Cannae – that word means nothing to most people, but to military historians it means the humbling of one of the greatest empire’s in history. Cannae was the scene of the slaughter of tens of thousands of Romans and their allies by arguably the best general in history – Hannibal. Granted Hannibal defeated Rome when it was still a republic, but it was well on its way to becoming an empire. Anyway, I just finished reading Robert L. O’Connell’s The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic.
O’Connell’s focus is not necessarily on the battle itself, but more on the participants (of the book’s 266 pages, 38 are devoted purely to the battle). He primarily focuses on Hannibal (with some coverage of his brothers Hasdrubal and Mago), the Scipio family, and the fate of the Roman soldiers who survived the battle.
Because of the dearth of information on this time period, O’Connell depends mainly on two writers from the ancient world – Livy (“an amateur writer” in O’Connell’s words) and Polybius (an historian). Both of these sources lean heavily to the Roman side. Unfortunately, there are no accounts from the perspective of the Carthaginians.
Polybius is the more accurate source, but some of his writings were lost to time. Thus, O’Connell must depend on the exaggerated account of Livy in certain instances. However, I think that O’Connell makes some good guesses in trying to sift through Livy’s skewed writing. For example, with regard to Hannibal’s actions after Cannae, Livy does not mention how or why certain Roman armies were disbanded. However, O’Connell concludes that those armies were probably defeated by Hannibal.
O’Connell includes a lot of historical information in an easy to read format. He incorporates several maps, including ones of the Italian and Spanish areas of operation, into the text.