Ancient History & Civilisation

The 'Delayer'

This second disaster, following only six months after Trebia, shocked Rome. As rumours spread and the first survivors began to reach the city, the urban praetor, Marcus Pomponius, climbed onto the Speaker's platform in the Forum and announced simply that 'We have been defeated in a great battle' (pugna magna victi sumus). Livy's dramatic accounts of wives, mothers and fathers waiting at the city gates to search for husbands and sons amongst the fugitives are often dismissed as rhetorical, but it is important to remember that much of the population will have had family or friends in the army. This defeat had occurred not too far from Rome itself and it must have appeared that there was little to stop the enemy marching on the city. News of Centenius' defeat arrived three days after the reports of Trasimene and added to the despondency.27

One consular army had been destroyed, and the other, temporarily crippled by the loss of its cavalry, had withdrawn back to Ariminum to counter the increased Gallic raiding provoked by Hannibal's presence. In this crisis the Senate decided that a military dictator must be appointed to co-ordinate the defence against Hannibal, the first time this had been done since 249. This meant that the imperium of all other officials lapsed and for six months Rome had a single supreme magistrate. Only the powers of the tribunes of the plebs, who did not have a military role, remained unchanged during a dictatorship. Normally dictators were appointed by one of the serving consuls, but since Geminus was unable to reach the city, an election was held to fill the post, although Livy may not have been correct in claiming that this meant that the man's title would actually be prodictator or 'acting dictator'. The assembled centuries of the People chose Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator, with Marcus Minucius Rufus as his Magister Equitum ( Master of Horse) or second-in-command.28

Both were experienced men. Fabius Maximus - the title 'the Greatest' had been awarded to an ancestor several generations earlier - had been twice consul, in 233, when he triumphed over the Ligurians, and in 228, as well as holding the censorship in 230. He was now about 58, rather old by the standards of Roman generals, but was to prove an active commander and emerge as one of the greatest Roman heroes of the entire conflict, holding the consulship three more times in the next decade. It is, however, probable that he would never again have held senior public office had it not been for the crisis of the Hannibalic war. Nicknamed Verrucosus or 'spotty' as a result of a prominent facial wart, Fabius had been considered a dull child, lacking in initiative, and it was only during his adult career that he earned widespread respect. We know far less about Minucius, who had been consul in 221, but the two do not seem to have been close and their relations were to prove strained during the forthcoming campaign. To depict them as members of different parties is to misunderstand Roman politics and Minucius' advocacy of a more aggressive strategy was typical of the other commanders fielded by Rome so far in this conflict, and represents the instinctive reaction of most senators.29

The two men threw themselves into the organization of the city's defences immediately after their appointment. As yet they may not have known that Hannibal had turned aside and had no intention of marching directly on Rome. Fabius publicly emphasized Flaminius' failure to carry out the proper religious rites earlier in the year, persuading the Senate to consult the Sybilline Books and appoint one of the praetors to oversee the performance of the rituals necessary to propitiate the gods. Reassured by this explanation for the recent disasters which offered the promise that traditional Roman virtues of courage and piety would carry them through the crisis, and energized by the activity of Fabius and Minucius, all levels of society threw themselves into preparations to continue the war.30

Fabius was careful to emphasize the traditional dignity of his own office as he travelled to take over the army commanded by the surviving consul and add them to the newly raised troops. Geminus had been instructed to march his troops down the via Flaminiaand the two forces met at Narnia. The dictator was escorted by twenty-four lictors, equal in number to those of both consuls whose power he in effect combined. Fabius sent a messenger ahead to inform Geminus that he was no longer entitled to symbols of office and should come into the dictator's presence as a private citizen. Taking over his soldiers, Fabius sent Geminus to Ostia to take command as proconsul of the fleet being mustered there. However, in one respect Fabius decided to abandon a traditional restriction imposed on the dictator, and was allowed by the Senate to ride a horse. This old ban was probably a legacy of the former dominance of the hoplite class of heavy infantry who wanted a commander to remain on foot, fighting, and if necessary dying, with them as part of the infantry phalanx. Hence it was the dictator's subordinate, or Master of Horse, who traditionally led the cavalry. Given the size and more sophisticated organization of the army by the late third century BC, it was essential for a general to be mobile if he was to command effectively.31

After Trasimene, Hannibal had moved east to recross the Apennines and invade Picenum, reaching the Adriatic coast after ten days' march. En route, his soldiers plundered and ravaged the land they passed through, brutally sacking and storming the villages and small towns they passed. Both men and horses were still not fully recovered from their long journey to reach Italy and the two rapid campaigns fought subsequently. The men showed signs of scurvy, and the horses of mange, both caused by vitamin deficiency. On reaching the coast he rested the men and allowed them to recover through eating the plentiful produce gathered from this rich area. The horses were bathed in the sour wine or acetum, which had been captured in great quantities, restoring the condition of their coats. Even when resting his troops, he was still forced to move his camp periodically as the army consumed the food and good forage in its immediate vicinity. Hannibal had to keep moving because of his need to feed his men and animals, but the marauding progress of his army through the heart of Roman Italy displayed to all sides the inability of the enemy to oppose him. Once on the Adriatic, he was for the first time able to send a message by sea to Carthage, reporting his successes since he left Spain. The Carthaginians were delighted at his success and promised aid to support his campaigns and his brother's operations in Spain, although little was ever to reach Hannibal.32

His army restored to health, Hannibal continued his advance down the coastal plain of eastern Italy, capturing amongst others, the Roman colony of Luceria. The Punic army then moved south-west towards Aecae where it once again came into contact with a Roman army. Fabius with his army of four legions and allies, at least 40,000 men, camped 6 miles away from the enemy. He had been advancing cautiously, carefully scouting ahead to give him plenty of warning of the enemy's presence, for the location of the Carthaginian army was not known with any certainty. Hannibal's immediate response was to form his army up and offer battle outside the Roman camp. No response came from the Romans, so after waiting long enough to impress his own men with the enemy's timidity, he led his army back into camp. It swiftly became clear that Fabius had no intention of risking a battle under any circumstances. This was certainly wise, since at least half his army consisted of very raw soldiers, and all were in awe of the enemy who had twice defeated Roman armies in less than a year. As Hannibal continued westwards and crossed the Apennines once again, Fabius shadowed his march, but refused to fight a major action. The hilly country of this region favoured the Romans, allowing Fabius to keep to the high ground and always occupy and camp on positions which Hannibal would never risk attacking. The dictator's plan was to weaken the enemy indirectly, depriving him of food supplies, a ploy later known to the Romans as 'kicking the enemy in the stomach'. Whenever possible the Romans attacked the Carthaginian foraging parties, not inflicting many casualties, but making it difficult for them to gather food and fodder. The local population were instructed to seek refuge in fortified strongholds, taking with them or destroying their animals and food, although it is unclear how perfectly this order was obeyed.33

It required great skill on Fabius' part to keep close to the enemy without giving him an opportunity to fight, but the local knowledge of the Romans and their allies were a great advantage. However, by the time Hannibal crossed into Samnium and plundered the fertile land around Beneventum, the Roman army had fallen between one and two days' march behind the enemy. The Carthaginian then decided to attack into Campania and devastate the rich ager Falernus, famous for its wines, feeling that the threat to this area farmed by Roman citizens must either provoke Fabius to battle or demonstrate finally Rome's weakness. It may be that he already had hopes that Capua and other cities might defect to him, as they were in fact to do a year later, having been encouraged by the promises of Campanian prisoners. In fact the cities remained loyal, as did the remainder of Rome's allies at this time, in spite of Hannibal's victories and Rome's obvious weakness shown by her inability to stop him devastating the country at will.34

Fabius followed the enemy, but once again refused to be provoked and the Roman army watched from the safety of the mountains whilst the Carthaginians looted and burned. It was now late in the season and Hannibal was faced with the problem of establishing a base where his army could winter and enjoy the spoils of its raiding. This meant first escaping through one of the few passes in the mountains which ring round the Falernian plain and Hannibal decided to employ the same route which he had used to enter. Fabius correctly anticipated him and managed to occupy the pass with 4,000 men whilst the remainder of his army camped on a hill in front of it. Hannibal's army halted and pitched camp on the plain beneath. The way in which he now extricated his army became a classic of ancient generalship, finding its way into nearly every historical narrative of the war and being used by later military manuals. His officer in charge of supplying the army, one Hasdrubal, was instructed to gather oxen and fasten wooden branches to their horns. The soldiers were ordered to eat a meal and get as much rest in the evening as possible. In the night, the army moved out. The torches tied to the catde's horns were lit and the animals driven up onto the ridge, the javelin-men assisting the drovers to keep them moving in the right direction. Simultaneously the main column started to ascend the pass, the Libyans led wearing their Roman equipment, the cavalry and baggage came behind and the Gauls and Spanish brought up the rear.

The Roman troops holding the pass saw the mass of torches and left their position to attack the presumed enemy. Reaching the milling animals, they halted in confusion and were suddenly attacked by the javelinmen, with whom they fought a desultory skirmish until both sides disengaged. Fabius saw the torchlight and heard the noise of fighting, but refused to move from his camp in the darkness, despite the urgings of his officers and Minucius in particular. Given the problems of fighting at night and the relative inexperience of his soldiers, this was probably the correct decision, and it is questionable whether the Romans would have been able to locate and intercept the enemy in time to achieve anything if they had moved out. Hannibal's main column was able to travel through the pass without any interference and escape with all its booty, apart from the cattle used in his ploy. The next morning revealed the Punic javelinmen facing the Roman detachments on the ridge beside the pass. Hannibal responded more quickly than his opponent and sent a force of Spanish caetrati to their aid. Lightly armed and used to rugged terrain, the Spanish not only brought the javelinmen back with them, but inflicted heavy losses on the Romans.35

Fabius had been humiliated, allowing his enemy to escape from an apparently hopeless position. From the beginning many in Rome and with the army had resented the dictator's passive policy. Officers and soldiers who despised his caution nicknamed Fabius 'Hannibal's paedagogus', for following him around like the slaves who accompanied children to school, carrying their books. The Roman instinct was to wage war aggressively, escalating a conflict rather than enduring losses patiently. Fabius' operations conformed with the military wisdom of the Hellenistic Age, that a commander who could not realistically expect to win a battle should avoid one until such a time as his strength increased in relation to that of the enemy, but as yet few if any Roman aristocrats appreciated such subtleties. When the dictator had to return to Rome to supervise some religious rituals, Minucius ignored his orders and attacked. Hannibal's army was not concentrated, busy as it was in gathering enough supplies to last the winter, and the Romans won a large-scale skirmish outside Gerunium, which Hannibal had stormed and intended to use as his winter quarters. Exaggerated accounts of this action caused widespread rejoicing in Rome, with the belief that at last they had found a commander willing and able to fight. In an unprecedented move, the tribune of the plebs, Metilius, passed a law granting the Magister Equitum equal imperium to the dictator. In effect it was a return to the normality of having two senior magistrates and when Fabius returned to the army it was divided into two, Fabius and Minucius each taking the equivalent of a consular army. The result was predictable. Hannibal lured Minucius into a trap and severely mauled his army before Fabius arrived and extricated them, but Fabius refused to engage further. Voluntarily, the Master of Horse returned to being a subordinate, hailing the dictator as father, a powerful figure in Roman society with power of life and death over his children, and bidding his men refer to Fabius' soldiers as their patrons, as if they were freed slaves.36

The year ended with the Roman army maintaining a respectful distance from the enemy, but sporadic skirmishing occurring between patrols and foraging parties. Around December 217, the six-month term of the dictatorship expired and Fabius and Minucius returned to Rome, leaving the army under the command of Geminus, the surviving consul, and Marcus Atilius Regulus (the son of the consul of256), who had been elected as suf-fect or replacement consul and had held the magistracy itself ten years earlier.

Quintus Fabius Maximus was gready revered by his own and later generations as the man who had saved Rome by avoiding battle. He earned the nickname 'Cunctator' ('the delayer'), which was clearly a considerable improvement on 'Verrucosus'. His dictatorship gave the Romans a breathing space to recover from the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene, in which they could rebuild their strength. In our sources he is depicted as an isolated figure, who alone realized that the Romans could not defeat Hannibal in battle and refused to be swayed by persuasion or mockery from his decision not to fight.

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