The Romans were confident and self-assured. After all, they had defeated the Carthaginians before. Earlier than that, they had subjugated the warlike nations of Italy and beaten off the great Greek general Pyrrhus. Yet they had never encountered an enemy like Hannibal before. At the Battle of Trebia, in December of 218 BC, despite being heavily outnumbered, the Carthaginian commander utterly destroyed the opposing Roman army. The following summer, at the Battle of Lake Trasimine, Hannibal wiped out yet another army in one of the greatest ambushes ever staged in military history, killing the Consul Gaius Flaminius in the process.
The Romans were shocked beyond imagination. The two defeats had not only killed off a substantial chunk of their male population of military age, but had shaken their self-confidence to the core. Nothing like this had ever happened in living memory and it dawned on the Romans that they now faced a crisis unprecedented since the sack of Rome by the Gauls, nearly two centuries earlier. Stunned and terrified, the Romans made the decision to appoint a dictator, a constitutional procedure used only in extreme emergencies, in which full executive power was given to a single individual for six months.
The man they choose was a historical figure that is not well known, but whom I regard as one of the unappreciated heroes of the ages. His name was Quintus Fabius Maximus. Even the sound of his name seems to project strength and endurance. He was the scion of one of Rome's most ancient and distinguished families, which, according to legend, was descended from Hercules himself. The Fabii had served the Republic in many dramatic battles since the last king had been driven from the city, nearly three hundred years before Hannibal's time. The son, grandson, and great-grandson of consuls, Fabius had already served as consul twice before and had celebrated a triumph for defeating the northern Italian tribe known as the Ligurians. Now, the Roman people turned to Fabius in their darkest hour.
Fabius recognized what few other Romans were willing to see: in Hannibal, Rome faced a military genius of the highest order. The best way to deal with him, Fabius believed, was not to fight him at all. He raised more troops, but rather than challenging Hannibal to another battle, Fabius decided to concentrate on keeping the Roman army intact and wearing Hannibal down through attrition, denying him supplies through "scorched earth" tactics, harassing isolated detachments, and gradually letting the superior numbers and resources of the Romans work their cruel arithmetic.
For awhile, this "Fabian Strategy" worked. Hannibal was unable to score any more decisive victories, for Fabius simply refused to meet him in battle. In the meantime, the Carthaginian army slowly became weaker, as it was cut off from reinforcements and now being starved of supplies. Through it all, Fabius kept looking for an opportunity to entrap Hannibal. At one point, Fabius was able to encircle Hannibal by blocking some critical mountain passes, but the wily Carthaginian was able to escape.
Fabius was absolutely correct in his refusal to engage in battle with Hannibal and to wear him down with attrition. However, the Roman people and most of the Senate soon became disdainful of his strategy. The historian Plutarch tells us:
His dilatory way gave occasion in his own camp for suspicion of want of courage, and this opinion prevailed yet more in Hannibal's camp. Hannibal himself was the only man who was not deceived, who discerned his skill and detected his tactics, and saw, unless he could by art or force bring him to battle, that the Carthaginians, unable to use the arms in which they were superior, and suffering the continual drain of lives and treasure in which they were inferior, would in the end come to nothing.
The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu once said: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." Sun Tzu lived four centuries before Fabius and the Roman dictator never heard of him (in ancient times, Rome and China were but distant rumors to one another), yet he was daily proving the man right. If he persisted in his strategy, Fabius would surely bring about Hannibal's ruin.
Hannibal resorted to a clever trick of psychological warfare. While his army passed through a region of Italy in which the great estate of Fabius stood, he had his men burn and pillage the surrounding farms and villages, but ordered them to leave Fabius's home untouched. Indeed, Hannibal even posted guards around it to prevent it from being damaged. The political enemies of Fabius back in Rome, of whom there were many, had yet more ammunition to use against him as they continued to denounce his strategy of avoiding battle. Was Fabius perhaps in the pay of the enemy? The proud Roman people couldn't stomach the Fabian Strategy, in any event. Their culture was one geared towards offensive warfare and the reluctance to meet Hannibal in battle was seen as cowardly. As an insult, the Romans began to refer to Fabius as "Cunctator", which roughly translates to something like "Delayer" in English.
A Roman dictator's term of office only lasted for six months. When Fabius's time was up, and regular government resumed, the decision was made to attempt to defeat Hannibal in another set-piece battle. Fabius argued against it, but no longer had the authority to stop it. The Romans raised the largest army they had ever put into the field, with over eighty thousand men, which outnumbered Hannibal's army by roughly two-to-one. Commanded by the two consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullius, the army was designed to overwhelm Hannibal by sheer force of numbers. Surely, with such might at their disposal, and with the courage and fortitude of the Roman fighting man, Hannibal would be crushed.
He wasn't. As Fabius feared, the Battle of Cannae resulted in the greatest disaster ever to befall Roman arms, for it was Hannibal's tactical masterpiece. Upwards of seventy thousand Roman soldiers were slaughtered in a single day, more people than were killed by the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. When the fighting was over, there was no defeated army for Hannibal to bother pursuing, for it had been entirely destroyed. For a brief moment, Rome lay open to Hannibal and many of the cities of southern Italy renounced their allegiance to Rome and threw in their lot with Hannibal. Though no one could have fully understood it at the time, the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance.
Some of the aristocratic officers who had survived the massacre actually despaired of the Republic, suggesting to one another that they journey to Greece to become mercenaries, since Rome was now sure to be destroyed. One of the men who stopped this disgraceful plan was a young officer named Publius Cornelius Scipio, of whom we will hear more soon, for he would play an important role in the story of Fabius.
The fear that had followed the defeats at Trebia and Lake Trasimine was nothing compared to the terror that the defeat at Cannae struck into the Roman soul. In three years, three Roman armies had been snuffed out of existence. According to the ancient source, Hannibal sent one of his brothers back to Carthage, where he grandly poured hundreds of gold rings onto the floor of the Carthaginian Senate, each of which had been taken from the body of a Roman aristocrat slain on the battlefield.
Imagine a parallel situation in the United States today. Imagine that a fearsome enemy army were to invade our country, burn scores of our major cities to the ground, lay waste to vast portions of our country, and defeated the United States army in a series of terrible battles in which more than twenty million American soldiers were killed. Imagine the fear such a situation would create. That was what the Romans faced after Cannae.
It was Fabius who rallied the Roman people once again. Alone among them, he did not give in to fear and panic. He walked the streets of the city, speaking to nobles and commoners alike, encouraging them to remain calm and stay true to the Republic. Previously unthinkable measures were taken, including the enrollment of prisoners and criminals in the army. Thanks to the example of Fabius, the Romans recovered their wits. When a delegation from Hannibal arrived to offer the Romans peace terms, which essentially meant a Roman surrender, the Senate refused to receive them.
It was now clear that the Fabian Strategy of avoiding battle, employing scorched earth tactics, and wearing Hannibal down by attrition, had been the correct one. Fabius was elected consul three more times in the subsequent years and his strategy was followed by the Romans for the rest of the Second Punic War in Italy. Years passed. For more than a decade, Hannibal reigned supreme in southern Italy, occasionally catching Roman forces and defeating them. But whatever city fell to him or joined him did not remain in his hands for long, for the Romans would besiege and recapture them as soon as Hannibal's army had to move on. Fabius himself led the army which retook the city of Tarentum in 209 BC, a victory for which he received a triumph. Though Hannibal was never defeated in battle, he was eventually cooped up in the toe of Italy, lacking the power to continue his offensive. The Fabian Strategy had proved his undoing.
Yet Hannibal was not the only enemy with whom Fabius had to contend.
Scipio had been a young officer in the early battles against Hannibal, standing out for his bravery. A member of the prominent Cornelia family, his uncle and his father had died in the fighting against the Carthaginians in Spain. In spite of his youth, his family connections ensured that Scipio was chosen to lead the Roman armies in Spain, where Rome had been losing ground. In a series of dramatic and battles, displaying daring bravery and rapid movement that contrasted completely with the slow-moving positional warfare of Fabius, Scipio defeated the Carthaginian armies in Spain and secured the country for Rome.
I'm sure that Fabius was happy to hear about Roman victories over Carthaginians, but it's clear from the ancient historians that he was uneasy about Scipio. It's possible that simple jealousy was to blame, but there was clearly other reasons. He thought it unseemly, not to say unconstitutional, that Scipio had been granted proconsular authority in Spain despite being too young and not having held the required constitutional offices. He also distrusted Scipio's taste for Greek intellectual and artistic life, believing that such attitudes chipped away at the traditional Roman way of life. Perhaps he also sensed the people's adoration for the victorious general and the shifting of the soldiers' loyalty away from the state and towards their commander, things which would doom the Republic a century-and-a-half later.
When Scipio victorious in Spain, wanted to carry the war to Carthage itself by invading North Africa, Fabius was opposed to it. He said that all of Rome's resources should be devoted to the struggle against Hannibal in Italy. Perhaps he really felt this way. Perhaps Fabius was jealous. Perhaps he thought Scipio was as dangerous to Rome as was Hannibal, if in a different way. Perhaps all three are true to one degree or another. What is certain is that Fabius's effort to block Scipio's move failed. The Senate approved his invasion of North Africa, which led to the recall of Hannibal from Italy and ended with the decisive Roman victory at Zama. The Carthaginian general was finally defeated and the Second Punic War came to an end.
Rome had won and its victory set the stage for Roman domination of the Mediterranean world for the next several centuries. Yet the Roman triumph was as much Fabius's as it was Scipio's. The "Fabian Strategy" entered the military lexicon. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington became known as the American Fabius for his use of similar tactics. During the American Civil War, Confederate General Joseph Johnston (a major character in my novel Shattered Nation) was also compared to Fabius. The Russians used the Fabian Strategy against Napoleon. The North Vietnamese used a variant of it against the United States. He might never have won a dramatic set-piece battle, but his military genius should stand admired and respected. He never defeated Hannibal in battle, but he still beat him in the end.
I think we can learn a lot from the story of old Fabius. He possessed the supreme virtues of remaining calm in a crisis, of being patient, and of ignoring detractors when he knew he was right. Had it not been for Fabius and his brilliant strategy avoiding battle and using attrition, Rome almost certainly would have been destroyed by Hannibal. Everything that Rome bequeathed to Western civilization in terms of law, literature, architecture, to say nothing of the totality of Greek wisdom, which was transmitted to posterity through Rome, would have been lost to us. That would have been a mighty cataclysm. The world would look very different today had it happened and, I think it's fair to say, far darker. Because of that, we are all in the debt of Quintus Fabius Maximus.