Slaughter at Cannae

The incipit of a piece at the CBC on the war in Afghanistan:

When a Canadian soldier dies in Afghanistan (as more than 150 have so far), it makes front-page news. In Ontario, a stretch of the 401 has been renamed the Highway of Heroes, and Canadians pay tribute by lining the overpasses from Trenton to Toronto.

Now cast your mind back a couple of millennia. In 216 B.C., 48,000 soldiers were killed in a single battle on a single day. The place was Cannae, on the Italian Peninsula, and the occasion was a battle in the Second Punic War between those imperial rivals, Rome and Carthage.

Not only did these 48,000 men – there were only male soldiers then – die in a single day, but they were butchered in what military historian Robert L. O’Connell calls a “massive knife fight.” As he told me on a recent Ideas episode, those men, mostly Roman, were herded together and slaughtered by the cunning Carthaginian general Hannibal. O’Connell is the author of The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic. There is no doubt in O’Connell’s mind that the most hellish place on Earth that day was a patch of ground on the Italian peninsula.

Military historians have a way of graphically presenting their facts. Based on what O’Connell estimates was the average weight of a Roman soldier – 130 pounds, or almost 59 kilograms – there was, on the battlefield, “6-7 million pounds of freshly slaughtered human meat.” A feast for carrion, a “bonanza” for foxes, wolves, vultures and other rummaging creatures.

… the Ideas episode with Robert O’Connell, alas, does not seem to have made it to the CBC podcast pool …

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