Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: Cannae


I love being inspired by history. (No surprise there! *laughs*). I often gain insights into roleplaying, world-building, civilizations, customs, cultures, and raw, brutal action and adventures from real-world history. I present below a non-fiction book review, of the book Cannae, that I have very much enjoyed, and highly recommend.

Semper Fidelis,


Reviewed By: SHARK

Gregory Daly, Cannae, (London and New York: Routledge, 2002)

Cannae is the title of a new book written by Mr. Gregory Daly concerning the ancient battle of Cannae in 216 BC between the Carthaginians and the Romans during the Second Punic War. Daly has attempted a comprehensive analysis of the epic battle of Cannae combining the small-scale tactical and the larger operational perspectives, while seeking to apply the analytical tools articulated by the historian John Keegan, inspired from Keegan’s book, The Face of Battle. (John Keegan, The Face of Battle, London, 1976) Daly discusses the situations and experiences of the individual soldiers in the ranks, as well as the larger tactical and command issues confronting the commanders of the two opposing armies. Daly provides discussions of the respective armies’ histories, equipment, weapons, tactical doctrines, as well as cultural and strategic concerns. Daly gathers these diverse elements into a vivid, comprehensive analysis that is a valuable contribution to the history of warfare in the ancient world.

Mr. Gregory Daly is a tutor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester, England. Daly, as a Briton, is a professional scholar and writes from a position of an upper-middle class status, at least by profession if not also from birth. From such an educated, precise background Daly writes in an environment that insists on scholarly standards and professional methods that are peer-reviewed as a matter of course. Historically, the British academic establishment is well-known for professionalism and precise methodology, and Daly’s acknowledgements and bibliography indicates that he has remained true to this professional tradition.
Daly has written Cannae in an effort to thoroughly analyze the epic battle, as he maintains that few books previously have attempted such a thorough treatment but also to bring to the analysis several perspectives on detailing the experience of the individual, front-line soldiers in a vivid and gripping manner, as articulated by the historian John Keegan. Daly has aimed at writing a work that effectively combines the tactical view-point with the larger, necessarily vague and generalized operational viewpoints, such as that of a commander might view the battlefield from a position of higher vantage.

In the beginning of the book, Daly provides a section on abbreviations and a useful glossary after the acknowledgements. Following such, Daly introduces the history of the Romans and the Carthaginians, and of the events and trends that lead to their historical conflict in the Punic Wars. The early introductions also discuss the growing tensions and economic and political rivalry growing between Rome and Carthage during the early years leading up to the Punic Wars. Daly provides a concise, though detailed discussion of the First Punic War, highlighted by Rome’s robust naval policy that brought victory, chiefly through the development of the Corvis, a beaked assault bridge that Roman ships used to close with the Carthaginian vessels in hand-to-hand combat. (6).

Daly discusses the ancient sources, such as Polybius and Livy, providing a thorough analysis and critique of these ancient commentators that is useful and insightful. In somewhat of a departure from other books discussing ancient battles, where many authors choose not to include such a discussion, or delve into the briefest of notations, Daly seeks to provide something more in including a discussion of such ancient sources. The following chapters of the book discuss the tactics, weapons, strategies, and an overall historical and strategic build-up to the epic battle at Cannae during the Second Punic War. Daly discusses food rations, armour, and numerous details in a wealth of information that equips the reader with an almost personalized experience of being a Roman soldier marching to war, or as a Carthaginian mercenary from some distant land of the Mediterranean. These sections lead up to a thorough, highly detailed analysis of the battle, stage by stage, finalizing with a conclusion of interesting and authoritative analysis.

Daly writes in a very orderly, systematic manner, moving from one particular detail to another, ranging in discussion from the ranks and duties of specific soldiers and officers, like the Roman Centurion, to specific weapons and armour. For example, while discussing leaders, ranks, and duties, Daly provides numerous ancient sources discussing the Centurion, such as Polybius, as well as modern peers such as Goldworthy and Hansen, and specifically the career of one Centurion who was decorated repeatedly for valour and earned the coveted rank of Centurio primi pili. (63) The Centurion was the backbone of the Roman Legion, as it was the duty of the Centurions to lead their men by example. (63)

Daly follows the detailed discussion of ranks and command structure with a chapter on the nature of command. Daly discusses with keen detail the requirements of command, the need for intelligence, and the motivation of troops, and the building of an effective Esprit de Corps. (115-116) In Daly’s discussion of the nature of command and the command analysis of both the Romans and the Carthaginians, Daly makes extensive use of the ancient historians like Polybius, Vegetius, and Livy, but also modern scholars like Hansen, Goldworthy, and particularly Keegan. (116) The nature of command, professional chains of command, as well as the expectations of the respective commanders all play an essential role in affecting the ebb an flow of battle, and ultimately, the outcome of tens of thousands of armoured men slashing and hacking at each other in an orgy of death and destruction.

Daly works into the description of the bloody charnel house that the 80,000 Romans and 40,000 Carthaginians grimly embraced on that hot summer day in 216 BC. Daly goes into extensive description of the accounts of the various noises that ancient warriors like the Celts and the Iberians made as they went into battle, providing ancient sources on the baying sounds of Celtic war horns, and the cries and growls of the barbarian warriors as they sought to intimidate their enemies and strike fear into the hearts of the men facing them. (170)
Daly provides ancient as well as modern analysis of skirmisher warfare, tactics, and weaponry. (174) Daly discusses the nature of the men called to be skirmishers, their demeanor and their approach to warfare. The Romans and the Carthaginians both used skirmishers, though such skirmishers were from different tribes and peoples. The skirmishers served as a sort of warm-up for the battle to come, as well as an opportunity for each side to engage in a form of tactical psychological warfare. The discussion details the purposes, weapons, but also the tactical effectiveness of the employment of skirmisher forces in the opening prelude to battle. (174) Daly describes with precision the kill zones of the various infantry soldiers, and the effects of their weapons in hand to hand combat. (186-187) Here, as Daly does throughout the book, Daly provides commentary and analysis from both ancient scholars and modern, showing where the analysis agrees, as well as discussing past errors or misinterpretations of such combat. (186-187) Daly provides a chilling analysis of the suggested effect of the mass unleashing of javelins and sling stones upon the mass ranks of trapped Romans, and the surmised effect that such a constant barrage, without escape and without let up, on the Roman troops themselves, but also upon their morale. In the battle of Cannae, as the Romans were closed in on and trapped, such a deluge of unseen and relentless death and agony was no doubt devastatingly effective. (196) Though seemingly obvious, the detail and process by which the Carthaginians may have employed their skirmishers in closing the Romans up for slaughter, as Daly suggests, is instructive and thoughtful. Daly brings the book to a close by describing the final annihilation, where some 50-65,000 Romans died in combat in one dread and terrible day. Daly discusses the limitations of the chief ancient source, that of Polybius, and how Daly’s analysis has drawn upon other sources and perspectives to provide a more thorough and compelling account, (204) as well as a more accurate portrayal of the epic battle and the battle’s grim lessons, that has been indelibly etched into the consciousness of Western culture from the ancient Romans through the present day.

Mr. Gregory Daly has written perhaps the most authoritative account and analysis of the ancient battle of Cannae ever produced. Daly’s thesis is clear, and thoughtful. Daly provides a comprehensive analysis that provides a detailed view on every aspect of the battle, the armies of men who fought, and the generals who led these men into combat. Daly provides counter discussion to previous evidence and analysis, and cogently supports his own analysis with a different approach with the same ancient sources, as well as using modern experts and scientific knowledge of weaponry, physics, and so on to strengthen and detail his analysis. Daly writes in an accessible manner for the general reader or student, and yet provides a thorough framework of supporting detail and evidence to fully satisfy the scholar. Cannae provides an expert, comprehensive analysis of this event in Roman history and is an excellent resource for any academic reading list.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting reading your review as I am reading Cunliffe's "Ancient Celts."

    You did a great job on the review.