Readable study of a 2,000-year-old battle that still reverberates today.
On Aug. 2, 216 BCE, in southeastern Italy, a massive Roman army faced down a smaller, apparently weaker Carthaginian force led by Hannibal. Two years earlier, Hannibal had famously led that force, war elephants and all, over the Alps into Italy, devastating the armies of the Roman Republic. At Cannae, he nearly finished the job, using a pincer movement to surround the Romans and nearly annihilating them. Contemporary accounts of the battle, such as those by Livy, aren't really contemporary at all, following it by a century and more. O'Connell (Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present, 2002, etc.), a former analyst with the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency, has his work cut out for him in sorting out what is reliable from what is fabulous or moralizing in the records of the past. Perhaps surprisingly, he gives fairly solid marks to Polybius of Megalopolis, who came nearly 75 years after and had access to now-lost Carthaginian accounts of the battle. The "ghosts" of the title are the Roman survivors of the battle, who crossed the sea with Scipio Africanus and sowed Carthage's fields with salt, erasing it from the map in an act that can only be considered genocide. O'Connell pointedly contrasts Carthaginian and Roman society, the one commercial and the other bellicose, and at several points he likens the Punic Wars to the transcontinental slaughter of the two world wars. He also notes that modern generals continue to study Cannae as a textbook example of smart, fluid strategizing. “[F]or the Allied invasion of Germany,” writes the author, “Eisenhower envisioned a huge Cannae-like maneuver, employing a double envelopment of the Ruhr,” and George Patton likened the Polish army in 1939 to the unfortunate Roman consular army at Cannae.
A wide-ranging account of the battle that sets it in the larger context of the Punic Wars and the rise of the Roman Empire.