Ancient History & Civilisation



Quintus Fabius Maximus (c. 275–203 BC)

and Marcus Claudius Marcellus (271–208 BC)

Fabius Maximus when opposed by Hannibal … decided to avoid taking any dangerous risks and concern himself only with the defence of Italy, and in this way earned himself the nickname ‘the delayer’ and a great reputation as a general.1

IN NOVEMBER 218 BC, HANNIBAL CROSSED THE ALPS AND BURST INTO Northern Italy. The Romans were astounded by the boldness and suddenness of this attack, so unlike the cautious strategy pursued by Carthage in the First Punic War. The Second War was sparked by Hannibal’s attack on Saguntum, a Spanish city allied to Rome, and it was in Spain that the Roman Senate had expected to confront the Carthaginian general. Of the two consuls for 218, one was to take an army to Spain, whilst his colleague went to Sicily to prepare for an invasion of North Africa which would threaten Carthage itself.

The strategy was aggressive, direct and characteristically Roman, but began to unravel almost immediately. Scipio, the consul travelling to Spain, stopped at Massilia (Marseilles) and discovered that Hannibal and a large army had recently passed by on its way eastwards. Completely wrong-footed, the Romans struggled to react to the new situation. Yet for a succession of commanders Hannibal’s invasion seemed like a marvellous opportunity to win themselves glory by defeating this great enemy. Each displayed great enthusiasm to close with the Carthaginian army and fight it anywhere and under any conditions. Scipio hurried back to take command of the legions already in the Po valley campaigning against the Gallic tribes of the region. With his cavalry and light infantry he hastened to make contact with Hannibal, only to be brushed aside with disdainful ease by the numerically superior and more skilful Punic horse near the River Ticinus. In December his recently arrived colleague, Sempronius Longus, eagerly gave battle with their combined armies at Trebia and was utterly defeated, suffering very heavy losses. The following June Flaminius, one of the consuls of 217, following the enemy too closely in an effort to bring them to battle before he was joined by his fellow consul, was ambushed and killed along with 15,000 of his men.2

Roman losses in these early operations were appalling, and made all the worse because they came in defeats suffered on Italian soil. The enemy appeared unstoppable, and in some later sources Hannibal assumes the elemental power of a Force of Nature, smashing everything in his path. In truth the Romans were utterly outclassed at this stage of their war. Hannibal was unquestionably one of the ablest commanders of antiquity and commanded an army in every respect superior to the inexperienced legions facing it. It was not really an army of Carthaginians, who provided only its senior officers, but was a mixture of many races – Numidians and Libyans from Africa, Iberians, Celtiberians and Lusitanians from Spain, and in time Gauls, Ligurians and Italians. At its heart were the troops who had campaigned in Spain for many years under the leadership of Hannibal’s family, all of them experienced, confident, and highly disciplined. In comparison to this sophisticated fighting force, the legions manoeuvred clumsily, and trusted more to individual courage and stubbornness than superior tactics to win the day.3

The ferocity of Hannibal’s onslaught shocked Rome and pushed her to the very brink of utter defeat. Yet somehow the Romans endured disaster after catastrophic disaster, any one of which would have been enough to force other contemporary states to capitulate, and in the end went on to win the war. The scale of the achievement was recognized even at the time and highlighted afterwards when it appeared to inaugurate Rome’s rapid rise to dominate the Mediterranean world. Later, in the mid second centuryBC, Polybius, who hoped to explain this sudden rise to a Greek audience, would begin the detailed narrative of his Universal History with the Second Punic War. He and later writers were greatly aided in their task because the conflict had inspired the Romans themselves to begin writing prose history. The first, by Fabius Pictor, was in Greek, but in the early second century Cato the Elder produced his Origines in Latin. Both men had participated in the war with Hannibal and dealt with the conflict in detail, and, although their works have survived only in fragments, it is at this period that we at last begin to have fuller, more reliable sources for examining the campaigns of Roman commanders.


The two subjects of this chapter were exceptional in many ways. Both enjoyed long periods of continuous command, something which would be rare until the Late Republic. Each had also won high office and military distinction before the Second Punic War, and indeed had grown to manhood and served with distinction during the First Punic War. In 218 Fabius and Marcellus were in their late fifties, rather elderly by Roman standards for a field command. Yet for much of the war they were to lead armies against Hannibal and, if neither was ever able to inflict a decisive defeat upon the Carthaginian, they were able to avoid suffering a similar blow at his hands, which in itself was no mean achievement. Their victories were often small-scale, and nearly always won over Hannibal’s allies, gradually weakening his power.


‘We have been defeated in a great battle,’ was the staid, unemotional announcement made in the Forum when news reached Rome of the destruction of Flaminius and his army at Lake Trasimene. In spite of the calm front presented by the urban praetor Marcus Pomponius, Livy tells us that panic and despair began to spread, especially when a few days later the news arrived that a force of 4,000 horsemen, sent by his consular colleague to join Flaminius, had been surrounded and all killed or captured by the enemy. With one army effectively destroyed, the other some distance away and crippled by the loss of its cavalry, there seemed nothing to stop Hannibal from moving directly against the city itself. At this time of crisis the Senate decided to appoint a military dictator, a single magistrate with supreme imperium. This was a rarely used expedient, for it violated the basic principle of Roman politics that no one man should hold overwhelming power, and had not been employed for over thirty years. Normally a dictator was nominated by one of the consuls, but since Flaminius was dead and his colleague unable or unwilling to reach Rome, it was decided to select the man by election. Technically, this may have meant that the appointee’s title was actually prodictator, but, whether or not this was so, his powers were identical to those of any other dictator. The man chosen by the vote of the Comitia Centuriata, the assembly of the Roman People organized into groups according to their role in the archaic army, was Quintus Fabius Maximus.4

Fabius was 58, a member of one of the patrician clans which had formed Rome’s oldest aristocracy. Now they shared their dominant position with a number of wealthy and well established plebeian families, but continued to enjoy distinguished careers. Fabius had already held two consulships in 233 and 228, and the censorship in 230. The name Maximus had been earned by the military achievements of his great-grandfather Quintus Fabius Rullianus (consul 322 and dictator in 315) fighting against the Samnites. The family adopted the name permanently, for the senatorial aristocracy missed no opportunity of publicly celebrating the great deeds of their ancestors and so promoting the electoral success of current and future generations. It was an equally Roman characteristic to give individual senators nicknames, often based on their appearance. In part this was to assist in distinguishing the different members of a family with similar or identical names, but it probably had more to do with the Romans’ rather blunt sense of humour. Thanks to a prominent wart on his lip, the young Quintus Fabius Maximus was dubbed Verrucosus (Spotty). Later accounts describe him as a stolid, cautious child, whose abilities were not at first obvious. Through constant practice as a young adult he became a capable officer and a skilled public speaker, emphasizing the twin dominance of war and politics in the public life of Rome.

There is little detailed information about Fabius’ career before the Second Punic War. During his first consulship he campaigned against the Ligurians, a loosely organized and fiercely independent mountain people of Northern Italy. It seems probable that the war was fought in response to raiding against Roman and allied lands in Northern Etruria. Fabius attacked the tribes, defeating them in battle and halting, at least temporarily, their plundering forays. For this success he was awarded a triumph. This experience of campaigning in difficult terrain against an enemy skilled in ambush may well have instilled in Fabius a strong sense of the importance of keeping an army under tight control and only fighting at a time and manner of his own choosing. These were certainly to be the keynotes of his generalship throughout the war with Hannibal.5

As dictator Fabius Maximus’ first task was to restore some semblance of confidence and normality to Rome itself. Defences were prepared in case Hannibal should mount a direct attack, two new legions were raised and organized, and considerable care was taken to ensure that the Roman field army would be properly supplied. Yet more than anything else, the dictator at first devoted his efforts to religious matters. Flaminius’ defeat was publicly blamed on his failure to perform the proper rites before embarking on his campaign. The Sibylline Books – a collection of ancient prophecies – were consulted to ensure that appropriate ceremonies were undertaken and suitable dedications made to regain the gods’ favour. As a Greek Polybius found many aspects of Roman religion absurdly superstitious, and believed that many senators cynically viewed such things as a means of controlling the emotions of the ignorant and uneducated poor. Whilst such views were certainly held by men like Caesar and Cicero in the Late Republic, it is not necessarily the case that Fabius and all of his contemporaries shared them. When the Senate spent time discussing such issues it emphasized that public affairs of all types were now to be conducted in a correct and thorough way. From the beginning Fabius made it clear that he expected to be treated in a manner appropriate to the full dignity of his office. He was accompanied by twenty-four attendants or lictors, who carried the fasces, bundles of rods tied around an axe which symbolized a magistrate’s power to dispense corporal and capital punishment. The imperium of other magistrates lapsed (or more accurately became subordinate) when a dictator was appointed. As he went to rendezvous with the surviving consul, Fabius sent a messenger ahead instructing the man to dismiss his own lictors before coming into the dictator’s presence.6

Having linked up with the consul and taken over command of his army, Fabius had a force of four legions under his command and almost certainly the four allied alae which would normally support them. Our sources provide no information about actual numbers, but at normal strength such a force would muster between 30,000 and 40,000 men. This was a strong army by Roman standards, but it was of highly doubtful quality. The consul’s army was based around survivors of the defeat at Trebia so that, although they had been in service for more than a year, their experience was mainly of defeat. These legions and alae also lacked all or most of their cavalry which had been destroyed in the aftermath of Trasimene. The rest of the army had only been under arms for a matter of weeks and were not yet familiar with each other and their officers. Nor was there much time or opportunity to integrate the two elements of the army into a single body used to operating together. Therefore, however impressive Fabius’ field army may have appeared, it was in no respect a match for Hannibal’s veteran troops. It was probably also significantly outnumbered by the enemy, and especially at a disadvantage in both the quality and quantity of its cavalry. It is in this context that we must see the campaign waged by the dictator.

As a magistrate with supreme power, a dictator did not have a colleague but a deputy, entitled the Master of Horse (Magister Equitum). The title seems to date back to Rome’s early history when the strength of the army consisted of the hoplite phalanx so that the dictator led the heavy infantry whilst his subordinate took the cavalry. Law forbade the dictator even to ride a horse on campaign, but Fabius had requested and been granted an exemption to this before leaving Rome. It was impossible for a man on foot to exercise effective command and control over an army of four legions and in this case practicality overrode archaic tradition. Normally a dictator chose his Master of Horse, but in the unusual circumstances of Fabius’ election it had been decided to allow the voters also to chose his subordinate. The ballot came out in favour of Marcus Minucius Rufus, who had held the consulship in 221. The two men do not appear to have got along well and Minucius was to display a boldness similar to Scipio, Sempronius and Flaminius.7

Hannibal had moved east after Trasimene, crossing the Apennines into Picenum and the rich plains down to the Adriatic shore. Much of his army was in poor health, the men suffering from scurvy and the horses from mange, for the intensive campaigning had denied them sufficient rest to recover from the exertions of the epic march to reach Italy. The lull in the campaign did much to restore the army’s fitness, but we cannot be sure how long it lasted. Later in the summer Fabius closed to camp within 6 miles of Hannibal near the town of Aecae (or Arpi according to Livy). The Carthaginian immediately sought a decisive encounter and marched his men out to form up for battle and challenge the Romans to fight. The Roman army remained in camp and, after some hours, Hannibal withdrew, assuring his men that this demonstrated that the Romans were afraid of them. Further attempts to provoke Fabius to battle or to ambush his army failed, for the dictator remained determined to avoid contact. After several days Hannibal marched away, his soldiers devastating the land as they passed through it. That they were able to do this often literally under the watching gaze of the dictator’s army, was an enormous blow to Roman pride. The legions were recruited overwhelmingly from farmers, and it was especially depressing for such men to know that they could not prevent an enemy from marauding through the fields of their kindred and allies.

Yet always Fabius shadowed the enemy, staying one or two days’ march behind the Punic army and refusing to close. He moved carefully, keeping his army together under close discipline and exploiting their local knowledge of the landscape to move from one favourable position to the next. Whenever possible he kept to high ground, avoiding open plains where the enemy’s superior cavalry posed a great danger. Hannibal was never willing to attack Fabius’ army when the Romans had the advantage of position. The care taken before the campaign to gather adequate transport animals and supplies of food to support the large Roman army now paid dividends, for it permitted Fabius to move as he wanted rather than continually having to shift position to gather more food and fodder. When foraging parties did have to go out, they were always covered by a strong force formed of cavalry and light infantry to guard against ambush. In the small-scale skirmishing between patrols and outposts of the two armies it was generally the Romans who had the advantage.

Livy and Plutarch both claimed that from the beginning Hannibal was secretly disturbed by Fabius’ refusal to be drawn into battle. Certainly, by the standards of contemporary military theory the dictator was doing the right thing. Much of this literature concerned itself with the circumstances under which a commander should fight a pitched battle. This was to be risked only when the prospects of success were good, and after a general had gained every possible advantage, however minor, for his men. Following the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene the confidence of Hannibal’s troops was extremely high. Outnumbered and inexperienced, the dictator’s army would almost certainly have suffered defeat in any massed encounter fought on even terms. In these circumstances Fabius, like the good commander of the military manuals, avoided battle, and sought ways to change the odds in his favour. The experience of active campaigning gradually improved the efficiency of the Roman army; the small victories won in skirmishes helped to boost morale, and, very, very slowly, began to wear down the enemy. It would take a long time to recover from the early defeats and build an army capable of confronting Hannibal without enjoying overwhelming advantages of position, but Fabius started the process.8

The dictator’s strategy made perfect sense by the standards of contemporary military theory, although we cannot know whether Fabius was aware of this or was simply acting in a way he considered to be appropriate to the situation. Rome still had an essentially impermanent militia army, rather than the professional forces fielded by other large states. Knowledge of military theory does not yet appear to have been widespread amongst the senators who provided the army commanders and as a result Roman methods of making war often lacked subtlety, relying instead on aggression and brute force. These attitudes had characterized Ticinus, Trebia and Trasimene, but even these defeats do not appear to have done much to dampen the Roman élite’s instinctive urge to attack the enemy as soon as possible. Fabius’ cautious shadowing of the Punic army was deeply unpopular with the army and especially its senior officers, most notably the Master of Horse. As the campaign progressed his opposition to the strategy became increasingly vocal. Fabius was nicknamed Hannibal’s paedogogus, after the slave who accompanied a Roman schoolboy, carrying his books and other paraphernalia.9

Hannibal, having drifted steadily westwards, then drove into Campania and plundered the ager Falernus (Falernian Plain), a fertile area whose wine would later win the praise of the poet Horace. Marauding through this area, he hoped either to spur the Romans into risking a battle or to demonstrate to Rome’s allies that she was no longer strong enough to protect them. It is possible that the Carthaginian already had hopes of persuading the Campanians to defect. In spite of the urgings of Minucius and his other officers, Fabius kept to the high ground which surrounds the Campanian plain, observing the enemy and refusing to be drawn. However, Livy tells us that one patrol consisting of 400 allied cavalry led by Lucius Hostilius Mancinus disobeyed orders and were nearly all killed or captured in the ensuing skirmish.10

Fabius felt that at last the enemy had made a mistake. He guessed that Hannibal would withdraw by the same pass that he had used to enter the plain and managed to occupy the place before the enemy. Late in the day a detachment of 4,000 men set up camp in the pass itself, whilst the main army camped on a hill overlooking it. It was a very strong position and Fabius hoped that, should the enemy try to force the pass, he would be able to inflict considerable losses upon them, and at the very least prevent them from carrying off the great quantity of plunder which they had gathered during their raiding. Hannibal’s army was cut off from its original base in Spain and from its allies in Cisalpine Gaul, and, lacking a port, was not in effective communication with Carthage. Even a minor defeat could seriously damage him, shattering the impression of invincibility created by his early victories and discouraging any of Rome’s allies from defecting. The rival armies were camped some 2 miles apart. Livy claims that Hannibal launched a direct attack on the pass, but was repulsed, although the more reliable Polybius does not mention this. All of our sources are agreed on what happened next, for it became one of the classic ploys or strategems of the ancient world.

Hannibal instructed Hasdrubal, the officer responsible for overseeing the army’s supply train amongst other things, to gather a great quantity of dry wood. These faggots were then tied to the horns of 2,000 plough oxen taken from the great herd of captured cattle. During the night, servants were ordered to light these torches and then drive the cattle up through the pass. With them went his experienced light infantrymen, who were tasked with keeping the herd together. In the meantime, the remainder of the army, who had earlier been given specific orders to eat and rest, formed up into a march column headed by the best of the close order infantry – most probably the Libyans. The Roman force in the pass, mistaking the fires for the main column, came down the slope to attack, but the confused skirmish was broken up when many of the panicking cattle stampeded through the middle. With the pass now open the Carthaginian army was able to march through unopposed. Fabius and the main Roman force did nothing, waiting in camp for daylight. It was unclear from the mass of torches and the noise of fighting precisely what was going on, and the dictator utterly refused to risk battle without a clear knowledge of the situation, in case he was lured into a trap. Fighting at night was rare in the ancient world, especially for large armies, as it was very difficult for leaders to control their men and easy for troops to get lost or fall into confusion and panic. It is probable that Fabius realized that his own army was likely to be at a great disadvantage in such circumstances when faced with Hannibal’s better trained and more experienced soldiers. By the time the sun rose on the next day, Hannibal’s main force, along with the bulk of its baggage train, was through the pass. The Carthaginian was even able to send back a force of Spanish foot to extricate the light infantrymen, killing around a thousand Romans in the process.11

The escape of the Carthaginian army reflected once again its high quality and the genius of its commander, but it was a major humiliation for Fabius. It was now near the end of the summer and Hannibal began to look for a suitable place to take up winter quarters. The Roman army followed him as he went east again, but Fabius was required in Rome to oversee some religious rites and for a while the army came under the command of Minucius. Hannibal stormed and sacked the town of Gerunium in Luceria, and then began to send out large detachments of men to gather provisions, intending to find sufficient supplies to maintain the army throughout the winter. Whilst much of his army was dispersed in this way, and its commander disinclined to fight a serious action as a result, the Master of Horse attacked and won a large-scale skirmish outside the town. Exaggerated reports of this action were brought to a Rome starved of any good news for the last two years. In a wave of popular enthusiasm, which was allegedly opposed by all but one of the Senate, Minucius was granted equal power to the dictator, effectively a return to the normal situation of having two consuls of equal authority rather than a single supreme magistrate.

On his return Fabius and Minucius divided the army into two equal parts and camped separately, the dictator having apparently refused a suggestion that they hold command of the whole force on alternate days. A short while afterwards, Minucius was lured into an ambush by Hannibal. Only the arrival of Fabius’ men to cover their retreat prevented the defeat from degenerating into yet another disaster. The Master of Horse led his men into Fabius’ camp, and there greeted the dictator not simply as commander, but as father. It was a very emotive gesture by Roman standards, for fathers possessed massive powers over their children and it was almost inconceivable for a son to oppose his father politically. This brief experiment with two commanders being abandoned, the remainder of the campaigning season passed without major fighting. At the end of his sixth month of office, Fabius laid down the dictatorship and returned to Rome. He had granted the Romans a breathing space to recover and rebuild their forces. In the next year one of the largest armies ever fielded by the Republic would serve under the command of the consuls. In the event, it marched to an even greater disaster than any which had preceded it.12


On 2 August 216 BC almost 50,000 Roman and allied soldiers were slaughtered on the narrow plain north of the little ruined town of Cannae. Fabius’ efforts had been wasted, but the defeat was not inevitable and certainly not anticipated by the Romans. Nor should we automatically accept the later tradition of Livy and others who declared that the former dictator had wanted the consuls of 216 to pursue his own strategy of avoiding battle. Once again, in a time of crisis the Romans appointed a military dictator, Marcus Junius Pera, who began the slow process of rebuilding Rome’s strength. Hannibal did not march against Rome after Cannae, something which the Romans never quite understood, and, although there were moments of panic, his failure to do so allowed them time to recover mentally and revert to their normal belief that a war could only ever end in eventual victory. Yet the situation was still extremely bleak, for much of Southern Italy had defected to the Carthaginians by the end of the year.13

The consuls elected for 215 were Lucius Postumius Albinus and Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. However, a few months after Cannae the former was ambushed and killed along with most of his army in Cisalpine Gaul in another dreadful blow to Roman confidence. The man elected to replace him was Marcus Claudius Marcellus but, when he took up office on 15 March, bad omens were held to have declared the vote invalid. Fabius Maximus may well have been behind this, for after a rapidly held election he received the vacant magistracy. Part of the objection may have been that both Marcellus and Gracchus were plebeians, when it was normal for one of the two consuls each year to be a patrician. Yet it really is very difficult to understand precisely what was going on behind the scenes. One of the most striking things about the Second Punic War is the degree to which normal politics went on at Rome even at times of appalling crisis, as senators scrambled for the opportunity to play a distinguished role in the fighting. It is possible that Fabius felt that Marcellus was too aggressive a general for the current circumstances, but since he anyway received a field command as proconsul this seems unlikely. When Fabius presided over the elections for the next year, he demanded that the people think again when two inexperienced men began to head the polls. In the event he was reelected with Marcellus as his colleague, although to what extent this was a matter of choice is impossible to know.14

Marcellus was 57 in 214 BC, and had already been consul in 222 and praetor in 224 and 216. As a youth he had fought in Sicily during the First Punic War, winning many decorations as well as a reputation for individual acts of heroism. Amongst these honours was at least one civic crown (corona civica), Rome’s highest decoration, presented by one citizen to another as an admission that the recipient had saved his life. This was given to him by his brother, Otacilius. In many ways Marcellus resembled Achilles, Hector and the other aristocratic warriors of Homer’s Iliad, or Rome’s early heroes, in his boldness, aggression and the relish he took in single combat. It was an old-fashioned style of fighting, associated more with tribal war bands than regular armies, but continued to characterize his approach to warfare even when he reached high command. In 222 he and his consular colleague, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, launched a joint invasion of the territory of the Insubres in Cisalpine Gaul. The tribe had suffered a serious defeat at the hands of Flaminius in the previous year, but Marcellus and Scipio were so eager to fight a campaign that they had persuaded the Senate to turn away some Gallic envoys intent on negotiating a surrender. The consuls advanced and besieged the hilltop town (oppidum) of Acerrae. In response the Insubres, along with allied or mercenary warriors from north of the Alps known as Gaesatae, surrounded Clastidium, a village allied to Rome. Leaving Scipio with the main force, Marcellus took two-thirds of their combined cavalry and 600 light infantrymen to meet the new threat. What then occurred could have come straight out of Homer, and was taken as a subject by the poet Naevius, though our account comes from a later source.15

When the Romans approached Clastidium the Gauls came out to meet them, led by a certain King Britomarus. Our sources claim that there were 10,000 of them, but this may well be an exaggeration. The horsemen in a Gallic army, as in the legions at this time, consisted of the wealthier, more aristocratic members of the tribe, able to afford a horse and suitable equipment. Gallic cavalry were in general well mounted – the Romans were later to copy many aspects of horse harness and training from the Gauls – and extremely brave, if unsophisticated tactically. Such men had to justify their honoured position in society by conspicuous displays of courage in war. With Britomarus at their head, standing out as was proper for a king in his lavishly gilded and silvered cuirass, the tribal horsemen rushed to engage the outnumbered Romans. Marcellus was equally keen to engage, but Plutarch tells us that during the advance his horse shied and began to turn away. Thinking quickly, the consul pretended that he had deliberately turned his mount to pray to the sun, so that his men would not be discouraged. Putting a positive slant on what appeared to be a bad omen in such a way was another of the attributes of the good general of military theory. Marcellus is supposed to have vowed to dedicate the most impressive panoply amongst the enemy to Jupiter Feretrius if the god would grant Rome victory. Then, deciding that Britomarus himself wore the finest equipment, the Roman consul spurred ahead of his men to reach the king. The two leaders met between the rival lines. Marcellus drove his spear into the Gaul’s body, knocking him from his horse, and then finished him off with a second and a third blow, before dismounting to strip the corpse. If Plutarch is to be believed the two sides did not close whilst this was going on. Then the Roman horse charged home and, after a hard fight, defeated the Gauls.16

By the time Marcellus rejoined Scipio, Acerrae had fallen and the Romans had moved against Mediolanum (modern Milan), the greatest town of the Insubres, which eventually fell after some hard fighting. On his return to Rome, Marcellus crowned his triumph by dedicating the spolia opima in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius on the Capitol. He was only the third man in Rome’s history to be awarded this honour, granted to a general who had killed the enemy leader in single combat before a battle. Romulus was supposed to have been the first and established the tradition that the commander performing this rite should carry the spoils of the defeated enemy suspended from an oak branch.17

In spite of his age, Marcellus held an almost unbroken series of field commands from the very beginning of the Second Punic War. He was the first Roman commander to come into contact with the main Carthaginian army in the months after Cannae. The actions he fought in late 216 and 215 outside the town of Nola were probably very small in scale, little more than large skirmishes, but they came at a time when Rome was desperate for the slightest military success. This region is very rugged, with few open areas large enough to permit armies to deploy into formal battle lines. Livy’s account of the fighting is dramatic, but even he doubted that the casualties in some of these engagements were as heavy as some of his sources claimed. Marcellus led his troops in his usual aggressive manner, but his willingness to attack the enemy should not hide the care he took to do so in the most favourable circumstances possible. Hannibal was unable to outwit and surprise him, as he had so easily baffled other Roman commanders. In this sense the cautious Fabius’ and bold Marcellus’ command styles were very similar, for both men kept their armies under tight control. On the march the men were not allowed to stray from their units, and the column moved behind a screen of outposts along a route which had already been carefully reconnoitred by patrols, sometimes led by the commander himself. The sites for temporary camps were chosen with care and engagements begun only when the general chose to fight.

Such precautions may appear obvious, almost trivial, but had in the past been frequently ignored by Roman armies. The willingness of Roman citizens to serve in organized units under strict military law should not blind us to the essentially impermanent nature of the legions. The clumsiness with which Roman armies manoeuvred in the initial campaigns of the war was typical for this period, as was the frequency with which they were ambushed or collided unexpectedly with an enemy column. Prolonged service, especially successful campaigning, steadily increased a Roman army’s military efficiency, but it took a considerable time to achieve basic competence and years for them to reach similar standards to professional troops. Their considerable past experience of campaigning, combined with natural ability, set Marcellus and Fabius apart from the majority of contemporary Roman commanders, and made their style of command much closer to the Hellenistic ideal.18

As far as we can tell, the two men were able to co-operate effectively whenever this was necessary. It should be noted that Fabius’ reluctance to confront Hannibal in battle was not extended to smaller detachments of the Punic army and, most especially, to the Italian communities who had defected to the enemy. Fabius continued to avoid battle with an army which he did not believe he had the capability to defeat, but consistently attacked that enemy indirectly, hoping gradually to weaken him. Both Fabius and Marcellus also took great care to preserve the loyalty of Rome’s allies, especially when these appeared to be wavering. A similar story is told about both men winning over a distinguished allied soldier who, discontented by what he felt was a lack of recognition of his services, was planning to defect. In 214 the two consuls combined to recapture the town of Casilinum, captured by Hannibal in the previous year. The siege at first went badly, and Livy claims that it was Marcellus’ determination to persevere that prevented a Roman withdrawal, but there is no hint of a major rift between the two men. Both consistently displayed the ideal behaviour of the Roman aristocrat, by refusing ever to contemplate the possibility that Rome could lose the war. Hannibal is said to have been exasperated by the enthusiasm with which Marcellus would renew an action, even when he had suffered a reverse on the previous day. The lost account of the Greek philosopher Posidonius reported that, because of their differing approaches to war, Marcellus and Fabius were dubbed the ‘Sword and Shield of Rome’. Whatever their differences of temperament, and perhaps of political ambitions, this does highlight their essentially complementary and co-operative relationship when it came to fighting the Carthaginians.19

Marcellus’ greatest achievement of the Second Punic War was the capture of Syracuse in Sicily after a long siege. An early attempt at direct assault having failed, due in part at least to the array of ingenious siege engines used by the defenders and designed by the geometrician Archimedes who was a native of Syracuse, the Romans resorted to blockade. In the end, a surprise attack allowed the Romans to take the outer ring of fortifications in 212, and during the next year the remainder of the city was captured, betrayed to the Romans, or surrendered. Rivals in the Senate, claiming that the Sicilian campaign was incomplete, managed to deny him a triumph for this achievement, and Marcellus instead celebrated an ovation, riding on horseback instead of in a chariot as he led the possession. The spoils brought back from Syracuse included great quantities of Hellenistic art, up until that point a rarity at Rome.

In 209, during his fifth consulship and his last field command, Fabius Maximus recaptured the city of Tarentum through a similar mixture of stealth and treachery on the part of some of the garrison. Marcellus held a fourth consulship in 210, during which he seems to have won a marginal victory over Hannibal at Numistro, and a fifth term in 208. Moving once again into close contact with the Carthaginian in the hope of forcing a battle, he and his consular colleague personally led 220 cavalry to reconnoitre a hill between the two camps. The patrol rode into a trap, for Hannibal had deliberately concealed men on the high ground suspecting that the Romans would try to occupy it. Marcellus died fighting hand to hand. The other consul and Marcellus’ son escaped, though both were wounded, the former mortally. The loss of both consuls was a dreadful blow to Roman pride, but, whilst Marcellus was at long last outwitted by the Punic general, he had not led his entire army to defeat and destruction. Polybius, who believed that it was not a deliberate ambush but a chance encounter with Numidian foragers, was highly critical of a general who risked his own life by leading such a patrol. Yet, as we shall see, many Roman commanders chose to take this chance for the sake of gaining a personal view of an important position.20

It was the generation of men who reached maturity during the First Punic War, men like Fabius and Marcellus, who managed to steer Rome through the crisis of the Second War. Yet, in the last years of this conflict, it was a younger generation who would actually win the Roman victory. These were men like Caius Claudius Nero who contributed more than anyone else to the defeat of Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal and a new invading army at Metaurus in 207. The greatest of these new commanders, and also the youngest, was Publius Cornelius Scipio.

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