Monday, December 5, 2011

The Ghosts of Cannae

Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic

Before this book I had a schoolboy’s knowledge of Hannibal: a Carthaginian who crossed the Alps with elephants. Now that vacuum in my brain has been admirably filled.

Hannibal was a military genius who never lost a major battle during his invasion of Italy. His most famous victory was at Cannae, where he annihilated a Roman army that outnumbered his by almost two-to-one. One of the chief difference-makers was his cavalry, which he used to flank the Roman thrust. By the end of the day around 50,000 Romans were dead, including a significant number of their leaders, while Hannibal’s force remained "basically intact."

But despite his battlefield brilliance, Hannibal lost the war against Rome. Eventually he returned to North Africa to defend Carthage, and finally was defeated at the Battle of Zama by another military genius, Scipio Africanus. This brought an end to the Second Punic War, "one of the most important wars in recorded history."

Hannibal was forced into exile, but continued to run afoul of the Romans. When he was about to fall into their hands he is reported to have said, "Let us now put an end to the great anxiety of the Romans, who have thought it too long and hard a task to wait for the death of a hated old man." And then took poison.

The Legacy of Cannae

The Romans soldiers who survived Cannae were scapegoated for the defeat. Their pay was withheld and they were banished to Sicily. The author refers to them as "the ghosts of Cannae." They remained in Sicily until rehabilitated by Scipio Africanus, who incorporated them into the invasion force that finally defeated Hannibal at Zama.

Poetic justice, you say? But there’s more:

...these ghosts of Cannae would live to haunt the republic. For one day, legionaries would look to their generals and not Rome for a future, and that perspective would spell civil war and absolute rule. This more than anything else was the battle’s legacy.

The ambitious Scipio "set a pattern that led eventually to Caesar and the collapse of the republic." Thus:

In the very act of fighting Hannibal, Rome put itself on the road to civil war by coming to rely on charismatic generals for survival. If this is the case, then Hannibal had the last laugh.

Cannae remains one of the most studied battles in history. Two thousand years later men like Guderian, Rommel, Eisenhower, and Schwarzkopf were trying to emulate Hannibal’s tactics.


A brief sampling of other interesting bits from this engagingly-written book:

After Carthage was defeated in the First Punic War, Hannibal's father, Hamilcar, made his nine-year-old son swear "an oath of eternal enmity toward the Romans."

It took Hannibal two weeks to cross the Alps, a passage that cost him three-quarters of his force and most of his elephants. His "Panzer pachyderms," however, were "a questionable military asset," as likely to trample friend as foe.

When the leader of the first Roman army to engage Hannibal in Italy was wounded, his son "led a band of horsemen back into the fight to surround and protect his fallen father." That 17-year-old was Scipio Africanus.

For a hard-headed pragmatic bunch, Romans were surprisingly superstitious, being "obsessed with the proper taking of auspices and obedience to various portents." When Hannibal invaded Italy, they consulted the Sybelline books and the oracle at Delphi to find out how to propitiate the gods.

Not only were Romans a militaristic people, but their view of honour was bound up with "individual martial courage" expressed through face-to-face combat. The author reminds us that in The Iliad, Paris was reviled for using a bow.

"If Romans harbored a national nightmare, it was the Gauls." After sacking Rome in 390 BC, they "had come to symbolize irrationality, violence, and disorder." They were taller than Romans and fought bare-chested, berserker-style.

CBC interview with the author