Stories from Roman History - Lena Dalkeith

Of Hannibal

How Italy was Saved in the End

It was in late spring, when the sky shone blue and the flowers were in bloom, that Rome first had word of the Battle of Cannae. The young patrician Cornelius Lentulus brought the terrible news. As he came riding furiously into the city, the citizens rushed eagerly to meet him, for ever since the army had marched out from Rome—88,000 brave men and strong, led by Paulus Aemilius and Varro—they had been waiting for news.

"This time," thought they, "we are sure to hear good tidings. Has not Varro promised to conquer Hannibal in one day? Did he. not swear to show us that Fabius was wrong to avoid giving battle, and is not Varro as good a general as Fabius, bolder and younger, and a man of the people like ourselves? Yes! A thousand times yes! Victory is sure!"

"Hail, Cornelius Lentulus," they cried, "what news from Cannae?"

Ah, what news! Cornelius turned his white anguished face upon the people, and they at the sight of it fell back, whispering uneasily amongst themselves, not daring to ask another question.

To the weary messenger came Fabius, who was then in Rome, having given up the Dictatorship after six months, according to custom.

"Speak, Cornelius," he said. "We know by your looks that you bring no good news to Rome, and we are prepared."

"Alas for me that I must speak! Alas for you that ye must hear!" cried Cornelius. "Our army is no more 70,000 Romans lie slain upon the dreadful field of Cannae!"

The people groaned and cried aloud in terror, but Fabius, calmly bidding them be silent, said, "Tell us more. What of our consuls? What of Varro and Paulus Aemilius?"

"Varro has fled to Venusia with the few that are still living, and there he seeks to make one more stand against the enemy."

"And Aemilius? "questioned Fabius anxiously; for Aemilius was dear to him, being one of those who had taken his part against Varro.

"I bring you his last words," answered the messenger sadly. "When fortune went against us and all fled, Aemilius, wounded and heart-broken, would not leave the field, and when I prayed him with tears to take my horse and save himself, he would not, preferring death to flight. He bade me tell you, Fabius Maximus, that he followed your orders faithfully to the last, but that he was first overcome by Varro, and then by Hannibal. And I will bear witness before ye all that this is true. Listen, Romans. Following the custom, each consul commanded the troops in turn, and whatever Aemilius did one day to keep the soldiers from fighting, Varro undid the next by leading them forward, and this went on until there came a day when Varro caused the red robe to be hung over his tent, so sure was he of victory, so eager was he to deliver us from our enemy. Alas 1 alas!"

"Alas!" echoed the terrified people. "The gods are against us! Our army is lost, our sons are slain, Hannibal will march on Rome, and our city will be taken!" and some, mad with fear, tried to flee through the gates.

Fabius in Carthage


But Fabius with other brave Romans strove to calm their fears, placed a guard at the gates, appointed new consuls and began to raise another army, and little by little the people took courage, and as time went on and Hannibal did not come, they began to hope again.

Varro was called back from Venusia. Poor Varro, he returned sad and ashamed, bitterly regretting the mistake he had made, and the sorrow he had brought on his country.

But the Romans were a great-hearted people. They understood that what he had done was for love of his country and not for the sake of winning honour for himself, and when he arrived the whole senate and all the people went to the gates to welcome him.

"When there was silence, the senators, amongst whom was Fabius, praised Varro for having tried to gather an army together again at Venusia, and for returning to Rome ready to do whatever might be asked of him. This they did to console and comfort him; and to show that he still had their trust, Varro was given many important things to do all through the war. After the defeat at Cannae, nearly every city in Italy surrendered to Hannibal, but in Rome the people did not despair. They raised army after army, giving freely of their money and their jewels to pay the cost of the war. A great many of the soldiers were not even paid, but that did not make them any less eager to defend their country. Many generals were sent out against Hannibal, but the two greatest of these were Fabius Maximus and Marcellus. The Romans named them the Sword and the Shield of Rome. Fabius they called the Shield, be cause he was ever eager for the defence, while Marcellus was the Sword, because he loved nothing better than the attack.

These two together managed to keep the enemy at bay. Indeed, after some time Hannibal began to fear them both. As Fabius had foretold, his army grew less and less, and he was defeated more than once.

Fortune had turned against him at last. The Italian cities, one by one, went over again to Rome. His own country deserted him in his sore need. When he begged the Carthaginians to send him more soldiers they would not, and the Romans began to hope that their troubles would soon be at an end. Scipio Africanus, the great general who afterwards conquered Hannibal in Africa, went with an army to Spain and drove the Carthaginians from there. Hannibal's brother, on his way to invade Italy, was killed by another Roman general, and Hannibal himself with his few remaining men was driven into a corner of the land near the sea.

Two or three years he fought bravely there, until Carthage sent for him to return at once to lead an army against Scipio. So, after nearly sixteen years' fighting, after winning nearly the whole of Italy and losing it again, the great general left Italy for ever.

Fabius Maximus, who was old when the war began, lived to see his country freed from its terrible foe. The grateful citizens, remembering that it was he who had first showed them that Rome need fear no foe, however great, gave him the highest honour that it was possible for Rome to give. This was the Wreath of the Blockade—a simple wreath woven of grass that had been plucked in the place where an army had been besieged and rescued again.