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Fabius Maximus Cunctator

(c. 280 - 203 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Fabius Maximus Cunctator

Quintus Fabius Maximus was born around 280 BCE in Rome as Quintus Fabius Maximus. He was a Roman politician and leader; five times the consul (233, 228, 215, 214 and 209 BCE) and twice the dictator (in 221 and again in 217 BCE). He was later given two nicknames. The nickname Verrucosus means “covered with warts” because of warts above his upper lip. The second nickname Cunctator (“procrastinator”) was derived from his strategy of deploying troops during the Second Punic War.

Fabius came from one of the oldest patrician families, but he did not have a significant fortune. According to the opinion of his contemporaries, he was not a brilliant one – he was called ovicula (“sheep”). He commanded the expedition against the Ligurians – he was so successful there that he was awarded a triumph. This war was of decisive importance for shaping Maximus’ approach to strategy and tactics – fighting an enemy practising guerrilla warfare, who uses a surprise attack on a daily basis, taught him to be cautious and to strive to achieve a situation in which the commander has the freedom to choose the place and time of the battle.
Fabius Maximus also held important state offices in Rome. In 233 and 228 BCE he was a consul and in 230 he was a censor.

Hannibal in Italy

218 BCE was a tragic year in the history of Rome. Hannibal’s army crossed the Alps. Carthaginians swept the Italian cavalry over the Ticinus River and forced Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio to withdraw, shortly thereafter on Trebia, the Roman troops under the command of both consuls at the time (the second was Sempronius Longus) were left defeated – out of 40,000 legionaries, 10,000 survived. The following year started just as badly – Hannibal inflicted a devastating defeat on Gaius Flamini’s army on Lake Trasimeno. In 217 BCE the road to Rome was opened. In this catastrophic situation, the Senate decided to take the final step – it appointed a dictator. It was Quintus Fabius Maximus.

He decided to avoid an open clash with Hannibal’s army, waging a war of exhaustion with the Carthaginians. Fabius Maximus, after celebrating the customary religious rites that Flaminius ignored, took command of a strong, 40,000-strong, but an inexperienced army. He knew perfectly well that he could not risk a battle with demoralized soldiers and inexperienced youngsters. He followed Hannibal to Puglia, where he began harassing actions – he avoided decisive clashes, destroyed supply lines, engaging only in minor skirmishes, in which he emerged victoriously. These small successes strengthened the morale of the Roman military. Soon, thanks to the actions of Maximus, it was possible to surround Hannibal’s army in Campania – a wealthy province full of vineyards that the Carthaginian commander destroyed without mercy (a clever trick on the part of the cunning Punijczyk was to deliberately save the Roman dictator’s property, which strongly undermined Maximus’s position in the Senate). Roman troops blocked the gate of Campania – the mountain pass. Hannibal became a prisoner with the army. The defeat of the Carthaginians was dismissed by their leader – with the help of a trick. Hannibal’s army was followed by great herds of prey cattle – now it was used as a battering ram to break a Roman blockade – brilliantly in its simplicity – flaming torches were tied to the horns of some two thousand oxen and led straight to a closed mountain pass at night. There was a gigantic confusion – Fabius did not risk the night fight (he was called Cunctator or the Procrastinator for a reason). Hannibal saved his army by severely humiliating Maximus.

The situation returned to its starting point – Hannibal marched through Italy and Fabius Maximus continued to follow him, faithful to his tactics. There was growing impatience in Rome – not such effects the citizens expected from the rule of their dictator. The people demanded spectacular success. Additional problems Cunctator had due to his magister equitum (the dictator usually had an “assistant” who acted as deputy commander) Marcus Minucius – who did not share the views of his commander. When Maximus left the ranks of the army and went to Rome due to the religious rites which he scrupulously followed as a conservative, Minucius Rufus took advantage of the situation and went into offensive action. When Hannibal captured the city of Gerundium in Luceria, he made the mistake of allowing his army to be dispersed to obtain supplies for the coming winter. Marcus Minucius attacked – and won. Enthusiasm exploded in Rome. The Senate appointed Minucius an equal commander to Maximus – the dictatorship was again replaced by the power of two consuls. When Cunctator returned from the capital, the army was separated, two separate camps were broken up (Fabius rejected the option of command alternately – every other day). However, the conflict was not good for Minucius. Soon he was ambushed by Hannibal. His recent superior saved him – as a result, Minucius re-recognized Maximus’s sovereignty.

When the six-month period of dictatorship ended – Fabius resigned from his office. The goal of his dictatorship was achieved. Rome was safe. The republic gained time to prepare for a general deal with Carthage. Unfortunately, Cunctator’s rational plan lost its popularity – the Senate decided that the manoeuvre time was over and we should strive for the fastest possible victory. Power over the army was taken over by politicians without much military experience. Success was to be ensured by the largest army that was established in the history of the republic. We know perfectly well how it ended – the Cannas were a shock to the Romans. An army of over 50,000 people practically ceased to exist.

Hannibal counting Roman rings
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.
Hannibal counting Roman rings equites killed during the battle.

Fabius Maximus after Kanna he played one of the leading roles in overcoming the crisis. In 215 BCE he became a consul along with another talented legion commander Marcus Claudius Marcellus – famous for the great victory over the Gauls at Clastidium (Cunctator replaced Postumius Albinus, who was killed in Transalpine Gaul). In this bitter moment, for all Romans, he could feel a certain kind of satisfaction – the course of events agreed with Fabius’ strategy.

The defeat caused enormous mobilization in Rome. A heroic effort was made to recreate the army – in a size that exceeded any mobilization achievements to date. New taxes were passed to support these efforts. The abandoned tactics of Maximus was returned – to avoid a clash with Hannibal, at the same time trying to destroy smaller enemy groups, systematically deal with treacherous Italian allies – an example may be the deal with Capua, who entered into an agreement with the Punics (211 BCE). The tandem Fabius Maximus – Marcus Marcellus – perfectly complementing each other and working well, he was successful – it brought the best results when conquering the city of Casilinum in 214 BCE. Maximus gained the name of the “Shield of Rome” and Marcellus the “Sword of Rome” due to their different disposition – but these two, despite their differences in the approach to the art of war, were able to perfectly complement each other.

In 209 BCE Fabius Maximus Cunctator commanded the army for the last time (during his fifth consulate) – he won another victory by winning Taranto as a result of consistent and systematic action, which he became famous throughout his career as a Roman leader. He died around 203 BCE. Fabius Maximus was a representative of the generation that led the Republic through the hardest years of the Second Punic War. He did not have the genius of Alexander or Caesar, but he could find an effective way to succeed in the war with the great Hannibal. He made a decisive contribution to saving his country. Thanks to the ineffective victories of Fabius, it was possible to defeat the Carthaginians over Metaurus and at Zama. However, as an advocate of cautious and defensive tactics, he later unsuccessfully opposed Scipio’s plans for a new offensive and the transfer of hostilities to Africa.

He died in 203 BCE in Rome, as the one who saved Rome from tragedy.

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