May 29 2011

History rhymes.

History Rhymes.

“The gods have not given all their gifts to one man. You know how to win victory, Hannibal, you do not how to use it.” –Maharbal to Hannibal, after the Battle of Cannae. In Titus Livy’s The History of Rome, Book XXII

Ghosts of CannaeOn a hot morning in early August two armies amassed on an Italian plain, preparing to do battle. On one side was a massive force—the largest ever seen by anyone up until that day.  On the other side the force was smaller, but it had been a fighting unit for years and come through many battles together, unlike their enemy, whose battalions were swelled with new recruits. Altogether, there was something like 120,000 soldiers on the field under the rising summer sun. By the end of the day more than a third of them would lay dead.

It was “…a terrible apocalyptic day,” writes military historian Robert L. O’Connell at the beginning of The Ghosts of Cannae, “…120,000 men engaged in what amounted to a mass knife fight.”  That statement encapsulates what makes O’Connell’s account of this ancient Roman battle at once so compelling, enlightening, and readable. The author possesses a rare talent among scholars to bring remote and seemingly academic facts down from their rarified heights and put them, vividly and viscerally, right in front of the reader.  And it doesn’t get more visceral than 50,000 men, lying gutted on the field of battle on a hot summer day.

The Ghosts of Cannae is a study of that battle—the worse defeat in Roman history, and a battle that cost more lives than any other single engagement in Europe, up to and including the Battle of Somme. More Romans died at Cannae on August 2, 216 BC than Americans did during the whole of the Vietnam War. O’Connell undertakes to explain the entirety of Cannae, from the events, the cultural, social and political  pressures that led to the engagement to the rippling after effects of the Roman defeat which would eventually shake the foundations of the Republic itself.

O’Connell takes the long view—the really long view—beginning with an account of the rising enmity of Rome and Carthage that led to the First Punic War more than half a century before Cannae. In fact, he takes a longer view that that, unable to resist a substantial digression into the theories of how ancient armies came into being. There is actually some useful and interesting information here about the development of the phalanx formation and its role in the evolution of warfare from what had been essentially an endless series of single combats (think of Achilles facing off against Hector in The Iliad) to a corporate strategy with groups of soldiers tasked with different objectives. There is also some less useful information, like the rather unexpected theory that the origins of the military drill can be found in the victory dances of roving bands of mammoth hunters during the Neolithic age.

But, setting aside the bemusing vision of these hunters sharing “rhythmic and intricate patterns of big muscle movements,” the story of Cannae actually begins with a dispute between Rome and Carthage over who would hold sway over the island of Sicily in 264 BC – the root cause of the First Punic War, and the thing that would forever pit Rome and Carthage as rivals.  Carthage lost, eventually, being without the kind of militant aggressiveness that has always been a hallmark of the Roman character. But one of their generals did not lose—Hamilcar Barca (“barca” means “thunderbolt”)—who fought a successful guerrilla war against Roman incursions in Sicily and thoroughly exasperated the Roman generals. Hamilcar Barca only quit the field when he was essentially recalled by the city of Carthage for other purposes. He left, but not before having conceived a bitter, implacable hatred for Rome which he passed on to his children, one of whom was named Hannibal.

Classical historians have always been hampered by the dearth of any objective evidence or contemporary, unbiased accounts of their subject. O’Connell himself admits that most of what we know of Rome at the time of the invasion of Hannibal comes from the work of Titus Livy, who was more than willing to sacrifice accuracy for literary impact and style, and Polybius, who was more disciplined in his account but nevertheless beholden to his Roman patron, a descendent of Publius Scipio Africanus (who would eventually defeat Hannibal), and also confirmed in his belief that Rome was morally superior to Carthage, and “deserved to win,” as the author puts it.

There is also the problem that the actual sites of these long ago events are lost to antiquity. No one can walk Hannibal’s route across the Alps, because frankly, we don’t know which route he took although apparently we are inclined to argue about it. (“A perfect example of an academic dispute grown bitter because so little is at stake,” comments the author). And while we know where Cannae is, and thus where the battle was fought, there is a slight problem of geography, since ancients sources describe the river in completely the wrong place.

Then too, there are all the legends and stories that have grow up around the men and the events. The story that Hannibal took an oath on the altar of the god of war to defeat Rome, at the age of nine. The story that shields sweated blood and tent stakes became hard to pull up on the day before a battle—signaling the gods’ displeasure. O’Connell likens consulting ancient sources to looking at a tattered patchwork quilt: “…because of the limited nature of the material, there is always the temptation to fall back on a truly outlandish polka dot or outlandishly garish plaid….In the end, even among otherwise tasteful and scrupulous ancient historians, something is almost always better than nothing.”

O’Connell picks his way deftly between all the polka dots and plaids, between “somethings” and “probably nothings” with care as he traces the rise of the Barcid family—as Hamilcar Barca’s clan came to be called—and their unusual aggressiveness and almost fanatical antipathy towards Rome that would eventually culminate in Hannibal’s spectacular invasion of Italy and the supposedly decisive victory he would win against the Romans at Cannae.

Except that it wasn’t. Despite the “rules of engagement” that existed for the times, the Romans refused to concede and sue for terms, the way any other self-respecting city-state at the time would have done. Instead, although they lost nearly every battle they fought against him, and something like a fifth of the men of fighting age in country, Rome continued to resist Hannibal’s forces by picking off raiding parties, burning crops and fields to deny them food and supplies and generally waging a war of attrition until the Carthaginian general found himself victoriously battling himself into a tiny corner on the toe of Italy’s boot. When he was finally called home to Carthage, he left having won every battle, but having lost the war.

The Ghosts of Cannae, then, is constructed in a vast arc, with the battle of Cannae sitting at the apex (if you look at it from Hannibal’s point of view) or the nadir (if you look at it from the perspective of Rome).  And despite the many fascinating things that came before (the author’s detailed descriptions of just how Hannibal got across the Alps with those elephants beggars belief), it is the aftermath of the battle that most interests and concerns O’Connell.  Because Cannae marked a change in Roman military tactics and in the way the city conducted war that would have far reaching effects for the future of the Roman Republic.

Before Cannae, the Roman army was a “citizen army” – meaning that every citizen was required to serve for a period. This meant the army was never short of soldiery, but also that the turnover was high. Many of the men in the army that fought at Cannae may never have actually killed another person in battle—a psychological disadvantage that would not have been understood.  The army was led by the consuls—the highest political office in the state—of which there were two. And at the time of Cannae it was standard practice that leadership of the army alternated between the two consuls on a daily basis.

This of course sounds absolutely insane to a modern reader, but it took confronting a general like Hannibal, a wily fox at the head of a professional army of career soldiers who unlike their Roman counterparts were quite used to killing people in battle, in particular, killing Romans, to clarify the flaws of the system for the Roman generals. After Cannae, then, the Romans wouldn’t make the same mistake. But O’Connell suggests that instead, they may have made a deal with the devil.

One of the more unusual aspects of the Roman army at Cannae—aside from its sheer size—was that every soldier had taken an oath to not give up his position except to capture an enemy or save a fellow solder. In effect, to fight to the death.  Swelled with the confidence inspired by their numbers, it was an oath they were by all accounts eager to take. And not just the infantry, the foot soldiers. More than a third of the Roman senate was on the field in some capacity—usually as cavalry—in order to have a place in what everyone was sure would be a great victory for Rome. Of course the problem with oaths to fight to the death is that if the tide of battle turns against you, you have to actually fight to the death. The soldiers that escaped Cannae—and O’Connell suggests that they only survived because the Carthaginians were hampered in their slaughter by the great piles of bodies that grew around them as the bloody day wore on—found themselves vilified by the Roman people. The mere fact that they survived marked them as traitors to the Republic.

Hannibal would go on to harry the countryside for another ten years, although he never laid siege to Rome itself. (“You know how to win victory, Hannibal, you do not how to use it.” said his brother.) The survivors of Cannae were exiled to Sicily, their lands and properties forfeit, themselves condemned to live, not in any town or habitable village, but in the wild, at least ten miles from any kind of established community. They became the “ghosts” of the book’s title, holding no place in the country they fought for. Shown no gratitude for their sacrifices, no compassion for their suffering.

And here, the author says, is the reason Cannae is important, the reason he wrote the book. The battle has been covered extensively by many military historians, studied even more extensively by many military strategists—overawed by Hannibal’s ability to kill so many men in such a short period of time. But O’Connell isn’t interested in “how” – although he does explain how in distressing detail, neither reveling in nor shirking from the realities of what 50,000 men killed by swords would look and smell like. O’Connell is interested in “why” – why Cannae is important. Why should we care?

Because history rhymes. “There is much about the clash between Rome and Carthage that seems hauntingly familiar,” writes the author, and cites the famous phrase attributed to Mark Twain that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does sometimes rhyme. He finds in the conflict between Carthage and Rome a cautionary tale for our own time. The end result of Rome’s banishment of the survivors of Cannae was that ten years later the city would find it had to call upon them again—as they were the only soldiers left with enough experience to fight Hannibal.  A brilliant young general named Publius Cornelius Scipio (who had been in three engagements against Hannibal himself, including Cannae, before he was twenty-five) would “rehabilitate” the exiled soldiers and use them to form the core of his own personal volunteer army. It would be this army that would eventually defeat Hannibal at Zama. And this army was utterly devoted—not to Rome, but to the man who had brought them out of exile.

From this point on, O’Connell writes, the Roman army looked to their commanders, rather than the State, as their highest allegiance. And while Scipio never took advantage of the fact that he had the complete loyalty and obedience of the largest, best-trained and deadliest fighting force in the Mediterranean to, say, stage a military coup—in the years to come other generals would not be so circumspect.  Because of Cannae, says O’Connell, we got Julius Caesar. But because of what happened at Cannae, the Roman Republic would fall.

In the end, a reader will have learned many things about Rome’s war with Carthage, and Hannibal’s vendetta against Rome. He will learn what armor an infantry soldier wore, and how he used his sword. He will learn standard battle formations and why they made sense, as well as what their weaknesses were. He will learn why elephants are more trouble than they are worth in a battle. But while all of this is interesting, it isn’t why we should know about Cannae. Cannae is important because actions—of a person, and of a nation—always have consequences. And history, rhymes.


Books mentioned in this column:

The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic by Robert O’Connell (Random House, 2010) 9781400067022

The War with Hannibal: Books XXI-XXX of the History of Rome from Its Foundation by Titus Livius Livy (Penguin Books, 1965) 9780140441451

May 21 2011

Life is the rose’s hope…

From the randomly-opened pages of the Complete Poems of John Keats, (Modern Library Edition):

Stop and consider! life is but a day;
A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way
From a tree’s summit; a poor Indian’s sleep
While his boat hastens to the monstrous steep
Of Montmorenci. Why so sad a moan?
Life is the rose’s hope while yet unblown;
The reading of an ever-changing tale;
The light uplifting of a maiden’s veil;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.

–from “Sleep and Poetry”

May 4 2011

evening delivery haiku

The UPS truck
doesn’t stop, or even slow–
this makes the dog sad.

May 2 2011

a library in a turf hut in the arctic circle

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel KpomassieI can’t believe it took me so long to find this book. Tete-Michel’s An African in Greenland was first published in 1981, republished twenty years later, and it was ten years after that it came to my attention–and I’m the kind of person who goes looking for books. It makes me wonder many things, like what else is out there still waiting to be discovered, and would the book have survived to be found if it only existed as a digital file on some server?

This passage belongs in my collection of “rooms full of books” even though there isn’t a book in the room at all. It is, however, a library: kept by an old Inuit man who lives in a turf hut in Upernavik, Greenland–well above the Arctic Circle. The world is a curious place.

In his own way, old Robert was a bookworm whose favorite reading matter was restricted entirely to periodicals. Every week for many years now he had been getting hold of magazines dealing with world affairs. And even now when he avoided going out as much as possible because of the curiosity his appearance aroused in the villagehis wife, his daughter, his youngest son Niels, aged fifteen, and his two married sons who also lived in Upernavik, continued to buy them for him. But therein lay the rub: these magazines, reviews and newspapers began to make such a clutter on the floor that one day old Rebekka suggested throwing them out the window. Alarmed, the old man began sorting out this junkheap and pinning on the wall the articles he wanted to reread. And socasually, almost unintentionallya first layer of printed pages spread over the four walls, followed in time by a second layer, a third, and even a fourth layerThe first pages dated from five years back and, as new pages had kept being added to the old ones, my host had great difficulty locating old articles or documents he needed.

From An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie, published by nyrb classics, 2001.