I wrote a book! An introduction to the Ancient Romans, including hearing from the Romans themselves! Check it out!

Marcellus – Rome’s Sword against Hannibal

Parallel – Pelopidas

Important People

Archimedes (sections 15-17; 19) – No, not the owl from the Disney movie. Rather, the most amazing engineer and natural philosopher that the Greeks ever produced! Sadly, it’s the Romans fault that he did’t live longer, much to Marcellus’s regret.

Important Places

Nola – A small settlement near Naples.

Tarentum -The Greek colony that had called Pyrrhus over to help them fight the Romans about eighty years before this Second Punic War. They switch sides several times, but their location on the spur of the calf of Italy makes them strategically important for either side.

Naples – Originally a Greek colony,

Syracuse – An even wealthier Syracuse than we last saw in the Live of Timoleon and Dion, but one which has a tyrant again. The tyrant, however, seems more humane the the ones we read about in the past. For one, he is friends with and funds a great many of Archimedes’s most clever and ingenious engineering devices. Hiero is particularly glad of Archimedes’s friendship as the Roman besiege Syracuse to bring it over to their side.

Key Vices and Virtues

War-loving (φιλοπόλεμος) – Some might say virtue, but Plutarch likely wants to make the point that this is a vice. Marcellus is talented in many types of war as well, from sieges to guerilla skirmishes to pitched battles. He loves everything about the troop movement, exercise, motivation, and implementation.

Haughty (γαῦρος) – We saw this was a bad thing for Coriolanus, but Marcellus handles it much better. It does cause some strange choices, though, as he will defend himself in person twice against his detractors. Politics is still so very personal in Rome that his personal presence shames his litigious foes both times.

ἀγέρωχος – high minded; arrogant (noble or lordly in Homer, later takes on pejorative tone) – It’s hard to see if this is a gloss on haughty or a throwback to these older Homeric heroes. His love of one-on-one combat certainly has a Homeric flavor that Plutarch highlights (along with his parallel, Pelopidas), but it’s hard to know if a leader should be high-minded or not, particularly because the dictionaries also provide us with definition like arrogant, which is universally bad. The context is key, and so pay close attention to how your translator uses these words.

σώφρων – Practically wise. The tension between this virtue, which normally helps him so much against the wiliness of Hannibal, also seems to be temporarily paralyzed when he falls into the trap Hannibal sets for him. In what ways are the prideful sometimes prevented from seeing the best course of action?

Philanthropic (φιλάνθρωπος) – Probably better translated as humane, this is Plutarch’s highest compliment. Ultimately, anyone who learns this learned it from the Greeks. Plutarch is just fine being ruled by Hellenized Romans, but they must be Hellenized otherwise they’ll run to the extremes of someone like Coriolanus.

cf. Section 10 – naturally humane – τῷ φύσει φιλανθρώπῳ

A lover of Greek Education and Thought – (ἐραστής Ἑλληνικῆς παιδείας καὶ λόγων) – a lover of Greek education and wisdom

C. 1 – Born for Wars

Nickname Marcellus earned because of his warlike nature (φιλοπόλεμος) (March named after Mars, as is Marcellus, Marcus, Martial, Martin, etc…). In competition (riff on this word: ἐν τοῖς ἀγῶσι – AGON-ISTIC) he could be haughty and arrogant (γαῦρον καὶ ἀγέρωχον), but otherwise humane and a lover of Greek culture (σώφρων, φιλάνθρωπος, Ἑλληνικῆς παιδείας καὶ λόγων…ἐραστής). This generation grew up in war. This century had opened with war against the Carthaginians, then the Gauls had descended on Rome in the middle of century, and finally at the end they dealt with Hannibal first in Italy and finally in Africa.

C. 2 – Homeric Skill and Piety

Marcellus excels in the Homeric skills of single combat, even defending his brother Otacilius as Ajax defends Teucer in the Iliad. His noble action earned both the aedileship and was elected as an augur, so he earned both religious and political honor for his military success. His son was treated shamefully by a higher ranking Senator, and Marcellus made sure the Senate fined the man. With the fine, Marcellus dedicated silver bowls in thanksgiving to the gods.

C. 3 – Gallic Outbreak

After the First Punic War (265-241) but before the second, the Romans have to deal with the Insubrians and their Gallic allies, the Gaesatae (225 BC). Refer to Gallic fears and priests being exempt from military service except when the Gauls invade (cf. Life of Camillus Outline) After consulting the Sibylline books, the Romans bury alive two Greeks and two Gauls, a sacrifice they still commemorate every November with secret rites. (Plutarch uses this aberrant practice to emphasize their fear, but also to underscore that their normal practices were neighter barbaric nor unnatural, thus consigning this action clearly to the unnartual).

C. 4 – The Importance of Religious Observance

A story about Flaminius illustrating how the Romans prioritized heeding omens and the will of the people. A victorious consul is almost denied his triumph and is denied using the rest of his year of office after he had ignored a Senatorial order to return to the city immediately and lay down his powers without engaging the enemy.

C. 5 – More Roman Religious Observance

  • Augur not allowed to watch birds from the same house twice (Tib. Gracchus’ father turns out to be guilty of this in 163 BC)
  • priests deposed from office for presenting entrails incorrectly and for his priestly hat falling off during the ceremony
  • shrew-mouse squeaks while a dictator is choosing his master of horse and both men are deposed and new men chosen.
  • Plutarch’s comment: They did not fall into superstition because they made no change or deviation in their ancient rites. Natural religious conservatism = piety.

C. 6 – Roman Religion Used to Good Purpose

Marcellus, in attacking the Insubrians near the Po River in northern Italy, finds a much larger group of the enemy and engages them by spreading his line thing to prevent being surrounded. His horse, out of fear, wheels around and Marcellus has to pretend that he was praying to the gods by facing the sun, a common Roman custom. He vows a breastplate to Zeus of Pharetry (Zeus of the tribes)

C. 7 – Marcellus’s Prayer

Shortly after this prayer, the leader of the Gauls charges directly at Marcellus, recognizing him as leader. Marcellus unhorses him and then finishes him off. He prays to Zeus acknowledging that he is the third Roman general (who were the first two? see the next section) to kill a ruler and king (ἄρχοντα καὶ βασιλέα), dedicating the best of the spoils to Zeus and asking for success in the rest of the war. After winning a battle in spite of being outnumbered, he has to go help his colleague attack Milan (then called Mediolanum).

C. 8 – Marcellus’s Gallic Triumph

Only Marcellus receives a triumph for the success in Northern Italy, dedicating the Gallic king’s armor to Zeus. He had carved an oak tree to fit the armor and carried it through Rome like a shiny scarecrow, and one that Plutarch claims was the most beautiful of any triumph in that time. Romulus was the first to take down Acron the Caeninensian (#Life of Rom. xvi. 4-7), the second was Cornelius Cossus, the third was Marcellus who despoiled Britomartus. After Marcellus, no Roman. Possible etyologies of Jupiter Feretrius – CARRY (ferre) a trophy; STRIKE (ferīre) with thunderbolt; the command to STRIKE one’s enemies (ferī!). Roots of the terms spolia opīma that spoils taken from a general in battle are called spolia OPĪMA (fat spoils), cf. Aeneid 6.855 Spoils used to dedicate offerings in Delphi and thank their allies, Hiero of Syracuse.

C. 9 – Hannibal Invades: Sword and Shield

When Hannibal invades (218), Marcellus takes a Roman fleet to Sicily. After Cannae, Marcellus sends 1500 men from his navy to protect the city. The people saw that Fabius was too cautious, and so used the two men together as sword and shield. Hannibal fears Fabius as a tutor (παιδαγωγὸν) but Marcellus as an adversary (ἀνταγωνιστήν – there’s that agōn word again!).

C. 10 – Marcellus Presses His Advantage

With Hannibal’s troops in disarray as they march out to try to take Tarentum back, Marcellus marches up the boot of Italy to harass Hannibal’s men while also strengthening Naples and Nola. Naples didn’t need more than a nudge, but Nola was riven with conflict, the leaders disagreeing with the regular people. Bantius had been left for dead at Cannae, his body full of wounds. When Hannibal found him, he released him and sent him home with gifts for his bravery and valor. This made Bantius pro-Hannibal. Marcellus does not threaten the man but honors him more than Hannibal had to bring him back to Roman loyalty. (cf. Livy 23.15)

C. 11 – Hannibal Bested at Nola

Marcellus tricks Hannibal by allowing no men to show themselves guarding the wall. As Hannibal approaches in disorder, Marcellus throws open the gate and charges down on him. For the first time, Hannibal’s soldiers give way to Roman men and arms. The Romans grow in confidence, regardless of the numbers of Hannibal’s men slain, because they prove to themselves that Hannibal can lose.

C. 12 – Disaster and Desertion

A peal of thunder during Marcellus’s unanimous election as consul is considered a bad omen. The priests don’t want to tell the unanimous crowd, so Marcellus steps down. As pro-consul, someone acting with the consul’s authority, returns to Nola and refuses a pitched battle against Hannibal. While Hannibal forages for food, though, he falls on him with cavalry armed with longer naval spears. A few days after this skirmish, 300 Spanish and Numidian cavalry defect to the Romans.

C. 13 – Marcellus to Sicily

As consul in 214 with Fabius, Marcellus heads to Sicily to stop the Carthaginian expansion there. Marcellus inherits troops including some men who had shamefully fled at the Battle of Cannae and had been sent to Sicily told not to return until war with Hannibal was over. Marcellus wants to add to his army from this group of men, who are begging for a chance to redeem themselves. The Senate refuses, claiming Rome has no use for cowards and if he does use them, no awards for valor should be given (grass crown, oak crown). Marcellus never forgives the Senate for this.

C. 14 – Marcellus v. Archimedes

Hippocrates attempts to ingratiate himself with the Carthaginians and puts Romans to death in Leontini and takes the tyranny of Syracuse, terrifying the Syracusans by claiming Marcellus put all citizens of Leontini to the sword. As Marcellus closes on Syracuse, he tries to convince them of the truth, but the Syracusans prepare for war and Marcellus attacks by land and sea only to be repelled by the ingenious inventions of Archimedes. Brief excursus on the difference between mechanics and geometry and Plato’s sadness at the metaphysical truth being debased with physical. Why the Greeks didn’t have engineers. Plato derided its study: “Plato was incensed at this, and inveighed against them as corrupters and destroyers of the pure excellence of geometry, which thus turned her back upon the incorporeal things of abstract thought and descended to the things of sense, making use, moreover, of objects which required much mean and manual labour.”

C. 15 – Siege of Syracuse 213 BC

Archimedes hurled larger rocks and other missiles that the Romans had never seen before. Iron claws grabbed ships and pulled them into the air before slamming them back onto the sea. The Roman engines of war look paltry compared to Archimedes. The Romans use a sambuca, or a covered siege ladder attached to a ship, but Archimedes crushed it with giant boulders hurled from over the wall. He retires from the land and sea engagement and calls a council of war to come up with a plan to get inside the range of the huge boulders. Archimedes is ready for them with scorpions, short-range catapults.

C. 16 – Siege of Syracuse – Day 2

The scorpions solve the close-range problem too, and the Romans again fall back. The Romans felt they were fighting against the gods.

C. 17 – From Assault to Siege

Archimedes, the geometrical Briareus (one of the three hecatoncheires “hundred-handers”) who had 50 heads and 100 hands. Syracuse the body, Archimedes the soul. Marcellus calls off the assault and decides only on a siege. Archimedes, alas, wrote no treatise on the subject of military engineering, regarding engineering that ministers to the needs of life as “ignoble and vulgar” (ἀγεννῆ καὶ βάναυσον). Was he naturally smart or did he just work hard? Age old question! He was always doing geometry, to the detriment of his personal health and hygiene, truly a “captive to the Muses” (μουσόληπτος ἀληθῶς) [cf. English narcolept]. He then describes his tomb: a cylinder enclosing a sphere with an inscriptions showing how to see the relationship between the volume of the cylinder and the volume of the sphere. [NOTE: When Cicero was quaestor in Sicily (75 B.C.), he found this tomb, which had been neglected and forgotten by the Syracusans (Tusc. Disp. v. 64 ff.]

C. 18 – Marcellus’s Other Victories in Sicily

While besieging Syracuse, Marcellus sees victories elsewhere. He captures Hippocrates’s camp at Acrillae, captured Megara and a whole host of other cities he reclaims from the Carthaginians. Marcellus captures a Spartan trying to escape from Syracuse, and in the negotiations to ransom him, Marcellus notices a tower that allows easy access over the Syracusan wall. When the Syracusans are celebrating a festival to Artemis, Marcellus takes the tower, then the wall, and then the city. He blows trumpets to give the impression that he’d taken the entire city, but he had not yet taken the Achradina, the Neapolis, or the Tyche. (cf. Marcellus Outline Timoleon Outline).

C. 19 – Syracuse Sacked; Archimedes Slain

Marcellus gets a good view of this beautiful city before his men sack it, and weeps for what will become of it. The soldiers demanded to harvest plunder. He did order them not to kill or outrage any citizen (the slaves were free game). Syracuse provided as much wealth as the later sacking of Carthage did, when it [Syracuse] finally capitulated fully in 212 BC. But what most bothered Marcellus was the death of Archimedes, killed by a soldier while writing geometrical proofs in the dust (3 different stories, but they all revolve around this).

C. 20 – Marcellus, the First Just Roman

Romans known for their military prowess, not their gentleness, humanity, or civil virtues (εὐγνωμοσύνης δὲ καὶ φιλανθρωπίας καὶ ὅλως πολιτικῆς ἀρετῆς). Marcellus was the first Roman to show the Greeks that even the Romans could observe Justice. Plutarch gives one example: the city of Engyium, ancient and having a cult to the Magna Mater with an ancient temple built by the Cretans. The spears bore the names of heroes from the Trojan War, specifically Meriones and Odysseus (which Plutarch also uses the Roman name, Ulysses, spelled Οὐλίξου… only extant use of the Roman name in Greek that I could find). The story of Nicias, the only pro-Roman in this city, eventually can’t convince his fellow citizens to switch allegiance. So, after first abusing the ancient gods of the city, feigns madness and pretends to be pursued by the goddesses “the Mothers” and makes his escape to Marcellus. When Marcellus chains up all the citizens for sale into slavery (?), Nicias pleads with Marcellus for clemency and Marcellus grants it, giving Nicias lands and gifts.

C. 21 – Marcellus’s Triumph

Plutarch acknowledges that Marcellus first brought Greek art and elegance to Rome (by stealing it?). The Romans heretofore had known only two things: agriculture and warfare. Plutarch compares them to earlier Greek cities (Ephesus as described by Xeno, or the Boeotian plain as described by Epaminondas) and doesn’t come down on how good or bad this introduction of luxury was for the Romans. They all become art critics now, and Marcellus seems even to have taken the gods captive.

C. 22 – The Laurel and the Myrtle – Major and Minor Triumph

Some think his job is not done in Sicily, and so he doesn’t deserve a full triumph (θρίαμβος), but a smaller triumph (εὔα – ova in Plutarch, but ovatio in later Latin). No laurel crown, no four-horse chariot, no trumpets. Walking, accompanied by flutes, he wears the myrtle.

—[question: myrtle vs. laurel, what’s the etiology or mythic roots of each] Laurel from Apollo and Daphne, turned into a laurel tree (cf. Ovid), but myrtle sacred to Demeter and Aphrodite, which Plutarch explicitly references. (Artemidorus claims it’s equivalent to olive, associated with the story of Adonis) Two myths – Myrsine (beloved of Athena), talented virginal athlete murdered by those whom she bests in competition. Athena turns her into a myrtle. Other myth, priestess of Aphrodite marries and is turned into a myrtle by Aphrodite and given a fragrant smell. Vergil connects it with Venus. (Ecl. 7). Myrtle used in wedding rituals. Marks the grave of the dead Polydorus in Aeneid Book 3.19-68. —

So, the lesser triumph was reserved for those who used conference, persuasion, and argument (ὁμιλίᾳ δὲ καὶ πειθοῖ καὶ διὰ λόγου). The flute is also the instrument of peace and the major triumph sacrifices an ox, while the minor sacrifices a sheep (ova, according to Plutarch, but really ovis, no? in Latin).

Major TriumphMinor Triumph

C. 23 – Marcellus on Trial

210 BC, Marcellus elected consul for the fourth time, the Syracusans send ambassadors to complain of Marcellus’s treatment of them as general. Normally, a consul is exempt from political prosecution during his year-long tenure, but Marcellus finishes his religious and political duties for the day, and then steps into civilian clothes and takes his place in the normal place for the defendant in court. Marcellus keeps his cool throughout the trial and defends himself with equanimity. Then, he leaves the Senate chamber for the deliberations, waiting outside gently and with composure (πρᾴως πάνυ καὶ κοσμίως). The Senate finds Marcellus not guilty and the Syracusans beg his forgiveness (probably worried about what the Romans could now do), but Marcellus was ever afterwards a friend of Sicily and particularly the Syracusans. Marcellus re-institutes their laws and customs, and they respond by sacrificing to the gods whenever he or his descendants come to Syracuse.

C. 24 – Marcellus and Hannibal.

Having taken care of Sicily, he shifts his focus back to Hannibal. Marcellus worries that Fabian tactics will wear out Italy just as easily or quickly as they’ll wear out Hannibal. After a long-drawn and indecisive day of battle, Marcellus lines up the next day to resume the contest, but Hannibal withdraws. Marcellus manages not to fall into the traps Hannibal keeps setting for him. The Romans then see times desperate enough to appoint a dictator. Dictators must be elected by consul or praetor before the people, not by Senate or people. Plutarch gives the etymologies of dictator. – rooted in the verb of saying.

C. 25 – Marcellus Losing and Learning

Marcellus, the following year (209 BC) as pro-consul, agrees to distract Hannibal while Fabius takes Tarentum. In another battle, Marcellus moves a legion up for support but creates confusion instead and finds himself beaten back to his camp. That night, he claims he sees many Roman arms and bodies, but not one Roman, and switches the ration from wheat to barley. Plutarch tell us that Marcellus’s words hurt more than their wounds and all the Romans vowed to win forgiveness the next day.

C. 26 – Marcellus Bests Even the Elephants

The next day, the cohorts who had performed poorly ask to be put in the front ranks. Hannibal brings up the elephants, but the leading elephant is put to flight by a brave Roman tribune who stabs the elephant and causes it to turn around and flee into the Carthaginian ranks. Marcellus follows this up with a cavalry charge that throws even more elephants into confusion back against the Carthaginians. Marcellus too weak to follow up the victory, and Hannibal knows it as he breaks camp in the night and goes a great distance away.

C. 27 – Marcellus Impeached?

Marcellus is called home to answer charges of cowardice from a tribune who wants to impeach him. He comes in person and defends himself simply and straightforwardly. He is not only acquitted of the charges but elected consul for a fifth time (cf. Life of Marius).

C. 28 – Obsession and Omens

The etymology of obsession is from the Latin word obsideo – to besiege. When we obsess about something, it besieges our mind and won’t let other thoughts flow in or out. Marcellus wants to build a temple to Honor and Virtue (Δόξη καὶ Ἀρετή) but the priests won’t let two gods dwell in one temple, so he has to append a second temple onto the first one. Then the omens come in a dense list: temples struck by lightning, mice chewing statues of Zeus, an ox speaking Latin, a child born with an elephant-head. But Marcellus’s obsession was to fight a decisive battle with Hannibal and all these portents and priestly postponements made him more eager to fight Hannibal. Plutarch almost questions his judgment as infected by youthful ambition (μειρακιῶδες φιλοτιμότερον) at this stage, but then points out that he is sixty in his 5th consulship.

C. 29 – Unstoppable Fate – A Trap for Marcellus

Hannibal, aware of Marcellus’s approach, stations men in a piece of land that he knows the Romans will want to occupy as strategic. He bets correctly and the Romans begin to take omens to see if the gods approve. First omen bad, later omens extremely good. The priests are worried about the sudden ominous change, but Marcellus takes a pretty small group, including his co-consul with about 300 men to scout out the area himself. The ambush rises up and catches them completely by surprise. Most of the men flee, but 40 Fregellian horsemen defend Marcellus and his colleague, Crispinus. Crispinus runs off wounded by two javelins only to die a few days later and Marcellus is killed with a spear to his side. Never before had both consuls died in action like this. Hannibal’s greatest trap had worked perfectly.

C. 30 – Burial? And Legacy

Hannibal goes in person to see Marcellus’s corpse, not gloating or exulting, but took his signet ring (which he later used for other tricks – cf. Livy 27.28) and robed the body, burned it, and sent the remains back in a silver urn with a golden wreath to the son of Marcellus. Some Numidian cavalry fell upon those who were escorting his mortal remains back to Rome and, in the fight for the gold and silver, Marcellus’s bones were scattered far and wide. Hannibal thought the gods willed that Marcellus remained unburied, though he punished the Numidians, he did not attempt to re-collect the bones and send them back. “Nothing can be done against the will of God” (οὐδὲν ἄρα δυνατὸν γενέσθαι ἄκοντος θεοῦ). Plutarch then contrasts his sources. Nepos and Valerius Maximus claim Plutarch’s story, while Livy and Julius Caesar claim that the urn made it back to Rome for burial (cf. Livy 27.27). Marcellus had a statue still in Plutarch’s time in Lindus (southwest peninsula of the island of Rhodes) crediting him with seven consulships: five elected and two pro-consulships. And his progeny continued as illustrious as he all the way down to Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus, a son of Julius Caesar’s sister Octavia. He died prematurely and is commemorated in Book 6 of the Aeneid as well as in the Theater of Marcellus, still standing in Rome.

The Theater of Marcellus in Rome – Or what’s left of it today incorporated into an Renaissance palace.

Leave a Comment