For the most part, non-fiction history books that reach the popular reading circles are pretty light on historical insight, analysis and context. Rare is the book that refreshes a weary segment and manages to vibrantly, concisely capture not only a single event in history, but its generational effects.
Robert O’Connell’s The Ghosts of Cannae is a book that enthralls and informs in a way that relies on brains and brawn. It lands in the hard to achieve middle ground, between intelligent and entertaining, where most popular histories seek comfort in the fluff and surface skimmed facts.
The Ghosts of Cannae is the story of the battle of Cannae, where Carthaginian general Hannibal swept into Roman Italy and decimated a massive army. Less a book about Hannibal and his Roman opposites, The Ghosts of Cannae is a strategic historical perspective of the before and after of the battle.
Ghosts shows the political and economic forces at play in the early second century B.C.E that lead to Hannibal marching on Rome. It is extremely hard to wrap up centuries of history in an informed way and not put a general reader to sleep. O’Connell suffers no such problems.
From the martial rise of Carthage to the growth of Rome after the battle, O’Connell superbly renders history in ways that provoked our reviewer to contemplate how, or if, history is repeating itself today.
One of the more significant points clearly articulated by O’Connell is the idea that the eventual rise of dictators was spawned at Cannae. As Hannibal marched on Rome, penetrating the homeland of the nation, undeterred or defeated, Roman politicians sought a man to match the Carthaginian. This need for a strong, ruthless leader that did it all for the glory of Rome would eventually prepare the field for the rise of Caesar. It would create one of the mightiest nations in history, but it would also, as pointed out by O’Connell, destroy a republican government.
While not a straight military history book, The Ghosts of Cannae has an amazingly clear, concise and informed overview of the men, arms and techniques of both Rome and Carthage. These could be broken out of the book and become their own, outstanding, works. O’Connell has an amazing ability to bring out specific details in the weapons and formations that will receive appreciative nods from students of the period, as well as inform the non-fiction novice.
O’Connell excels with a painters eye for vistas as scene breaks of history. As Hannibal pushed through the Alps, emerging on the other side with a weary but cohesive fighting force, O’Connell engages the reader with text like the skilled brush of landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. When O’Connell puts an army on the march, its mass is preceded by a dust cloud, heralding impending doom. A fantastic image that comes from a clear mind that snaps details from the air.
The Ghosts of Cannae has flashes of blood and battle, vividly portrayed by O’Connell. He punches out with imagery that drips with brutality, dust, sweat and death.
The Ghosts of Cannae is an about near perfect work of non-fiction.