Polybius on the Tensions between Fabius and Minucius

/open excerpt in new window/

[3.103] An exaggerated account of this success reached Rome, and caused excessive exultation: first, because in their gloomy prospects some sort of change for the better had at last shown itself; and, secondly, because the people could now believe that the ill success and want of nerve, which had hitherto attended the legions, had not arisen from the cowardice of the men, but the timidity of their leader. Wherefore everybody began finding fault with and depreciating Fabius, as failing to seize his opportunities with spirit; while they extolled Minucius to such a degree for what had happened, that a thing was done for which there was no precedent. They gave him absolute power as well as Fabius, believing that he would quickly put an end to the campaign; and so there were two Dictators made for carrying on the same war, which had never happened at Rome before. When Minucius was informed of his popularity with the people, and of the office bestowed upon him by the citizens, he felt doubly incited to run all risks and act with daring boldness against the enemy. Fabius rejoined the army with sentiments not in the least changed by what had happened, but rather fixed still more immovably on his original policy. Seeing, however, that Minucius was puffed up with pride, and inclined to offer him a jealous opposition at every turn, and was wholly bent on risking an engagement, he offered him the choice of two alternatives: either to command the whole army on alternate days with him; or that they should separate their two armies, and each command their respective part in their own way. Minucius joyfully accepting the second alternative, they divided the men and encamped separately about twelve stades apart.

[3.104] Partly from observing what was taking place, and partly from the information of prisoners, Hannibal knew of the mutual jealousy of the two generals, and the impetuosity and ambition of Minucius. Looking upon what was happening in the enemy's camp as rather in his favour than otherwise, he set himself to deal with Minucius; being anxious to put an end to his bold methods and check in time his adventurous spirit. There being then an elevation between his camp and that of Minucius, which might prove dangerous to either, he resolved to occupy it; and, knowing full well that, elated by his previous success, Minucius would be certain to move out at once to oppose his design, he concerted the following plan. The country round the hill being bare of trees, but having much broken ground and hollows of every description, he despatched some men during the night, in bodies of two and three hundred, to occupy the most favourable positions, numbering in all five hundred horse and five thousand light–armed and other infantry: and in order that they might not be observed in the morning by the enemy's foraging parties, he seized the hill at daybreak with his light–armed troops. When Marcus saw what was taking place, he looked upon it as an excellent opportunity; and immediately despatched his light–armed troops, with orders to engage the enemy and contest the possession of the position; after these he sent his cavalry, and close behind them he led his heavy–armed troops in person, as on the former occasion, intending to repeat exactly the same manœuvres.

[3.105] As the day broke, and the thoughts and eyes of all were engrossed in observing the combatants on the hill, the Romans had no suspicion of the troops lying in ambush. But as Hannibal kept pouring in reinforcements for his men on the hill, and followed close behind them himself with his cavalry and main body, it was not long before the cavalry also of both sides were engaged. The result was that the Roman lightarmed troops, finding themselves hard pressed by the numbers of the cavalry, caused great confusion among the heavy–armed troops by retreating into their lines; and the signal being given at the same time to those who were in ambush, these latter suddenly showed themselves and charged: whereby not only the Roman light–armed troops, but their whole army, were in the greatest danger. At that moment Fabius, seeing what was taking place, and being alarmed lest they should sustain a complete defeat, led out his forces with all speed and came to the relief of his imperilled comrades.  At his approach the Romans quickly recovered their courage; and though their lines were entirely broken up, they rallied again round their standards, and retired under cover of the army of Fabius, with a severe loss in the light–armed division, and a still heavier one in the ranks of the legions, and that too of the bravest men. Alarmed at the freshness and perfect order of the relieving army, Hannibal retired from the pursuit and ceased fighting. To those who were actually engaged it was quite clear that an utter defeat had been brought about by the rashness of Minucius, and that their safety on this and previous occasions had been secured by the caution of Fabius; while those at home had a clear and indisputable demonstration of the difference between the rashness and bravado of a soldier, and the farseeing prudence and cool calculation of a general. Taught by experience the Romans joined camps once more, and for the future listened to Fabius and obeyed his orders: while the Carthaginians dug a trench across the space between the knoll and their own lines, and threw up a palisade round the crest of the captured hill; and, having placed a guard upon it, proceeded thenceforth with their preparations for the winter unmolested.

[3.106] The Consular elections being now come, the Romans elected Lucius Aemilius and Gaius Terentius. On their appointment the Dictators laid down their offices, and the Consuls of the previous year, Gnaeus Servilius and Marcus Regulus— who had been appointed after the death of Flaminius,—were invested with pro–consular authority by Aemilius; and, taking the command at the seat of war, administered the affairs of the army independently.

— Polybius, Histories 3.103–106 (translated by E. S. Shuckburgh)