May 13, 2011


Hannibal at bay: It is hard to see past the mistakes and inconsistencies in Livy's account of the Hannibalic War (Mary Beard, May 11, 2011, The Times Literary Supplement)

The British Fabian Society takes its name from the Roman soldier and politician Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. He may seem an unlikely patron for a society of intellectual socialists. Born into one of the most aristocratic families of ancient Rome, Fabius is not known for his sympathy for the poor. It was his tactics in the war against Hannibal that inspired the society’s founders in the 1880s.

During that war Rome was brought to the brink of disaster thanks to a series of rash and inexperienced generals who insisted on engaging the Carthaginians head on, with terrible consequences. The Battle of Cannae in 216 BC was the worst: our best estimates suggest that some 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed (making it, as Robert Garland puts in his brisk new biography, Hannibal, a bloodbath on the scale of Gettysburg or the first day of the Somme). When Fabius held command, he took a different course. Instead of meeting Hannibal in pitched battle, he played a clever waiting game, harrying the enemy in guerrilla warfare, and scorching the earth of Italy (burning the crops, the homes and the hideouts); the strategy was to wear Hannibal down and deprive him of food for his vast army. Hence his later nickname “Cunctator”, the “Delayer”.

This was exactly the waiting game that these late Victorian “Fabian” socialists intended to play against capitalism: nothing so rash (or uncomfortable) as revolution, but a gradual process of attrition, until the time was ripe for change. As Frank Podmore (whose idea the name “Fabian” was) wrote: “For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently when warring against Hannibal”.

Many more people in the 1880s than now would have known the name of Fabius Maximus. But even then he did not match the popular renown of Hannibal, who so nearly managed to defeat the invincible power of Rome – and who pulled off the famous, if pointless, stunt of bringing his elephants across the snowy Alps. As Garland observes, in a nice chapter on “Afterlife”, it has always been Hannibal’s military tactics, especially at Cannae, that have intrigued modern generals (although George Washington did opt for a Fabian plan at the start of the American War of Independence). And it is Hannibal not Fabius who has become the subject of novels, operas and movies. In fact, just as the popular mythology of King Canute has turned him from a wise man who was concerned to demonstrate his inability to control nature into a fool who thought he could turn back the waves, so the nineteenth-century mythology of Fabius often made him a frightful ditherer rather than a sophisticated strategist. “Cunctator” could mean “slowcoach” or “procrastinator” just as well as “canny delayer”.

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Posted by at May 13, 2011 5:13 AM

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