The Shield of Rome: Fabius Cunctator

Fabius Cunctator. By Herzi Pinki CC BY-SA 4.0

Many generals are overshadowed or underappreciated for what they did for their state; Belisarius who reconquered much of the lost Western Roman Empire and Tamerlane, who like Alexander singlehandedly forged a vast empire through conquest are just two examples.

The Punic Wars saw the feats of some of the greatest generals in antiquity in Hannibal Barca and his eventual conqueror Scipio Africanus. Hannibal ran rampant through much of Italy for well over a decade, but could not bring the Romans nor their system of Italian allies down. This was in large part due to two men who would be known as the Sword and Shield of Rome, Marcellus and Fabius.

Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator was born (circa 280 BCE) into the famed patrician Fabia family, but had somewhat of a difficult upbringing despite his status. He seems to have had a learning disability as he was known as a slow learner and was very slow when talking. He seemed to be slow in most activites, but this was hardly an indicator of his intelligence. He also gained one of his cognomens, Verrucosus, due to a prominent wart on his upper lip.

Fabius worked very hard and had a very successful career prior to the Second Punic war and may have even fought as a junior officer in the first. As a Consul Fabius won a triumph in 233 BCE for his successful wars against the Ligurians, a very fierce tribe in northern Italy. Though the details of this campaign are lacking, it does seem that Fabius gained a great deal of respect and held another Consulship in 228.

A good view of Hannibal’s first three years in Italy in which he won successively greater victories each year. Frank Martini. Cartographer, Department of History, United States Military Academy CC BY -SA 3.0

When Hannibal burst into Italy in 218 and won a hard fought battle at the Trebia River, Fabius urged caution against this talented general whose army had years of experience fighting in Spain and Gaul. A strategic overview of the war can show why Fabius’ caution was the smart choice. Rome and her allies had a possible total manpower of around 700,000, while the Carthaginians had to rely on a mostly mercenary army. Rome had controlled the sea after the first war and so Hannibal could hardly count on seaborne reinforcements. Fabius’ goal was to avoid major engagements and let Hannibal’s army fade into nothingness in Italy while Roman generals won the war in Spain and possibly Africa.

Most Romans could hardly stand to listen to this plan as it went against the very fiber of being a Roman, proud and aggressive. The ne Consul of 217, Flaminius, was a true aggressive Roman and upon over pursuing Hannibal his army was caught between Hannibal and Lake Trasimene and destroyed, with Flaminius killed. There was panic in Rome as Hannibal had destroyed the only field army between him and Rome. Suddenly the Romans saw the need for Fabius’ strategy and he was elected dictator with mostly free reign to conduct the war in Italy as he saw fit.

Fabius’ did not intend to ignore Hannibal, quite to the contrary he shadowed Hannibal’s movements like a hawk. Fabius always had detachments ready to ambush Hannibal’s foraging parties and was always seeking was to trap Hannibal in unfavorable ground. He achieved just that as Hannibal descended into the lowlands of the ager Falernus and Fabius occupied the escape routes through the hills. An attack by Hannibal would have been disasterous and Fabius could have simply starved Hannibal’s army out as they had limited provisions, but Hannibal was able to create an illusion of an army at night by tying torches onto the horns of bulls and marching them away while his army escaped under the cover of mass confusion.

Hannibal with an overflowing pot of rings taken from the elite of Rome who perished at Cannae. Hannibal could be protrayed as a hero, villian, or somewhere inbetween.

Because of his failure in keeping Hannibal trapped and the rather embarrassing nature in which he escaped the Romans began to get restless and gave Fabius’ second in command, his master of horse Minucius Rufus to be technically equal to Fabus in his power. Minucius took an army and more aggressively pursued Hannibal while Fabius remained in the shadow of Hannibal’s army. As Hannibal was truly talented and knew the aggressive dispositions of the majority of Roman generals he was able to bait Minucius into a skirmish that grew and grew until Minucius’ army was in serious danger of being completely surrounded until Fabius arrived with his army and forced Hannibal to make his way back to camp. After again proving his point of the danger of Hannibal Fabius took sole command again.

After his dictatorship ended Fabius had gained another name, Cunctator, meaning the delayer and it was used mockingly as the Roman people were becoming increasingly restless that Hannibal was still in Italy. In 216 Rome raised the largest single army they had ever fielded and put it in the command of two Consuls Varro and Paullus. This army of around 80,000 strong was annihilated and Rome was perilously close to surrendering. Despite constantly berating his ideas the Romans again turned to Fabius, and soon his nickname of Cunctator was used with admiration.

Very busy map of the second Punic war but shows how well Hannibal was contained in Southern Italy after 216 BCE. this kept him from recruiting more northern Italian Gauls and linking up with other Carthaginian overland reinforcements.
Very busy map of the second Punic war but shows how well Hannibal was contained in Southern Italy after 216 BCE. this kept him from recruiting more northern Italian Gauls and linking up with other Carthaginian overland reinforcements. By Maglorbd CC BY-SA 3.0

Fabius was given the Consulship for the next two years and mostly oversaw the overall strategic plan of simply containing Hannibal in Southern Italy and limiting his plans, he was excellently complimented by the Sword of Rome Marcus Marcellus who followed the overall defensive policy regarding Hannibal’s force but was able to aggressive retake defector cities and put up a fierce fight against Hannibal in several skirmishes and city defenses. With Fabius’ tactics Hannibal’s hold over southern Italy, which encompassed much of Italy south of Rome, was steadily whittled down to the point of Hannibal holding just a portion of the “toe” of Italy before he ultimately went back to Africa to face Scipio.

While Fabius’ strategy was exceptionally effective, Fabius himself tending towards being overly cautious near the end of the war. He staunchly opposed the young Scipio who wanted to bring the war to Africa, despite the move being the factor that won the total victory. Fabius was the right person to tend to the Italian theatre however as his calm, calculating and defensive mindset was perfect for holding back the genius of Hannibal. Unfortunately, Fabius grew ill and died before he could hear the results of Scipio’s campaign.

by William McLaughlin for War History Online

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