Fabius' dictatorship had given the Republic some respite after the disasters at Trebia and Lake Trasimene. A Roman field army had been rebuilt and had gained a little confidence through winning a few skirmishes with the enemy. The Romans had also enjoyed some success in Spain. Yet Hannibal, the man whose actions had provoked the conflict, was now spending his second winter in Italy at the head of an army undefeated in any serious engagement. Since 218 he had beaten two armies comprehensively, and destroyed or severely mauled several smaller forces, inflicting heavier losses than the Romans had suffered since the First Punic War. In many ways these disasters were worse, for they had occurred in the fields of Italy rather than on some distant sea and the losses had fallen heavily on the wealthier classes who served in the legions instead of the poor and politically less significant men who crewed Rome's fleets. The army, the source of Rome's military pride, had proved incapable of preventing an invader from marching where he willed, burning and despoiling the Italian countryside with impunity. This was a massive humiliation for any state, and a terrible admission of weakness. However well Roman forces did in Spain or Sicily, this was scant consolation for the continued presence of an undefeated Hannibal in Italy itself. Over the winter of 217-216 BC the Senate prepared to mobilize a large part of the Republic's resources to mount a massive war effort in the coming year. The other theatres, Spain, Sicily, and Cisalpine Gaul, were not ignored, but the main concern was always to be Hannibal.
This silver coin was minted in Spain by the Barcid family. On the reverse side is a war elephant. The face has sometimes been seen as the image of one of the Barcid family, perhaps even Hannibal himself, but is far more likely to be that of a deity.
In 218 and 217 the Senate had intended both consuls to join forces and defeat Hannibal, but Scipio had been wounded before Trebia and Flaminius killed and his army destroyed before Geminus' legions had reached them. This time the two new consuls would set out from Rome together, and the Republic’s most senior magistrates hold joint command from the very beginning of the campaign. These men, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Caius Terentius Varro, were elected to lead the largest army Rome had ever fielded to the anticipated great victory. In spring 216 it is doubtful that anyone could have guessed at the scale of the subsequent disaster, but all our sources were written with the benefit of hindsight. This makes it extremely difficult to separate myth and propaganda from truth, and so gain some genuine insight into the characters of these men.
Aemilius Paullus was the grandfather of Scipio Aemilianus, Polybius' patron, and as a result receives very favourable treatment from the Greek historian.
In Polybius' account it was he who made the greatest efforts in organizing and encouraging the newly raised legions. Varro is mentioned as Paullus' colleague, but then does not appear again until the consuls have led the army to within sight of Hannibal. At this point a dispute broke out between the two Roman commanders over what to do next, Paullus advocating a far more sensible course than the less experienced Varro. It is only really at this stage and in the ensuing battle that Polybius depicts Varro as an incompetent general. Paullus had already held the consulship in 219 BC, successfully campaigning in Illyria along with his colleague, Marcus Livius Salinator. This victory had been marred by scandal involving the distribution of booty, and although the chief blame had fallen on Salinator, Paullus had not emerged entirely unscathed. This seems to have made him especially eager to avoid criticism in his second consulship. The Illyrian War had involved combined operations between the fleet and army as the Romans operated along the Adriatic coast, but there had been no pitched battles. Command in such a conflict certainly made great demands on a general, but it should be noted that the skills required were not precisely the same as those needed to control a massive field army.1
In Livy's account, and the narratives of all later authors, Varro appears from the beginning as a dangerous fool. He had been quaestor in 222, was aedile in 221 and the praetor in 218, but is first mentioned by Livy as allegedly the only senator to support the bill granting Minucius equal power to the dictator in 217. Varro was a 'new man' (novus homo), one of that small number in any generation of Roman politics who were the first in their family to reach high office. Livy dismissively describes Varro's ancestry as 'not merely humble, but sordid'. He repeats, without saying whether or not he believed it, a claim that Varro's father was a butcher on a small scale, and that as a youth he worked in the business. This suggestion is rarely given any credence by modern historians, since it was typical of the vulgar abuse which was the common coin of political debate at Rome. The minimum property qualification required for membership of Rome’s highest census rating, and thus the Senate, would also mean that, even if Varro’s father had begun in business on a small scale, he had built up a considerable fortune by the time that the son inherited and embarked on a political career. The claim that Varro established a reputation in the courts by winning cases on behalf of dubious clients is again a fairly conventional accusation to level at a rival politician. Livy's Varro, like his Flaminius and Minucius, conforms to a theme running throughout his History which held rabble-rousing politicians responsible for most of the ills to befall the Republic, but even his own account of the election in 216 BC suggests that things were much more complicated than this.2
Livy says that when the first ballot was held only Varro was elected. He implies that the five unsuccessful candidates were far more distinguished and responsible, but it should be noted that none of these men ever seem to have gained high office, although it is possible that this was because some or all were killed during the war, perhaps even at Cannae. As a result of his success, Varro presided over a second election which chose Aemilius Paullus as his colleague. Normally the presiding magistrate could do much to influence the outcome of a ballot, but it is unclear to what extent Paullus could be considered Varro’s choice as partner, since we are told that all the other candidates withdrew. It has been speculated that there was some connection between the two, even that Varro may have served under Paullus in Illyria, but this must remain conjectural. A 'new man' needed considerable political ability to win elections against rivals with famous names and many clients who would vote for them. It was rare for candidates to advocate specific policies, since the electorate was more concerned with the individual's virtues and character, but a 'new man' could not parade the achievements and quality of his ancestors and needed some other way of fixing his name in the public eye. Discontentment with Fabius Maximus' cautious leadership in 217 presented Varro with a popular cause which gave a boost to his election campaign. He may well have exaggerated his own aggressiveness and the perceived faults of the well established senatorial families as military leaders, and so by implication what could be expected from some of the rival candidates, for 'new men’ tended to overemphasize their own attributes in an effort to compete. Latching onto a popular cause in this way was risky, but a novus homo often needed to take risks if he was to succeed. Finally, it is vital to remember that the voting system at Rome heavily favoured the wealthier classes. Varro’s supporters came not primarily from the landless poor, a group always seen as foolish and fickle in our ancient sources, but from all levels of Roman society. To have achieved such overwhelming success in the first ballot, he must have had the support of many, perhaps even the majority, of the wealthy equestrian order and probably also the Senate. The desire to confront Hannibal, and thus to choose an aggressive commander who would do this, was widespread at all levels in Rome.3
There was until recently a tendency to understand Roman politics in terms of fairly clearly defined factions based around certain wealthy families who monopolized high office over successive generations. These groups were believed to have advocated consistent policies, so that for instance a relative of Fabius Maximus could be expected to favour avoiding battle with the Carthaginians and attempting to wear them down gradually. We know very little about most Roman magistrates apart from their names, and this interpretation appeared to allow us to understand more about changes in Roman policy and strategy since the name alone now suggested an individual's probable behaviour. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence to support such a view and it has now been utterly discredited. Roman senators competed as individuals to gain office and the power, prestige and wealth which this brought. Families strove to win as much electoral success as possible for each new generation, not to further consistent policies in the Senate. Most of the 300 or so senators never held the consulship or praetorship, and the competition for these magistracies was always fierce, for there were inevitably far more candidates than there were posts. Equally importantly, the senatorial families formed a small social world and intermarried extensively. To interpret the elections for 216 as a victory for a Popular party, or, if a connection between Varro and Paullus is assumed, for the ‘Aemilian and Scipionic’ faction, is not supported by the evidence.4
Varro was clearly a shrewd politician, for otherwise as a novas homo it is unlikely that he would have reached the consulship, but it is difficult to say how capable he was as a soldier. Unlike Paultus, he had certainly never held a senior independent command, but then this was also true of most consuls in the third century BC. In the future Paullus' family continued to be far more influential than Varro's descendants and were able to shift the blame for Cannae onto the ’new man'. This view was carried over into the literary record by Polybius and followed by all subsequent authors. Whether or not Varro was as incompetent a commander as these narratives suggest is impossible to say, but it is hard to see much evidence of Paullus' greater experience and skill in the events of 216. Neither man was really prepared to control such a huge army, and both were utterly outclassed as a general by Hannibal, but this was also true of all other Roman commanders at this time. Wars in Illyria, or against Ligurian and Gallic tribes in Northern Italy who fielded armies of brave but ill-disciplined warriors, were poor preparation for facing an army as flexible and well led as Hannibal's. It was only after long years of war, during which senators saw far more active service with the army than had ever been the case before, that Rome started to produce officers who added the skills of generalship to the physical courage and leadership normally expected of a Roman aristocrat.