When the Romans heard of Hannibal's approach, the consul Scipio advanced with an army to fight him, and the two forces met face to face near the river Ticinus. Here a battle took place, and Hannibal, reenforced by Gallic troops, won a brilliant victory.
A second battle was fought and won by stratagem at the river Trebia, where a frightful slaughter of the Romans took place. Beaten back twice, the Romans rallied again, only to meet with a still greater defeat on the shores of Lake Trasimenus. In their distress at the news of these repeated disasters, the Roman people gave the command of their army to Fabius, a man noted for his courage no less than for his caution.
Fabius soon perceived that the Romans were not able to conquer Hannibal in a pitched battle, and, instead of meeting him openly, he skirmished around him, cutting off his supplies, and hindering his advance. On one occasion, by seizing a mountain pass, Fabius even managed to hedge the Carthaginians in, and fancied that he could keep them prisoners and starve them into submission; but Hannibal soon made his escape. By his order, the oxen which went with the army to supply it with food, and to drag the baggage, were all gathered together. Torches were fastened securely to their horns; and then lighted. Blinded and terrified, the oxen stampeded, and rushed right through the Roman troops, who were forced to give way so as not to be crushed to death. The Carthaginians then cleverly took advantage of the confusion and darkness to make their way out of their dangerous position, and thus escaped in safety.
Fabius was now obliged to share his command with another general, who did not like his plan of avoiding an open battle. This general advanced against Hannibal and began to fight; but he would have paid dearly for his imprudence, had not Fabius come to his rescue just in time to save him.
By pursuing these cautious tactics, which have since often been called the "Fabian policy," Fabius prevented Hannibal from gaining any great advantage. But when his time of office was ended, his successors, the consuls Varro and Æmilius, thinking they would act more wisely, and end the war, again ventured to fight the Carthaginians.
The battle took place at Cannæ, and the Romans were again defeated, with very great loss. Æmilius fell, but not till he had sent a last message to Rome, bidding the people strengthen their fortifications, and acknowledging that it would have been far wiser to have pursued the Fabian policy.
So many Romans were slain on this fatal day at Cannæ that Hannibal is said to have sent to Carthage one peck of gold rings, taken from the fingers of the dead knights, who alone wore them.
When the tidings of the defeat came to Rome, the sorrowing people began to fear that Hannibal would march against them while they were defenseless, and that he would thus become master of the city. In their terror, they again appealed to Fabius, who soon restored courage and order, called all the citizens to arms, and drilled even the slaves to fight.
Hannibal, in the mean while, had gone to Capua, where he wished to spend the winter, and to give his men a chance to recruit after their long journey and great fatigues. The climate was so delightful, the food so plentiful, and the hot baths so inviting, that many of the Carthaginians grew fat and lazy, and before they had spent many months there, they were no longer able to fight well.
Ever since then, when people think too much of ease, and not enough of duty, they are said to be "languishing in the delights of Capua."