Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: The Ghosts of Cannae

Military history always seems like it will be much more interesting than it turns out to be. This book by Robert L. O'Connell is better than average on those counts in that is was very interesting throughout. The topic is Hannibal and the battle of Cannae two centuries BC, and how it fits into the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Cannae itself is roughly at the center of the narrative and the author does a good job of covering most topics succinctly and going back far enough to show where the wars came from. (I had previously only read about the darkness of the Carthaginian religion from G.K. Chesterton, and I assumed he was exaggerating a bit, but no, he was spot on, maybe even a little understated given the recent evidence of infant sacrifice ... yikes.) Cannae itself is described excellently -- you can see not only why Hannibal was so smart but also why the Romans walked right into his trap, it's not just that they were stupid! The drawbacks are common to much popular history: there's a few sections where the history gets so complicated that it reads more like a list than a narrative; as a non-specialist I need either more storytelling or less detail. Also, the epilogue at the end about the future impact of Cannae is way too short. I'd like something along the lines of the ending to The Ghost Map in which the lessons are made immediate and relevant, but instead we just have six pages, most of which tell us how Cannae does not apply when people have said it does! Overall it's a good example of the genre and an excellent reminder of how history is done. I can't help but think there's a few more details about characters like Hannibal and Scipio Africanus that would tell the story that much better, details like Malcolm Gladwell might ferret out, but that's just saying it's a good book not a great one. Well worth the time.

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