Ancient History & Civilisation



The British Fabian Society takes its name from the Roman soldier and politician Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. He may seem an unlikely patron for a society of intellectual socialists. Born into one of the most aristocratic families of ancient Rome, Fabius is not known for his sympathy for the poor. It was his tactics in the war against Hannibal that inspired the society’s founders in the 1880s.

During that war Rome was brought to the brink of disaster thanks to a series of rash and inexperienced generals who insisted on engaging the Carthaginians head on, with terrible consequences. The Battle of Cannae in 216 BC was the worst: our best estimates suggest that some 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed (making it a bloodbath on the scale of Gettysburg or the first day of the Somme). When Fabius held command, he took a different course. Instead of meeting Hannibal in pitched battle, he played a clever waiting game, harrying the enemy in guerrilla warfare, and scorching the earth of Italy (burning the crops, the homes and the hideouts); the strategy was to wear Hannibal down and deprive him of food for his vast army. Hence his later nickname ‘Cunctator’, the ‘Delayer’.

This was exactly the waiting game that these late Victorian ‘Fabian’ socialists intended to play against capitalism: nothing so rash (or uncomfortable) as revolution, but a gradual process of attrition, until the time was ripe for change. As Frank Podmore (whose idea the name ‘Fabian’ was) wrote: ‘For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently when warring against Hannibal’.

Many more people in the 1880s than now would have known the name of Fabius Maximus. But even then he did not match the popular renown of Hannibal, who so nearly managed to defeat the invincible power of Rome – and who pulled off the famous, if pointless, stunt of bringing his elephants across the snowy Alps. As Robert Garland observes, in a nice chapter on ‘Afterlife’ in his study of Hannibal, it has always been the Carthaginian’s military tactics, especially at Cannae, that have intrigued modern generals (although George Washington did opt for a Fabian plan at the start of the American War of Independence). And it is Hannibal not Fabius who has become the subject of novels, operas and movies. In fact, the nineteenth-century mythology of Fabius often made him a frightful ditherer rather than a sophisticated strategist. ‘Cunctator’ could mean ‘slowcoach’ or ‘procrastinator’ just as well as ‘canny delayer’.

It was exactly this side of Fabius that was picked up in a squib in the Pall Mall Gazette (the ancestor of the London Evening Standard) just after the Fabian Society was launched. Why on earth was a group of socialists calling itself after the ‘dilatory’ Fabius? ‘Is it possible that the real name of the society is the Catilinarian Club [referring to the Roman revolutionary Catiline], and that the term Fabian is a mere humorous euphemism, a nickname by opposites, adopted so as not to alarm the British public?’ A few days later an anonymous ‘Fabian’ wrote in to explain that it was not a joke: ‘well-considered action’ was the name of the game, not dilatoriness.

In ancient Rome too there had been a similar ambivalence about Fabius’ achievements. On the one hand, the second-century-BC Roman poet Ennius, in his great epic on the history of Rome (which now survives only in snatches of quotation), credited him, single-handedly, with saving the city from Hannibal: ‘one man alone restored the state to us by delaying (cunctando)’. But it is clear enough that for others the ‘Cunctator’ was a slowcoach, who dragged his heels in a way that was decidedly at odds with Roman ideas of bravery, virtue and military excellence.

In Livy’s account of the Second Punic War, part of his 142-book history of Rome from its foundation (Ab Urbe Condita), written at the end of the first century BC, we find a carefully scripted debate about tactics set in 204, between the elderly Fabius and Scipio Africanus, the rising military star. Scipio plans to pursue Hannibal (who by this point was in retreat), and to defeat him once and for all in his home territory of North Africa; Fabius predictably argues for caution. Each man deploys a range of historical precedents to justify his proposed course of action. One of the more obvious is the disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, best known from the account of Thucydides (see Chapter 3). If Scipio here plays the role of Alcibiades in that earlier conflict, then Livy makes it quite clear that Fabius could be seen as the Roman Nicias – old, superstitious, over-cautious and frankly not up to the job. In fact Scipio went on to succeed where Alcibiades did not. He decisively defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in North Africa in 202, a year after Fabius’ death. It was a victory for speed and military flair, not for delay – and in Garland’s words ‘a complete rout’.

If the figure of Fabius Maximus ‘Cunctator’ has faded from the popular imagination, whether as hero or slowcoach, that is partly to do with the fate of Livy’s History itself. For much of the twentieth century this was relegated close to the margins of scholarly fashion; and although the wonderful stories of ancient Roman valour which it included (‘Cincinnatus called from the plough’, ‘How Horatius held the bridge’, and so on) made it a nineteenth-century favourite, it is now little read among a wider public, unlike Herodotus, Thucydides or Tacitus.

My guess is that even most professional classicists will not have read, in its entirety, the most detailed account of the career and policy of Fabius in the ten books of Livy (Books 21–30) that cover the Hannibalic War. That is perhaps hardly surprising. True, there are some memorable highlights, such as the crossing of the Alps in Book 21, with its elephants, snow and the famous, surely apocryphal, story about Hannibal splitting open some rocks that lay in his path by heating them and then pouring vinegar on (a procedure which has launched all kinds of boy-scoutish experiments among classicists-turned-amateur-chemists). But most of Livy’s story of the war is very hard going. As D. S. Levene admits in Livy on the Hannibalic War, ‘keeping track of the story feels bewilderingly difficult’. There are so many different theatres of war (not just in Italy and Sicily but also in Spain and later Africa and the East), and it is hard to follow the thread from one time and place to another. Besides, as he goes on, ‘we are confronted by a large set of faceless Carthaginians, most of whom seem to be called Hanno, Mago, or Hasdrubal, fighting against a varying cast of Romans who have a wider choice of nomenclature but scarcely anything more memorable in terms of attributes’. It is almost impossible to makeany satisfying sense of the war, without a small library of works of reference to hand, including a very good atlas.

Add to this the fact that, on the orthodox view, Livy was a very poor historian indeed, whether by ancient or modern standards. He did no primary research, but relied exclusively on earlier histories. That was not necessarily unusual in antiquity, but Livy was worse than most: he often did not fully understand his sources or manage to reconcile them into a single coherent narrative. There are notorious occasions where he relates the same event twice, presumably because he found the same story told slightly differently in two different sources and did not spot that they were describing the same thing (so, as Levene notes, the cities of Croton and Locri are reported as falling to the Carthaginians twice, in two different years). And there are clear signs that his Greek was not good enough to understand properly one of his major sources, the Greek historian Polybius, who also covered the war in his account of Rome’s rise to power in the Mediterranean. Enough of Polybius survives for us sometimes to be able to compare Livy’s version with the text on which he depended. It can be a nasty surprise.

One notable Livian howler comes from his account of the Roman siege of Ambracia in Greece in 189 BC, after the end of the war. A complicated struggle is going on, within a series of underground tunnels, dug both by the Romans and the Ambracians. At one point, Livy refers to the fight going on ‘with doors put in the way’ (foribus positis). Where were the doors from? And what are they doing in the tunnels? If we go back to Polybius’ text we find a significantly different story. He has ‘shields’ put in the way. The most plausible explanation is that Livy has mistaken the standard word for ‘Roman shields’ (scuta in Latin), which is in the original Greek (thureous) for a similar word (thuras) meaning ‘doors’. To be fair to Livy, the words are etymologically related: the Roman shield was ‘door shaped’. But it is still a basic error of translation that has made nonsense of the scene of fighting that he describes.

Despite all this, Levene wants to rehabilitate Livy. Joining a growing scholarly movement that sees, beyond the errors, considerable literary and historical sophistication in Livy’s work, he sets out to show that the narrative of the war against Hannibal ‘is the most remarkable and brilliant piece of sustained prose narrative in the whole surviving corpus of classical literature’. Does he succeed? Up to a point, yes. The project is not helped by his book’s length or by his own prolixity (Levene belongs to the ‘never use just one example if you have five more that make the same point’ school of literary criticism, and as with Livy himself, there is a lot to plough through). That said, he scores some powerful hits against the old dismissive orthodoxy and, after Levene, it should not be possible again to ignore these ten books.

He is excellent on challenging our modern expectations of reading and understanding a text such as Livy’s. ‘Put the atlas away’ is his message. Ancient readers of Livy did not have a map beside them as they read this text, and in the end it may not be very important where every small town was actually situated (the ancient readers would not have known either). And he convincingly shows a range of literary subtleties that often go unnoticed. I particularly liked his demonstration that Livy partly constructs his description of the behaviour of the Roman general Marcellus in Sicily out of Cicero’s speeches prosecuting Verres, the rapacious Roman governor of Sicily more than a hundred years later. Levene nicely argues that we are meant to see how Marcellus at the end of the third century BC already prefigures the worst character of Roman rule in the late Republic.

No less impressive is the way he shows that Livy seems determined to offer a different view of history and historical causation from the chilling rationalism of one of his main sources, Polybius. He is not merely diluting or misunderstanding his Greek predecessor; in some respects he is standing out against him. Levene points out, for example, that when, in Livy, Hannibal gives a speech of encouragement to his frightened soldiers before they make the crossing of the Alps, Livy puts into Hannibal’s mouth some of the words used by Polybius in criticising the gullibility of his own predecessors. These historians, Polybius insisted, overestimated the danger of the mountains and told ridiculous stories about their danger, which were nothing short of falsehoods. So, says Livy’s Hannibal, echoing Polybius, there are people who foolishly imagine that the Alps are so tall that they touch the sky. But there is a sting in the tail. For what did the soldiers find when, a few chapters later, they finally reached the mountains themselves? In Livy’s words, they discovered that the ‘snows all but mixed with the heavens’. The mountains really did reach to the sky, and Polybius’ ‘rationalist debunking of the terrors of the Alps is shown to be false, and the rumours which terrified his soldiers are true after all’. Like Fabius Maximus, who in addition to being a ‘delayer’ was also deeply respectful of the gods, Livy underscores the influence of the divine, the irrational and the unexpectedly strange on the unfolding of history.

Levene is a powerful advocate for Livy, while recognising some of his faults. He is not like some of those fashionable readers who put down every Livian inconsistency or repetition to artful emphasis, or to the ancient equivalent of postmodern ‘destabilisation’ (… it’s not that Livy got it wrong in repeating the same incident twice, he is asking us to question the very nature of a linear narrative …). Fortunately, Levene’s Livy is not always super-sophisticated and is allowed to make mistakes, at the same time as making some powerful historical arguments. All the same, I retain a few doubts. Livy might have well-honed views about the over-rationalisations of his predecessors, and he might have had a subtle argument to make about historical causation. But how clever a reading of Polybius can we reasonably expect from a Roman historian who was unsure of the Greek word for ‘shield’?

Review of Robert Garland, Hannibal (Bristol Classical Press, 2010); D. S. Levene, Livy on the Hannibalic War (Oxford University Press, 2010)

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