Book Review: Darkness Over Cannae by Jenny N. Dolfen

Darkness Over Cannae is a work of art, in both the literary and the pictorial senses. It is lush with strikingly rendered illustrations, created by the author herself, which bring to life the sights one might have witnessed before, during, and after the battle.
In Darkness over Cannae, Jenny Dolfen tells the story of the Battle of Cannae in minute detail, from both the Roman and the Carthaginian points of view.
The Battle of Cannae took place in August of 216 B.C. Two years before, Hannibal had crossed the Alps with some 35,000 surviving troops drawn from North Africa, the Balearic Islands and Spain. He had brought 37 elephants along with him, but these had, by now, perished. He was also able to recruit troops from among the Cis-Alpine Gallic tribes which were hostile to Rome. Hannibal had been clearly victorious in three previous battles, Ticinus, Trebia and Trasimene and had wreaked havoc in much of Italy. The Romans were determined to put an end to Hannibal and his army and had assembled an army of some 80,000 Roman and allied troops for that purpose. The Roman Consuls were Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Tarentius Varro. Varro had every expectation that their plan would work.
“Varro snorted in exasperation. ‘The gods know why he even wants to fight here, outnumbered as he is! We need to take this chance, and beat him before he realizes he has overreached himself! Aemilius, why won’t you see it—Hannibal has made a mistake. He is not forcing us to fight; we’ve brought the fox to bay! Today I am choosing the battle ground. We finally have him where we want him, and we can finally end this. And by Jupiter Stator I will. It’s the great deeds of courage of our ancestors that have made Rome great, and that will save her now. Not hiding, not hesitating and certainly not bickering!’”
Hannibal had other ideas. “’The Oretani had solid walls of rock,’ Maharbal pointed out, ‘we have what? A few lines of armed men—stretched very thin. It seems a stretch to equate the two. Especially with the Romans turning themselves into a battering ram.’
“A predatory smile crept over Hannibal’s face. ‘Exactly, Maharbal. How do you counter a battering ram?’
“‘I don’t know. Set it on fire?’
“Hannibal’s grin grew wider. ‘Open the door.’
“Maharbal shook his head. ‘That doesn’t make a bit of sense.’
“Hannibal winked. “Don’t blame me for expanding the metaphor—you brought it up. We don’t want to keep out the battering ram. And we’re not an immovable door either. What we want is to get inside the walls with our door intact and slam it shut. If the battering ram encounters no door, all the behind will just come to nothing.’ He unconsciously resumed his drumming. ‘Greed’ he said, half to himself. ‘We need to draw them in by their greed. If they think they’re winning, then realise they’re surrounded–a man’s psyche can’t deal with that.’”
Hannibal’s strategy was not original. He had no doubt studied the battles of the ancient Greeks. The Greek general Miltiades had done just that to the Persians under Darius at the battle of Marathon where the Greeks defeated an army much larger than their own.
The result: “It was a scene from a nightmare, something conjured up from the horrors of Tartarus, something that the mind could not comprehend. Sooner or later the Carthaginians came to end it. At some point, the will to fight was simply quenched, and the will to live followed not long after. The men who had set out to crush the army of Carthage were finding themselves helpless, powerless, utterly unable to fight back.”
Some 50,000 Romans were killed that day including the Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus, former Consuls Gneius Servilius Geminus and Marcus Minucius Rufus as well as some 80 men of Senatorial rank. Hannibal won a mighty battle that day, but in the long run he did not win the war. One of the survivors of Cannae, a nineteen year old military tribune, was Publius Cornelius Scipio, later known as Africanus. Someday he would beat Hannibal at his own game.
One minor nitpick. The author says that Carthage stood for less than fifty more years after the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. Actually, it was destroyed in 146 B.C., 56 years after the Battle of Zama. Perhaps it is this observer’s cynicism that leads to the belief that, while Rome had planned the destruction of Carthage for some time, they were not about to do it until Carthage had paid off the huge indemnity imposed by Scipio Africanus after the Battle of Zama. The Carthagians paid off the indemnity in 151 B.C. In 149 B.C. the Romans had found or created a pretext and declared war.

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