Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hannibal was pretty cool!

So how much do you really remember from your high school history classes? Maybe it depends on how long it's been since graduation, but I think my 25th reunion happened last year (if so, they don't know where I live anymore...) so maybe I've got an excuse for remembering very little. One thing I do remember, though, was Hannibal. No, not the creepy guy from the movies, but the Carthaginian general who gave the Romans a hard time. I remember Mr. Skedros talking about Hannibal's unusual tactics, like sailing up close to Roman ships and tossing snakes on board - which must have created quite a scene! He also told us of Hannibal marching his troops over the Alps on elephants! Of course, a teenage boy imagining stories like that conjures more questions than answers.

The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman RepublicSo even though ancient Roman history isn't something I usually read, The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic by Robert L. O'Connell looked interesting enough to request it from Amazon Vine. And given that this happened over 2,000 years ago, Mr. O'Connell acknowledges that a lack of contemporary sources from the time period limit what we know, but he makes exceptionally good use of what fragmented information is available. He explains that the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War was a turning point for Republican Rome (216 BC). Rome was beaten badly by Hannibal and the Carthaginian troops that marched over the Alps in a daring and highly successful raid. And he answers some of those questions that popped into my mind back in high school, like how the elephants would have fared going over the snowy Alps, and how the Romans would have reacted to them in battle. But for all Hannibal's military genius and victories, he lost the war and Rome went on to become a great power. The "Ghosts" in the title refer to Roman soldiers who lost at Cannae and were exiled in shame, but later played a pivotal role when Scipio Africanus (gotta love the names!) recruited them and finally defeated Carthage.

But while I remembered Hannibal from those long ago history classes I didn't recall the Battle of Cannae - even had to look up the pronunciation which surprisingly turns out to be kan-EE (the emphasis can actually be on either syllable). And Hannibal really was the star of this book for me, and it was kind of slow until it reached his trek into the Alps. Then the book takes off and was almost impossible to put down as O'Connell explains Hannibal's military strategies, and how he adapted and took advantage of situations, like positioning his troops upwind so the dust blew in the Romans faces. While O'Connell does his best to make the book accessible for those without much knowledge of early Roman and ancient military history, some prior exposure might be useful to follow the narrative. Several maps, a 'list of characters,' and a glossary of important terms are helpful. I also appreciated that O'Connell explains the limitations on the record from that early time, and throughout the book he debates on the merits of the various records and why they might or might not be reliable. His writing style is... well, I guess I could say 'interesting' - I thought it sounded like it was written by a twenty-something instead of a seasoned historian - but it works and makes it easier to follow. And it makes me wonder about a lot of other history I've long since forgotten.

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