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The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic [Hardcover]

Robert L. O'Connell
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 13 2010
A stirring account of the most influential battle in history
For millennia, Carthage’s triumph over Rome at Cannae in 216 B.C. has inspired reverence and awe. It was the battle that countless armies tried to imitate, most notably in World Wars I and II, the battle that obsessed legendary military minds. Yet no general ever matched Hannibal’s most unexpected, innovative, and brutal military victory—the costliest day of combat for any army in history. Robert L. O’Connell, one of the most admired names in military history, now tells the whole story of Cannae for the first time, giving us a stirring account of this apocalyptic battle of the Second Punic War, and its causes and consequences.

O’Connell shows how a restive Rome amassed a giant army to punish Carthage’s masterful commander, who had dealt them deadly blows at Trebia and Lake Trasimene, and how Hannibal outwitted enemies that outnumbered him. O’Connell describes Hannibal’s strategy of blinding his opponents with sun and dust, enveloping them in a deadly embrace and sealing their escape, before launching a massive knife fight that would kill 48,000 men in close contact. The Ghosts of Cannae then brilliantly conveys how this disastrous pivot point in Rome’s history ultimately led to the republic’s resurgence and the creation of its empire.

Piecing together decayed shreds of ancient reportage, the author paints powerful portraits of the leading players: Hannibal, resolutely sane and uncannily strategic; Varro, Rome’s co-consul who was so scapegoated for the loss; and Scipio Africanus, the surviving (and self-promoting) Roman military tribune who would one day pay back Hannibal at Zama in North Africa. Finally, O’Connell reveals how Cannae’s legend has inspired and haunted military leaders ever since, and the lessons it teaches for our own wars.

Superbly researched and written with wit and erudition, The Ghosts of Cannae is the definitive account of a battle whose history continues to resonate.

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"The slaughter at Cannae (216 B.C.) has haunted scholars and intrigued generals for over two millennia. Robert O'Connell combines first-rate scholarship, with face-of-battle graphic descriptions, to show us how horrific Hannibal's tactical masterpiece proved for thousands of trapped Romans on a single August afternoon.
A masterpiece of style, imagination, and erudition." —Victor Davis Hanson, author of Ripples of Battle and Carnage and Culture

"In beautifully chiseled prose, Robert O’Connell explains what really happened at bloody Cannae two thousand years ago and why it still matters. O’Connell says in a sentence what takes most of us pages. The Ghosts of Cannae is shrewd, sure, and one good read."—Barry Strauss, author of The Spartacus War

About the Author

Robert L. O’Connell has worked as a senior analyst at the National Ground Intelligence Center, as a contributing editor to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and most recently as a visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression; Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship and the Rise of the U.S. Navy; Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War; Soul of the Sword: An Illustrated History of Weaponry and Warfare from Prehistory to the Present; and the novel Fast Eddie.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful account of the Second Punic War Jan. 9 2012
This work is a good example of how history should be written. Nothing is lost in terms of credibility and research, but this story flows. O'Connell centres things with the disastrous (for the Romans) Battle of Cannae where 40,000+ soldiers were killed by Hannibal's army in a single day. We are filled in on the events leading up to and following the battle while receiving excellent analysis on Carthaginian and Roman government and decision-making motivations. Obviously, we know that Rome ultimately defeated Hannibal in spite of Cannae and other defeats. O'Connell gives us a number of reasons why.

Ultimately, Scipio Africanus rises as the Roman answer for Hannibal - we follow his career and the twists and turns of the Punic war until finally Hannibal and Scipio meet at the battle of Zama.

O'Connell also fills us in on how Cannae has influenced military history (or not). Cannae has proven unrepeatable but as long as there are armies, there will be people interested in Cannae.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Captivating Account of the Second Punic War Aug. 18 2010
By G. Poirier TOP 50 REVIEWER
The Second Punic War is arguably the best known of the Punic wars and the battle at Cannae is surely its most salient feature. In this fascinating book, the author starts off, in the earlier chapters, by discussing the ancient sources for the events about to be described. He then outlines the political, social, economic and military characteristics of both sides - Rome and Carthage; the main personalities are introduced as well. Then, as Hannibal gets under way, the story gathers steam, culminating at Cannae but continuing in gripping prose into the battle's aftermath and on to the end of the Second Punic War. Thus, beyond the earlier chapters, the rollercoaster ride never stops. Also, the author pulls no punches in his battle scene depictions - some of which are very graphic and not recommended for the squeamish. Throughout the book, where the ancient sources are unclear or in disagreement about certain events, the author offers what are the most likely scenarios based on the best available current scholarship.

The writing style is authoritative and relatively formal, but also friendly, lively, often quite witty and very captivating. This book can be enjoyed by anyone, especially ancient history buffs and military history enthusiasts.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  98 reviews
145 of 152 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It makes you go "Hmmm..." May 3 2010
By CGScammell - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This is an interesting and easy-to-read narrative for the beginner history fan of Ancient Rome's military tactics and battles during the Punic Wars. Robert O'Connell presents an introduction to Rome's early Republic years before delving into the Second Punic War. Ancient Roman historians such as Polybius and Livy are often quoted (not that historians have a lot to go on, either) but credit must go to O'Connell for also wanting to present the Carthaginian point of view, of which many pages are dedicated. He uses his own vast knowledge to add his analysis of why certain tactics failed and others were successful.

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.
70 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First rate May 16 2010
By Peter Ingemi - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
There are two extremes when reviewing pre-release books. One of them is a book that is so boring that you find yourself not finishing it before the release date exemplified by [ASIN:0345505352 Never Tell Our Business to Strangers: A Memoir]]. The other extreme is exemplified by The Ghosts of Cannae a book SO good that I finished it in two days and put it down wanting more.

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.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hannibal was pretty cool! May 25 2010
By J. Green - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Author Robert O'Connell acknowledges up front that a lack of contemporary sources from the time period limit what we know, but he makes exceptionally good use of what information is available. He explains that the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War was a turning point for Republican Rome (216 BC). Rome was beaten badly by Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who led his troops over the Alps in a daring and highly successful raid. But for all Hannibal's military genius and victories, he lost the war and Rome went on to become a great power. The "Ghosts" in the title refer to Roman soldiers who lost at Cannae and were exiled in shame, but later played a pivotal role when Scipio Africanus (gotta love the names!) recruited them and finally defeated Carthage.

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...).
63 of 79 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Thesis Marred by Lackluster Writing July 2 2010
By Patrick Odaniel - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Robert L. O'Connell in The Ghosts of Cannae puts forth the intriguing notion that the defeated, scorned and exiled Roman soldiers following Rome's disastrous battle with Hannibal at Cannae became the harbingers of an ominous turn in Roman civic life. In short, these "ghosts" of the Roman army wound up transferring their loyalty from the Republic of Rome to a particular Roman general (a benign transfer in this instance to Scipio, but later to lead to the fatal--at least fatal to Republican Rome--transfer of loyalty to Julius Caesar). O'Connell also does a good job explains the basics of Roman military and civic life (a la Michael Grant).

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).
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Vivid March 15 2013
By CJA - Published on
This is a thoughtful and well-researched analysis of the great battle as well as its larger context.

Regarding the battle, O'Connell points out that from the vantage point of the field, the Romans did not see the trap sprung by Hannibal -- they lacked the depth perception to see that Hannibal was strong on the flanks. Thus the Romans rushed in and the center gave way enough to create a pocket that was quickly enveloped by Hannibal's two wings. Hemmed in, only the Roman forces on the exterior could put up a fight. They were overwhelmed by the numbers of the Carthaginians; when they fell, the newly exposed forces were then cut down. Tens of thousands of Romans were hacked to death in this fashion.

But O'Connell is more interested in the political as opposed to the military questions raised by the conflict. By the rules of the game then prevailing in Mediterranean conflicts, Rome should have given up and made peace with Hannibal. But winning the war, as opposed to a battle, is a political act. Politically and culturally, the Romans could not accept defeat. They were better suited than the Carthaginians in mobilizing for war and wearing down the opponent. The Carthaginians were better suited for commerce than for war. In Hannibal they were lucky enough to have a great commander who could make them outperform themselves militarily. But that was not enough to win the war. The Romans learned from Hannibal. Scipio Africanus survived the battle and learned to fight smart rather than simply to overwhelm an opponent. He skillffully moved his forces and took the offensive; he didn't fall for any of Hannibal's tricks and ended up winning the final battle of the Second Punic War.

Another thesis of O'Connell is that there were several thousand survivors of the battle who learned from their defeat and who avenged themselves in the final battle of the war.

Overall, this is an entertaining and vivid book.
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