Gisgo and his Enemies

John Bayley

  • The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo by Russell Weigley
    Indiana, 608 pp, £22.50, June 1991, ISBN 0 253 36380 2

War and sport were once much the same thing: Homer understood the strategies of morale as well as any modern team manager. Polybius tells an anecdote about Hannibal and his staff just before the Battle of Cannae. When an officer called Gisgo commented on the large number of Romans opposite, Hannibal remarked that at least there was no one over there whose name was Gisgo. Obsequious mirth at the general’s not very brilliant joke, and the troops were reassured by the spectacle of the brass hats laughing. They might well have felt nervous, for at the last minute Hannibal had led his front ranks forward to make a convex line that bulged towards the enemy. These front-line men were Gauls, always, and with justice, apt to suspect that the Carthaginian command regarded them as expendable. So odd is battlefield psychology that their morale was probably raised even by this sense of resentment: they would show a thing or two to the high-ups who had been heard enjoying a joke. And so they did. They were pushed back, but their stubborn resistance acted like a cushion punched by the force of the Roman attack. Its convexity became concave; the legions were drawn into the cleft between the retreating Gauls and the heavy-armed Africans on the flanks, and tightly compressed. With no room to fight or even to breathe, they were suffocated like the crowd in a football stadium.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in