Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Ghosts of Cannae

There is an endless list of things on which I am not an expert. Ancient History is one of them. BUT, my college roommate, Theresa (the one who introduced me to the Daily Show) is an expert. (Okay, maybe not technically an expert, but she was a Classics major and sure knows a whole lot about it). When Robert O'Connell's book The Ghosts of Cannae was promoted on the show, Theresa offered to read and review it for me. There was an internal battle: If Theresa reads this one, I won't be able to say I read everything promoted in 2010 versus If Theresa reads this one, I won't have to read it.

The latter won out, so, without further ado, here's Theresa Tejada, The Daily Shill's Senior Classics Correspondent.

Emily and I have been watching The Daily Show together for years. In fact, our communal love of Jon Stewart’s wit and insight was one of the first things that bonded us two freshman college roommates together. When Emily told me about her ambitious project to review every book, every movie, and every other type of entertainment peddled on The Daily Show, I wanted to get involved somehow. Robert O’Connell’s appearance on the show over the summer gave me my opportunity. As a Classical Studies major, The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic got me pumped. Ancient history doesn’t make it into popular culture often, and when it does, it’s often pretty inaccurate or an embarrassment. So thank you, Jon Stewart, for bringing some credibility to the field.

I believe that The Ghosts of Cannae would be an interesting read to anyone. While Cannae might be a foreign term to most people, the main character is not. Hannibal, the famed general who notoriously trekked his troops and a legion of elephants over the Alps, is the protagonist of the story (and the namesake of my doctor!). Hannibal, the Carthaginian who reportedly took a solemn vow at a young age that Rome was his mortal enemy, shook the Roman Republic to its core and reportedly killed 48,000 soldiers at deadly battle at Cannae. This devastating loss challenged Roman values, character, and government and set to stage to fundamentally change the structure of its civilization.

I appreciate that O’Connell introduces and critiques his ancient historians early on in Chapter 1. History didn’t serve the same purpose to the Romans and to Livy and Suetonius (our two main sources on the Second Punic War). O’Connell also challenges and elucidates modern classicists, but his book doesn’t read like a boring scholarly journal. It is easy to tell that O’Connell is a historian (who uses the word “abattoir” and what does it mean?) and sometimes the complex military maneuvers are a little boring, especially if that’s not your forte. But he also writes in a fun, humorous and accessible style. My favorite passage is probably: “of course, Alexander really was a Greek, seemed convinced of his divinity, and was probably crazy.”

Sometimes, his fascination borders on Orientalism, especially towards the Carthaginians (modern Tunisia), of whom the archeological record is less complete and viewed through the eyes of the Romans. I wonder what The Ghosts of Cannae would be like if O’Connell had written it a year or two later, when he had time to digest the recently discovered child burials outside of Carthage suggesting that the child sacrifices how frequently touted throughout the book was a myth (

The first few chapters were a little rough to get through. I thought that his flash-forwards were confusing and a little heavy on the military strategy for my taste. He has a daunting task of succinctly introducing the complex civilizations of Carthage and Rome to explain what aspects of their culture were instrumental in affecting the outcomes of the Second Punic War. His description of the Roman cursus honorum, the civic positions in Roman government, might be the most efficient explanation I have ever read or heard. Once O’Connell reaches Cannae, the narrative hits its stride and becomes much more enjoyable.

Overall, I give The Ghosts of Cannae a 3/5. I took issue with some of O’Connell’s assertions and was hoping for a longer and more thorough explanation of why this battle was a game-changer in the history of the world instead of his timid six-page epilogue. On the other hand, I appreciated his passion for the subject that I also dearly love and it would have made my hour-long presentation on Scipio Africanus for Junior Seminar for Classics Majors much easier. I hope everyone who reads it enjoys it.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, great post! I'm a huge fan of the Daily Shill and of the Senior Classics Correspondent. Great job to both of you!