Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

Fabius and His Tactics

At rome, after the first feeling of grief and terror had passed away, everything was being done to carry on the war with vigour. No one spoke of surrender, or even of peace. The chief command of all the armies of the State was given to a veteran soldier, Quintus Fabius Maximus by name, who had won the honour of a triumph nearly twenty years before. Fabius' first act was to consult the books of the Sibyl. They were found to prescribe various acts of worship of the Gods, as the offering of prayers and sacrifices, the building of temples, and the celebrating public games. These were either done at once or promised for some future time. The Dictator (for this was his title) then ordered the levying of two new legions, and of a force which was to defend the city and man the fleet. He also directed that everything in the line of Hannibal's march should be destroyed. The Carthaginians were to find nothing but a desert wherever they came. He then marched north. At Ocriculum in Umbria he met Servilius, who was on his way to Rome, and took over his legions from him. Servilius he sent to command the fleet, which was being got ready at Ostia for the defense of the Italian seas. He himself, with an army numbering about fifty thousand men, followed in pursuit of the enemy. Hannibal found that he gained no friends in Apulia, and marched westward into Samnium, which, less than a hundred years before, had been the fiercest enemy of Rome. But here again he met with no success in making strife between Rome and its allies. He moved on into what was, perhaps, the very richest part of Italy, the great Falernian plain, where wines were grown that were to become famous over all the world. Fabius still followed him, watching every movement, cutting off stragglers, and harassing him in every way that he could devise, but always refusing a battle. When he saw his enemy below him in the Falernian plain—for Fabius kept his own army on the hills—he believed that he had him in a trap. To the north, the passes into Latium and the way to Rome were barred; the sea was in front of him; and to the south the deep stream of the Volturnus. On the east the hills, with their passes held by Roman troops, seemed to shut off his escape. Then Hannibal showed what a master of stratagem he was. He not only escaped, but carried off the booty which he had collected. His plan was this. About two thousand oxen were chosen out of the vast herds which had been collected out of the plundered districts. To their horns were fastened bundles of dry twigs. Then one day, as the dusk of evening came on, he silently struck his camp, and moved eastward towards the hills, the oxen being driven a little in front of the vanguard. When the army reached the foot of the hills it was dark; and then Hannibal ordered the bundles to be lighted. The drivers of the oxen started them up the slope of the hills; the animals, maddened by fear and pain—for the light flashed all about them, and the heat reached the flesh at the roots of their horns—rushed wildly on. The four thousand Romans who had been posted to guard the principal pass were dismayed at the sight. What it meant they could not understand; but that it meant danger they were sure. Probably they fancied that they were being surrounded—for this is always the first fear of all but the very best and bravest troops. Anyhow they left their post, and made for the heights. Fabius, in his camp, saw the strange sight, and was equally puzzled; nor did he venture out till it was light. Meanwhile Hannibal had quietly marched his army through the pass, taking all his plunder with him, and pitched his camp next day at Allifae, on the other side of the hills. Fabius followed him. He marched northwards through Samnium, as far as the country of the Peligni, ravaging as he went. Fabius still moved along, keeping his army between him and Rome.

The effect of Hannibal's escape was twofold. Not only did he get out of a difficult position, carrying the greater part of his plunder with him, but he made it very hard for Fabius to carry out his policy of delay. This policy of course had many enemies. The allies, who saw their country ravaged without being able to strike a blow for it, were furious; and the wealthy Romans, whose estates were suffering in the same way, were loud in their complaints. And Hannibal's cunning plan of leaving Fabius' estates untouched, while all the neighbourhood was plundered, increased their anger. This change of feeling soon became evident. Fabius had to go to Rome on business for a time, and left his army in the charge of Minucius, Master of the Horse (this was the title of the Dictator's second-in-command), with strict orders not to fight. Minucius did fight, and won something like a little victory. When news of his success came to Rome, the opponents of Fabius persuaded the people to divide the army, and give the command of one half to the Dictator, and of the other to the Master of the Horse.

There were now two Roman armies encamped about a mile apart. Hannibal, who knew what had happened, immediately took advantage of the situation. Minucius, if he wished to satisfy his friends was bound to fight, and Hannibal soon gave him what looked like a favourable opportunity. He occupied some rising ground between his own camp and that of the Romans with what looked like a small force. The Romans hastened to dislodge it. But there were five thousand men in ambush, who, when the fighting had been going on for some time, fell upon the Roman rear. This gave way, and another great disaster would have been the result, had not Fabius, who was on the watch, led out his troops, and changed the fortunes of the day. After all no great harm was done; and there was this good result, that Minucius confessed his error, and gave up his command. The rest of the year passed without any further disasters, except that the Consul Servilius, landing on the coast of Africa, and ravaging the country, was attacked by the Carthaginians, and lost a thousand men.

Hannibal spent the winter at Geronium, in the north of Apulia. It was a mountainous country; and it was close to the sea. (This part of Apulia, indeed, is like an elbow projecting out into the Adriatic.) He had ample supplies, and he was in communication with Carthage. Probably new troops were sent to him. Anyhow, when the next year came (216) he was stronger than ever. It was late in the spring when he took the field. His first movement was to march round the Roman army, which had been watching him during the winter, and to seize a great magazine of stores which the enemy had collected. It was still his policy to provoke them to fight a battle, and this successful movement helped him. The Romans had gathered a great force, but found it difficult to feed it. They were afraid, too, lest they should lose their allies, if they allowed Hannibal to march up and down through Italy and plunder as he pleased. And the party of fighting had had a great success at the elections. C. Terentius Varro, a man of the people, after loudly proclaiming that the nobles were prolonging the war for their own purposes, had been chosen Consul by an immense majority. It was resolved to fight, but not to do so till the newly-levied legions should have joined the army of the year before. This was done about the beginning of June; and the whole army, now numbering about ninety thousand men, marched in pursuit of Hannibal, who was gathering in the early harvests on the sea-board of Apulia. The two consuls (Varro's colleague was a noble, Aemilius Paullus by name) had command on alternate days. Aemilius, an experienced soldier, was doubtful of the result of a battle, and anxious to put it off. Varro, on the other hand, was confident and eager, and on his first day of command brought matters to a crisis by taking up a position between Hannibal and the sea.