Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Now we come to another able general, a Roman, and one who had quite as difficult a task to perform as Pericles had, though the circumstances were different, as we shall see. Fabius did not display the same foresight and skill that Pericles did, but he proved himself a man of great courage and strength of will. Like Pericles, he was an orator, and among his numerous speeches one of the most remarkable that has been preserved is his funeral oration on the death of his son.

Fabius was consul five times. During the first consulship he gained a great victory over the Ligurians, who were forced to run away and seek shelter in the Alps. But it was his policy to put off a battle as long as possible, so when Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian general, invaded Italy, he did not rush to oppose him, as the Romans wished him to do. The wildest terror and astonishment took hold of the people at Hannibal's approach, which certain unaccountable occurrences did not tend to allay. There were more than the usual number of thunder-storms, which was considered an unlucky omen; it was said, besides, that some targets sweated blood, and that certain reapers had found ears of corn filled with blood; also that it had rained red-hot stones, and that scrolls had fallen from heaven, on one of which was written, "Mars brandishes his arms."

Fabius shared the anxiety of his countrymen, and for this and other reasons would not meet the enemy; but Flaminius, who was consul also, insisted on doing so. Accordingly, he led the army into the field, and such a desperate fight ensued that, though a terrible earthquake took place while it was going on, none of the combatants knew anything about it. Fifteen thousand Romans were killed, and as many more were taken prisoners. It was in these words that Pomponius, the prætor, announced their defeat to his countrymen, who assembled to hear the result of the battle: "We are beaten, O Romans, in a great battle; the consul Flaminius is killed; think, therefore, what is to be done for your own safety."

This dreadful news created the greatest confusion, and it was decided to choose a dictator who should have entire control of public affairs. Fabius seemed best fitted for the office, and he was unanimously elected, Lucius Minucius being chosen for his General of the Horse, a very important office.

The first act of Fabius as dictator was a religious one. He assured the people that their late defeat was not owing to lack of courage on the part of their army, but to neglect of divine ceremonies by their general, and urged them not to fear the enemy so much, but to do something to gratify the gods. This he did not to encourage superstition, but to lessen the dread they felt of the enemy by encouraging the belief among his countrymen that Heaven was on their side. He then made a vow in presence of the people to sacrifice to the gods all the cows, goats, swine, and sheep that were produced in any part of Italy that year, and to expend a certain sum of money on the celebration of musical festivals.

In this way Fabius restored confidence, and then set out at the head of his army to oppose Hannibal again. He made no attack, but kept in sight of the enemy, always managing to secure the best positions, and thus keep them in a state of anxiety. But in course of time the Romans accused Fabius of cowardice in holding off so long; they became impatient, and called upon Minucius to lead them to battle. This tickled the vanity of the General of the Horse, who began to ridicule the conduct of the dictator. He said that the Romans were like spectators at a theatre placed on the mountains to witness the desolation of the country below, and asked the friends of Fabius whether he did not mean, by leading them from mountain to mountain, to carry them at last to heaven, or to hide them in the clouds from Hannibal's army.

These things were repeated to the commander, who was urged to risk a battle. "If I did so, I should depart from my resolution and prove myself a more dastardly spirit than they represent me. To fear for my country is no disgrace. The man who shrinks under slander and yields to the humors of those whom he ought to govern is unworthy of such a command as this."

Soon after, Hannibal, who was sorely in need of some good pasture-land for his horses, ordered the guides to lead him to the district of Casinum, but they misunderstood his foreign pronunciation, and conducted his forces to a valley bearing a similar name. This move suited Fabius precisely. He took possession forthwith of the surrounding mountains, and placed a guard of four thousand men at the only outlet from the valley. Thus hemmed in, Hannibal's army fell into the utmost disorder, and about eight hundred were killed. The guides were all crucified for punishment, but that did not relieve the army, and Hannibal was at his wits' end until he hit upon a stratagem. It was this: he caused two thousand oxen to have torches and dry fagots securely fastened to their horns, and when night came on they were lighted and the oxen were driven towards the mountains near the narrow pass guarded by the Romans, the army following in the dark not far behind.

At first the beasts moved along slowly, but when the fire burned down to their flesh they became mad with the pain, ran wildly in every direction, tossing their heads, and setting fire to the trees as they passed by. This was a mode of warfare the Roman soldiers had never experienced, and they became so bewildered that they fancied the enemy were approaching from every quarter to surround them. So they hurried from their posts to their camp on the mountains. Then Hannibal's men took possession of the deserted position, and the whole army, with all the baggage, marched safely through the pass.

Before morning Fabius discovered the trick, but, fearing an ambush, he kept his men under arms in the camp. At daylight he attacked the enemy in the rear, but Hannibal sent a body of Spaniards, who were accustomed to climbing mountains, to oppose the Roman troops, and they killed so many that Fabius had to retreat. This made him very unpopular, and he was regarded with open contempt by his army, who pronounced him a coward and an incompetent general.

He fell into disfavor with the senate too, because of the bargain he made for the exchange of prisoners. He agreed that after they had been exchanged man for man, those that were left over should be bought for a certain sum of money. When it turned out that there remained two hundred and forty Romans unexchanged, the senate not only refused the money for the ransoms, but reproached Fabius with making a dishonorable contract and wishing to redeem men whose cowardice had placed them in the hands of the enemy. Fabius bore the injustice patiently, but resolved to keep his word with Hannibal. So he sent his son to Rome to sell lands, and so procured the sum required for the ransoms, which he paid himself. Many of the released captives offered to return him the money, but he refused it in every case.

About this time Fabius was called to Rome to assist at certain sacrifices, which were always performed by the dictator. Before leaving the army he gave Minucius strict charge not to engage the enemy during his absence; but he was not obeyed, and news followed him to Rome of a victory won by his forces. The populace flocked to the Forum, where they were addressed by the tribune, Metilius, a kinsman of Minucius. He praised the bravery of the victorious commander, and accused Fabius of cowardice and disloyalty, declaring that it was he and a few of his friends who had brought the Carthaginians to Italy, in order that he might be appointed dictator.

The only reply Fabius made was that he wished the priests to complete the sacrifices as soon as possible, that he might return to the army and punish Minucius for his disobedience. As the dictator had power of life and death, the people began to fear that he meant to execute Minucius. No one dared to say a word except the tribune, all other officers being deprived of authority during the existence of a dictator. He spoke boldly in behalf of his kinsman, and asked the people whether they would suffer him to become a sacrifice to the jealousy and ill will of Fabius. The effect of his harangue was very great, and it was decided that Fabius should retain his office, but that in the management of the war Minucius should have equal authority.

The enemies of Fabius thought he would be angry at such a humiliating plan, but they were mistaken, for he was too just and good a man to feel dishonored by it. He feared, though, that the country's cause would be injured by the rashness of Minucius, and therefore hastened back to his post. He found Minucius so arrogant and unreasonable that it was agreed to divide the army, he taking charge of the first and fourth legions, and delivering the second and third to his colleague.

Minucius was so exalted on account of his success that he made himself disagreeable by constantly boasting of how he had humiliated the dictator. Fabius said to him one day, "Do not forget that it is Hannibal, not I, whom you are to fight; but if you insist upon opposing me, let it be in striving for the preservation of Rome; for it would be a pity to have the people say that a man whom they have favored served them worse than he who was ill treated and disgraced by them." This speech had little effect on the younger general, who removed to a separate camp with the troops allotted to him.

Hannibal was informed of this division of the Roman army, and determined to take advantage of it. So, watching his opportunity, he placed a number of men in the ditches and hollows on all sides of Minucius during the night, and when day dawned gave the signal for battle. Fabius, who stood on a hill overlooking the scene of action, saw his countrymen gradually but surely losing ground, while one officer after another was cut down, and those warriors who fled were killed by the victorious Carthaginians. It did not gratify him to witness the defeat of his rival; on the contrary, he was deeply distressed, and with a heartfelt sigh said to those near him, "O Hercules! how much sooner than I expected, though later than his actions promised, has Minucius destroyed himself!" Then commanding his standard-bearers to advance, and his whole army to follow, he added, "Now, my brave soldiers, let us make haste to rescue Marcus Minucius; he is a brave man and a lover of his country. If in his haste to drive out the enemy he has erred, this is not the time to find fault with him."

Hannibal's men were frightened when they beheld Fabius coming up with his army, and retreated in great haste, lest they should be surrounded by the fresh troops. Seeing the change of fortune, as Fabius pushed on through the thickest of the fight to join Minucius, Hannibal called off his men and retired to his camp. He gave proof of the dread he had entertained of Fabius by this remark, which he made on entering his tent: "Did not I often say that this cloud which always hovered upon the mountains would one day burst upon us with the fury of a storm?"

After collecting the spoils from the field, Fabius retired to his own camp without making a single harsh or reproachful remark to his colleague. Minucius was so impressed by this forbearance on the part of a man whom he had sought to injure, that he gathered his troops about him and addressed them as follows: "Friends and fellow-soldiers, never to commit an error in the management of great affairs is beyond the power of men; but a good and prudent man learns by experience to correct his faults. Fortune has frowned upon me, without doubt, yet I have much to thank her for. In the compass of one day she has shown me that I know not how to command, but have need to be under the direction of another; from this moment I shall cease to contend for power over a man whom it is an honor to obey. Henceforth the dictator must be your commander in everything except expressions of gratitude to him. In that I will be your leader, by being the first to show an example of obedience and submission."

He then ordered the ensigns to advance with the eagles, and, himself following, led his army to the other Roman camp. On being admitted, he marched straight to the tent of the dictator, who came out as the sound of the approaching soldiers reached his ear. Then, fixing his standard before Fabius, Minucius saluted him in a loud tone by the name of Father, and his soldiers called the others their Patrons, a title that the freedmen of Rome bestowed on those who gave them their liberty. When silence was restored, Minucius thus addressed the dictator: "You have this day obtained two victories, Fabius,—one over the enemy by your valor, the other over your colleague by your wisdom and goodness. By the former you saved us, by the latter you instructed us; when we were suffering a shameful defeat from Hannibal, a welcome one from you restored us to honor and safety. I call you Father because I know no more honorable name; to my real father I owe my being, but to you I owe the preservation of my life and the lives of all these brave men." He ceased speaking, and threw himself into the arms of the dictator, while the soldiers embraced one another and wept tears of joy.

Shortly after this Fabius resigned the dictatorship, and consuls were again elected. It was the custom among the Romans for the consuls to command the army in turn when there was no dictator, and a difference of opinion arose among those who were now chosen as to the manner of opposing Hannibal, some desiring to carry out Fabius's policy, while others were for giving battle and thus deciding the fate of the commonwealth. Among the latter was Terentius Varro, who was so popular that he managed to raise an army of eighty-eight thousand of the best fighting-men of Rome.

When his turn came to command, he posted his army at a village called Cannæ, not far from Hannibal, and at dawn of day had a red mantle raised above his tent as a signal for battle. As usual, Hannibal employed stratagems, but he proved himself in this fight, as in many others, a great general. In the first place, he stationed his men with their backs to the wind, which blew so hard that a perfect storm of sand and dust was driven into the faces of the Roman soldiers, who were thus prevented from taking proper aim. Next, all his best men were put in the wings, with this order,—that when the main body, which was weak, should give way as the enemy forced in upon them, the wings were to close around and give them battle in the rear. This was the chief cause of the Roman loss that day, which was very great.

Finding it impossible to recover ground, the consul, Varro, made good his escape with a few followers to Venusia, but Æmilius Paulus, another consul, who had been thrown from his horse, sat down upon a stone, covered with wounds, to await his death. He was so disfigured that even his friends did not know him and passed him by. Presently a young nobleman named Cornelius Lentulus recognized him, and, alighting from his horse, begged him to mount and save a life so valuable to his country. Æmilius refused, and insisted on the young man's resuming his seat on the horse; then, taking his hand, he said, "Go to Fabius Maximus and tell him that Æmilius Paulus followed his directions to the last, but it was hard fate to be overpowered first by Varro and then by Hannibal." As soon as Lentulus had ridden off, Æmilius rushed into the thickest of the battle and threw himself upon the swords of the enemy.

Hannibal had gained a splendid victory, and his friends urged him to pursue the flying Romans, assuring him that in five days' time he might sup in the Capitol. But he did not consider that a prudent step, and refused; whereupon Barcas, a Carthaginian, said, angrily, "You know how to gain a victory, Hannibal, but not how to use it."

The battle of Cannæ made a great change in the condition of Hannibal's army, for they now had regular supplies, which had not been the case before, and the greatest part of Italy submitted to the authority of the victorious general.

The Romans were in dire distress: what Fabius had predicted had really come to pass, and to him they now turned for relief. They had accused him of cowardice, but he was the only man in Rome who showed no fear. He walked about the streets addressing the men, checking the lamentations of the women, and doing his best to restore order. He caused the senate to meet, encouraged the magistrates, and became the moving spirit of every office.

It is much to the credit of the Romans that when Varro came home after his dreadful defeat, they received him with honors and even offered him the dictatorship, which, however, he refused. This conduct formed a striking contrast to that of the Carthaginians, whose generals were forced to endure a cruel death when vanquished, even though it could be proved that they were not to blame.

As soon as the Romans became convinced that Hannibal was not going to march into their city, they took heart and renewed preparations to continue the war. Fabius Maximus and Claudius Marcellus were chosen to command, and they formed such a perfect combination, the one possessing the very qualities that the other lacked, that the Romans called Marcellus, who was a bold, active, high-spirited man, their sword, while Fabius, who was cautious, steady, and slow to give battle, they termed their shield.

During the course of this war each of these generals was consul five times, so that Hannibal constantly encountered them, and learned to dread the sword  when in action quite as much as he did the shield  when it was still. It was only by laying traps for them that he could hope for victory, and many failed before he at last succeeded in killing Marcellus. But Fabius was too prudent to be easily caught, though his friends attributed his escape to the favor of the gods.

Fabius made himself popular with the soldiers, because he treated them with uniform kindness and consideration. Once a young nobleman, who was noted for his courage, spoke of his intention to desert. Fabius heard of this, and sent for him. "I am sensible," he said to the young man, "of how your good service has been overlooked by the commanders, who are too apt to show favors in the wrong direction, but henceforth when you have complaints to make I trust you will apply to no one but me." He then gave the grateful soldier a horse and some other tokens of esteem, and from that moment there was not a more faithful or trustworthy man in the whole army.

At another time an officer reported that there was a young man from Lucania whose record was excellent in every particular except that he was frequently missing from his place at night. Upon making strict inquiries, Fabius ascertained that there was a certain pretty girl in the neighborhood with whom the soldier was in love, and it was in order to visit her that he so frequently went off. Fabius ordered the girl to be secretly brought to his tent, and when she arrived he summoned the Lucanian, to whom he said, "I know how often you have been missing from the camp at night; that was an offence against military discipline and the Roman laws; but I also know what a brave soldier you have been. In consideration of your services to your country I am willing to forgive you, but I have resolved to place over you a keeper who shall be responsible for your good behavior." He then led forth the young woman, who had been concealed behind a screen, and added, "This is the person who must answer for you; your future conduct will prove whether or no your secret rambles were on account of love."

It was by stratagem that Fabius took the city of Tarentum when the Carthaginians were only five miles away, and their general exclaimed, "Rome, then, has also got a Hannibal; as we won Tarentum, so have we lost it." He was surprised to find that others could set traps as well as himself, and acknowledged to his friends, privately, that he now thought it impossible to master Italy with the forces he had.

On his return to Rome, Fabius was received in triumph, and many marks of gratitude were showered upon him. Among others, his son was elected to the consulship, and an anecdote is related concerning this which shows how the consuls were honored. After his son entered upon the office, Fabius had occasion to speak with him one day while he was settling some point about the war. Either because he was unable to walk, or because he wanted to see how the young man would behave, he rode up to him on horseback. The consul observed his father at a distance, and sent word to him by one of the lictors to dismount and approach on foot if he had business with him. Many people were assembled at the time, and showed plainly how indignant they felt at having such an insult offered to so worthy and honorable a person as Fabius. But he instantly got down from his horse, ran towards his son, and embraced him tenderly, saying, "My son, I applaud your sentiments and your conduct. You know what a great people you command, and have a proper sense of the dignity of your office. This was the way that we and our forefathers took to advance Rome to her present glory; for we always considered the honor and interest of our country before that of our fathers or children."

And this was true, for the grandfather of Fabius, who was one of the greatest Romans of his day, actually served in a minor office under his own son, when he was consul, and when that son returned from the war in a triumphal chariot, rode on horseback as one of his attendants. It was his glory to show that, though as a father he had power over his son, he was proud to submit to the laws of his country and to her magistrates.

Now Cornelius Scipio, who had gained some victories over the Carthaginians in Spain, and had succeeded in driving them out of that country, returned home, and to show their gratitude the people elected him consul. Then he proposed a plan for ridding Italy of Hannibal and his army. It was this: to make Carthage the seat of war, and so compel the great general to go home for his own safety. Fabius did all he could to oppose such an undertaking, and won the senate over to his side. The fact is that he was jealous of the young conqueror, and did not want him to have the glory of driving Hannibal out of Italy: so when he found that in spite of his opposition the people esteemed Scipio more and more each day, he went to Crassus, the colleague of Scipio, and urged him to lead the army to Carthage if it was decided that it should go there.

This seems petty in so great a statesman as Fabius, but he had filled a prominent position so long that he could not bear to sink into the background and be replaced by a younger man. Crassus was a high-priest, and, as his religious duties would detain him in Italy, he refused to stir, whereupon Fabius made speeches to the people and the senate, in which he assured them that Scipio was not only running away from Hannibal, but he was draining Italy of her defenders, whom he was drawing into a foreign war that could be of no benefit. He succeeded in so far that the people became alarmed, and would let Scipio have only the troops that were in Sicily and three hundred of the soldiers who had served under him in Spain.

Meanwhile, the young conqueror was gaining victories, performing wonderful exploits in Africa, and sending home a great amount of spoils. At last news came that a Numidian king had been taken prisoner by the Roman general, that his men had been slaughtered, and that two camps of the enemy had been destroyed and a quantity of arms and horses captured. Then Hannibal was indeed compelled to hasten home, and the Romans rejoiced at the steps Scipio had taken. Never were they happier than when they beheld the Carthaginian army on shipboard leaving Italy.

Even then Fabius insisted that it was too soon to rejoice, for Hannibal was an enemy more to be dreaded under the walls of Carthage than ever he had been in Italy. But Scipio soon set at rest the fears thus raised, for he fought Hannibal and defeated him. Fabius did not live to see his prediction fulfilled, however, for he fell ill and died just after the Carthaginians left Italy. The expenses of his funeral were paid by the citizens, each one contributing a piece of money for the purpose, thus owning him as their father, and showing honor to him in death as they had done in life.