Extreme conditions impose extreme measures: The Romans elect a Dictator after the battle of lake Thrasymene

On the news of the defeat reaching Rome the chiefs of the state were unable to conceal or soften down the facts, owing to the magnitude of the calamity, and were obliged to summon a meeting of the commons and announce it. When the Praetor therefore from the Rostra said, “We have been defeated in a great battle” it produced such consternation that to those who were present on both occasions the disaster seemed much greater now than during the actual battle. And this was quite natural; for since for many years they had had no experience of the word or fact of avowed defeat, they could not bear the reverse with moderation and dignity. This was not, however, the case with the Senate, which remained self-possessed, taking thought for the future as to what should be done by everyone, and how best to do it.

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The Roman Forum

At the time of the battle Gnaeus Servilius, the Consul in command in the district of Ariminum (the district that is on the coast of the Adriatic where the plain of Cisalpine Gaul joins the rest of Italy not far from the mouth of the river Po), hearing that Hannibal had invaded Etruria and was encamped opposite Flaminius, formed the project of joining the latter with his whole army, but as this was impossible owing to the weight of his forces he dispatched Gaius Centenius at once in advance, giving him four thousand horse, intending them, if the situation were critical, to press on and arrive before himself. When, after the battle, news reached Hannibal of the approach of these reinforcements, he sent off Maharbal with the pikemen and part of the cavalry. Encountering Gaius, they killed about half of his force in their first attack, and pursuing the others to a hill, made them all prisoners on the following day. Three days after the news of the great battle had reached Rome, and just when throughout the city the sore, so to speak, was most violently inflamed, came the tidings of this fresh disaster, and now not only the populace but the Senate too were thrown into consternation. Abandoning therefore the system of government by magistrates elected annually they decided to deal with the present situation more radically, thinking that the state of affairs and the impending peril demanded the appointment of a single general with full powers.

The Romans had appointed as Dictator Quintus Fabius, a man of admirable judgement and great natural gifts, so much so that still in my own day the members of this family bear the name of Maximus, “Greatest”, owing to the achievements and success of this man. A dictator differs from the Consuls in these respects, that while each of the Consuls is attended by twelve lictors, the Dictator has twentyfour, and that while the Consuls require in many matters the co-operation of the Senate, the Dictator is a general with absolute powers, all the magistrates in Rome, except the Tribunes, ceasing to hold office on his appointment. At the same time they appointed Marcus Minucius Master of the Horse. The Master of the Horse is subordinate to the Dictator but becomes as it were his successor when the Dictator is otherwise occupied.

Fabius on his appointment, after sacrificing to the gods, took the field with his colleague and the four legions which had been raised for the emergency. Joining near Narnia the army from Ariminum, he relieved Gnaeus the Consul of his command on land and sent him with an escort to Rome with orders to take the steps that circumstances called for should the Carthaginians make any naval movements. Himself with his Master of the Horse taking the whole army under his command, he encamped opposite the Carthaginians near Aecae about six miles from the enemy.

When he learnt that Fabius had arrived, Hannibal, wishing to strike such a blow as would effectually cow the enemy, led his forces out and drew them up in order of battle at a short distance from the Roman camp, but after waiting some time, as nobody came out to meet him, he retired again to his own camp. For Fabius, having determined not to expose himself to any risk or to venture on a battle, but to make the safety of the army under his command his first and chief aim, adhered steadfastly to this purpose. At first, it is true, he was despised for this, and gave people occasion to say that he was playing the coward and was in deadly fear of an engagement, but as time went on, he forced everyone to confess and acknowledge that it was impossible for anyone to deal with the present situation in a more sensible and prudent manner.

Very soon indeed facts testified to the wisdom of his conduct, and this was no wonder. For the enemy’s forces had been trained in actual warfare constantly from their earliest youth, they had a general who had been brought up together with them and was accustomed from childhood to operations in the field, they had won many battles in Spain and had twice in succession beaten the Romans and their allies, and what was most important, they had cast to the winds everything else, and their only hope of safety lay in victory. The circumstances of the Roman army were the exact opposite, and therefore Fabius was not able to meet the enemy in a general battle, as it would evidently result in a reverse, but on due consideration he fell back on those means in which the Romans had the advantage, confined himself to these, and regulated his conduct of the war thereby. These advantages of the Romans lay in inexhaustible supplies of provisions and men.

He, therefore, during the period which followed continued to move parallel to the enemy, always occupying in advance the positions which his knowledge of the country told him were the most advantageous. Having always a plentiful store of provisions in his rear he never allowed his soldiers to forage or to straggle from the camp on any pretext, but keeping them continually massed together watched for such opportunities as time and place afforded. In this manner he continued to take or kill numbers of the enemy, who despising him had strayed far from their own camp in foraging. He acted so in order, on the one hand, to keep on reducing the strictly limited numbers of the enemy, and, on the other, with the view of gradually strengthening and restoring by partial successes the spirits of his own troops, broken as they were by the general reverses. He was, however, not at all disposed to respond to the enemy’s challenge and meet him in a set battle. But all this much displeased his colleague Marcus, who, echoing the popular verdict, ran down Fabius to all for his craven and slow conduct of the campaign, while he himself was most eager to risk a battle.

The Carthaginians crossed the Apennines and descended into the territory of the Samnites, which was very fertile and had not for long been visited by war, so that they had such abundance of provisions that they could not succeed either in using or in destroying all their booty. They also overran the territory of Beneventum, a Roman colony, and took the city of Telesia, which was unwalled and full of all manner of property. The Romans continued to hang on their rear at a distance of one or two days’ march, refusing to approach nearer and engage the enemy.

Hannibal, consequently, seeing that Fabius, while obviously wishing to avoid a battle, had no intention of withdrawing altogether from the open country, made a bold dash at Falernum in the plain of Capua, counting with certainty on one of two alternatives: either he would compel the enemy to fight or make it plain to everybody that he was winning and that the Romans were abandoning the country to him. Upon this happening he hoped that the towns would be much impressed and hasten to throw off their allegiance to Rome. For up to now, although the Romans had been beaten in two battles, not a single Italian city had revolted to the Carthaginians, but all remained loyal, although some suffered much. From which one may estimate the awe and respect that the allies felt for the Roman state.

Hannibal left Samnium and traversing the pass near the hill called Eribianus encamped beside the river Athyrnus, which approximately cuts this plain in half. Establishing his camp on the side of the river towards Rome he overran and plundered the whole plain unmolested. Fabius, though taken aback by the audacity of this stroke on the part of the enemy, continued all the more to adhere to his deliberate plan. But his colleague Marcus and all the tribunes and centurions in his army, thinking they had caught Hannibal famously, urged him to make all haste to reach the plain and not allow the finest part of the country to be devastated. Fabius did bestir himself to reach the district, sharing in so far the view of the more eager and venturesome spirits, but when he came in view of the enemy on approaching Falernum, while moving along the hills parallel to them so as not to appear to the allies to be abandoning the open country, he did not bring his army down into the plain, avoiding a general action both for the above-mentioned reasons and because the Carthaginians were obviously much his superiors in cavalry.

Hannibal, having thus done his best to provoke the Romans by laying the whole plain waste, found himself in possession of a huge amount of booty and decided to withdraw, as he wished not to waste the booty, but to secure it in a place suitable for his winter quarters, so that his army should not only fare sumptuously for the present, but continue to have abundance of provisions. Fabius, divining that his plan was to retire by the same pass by which he had entered, and seeing that owing to its narrowness the place was exceedingly favourable for delivering an attack, stationed about four thousand men at the actual pass, bidding them act at the proper time with all spirit, while availing themselves fully of the advantage of the ground. He himself with the greater part of his army encamped on a hill in front of the pass and overlooking it.

When the Carthaginians arrived and made their camp on the level ground just under the hill, Fabius thought that at least he would be able to carry away their booty without their disputing it and possibly even to put an end to the whole campaign owing to the great advantage his position gave him. He was in fact entirely occupied in considering at what point and how he should avail himself of local conditions, and with what troops he should attack, and from which direction. But while the enemy were making these preparations for next day, Hannibal, conjecturing that they would act so, gave them no time or leisure to develop their plan, but summoning Hasdrubal, who was in command of the Army Service, ordered him to get as many faggots as possible of any kind of dry wood made promptly and to collect in the front of the camp about two thousand of the strongest plough oxen among all the captured stock. When this had been done, he collected the army servants and pointed out to them a rise in the ground between his own camp and the pass through which he was about to march. For this eminence he ordered them to drive the oxen whenever they received the word as furiously as they could till they reached the top. He next ordered all his men to get their supper and retire to rest early. When the third watch of the night was nearly over he led out the army servants and ordered them to bind the fagots to the horns of the oxen. This was soon done as there were plenty of hands, and he now bade them light all the fagots and drive the oxen up to the ridge. Placing his pikemen behind these men, he ordered them to help the drivers up to a certain point, but as soon as the animals were well started on their career, to run along on each side of them and keep them together, making for the higher ground. They were then to occupy the ridge, so that if the enemy advanced to any part of it, they might meet and attack him. At the same time he himself with his heavy-armed troops in front, next them his cavalry, next the captured cattle, and finally the Spaniards and Celts, made for the narrow gorge of the pass.

hann   Hannibal

The Romans who were guarding the gorge, as soon as they saw the lights advancing up the slope, thinking that Hannibal was pressing on rapidly in that direction, left the narrow part of the pass and advanced to the hill to meet the enemy. But when they got near the oxen they were entirely puzzled by the lights, fancying that they were about to encounter something much more formidable than the reality. When the pikemen came up, both forces skirmished with each other for a short time, and then when the oxen rushed in among them they drew apart and remained on the heights waiting until day should break, not being able to understand what was the matter. Fabius, partly because he was at a loss to know what was occurring, and as Homer says, deeming it to be a trick, and partly because he adhered to his former resolve not to risk or hazard a general engagement, remained quiet in his camp waiting for daylight.

Meanwhile Hannibal, whose plan had been entirely successful, brought his army and all his booty safely through the gorge, those who had been guarding the difficult passage having quitted their post. When at daybreak he saw the Romans on the hill drawn up opposite his pikemen, he sent there some Spaniards as a reinforcement. Attacking the Romans they killed about a thousand and easily relieved and brought down their own light infantry, Hannibal, having thus effected his retirement from Falernum, remained now safely in camp and began to take thought where and how he should establish his winter quarters. He had spread great terror and perplexity through all the cities and peoples of Italy. Fabius, though generally reproached for his craven conduct in letting the enemy escape from such a situation, still did not abandon his policy. But a few days afterwards he was compelled to leave for Rome to perform certain sacrifices and handed over his legions to his Master of the Horse, enjoining on him strictly, in taking leave, not to attach so much importance to damaging the enemy as to avoiding disaster for himself. Marcus, instead of paying any attention to this advice, was, even while Fabius was tendering it, entirely wrapped up in the project of risking a great battle.

Minucius on taking over the command from Fabius at first followed the Carthaginians along the hills, always expecting to encounter them when attempting to cross. But on hearing that Hannibal had already occupied Geronium, and was foraging in the district, and had established himself in a fortified camp before the city, he turned and descended from the hills by a ridge that slopes down to the town. Arriving at the height in the territory of Larinum called Galena he encamped there, being eager at all hazards to engage the enemy. Hannibal, seeing the approach of the Romans, left the third part of his army to forage, and taking the other two-thirds advanced sixteen stades from the town and encamped on a hill with the view of overawing the enemy and affording protection to the foragers. There was a certain hillock between the two armies, and observing that it lay close to the enemy’s camp and commanded it, he sent two thousand of his pikemen in the night to occupy it. Marcus, catching sight of them at daybreak, led out his light-armed troops and attacked the hill. A brisk skirmish took place in which the Romans were victorious, and afterwards they transferred their whole army to this hill.

Hannibal for a certain time kept the whole of his forces within the camp owing to the propinquity of the enemy; but after some days he was compelled to tell off a portion to pasture the animals, and send others to forage for corn, as he was anxious, according to his original plan, to avoid loss in the live stock he had captured and to collect as much corn as possible, so that for the whole winter there should be plenty of everything both for his men and also for the horses and pack-animals; for it was on his cavalry above all that he placed reliance.

Minucius, remarking that the greater number of the enemy were dispersed over the country on these services, chose the time when the day was at its height to lead out his forces, and on approaching the enemy’s camp, drew up his legionaries, and dividing his cavalry and light-armed infantry into several troops sent them out to attack the foragers, with orders to take no prisoners. Hannibal hereupon found himself in a very difficult position, being neither strong enough to march out and meet the enemy nor able to go to the assistance of those of his men who were scattered over the country. The Romans who had been dispatched to attack the foraging parties, killed numbers of them, and finally the troops drawn up in line reached such a pitch of contempt for the enemy that they began to pull down the palisade and very nearly stormed the Carthaginian camp. Hannibal was in sore straits, but notwithstanding the tempest that had thus overtaken him he continued to drive off all assailants and with difficulty to hold his camp, until Hasdrubal, with those who had fled from the country for refuge to the camp before Geronium, about four thousand in number, came to succour him. He now regained a little confidence, and sallying from the camp drew up his troops a short distance in front of it and with difficulty averted the impending peril. Minucius, after killing many of the enemy in the engagement at the camp and still more throughout the country, now retired, but with great hopes for the future, and next day, on the Carthaginians evacuating their camp, occupied it himself. For Hannibal, fearful lest the Romans, finding the camp at Geronium deserted at night, should capture his baggage and stores, decided to return and encamp there again. Henceforth the Carthaginians were much more cautious and guarded in foraging, while the Romans on the contrary, foraged with greater confidence and temerity.

People in Rome, when an exaggerated account of this success reached the city, were overjoyed, partly because this change for the better relieved their general despondency, and in the next place because they inferred that the former inaction and disheartenment of their army was not the result of any want of courage in the soldiers, but of the excessive caution of the general. All therefore found fault with Fabius, accusing him of not making a bold use of his opportunities, while Marcus’s reputation rose so much owing to this event that they took an entirely unprecedented step, investing him like the Dictator with absolute power, in the belief that he would very soon put an end to the war. So two Dictators were actually appointed for the same field of action, a thing which had never before happened at Rome. When Minucius was informed of his popularity at home and the office given him by the people’s decree, he grew twice as eager to run risks and take some bold action against the enemy. Fabius now returned to the army wholly unchanged by recent circumstances, and adhering even more firmly than before to his original determination. Observing that Minucius was unduly elated and was jealously opposing him in every way and altogether strongly disposed to risk a battle, he offered for his choice, either that he should be in full command on alternate days, or that he should take half the army and use his own legions in any way he thought fit. Minucius having readily agreed to the division of the army, they divided it and encamped apart at a distance of about twelve stades from each other.

Hannibal, partly from what he heard from prisoners and partly from what he saw was going on, was aware of the rivalry of the two generals and of Marcus’ impulsiveness and ambition. Considering, then, that the present circumstances of the enemy were not against him but in his favour, he turned his attention to Minucius, being anxious to put a stop to his venturesomeness and anticipate his offensive. There was a small eminence between his own camp and that of Minucius capable of being used against either of them, and this he decided to occupy. Well knowing that owing to his previous achievement Minucius would instantly advance to frustrate this project, he devised the following stratagem. The ground round the hill was treeless but had many irregularities and hollows of every description in it, and he sent out at night to the most suitable positions for ambuscade, in bodies of two or three hundred, five hundred horse and about five thousand light-armed and other infantry. In order that they should not be observed in the early morning by the Romans who were going out to forage, he occupied the hill with his light-armed troops as soon as it was daybreak. Minupius, seeing this and thinking it a favourable chance, sent out at once his light infantry with orders to engage the enemy and dispute the position. Afterwards he sent his cavalry too and next followed in person leading his legions in close order, as on the former occasion, operating exactly in the same manner as then.

The day was just dawning, and the minds and eyes of all were engrossed in the battle on the hill, so that no one suspected that the ambuscade had been posted. Hannibal kept constantly sending reinforcements to his men on the hill, and when he very shortly followed himself with his cavalry and the rest of his force, the cavalry on both sides soon came into action. Upon this, the Roman light infantry were forced off the field by the numbers of the Carthaginian horse, and, falling back on the legions, threw them into confusion, while at the same time, on the signal being given to those lying in ambush, they appeared from all directions and attacked, upon which not only the Roman light infantry but their whole army found itself in a most perilous position. It was now that Fabius, seeing the state of matters and seriously fearing a total disaster, came up in haste with his own army to assist. On his approach the Romans again plucked up courage, although they had now entirely broken their ranks, and collecting round the standards retreated and took refuge under cover of Fabius’ force after losing many of their light-armed troops, but still more of the legionaries and the very best men among them. Hannibal, being afraid of the legions, which, quite fresh and in admirable order, had come to the help of their comrades, abandoned the pursuit and brought the battle to a close. To those who were actually present at the action it was evident that all was lost by the rashness of Minucius, and that now, as on previous occasions, all had been saved by the caution of Fabius. And to those in Rome it became indisputably clear how widely the foresight, good sense, and calm calculation of a general differ from the recklessness and bravado of a mere soldier. The Romans, however, had received a practical lesson, and again fortifying a single camp, joined their forces in it, and in future paid due attention to Fabius and his orders.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.II, Book III, Loeb Classical Library)

Quintus Fabius    Quintus Fabius

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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