Livy, Polybius and Plutarch on Fabius Maximus


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Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book 22

Quintus Fabius is appointed

[After Trasimene] the citizens took refuge in a remedy which for a long time had not been made use of or required, namely the appointment of a Dictator. As the consul by whom alone one could be nominated was absent, and it was not easy for a messenger or a despatch to be sent through Italy, overrun as it was by the arms of Carthage, and as it would have been contrary to all precedent for the people to appoint a Dictator, the Assembly invested Q. Fabius Maximus with dictatorial powers and appointed M. Minucius Rufus to act as his Master of the Horse. They were commissioned by the senate to strengthen the walls and towers of the City and place garrisons in whatever positions they thought best, and cut down the bridges over the various rivers, for now it was a fight for their City and their homes, since they were no longer able to defend Italy...

22.9.  Q. Fabius Maximus was now Dictator for the second time. On the very day of his entrance upon office he summoned a meeting of the senate, and commenced by discussing matters of religion. He made it quite clear to the senators that C. Flaminius' fault lay much more in his neglect of the auspices and of his religious duties than in bad generalship and foolhardiness. The gods themselves, he maintained, must be consulted as to the necessary measures to avert their displeasure, and he succeeded in getting a decree passed that the decemvirs should be ordered to consult the Sibylline Books, a course which is only adopted when the most alarming portents have been reported.

After inspecting the Books of Fate they informed the senate that the vow which had been made to Mars in view of that war had not been duly discharged, and that it must be discharged afresh and on a much greater scale. The Great Games must be vowed to Jupiter, a temple to Venus Erycina and one to Mens; a lectisternium must be held and solemn intercessions made; a Sacred Spring must also be vowed. All these things must be done if the war was to be a successful one and the republic remain in the same position in which it was at the beginning of the war. As Fabius would be wholly occupied with the necessary arrangements for the war, the senate with the full approval of the pontifical college ordered the praetor, M. Aemilius, to take care that all these orders were carried out in good time.
22.11.  After the various obligations towards the gods had thus been discharged, the Dictator referred to the senate the question of the policy to be adopted with regard to the war, with what legions and how many the senators thought he ought to meet their victorious enemy...

22.12.  The Dictator took over the consul's army from Fulvius Flaccus, the Legate, and marched through Sabine territory to Tibur, where he had ordered the newly raised force to assemble by the appointed day. From there he advanced to Praeneste, and taking a cross-country route, came out on the Latin road. From this point he proceeded towards the enemy, showing the utmost care in reconnoitring all the various routes, and determined not to take any risks anywhere, except so far as necessity should compel him. The first day he pitched his camp in view of the enemy not far from Arpi.

The Carthaginian lost no time in marching out his men in battle order to give him the chance of fighting. But when he saw that the enemy kept perfectly quiet and that there were no signs of excitement in their camp, he tauntingly remarked that the spirits of the Romans, those sons of Mars, were broken at last, the war was at an end, and they had openly foregone all claim to valour and renown. He then returned into camp. But he was really in a very anxious state of mind, for he saw that he would have to do with a very different type of commander from Flaminius or Sempronius; the Romans had been taught by their defeats and had at last found a general who was a match for him.

It was the wariness not the impetuosity of the Dictator that was the immediate cause of his alarm; he had not yet tested his inflexible resolution. He began to harass and provoke him by frequently shifting his camp and ravaging the fields of the allies of Rome before his very eyes. Sometimes he would march rapidly out of sight and then in some turn of the road take up a concealed position in the hope of entrapping him, should he come down to level ground.

Fabius kept on high ground, at a moderate distance from the enemy, so that he never lost sight of him and never closed with him. Unless they were employed on necessary duty, the soldiers were confined to camp. When they went in quest of wood or forage they went in large bodies and only within prescribed limits. A force of cavalry and light infantry told off in readiness against sudden alarms, made everything safe for his own soldiers and dangerous for the scattered foragers of the enemy. He refused to stake everything on a general engagement, whilst slight encounters, fought on safe ground with a retreat close at hand, encouraged his men, who had been demoralised by their previous defeats, and made them less dissatisfied with their own courage and fortunes.

But his sound and common-sense tactics were not more distasteful to Hannibal than they were to his own Master of the Horse. Headstrong and impetuous in counsel and with an ungovernable tongue, the only thing that prevented Minucius from making shipwreck of the State was the fact that he was in a subordinate command. At first to a few listeners, afterwards openly amongst the rank and file, he abused Fabius, calling his deliberation indolence and his caution cowardice, attributing to him faults akin to his real virtues, and by disparaging his superior - a vile practice which, through its often proving successful, is steadily on the increase - he tried to exalt himself. 

Quintus Fabius at Bay (217-216 BC)

23.1. Meanwhile in Italy the skilful delaying tactics of Fabius had achieved a brief respite from the non-stop run of Roman military disasters.  23.2. All this was a considerable source of anxiety to Hannibal, who realised that at last the Romans had chosen a master of military strategy, whose whole approach to warfare was based on good judgement and rational principles instead of luck.  23.3. His opinion was in marked contrast to that of the Roman people, soldiers and civilians alike, who viewed Fabius’ conduct of the war with the utmost contempt, not least because in his absence his rash deputy, Minucius, the Master of Horse, had fought an engagement whose outcome had given them, to tell the truth, a bit of good news at least, if not actual positive success.

23.4. Two factors added to the Dictator’s general unpopularity.
The first was the result of an act of treacherous deception by Hannibal. He had been shown by some deserters a stretch of land belonging to Fabius; he had told his men to leave this absolutely untouched by fire, sword and enemy devastation, while all the surrounding land was utterly destroyed. The intention was to suggest to the Roman people that this was some kind of payment for a secret deal between them.
23.5. The second factor was something for which Fabius was himself entirely responsible. It must have seemed somewhat suspicious at first, since he had not waited for the senate to approve it, but in the end it certainly brought him the greatest possible credit.  23.6. There had been an exchange of prisoners, just as there had been in the first Punic War. An agreement was reached between the two opposing generals that whichever side got back more prisoners than it gave would pay compensation to the tune of two and a half pounds of silver per soldier.  23.7. Rome had received back more prisoners than the Carthaginians, but there had been a delay in handing over the money due, because the Senate (which had responsibility for the state’s finances) had not been formally consulted, though they had in fact debated the matter often enough. Fabius finally sent his son Quintus back to Rome to sell the estate which (as described above) had been left intact by Hannibal, and paid off at his own expense this public debt, as a matter of national honour.  


[Hannibal camps at Gereonium; Minucius, in Fabius’ absence, engages in a cavalry battle with losses on both sides (6000-Carthaginian, 5000 Roman). Minucius exaggerates the success in reporting to Rome. In Rome Metilius proposes that the Dictator and Master of the Horse should share powers equally...]

Quintus Fabius falls from power

The Dictator steered well clear of such popular assembles, since he had no illusions about his unpopularity. Even in the senate he was not given a sympathetic hearing, though he reminded them of their enemy’s skill and the disasters of the last two years, suffered as a result of the rashness and incompetence of their generals. 25.13. As for the Master of the Horse, he should be charged with misconduct for disobeying orders and going into battle. 25.14. If the supreme command and full direction of strategy were left to him, he would very soon demonstrate to all and sundry that under an expert general the fortunes of the moment were matters of insignificance, while a systematic and coherent strategy was what really counted. 25.15. The fact that only just in time he had preserved the army’s manpower without the sacrifice of its honour was a far more glorious achievement than the slaughter of many thousands of the enemy’s forces.

25.16. His speeches, however, proved futile, and Marcus Atilius Regulus was duly appointed consul. Fabius, therefore, set off back to the army on the evening before the proposal to divide the powers of the dictator was due to be put to the vote, so as to avoid being present at the debate. 25.17. At dawn the following morning a popular assembly was held, at which there was far more unspoken criticism of the dictator and support for his Master of Horse than there were speakers who dared to support openly a proposal of which the mob so manifestly approved. As a result, for all its popularity, the proposal lacked influential support. 25.18. Nevertheless, one sponsor for the legislation emerged in the shape of last year’s praetor, one Gaius Terentius Varro, a man of humble, indeed disreputable origins. 25.19. Rumour suggests that his father had been a butcher, who even peddled his own meat, and had actually employed his own son to help him in this activity, which was more appropriate for a slave.

26.1. As a young man, Varro had inherited the fruits of his father’s “business” activities, and immediately conceived somewhat loftier ambitions. 26.2. Smart suits and political activity became his stock in trade and he began to make speeches on behalf of the dregs of society. By taking up such populist causes and denouncing the wealth and reputation of the better class of citizens, he soon won himself a national reputation amongst the common people, and thus gained political office. 26.3. He became a treasury official (Quaestor), and was then twice elected a city magistrate (Aedile), first as a deputy to the Tribunes (Plebeian Aedile), and then as a part of the city administration (Curule Aedile). Finally, having won the praetorship and completed his term of office, he had now set his eyes on the consulship. 26.4. He had sufficient low cunning to make political capital out of the Dictator’s unpopularity, and when the proposal (to divide the powers of the dictatorship) was carried in the popular assembly, he alone got the credit.

26.5. Everyone in Rome and in the army, whether friend or foe to Fabius, regarded this decision as a calculated insult – except the Dictator himself. 26.6. With the same calmness and mental resolution as he had endured the denunciations of his enemies in the popular assembles, he now bore this cruel injustice inflicted on him by an angry nation. 26.7. En route for the army, he received the despatches reporting the Senate’s decree about the division of powers. But undaunted and undefeated by citizen or enemy alike, he rejoined the army, entirely confident that no legislation could enforce equality of military genius along with equality of military command.

[The Battle of Cannae proves Fabius right, and Aemilius Paullus sends a last message begging Fabius to forgive him...]

Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Book 3

86.6. In Rome it was now three days since the news of Trasimene had reached the city. It was the moment when the agony of defeat was everywhere at its most intense. Now, on top of all this, came the news of a fresh disaster. Not only were the common people utterly dismayed; the Senate too was distraught.  86.7. They decided to abandon the annual election of magistrates for the conduct of government, and to confront the crisis more effectively. The situation, they decided, required a general with the powers of a dictator to deal with the immediate emergency...

87.6. The Romans meanwhile appointed Quintus Fabius as Dictator. He was a man of admirable character and supreme intelligence, and his descendants to this day bear the surname Maximus, “the Greatest,” in recognition of his victorious achievements. 87.7. The differences between a dictator and the consuls are as follows: each consul has an escort of twelve lictors, the dictator twenty four. 87.8. In many areas of policy the consuls require the support of the senate to carry through their proposals. But the dictator is a commander-in-chief with absolute powers, and on his appointment all the offices of state in Rome are immediately suspended, except the tribunate. 87.9. But I shall give a more precise account of all this elsewhere. At the same time they appointed Marcus Minucius as Master of Horse. This officer is subordinate to the dictator, but acts as his deputy, taking command when he is elsewhere.

89.1.  As soon as he was aware of Fabius’ arrival, Hannibal wanted to take the initiative and demoralise his opponent. So he marched his army out and deployed them in battle formation close to the defensive fortifications of the Roman camp. There he waited for some time, but when there was no response from the Romans, he withdrew to his own encampment once again.

89.2. Fabius had decided that he would avoid any direct confrontation and take no risks.
His main objective was to ensure the safety of the troops under his command and he stuck rigidly to his decision. 
89.3. At first he was widely criticised for this and provoked accusations of cowardice, with people suggesting that he was simply terrified of danger.
But as time went on, he forced everyone to agree with his policy and to accept that no-one could have dealt with the prevailing circumstances more sensibly or skilfully.

 89.4. It was not long before events fully vindicated his choice of strategy, for obvious reasons.  89.5. The Carthaginian soldiers had been trained from early manhood in non-stop warfare; they had a general who had been brought up among them and whose education had taught him the realities of warfare in the field; 89.6. they had won many victories in Spain and twice beaten the Romans and their allies in battle; but above all, they had closed off every other option and their only hope of safety lay in victory.  89.7. By contrast, for the Roman army the situation was exactly the opposite. 89.8. Fabius could not stake everything on the outcome of a single battle, since there was a clear risk of defeat. So he turned to those factors which he calculated worked to the advantage of the Romans, exploited them to the exclusion of all else, and based his whole campaign strategy upon them. 89.9. For the Romans these advantages were: limitless supplies and inexhaustible manpower.

Plutarch, Life of Fabius Maximus, Chapter 5

1.3  He had the cognomen 'Verrucosus' from a physical peculiarity, namely, a small wart growing above his lip: and that of 'Little Lamb', was given him because of the gentleness and gravity of his nature when he was yet a child.  Indeed, the calmness and silence of his demeanour, the great caution with which he indulged in childish pleasures, the slowness and difficulty with which he learned his lessons, and his contented submissiveness in dealing with his comrades, led those who knew him superficially to suspect him of something like foolishness and stupidity. 

Only a few discerned the inexorable firmness in the depth of his soul, and the generous and lion-like qualities of his nature.  4 But soon, as time went on and he was roused by the demands of active life, he made it clear even to the multitude that his seeming lack of energy was only lack of passion, that his caution was prudence, and that his never being quick nor even easy to act made him always steadfast and sure. He saw that the conduct of the state was a great task, and that wars must be many; he therefore trained his body for the wars (nature's own armour, as it were), and his speech as an instrument of persuasion with the people...


2.2  'But Hannibal now burst into Italy'... [and wins the battles of Trebia and Trasimene].

4.1.  'Accordingly, this course was adopted, and Fabius was appointed dictator'... [after which he himself appointed Minucius as Master of Horse.  Then he] 'began with the gods, which is the fairest of all beginnings, and showed the people that the recent disaster was due to the neglect and scorn with which their general had treated religious rites, and not to the cowardice of those who fought under him,.' and thus induced them, instead of fearing their enemies, to propitiate and honour the gods


Fabian Tactics

5.1. Fabius tried to focus the minds of the common people on religious observances, so as to make them more optimistic about the future. But personally he relied entirely on his own ability to secure victory, since he believed that the gods would always allow courage and intelligence to succeed. He concentrated all his own thoughts on Hannibal. He had no plans for a single fight to the finish, since his enemy was at the peak of his strength. So his strategy was to wear him down over time, to use Rome’s financial strength to counter his limited resources, and Italy’s manpower to decrease his relatively small army.

5.2. So he kept his army on the higher ground, always camping among the hills from where he could keep an eye on Hannibal, while staying well away from his cavalry. If his enemy was inactive, Fabius did nothing. If he moved off, he would come down from the hills by a roundabout route and show himself at a distance, always far enough away to ensure that he was never forced to fight against his will, but keeping his enemy on tenterhooks in the belief that after avoiding battle for so long he was at last about to stand and fight. The civilian population viewed such time-wasting tactics with contempt. He certainly had a poor reputation in his own army, but the Carthaginians went further, despising him as an insignificant coward. Only one man saw it differently – and that was Hannibal himself.  

5.3. He alone understood his opponent’s strategy and realised how intelligently he applied it. He realised that he must use every possible tactical device to bring him to battle. Otherwise the Carthaginians would be done for, unable to use the weaponry in which they were superior, while steadily losing their already inferior manpower and wasting their inadequate resources with nothing to show for it. He turned to all kinds of military tactics and devices, striving like a skilled wrestler to get to grips with his opponent. Sometimes he would make a direct assault, sometimes diversionary attacks, sometimes he tried to draw him out in almost any direction, always trying to persuade Fabius to abandon his safe, defensive strategy.

5.4. Fabius, however, remained convinced that his tactics would succeed and obstinately stuck to his policy, refusing to be diverted. But he was enraged by his deputy, Minucius, the Master of Horse, who was over-confident and eager to fight before the time was ripe. In fact he made a bid for popularity in the army, filling the soldiers with wild ideas of action and futile expectations of success. In their contempt for their general they made Fabius an object of mockery and nicknamed him Hannibal’s pedagogue. By contrast, they had the highest regard for Minucius as being the sort of “real” general that Rome deserved.  5.5. As a result he became increasingly arrogant and reckless, jeering at all their hilltop encampments and suggesting that the dictator was always providing splendid theatrical settings, from which they could watch the destruction of Italy by fire and sword. “Is he taking his army up to heaven,” he would ask Fabius’ friends, “because he has despaired of the earth, or is he just sneaking away from the enemy under cover of mist and cloud?”  5.6. His friends reported all this to Fabius and urged him to take the risk of battle in order to counter such insults. “If I did that,” he replied, “I would be an even greater coward than I now appear, since I would be abandoning my calculated strategy for fear of a few jokes and insults. There is no disgrace in being afraid for the future of one’s country; but if a man is frightened of the insults and criticisms of popular opinion, he betrays his high office and become a slave to the fools over whom it is his duty as ruler to exercise control.”


[Hannibal wins the Battle of Cannae, though he is criticised by an officer named 'Barca' for failing to follow it up.

Nevertheless, many cities go over to Hannibal and Rome is in terror...]


17.3.  Not only, then, does it work great mischief, as Euripides says, to put friends to the test, but also prudent generals. 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 marvellous intelligence, since it looked so far into the future and foretold a disaster which could hardly be believed by those who experienced it.  4 In him, therefore, Rome at once placed her last hopes; to his wisdom she fled for refuge as to the temple and altar, believing that it was first and chiefly due to his prudence that she still remained a city, and was not utterly broken up, as in the troublous times of the Gallic invasion.  5 For he who, in times of apparent security, appeared cautious and irresolute, then, when all were plunged in boundless grief and helpless confusion, was the only man to walk the city with calm step, composed countenance, and gracious address, checking effeminate lamentation, and preventing those from assembling together who were eager to make public their common complaints. He persuaded the senate to convene, heartened up the magistrates, and was himself the strength and power of every magistracy, since all looked to him for guidance.


[Fabius organises the defences of the city, and returns to the war with Hannibal. 
He also shows his graciousness by welcoming back Varro to Rome as a hero, not as a disgraced failure...]


19 3  [In all this] Fabius clung to his first and famous convictions, and looked to see Hannibal, if only no one fought with him or harassed him, become his own worst enemy, wear himself out in the war, and speedily lose his high efficiency, like an athlete whose bodily powers have been overtaxed and exhausted...  5 [Hannibal] had no success against Fabius, although he frequently brought all sorts of deceitful tests to bear upon him...

20 1 Fabius thought that the revolts of the cities and the agitations of the allies ought to be restrained and discountenanced rather by mild and gentle measures, without testing every suspicion and showing harshness in every case to be suspected.... 3 Fabius thought it hard that, whereas the trainers of horses and dogs relied upon care and intimacy and feeding rather than on goads and heavy collars for the removal of the animal's obstinacy, anger, and discontent, the commander of men should not base the most of his discipline on kindness and gentleness, but show more harshness and violence in his treatment of them than farmers in their treatment of wild fig-trees, wild pear-trees, and wild olive-trees, which they reclaim and domesticate till they bear luscious olives, pears, and figs.

Fabius shows his wisdom by giving a grumbling soldier a reward for his valour, not a punishment for his words; he deals with a deserter by arresting the girl the man was slipping away to see, and giving her to him as a wife. 

Later, Fabius captures the town of Tarentum by a double trick...

23 1  It is said that Hannibal had got within five miles of Tarentum when it fell, and that openly he merely remarked: "It appears, then, that the Romans have another Hannibal, for we have lost Tarentum even as we look at it"; but that in private he was then for the first time led to confess to his friends that he had long seen the difficulty, and now saw the impossibility of their mastering Italy with their present forces. 

2 For this success, Fabius celebrated a second triumph most splendid than his first, since he was contending with Hannibal like a clever athlete, and easily baffling all his undertakings, now that his hugs and grips no longer had their old time vigour. For his forces were partly enervated by luxury and wealth, and partly blunted, as it were, and worn out by their unremitting struggles.

Fabius opposes Scipio Africanus at every step, but dies before he sees his political enemy win the battle of Zama and defear Hannibal.