The ‘ghosts’ that provide the excuse for the (admittedly great) title of this book are the cannenses, the survivors of the Roman army comprehensively defeated at Cannae. And there’s some interesting info on what seems to have happened to them, and just how unforgiving the Republic was of people who dared survive a debacle, they’re not really enough of a focus to name a book after.

In an epilogue, there is another form of ‘ghost’. O’Connell looks at how well regarded Cannae has been throughout history. This actually provides a fair amount of myth-busting. Certainly, it was written about, but for most of the last two thousand years, Cannae was not a battle written about often. And it certainly didn’t have the near mythological status it has today. Most of the current reputation and study of the battle stems from Alfred von Schlieffen (yes, that von Shlieffen, of the ‘Schlieffen Plan’) becoming fascinated with the battle at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Interestingly, O’Connell goes all the way back to human evolution to look at the sources of organized war before giving a brief overview of more recent history of the area, naturally concentrating on the First Punic War. This shows that this is purely ‘popular’ history, and doesn’t even pre-suppose that readers regularly read military history. So overall there’s not a lot new here for people who have had an interest in the period and done a fair amount of reading on it previously. However, he does pay a bit more attention to the original sources than many, and does a good job of showing what he is pulling out of them and how, making it better than a number of popular studies that way. Best yet, the book is excellently written, with some very nice analysis and modern analogies.