Fabius Maximus - an exercise in Roman propaganda
Everybody you read – well, everybody I have read – seems to agree that Fabius Maximus was a brilliant general and 'the man who saved Rome'.
It is time to think again.
Fabius Maximus was a Roman hero – given the title ‘Shield of Rome’. His contemporary, the Roman writer Ennius, who wrote an 18-book epic on the history of Rome, said of him:
‘one man, by delaying, restored the state to us’.Fabius became – and seems to have remained ever since – ‘the man who saved Rome’.
By the time of Livy, this reputation had reached its zenith. Livy describes more than once how Fabius’s strategy
‘was a considerable source of anxiety to Hannibal, who realised that at last the Romans had chosen a master of military strategy’.(Silius Italicus, who turned Livy's History into an epic poem, took this even further, saying that Fabius gave Hannibal ‘nightmares’.)
Livy explains how, at first, everybody criticised Fabius’s tactics, ‘calling his deliberation indolence and his caution cowardice’, but recounts how the disaster at Cannae drew forth an acknowledgement from Aemilius Paullus that Fabius’s strategy had been correct. Plutarch later expanded on this idea, seeing Cannae as the event which vindicated Fabius:
‘For that which was called cowardice and sluggishness in Fabius before the battle, immediately after the battle was thought to be no mere human calculation, nay, rather, a divine and marvelous intelligence, since it looked so far into the future and foretold a disaster which could hardly be believed by those who experienced it.’
And thus the legend was born. During the Renaissance, when study of the Classics became popular, Fabius’s reputation remained high. The famous Italian political writer Machiavelli praised him and – during the French invasion of Italy at the end of the 15th century – the Italian princes consciously copied Fabius’s strategy of harrying and delay. Fabian tactics were also used by the Americans against the English in the American Revolution, and by the Russians against Napoleon.
It may be my ignorance, but neither have I been able to find any modern historian who has challenged Fabius’s reputation. Words such as ‘wily’, ‘wisdom’, ‘prudence’ and ‘competence’ recur in most modern histories. Recently, American historian Michael Fronda (2010) has argued that 'Rome's effective military and diplomatic response after Cannae was greatly responsible for Hannibal's defeat', and he explains how a string of modern historians have shown the different ways in which 'strict adherence to the 'Fabian strategy' ultimately saved the Roman cause'.
In the spirit of revisionism, therefore, may I point out some caveats, which might lead you to question whether Fabius was as great a man as the Romans claimed.
Let’s start with Polybius. Polybius, as we have seen before, was too in thrall to Roman public opinion completely to deny Fabius’s skill or importance … but it will be immediately obvious to anyone reading Polybius’s History that his praise lacked the energeia of Livy and Plutarch.
Polybius describes Fabius as ‘a man of admirable character and supreme intelligence’. But he does not suggest (like Livy) that Hannibal was worried by Fabius, and he attributes the Romans' survival, not to Fabius’s tactics, but to their superiority of men and resources, and to the iron will of the Senate.
Revealingly, again unlike Livy and Plutarch, Polybius does not say that the Romans 'came to realise' that Fabius's strategy was right - he states instead that Fabius 'forced' everyone to agree with his policy.
What lies behind this lack of enthusiasm? Polybius, you will remember, was a client of the Scipio family. And in the period of the Second Punic War, the political clan the Fabii (of which Fabius was the head) used the reverses of war to seize political power in Rome from their rivals … the Scipios. You need to understand that, for these leading political clans, the war was as much - if not more - about gaining political power at home than defeating the Carthaginians.
Their rivalry resolved into a policy-debate about how the war should be prosecuted, and where it should be prosecuted – generally, the Scipios seem to have wanted an active war in Spain and Africa as well as an aggressive war against Hannibal in Italy; the Fabii wanted a ‘Fabian’ strategy, focussed on Italy alone. It is possible to trace this political/military wrangling throughout the events of the war. (So Fabius’s vindictive dispute with Minucius is more comprehensible when you realise that Minucius was a political ally of the Scipio family.)
At the start of the war, the Scipios dominated policy. P Cornelius Scipio was elected Consul; he sailed for Spain and then, sending his brother Gnaeus Scipio to Spain, sailed back to Italy to attack Hannibal.
But the failures at Trebia and Trasimene gave Fabius his opportunity to oust his rivals. Strictly illegally (for the Consul Sempronius was still alive), he got himself appointed Dictator. Then, after a brief fall from influence in 216bc, Fabius seized power again after Cannae. Then he managed to organise affairs so that his kinsman, Marcus Fabius Buteo, appointed (presumably their friends and political allies) to the vacant places in the Senate in 216bc. Nowadays, we would say that Fabius's becoming Dictator was a coup d'état, and we would accuse Fabius Buteo of 'packing' the Senate ... words like 'tyrant' and 'despot' come to mind.
Anyway, 216bc was the start of a period of Fabian domination. Fabius Maximus was Consul in 215bc and 214bc, his son in 213bc, and he himself again 209bc, after which he was appointed princeps senatus (Leader of the Senate) for 209-203bc. At the same time, Fabius was Chief Augur and Pontifex (priest), and therefore dominated Rome’s religious life and had all the power of religion behind him. He opposed Scipio Africanus throughout his career, and only towards the end of the war did his stranglehold on Roman policy weaken.
THIS is, no doubt, why Polybius chose the word ‘forced’!
The REAL Fabius Maximus
Plutarch’s childhood representation of Fabius as 'Little Lamb' is a masterpiece of disinformation. In fact – as Plutarch tells us – Fabius grew into a heavyweight political leader. When news came back to Rome of the defeat at Cannae – although neither Dictator nor Consul at the time – Fabius had the political/religious influence simply to forbid people (as was the custom) to mourn in public. Next year, he ordered every Roman to take the grain harvest to the fortified cities – and ‘all those who failed to do so would have their land laid waste, their farms burnt, and they themselves would be sold into slavery’. Meanwhile, a Vestal Virgin who had sinned was buried alive, and four captured Gauls were offered as human sacrifices – this was a man who was NOT the pleasant, forgiving man that Plutarch would have us believe; he was the godfather of Roman politics, power-hungry and ruthless.
Nowadays, we are used to a press where the perversions and failings of the powerful are investigated and made public. This was not the case in those days, when powerful men had their tame historians to record events as they wanted them recording. Hannibal had Silenus and Sosylus; on the Roman side, the Second Punic War was chronicled by the annalist Fabius Pictor – and, yes, the name gives it away: he was a Fabian ... a kinsman of Fabius Maximus.
It is interesting that, whilst Livy and Plutarch used Fabius Pictor extensively, the pro-Scipio Polybius did not, complaining that he was biased. Of course he was! But it is from Fabius Pictor's History that the portrayal of Fabius Maximus as the ‘Saviour of Rome’ comes. Perhaps we have been too quick to accept the traditional account of Fabius Cunctator as true.
Fabius Maximus as a general
And so, adopting this more objective view of Fabius, what do we reckon to him as a general?
Let’s take some facts:
- Appointed Dictator after Trasimene, Fabius indulged his religious fanaticism by ordering a whole string of religious ceremonies and tributes ... before turning to the recruitment of new armies. (Later, in 215bc, he failed to go to relieve his fellow consul, Gracchus Sempronius, beseiged by Hannibal in Cumae, because ‘his attention was occupied first with taking fresh auspices and then with the portents which were being announced one after another, and which the soothsayers assured him would be very difficult to avert’.) Livy, hankering after old-style ‘Roman virtue’, loved these stories – but whether they make us regard Fabius as a ‘good general’ is another matter.
- Is it being a great general to sit and watch the enemy burning your fields? That might, indeed, 'delay' Hannibal, but - the Scipios were correct - it was never going to defeat him. I know Minucius’s and Varro’s accusations in Livy are overdrawn – but do they not give an indication of the kind of things which were being said in Rome at the time … and, being fair, is there not more than a vestige of truth in them? Ultimately, 'Fabian Strategy' was sterile - if they were to win the war, the Romans were going to have to take on Hannibal in battle and defeat him.
- Is it being a great general when, having trapped your enemy in a disadvantageous position, you let him escape (or choose to let him escape), fooled by a very simple and not-very-convincing trick (Ager Falernus – it was this which proved the last straw for the Romans, and led to Minucius’s elevation).
- According to wikipedia: ‘Fabius' own military success was small, aside from the reconquest of Tarentum in 209 BC’. For this limited victory he was awarded a magnificent triumph. And when the governor of Tarentum suggested he had played a part in recapturing the town, Fabius rejoined, ‘Certainly, had you not lost it, I would have never retaken it.’ BOTH these incidents have the sniff of a powerful man jealously milking his (limited) achievements for all he was worth.
- Meanwhile, were the real victories in the years after 216bc not achieved by the war-hero Marcellus – the so-called ‘Sword of Rome’? And all the signs (as one would expect) are that Fabius hated and resented Marcellus his successes. It is significant that Marcellus was not awarded a triumph for his victories.
Fabius Maximus as a Politician
Finally, here are two stories which reflect on Fabius's conduct and methods as a poltician ... and which, I believe, show him to have been a vindictive manipulator.
1. as you read the following story in Livy 23.31 for the year 215bc, ask yourself who controlled the augurs, and who gained from Marcellus’s replacement, and reflect on what it tells us about Fabius, and his political methods:
'Marcellus was elected [Consul] by a quite unanimous vote in order that he might take up his magistracy at once. Whilst he was assuming the duties of the consulship thunder was heard; the augurs were summoned and gave it as their opinion that there was some informality in his election. The patricians spread a report that as that was the first time that two plebeian consuls were elected together, the gods were showing their displeasure. Marcellus resigned his office and Q. Fabius Maximus was appointed in his place.'2. and secondly, you may wish to reflect on a story from Livy, when Marcellus - having defeated Syracuse and pacified Sicily, in 211bc handed over his command and asked to return to Italy. The Senate allowed Marcellus to return, but refused him permission to bring back his army with him. Marcellus returned to Rome as a hero but, when he asked to be given a Triumph for his victories, a group of senators argued that, seeing as the army was still in Sicily, he could not be awarded a triumph - 'since he had not brought the war to a close' (Livy 26.21). So his request for a Triumph was refused, and instead the Senate agreed as a compromise to award him an 'ovation', a lesser honour. Again, who do you think orchestrated the opposition to Marcellus in the Senate? Is it possible to see the political spectre of Fabius behind shoddy treatment?
Fabius Maximus was not a very nice man – he was a ruthless and deeply conservative political bully who used his family connections and religious positions to become Dictator, if not in name in practice.
And also, he was not all that good a general.