell's treatment of the history was detailed, well informed, and fair. In only one place did I quibble with one of his claims--that annoying modern assumption that the speeches made by the ancients and recorded in histories were mere whole-cloth fabrications created by ancient historians to make a moral point. Referring specifically to Livy, O'Connell says:
"Ancient history is replete with such speechifying, useful in delineating issues, dramatic, and at times elevating rhetorically, but it is not to be taken literally. There were no voice recorders or stenographers. Most speeches were extemporaneous."
While it may be true that most ancient speeches were extemporaneous, the idea that there were no stenographers is debatable. For example, in later Roman days, there were often reporters who followed around the great homilists (like Saint Augustine and Saint John Chrysostum) writing down what they said--in shorthand. I have trouble faulting O'Connell for this overmuch as he is only reflecting the conventional wisdom among scholars. It is certainly conceivable that Livy's speeches were all fabrications. But I think more caution should be used when making this assumption.
In summary, Ghosts of Cannae is a useful popular history of the Punic Wars. If you have a passing interest in this subject, you will do well to read it.