I’m off on a trip to
Of course this is Roman Carthage, not the Punic city. That was completely obliterated in 146BC in one of the most complete acts of vindictive retribution in all of history. Carthego delenda est –
Carthage must be destroyed – Cato the Elder was in the habit of saying to the point of absurdity; and it was, completely. It was re-founded a hundred years later, a ghost of the past.
Speaking of ghosts, if you want to know why the Romans behaved with such malice you could do no better than turn to The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the
by Robert L O’Connell, an American military historian. Roman Republic
That’s it in a word or, rather, in a name – Hannibal, one of the greatest generals and tacticians in history, the nemesis of Rome, a name fearful enough to send the city’s children scurrying to their beds, least he come. He came alright; he came in the summer of 216 to the battlefield of Cannae in southern
Italy, there inflicting in a single day a defeat and a human tragedy unmatched in all of military history.
Perhaps you think that an exaggeration, just a flight of hyperbole? Then I would just ask you to consider this sombre fact. Fifty thousand Romans died on that day in August, twice as many as the British soldiers killed on the first day of the
Battle of the Somme, during the height of a mechanised war.
Although O’Connell rightly refuses to dwell on what he refers to as the “pornography of violence” there are enough hints to give one a picture of that terrible day, “If it is possible to conceive of hell on earth, this human abattoir at Cannae must have been equal of any hell that history in all of its perversity has managed to concoct.” The thing about
Cannae is that it was the kind of encounter that victorious generals dream of – a battle of total encirclement. Neither able to advance nor retreat, the Romans could only stand and die.
The Ghosts of Cannae is about much more than this seminal battle which acts as a centrepiece. More broadly it paints a picture of the entire course of the Second Punic War, part two of a three round bout, when the two giants of the ancient world slugged it out for dominance in the
Western Mediterranean. It tells the story of some commanding personalities, not just of Hannibal, the most commanding of all, but of Publius Cornelius Scipio, eventually to be honoured with the name of Africanus, his nemesis.
As I said above, the author is a military historian, and as military history The Ghosts of Cannae excels in so many regards. But he is not narrowly focused in the way that makes so much of this field hopelessly one-dimensional. Cannae and the events of the Second Punic War are given a far greater political significance in the evolution of the
. It’s the beginning of the eclipse of the Senate and the system of Consular authority. In times to come Roman armies would look to their commanders to protect their interests, not the institutions of the Republic. Roman Republic
Scipio, I was fascinated to discover, was the first man in Roman history to take the title of ‘imperator’, less politically loaded than ‘king’ with which his Spanish allies wished to honour him. In the end it might very well be said that
Hannibal did succeed in his aim of destroying the . Scipio, you see, is the beginning of a succession, one that works through Sulla on through Caesar and maturing with Augustus. In the end Imperator was a far more potent title than mere King. Roman Republic
Although the Second Punic War is really
Hannibal’s War, although he transformed what was essentially a naval into a land-based power, and although he won some startling victories, culminating in the masterpiece of Cannae, for me the real hero of The Ghosts of Cannae is Scipio. In the end he proved himself to be the better tactician and the better soldier. But most important of all he proved himself to be the better strategist and the better politician.
The paradox is that for Hannibal Cannae, his great battle of annihilation, was little better than a defeat, at least in practical terms. He failed to exploit his victory; he failed to march on
Rome. For years after he was to move impotently in ever decreasing circles in southern Italy, while Scipio took the war to Spain and eventually to Africa. Hannibal’s was the greatest triumph and the greatest missed opportunity in all of history.
It’s gripping history grippingly told, in prose that is racy and exciting but delivered without loss of proper academic focus. That’s the thing; history does not need to be dry; history is the most exciting and rewarding area of study, even if one is only looking for simple entertainment. The author uses the available sources, particularly Polybius and Livy, to great effect in a study that I found largely commendable.
Largely? Yes, I do have a few criticisms. I think the maps let the book down badly. With this kind of thing one really needs more detail. The
Cannae maps were fair enough, if basic, though those dealing with the Spanish theatre served merely as a outline. And why, oh why was there no map of the Battle of Zama, where Hannibal and Scipio met face to face?
The bigger problem for me comes with the lacunae in the sources, gaps which the author fills with speculative ‘musts’: there must have been he must have thought and on and on. No, no, no. How that sort of thing drives me mad. If one has no evidence, please, must me no musts!
I was a little surprised that the epilogue, dealing with the significance of Cannae in military thinking and history, made no mention of
Stalingrad, the most significant battle of encirclement and annihilation in the modern age. It did not escape the attention of German officers caught in the Russian trap that their commander was called Paulus, just as one of the joint commanders killed at Cannae was Lucius Aemilius Paullus. It’s little coincidences like these that give the story an added piquancy.
If this book has a lesson, and it assuredly does, it’s one that soldiers would do well to take heed. It’s this: war really is politics by other means.
Hannibal, for all his brilliance as a commander, never understood that fundamental truth. Tactics, quite simply, is never enough. If that needs to be driven home then we only have to think of Afghanistan.