Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Ghosts of Cannae

As long time readers may have noticed, I’ve been very interested in Ancient Roman history. I really got turned on to it via Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcasts on the Punic Wars and read Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon┬ásome time ago, which covers a lot of the same material. While that book takes a very pro-Scipio point of view on the Punic Wars, I was interested in seeing what else was out there and recalled an episode of the Daily Show from a while back that had the author of a book titled The Ghosts of Cannae. The author, Robert O’Connell, was on discussing the book, with its focus being on the Roman soldiers that fought (and decisively lost) the famous battle. So now I’ve read through the book – let’s talk about how it turned out.

I’ve seen reviewers on Amazon complain that the scope of the book is misleading, so let’s get that out of the way first. The book covers all three Punic Wars, with about half of the time focused on the First Punic War and about an equal amount of time focused on the Second Punic War (when the Battle of Cannae takes place). The small remainder of the book wraps things up with the Third Punic War and a look at how Cannae is thought to have influenced things today (not that much until the 20th century, at which point it evidently was on everyone’s mind). So with that, Cannae shows up about 60% into the book, but I wasn’t disappointed in that as much as other reviewers were. I actually liked this better – there’s more than enough background to slowly draw the reader in and is pretty comprehensive for those wanting to know everything from weapons used, troop deployment strategies, and so on. I found it to be superior to the approach taken by The Enigma of Hastings, which seemed a bit rushed (although it seems like that was because we know much less about Hastings than Cannae).

In contrast to Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon, O’Connell treats Hannibal and Scipio Africanus pretty evenly. Hannibal is depicted as the early genius but later in life doesn’t get the breaks he needs to really succeed (particularly in cavalry troop numbers), while Scipio comes off as someone who’s not a natural genius but a quick learner and through that, is able to learn enough from Hannibal to defeat him at Zama. The politics, societal, and religious aspects of Carthage and Rome are both covered to some aspect, and it nicely supports its thesis that while granting Scipio greater powers was enough to defeat Hannibal, it also set a dangerous precedent that others (e.g., Sulla, Caesar) would exploit later, with deadly consequences for the Roman Republic. It’s not a unique thesis (I originally heard it on Dan Carlin’s podcasts) but is supported very nicely.

The Ghosts of Cannae┬ácomes together very nicely, and it’s a bit more readable than Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon. It feels a bit more up-to-date as well, and I think its more even-handed treatment of Hannibal lets the author do more with the story, and as it covers all the Punic Wars, is a better read. If you’ve already read other books on the Punic Wars, there’s not a ton of new insights here, but if you haven’t, I think it’s a great read and well worth the read.