Text #9579"Fabius Maximus", in .
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator (c. 280 BC – 203 BC) was a Roman politician and general, who was born in Rome around 280 BC and died in Rome in 203 BC. He was a Roman Consul five times (233 BC, 228 BC, 215 BC, 214 BC and 209 BC) and was twice appointed Dictator, in 221 and again in 217 BC. He reached the office of Roman Censor in 230 BC. His agnomen Cunctator (cognate to the English noun cunctation) means “delayer” in Latin, and refers to his strategy in deploying troops during the Second Punic War. He is widely regarded as the father of guerrilla warfare due to his, at the time, novel strategy of targeting enemy supply lines in light of being largely outnumbered. His cognomen Verrucosus means “warty”, a reference to a wart above his upper lip.
Descended from the ancient patrician gens Fabii, he was the son of Quintus Fabius Maximus Gurges, a grandson of another Quintus Fabius Maximus Gurges and a great-grandson of Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus, all famous Consuls. According to Fabius’ biographer Plutarch, Fabius possessed a mild temper and slowness in speaking. As a child, he had difficulties in learning, which was perceived by other children to be a sign of inferiority. However, according to Plutarch, these traits proceeded from stability, greatness of mind, and lion-likeness of temper. According to accounts, by the time he reached adulthood, his virtues exerted themselves, and his slowness was revealed to be a symptom of his energy, passion, prudence, and firmness. During his first consulship, he was awarded a triumph for his victory over the Ligurians, a tribe of Gauls, whom he had defeated and then driven into the Alps. He might have participated in the First Punic War, the first of three wars fought between the Roman Republic and Ancient Carthage, although no details of his role are known. After the end of the war, he rapidly advanced his political career. He served twice as a Roman Consul and as a Roman Censor. In 218 BC, he took part in the embassy to Carthage. It was, according to Livy, Fabius himself who formally declared war on the Carthaginian Senate after the capture of Saguntum by Hannibal. However, it is likely that this is untrue and could very well have been Fabius Buteo, his kinsman.
When the Consul Gaius Flaminius was killed during the disastrous Roman defeat at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, panic swept Rome. With Consular armies destroyed in two major battles, and Hannibal approaching Rome’s gates, the Romans feared the imminent destruction of their city. The Roman Senate decided to appoint a Roman Dictator, and chose Fabius for the role, in part due to his advanced age and experience. As Dictator, he did not get to appoint his own Master of the Horse; instead, the Romans chose a political enemy, Marcus Minucius. Then Fabius quickly sought to calm the Roman people by asserting himself as a strong Dictator at the moment of what was perceived to be the worst crisis in Roman history. He asked the Senate to allow him to ride on horseback, which Dictators were never allowed to do. He then caused himself to be accompanied by the full complement of twenty-four lictors, and ordered the surviving Consul, Gnaeus Servilius Geminus, to dismiss his lictors (in essence, surrendering his office), and to present himself before Fabius as a private citizen.
Plutarch tells us that Fabius believed that the disaster at Lake Trasimene was due, in part, to the fact that the gods had become neglected. Before that battle, a series of omens had been witnessed, including a series of lightning bolts, which Fabius had believed were warnings from the gods. He had warned Flaminius of this, but Flaminius had ignored the warnings. And so Fabius, as Dictator, next sought to please the gods. He ordered a massive sacrifice of the whole product of the next harvest season throughout Italy, in particular that of cows, goats, swine, and sheep. In addition, he ordered that musical festivities be celebrated, and then told his fellow citizens to each spend a precise sum of 333 sestertii and 333 denarii. Plutarch isn’t sure exactly how Fabius came up with this number, although he believes it was to honor of the perfection of the number three, as it is the first of the odd numbers, and one of the first of the prime numbers. It is not known if Fabius truly believed that these actions had won the gods over to the Roman side, although the actions probably did (as intended) convince the average Roman that the gods had finally been won over.
Fabius was well aware of the Carthaginian military superiority, and so refused to meet Hannibal in a pitched battle. Instead, he kept his troops close to Hannibal, hoping to exhaust him in a long war of attrition. Fabius was able to harass the Carthaginian foraging parties, limiting Hannibal’s ability to wreak destruction, while conserving his own military force. The delaying tactics involved not directly engaging Hannibal, while also exercising a “scorched earth” practice to prevent Hannibal’s forces from obtaining grain and other resources.
The Romans were unimpressed with this defensive strategy and at first gave Fabius his epithet Cunctator as an insult. The strategy was in part ruined because of a lack of unity in the command of the Roman army, since Fabius’ Master of the Horse, Minucius, was a political enemy of Fabius. **At one point, Fabius was called by the priests to assist with certain sacrifices, and as such, Fabius left the command of the army in the hands of Minucius during his absence. Fabius had told Minucius not to attack Hannibal in his absence, but Minucius disobeyed and attacked anyway. The attack, though of no strategic value, resulted in the retreat of several enemy units, and so the Roman people, desperate for good news, believed Minucius to be a hero. On hearing of this, Fabius became enraged, and, as Dictator, could have ordered Minucius’ execution for his disobedience. One of the Plebeian Tribunes (chief representatives of the people) for the year, Metilius, was a partisan of Minucius, and as such he sought to use his power to help Minucius. **The Plebeian Tribunes were the only magistrates independent of the Dictator, and so with his protection, Minucius was relatively safe. Plutarch states that Metilius “boldly applied himself to the people in the behalf of Minucius”, and had Minucius granted powers equivalent to those of Fabius. By this, Plutarch probably means that as a Plebeian Tribune, Metilius had the Plebeian Council, a popular assembly which only Tribunes could preside over, grant Minucius quasi-dictatorial powers.
Fabius did not attempt to fight the promotion of Minucius, but rather decided to wait until Minucius’ rashness caused him to run headlong into some disaster. He realized what would happen when Minucius was defeated in battle by Hannibal. Fabius, we are told, reminded Minucius that it was Hannibal, and not he, who was the enemy. Minucius proposed that they share the joint control of the army, with command rotating between the two every other day. Fabius rejected this, and instead let Minucius command half of the army, while he commanded the other half. Minucius openly claimed that Fabius was cowardly because he failed to confront the Carthaginian forces. Near the present-day town of Larino in the Molise (then called Larinum), Hannibal had taken up position in a town called Gerione. In the valley between Larino and Gerione, Minucius decided to make a broad frontal attack on Hannibal’s troops. Several thousand men were involved on either side. It appeared that the Roman troops were winning, but Hannibal had set a trap. Soon the Roman troops were being slaughtered. Upon seeing the ambush of Minucius’ army, Fabius cried “O Hercules! how much sooner than I expected, though later than he seemed to desire, hath Minucius destroyed himself!” On ordering his army to join the battle and rescue their fellow Romans, Fabius exclaimed “We must make haste to rescue Minucius, who is a valiant man, and a lover of his country.”
Fabius rushed to his co-commander’s assistance and Hannibal’s forces immediately retreated. After the battle, there was some feeling that there would be conflict between Minucius and Fabius; however, the younger soldier marched his men to Fabius’ encampment and is reported to have said, “My father gave me life. Today you saved my life. You are my second father. I recognize your superior abilities as a commander.” It was only after Fabius had saved him from an attack by Hannibal that Minucius placed himself under Fabius’ command. When Fabius’ term as Dictator ended, Consular government was restored, and Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Marcus Atilius Regulus assumed the Consulship for the remainder of the year.
Shortly after Fabius had laid down his dictatorship, Gaius Terentius Varro was elected as a Consul. He rallied the people, through the Roman assemblies, and won their support for his plan to abandon Fabius’ strategy, and engage Hannibal directly. Varro’s rashness did not surprise Fabius, but when Fabius learned of the size of the army (eighty-eight thousand soldiers) that Varro had raised, he became quite concerned. Unlike the losses that had been suffered by Minucius, a major loss by Varro had the potential to kill so many soldiers that Rome might have had no further resources with which to continue the war. Fabius had warned the other Consul for the year, Aemilius Paullus, to make sure that Varro remained unable to directly engage Hannibal. According to Plutarch, Paullus replied to Fabius that he feared the votes in Rome more than Hannibal’s army.
When word reached Rome of the disastrous Roman defeat under Varro and Paullus at the Battle of Cannae, the Senate and the People of Rome turned to Fabius for guidance. They had believed his strategy to be flawed before, but now they thought him to be as wise as the gods. He walked the streets of Rome, assured as to eventual Roman victory, in an attempt to comfort his fellow Romans. Without his support, the senate might have remained too frightened to even meet. He placed guards at the gates of the city to stop the frightened Romans from fleeing, and regulated mourning activities. He set times and places for this mourning, and ordered that each family perform such observances within their own private walls, and that the mourning should be complete within a month; following the completion of these mourning rituals, the entire city was purified of its blood-guilt in the deaths. This decree effectively outlawed competitive outdoor mourning, which could have had a devastating psychological impact on the survivors.
Cunctator became an honorific title, and his delaying tactic was followed for the rest of the war. Fabius’ own military success was small, aside from the reconquest of Tarentum in 209 BC. For this victory, Plutarch tells us, he was awarded a second triumph that was even more splendid than the first. When Marcus Livius Macatus, the governor of Tarentum, claimed the merit of recovering the town, Fabius rejoined, “Certainly, had you not lost it, I would have never retaken it.” After serving as Dictator, he served as a Consul twice more (in 215 BC and 214 BC), and for a fifth time in 209 BC. He was also Chief Augur (at a very young age) and Pontifex, but never Pontifex Maximus according to Gaius Stern (citing Livy on Fabius). The holding of seats in the two highest colleges was not repeated until either Julius Caesar or possibly Sulla.
In the senate, he opposed the young and ambitious Scipio Africanus, who wanted to carry the war to Africa. Fabius continued to argue that confronting Hannibal directly was too dangerous. Scipio planned to take Roman forces to Carthage itself and force Hannibal to return to Africa to defend the city. Scipio was eventually given limited approval, despite continuous opposition from Fabius, who blocked levies and restricted Scipio’s access to troops. Fabius wished to ensure that sufficient forces remained to defend Roman territory if Scipio was defeated. Fabius became gravely ill and died in 203 BC, shortly after Hannibal’s army left Italy, and before the eventual Roman victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama won by Scipio.
Later, he became a legendary figure and the model of a tough, courageous Roman, and was bestowed the honorific title, “The Shield of Rome” (similar to Marcus Claudius Marcellus being named the “Sword of Rome”). According to Ennius, unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem – “one man, by delaying, restored the state to us.” Virgil, in the Aeneid, has Aeneas’ father Anchises mention Fabius Maximus while in Hades as the greatest of the many great Fabii, quoting the same line. While Hannibal is mentioned in the company of history’s greatest generals, military professionals have bestowed Fabius’ name on an entire strategic doctrine known as “Fabian strategy”, and George Washington has been called “the American Fabius.”
According to its own ancient legend, the Roman princely family of Massimo descends from Fabius Maximus.
Plutarch Makers of Rome translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert 1965, Penguin Books, London, England.
Livy The War with Hannibal translated by Aubrey de Selincourt 1974, Penguin Books, London, England.
De Beer, Sir Gavin (1969). Hannibal Challenging Rome’s Supremacy. New York: Viking Press.
Lamb, Harold (1958). Hannibal One Man Against Rome. New York: Doubleday.
Scullard, H.H. (1981). Roman politics : 220–150 BC. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-23296-2.