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Short Rounds

Hannibal vs. Fabius, Duel of the Tricksters

During the early part of the Second Punic War the Carthaginian Hannibal was literally unbeatable, defeating every army the Romans could throw at him in the battles of the Ticinus and the Trebbia (218 BC) and Lake Trasimenus (217 BC).  Following the disaster at Trasimenus, the Roman Senate appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as Dictator for a six month term.  Fabius, an old campaigner and several times consul, was aware that his tactical skills were no match for Hannibal's.  So he avoided open battle, relying instead upon ambushes, night attacks, guerrilla operations, sieges, and similar techniques to wear down the enemy, thereby earning the nickname “Cunctator” (the Delayer).  

This led to a series of operations that demonstrated  both generals’ extraordinary skill at deception and trickery, as each tried to outsmart the other. 

On one occasion Hannibal had been forced to retreat by some clever maneuvering on Fabius's part.  Outnumbered, with supplies running low, and night approaching, the Carthaginian found himself confronted by some difficult terrain, which would impede his movement so much that Fabius might be able to pick off part of his rear guard. To keep Fabius at arm's length, Hannibal had torches tied to the horns of cattle and turned the terrified animals loose in the direction of the Roman army.  As the cattle fled through the countryside, the torches spread the flames to the surrounding brush.  When the Romans saw the moving flames, they at first thought they were witnessing a supernatural apparition, but were soon disabused of this notion by their scouts.  Learning of the trick, Fabius decided that it might well be a ruse on Hannibal's part to set him up for an ambush, and pulled his troops back to their camp.

Later that same year, Hannibal was confronted by two Roman armies, one under Fabius and the other under his chief subordinate, Marcus Minucius Rufus.  Fabius was wary and clever, while Minucius was unthinking and impulsive. Aware that his opponents were of very different character, Hannibal decided to separate them and then defeat Minucius.  Boldly advancing the bulk of his army to a position between his opponents, Hannibal concealed a portion of his troops in ambush.  He then sent a small force to seize a hill near Minucius' camp.  Minucius took the bait, and led his army out to crush these troops, only to fall into Hannibal's ambush.  Things would have gone badly for Minucius, but the wily Fabius, taking advantage of the fact that Hannibal believed he was unwilling to move boldly on the battlefield, spotted the trap, intervened, and forced Hannibal to retreat, or be caught between two foes.

Fabius once put one over on Hannibal quite nicely.  Many of the more gung ho Romans thought that Fabius' tactics were rather perfidious, and there was some talk that he was in sympathy with the enemy, which was why he was avoiding battle.  Realizing this, Hannibal ordered that, when raiding Roman lands, his troops were to avoid damaging Fabius' property, to encourage the Dictator’s enemies to charge him with treason.  Learning of this, Fabius immediately donated his estates to the Roman state for the support of the poor, thereby neatly turning Hannibal's attempt to discredit him into an image-enhancing gesture. 

Even in the days before newspapers and television, it was important to project the proper image to the public.  Then, and now, this image was an important component of a commanders arsenal.  The “Fabian” approach to warfare was, however, unpopular with most Romans.  Shortly after Fabius laid down his command, they once more decided to confront Hannibal in a head-on battle, which led to the Roman disaster at Cannae. 

 

Maharbal Scolds his Commander

Hannibal’s victory at the Battle of Cannae on August 2, 216 BC by means of a trap envelopment of the attacking force, cost him about 10,000 casualties, but the Romans lost at least 40,000 dead, the highest loss in a single day of any Western army in history.  This brought the total Roman manpower loss in the two years since the onset of the war to at least 90,000, mostly killed in action.  At this point, Hannibal’s principal subordinate, Maharbal, urged the general to immediately press on to Rome with all his cavalry, arguing that he might capture the city within five days if he did so.

Hannibal refused, whereupon Maharbal said "Hannibal knows how win a battle, but not a war."  

 

Hannibal at the Gates

Following Cannae, the Romans once more resorted to avoiding decisive battle with Hannibal.  Frustrated by these tactics, in 211 Hannibal marched on Rome with a considerable army.  He apparently hoped that by threatening the capital he might either entice the Romans into another battle (which he would turn into yet another devastating defeat), or that they might resort to negotiation, lest the city fall.  Neither happened. 

Hannibal camped on the River Anio (about three miles north of Rome) and offered to talk.  The Romans refused.  After a few days, Hannibal advanced in battle order, approaching the Colline Gate, in the hope of drawing the Romans out.  They wisely refrained from doing so.

 

Marcus Livius Salinator Stages a Protest

Convicted of failing to divvy up the loot properly after a victory during his consulship in 219 BC, Marcus Livius Salinator protested by withdrawing from public life.  He retired to a rural estate and, to emphasize the extent to which the charge constituted a personal insult, let his beard and hair grow long, and wore rags.  Even as the war with Hannibal unfolded, Livius adamantly refused to serve unless exonerated. 

Finally, in 208 BC Livius was called out of retirement to serve once more as consul for the following year.  As a result, he commanded one of the two the Roman armies in the great victory over the Carthaginians at the Metaurus (June 22, 207 BC).

The victory earned Livius the first triumph awarded for the war with Hannibal, and thus total vindication.  Nevertheless, he maintained his shaggy, ragged appearance.

 

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