Ancient History & Civilisation

6. FABIUS AND ROME’S DEFENSIVE

We must revert now to Rome’s bitter hour after Cannae when the dark background served only to show up the splendour of her courage. She would not accept defeat though the flower of her manhood was slain, though southern Italy had revolted, though Hannibal was undisputed master in battle. The problem before the Senate was how to nullify Hannibal’s tactical superiority, which lay in his cavalry, in the elasticity of his army as a whole and the co-operation of its parts, and in the skill with which he used the terrain. The answer was clear: the open battlefield must ever be avoided and his strength worn down by a ‘strategy of exhaustion’, which before Cannae was justified only as a temporary expedient and had earned for its advocate the abusive title of Cunctator, Delayer.

This strategy, though less spectacular than one of annihilation, required even more effort, and strained Rome’s resources to the uttermost. Her naval supremacy must be upheld; this involved keeping nearly 200 ships afloat and some 50,000 sailors. All legions serving abroad must be maintained there, while as the theatres of war increased, so did their claims, so that by 212 Rome had in the field twenty-five legions; even slaves were allowed to volunteer in the dark months after Cannae. All this involved the utmost financial effort; in and after 215 the property tax (tributum) was doubled. Only by superior numbers and by time could Rome hope to win. But these forces must be applied wisely. Rome must conquer Hannibal, as she had conquered Italy, by her roads and fortresses. He must be worn down by marches and counter-marches. But it was not enough to dog his heels. Roman armies, while avoiding open battles, must yet operate in the open; while one force acted on the defensive in face of Hannibal, another must take the offensive where he was not. By a wise use of the terrain parts of Italy could be protected and Hannibal’s attempts to besiege towns could often be impeded, since his army was ill-equipped for siege work; he might capture Casilinum and Petelia, but he did not attempt bigger cities such as Naples, Cumae and Tarentum, still less Rome. When urged after Cannae by his cavalry officer to advance against Rome – ‘for in five days we shall dine on the Capitol’ – he knew the folly of such counsel. Further, small engagements, even if nominal tactical victories for Hannibal, were to Rome’s ultimate advantage, because they all tended to whittle down his slender resources. Finally, though Hannibal had won much of southern Italy, which served as a base for recruiting, provisioning and wintering, it was also a responsibility: it crippled his freedom of movement, for he must protect his new allies. On such considerations rested Rome’s policy, as advocated by Fabius. And Hannibal’s only reply was to ravage the land mercilessly. But although this strategy of attrition might finally have brought a peace of sorts it could not humble Carthage and guarantee Rome’s future security. It was only when Rome produced a military genius who could face Hannibal in the field that a lasting victory could be won. But until the deus ex machina appeared, it was only the great moral qualities of Rome that saved her – the tenacity of purpose of her citizens, the discipline of her soldiers, the prudence of her generals, and the wise directing force of her Senate.

After Cannae, as we have seen, news reached Rome of the revolt of Lucania, Bruttium, and Capua. Then came a report that Postumius had been surprised in Cisalpine Gaul; his force of two legions was cut to pieces, while the commander’s skull was preserved for use in the temple rites of the priests of the Boii. To supervise Rome’s defence a dictator was appointed, M. Junius Pera (consul 230 and censor 225) with Ti. Sempronius Gracchus as Master of the Horse. The people no longer challenged the political control of the Senate; the unfortunate careers of their own champions taught them to trust the Senate’s judgment. Raising fresh forces Pera took up a position on the Via Latina near Teanum, covering the road to Rome. The Romans thus withdrew behind the line of the Volturnus so that Hannibal won over most of Campania except the coast towns and Nola, where he was frustrated by Marcellus. During the winter of 216–215 Hannibal besieged and finally captured Casilinum on the Volturnus. Later Roman annalists might delight in recounting that this winter, passed in luxurious quarters in Campania, undermined the discipline of Hannibal’s army, but the Roman generals of the day knew better.18

The year 215 proved embarrassing to Carthage, as she sought to encircle Rome with enemies. Hannibal had to remain without help. The Scipios’ victory at the Ebro necessitated diverting to Spain the reinforcements designed for Hannibal (p. 191). The rebellion of Syphax in Africa involved the recall of Hasdrubal from Spain. The ill-fated attempt of Hasdrubal the Bald in Sardinia was a useless dissipation of energy. In the summer Bomilcar landed a small force at Locri, but this was all the help Hannibal received. Only the arrival of reinforcements from Spain could change the complexion of the war; and this the Scipios prevented. In Italy the Romans again ventured across the Volturnus. Marcellus occupied a strong position (at modern Cancello) between Capua and Nola; Gracchus protected the coast near Cumae, while Fabius covered the way to Rome near Cales. Hannibal, who was thus surrounded on three sides, moved his camp from Capua to the hills above; at Mt Tifata he could command all the important roads and valleys, while a plateau suitable for his cavalry nestled among the peaks. From this stronghold, where centuries later Garibaldi also rested, Hannibal struck twice, but he struck in vain. His attempt on Cumae was thwarted by Gracchus; a second thrust at Nola was parried by Marcellus. But while he achieved little in Campania, his lieutenants were completing the conquest of Bruttium; Rhegium alone held out. Yet Rome showed her confidence in her generals by electing Fabius and Marcellus consuls for 214; the number of legions was raised from fourteen to twenty.

In 214 Hannibal, who had wintered in Apulia, returned to Mt Tifata and summoned Hanno from southern Italy. On his march via Compsa, Hanno found his path blocked by Gracchus who defeated him near the river Calor some three miles east of Beneventum and thus forced him to retire again to Bruttium. So Hannibal, who had in vain attacked Puteoli and Nola, abandoned his offensive in Campania. He failed to surprise Heraclea and then Tarentum, where the Roman fleet stationed at Brundisium was too quick for him. Meanwhile Marcellus had stormed Casilinum and the Romans had recovered Compsa and Aecae in Apulia, which meant that they could advance their base from Luceria to Herdonea. Hannibal was being pushed further and further south.

In 213 the Romans decided to concentrate on Apulia rather than to attempt the more difficult task of taking Capua. With four legions operating from a circle of fortresses they won over Arpi, but later a severe blow hit them. Not only had Syracuse transferred her allegiance and thus necessitated the removal of the energetic Marcellus from Italy, but now Tarentum followed her example; and in the wake of Tarentum came Metapontum and many other Greek cities in southern Italy. The Tarentines had been embittered by Rome’s execution of some of their hostages who had tried to escape. Their town lay on a narrow peninsula, north of which stretched the best harbour in Italy (the Mare Piccolo); the site bears considerable resemblance to New Carthage (p. 203). By night two gates in the city’s eastern wall were opened and when day broke two detachments of Hannibal’s army had united in the Forum. The Roman garrison, however, retained the citadel, a strong hill which commanded the harbour entrance; this greatly diminished the value of Hannibal’s success. He had to build a defensive wall between the town and citadel, and to drag the ships out of the harbour overland. So ended a dark year for Rome.

Many at Rome felt that their superior numbers were not being used to the best advantage; more boldness and vigour, greater clearness of purpose were required. Capua had been given a breathing-space which Marcellus’ energy had denied to Syracuse. The people were tiring of Fabius (consul 215 and 214) and his son (consul 213). New men were elected consuls for 212: Q. Fulvius Flaccus (consul 237 and 224) and Appius Claudius Pulcher (praetor and propraetor in Sicily since 215); and all the commands in Italy, save only Gracchus’, were changed. But most of the foreign commands remained unaltered. The number of legions was raised to its highest total of twenty-five; Rome braced herself for the effort and planned to start the siege of Capua. Though the consuls made their base at Bovianum instead of Beneventum or Casilinum in order to mask their intention, the Campanians suspected what was in store and asked Hannibal for supplies. Hanno was ordered to conduct convoys from Lucania. He advanced via Salernum towards Beneventum, which Flaccus entered secretly by night. Issuing forth, Flaccus surprised and captured Hanno’s camp and supplies at Apollosa, three miles south-west of Beneventum, and thus thwarted the attempt to provision Capua. This success was counter-balanced by the surprise and death of Gracchus, probably in Lucania; this was the first Roman reverse in the field since Cannae, and Rome could ill afford to lose so brave and energetic a soldier. Hannibal himself marched into Campania, but could do little as provisions were already short. Three Roman armies closed round Capua and surrounded it with a double line of circumvallation.

In 211 the twenty-five legions were maintained and Flaccus, Appius Claudius and Claudius Nero continued in the command at Capua. Hannibal made one last effort to relieve the city. He suddenly descended on it with a picked force, but the Roman entrenchments faced outwards as well as inwards, so that he could accomplish nothing when the Romans declined battle. He then made his final desperate throw: by marching on Rome itself he hoped to draw off the armies from Capua. Advancing through Samnium perhaps as far north as Amiternum he suddenly swept round to the southwest; crossing the Anio he camped four miles east of the city and rode up to the Colline Gate.19 It was a terrifying moment; no enemy had approached the gates of Rome since the Gauls nearly two hundred years before. Beside the new recruits there were two of last year’s legions in Rome. The walls were manned and a camp was formed about a mile outside, opposite Hannibal’s. After a few days, when he hoped that part of the Roman army might be on its way from Capua he recrossed the Anio and marched by Tibur to Casinum after a slight skirmish with the consul Sulpicius Galba. By this route he would get between Capua and a Roman army advancing up the Via Latina. But at length, realizing that his bold stroke had miscarried and that the Roman armies were still beleaguering Capua, he did not return to Campania but swung off to Apulia, and left Capua to its fate. This was not long delayed; in despair the Capuans surrendered. Apart from some of the nobility, the people were granted their lives; the city was not sacked, but its land was confiscated; it was deprived of all municipal autonomy and was administered by a praefectus elected annually at Rome. The Senate’s judgement of its defection was stern but just; politically Capua was destroyed, but materially it was allowed to live. It did not suffer the bitter fate of Syracuse.

The fall of Capua marked a turning point. The same year Syracuse also had fallen and an alliance had been negotiated with Aetolia. But news came from Spain of the disaster of the Scipios. Claudius Nero, who had served at Capua, was despatched with reinforcements to hold the line of the Ebro. Rome was exhausted. Hannibal might be confined to southern Italy, troops might come home laden with booty from Campania and Sicily, but the land of Latium and Samnium was still devastated and groaning for rest. So the legions were reduced to twenty-one and the year 210 passed comparatively uneventfully. Salapia was captured, though the consul Cn. Fulvius was trapped and killed near Herdonea in Apulia. His colleague Marcellus, the victor of Syracuse, did not attempt to storm Tarentum but contented himself by operating carefully near Venusia. But Rome’s inactivity had a grave result in the autumn; twelve of the Latin colonies through war-weariness refused to send their contingents.

The year 209 opened with the gloomy prospect of further cautious advances gained at great sacrifice amid serious dissatisfaction among many of the allies; it finished, however, more successfully than could be anticipated. While Fulvius and Marcellus held Hannibal at bay, the cautious Fabius was to advance to Tarentum. Marcellus manoeuvred successfully against Hannibal near Canusium, Fulvius won back some hill towns; Fabius, aided by a fleet and by an attack on Caulonia to distract Hannibal’s attention, moved against Tarentum which fell by treachery before Hannibal arrived. The city was sacked. Thus the long war dragged on in Italy. At stupendous sacrifice and with dogged perseverance Rome, after parrying Hannibal’s offensive, had at length won Syracuse, Capua and Tarentum, and had confined Hannibal to southern Italy. But all might be in vain if the Italian Confederacy in the north began to break up. Not a moment too soon came news of young Scipio’s brilliant success at New Carthage. The whole complexion of the war was changed; fresh courage and hope flowed in the veins of Rome and her allies. The conqueror of Hannibal had arisen.

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