"H AVE you heard that drops of blood came out on the shields of the soldiers?"
"Indeed! And in the corn-fields, so I am told, corn has been cut that ran with blood!"
"Yes, neighbors, and I hear that red-hot stones have been seen to fall from the air!"
"These things are terrible! What do they mean?"
"I fear that the Romans will be beaten by the foe from Africa. This man Hannibal is a mighty man of war. He has crossed the Alps; he has marched through Tuscany; nothing seems to stay his course."
So talked a group of people in Rome. Not long afterward a battle was fought, and it is said that fifteen thousand Romans were slain by Hannibal's army, and as many again were taken prisoners.
The awful tidings came to Rome. A magistrate called the people together, and said:
"Romans! we have lost a great battle. Our army is cut to pieces. The consul is killed. Think, therefore, what is to be done to save Rome."
A sad murmur was heard through the vast crowd. Then voices were heard:
"Fabius! Let Fabius lead us! Let Fabius be made dictator! Fabius shall be our war-lord!"
So Fabius was chosen general of a new Roman army. Do you suppose he went all at once to attack Hannibal? No. He was a man who was willing to wait. Hannibal was too strong to be beaten yet. Fabius kept his troops on the hills, always watching the enemy in the valleys, but not coming down in full force. Now and then a body of the Romans would rush down a mountain-side and seize Hannibal's cattle, or slay some of his soldiers, and then quickly return to the rocky heights. By this means Fabius thought he should wear the enemy out.
Some of the Romans did not like this slow style of war. A captain named Minucius said, with a sneer:
"Well, I wonder whether Fabius means to carry the army up to the sky, as he is so fond of camping on the hilltops."
Hannibal's host nearly got caught once. They found themselves among the mountains. The only road out was narrow, and it was blocked by four thousand men from the army of Fabius. Night was coming on, and fear took hold of the men of Carthage (for Hannibal came from Carthage in Africa). Their leader did not fear. He told his men to tie bunches of dry bushwood to the horns of two thousand cattle, and set light to the torches, and drive the oxen forward. This was done. In the darkness of the night the Romans saw the strange lights dancing and flashing in the valley, and supposed a mass of the enemy were approaching, and they fled up the hills. Then Hannibal hastily pressed on with his army, and escaped into a more open country.
Fabius followed slowly, as before. He had exchanged prisoners with Hannibal—that is, for every hundred prisoners given up by the Romans a hundred were given up by Hannibal. But two hundred and forty Romans were still left in the camp of the African. The senate at Rome would not send Fabius the money to buy these prisoners off. Fabius had compassion on his captive countrymen. He sent his son to Rome to sell some of his land. With the money thus gained, Fabius redeemed the rest of the prisoners. Thus he helped his fellow-soldiers at his own cost. Some of them offered to pay him back their ransom, but he would take nothing.
At length the senate of Rome elected Minucius as a second general. They thought he would act more rapidly, and win battles sooner. Fabius did not think it wise for two generals to lead one army; so he divided the Roman host, and each part encamped in a separate spot. The sharp-eyed Hannibal noted all that went on. He decided to fight Minucius. He placed a number of his men in hiding in ditches and hollows around about a hill. A small body of his army appeared on a low hill. Minucius saw them.
"Oh," he said to his captains, "we can easily drive Hannibal's troops from that hill."
The Romans hurried to the attack. From many a ditch and hollow the Africans rose up with a shout, and soon the legions of Minucius were flying in disorder.
From his camp Fabius had watched these events. He slapped his hand upon his thigh in token of grief, and said:
"How soon has Minucius done what I feared he would! He acted rashly, and punished himself."
Fabius then moved his part of the army to the aid of his comrade, and checked the advance of Hannibal.
After the battle Minucius called his men round him, and thus addressed them:
"Friends and fellow-soldiers: Every man makes mistakes; and when a mistake is made, we should do our best to correct it. I have been in the wrong in not following the advice of Fabius. Come with me, and I will tell him there shall be but one army, and he shall be the one leader."
The ensigns who carried the wooden eagles then advanced, and Minucius came after them with all his troops. He visited Fabius in his tent. They talked together a few minutes, and came out. Then Minucius spoke with a loud voice:
As he said this he bowed to Fabius. Then the soldiers of Minucius shouted:
As they cried "patrons" (which means friends and masters) they saluted the soldiers of Fabius. Then Minucius said:
"Fabius, you have
So saying, he embraced Fabius, and the two divisions of the army came together in friendship. Thus did Romans know how to keep down jealous feelings for the sake of Rome.
Alas! more sufferings were to be borne by Rome. In the battle of Cannæ about fifty thousand Romans fell. At the close of this awful scene Hannibal's friends gathered round him.
"Go on, general!" they cried. "In five days you will reach Rome, and eat supper on the Capitol."
Hannibal did not take their advice.
Meanwhile the consul Varro, who had commanded the defeated army, had come to the city. The whole senate and people went to meet him at the gate. Varro looked sad and grave, but he did not tremble as a coward.
"Romans," he said, "all is not lost, in spite of so many having died. I have returned to do what I can to help the city."
Fabius was among the crowd. And he and the other rulers said:
"Varro, we praise you because you do not despair of the fortunes of Rome."
No, whatever happened, the people of this proud city did not altogether lose heart. And much of their confidence was due to Fabius. He was seen in the streets, walking in a quiet and easy manner as if nothing dreadful had happened. His face was calm, his voice had no trembling in it. At the gates he placed guards who should prevent citizens from fleeing away in sudden panic. When he took the field again he kept up the same tactics (or plan) by avoiding any big battle and hanging at the rear and sides of Hannibal's army. And he succeeded in winning back several strong cities that had been captured by the Africans.
When Fabius was old he was pleased at his son being chosen consul.
One day the consul was at a public assembly. Old Fabius, riding on a horse, came near to speak to his son. But, according to the laws of Rome, no mounted men might come near a consul. When the consul saw his father on horseback, he called to him one of his lictors. You remember, a lictor was an officer who carried a bundle of rods and an axe.
"Lictor," he said, "bid Fabius dismount and come on foot to me if he has any business with me."
The lictor did as he was ordered. Silence fell upon the people. They looked angrily at the consul; they looked with pity at the old general.
"How wrong," they said, "for a son to treat a father with such disrespect. And Fabius has spent his life in the service of Rome."
But Fabius did not think as they did. He alighted from his horse at once, and hastened to his son, and put his arms about him.
"My son," he said, "I am glad you understand your office. It is in this way that we and our forefathers have made Rome a great city. We have not sought to put our own feelings first. We have placed the honor of Rome above our love for father or son."
Fabius died in the year 203 B.C. He had been five times consul; and twice he had ridden through the streets of Rome in a triumph or procession of joy after victory. He died poor. You remember how he paid out of his own purse the ransoms of many Roman prisoners. The people of Rome resolved that he should be buried in a way that showed how much they loved his memory. Every citizen gave a small piece of money toward the expenses of the funeral.