In a word, Athenians are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life themselves, or of allowing anyone else to do so. — Thucydides

Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Marcellus was so brave and skilful a swordsman that he never refused a challenge or failed to kill his adversary. He was born of a prominent Roman family, and filled the offices of ædile and quæstor before he was made consul. He was raised to the latter position during the war between the Gauls and the Romans, which began not long after the first Carthaginian or Punic war had ended.

His first battle after he became consul was with the Gesatæ, a people of Gaul, who fought for pay. They marched with a tremendous army to Acerræ, a city on the banks of the river Po, to which the Romans had laid siege. The name of their king was Viridomarus. With ten thousand men he separated himself from the rest of his army, and destroyed the whole country round about.

As soon as Marcellus was informed of this, he left his colleague, Cneius Cornelius, to continue the siege, and, taking a number of cavalry and foot-soldiers, set out to put a stop to the destruction that the Gesatæans were dealing out. He marched rapidly until he met them at Clastidium, a little town that the Romans had won in battle from the Gauls. Marcellus had a small army compared with that of the enemy, and as soon as they saw him approaching and observed this fact, they felt so certain of being able to crush him with very little trouble that, without giving his men time for rest or refreshment, they immediately began an attack.

Marcellus spread out the line of his cavalry to prevent the enemy from surrounding him, until it nearly equalled theirs in length. Just as he was advancing to the charge, his horse took fright at the shouts of the Gauls, and turned back. Fearing that the superstition of his soldiers would cause them to regard this as an ill omen and so create disorder, Marcellus, with wonderful presence of mind, paid his adoration to the sun, and as it was the custom among the Romans always to turn around when they worshipped the gods, it appeared as though he had purposely made his horse jump back.

Just then Viridomarus recognized him by his attire as Roman consul. He therefore put spurs to his horse, and, brandishing his spear, challenged him to single combat. Marcellus knew him at once for the king of the Gesatæ, because his armor showed him to be royal, being composed of gold, silver, and gay colors. He therefore rushed upon the Gaul, and with one stroke of his spear pierced his breastplate and brought him to the ground. Two or three more blows ended the life of the king; then, jumping from his horse and taking possession of the dead man's arms, Marcellus raised them towards heaven and exclaimed, "O Jupiter, who observest the deeds of great warriors and generals in battle, I now call thee to witness that I am the third Roman consul and general who ever with his own hands slew a general and a king! To thee I consecrate the most excellent spoils. Do thou grant us equal success in this war."

When this prayer was ended, the Roman cavalry fought the enemy's horse and foot-soldiers at the same time, and gained a complete victory. Marcellus then gathered up the arms and baggage and returned to join his colleague, who was besieging Milan. But the Gauls made a desperate resistance, because Milan was the greatest and most populous of their cities, and it was not until Marcellus arrived that it was taken. The rest of the cities surrendered, and Italy became entirely Roman from the Alps to the Ionian Sea.

Marcellus was honored by the senate with the most splendid triumph that ever was seen in Rome. He appeared in the procession carrying the armor of King Viridomarus, which he had vowed to Jupiter. He had cut the trunk of an oak-tree, and dressed it up in the king's arms just as they had been worn, and with this trophy on his shoulder he was drawn in his chariot by four fine large horses through the town. The army followed, wearing their finest armor, and singing songs of triumph in honor of Jupiter and their general.

Some time later Hannibal entered Italy again, and Marcellus was sent with a fleet to Sicily to secure the aid of the Syracusans, who were then friendly to Rome. This was the beginning of the second Carthaginian or Punic war. After the battle of Cannæ, which was most unfortunate for the Romans, the few that were not slain fled to Canusium, and it was feared that Hannibal would march straight on Rome. So Marcellus sent fifteen hundred of his men to guard the city, and afterwards the senate ordered him to Canusium, to gather the troops that had fled there and place himself at their head for the protection of the country.

By this time the wars had carried off the chief of the Roman nobility and the best of their officers, but they still had Fabius Maximus and Marcellus. On these two distinguished commanders they chiefly depended, calling the former their shield, because he was slow and cautious, the latter their sword, because he was bold and active.

With the remnant of the Roman army that Marcellus could collect he marched to the relief of Nola, and, as everything was in confusion there, the citizens gladly placed themselves under his command. He drew up his forces within the gates, but ordered that nobody should appear on the walls. Seeing no signs of resistance, Hannibal supposed that no preparations for defence had been made, so he approached the city with very little precaution. The gate nearest to Marcellus was suddenly thrown open, and the best of the cavalry charged upon the enemy. The infantry rushed out, with loud shouts, from another gate, and while Hannibal was dividing his forces a third opened, from which the rest of the Romans emerged and attacked the enemy at still another point.

The Carthaginians were so taken by surprise that about five thousand of them fell, and the rest were driven back to camp. The Roman army was greatly encouraged by this victory, and the people elected Marcellus consul for the second time, in honor of the event. But when he returned to accept the office to which he had been unanimously chosen it happened to thunder, and the augurs thereupon pronounced the election disagreeable to the gods. Marcellus renounced the office without question, so great was the respect he entertained for the deities, but continued in command of the army, and returned to Nola. From that town he made excursions in the neighborhood to punish those who had taken sides with the Carthaginians. Hannibal met him, but his army was routed, four elephants were killed, and two were taken; but the worst blow he received was when three hundred of his cavalry deserted and joined Marcellus. Although the army of Hannibal was composed of men of all nations, some of whom were not friendly to one another, he had managed to keep them in harmony, and this was the first desertion he had ever experienced.

The Carthaginians next laid claim to the whole of Sicily, and Marcellus, who was elected consul the third time, sailed over to that island. Appius Claudius, as prætor, had been previously sent with a force to Syracuse, the chief city. To prove his friendship for the Carthaginians, Hippocrates, commander of the Syracusans, had killed a number of Romans at Leontini. This wrong to his countrymen made Marcellus very angry, so he besieged the city and took it by force, but did no harm to any of its inhabitants. Hippocrates sent a report to Syracuse that the Roman consul had killed every man and woman in Leontini, and so great was the tumult caused by this untruth that Hippocrates was enabled to make himself master of the place. Marcellus moved his whole army towards Syracuse, and sent ambassadors into the city to correct the false report they had heard about the massacre at Leontini. But Hippocrates was in power, and they were not received with favor; thereupon Marcellus began an attack by sea and by land, with Appius in command of the land-forces. Marcellus had sixty galleys, each with five rows of oars and furnished with every known sort of arms; also a huge bridge of planks laid upon eight ships chained together, bearing an engine for casting stones and darts. With these magnificent preparations he assaulted the walls, and might have won an early victory had it not been for Archimedes and his wonderful machines, that made all others appear trifling by comparison.

Archimedes was the most celebrated mathematician among the ancients, and, being a native of Syracuse, he contrived engines that greatly harassed the Roman army. He had planned these engines for mere amusement while studying geometry, but his kinsman, King Hiero, of Syracuse, was constantly urging him to put them into practical use; so when the siege began he prepared to do so. He had already surprised people by showing how, by means of a pulley and cords, he could sit on the shore of a river and, with little effort, draw a boat loaded with passengers towards him. He boasted that he could move the world if he had a place for his apparatus. This seems to us of to-day a simple matter, but it was not so two hundred and fifty years before Christ, when Archimedes lived.

Well, the apparatus that this ancient scientist had planned for a siege was brought into play, and struck terror to the hearts of the Romans. It had power to rain down immense masses of stones and darts so rapidly and with such a noise that the soldiers were appalled. Their ranks and files were broken, and the men fell about in heaps. At the same time huge poles were thrust out beyond the walls, and from these great weights were dropped down on the ships, sinking them instantly. But what gave the Romans most trouble was a sort of iron hand with two claws fastened to a long chain and let down by a lever. This was driven with great violence into the planks of the galleys; then the other end of the lever was pulled down by a heavy weight, and the claws went up, raising one end of the boat far out of the water. Suddenly the weight was removed, the boat went down with tremendous force endwise into the sea, filled with water, and was sunk. Other vessels were whirled about by means of mechanical contrivances until they were dashed against steep rocks, and went to destruction with all on board.

Marcellus was soon compelled to draw off what ships he could save, and to sound a retreat to his land-forces. It was then decided to get close under the walls in the night, so that the darts which Archimedes threw to such a distance by means of his ropes and pulleys would fly over their heads. But a shower of darts aimed through openings in the walls soon convinced the Roman forces that there were engines adapted for short ranges as well as for long ones. Besides, immense rocks came tumbling down on their heads from the walls, and they were obliged to retire with such damage to their fleet, and such slaughter of their men, that they began to think they were fighting with superhuman beings. So terrified were they that the very sight of a piece of wood projecting from the walls, or a little rope thrown over, would send them flying, lest Archimedes might be about to try some new machine for their destruction.

Marcellus then put all his hopes in a long siege, since he was worsted in every assault he attempted, and while it lasted he took Megara, one of the earliest of the Greek cities in Sicily, overran a great part of the island, took many towns from the Carthaginians, and conquered all who ventured to meet him in battle. After a time a Lacedæmonian who went out to sea in a ship from Syracuse was captured by the Romans, and while Marcellus was treating with the Syracusans for his release, he noticed a tower into which it seemed that a body of soldiers might easily be introduced, because the walls near it were not hard to climb. So, at the celebration of the feast of Diana, when the Syracusans were drinking and enjoying themselves, Marcellus made his way into the tower with his men, and placed some of them as a guard on the outside. This was done during the night, and took the citizens completely by surprise. No sooner did the Roman general perceive the effect of his action than he ordered his trumpets to sound, and at the noise every Syracusan took to his heels, supposing that the city had fallen, though its best fortified and most important quarter had not been touched.

Marcellus had no difficulty in stationing his men in the different quarters of the city after that, but he found it a harder matter to prevent them from setting fire to it and completely destroying every part. He is said to have wept when he looked down from his tower upon the beautiful city that was so soon to be plundered by his soldiers. He ordered, however, that no free person should be injured, and no slave killed or misused. The latter were all taken by the Romans, and so was the money in the public treasury, and the plunder was immense. Marcellus viewed the destruction with pain; but nothing afflicted him so much as the death of Archimedes, which occurred in this wise. So great was the interest that this scientist felt in his studies that when engaged in them he would often forget to eat, sleep, or bathe. When Syracuse was taken, he happened to be working out a problem that made him oblivious to all things besides; he therefore knew nothing of what the Romans had done. A soldier who entered his room and found him deep in thought ordered him to follow at once to Marcellus. He declined to obey until he had completed his diagram, whereupon the soldier drew his sword and slew him. Marcellus was very angry with the soldier who committed such a shameful deed, for he was always gentle, humane, and just even to his enemies, and in this respect set an example to his men which he could not excuse them for failing to observe.

On his recall to Rome, Marcellus took many beautiful ornaments from Syracuse to adorn the city, for up to that time it contained no fine specimens of art; weapons, spoils stained with blood, and trophies of war being the only decorations that pleased the fierce Romans. The Greek cities were, on the other hand, filled with fine statues, that nation being far advanced in the arts.

Marcellus did not have such a triumph as we have seen was given to other victorious generals, but he was honored with an ovation. That is, he did not pass through the city in a chariot, ushered by trumpets and crowned with laurels, but he walked, accompanied by musicians playing on flutes and pipes. His crown was composed of myrtle, which is a token of peace, and as he moved along he aroused feelings of love and admiration in his countrymen rather than of fear. This was the difference between a triumph and an ovation.

Marcellus was not without enemies, and when he was elected consul the fourth time they were so displeased that they sent for some Syracusans to come to Rome and make whatever accusations they could think of against him. These foreigners appeared when the senate met, and stood silently by while Marcellus took his seat in the consul-chair and proceeded to transact matters of business. When this was done, Marcellus left his place of honor and went to the one set aside for people who were accused, so as to give the Syracusans liberty to speak. But they were so impressed by the dignity of his presence in his robes of state that they were silenced until egged on by those who had summoned them. Then they made their charge, which was that although they had declared themselves friends to Rome, they had nevertheless been forced to suffer cruelties that other commanders had spared them. Marcellus answered, "Notwithstanding many instances of criminal behavior towards Rome, you have suffered nothing but what it is impossible to prevent when a city is taken by storm; that Syracuse was so taken was entirely your own fault, for when I asked you to surrender you would not listen to me, and you had not the excuse others have had of being forced on by their tyrants, for it was you, yourselves, who wished to fight."

When both sides had spoken, they withdrew, according to custom, while the votes were being taken. Although the Romans had not been altogether pleased with Marcellus for allowing his soldiers to plunder Syracuse, because King Hiero had always been friendly to their republic, yet they decided in his favor. Then the ambassadors fell at his feet, and, with tears in their eyes, asked him to pardon them and their countrymen. Marcellus was so moved by their entreaties that he not only pardoned them, but ever after showed favors to the Syracusans. Besides, he induced the senate to respect their liberty and their laws. Thereupon the Syracusans promised him that if at any time he or the members of his family should visit Sicily, they should be received by the citizens in festive attire, and public sacrifices should be offered to the gods on the occasion.

Since the defeat of the Romans at Cannæ not one of their consuls had dared to attempt a battle with Hannibal, but Marcellus resolved to march against him and drive him out of the country. The two armies met near the city of Numistro, and a bloody battle ensued. Night put a stop to it, but the next morning Marcellus drew up his army and challenged Hannibal again. But the Carthaginians retreated, and as soon as Marcellus had gathered the spoils which they left and buried his own dead, he marched in pursuit.

In all the skirmishes that followed he was so successful that the enemy regarded him with wonder and admiration. The next great battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians was fought near Canusium, and when Hannibal assembled his men just before it began, he said, "Exert yourselves, I entreat you, more than you ever have done; for you see that we can neither take breath after the victories the enemy have gained nor enjoy the least repose if we are victorious now unless this man be driven off."

Some mistaken movement on the part of Marcellus caused such disorder in his army that the day was decided in favor of the enemy. The general retreated to his camp, and, summoning his troops about him, reproached them thus: "I see the arms and bodies of Romans in great numbers, but not a single Roman do I behold." After they had begged his pardon, he added, "I will not forgive you while vanquished, but when you come to be victorious I will; to-morrow I will lead you into the field again, so that the news of our victory may reach Rome before that of our flight." This reproof made such an impression that, though many were dangerously wounded, there was not a man who did not feel more pain on account of it than he did from his injuries.

Next morning betimes the scarlet robe, the usual signal for battle, was hung out, and the companies that had disgraced themselves on the previous day were placed, as they had requested, in the foremost line. When this was reported to Hannibal he exclaimed, "Ye gods, what can be done with a man who is not affected either by good or bad fortune? he is the only one who will not suffer us to rest when he is victor, nor take rest himself when he is beaten. We shall have to fight with him forever, for his confidence when he is successful, and his shame when he is not, urge him alike to further exertions."

For a long time the battle was undecided; then Hannibal ordered his elephants to be brought forward and pushed against the Romans, thinking that it would be impossible for them to resist such great beasts. They really did create confusion in the front line, but Flavius, a tribune, snatched an ensign staff from one of the companies, rushed forward with it, and wounded the foremost animal. He turned back, ran against the second elephant, the second against the next, and so on, until, the disorder increasing, Marcellus saw his opportunity, and ordered his cavalry to fall furiously upon the enemy. The rout was terrible, and the Carthaginians were driven to their intrenchments. Eight thousand of them fell, many being killed by the plunging and trampling of the elephants. Not more than three thousand of the Romans were slain, but almost all the rest were wounded. This gave Hannibal a chance to escape with the remnant of his army during the night, and move to a safe distance from Marcellus, who could not pursue him on account of the number of his wounded. The Roman army retired to Campania, where they passed the summer and recovered from their injuries.

During that season Hannibal employed his men in overrunning Italy and destroying right and left. This called down upon Marcellus the severe reproaches of his countrymen; they accused him of spending his time in enjoyment and leisure while the enemy were ruining the country. Such injustice Marcellus could not bear: so, appointing lieutenants to take charge of his army, he hurried to Rome, where he made so able a defence that he was appointed consul the fifth time.

Marcellus had built a temple out of the Sicilian spoils, which he now desired to dedicate to Honor and Virtue, but the priests would not consent to having two deities in one temple, because, they said, in case it should be struck by lightning they would not know to which to offer their sacrifices. So Marcellus began another temple. Now his dreams by night and his thoughts by day were all about Hannibal, whom he burned once more to meet in battle, but the omens were not favorable, and he feared to leave Rome. Some temples were struck by lightning; rats gnawed the gold in Jupiter's temple; it was reported that an ox had spoken, and that a boy had been born with an elephant's head. While such things were going on there was certainly something wrong with the gods, thought Marcellus.

A great many sacrifices had to be offered before the priests announced that the gods were appeased. Then Marcellus went forth to carry on the war. He fixed his camp between Bantia and Venusia, and then tried to draw Hannibal into a battle, but did not succeed. Meanwhile, some of the Roman troops that had been sent to lay siege to a certain town a little distance off were caught in an ambuscade, and twenty-five hundred of them were killed. This so enraged Marcellus that he determined to punish the enemy, and for that purpose drew nearer to them. Between the two armies was a hill, which seemed to possess so many advantages that Marcellus could not but wonder why Hannibal had not stationed his men there. He did not suspect that all the thickets and hollows were filled with Carthaginian soldiers, for Hannibal knew well enough that it was the very position the Romans would covet, and a most favorable one for an ambuscade. And indeed the Romans at once determined to seize it, and nothing else was talked of among the ambitious soldiers. So Marcellus made some offerings to the gods, and, as all the signs were favorable, set out with Crispinus, his colleague, Marcellus, his son, and two hundred and twenty Tuscan horsemen, to make a survey. On the top of the hill the enemy had stationed sentinels, who were so concealed among the trees and bushes that they could observe all that took place in the Roman camp without being seen themselves. The approach of Marcellus was therefore reported by them to the soldiers that lay in ambush, and when he was in their very midst, they rushed out suddenly from all sides, let fly a shower of arrows, and then charged with their spears and swords. The suddenness of the attack took the Romans so by surprise that they could not stand their ground. Marcellus and Crispinus were slain, besides forty of their men. Young Marcellus was wounded, but a party of the soldiers who were not injured picked him up and fled with him back to camp. To lose both their consuls in one action was the greatest misfortune that could have happened to the Romans.

When Hannibal heard that Marcellus was dead, he hastened to the hill, and stood for a long time gazing upon the form of the man who had been to him so fierce and troublesome an enemy; then, without any display of rejoicing or exultation, he ordered the body to be properly clad and honorably burned. The ashes were placed in a silver urn, on top of which was a gold crown, and this was sent to the son of Marcellus.