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Robert L. O'Connell concurs with the subject quote from Serge Lancel, in his categorization of the Second Punic War, at least in so far as the Mediterranean basin is concerned. The Punic wars, and there were three in total, were fought between Carthage and Rome, with the second one being in the late second century, B.C, between 218 to 202. This war involved numerous Roman generals and leaders attempting to stop one of history's all time military genius: Hannibal. The author draws the reader in on the first page by stating that their were more battle deaths on August 2, 216 B.C., at the battle of Cannae, than the United States suffered in the entire Vietnam War. In fact, on that day more soldiers died in combat than any other single day in the entire history of Western warfare. Previously, I had assumed that horrific record belonged to the British and their losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. But the grim British number of 21,000 was "only" 40% of those who died at Cannae. Although I've read my share of history, I knew I was quite weak in terms of the ancient world, and have struggled to keep the Peloponnesian and Punic wars separated. After reading this excellent history, that will never be a problem again.

O'Connell convincingly addresses two key questions at the beginning: How do we know what we know?, and for events this old, Why should we care? He draws heavily on the account of Polybius, who was born during the last year of the war. He was of Greek origins but raised in Rome, and knew some of the key individuals involved, or their children. O'Connell also repeatedly references Titus Livy, who wrote an account almost 200 years after the Second Punic War. The author says that Livy presented the "cinema graphic" pictures of the ancient world. And yes, there is at least one graphic image of the battle at Cannae that I will never forgot. The author also reviews contemporary scholarships, judiciously weighing all the theories and new evidence on these events.

Cannae is clearly the climatic moment of the book, but like any good historian, O'Connell provides a thorough explanation of the antecedents, starting with the establishment of Carthage in the 9-10th century B.C. by the Phoenicians. He provides the nitty-gritty of military history, with an explanation of the weapons, tactics, and leadership in the battles, and places that within the context of the larger political forces. There were no B-52's bombing peasant populations at Cannae; in other words, on an overall basis, the men and equipment were fairly evenly matched, with the Romans having somewhat of a numerical superiority on the battlefield. Yet when the battle was over, the Carthaginians had killed almost 8 Romans for each of their own killed. How could this be possible? Largely one man's genius, fielded against weak Roman commanders. So why do we not study the Carthaginian Empire today? After Cannae, O'Connell presents a 100 page denouement, with a familiar theme, particularly for Americans today: You can win all the big battles, but still lose the war, and Carthage did indeed lose.

O'Connell's style is measured and balanced, but livened with modern references, such as, "the right stuff, and "drinking the Kool-Aid." He also has a dry wit. Consider, in regards to Sophonisba, a Carthaginian who turned her charms on Masinissa, an allied leader of the Romans, whom she married: "That's no Punic subverter of Rome's allies; that's my wife!" The one image many have of the Punic Wars is Hannibal managing to get his elephants through the Alps, and the author has a droll proclivity for alliterative pachyderm phrases like: "panzer pachyderms," "pachyderm pandemonium" and "pachyderm panic." And how many historians can readily reference Flaubert's Salammbo (Classics) (aka Salambo)?

Cannae is the metric bar of military history, with numerous other generals referencing this battle, and developing their own strategy based upon trying to duplicate Hannibal's success. In the epilogue, the author includes Count Alfred von Schlieffen (of the German plan for winning World War I,) Heinz Guderian and Edwin Rommel in WW II, as well as Dwight Eisenhower on the American side and later Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf War.

There are all the caveats issued about this being an advanced copy, but you would think, surely, Random House could run the text through `spell-check' prior to issuing it: there are 20-30 errors that this program would have easily corrected before it was foisted upon reviewers. It's just plain sloppy. If I were the author, I'd be unhappy with the shoddy workmanship which needs a lot of cleaning up before "prime time." Also, the correct phrase is: FLOAT like a butterfly, and sting like a bee" (p 87).

And the "ghosts"? No, they are not the dead, but the living Roman veterans of a losing battle that Rome no longer wanted any part of, and for 15 years they were essentially exiled in Sicily. They were eventually "rehabilitated" by Scipio Africanus, and he lead them in the final victory over Hannibal in 202 B.C. Ancient history? As O'Connell says: "The conscience of a nation is often revealed by the fate of its veterans, particularly veterans of defeat. Belatedly we Americans have done what we can to rehabilitate our Vietnam vets and expunge the memory of their lonely return, vowing it will not happen again to those coming back from Iraq. Rome's example argues that this is not simply a matter of compassion but a matter or prudence." I'm in the "amen corner" on that one.

An excellent 5-star read, and I'll never confuse the "P" wars again.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on May 02, 2010)
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on 18 September 2013
The major part of this work is devoted to the military strategies and details of the various battles which formed the basis of the second Punic war (218 BCE to 201 BCE).
O'Connell displays a very impressive knowledge of his subject however this is basically an academic book which assumes the reader has previous insight into the history of this period and in the absence of this, the narrative can become very dry.
The author makes no assumptions regarding the events or characters contained within the history which is reflective of the scrupulous research which is apparent throughout.
It is however unfortunate that the book fails to appeal to the layman.
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VINE VOICEon 10 November 2010
Basically this tells the story of the 2nd Punic war primarily from the standpoint of Hannibal and events in Italy, although the events in other theatres, Spain and Africa are broad-brush mentioned.

I must admit to some concerns when I found that Mr O'Connell was American. Based on my very limited experience in that field I find that American historians seem either to fit within the school of awe (just read some of the books that cover the American civil war), or, within the Mary Beard school of pronouncements from on high complete with sound bites(as do most British historians I'm familiar with). Mr O'Connell does not, he writes with a clear and penetrating style that one cannot help but both learn from and feel that the insights afforded are theirs alone. In short he's of the same school as John R. Hale and Garrett Mattingly, very, very good indeed.

The book (CD) starts with Hannibal's march toward the Alps and finishes at Zarma. It's brilliantly written and the battle scenes are `superb', the description of Cannae in particular is harrowing. Told as it is I `think' I know why Hannibal didn't move on Rome straight away, it must have been the sheer numbness brought on by the destruction he had brought about. Mr O'Connell also does an excellent job in conveying the pathos of the 2nd Punic War. Tactics win battles and one is left in little doubt that Hannibal stands at the top of the tree, possibly alone or, at best with just a couple of others. Strategy wins wars and after listening to the Ghosts of Cannae I'm convinced that Hannibal didn't really have one, and the one he `made up' on the spot was deeply flawed. And if he was following Alexander's examples then somthing was lost in translation.

By the by the Ghosts in the title refers to those Roman soldiers who survived Cannae and were sent/exiled to Scilly and later fought in Scipo's army at Zarma.

Does this audio book have a downside, yes, I think we could have done without the long list of protagonists at the start - I was just longing for the book to commence.....Fine in a paper work where they can easily be referred back to but not to my mind in a audio book. Some folk may not like the mid Atlantic accent of the narrator, me, I thought it fitted the book and subject very well.

The audio tape is unabridged and some 13.5 hours long in MP3 format. Highly recommended.
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on 28 June 2011
I didn't read the book but bought and listened to the CD audio version and the detail is incredible and it's enormous and really good value for money. It doesn't just cover Cannae but relates the history of Carthage and Rome and all the other principle players of the day and the events leading up to Rome's greatest ever single defeat and the after effects. The casualties of these battle's were truly horrific and the CD really does bring that to life.

It describes fully why Cannae occurred and why Hannibal led his army over the Alps from Spain on foot to take on the awesome fire power of the Roman legions and won, fighting battles for 'sixteen years' on their own soil in Italy. The Ghosts of Cannae is an absolutely incredible true story and if you are interested in the subject, I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

The reference 'Ghosts' comes from those who actually survived the carnage and destruction of the battle at Cannae on the Roman side, where over 50,000 of their comrades and a good proportion of the Senate were massacred. They lived to fight the Carthaginian's years later and eventually got their revenge. Brilliant and unbelievable history but true!
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on 26 October 2011
Absolutely outstanding. I've read many books on the Punic Wars and this rates as one of the best. Uses the battle as a centre-piece, with the events of the First Punic War and the origins of the Second outlined with the focus on the battle to come; then a visceral account of the battle itself; then the effect on the rest of the Punic Wars and the legacy of the battle across history. Excellent explanation of the sources and their strengths and weaknesses. I can't recommend this highly enough.
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on 21 October 2010
The book is written very well. Detailed descriptions of events. It should be a must reading for those who enjoy old history.
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