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Fabius Maximus – The Strategy of Delay

Greek Parallel – Pericles

Important People

Terentius Varro – Mastermind of Cannae, survivor of the same battle, much to his shame.

Marcellus – The sword to Fabius’s shield. Marcellus, whose life Plutarch also wrote, and Fabius together kept the Romans in their war against Hannibal without shameful or crippling setbacks.

Scipio (Africanus) – The young and ambitious general, first succesful in Spain against the Carthaginians, makes a plan to take the war to Africa. This plan that Fabius will oppose with every ounce of influence he has.

Minucius – The master of horse (magister equitum) during Fabius’s dictatorship. He grows annoyed at Fabian tactics and gets himself elected “co-dictator.” After Hannibal draws him into a trap from which Fabius saves him and all his men, Minucius admits his fault and joins again in complete unity of command under Fabius.

Important Places

Trebia (218 BC) – Shortly after crossing the Alps, Hannibal crushes the Roman army that comes to meet him.

Trasimene (217 BC) – Working his way almost halfway down the peninsula, Hannibal crushes another massive Roman army.

Cannae (216 BC) – Finally working his way past Rome (perhaps not enough soldiers, supplies, or the right materials to besiege Rome), he crushes for the third year in a row an army of tens of thousands of Romans, with the consul in charge that day being one of a handful of survivors.

Tarentum (213 BC) – One of the first strategic cities that the Romans, primarily through Fabius Maximus, manage to take back and hold out of Hannibal’s grasp. It also seems to be a blot on Fabius’s record, as he does something out of character when taking over the city.

Key Vices and Virtues

Gravity – βαρύτης – This is the ability to take yourself seriously enough to stick with your plan and not be ruffled by the critics, detractors, and nitpickers. Fabius has this until the end; indeed, it may be a fault by the end of his life.

Gentleness – πραότης – This gentleness shows up in his treatment of friends, allies, defeated Romans, and even cowards. His gentleness always wins more friends than it lsoes.

Calmness – ἡσυχία – At several points in the story, Fabius seems to be the only one unnerved by the disasters that fall on Rome all right in a row.

Silence – enough said.

Lack of Passion – apatheia – This is a bad thing, for Plutarch and for most of us. We can see the word apathy in it. And yet, it is often what we’ll write off in others when in reality they’re just a slower processor, a deeper introvert, or focussed on something else. This life more than most made me look for virtues in others and not be so quick to label them as vices.

Single-minded and sure (monimon and bebaion) – Single-mindedness again cuts both ways. His single-mindedness at the end of his life prevents him from helping or supporting Scipio in a bid that seemed to be the best choice for Rome (and also worked out that way). How do we make sure our focus doesn’t become so narrow as to amount to blinders?

Good planning (cf 14) – εὐβουλίᾳ – Fabius has this, generally both politically and militarily.

Kindness – χρηστότητι – His kindliness prevents him from making many enemies, and he almost always keeps the Senate on his side, until Scipio has a plan Fabius doesn’t like.

Judging Virtues Merely from Outside Actions… is Difficult:

ἀσφαλείας καὶ προνοίας (cf 25) – caution and prudence

The people thought it was jealousy – φθόνος

φιλοτιμίᾳ τινὶ καὶ φιλονεικίᾳ (cf 25) – or ambition and rivalry

C. 1 – Background and Virtues

Either descended from Hercules or earning his family name because his ancestors dug ditches to trap animals (fodere → foedae → Fabii), he was from a long line of famous men. Called little lamb (ovicula) because of his mild temperament even as a child, Plutarch warns us early not to misjudge him as many of his contemporaries did. What seemed slow, dull, and silent, was actually reserved, self-disciplined, and focused. His speech had no fancy rhetoric, but was admired for its straightforwardness and reliance on maxims. (Cf. Cicero’s opinion in Cato Maior 4)

C. 2 – Hannibal Invades Italy

His earliest prowess in battle earned against the Ligurians, but then Hannibal invaded Italy over the Alps, winning at Trebia (218 BC) and raging through Tuscany. Weird portents: shields sweated blood, ears of grain cut and bleeding, meteors fell from heaven, tablets with writing on them fell from the sky. Fabius not moved by these portents, but seeks out information about the enemy and then acts on it. Don’t attack a well-trained enemy. Let their supplies fail and play a defensive game until they start to fall under their own weight.

C. 3 – Flaminius and Trasimene – Disaster Strikes Twice!

Flaminius, reigning consul, rejects Fabius’s plan and goes out to engage Hannibal at Lake Trasimene (217 BC). An earthquake during the battle goes unnoticed because fog of war was so instense. Flaminius killed and many of his best men. 15K Romans die, 15K taken prisoner. Flaminius’s body not even recovered. New reaches Rome and the praetor informs the people immediately of the disaster, which throws the city into an uproar. The Romans turn again to the dictatorship and give it to Fabius.

C. 4 – Reorienting Romans to Religion

Fabius appoints Marcus Minucius as master of horse and then asks to use a horse, which had been forbidden to a dictator by law (to emphasize infantry prowess). He receives his 24 lictors. He then returns the Romans to the proper use of their religion, to embolden valor with piety (θαρρύνων εὐσεβείᾳ τὴν ἀρετὴν). He consults the Sybilline books but had to keep that information to himself. Publicly, he promised to sacrifice all the newborn lambs, pigs, cattle, and goats that year as well as fund a music and drama festival costing 333 sestertii, 333 denarii, and 1/3 of a denarius. Plutarch waxes eloquent on the awesomeness of the number three:

  • Perfect number by nature (φύσει τέλειος)
  • First odd number
  • Beginning of quantity
  • Containing the first differences and elements of every number together.

C. 5 – Like a Rock

He knew this would make the Romans more hopeful about the future, though he put all the pressure on himself to perform, knowing that god would help those who showed discretion and virtue (ἀρετῆς καὶ φρονήσεως). Pitching camp on the hills so as to be inaccesible, he stayed close enough to threaten to fight, without ever being forced to fight. Everyone hated this tactic, but Hannibal. Hannibal tried everything to force a battle. Fabius wanted to remain firm… his magister equitum, though, was in love with fighting (at the wrong time), overly bold, and wanting to gain clout with the army (φιλομαχῶν ἀκαίρως καὶ θρασυνόμενος καὶ δημαγωγῶν). Minucius implies that Fabius is a director of a theater show rather than a general, showing the army what Italy looks like on fire. When his friends advise him to change his plans because he’s growing unpopular, he points out that this would be most cowardly.

C. 6 – Hannibal’s Error, and Cattle Correction

Through a miscommunication with his scouts, Hannibal ends up walking through a narrow valley (a defile) leading straight to a beach. Once Hannibal was in the valley, Fabius blocked his retreat with 4K infantry, and then posted everyone else on the slopes of the valley. In addition he pursued the rear-guard and engaged them. Hannibal cheats his way out. Tying torches to the horns of his cattle, he ordered them to be driven up the slopes. From a distance, they seemed like an army marching in good order. But as the flames got uncomfortably hot for the cows, the order broke into disarray and the cows rushed through the mountains spreading fire and confusion. The Romans withdraw rather than get caught up in the confusion, and this gives Hannibal the opportunity to escape with the main body of his men.

C. 7 – Fabius’ Popularity Continues to Decline

Fabius figures the ruse out pretty quickly, but knows how risky a night attack would be. He does pursue the rear of the enemy as they are rushing out of the valley. Hannibal uses his Spanish infantry, good at climbing mountains, to support the rear guard and Fabius is driven back. Fabius had been out-generalled. Then Hannibal burns all the Roman fields except Fabius’s, so that everyone will notice the favoritism (cf. Pericles 33). Prisoner exchange: man-for-man, but Hannibal had 240 left over and the agreed price was set at 250 drachmas but the Senate refused to pay to teach Fabius a lesson about buying back cowards. He sent his sons to sell his fields (remember, the only intact ones) and used the money to buy back the prisoners himself. He refused to be repaid by any of these men.

C. 8 – Fabius Away, Minucius Disobeys

Summoned to Rome to make a sacrifice, he leave Minucius in charge with specific instruction not to engage Hannibal. Minucius sees an opportunity to attack a smaller portion of the army and succeeds in hemming the men in and grows in pride and boldness (μεγαλαυχίας and θράσους). Fabius, on hearing of it, fears his success more than his failure and the tribune denounces Fabius not just as weak or cowardly, but as a traitor. The same tribune also attacked the Senate for allowing this war to drag on and Hannibal to request reinforcements from Libya.

C. 9 – Double Dictators?

Fabius addresses the people, completely ignoring everything the Tribune said, and says he must finish the religious sacrifices so that he can return and punish Minucius for disobedience. Thinking that he was threatening Minucius with death, the people are silent knowing the power of the dictator over life and death. The tribuneship, though, continues even under a dictator and remains sacrosanct. This will be important in future lives (Gracchi esp.). In an unprecedented move, rather than remove Fabius from power, the Romans raised Minucius to co-dictator. It also happened later in the war, but the second dictator filled the Senate again and then rushed back into private life as forcefully as he could.

C. 10 – Fight Hannibal, not Fabius.

Fabius handles even this with calmness, cf. Diogenes “I am not ridiculed”. A sincerely good man can neither be insulted nor dishonored. He was distressed at the opportunities for calamity that they had given to Minucius. Fabius arranged the co-dictatorship so that each man had control of half the army. Minucius wanted to take turns by day (the Athenian way). Fabius reminds him that he fights against Hannibal, not Fabius.

C. 11 – Minucius’s Mistake; Hannibal’s Trap

Minucius moves his camp (1.5 miles, cf. Polybius 3.103) away from Fabius with a hill in between. Hannibal sends some men to occupy the hill, but really to tempt Minucius to batle and it works. Hannibal looks as if he will engage fully, and so Mincuius pours out both legions from his camp. On a signal, Hannibal brings in reinforcements BEHIND Minucius’s men and cuts them down with great terror and confusion.

C. 12 – Fabius To The Rescue

Fabius has his men in battle array and watches from the front of his camp. He rushes to Minucius’s aid, telling his men to save Minucius who loves his country and whose desire to drive away the enemy had led him astray. Fabius pushes back the Numidian cavalry. Once Fabius enters the fray with energy, Hannibal calls a retreat, reminding his followers that Fabius not only threatened like a storm, but could pour down when necessary.

C. 13 – Two Fabian Victories

Fabius says no corrective word to Minucius, who gathers his men together and admits his mistake. He re-submits himself to Fabius’s authority and marches back to join Fabius’s camp. Minucius hails Fabius as father and tells him that in one day he won two victories: one over Hannibal through courage, the other through intelligence and helpfulness (εὐβουλίᾳ δὲ καὶ χρηστότητι). In the first he saved lives, and in the second he taught a lesson. The camp was full of the sweetest (missing from the English translation I read) tears and rejoicing (ὥστε μεστὸν εἶναι χαρᾶς καὶ δακρύων ἡδίστων τὸ στρατόπεδον).

C. 14 – Two Consuls Don’t Balance

Consuls elected again, and one seems hasty and rash. In what feels to us like deja vu, one consul gathers the biggest army Rome had yet seen (88K) and wants to set out to find Hannibal and finish him off once and for all. Fabius pleads with the other consul, Aemilius Paulus (an ancestor of the famous Life – Macedonicus?). Unable to face the votes of the people, he promises Fabius that he will go to war and try to be a good general in the Fabian sense.

C. 15 – Hannibals’ Joke

Outnumbering the Carthaginians 2 to 1, Terentius insists on sole command for a day and orders battle near the river Aufidus near the town of Cannae. One of Hannibal’s right-hand men comments on the size of the army, but Hannibal jokes back that there isn’t a single Gisco among them, so how scary could they be. This pleasantry diffuses through the ranks and raises everyone’s courage.

C. 16 – The Disaster at Cannae and The Fate of the Consuls

With the wind at his back, all the dust blown up by the battle goes into the Romans’ faces. Leading a purposely weak center, Hannibal wants to draw the Roman army between his more experienced troops on his flanks and then crush them in a pincer manuever. It works perfectly. One consul is thrown from his horse and as his men dismount to help him, the entire Roman cavalry thinks a command had been given to dismount and so they do. Paulus awaited an enemy to kill him while Varro galloped off with a few followers. One man, recognizing Paulus in spite of the blood, gore, and dust offers Paulus his horse to save himself since the Romans needed a brave commander. Forcing the young man back on his horse, Paulus tells the men to tell Fabius Maximus that he held true to his precepts to the end, conquered first by Varro and then by Hannibal. 50K Romans died. 4K taken alive. 10K taken in camp.

C. 17 – Hannibal’s Control; Fabius’s Control

Hannibal’s advisors urge him to march on Rome, but he doesn’t. Plutarch only hazards guesses as to why. All Italy comes over to Hannibal now. Now Fabius’s tactics look not just legitimate, but divinely inspired. So, to Fabius Rome turns again and he was the only one who could keep calm in disaster (πρᾴῳ βαδίσματι καὶ προσώπῳ καθεστῶτι καὶ φιλανθρώπῳ προσαγορεύσει) – gentle step, composed face, and kind greetings. He was the strength and power (καὶ ῥώμη καὶ δύναμις) PUN: ROME looks like the Greek ῥώμη. (the strength of every office looking to him) ἀρχῆς ἁπάσης πρὸς ἐκεῖνον ἀποβλεπούσης.

C. 18 – Varro’s Return

Fabius limits mourning to privacy and 30 days (usually 9-10 months in peacetime). They forego a festival to Ceres lest the small numbers of dejected participants further offend the goddess. Any rites which the augurs suggested for propitiation, though, were performed. Someone sent to Delphi and two Vestal Virgins are found to be corrupted. One buried alive, the other kills herself. Varro—the surviving general of Cannae whose plan it was to fight there—returns to Rome in humility and dejection (ταπεινοῦ καὶ κατηφοῦς), but the Senate and people welcomed him at the gates. To return to power even through a disaster was what the Romans needed.

C. 19 – Fabius and Marcellus: Shield and Sword

As Hannibal looks to other parts of Italy, Fabius and Marcellus are put together as a team of opposites (cf. Nicias and Alcibiades but it works much better). Marcellus was “fond of battle” (φιλοπτολέμους) or “eager for the fray” (ἀγερώχους). The Romans call Fabius their shield and Marcellus their sword. For the next five years, these two men skirmish and bait Hannibal by turns, wearing him down. In 208, Hannibal lures Marcellus into a trap and kills him (see Life of Marcellus). Only once did he come close enough to do the same with Fabius. Fabius received letters from a city promising to turn it over to the Romans, but the auspices were not favorable, so Fabius delayed. In the delay, he discovers Hannibal’s forgery of the letters and so saves himself.

C. 20 – How to Treat the Shaky Allies

Fabius opted for gentler treatment of those allies who had switched sides or were rumored to be about to. He admits to one disgruntled soldier that the commanders handed out accolades based too much on favor (χάριν) rather than excellence (ἀρετὴν). Fabius thought that dog-trainers used better tactics to tame dogs than many commanders did to discipline their men. When another soldier seemed to be wandering from his post, but many also attested to his bravery, Fabius asked him why he strayed. When he discovered that it was for a girl, he brought her to the camp and called the soldier in to his tent seemingly for correction. He admitted that he would need to put this soldier into another’s command, and then revealed the girl and allows them to marry so he has no more excuses.

C. 21 – The Recovery of Tarentum

In 212, the Romans had lost Tarentum, but Fabius recovered it in 209. He uses one of his soldiers who has a sister who is a concubine with a Bruttian. Ultimately, that Bruttian is a mercenary who switches sides for the right price.

C. 22 – Romans Sack Tarentum

In what Plutarch hopes is a rare show of force, Fabius receives troops from Marcellus who had failed in Sicily and uses them to attract Hannibal away from Tarentum. The plan works and Fabius is able to take Tarentum through treachery and force, but he puts the Tarentines to the sword, sells 30K of them into slavery, and sacks the city, which Plutarch contrasts sharply with Marcellus, who was more humane with the captured cities of Sicily (though Polybius (Book 3, section 86-89, no mention of Tarentum…) and Livy (27.16) disagree).

C. 23 – Triumph and Jealousy

Hannibal only a few miles from Tarentum when the Romans take it, and here realizes that he has not the forces to take all of Italy. Fabius celebrates a triumph which vexes a loyal Roman who had held the citadel throughout the Carthaginian occupation. When this man complains that he should get more credit, Fabius responds “You are right, if you hadn’t lost the city, I wouldn’t have retaken it.”

C. 24 – Fatherland First

In 213 BC, Fabius’s son elected consul. Fabius approaches on horseback and the son sends a lictor to order him to dismount and approach the consul on foot. Fabius does so and tells his son he is right to prioritize fatherland over father. Even Fabius’s great-grandfather had served in the army under his son when elected consul.

C. 25 – The Rise of Scipio

Now the war moves outside Italy and Cornelius Scipio has great success pushing back the Carthaginians in Spain. He also adds to the Roman allies, and no longer sees war in Italy as the path to victory. Rather, he wants to take the war to Africa. Fabius worried that this swift policy change will bring disaster to the Roman cause. The Senate agreed with Fabius, but the people support Scipio and think Fabius is motivated by fear and jealousy. Plutarch gives him the benefit of the doubt that it began in prudence and caution, but ended in ambition and rivalry. Plutarch’s proof of this is in Fabius’s attempt to get one consul to ignore the other. He fails to convinces Crassus who has a gentle nature (weren’t we told Fabius had one too) and is Pontifex Maximus, who shouldn’t leave the city. (unconstitutional? how to square this with his earlier praise of the Roman constitution). Fabius would also not fund Scipio’s ideas, so Scipio raised money from his own personal and political connections. Scipio raises the funds for war from his own connections (just like Fabius did).

C. 26 – Scipio vs. Fabius vs. Hannibal

Fabius plays on the people’s fear and they send Scipio to Africa with far fewer men and arms than he asks for (Marcellus’s Sicilian contingent and 300 of his best picked men from Spain). With this smaller than ideal number, Scipio racks up victories and sends back spoils. After conquering the Numidian king, Scipio moves against their camps and the alarmed Carthaginians send for Hannibal’s immediate return. When Fabius suggests Scipio’s recall, then many people grow enraged and assume Fabius is just “captious and malicious, or one whose old age had robbed him of both courage and confidence” δύσκολος ἀνὴρ καὶ βάσκανος ἢ πάμπαν ὑπὸ γήρως ἄτολμος γεγονὼς καὶ δύσελπις, Nothing convinces Fabius that it’s better for Hannibal to be in Africa and the people continue to fear Hannibal destroying Romans in Africa as much as he had in Italy.

C. 27 – Fabius Fades Away

As Hannibal sails off to be defeated by Scipio in Africa, Fabius dies in his certitude. Each Roman contributes something to his funeral, feeling that Rome had lost a father and deeming him worthy of honor at the end.

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