Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"So great was the nation's heart . . ."

On December 18, 218 B.C., Hannibal Barca, inflicted some 20,000 casualties on the Romans in the Battle of Trebia. Six months later, on June 24, 217 B.C., Hannibal ambushed and destroyed another Roman army at Lake Trasimene. Perhaps 30,000 Romans were killed.

The Romans reacted to these disasters by naming Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator. Maximus adopted "Fabian tactics," shadowing and harassing Hannibal, but refusing to engage him in pitched battle. These tactics proved unpopular, earning him the mocking epithets "Cunctator" (the Delayer) and "Hannibal's Nanny."

Prominent among Fabius's critics was a Plebian consular candidate, Gaius Terentius Varro, whose supporters argued that Patrician members of the Senate were intentionally dragging the war out in order to hang on to power when the war could and should be brought to a successful conclusion by launching a massive, all-out assault on Hannibal and his army.

Fabius's dictatorship lapsed at the end of 217 B.C. In 216 B.C., Varro was elected consul, together with Lucius Aemilius Paullus, a Patrician of the Fabian tactical school. The Romans assembled a massive army of perhaps 85,000 or more, headed by Varro and Paullus on alternate days. Before leading the troops out to locate and destroy Hannibal, Varro gave petulant and boastful speechs castigating the Patricians:
Before the troops left Rome, the consul Varro made a number of extremely arrogant speeches. The nobles, he complained, were directly responsible for the war on Italian soil, and it would continue to prey upon the country's vitals if there were any more commanders on the Fabian model. He himself, on the contrary, would bring it to an end on the day he first caught sight of the enemy.

After the Roman army took the field, Hannibal offered battle on a day on which Paullus was commanding the army. Paullus, in Fabian fashion, declined the challenge, leading to angry recriminations from Varro, who held up
Fabius as a specious example for commanders who wanted to conceal their own timidity and lack of spirit. Varro called gods and men to witness that it was no fault of his that Hannibal now owned Italy by right of possession -- his hands had been tied by his colleague; his angry men, spoiling for a fight, were being robbed of their swords.

The next day, August 2, 216 B.C., Varro, now in charge of the army, accepted Hannibal's challenge. In the resulting Battle of Cannae, Hannibal's smaller forces enveloped and destroyed the Roman army. Some 70,000 Romans and Roman allies were killed, and ten thousand more taken captive. Assuming a ten-hour battle, that amounts to a killing rate of 117 men per minute. Perhaps 8,000 escaped. In twenty months, Hannibal had destroyed three Roman armies and inflicted well over 120,000 casualties.

In one of those ironies of history, Paullus was killed in the battle, while Varro survived. In the days following the battle, Varro rallied some 4,000 of the survivors, brought them to a town called Canusium, and assembled them into something resembling an army that could at least defend itself behind the town walls. Eventually, he returned to Rome.

Plutarch and Livy tell the rest of the story. Here's Plutarch:
But perhaps what may impress us most of all today was the spirit of calm composure which the city displayed when Varro . . . returned [to Rome]. He arrived in a state of the deepest dejection and humiliation, as a man who had brought a most terrible and disgraceful calamity upon his country, to find himself met by the Senate and the whole people, who welcomed him at the gates. As soon as calm had been restored the magistrates and senior members of the Senate, of whom Fabius was one, praised him because even in the midst of such a disaster he had never abandoned hope for the city, but had presented himself to take up the duties of government and to invoke the aid of the laws and of his fellow-citizens, confident that their salvation lay in their own hands.

And here's Livy:
So great, in this grim time, was the nation's heart, that the consul, fresh from a defeat of which he had himself been the principal cause, was met on his return to Rome by men of all conditions, who came in crowds to participate in the thanks, publicly bestowed upon him, for not having "despaired of the commonwealth."

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