Hannibal at the center of 'Cannae'

Surely the battle at Cannae — on the heel of Italy's boot — is one of the most studied battles in history. Taking place at the beginning, in 218 B.C., of the Second Punic War between Carthage, a rich trading city founded by Phoenecians on Africa's north coast, and an expanding Roman Republic, Cannae was a terrifying bloodbath in which 40,000 Romans were methodically killed by the famous general Hannibal's light cavalry, mercenary infantry, and elephant divisions. "The Ghosts of Cannae" is another rendering of this famous event.

The author, Robert L. O'Connell, is an analyst at the National Ground Intelligence Center and a visiting professor of military history at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has written a number of works of military history and is a respected scholar.

His new book is a sure-footed accounting, taken mostly from the work of Roman historians Livy and Polybius, as well as modern archaeological and textual research, of the battle that resulted in the routing of Rome's army by a powerful Carthagenian warlord who had brought a tough bunch of Numidians, Spaniards and Rome-hating Gauls across the Alps to confront a far superior number of heavy infantry amassed by Rome.

The result of the battle — 40,000 men dead in eight hours, most packed tightly together in their leather uniforms and pot-helmets, waiting to be speared, thirsty, hot, weary and wretched — is almost unimaginable. A few thousand survivors — the ghosts of Cannae — were eventually reorganized by the famous Roman general Scipio Africanus into a core of legions which, years later, finally defeated Carthage in another epic bloodbath.

O'Connell's account of the basic causes of the conflict, each antagonist's aims and goals, and the fundamental social and political dynamics of the affray is readable and accessible. One needn't be an aficionado of military history to enjoy this book, but it helps. O'Connell slips into a maelstrom of uncertainty when he devotes considerable time to an analysis of the origins of war, certainly a subject of great depth and complexity, clearly unsuitable to a military history. His writing is at times awkward and he falls into slang and cliche here and there.

The book is illustrated by helpful maps and has a generous section of notes, as well as a glossary, but lacks a bibliography.

As always, Hannibal — who spent 10 years in Italy confounding the Romans and killing them in great numbers — is the center of the story. One of the great military figures of history, he is a man to study and ponder. "The Ghosts of Cannae" is a useful introduction to the man, the time and the war that made Rome a great military power.


"The Ghosts of Cannae" by Robert L. O'Connell (Random House, 310 pages, $27)