Story of Rome - Mary Macgregor
The Senate had restored some sense of confidence to the stricken people by its gravity and calmness. It had also reassured them by destroying the bridges by which the city could be approached and by strengthening her walls.
Soldiers who had been deemed too old to follow the army were now called together, and armed with weapons which had hung for years in the temples—trophies these from many a hard-fought field.
But most important of all, a Dictator was chosen to guide Rome in the crisis that had befallen her.
Fabius, the noble patrician who was elected, was a wise man, and one who was not easily swayed by others. He was, however, neither a brilliant nor an enterprising soldier.
Minucius, one of the people's favourites, was appointed to be the Dictator's master of horse.
Now many of the people believed that disaster had overtaken the army because Flaminius had marched to the war without first offering sacrifices to the gods. And also because he had treated their warnings with contempt.
For as he rode off to join his troops he was thrown from his horse, while a standard that had been thrust into the ground was found to be so firmly embedded that the standard-bearer, with all his efforts, could not dislodge it. These omens Flaminius had treated with scorn, merely remounting his steed and ordering the standard to be dug out of the ground.
Fabius the Dictator, therefore, determined before he did aught else, to pacify the anger of the gods and at the same time to please the people.
So he ordered white oxen to be offered in the temples, as an atonement for the neglect shown to the gods by Flaminius. The people flocked gladly to these sacrifices, bringing with them their own offerings to lay on the altars, while they prayed for the goodwill of the god of battle.
A vow, too, was made by the whole of the people, to keep 'A holy spring.'
This vow said that 'every animal fit for sacrifice, born in the spring of the year 216 B.C., and reared on any mountain or plain or river bank or upland pasture throughout Italy, should be offered to Jupiter.'
There was no need to offer children to the gods in sacrifice, for they, when they grew old enough, offered their lives, and that right willingly, on the battlefield to the god of war.
When the religious rites were ended, Fabius prepared to meet the enemy.
Two new legions were soon raised, and Servilius was ordered to bring his two legions to Rome, so that Fabius had four legions to lead to battle.
The Dictator had his own idea of how best to beat Hannibal, and to this idea he remained faithful, although his own followers as well as the enemy derided his policy.
Fabius had determined not to meet the Carthaginians in a pitched battle. They had already been victorious too often in such a struggle. He intended to harass the rear guard of the enemy and to cut off the parties Hannibal sent out in search of food or forage. This discreet policy proved pleasing neither to Hannibal nor to his own troops, but of this Fabius recked little.
After deciding on these tactics, the Dictator led his legions into Northern Apulia and encamped near to the enemy. In vain Hannibal tried to tempt Fabius to fight. He wantonly burned the homesteads and destroyed the vineyards of the Italians, that the Dictator might grow indignant and hasten to their help. But seemingly untouched by the desolation of his country, Fabius continued to follow his own method of warfare.
This method of delay has since his time become a byword, and is known as 'The Fabian Policy.' He himself was named, or perhaps I should say he was nicknamed, Cunctator, The Delayer.
Minucius, the master of the horse, eager for battle, encouraged the soldiers in their discontent with the Dictator, until they even dared to say that Minucius was more fit to command Romans than Fabius.
Then Minucius, seeing the men were in his favour, grew more daring, and ventured to jest at the Dictator because he encamped always on the hills, while the enemy was in the plains. 'It is,' said the officer, 'as if Fabius has taken us to the hills as to a theatre, to look at the flames and desolation of our country.' Or he would mockingly declare that the Dictator was leading them up to heaven, having no hopes on earth, or even that he was trying to hide them in the clouds from the Carthaginians.
These words were told to Fabius, and his friends urged him, as they had often done before, to fight.
But the Dictator answered, 'I should be more faint-hearted than they make me, if through fear of idle reproaches I should abandon my own convictions.'
Such words showed the true bravery of the Delayer's spirit.
Soon after this, Hannibal, who had been despoiling the beautiful country of Campania, determined to march back to Apulia, with the booty he had secured. He had with him great herds of cattle which formed a large part of the spoil.
To reach Apulia, the Carthaginians would have to march through a narrow defile, and Fabius believed that now his patience was going to be rewarded. He would catch Hannibal in a trap.
But Fabius had scarcely realised the man with whom he had to deal. Hannibal in a trap like that which he had himself often set for the Romans! That surely was not easy to believe.
Knowing the country well, the Dictator did not on this occasion delay, but sent a company of four thousand soldiers to guard the exit by which the enemy must leave the pass, on its way to Apulia. He, with the main body of his army, stationed himself on the summit of a hill, close at hand.
Hannibal guessed what the Romans had done, and he made up his mind to frustrate their plans; moreover, he determined to do so by a trick. He seemed to treat the Dictator and his arrangements with scarcely the requisite gravity.
First he ordered two thousand of the oxen he had captured to have torches or dry faggots fastened to their horns.
Then when it grew dark these faggots were lighted, and the beasts were driven toward the mountains where the Roman soldiers were encamped. Hannibal and his army followed slowly behind the oxen.
The beasts moved heavily along, the lights on their heads making them appear like a mighty army, marching through the night. By and by the fire burned the horns down to the quick, and the poor animals, in horrible pain, ran hither and thither, tossing their heads and thus setting fire to the trees which they happened to pass.
On the crest of the hill, the Roman army saw the moving lights, but as Fabius issued no orders, the soldiers stayed in the camp.
The company guarding the pass also saw the lights and thought that they were moving toward the mountains. Thinking their comrades would be in danger, they deserted their post and ran to give them help.
Hannibal's soldiers at once seized the forsaken exit, and the Carthaginian army passed out of the defile unharmed.
Before morning dawned Fabius discovered how he had been outwitted by Hannibal. Yet fearing lest his men should fall into an ambush if he sent them in pursuit of the enemy before it was light, he still kept his army idle in camp.
When it was daylight it was too late to do the Carthaginians much harm, although the Dictator ordered his army to attack them in the rear.