There is a bit of a filtering process you will want to go through with this book. First, do you like history? If not, skip this book. Second, do you like miliary history? Third, do you like ancient military history?
How about this...do you like really well written, gripping stories? The kind of writing where even when you know the ending, it is still a great read? Skip the first three filters and go with the last one.
Rome beat Carthage, right? Wiped them out, plowed salt into the fields and relegated them to the dustbin of history, right? Wrong. To badly paraphrase John Kerry, Carthage (Hannibal) won before he lost. And he won big.
Robert O'Connell has put together a really compelling history of how Hannibal won the battle (Cannae) but how Hannibal and Carthage lost the war. To put it in perspective for those of you with my level of classic education, this is the Second Punic War. Why, you may ask, are the series of conflicts between Carthage and the Carthaginians and Rome and the Romans called the Punic Wars? Quoting Wikipdedia here: The term Punic comes from the Latin word Punicus (or Poenicus), meaning "Carthaginian", with reference to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry. Aren't you glad you asked? (Don't feel bad, I had to look it up, too).
The Second Punic War was, according to the historians, caused by territorial conflicts in Spain - pitting the Carthaginian empire against the ever-expanding Roman Empire. There is ample cause to believe (and O'Connell lays out the case rather well) that the Second Punic War was one of those pivotal events in the shaping of modern Western Civilization.
Let's get back to the action. Believing their holdings in Spain relatively secure or, alternatively, believing the best defense is a good offense, the North African empire sends its army against Rome, led by the scion of one of Carthage's leading families. If you remember what little of the history you ever did learn on this topic, you remember the Carthaginian's defeat and the destruction of Carthage. What O'Connell does is take the reader through the 15 years of Hannibal's invasion of Italy and consistent defeats of the Roman Legions. What starts as battles over Spain becomes a true life-or-death struggle between empires for control of the western Mediterranean. Rome is truly threatened.
O'Connell's sequencing of the action is compelling. Not that you can really believe you are there, but he provides such a great description of geography, tactics, equipment, and battle technique that you remain fascinated. Moreover, he provides a world view that renders the remembered history most of us have as totally misdirective.
Point: After the initial manning of the invasion forces, Carthage itself played a relatively minor role in the subsequent 15 years of battles, harrassment, and plundering performed by Hannibal's army. Reinforcements came not from Carthage, but from mercenaries bought with the plunder and local converts (few). In essence, it became Hannibal vs Rome, not Carthage vs Rome.
Point: Yes, Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants. No, it was not really much of surprise (remember, the army walked across the alps, down the alps, and into Italy....there was a fair amount of warning before they approached any big city). And O'Connell does a terrific job of debunking the myth that the elephants made any real difference in the outcome.
Point: Hannibal's Italian campaign hits the high point with the battle of Cannae, where 50,000 plus Roman soldiers are slaughtered. The "ghosts" of the book's title refer to the Roman survivors of the battle who were exiled to Sicily and forgotten as no one in Rome wanted any reminders of the defeat.
Point: They were forgotten until the Senate of Rome appoints Scipio Africanus as head of the legions. Scipio immediately incorporates the Sicilian "ghosts" into his army - which ultimately triumphs over Hannibal by denying him his supply routes by threatening Carthage's holdings in North Africa.
Point: Hannibal is forced back to defend the homeland and is soundly defeated at the Battle of Zama, something the Romans never managed to do on their own turf. This opens the door 50 years later for the Third Punic War, which culminates in the destruction of Carthage.
O'Connell does a superb job of contrasting Carthage vs Rome in terms of military strategy and execution, politics, and religion. Never dry, never boring and never too technical - when you are done you will have a totally new appreciation for what these folks were able to do 2300 years ago. O'Connell has put together a terrific history with only wisps of real documentary, contempory evidence.
I found The Ghosts of Cannae compelling, intriguing, and fascinating.