The Romans mounted a massive military effort for 216, and it is worth considering their objectives. For Polybius the answer was clear: to seek battle with Hannibal's army and destroy it. This was the decision of the Senate, supported by both consuls and in keeping with the general mood of the population as a whole for swift, decisive action. The historian claims that Paullus made a speech to the army, explaining the mistakes which had caused the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene and assuring them that these would not be repeated. Convention encouraged an historian to invent speeches which he considered appropriate for the character and situation, so it unlikely that we have a quotation from anything which the consul actually said, but his favourable attitude towards Paullus does not prevent Polybius from depicting him as eager for battle. In this version, the dispute between the consuls is not over whether or not to fight Hannibal, but when and where to do so.11
From the very beginning Livy's narrative of the Cannae campaign is pervaded by a sense of approaching disaster, for which Varro is held almost solely responsible. He appears as a braggart, making speeches before he had even left Rome boasting of winning the war on the first day that he came in sight of Hannibal. Paullus is depicted as a friend of Fabius Maximus and an advocate of his delaying tactics. Both men were convinced of the futility of facing Hannibal's veterans in an open battle, preferring instead to harass the enemy and deprive them of supplies until starvation forced their flight or surrender. Fabius is given a long speech, arguing for caution and telling Paullus that he will have to contend as much with his consular colleague as with Hannibal. Livy's account of the campaign is, like so much of his work, intensely dramatic, as the wise Paullus manages to postpone, but cannot prevent the inevitable catastrophe brought on by Varro’s rashness. The description of Paullus' death at Cannae, unwilling to survive a disaster for which he was not responsible even though its architect had already fled the field, is rich in pathos. This same tradition of consuls at loggerheads and of Paullus along with all 'wiser' senators supporting Fabius who continued to advocate caution was followed by all later sources.12
In 217, and later during his successive consulships in the remainder of the war, Fabius Maximus never fought a pitched battle with Hannibal. As dictator he had issued an order for villagers in the areas threatened by Hannibal to flee to the nearest walled town, taking with them livestock, moveable possessions and food. What could not be carried was to be hidden or destroyed. This 'scorched earth’ tactic was intended to deprive the enemy of supplies, whilst the Roman army continually harassed and ambushed their foraging parties. In the end Hannibal's army must starve, for as yet no significant community or people in Central or Southern Italy had defected to his cause, and he was far too far away from the tribes of Cisalpine Gaul to draw supplies from them. Livy claimed that this strategy would have worked if only the Romans had continued it into 216, and that even in the weeks before Cannae the Carthaginian army was beginning to lose heart. Its Spanish contingents, tired of the poor rations and long overdue pay, were supposed to be planning to desert. Another rumour claimed that Hannibal had drawn up a plan to abandon the army and flee with all his cavalry, hoping to cut his way to Cisalpine Gaul. Plutarch has Fabius Maximus claim that if Hannibal did not win a battle within the next twelve months then he would be forced to retire. Thus Cannae became all the more tragic, and Varro an even bigger blunderer, for if only the Romans had followed the same cautious strategy in 216 then victory was within their grasp. It was only this stunning defeat which prompted a wave of defections so that nearly all of Southern Italy abandoned Rome, providing Hannibal with a secure base, and the resources of men and material, which allowed him to wage war in Italy for more than a decade.13 Polybius did not share this view. In his, and indeed to a great extent in Livy's, narrative, it is difficult to see much evidence for any real hardship being suffered by Hannibal's men. Supplying an army of around 50,000 soldiers, at least 10,000 cavalry horses, plus an unknown number of servants, wives and camp followers was a never- ending problem for the Carthaginian commander. Our sources frequently mention the activities of foraging parties and explain many of Hannibal’s movements as dictated by the need to gather supplies. Fabius Maximus did very little to hinder these movements. The Carthaginians on several occasions took Roman strongholds, possessing themselves of the supplies massed at these points. Sufficient provisions were gathered at Gerunium to permit the Punic army to remain there for around six months from late autumn 217 to spring 216.14
Hannibal's army remained almost constantly on the move during the campaigning seasons after his arrival in Italy. Once he had left Cisalpine Gaul early in 217 he was effectively cut off from any allies and could not rely upon them to supply his army. He moved with the intention of humiliating the Romans, by defeating their armies in battle or demonstrating their weakness, but he also had to bear in mind the need to supply his soldiers. His objective was to win over Rome's allies and weaken the Republic until it was willing to accept a negotiated peace.
Attacking an enemy army indirectly by depriving it of food was an approach sometimes adopted by later Roman armies, common enough to be known by the slang expression 'kicking the enemy in the stomach'. In 217 Fabius Maximus' main aim was to avoid further defeat whilst he rebuilt the army, and harassing the enemy was the only way to do this without risking fresh disasters. This was the right thing to do in the circumstances, but there is no reason to believe that this was still the right thing to do in 216, or even that Fabius himself believed this. The dictatorship had given Rome the chance to recover so that for the new campaign she was able to field a massive eight-legion army. Some of the troops were now experienced and well trained, and all were very confident. There was no reason to concentrate so many troops if an open battle was not planned, for half as many could have continued to shadow the enemy just as effectively. Supplying 80,000-90,000 men and their mounts created immense problems, making the army a very clumsy force to manoeuvre close to the enemy without actually fighting. Allowing Hannibal to maraud at will through Italy was a constant affront to Roman pride, a demonstration of the Republic's inability to protect itself and its allies. The appearance of power was often of more importance than its reality in the ancient world, and the continued perception of Rome’s weakness would eventually encourage attacks upon her or rebellions amongst her allies. If Hannibal’s army was seriously defeated in battle then it was too far away from its bases in Spain to survive. A single Roman victory would end the invasion and perhaps even the war. Seeking battle was the logical course of action for the Romans in 216, having amassed what they hoped would be overwhelming force. Perhaps Fabius Maximus still advocated caution - our sources certainly depict him as singleminded and unimaginative, although it was a tendency of ancient biographers to exaggerate aspects of a man's character - but it is unlikely that this view was either widely supported or correct.15