Thursday, 28 August 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: stratagem or cunctator

Rome won its first fight against Carthage, but just barely—in the aftermath, turning to more internal affairs and ignoring its rival for control of the Mediterranean. An uneasy peace was brokered with terms that left Carthage fuming—a dishonour to the competing power and especially to a certain Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca (Thunderbolt) who swore to his father to never be a friend to these interlopers and fuming after Hamilcar perished during a campaign and left his city in the hands of his acquiescing brother-in-law Hasdrubal. In time, as vengeance has no vice in patience, Hasdrubal was assassinated and Hannibal was invested as the leader of Carthage's armies. Carthage took its stand on the Iberian peninsula, in the main to protect its untapped reservoirs of silver—which afterwards, Rome exploited, too. Though there is a lot of ground to cover in between with several important detours, it seems rather ironic that latter-day nations who saw their own treasure plundered became the champions and true-believers of an expansionist-policy and persecuted with prejudice their gold-fever in the New World. Realising early on how to bait the Romans, Hannibal advanced from Spain into Roman territory-proper, traveling through Gaul and taking a direct-route—with a compliment of seventy-six elephants—over the Swiss Alps and an even harder slog over the marshlands, they drew the battle to them and summarily defeated the legions, time after time. Horrified by their series of defeats and near-misses, the constituent of Rome elected a dictator to handle it all, whom was capable of seeing soberly all of Rome's weaknesses and vanities.
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrocusus was appointed dictator to manage the advance. Seeing, however, Hannibal's tactics and luring Romans into irresistible fights, the dictator adopted a policy of avoiding direct confrontation. Though not lauded by his own government, Fabius was appreciated by Hannibal for understanding his strategy and left armies standing, disengaged, in order to not be tempted into more losses. Hannibal appreciated Fabius' strategies, unpopular in Rome by any measure, and to undermine this general, dictated that his regular countryside raids should spare specifically those estates of the wealthy patrician Fabian family. After a ruse that saw the Carthaginian army through a trap (the Romans had their forces cornered in a valley-pass but Hannibal orchestrated a clever distraction of cattle bearing torches that lured away the forces guarding the exit). For this failure and in general operating against the grain of Roman values (plus, meanwhile, some of Rome's trusted allies defected, hoping to back the right horse), Fabius—this vested dictator—was called into question by introducing a more adventurous foil, who essentially rendered ineffectual the call and duty of the post of appointed-dictator ever afterward, checked by the power and confidence of another co-ruler. To the victor goes the future but not necessarily the history. Fabius was given the cognomen cunctator—the delayer, but his practise of non-engagement later became known as the Fabian Strategy, a battle of attrition and more importantly, being non-reactive. Rome and its legacy entire dodged another defeat, but this time through restraint and countering strategy. The period without major losses or demoralising defeats allowed Rome to re-group, and Sicily, where Hannibal's father met his demise—abandoned by the Carthaginian nobility who waged their wars with mercenary forces rather than a draft of its citizenry according to their means, eventually went into Roman receivership. The lone hold-out was the Greek city of Syracuse, defended in part by the genius of resident mad scientist Archimedes, who contrived all manner of war-machines, catapults and even a death-ray to fend off invaders. Possibly emboldened by victory on one front, not quite concomitant with the grave failure, Roman forces were resolved to confront Hannibal's armies at Cannae, a large supply depot and commissariat on the heel of the boot of Italy, on the Apulian plains. Command alternating daily between two generals (so one family would take the blame for eternity, it seems) for bureaucratic reason, a behemoth Roman army was routed. Despite losing in two decisive battles, Rome won the war, with Hannibal's discretion not to attack the capitol and to not expend all his battlefield capital in one fell stroke.