Ancient History & Civilisation

THE RETREAT OF THE ROMAN GODS?

Fabius, learning from the mistakes of his predecessors, took a very different approach to the war against the Carthaginians. After recruiting two new legions and taking over the two which had been previously commanded by Geminus, Fabius marched to Apulia, where he resisted Hannibal’s attempts to induce him into open battle. His Greek biographer Plutarch provides a clear summary of these new tactics:

He [Fabius] did not plan to fight out the issue with him [Hannibal], but wished, having plenty of time, money and men, to wear out and gradually sap his culminating vigour, his meagre resources, and his small army. Therefore, always pitching his camp in hilly regions so as seem to be out of reach of the enemy’s cavalry, he hung threateningly over them. If they sat still, he too kept quiet; but if they moved, he would come down from the heights and show himself just far enough away to avoid being forced to fight against his will, and yet near enough to make his very delays inspire the enemy with the fear that he was going to give battle at last.51

Hannibal, appreciating the cleverness of Fabius’ tactics, did all in his power to draw his forces out into direct combat by provocations such as the ravaging of the fertile regions of Benvento and Campania. The Romans maintained their discipline, however, shadowing the Carthaginian army and picking off raiding parties when they had the opportunity.52

Although effective, Fabius’ tactics were very unpopular both in his own camp and on the streets of Rome.53 Long after his death, the Romans would come to appreciate their cunctator (‘delayer’–as Fabius’ posthumous epithet would be), but at the time decades of successful aggressive action had enforced the popular perception that such tactics were simply un-Roman.54 Hannibal himself further stoked up the pressure by sparing the Roman general’s own property while burning all the land around it, thus adding substance to a rumour that Fabius had been secretly negotiating with him.55 Eventually, however, it looked as if Fabius’ unpopular strategy had paid off. In the autumn of 217 an increasingly impatient Hannibal made a terrible mistake that left his army at the mercy of the Romans.

He [Hannibal] wished to draw his army off some distance beyond Fabius, and occupy plains affording pasturage. He therefore ordered his native guides to conduct him, immediately after the evening meal, into the district of Casinum. But they did not hear the name correctly, owing to his foreign way of pronouncing it, and promptly hurried his forces to the edge of Campania, into the city and district of Casilinum, through the midst of which flows a dividing river, called Vulturnus by the Romans. The region is otherwise encompassed by mountains, but a narrow defile opens out towards the sea, in the vicinity of which it becomes marshy, from the overflow of the river, has high sand-heaps, and terminates in a beach where there is no anchorage because of the dashing waves. While Hannibal was descending into this valley, Fabius, taking advantage of his acquaintance with the ways, marched round him, and blocked up the narrow outlet with a detachment of 4,000 heavy infantry. The rest of his army he posted to advantage on the remaining heights, while with the lightest and readiest of his troops he fell upon the enemy’s rearguard, threw their whole army into confusion, and slew about 800 of them. Hannibal now perceived the mistake in his position, and its peril, and crucified the native guides who were responsible for it. He wished to make a retreat, but despaired of dislodging his enemies by direct attack from the passes of which they were masters. All his men, moreover, were disheartened and fearful, thinking that they were surrounded on all sides by difficulties from which there was no escape.56

Hannibal may have blamed his local guides, but it was Fabius’ dogged determination that had allowed the Roman general to capitalize on this error. Hannibal, however, proved himself equal to the challenge. Learning of the Roman ambush prepared for his army, he waited until nightfall and then tied burning brands to the horns of 2,000 captured cattle. The cattle were then driven up to the high ground where the Roman troops were stationed. In the dark, the Romans, thinking that they were under attack, panicked and fled, allowing Hannibal and his army to pass through unimpeded.57

This embarrassing incident led to further scorn and derision being heaped on the unfortunate Fabius, though the Carthaginian escape from this seemingly hopeless situation merely highlighted Hannibal’s genius rather than the shortcomings of Fabius’ tactics. In Rome, a sizeable faction had now decided that the only way of defeating Hannibal was to grant the more aggressive Minucius Felix equal powers to those of Fabius. Despite resistance from Fabius and his supporters in the Senate, the motion was passed, and the Roman forces were thus effectively split between the two commanders.58 In the wake of his new appointment, Felix immediately attempted to establish his Herculean credentials by dedicating an altar to the hero. Within the context of the Hannibalic campaign, that dedication served to reinforce Roman claims to the Heraclean legend, but it perhaps also represented a challenge by Felix to Fabius’ own claim to direct Heraclean ancestry.59 The battle for Heracles thus now engaged competing generals both between and within the two warring states.

Fabius, indeed, had been the first Roman general to understand the importance of countering the Carthaginian propaganda onslaught. He had Roman priests consult the Sibylline books, a collection of oracular utterances, to find out how the Romans might regain the favour of the gods, and the priests returned with three recommendations: first, the Romans should publicly renew their vows to Mars, the god of war; second, Fabius should dedicate a temple to the goddess Venus Erycina, a Sicilian goddess, and another to the divine quality of Mens, ‘Composure’ or ‘Resolution’; finally, the Romans should make the pledge of the ‘sacred spring’, an ancient rite whereby the entire produce of the next spring was promised to the deity of the spring if victory was achieved within a certain time.60

The foundation of a new temple to Venus Erycina on the Capitol, completed in 215, is immediately notable for its links with the Trojan prince Aeneas, represented in Roman myth as the son of Venus, and by this period widely accepted as the forefather of Romulus and Remus. It was thought that Aeneas had married the daughter of Latinus, the eponymous king of Latium, and that upon the latter’s death he had ruled over the Latins and his own Trojan settlers. By the time of the Second Punic War, the Aeneas story had become a keystone in the ideological edifice that legitimized Roman domination of Italy, for it located the origins of that domination within a consensual agreement of the shared, mythological past.61 The interest for the Romans in 2 17, however, was not simply in a cult of Venus, but more specifically in a cult of Venus Erycina. That cult was a relatively recent invention, created after the capture of Sicilian Eryx from the Carthaginians in 248.62 Although the outer town had soon been retaken by Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, the Roman defenders had withstood several furious assaults and retained the citadel and the sanctuary within.63 The cult was thus an important symbol of successful Roman resistance against a Carthaginian, and more specifically Barcid, enemy, and its introduction into Rome provided the city with a focal point for resistance to the new Barcid onslaught.64

At the same time, the city of Eryx had long been sacred to the Punic goddess Astarte and the Greek goddess Aphrodite.65 The rebranding of the city’s patron deity as Aphrodite/Astarte’s Roman equivalent Venus therefore represented an attempt not only to ‘Romanize’ the cult, but simultaneously to integrate Sicily within the Roman foundational myth associated with Aeneas. Conveniently, the indigenous Elymians, whose capital Eryx was, also claimed a Trojan ancestry, and their city of Segesta (as we have seen) had previously appealed to Rome for intervention precisely on the basis of that shared history. The Roman promotion of the multivalent cult of Venus Erycina thus emphasized resistance to the Carthaginians while simultaneously incorporating the contested island of Sicily within a Roman vision of history. Eryx and its goddess were now as much disputed as Hercules/Heracles/Melqart.66

His biographer Plutarch portrayed Fabius’ activities on this front as having been driven solely by pragmatism rather than superstition: ‘By thus fixing the thoughts of the people upon their relations with heaven, Fabius made them more cheerful regarding the future. But he himself put all his hopes of victory in himself, believing that heaven bestowed success by reason of wisdom and courage, and turned his attentions to Hannibal.’67 However, there can be little doubt that Fabius’ religious activities were informed by a recognition that there was a growing concern among the citizens of Rome that the gods were turning against them.68 It was as if Hannibal had now turned that most Roman of psychological weapons, the evocatio, the ritual through which the gods of Rome’s enemies were enticed into defection, against its originators.

Later, Livy described the damaging effect that Hannibal’s campaign had had on the collective psychology of the Roman people:

The longer the war continued, and the more men’s minds as well as their fortunes were affected by the alternations of success and failure, so much the more did the citizens become the victims of superstitions, and those for the most part foreign ones. It seemed as though either the characters of men or the nature of the gods had undergone a sudden change. The Roman ritual was growing into disuse not only in secret and in private houses; even in public places, in the Forum and the Capitol, crowds of women were to be seen who were offering neither sacrifices nor prayers in accordance with ancient usage. Unauthorized sacrificers and diviners had got possession of men’s minds, and the numbers of their dupes were swelled by the crowds of country people whom poverty or fear had driven into the city, and whose fields had lain untilled owing to the length of the war or had been desolated by the enemy. These impostors found their profit in trading upon the ignorance of others, and they practised their calling with as much effrontery as if they had been duly authorized by the state.69

When eventually the Roman Senate was moved to act in this matter by moving these charlatans and their followers out of the Forum Romanum, a riot almost ensued.70

This new sense of insecurity also explains the willingness with which the Romans carried out the priests’ final recommendation to Fabius: the pledge of a ‘sacred spring’.71 This was one of the oldest and most original elements of Roman religion, and its prescription was clearly no coincidence at a time when those aspects of Roman cultural identity which were shared or contested with other Mediterranean peoples were being so effectively reframed by Rome’s enemies. The ‘sacred spring’, by contrast, was undisputedly a Roman religious rite.

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