Gateway to the Classics: Hannibal by Jacob Abbott
Hannibal by  Jacob Abbott

The Dictator Fabius

I N the mean time, while Hannibal was thus rapidly making his way toward the gates of Rome, the people of the city became more and more alarmed, until at last a general feeling or terror pervaded all the ranks of society. Citizens and soldiers were struck with one common dread. They had raised a new army and put it under the command of a new consul, for the terms of service of the others had expired; Flaminius was the name of this new commander, and he was moving northward at the head of his forces at the time that Hannibal was conducting his troops with so much labor and difficulty through the meadows and morasses of the Arno.

This army was, however, no more successful than its predecessors had been. Hannibal contrived to entrap Flaminius by a stratagem, as he had entrapped Sempronius before. There is in the eastern part of Etruria, near the mountains, a lake called Lake Thrasymene. It happened that this lake extended so near to the base of the mountains as to leave only a narrow passage between—a passage but little wider than was necessary for a road. Hannibal contrived to station a detachment of his troops in ambuscade at the foot of the mountains, and others on the declivities above, and then in some way or other to entice Flaminius and his army through the defile. Flaminius was, like Sempronius, ardent, self-confident, and vain. He despised the power of Hannibal, and thought that his success hitherto had been owing to the inefficiency or indecision of his predecessors. For his part, his only anxiety was to encounter him, for he was sure of an easy victory. He advanced, therefore, boldly and without concern into the pass of Thrasymene, when he learned that Hannibal was encamped beyond it.

Hannibal had established an encampment openly on some elevated ground beyond the pass, and as Flaminius and his troops came into the narrowest part of the defile, they saw this encampment at a distance before them, with a broad plain beyond the pass intervening. They supposed that the whole force of the enemy was there, not dreaming of the presence of the strong detachments which were hid on the slopes of the mountains above them, and were looking down upon them at that very moment from behind rocks and bushes. When, therefore, the Romans had got through the pass, they spread out upon the plain beyond it, and were advancing to the camp, when suddenly the secreted troops burst forth from their ambuscade, and, pouring down the mountains, took complete possession of the pass, and attacked the Romans in the rear, while Hannibal attacked them in the van. Another long, and desperate, and bloody contest ensued. The Romans were beaten at every point, and, as they were hemmed in between the lake, the mountain, and the pass, they could not retreat; the army was, accordingly, almost wholly cut to pieces. Flaminius himself was killed.

The news of this battle spread every where, and produced the strongest sensation. Hannibal sent dispatches to Carthage announcing what he considered his final victory over the great foe, and the news was received with the greatest rejoicings. At Rome, on the other hand, the news produced a dreadful shock of disappointment and terror. It seemed as if the last hope of resisting the progress of their terrible enemy was gone, and that they had nothing now to do but to sink down in despair, and await the hour when his columns should come pouring in through the gates of the city.

The people of Rome were, in fact, prepared for a panic, for their fears had been increasing and gathering strength for some time. They were very superstitious in those ancient days in respect to signs and omens. A thousand trifling occurrences, which would, at the present day, be considered of no consequence whatever, were then considered bad signs, auguring terrible calamities; and, on occasions like these, when calamities seemed to be impending, every thing was noticed, and circumstances which would not have been regarded at all at ordinary times, were reported from one to another, the stories being exaggerated as they spread, until the imaginations of the people were filled with mysterious but invincible fears. So universal was the belief in these prodigies and omens, that they were sometimes formally reported to the senate, committees were appointed to inquire into them, and solemn sacrifices were offered to "expiate them," as it was termed, that is, to avert the displeasure of the gods, which the omens were supposed to foreshadow and portend.

A very curious list of these omens was reported to the senate during the winter and spring in which Hannibal was advancing toward Rome. An ox from the cattle-market had got into a house, and, losing his way, had climbed up into the third story, and, being frightened by the noise and uproar of those who followed him, ran out of a window and fell down to the ground. A light appeared in the sky in the form of ships. A temple was struck with lightning. A spear in the hand of a statue of Juno, a celebrated goddess, shook, one day, of itself. Apparitions of men in white garments were seen in a certain place. A wolf came into a camp, and snatched the sword of a soldier on guard out of his hands, and ran away with it. The sun one day looked smaller than usual. Two moons were seen together in the sky. This was in the daytime, and one of the moons was doubtless a halo or a white cloud. Stones fell out of the sky at a place called Picenum. This was one of the most dreadful of all the omens, though it is now known to be a common occurrence.

These omens were all, doubtless, real occurrences, more or less remarkable, it is true, but, of course, entirely unmeaning in respect to their being indications of impending calamities. There were other things reported to the senate which must have originated almost wholly in the imaginations and fears of the observers. Two shields, it was said, in a certain camp, sweat blood. Some people were reaping, and bloody ears of grain fell into the basket. This, of course, must have been wholly imaginary, unless, indeed, one of the reapers had cut his fingers with the sickle. Some streams and fountains became bloody; and, finally, in one place in the country, some goats turned into sheep. A hen, also, became a cock, and a cock changed to a hen.

Such ridiculous stories would not be worthy of a moment's attention now, were it not for the degree of importance attached to them then. They were formally reported to the Roman senate, the witnesses who asserted that they had seen them were called in and examined, and a solemn debate was held on the question what should be done to avert the supernatural influences of evil which the omens expressed. The senate decided to have three days of expiation and sacrifice, during which the whole people of Rome devoted themselves to the religious observances which they thought calculated to appease the wrath of Heaven. They made various offerings and gifts to the different gods, among which one was a golden thunderbolt of fifty pounds' weight, manufactured for Jupiter, whom they considered the thunderer.

All these things took place before the battle at Lake Thrasymene, so that the whole community were in a very feverish state of excitement and anxiety before the news from Flaminius arrived. When these tidings at last came, they threw the whole city into utter consternation. Of course, the messenger went directly to the senate-house to report to the government, but the story that such news had arrived soon spread about the city, and the whole population crowded into the streets and public squares, all eagerly asking for the tidings. An enormous throng assembled before the senate-house calling for information. A public officer appeared at last, and said to them in a loud voice, "We have been defeated in a great battle." He would say no more. Still rumors spread from one to another, until it was generally known throughout the city that Hannibal had conquered the Roman army again in a great battle, that great numbers of the soldiers had fallen or been taken prisoners, and that the consul himself was slain.

The night was passed in great anxiety and terror, and the next day, and for several of the succeeding days, the people gathered in great numbers around the gates, inquiring eagerly for news of every one that came in from the country. Pretty soon scattered soldiers and small bodies of troops began to arrive, bringing with them information of the battle, each one having a different tale to tell, according to his own individual experience in the scene. Whenever these men arrived, the people of the city, and especially the women who had husbands or sons in the army, crowded around them, overwhelming them with questions, and making them tell their tale again and again, as if the intolerable suspense and anxiety of the hearers could not be satisfied. The intelligence was such as in general to confirm and increase the fears of those who listened to it; but sometimes, when it made known the safety of a husband or a son, it produced as much relief and rejoicing as it did in other cases terror and despair. That maternal love was as strong an impulse in those rough days as it is in the more refined and cultivated periods of the present age, is evinced by the fact that two of these Roman mothers, on seeing their sons coming suddenly into their presence, alive and well, when they had heard that they had fallen in battle, were killed at once by the shock of surprise and joy, as if by a blow.

In seasons of great and imminent danger to the commonwealth, it was the custom of the Romans to appoint what they called a dictator, that is, a supreme executive, who was clothed with absolute and unlimited powers; and it devolved on him to save the state from the threatened ruin by the most prompt and energetic action. This case was obviously one of the emergencies requiring such a measure. There was no time for deliberations and debates; for deliberations and debates, in periods of such excitement and danger, become disputes, and end in tumult and uproar. Hannibal was at the head of a victorious army, ravaging the country which he had already conquered, and with no obstacle between him, and the city itself. It was an emergency calling for the appointment of a dictator. The people made choice of a man of great reputation for experience and wisdom, named Fabius, and placed the whole power of the state in his hands. All other authority was suspended, and every thing was subjected to his sway. The whole city, with the life and property of every inhabitant, was placed at his disposal; the army and the fleets were also under his command, even the consuls being subject to his orders.

Fabius accepted the vast responsibility which his election imposed upon him, and immediately began to take the necessary measures. He first made arrangements for performing solemn religious ceremonies, to expiate the omens and propitiate the gods. He brought out all the people in great convocations, and made them take vows, in the most formal and imposing manner, promising offerings and celebrations in honor of the various gods, at some future time, in case these divinities would avert the threatening danger. It is doubtful, however, whether Fabius, in doing these things, really believed that they had any actual efficiency, or whether he resorted to them as a means of calming and quieting the minds of the people, and producing that composure and confidence which always results from a hope of the favor of Heaven. If this last was his object, his conduct was eminently wise.

Fabius, also, immediately ordered a large levy of troops to be made. His second in command, called his master of horse, was directed to make this levy, and to assemble the troops at a place called Tibur, a few miles east of the city. There was always a master of horse appointed to attend upon and second a dictator. The name of this officer in the case of Fabius was Minucius. Minucius was as ardent, prompt, and impetuous, as Fabius was cool, prudent, and calculating. He levied the troops and brought them to their place of rendezvous. Fabius went out to take the command of them. One of the consuls was coming to join him, with a body of troops which he had under his command. Fabius sent word to him that he must come without any of the insignia of his authority, as all his authority, semi-regal as it was in ordinary times, was superseded and overruled in the presence of a dictator. A consul was accustomed to move in great state on all occasions. He was preceded by twelve men, bearing badges and insignia, to impress the army and the people with a sense of the greatness of his dignity. To see, therefore, a consul divested of all these marks of his power, and coming into the dictator's presence as any other officer would come before an acknowledged superior, made the army of Fabius feel a very strong sense of the greatness of their new commander's dignity and power.

Fabius then issued a proclamation, which he sent by proper messengers into all the region of country around Rome, especially to that part toward the territory which was in possession of Hannibal. In this proclamation he ordered all the people to abandon the country and the towns which were not strongly fortified, and to seek shelter in the castles, and forts, and fortified cities. They were commanded, also, to lay waste the country which they should leave, and destroy all the property, and especially all the provisions, which they could not take to their places of refuge. This being done, Fabius placed himself at the head of the forces which he had got together, and moved on, cautiously and with great circumspection, in search of his enemy.

In the mean time, Hannibal had crossed over to the eastern side of Italy, and had passed down, conquering and ravaging the country as he went, until he got considerably south of Rome. He seems to have thought it not quite prudent to advance to the actual attack of the city, after the battle of Lake Thrasymene; for the vast population of Rome was sufficient, if rendered desperate by his actually threatening the capture and pillage of the city, to overwhelm his army entirely. So he moved to the eastward, and advanced on that side until he had passed the city, and thus it happened that Fabius had to march to the southward and eastward in order to meet him. The two armies came in sight of each other quite on the eastern side of Italy, very near the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

The policy which Fabius resolved to adopt was, not to give Hannibal battle, but to watch him, and wear his army out by fatigue and delays. He kept, therefore, near him, but always posted his army on advantageous ground, which all the defiance and provocations of Hannibal could not induce him to leave. When Hannibal moved, which he was soon compelled to do to procure provisions, Fabius would move too, but only to post and intrench himself in some place of security as before. Hannibal did every thing in his power to bring Fabius to battle, but all his efforts were unavailing.

In fact, he himself was at one time in imminent danger. He had got drawn, by Fabius's good management, into a place where he was surrounded by mountains, upon which Fabius had posted his troops, and there was only one defile which offered any egress, and this, too, Fabius had strongly guarded. Hannibal resorted to his usual resource, cunning and stratagem, for means of escape. He collected a herd of oxen. He tied fagots across their horns, filling the fagots with pitch, so as to make them highly combustible. In the night on which he was going to attempt to pass the defile, he ordered his army to be ready to march through, and then had the oxen driven up the hills around on the further side of the Roman detachment which was guarding the pass. The fagots were then lighted on the horns of the oxen. They ran about, frightened and infuriated by the fire, which burned their horns to the quick, and blinded them with the sparks which fell from it. The leaves and branches of the forests were set on fire. A great commotion was thus made, and the guards, seeing the moving lights and hearing the tumult, supposed that the Carthaginian army were upon the heights, and were coming down to attack them. They turned out in great hurry and confusion to meet the imaginary foe, leaving the pass unguarded, and, while they were pursuing the bonfires on the oxen's heads into all sorts of dangerous and impracticable places, Hannibal quietly marched his army through the defile and reached a place of safety.

Although Fabius kept Hannibal employed and prevented his approaching the city, still there soon began to be felt a considerable degree of dissatisfaction that he did not act more decidedly. Minucius was continually urging him to give Hannibal battle, and, not being able to induce him to do so; he was continually expressing his discontent and displeasure. The army sympathized with Minucius. He wrote home to Rome too, complaining bitterly of the dictator's inefficiency. Hannibal learned all this by means of his spies, and other sources of information, which so good a contriver as he has always at command. Hannibal was, of course, very much pleased to hear of these dissensions, and of the unpopularity of Fabius. He considered such an enemy as he—so prudent, cautious, and watchful—as a far more dangerous foe than such bold and impetuous commanders as Flaminius and Minucius, whom he could always entice into difficulty, and then easily conquer.

Hannibal thought he would render Minucius a little help in making Fabius unpopular. He found out from Roman deserters that the dictator possessed a valuable farm in the country, and he sent a detachment of his troops there, with orders to plunder and destroy the property all around it, but to leave the farm of Fabius untouched and in safety. The object was to give to the enemies of Fabius at Rome occasion to say that there was secretly a good understanding between him and Hannibal, and that he was kept back from acting boldly in defense of his country by some corrupt bargain which he had traitorously made with the enemy.

These plans succeeded. Discontent and dissatisfaction spread rapidly, both in the camp and in the city. At Rome they made an urgent demand upon Fabius to return, ostensibly because they wished him to take part in some great religious ceremonies, but really to remove him from the camp, and give Minucius an opportunity to attack Hannibal. They also wished to devise some method, if possible, of depriving him of his power. He had been appointed for six months, and the time had not yet nearly expired; but they wished to shorten, or, if they could not shorten, to limit and diminish his power.

Fabius went to Rome, leaving the army under the orders of Minucius, but commanding him positively not to give Hannibal battle; nor expose his troops to any danger, but to pursue steadily the same policy which he himself had followed. He had, however, been in Rome only a short time before tidings came that Minucius had fought a battle and gained a victory. There were boastful and ostentatious letters from Minucius to the Roman senate, lauding the exploit which he had performed.

Fabius examined carefully the accounts. He compared one thing with another, and satisfied himself of what afterward proved to be the truth, that Minucius had gained no victory at all. He had lost five or six thousand men, and Hannibal had lost no more, and Fabius showed that no advantage had been gained. He urged upon the senate the importance of adhering to the line of policy he had pursued, and the danger of risking every thing, as Minucius had done, on the fortunes of a single battle. Besides, he said, Minucius had disobeyed his orders, which were distinct and positive, and he deserved to be recalled.

In saying these things Fabius irritated and exasperated his enemies more than ever. "Here is a man," said they, "who will not only not fight the enemies whom he is sent against himself, but he will not allow any body else to fight them. Even at this distance, when his second in command has obtained a victory, he will not admit it, and endeavors to curtail the advantages of it. He wishes to protract the war, that he may the longer continue to enjoy the supreme and unlimited authority with which we have entrusted him."

The hostility to Fabius at last reached such a pitch, that it was proposed in an assembly of the people to make Minucius his equal in command. Fabius, having finished the business which called him to Rome, did not wait to attend to the discussion of this question, but left the city, and was proceeding on his way to join the army again, when he was overtaken with a messenger bearing a letter informing him that the decree had passed, and that he must thenceforth consider Minucius as his colleague and equal. Minucius was, of course, extremely elated at this result. "Now," said he, "we will see if something can not be done."

The first question was, however, to decide on what principle and in what way they should share their power. "We can not both command at once," said Minucius. "Let us exercise the power in alternation, each one being in authority for a day, or a week, or a month, or any other period that you prefer."

"No," replied Fabius, "we will not divide the time, we will divide the men. There are four legions. You shall take two of them, and the other two shall be mine. I can thus, perhaps, save half the army from the dangers in which I fear your impetuosity will plunge all whom you have under your command."

This plan was adopted. The army was divided, and each portion went, under its own leader, to its separate encampment. The result was one of the most curious and extraordinary occurrences that is recorded in the history of nations. Hannibal, who was well informed of all these transactions, immediately felt that Minucius was in his power. He knew that he was so eager for battle that it would be easy to entice him into it, under almost any circumstances that he himself might choose to arrange. Accordingly, he watched his opportunity when there was a good place for an ambuscade near Minucius's camp, and lodged five thousand men in it in such a manner that they were concealed by rocks and other obstructions to the view. There was a hill between this ground and the camp of Minucius. When the ambuscade was ready, Hannibal sent up a small force to take possession of the top of the hill anticipating that Minucius would at once send up a stronger force to drive them away. He did so. Hannibal then sent up more as a re-enforcement. Minucius, whose spirit and pride were now aroused, sent up more still, and thus, by degrees, Hannibal drew out his enemy's whole force, and then, ordering his own troops to retreat before them, the Romans were drawn on, down the hill, till they were surrounded by the ambuscade. These hidden troops then came pouring out upon them, and in a short time the Romans were thrown into utter confusion, flying in all directions before their enemies, and entirely at their mercy.

All would have been irretrievably lost had it not been for the interposition of Fabius. He received intelligence of the danger at his own camp, and marched out at once with all his force, and arrived upon the ground so opportunely, and acted so efficiently, that he at once completely changed the fortune of the day. He saved Minucius and his half of the army from utter destruction. The Carthaginians retreated in their turn, Hannibal being entirely overwhelmed with disappointment and vexation at being thus deprived of his prey. History relates that Minucius had the candor and good sense, after this, to acknowledge his error, and yield to the guidance and direction of Fabius. He called his part of the army together when they reached their camp, and addressed them thus: "Fellow-soldiers, I have often heard it said that the wisest men are those who possess wisdom and sagacity themselves, and, next to them, those who know how to perceive and are willing to be guided by the wisdom and sagacity of others; while they are fools who do not know how to conduct themselves, and will not be guided by those who do. We will not belong to this last class; and since it is proved that we are not entitled to rank with the first, let us join the second. We will march to the camp of Fabius, and join our camp with his, as before. We owe to him, and also to all his portion of the army, our eternal gratitude for the nobleness of spirit which he manifested in coming to our deliverance, when he might so justly have left us to ourselves."

The two legions repaired, accordingly, to the camp of Fabius, and a complete and permanent reconciliation took place between the two divisions of the army. Fabius rose very high in the general esteem by this transaction. The term of his dictatorship, however, expired soon after this, and as the danger from Hannibal was now less imminent, the office was not renewed, but consuls were chosen as before.

The character of Fabius has been regarded with the highest admiration by all mankind. He evinced a very noble spirit in all that he did. One of his last acts was a very striking proof of this. He had bargained with Hannibal to pay a certain sum of money as ransom for a number of prisoners which had fallen into his hands, and whom Hannibal, on the faith of that promise, had released. Fabius believed that the Romans would readily ratify the treaty and pay the amount; but they demurred, being displeased, or pretending to be displeased, because Fabius had not consulted them before making the arrangement. Fabius, in order to preserve his own and his country's faith unsullied, sold his farm to raise the money. He did thus most certainly protect and vindicate his own honor, but he can hardly be said to have saved that of the people of Rome.

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