Plutarch’s Lives Volume 4, Plutarch
Plutarch’s Lives Volume 4
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Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans is a series of 48 biographies of famous men, arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, probably written at the beginning of the second century AD. The surviving Parallel Lives comprises 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman of similar destiny, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, or Demosthenes and Cicero. It is a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived.

Plutarch’s Lives Volume 4

Roman Lives Part 2


The Life of Fabius Maximus

1 Such were the memorable things in the career of Pericles, as we have received them, and now let us change the course of our narrative and tell of Fabius. It was a nymph, they say, or a woman native to the country, according to others, who consorted with Hercules by the river Tiber, and became by him the mother of Fabius, the founder of the family of the Fabii, which was a large one, and of high repute in Rome. But some writers state that the first members of the family were called Fodii in ancient times, from their practice of taking wild beasts in pitfalls. For down to the present time “fossae” is the Latin for ditches, and “fodere” for to dig. In course of time, by a change of two letters, they were called Fabii. This family produced many great men, and from Rullus, the greatest of them, and on this account called Maximus by the Romans, the Fabius Maximus of whom we now write was fourth in descent.

He had the surname of Verrucosus from a physical peculiarity, namely, a small wart growing above his lip: and that of Ovicula, which signifies Lambkin, was given him because of the gentleness and gravity of his nature when he was yet a child. Indeed, the calmness and silence of his demeanour, the great caution with which he indulged in childish pleasures, the slowness and difficulty with which he learned his lessons, and his contented submissiveness in dealing with his comrades, led those who knew him superficially to suspect him of something like foolishness and stupidity. Only a few discerned the inexorable firmness in the depth of his soul, and the magnanimous and leonine qualities of his nature. But soon, as time went on and he was roused by the demands of active life, he made it clear even to the multitude that his seeming lack of energy was only lack of passion, that his caution was prudence, and that his never being quick nor even easy to move made him always steadfast and sure. He saw that the conduct of the state was a great task, and that wars must be many; he therefore trained his body for the wars (nature’s own armour, as it were), and his speech as an instrument of persuasion with the people, giving it a form right well befitting his manner of life. For it had no affectation, nor any empty, forensic grace, but an import of peculiar dignity, rendered weighty by an abundance of maxims. These, they say, most resembled those which Thucydides employs. And a speech of his is actually preserved, which was pronounced by him before the people in eulogy of his son, who died consul.

2 The first of the five consulships in which he served brought him the honour of a triumph over the Ligurians. These were defeated by him in battle, with heavy loss, and retired into the Alps, where they ceased plundering and harrying the parts of Italy next to them. But Hannibal now burst into Italy, and was at first victorious in battle at the river Trebia. Then he marched through Tuscany, ravaging the country, and smote Rome with dire consternation and fear. Signs and portents occurred, some familiar to the Romans, like peals of thunder, others wholly strange and quite extraordinary. For instance, it was said that shields sweated blood, that ears of corn were cut at Antium with blood upon them, that blazing, fiery stones fell from on high, and that the people of Falerii saw the heavens open and many tablets fall down and scatter themselves abroad, and that on one of these was written in letters plain to see, “Mars now brandisheth his weapons.” The consul, Gaius Flaminius, was daunted by none of these things, for he was a man of a fiery and ambitious nature, and besides, he was elated by great successes which he had won before this, in a manner contrary to all expectation. He had, namely, although the senate dissented from his plan, and his colleague violently opposed it, joined battle with the Gauls and defeated them. Fabius also was less disturbed by the signs and portents, because he thought it would be absurd, although they had great effect upon many. But when he learned how few in number the enemy were, and how great was their lack of resources, he exhorted the Romans to bide their time, and not to give battle to a man who wielded an army trained by many contests for this very issue, but to send aid to their allies, to keep their subject cities well in hand, and to suffer the culminating vigour of Hannibal to sink and expire of itself, like a flame that flares up from scant and slight material.

3 Flaminius, however, was not persuaded, but declared that he would not suffer the war to be brought near Rome, and that he would not, like Camillus of old, fight in the city for the city’s defence. Accordingly, he ordered the tribunes to lead the army forth. But as Flaminius himself sprang upon his horse, for no apparent reason, and unaccountably, the animal was seized with quivering fright, and he was thrown and fell head foremost to the ground. Nevertheless, he in no wise desisted from his purpose, but since he had set out at the beginning to face Hannibal, drew up his forces near the lake called Thrasymené, in Tuscany.​

When the soldiers of both armies had engaged, at the very crisis of the battle, an earthquake occurred, by which cities were overthrown, rivers diverted from their channels, and fragments of cliffs torn away. And yet, although the disaster was so violent, no one of the combatants noticed it at all. Flaminius himself, then, while displaying many deeds of daring and prowess, fell, and round about him the flower of his army. The rest were routed with much slaughter. Fifteen thousand were cut to pieces, and as many more taken prisoners. The body of Flaminius, to which Hannibal was eager to give honourable burial because of his valour, could not be found among the dead, but disappeared, no one ever knowing how.

Now of the defeat sustained at the Trebia, neither the general who wrote nor the messenger who was sent with the tidings gave a straightforward account, the victory being falsely declared uncertain and doubtful; but as soon as Pomponius the praetor heard of this second defeat, he called an assembly of the people, faced it, and without roundabout or deceptive phrases, but in downright fashion, said: “Men of Rome, we have been beaten in a great battle; our army has been cut to pieces; our consul, Flaminius, is dead. Take ye therefore counsel for your own salvation and safety.” This speech of his fell like a tempest upon the great sea of people before him, and threw the city into commotion, nor could deliberate reasoning hold its own and stay the general consternation. But all were brought at last to be of one mind, namely, that the situation demanded a sole and absolute authority, which they call a dictatorship, and a man who would wield this authority with energy and without fear; that Fabius Maximus, and he alone, was such a man, having a spirit and a dignity of hand that fully matched the greatness of the office, and being moreover at the time of life when bodily vigour still suffices to carry out the counsels of the mind, and courage is tempered with prudence.

4 Accordingly, this course was adopted, and Fabius was appointed dictator. He himself appointed Marcus Minucius to be his Master of Horse, and then at once asked permission of the senate to use a horse himself when in the field. For this was not his right, but was forbidden by an ancient law, either because the Romans placed their greatest strength in their infantry, and for this reason thought that their command ought to be with the phalanx and not leave it; or because they wished, since the power of the office in all other respects is as great as that of a tyrant, that in this point at least the dictator should be plainly dependent on the people. However, Fabius himself was minded to show forth at once the magnitude and grandeur of his office, that the citizens might be more submissive and obedient to his commands. He therefore appeared in public attended by a united band of twenty-four lictors with their fasces, and when the remaining consul was coming to meet him, sent his adjutant to him with orders to dismiss his lictors, lay aside the insignia of his office, and meet him as a private person.

After this, he began with the gods, which is the fairest of all beginnings, and showed the people that the recent disaster was due to the neglect and scorn with which their general had treated religious rites, and not to the cowardice of those who fought under him. He thus induced them, instead of fearing their enemies, to propitiate and honour the gods. It was not that he filled them with superstition, but rather that he emboldened their valour with piety, allaying and removing the fear which their enemies inspired, with hopes of aid from the gods. At this time, moreover, many of the so‑called Sibylline books, containing secrets of service to the state, were consulted, and it is said that some of the oracular sayings therein preserved corresponded with the fortunes and events of the time. What was thus ascertained, however, could not be made public, but the dictator, in the presence of all the people, vowed to sacrifice to the gods an entire year’s increase in goats, swine, sheep, and cattle, that is, all that Italy’s mountains, plains, rivers, and meadows should breed in the coming spring. He likewise vowed to celebrate a musical and dramatic festival in honour of the gods, which should cost three hundred and thirty-three sestertia, plus three hundred and thirty-three denarii, plus one third of a denarius. This sum, in Greek money, amounts to eighty-three thousand five hundred and eighty-three drachmas, plus two obols. Now the reason for the exact prescription of this particular number is hard to give, unless it was thereby desired to laud the power of the number three, as being a perfect number by nature, the first of odd numbers, the beginning of quantity, and as containing in itself the first differences and the elements of every number mingled and blended together.

5 By thus fixing the thoughts of the people upon their relations with Heaven, Fabius made them more cheerful regarding the future. But he himself put all his hopes of victory in himself, believing that Heaven bestowed success by reason of wisdom and valour, and turned his attentions to Hannibal. He did not purpose to fight out the issue with him, but wished, having plenty of time, money, and men, to wear out and consume gradually his culminating vigour, his scanty resources, and his small army. Therefore, always pitching his camp in hilly regions so as to be out of reach of the enemy’s cavalry, he hung threateningly over them. If they sat still, he too kept quiet; but if they moved, he would fetch a circuit down from the heights and show himself just far enough away to avoid being forced to fight against his will, and yet near enough to make his very delays inspire the enemy with the fear that he was going to give battle at last. But for merely consuming time in this way he was generally despised by his countrymen, and roundly abused even in his own camp. Much more did his enemies think him a man of no courage and a mere nobody, — all except Hannibal. He, and he alone, comprehended the cleverness of his antagonist, and the style of warfare which he had adopted. He therefore made up his mind that by every possible device and constraint his foe must be induced to fight, or else the Carthaginians were undone, since they were unable to use their weapons, in which they were superior, but were slowly losing and expending to no purpose their men and moneys, in which they were inferior. He therefore resorted to every species of strategic trick and artifice, and tried them all, seeking, like a clever athlete, to get a hold upon his adversary. Now he would attack Fabius directly, now he would seek to throw his forces into confusion, now he would try to lead him off every whither, in his desire to divorce him from his safe, defensive plans.

But the purpose of Fabius, confident of a favourable issue, remained consistent and unchangeable. He was annoyed, however, by his Master of Horse, Minucius, who was eager to fight all out of season, and over bold, and who sought to win a following in the army, which he filled with mad impetuosity and empty hopes. The soldiers railed at Fabius and scornfully called him Hannibal’s pedagogue; but Minucius they considered a great man, and a general worthy of Rome. All the more therefore did he indulge his arrogance and boldness, and scoffed at their encampments on the heights, where, as he said, the dictator was always arranging beautiful theatres for their spectacle of Italy laid waste with fire and sword. And he would ask the friends of Fabius whether he was taking his army up into heaven, having lost all hope of earth, or whether he wrapped himself in clouds and mists merely to run away from the enemy. When his friends reported this to Fabius, and advised him to do away with the opprobrium by risking battle, “In that case, surely,” said he, “I should be a greater coward than I am now held to be, if through fear of abusive jests I should abandon my fixed plans. And verily the fear which one exercises in behalf of his country is not shameful; but to be frightened from one’s course by the opinions of men, and by their slanderous censures, that marks a man unworthy of so high an office as this, who makes himself the slave of the fools over whom he is in duty bound to be lord and master.”

6 After this, Hannibal fell into a grievous error. He wished to draw his army off some distance beyond Fabius, and occupy plains affording pasturage. He therefore ordered his native guides to conduct him, immediately after supper, into the district of Casinum. But they did not hear the name correctly, owing to his foreign way of pronouncing it, and promptly hurried his forces to the edge of Campania, into the city and district of Casilinum, through the midst of which flows a dividing river, called Vulturnus by the Romans. The region is otherwise encompassed by mountains, but a narrow defile opens out towards the sea, in the vicinity of which it becomes marshy, from the overflow of the river, has high sand-heaps, and terminates in a beach where there is no anchorage because of the dashing waves. While Hannibal was descending into this valley, Fabius, taking advantage of his acquaintance with the ways, marched round him, and blocked up the narrow outlet with a detachment of four thousand heavy infantry. The rest of his army he posted to advantage on the remaining heights, while with the lightest and readiest of his troops he fell upon the enemy’s rear-guard, threw their whole army into confusion, and slew about eight hundred of them. Hannibal now perceived the mistake in his position, and its peril, and crucified the native guides who were responsible for it. He wished to effect a retreat, but despaired of dislodging his enemies by direct attack from the passes of which they were masters. All his men, moreover, were disheartened and fearful, thinking that they were surrounded on all sides by difficulties from which there was no escape. He therefore determined to cheat his enemies by a trick, the nature of which was as follows.

He gave orders to take about two thousand of the cattle which they had captured, fasten to each of their horns a torch consisting of a bundle of withes or faggots, and then, in the night, at a given signal, to light the torches and drive the cattle towards the passes, along the defiles guarded by the enemy. As soon as his orders had been obeyed, he decamped with the rest of his army, in the darkness which had now come, and led it slowly along. The cattle, as long as the fire was slight, and consumed only the wood, went on quietly, as they were driven, towards the slopes of the mountains, and the shepherds and herdsmen who looked down from the heights were amazed at the flames gleaming on the tips of their horns. They thought an army was marching in close array by the light of many torches. But when the torches had been burned down to the roots, and the live flesh felt the flames, and the cattle, at the pain, shook and tossed their heads, and so covered one another with quantities of fire, then they kept no order in their going, but, in terror and anguish, went dashing down the mountains, their foreheads and tails ablaze, and setting fire also to much of the forest through which they fled. It was, of course, a fearful spectacle to the Romans guarding the passes. For the flames seemed to come from torches in the hands of men who were running hither and thither with them. They were therefore in great commotion and fear, believing that the enemy were advancing upon them from all quarters and surrounding them on every side. Therefore they had not the courage to hold their posts, but withdrew to the main body of the army on the heights, and abandoned the defiles. Instantly the light-armed troops of Hannibal came up and took possession of the passes, and the rest of his forces presently joined them without any fear, although heavily encumbered with much spoil.

7 It was still night when Fabius became aware of the ruse, for some of the cattle, in their random flight, were captured by his men; but he was afraid of ambushes in the darkness, and so kept still, with his forces under arms. When it was day, however, he pursued the enemy, and hung upon their rear-guard, and there was hand-to‑hand fighting over difficult ground, and much tumult and confusion. At last Hannibal sent back from his van a body of Spaniards, — nimble, light-footed men, and good mountaineers, who fell upon the heavy-armed Roman infantry, cut many of them to pieces, and forced Fabius to turn back. And now more than ever was Fabius the mark for scorn and abuse. He had renounced all bold and open fighting, with the idea of conquering Hannibal by the exercise of superior judgment and foresight, and now he was clearly vanquished himself by these very qualities in his foes, and out-generalled.

Hannibal, moreover, wishing to inflame still more the wrath of the Romans against Fabius, on coming to his fields, gave orders to burn and destroy everything else, but had these spared, and these alone. He also set a guard over them, which suffered no harm to be done them, and nothing to be taken from them. When this was reported at Rome, it brought more odium upon Fabius. The tribunes of the people also kept up a constant denunciation of him, chiefly at the instigation and behest of Metilius; not that Metilius hated Fabius, but he was a kinsman of Minucius, the Master of Horse, and thought that slander of the one meant honour and fame for the other. The senate also was in an angry mood, and found particular fault with Fabius for the terms he had made with Hannibal concerning the prisoners of war. They had agreed between them to exchange the captives man for man, and if either party had more than the other, the one who recovered these was to pay two hundred and fifty drachmas per man. Accordingly, after the exchange of man for man was made, it was found that Hannibal still had two hundred and forty Romans left. The senate decided not to send the ransom money for these, and found fault with Fabius for trying, in a manner unbecoming and unprofitable for the state, to recover men whose cowardice had made them a prey to the enemy. When Fabius heard of this, he bore the resentment of his fellow-citizens with equanimity, but since he had no money, and could not harbour the thought of cheating Hannibal and abandoning his countrymen to their fate, he sent his son to Rome with orders to sell his fields​ and bring the money to him at once, at camp. The young man sold the estates and quickly made his return, whereupon Fabius sent the ransom money to Hannibal and got back the prisoners of war. Many of these afterwards offered to pay him the price of their ransom, but in no case did he take it, remitting it rather for all.

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