Chapter 2

Hannibal and Campania

The First and Second Punic Wars, so-called from the Roman name for the Phoenician-descended Carthaginians, were decisive episodes in the growth of the Roman empire. By the time Rome had come to dominate central and southern Italy, the city-state of Carthage had created a maritime empire centred on its home city, in what is now Tunisia, and extending to Sicily and Sardinia. The island of Sicily occupied a critical strategic position in conflicts between the Romans and Carthaginians, the western tip of the island perhaps 150 miles away from the port of Carthage and the eastern tip within sight of the Italian peninsula. Controlling key ports on the island meant controlling travel and trade in the central Mediterranean – something desired both by Carthage and by the Greek polises scattered across the Mediterranean. This made Sicily a prized target for the naval and commercial empire of the Carthaginians and a site of settlement for Greeks in the eighth through sixth centuries. Major conflicts broke out between Carthage and the island polises beginning in the sixth century. The Greek polises of Sicily had some significant success in blunting Carthaginian advances in Sicily for centuries. By the late fourth century, however, the power of Carthage had waxed and that of the Sicilian polises waned to the point where Carthage had established firm control over the west and south of the island.1 On the south-east side of the island, the city of Syracuse, founded by the Greek polis of Corinth in the eighth century, dominated.

Eventually, the Romans, who steadily expanded control over southern Italy in the fourth and third centuries, came to have an interest in eastern Sicily, and the first war between Rome and Carthage, from 264 to 241, was fought largely over control of the island. This war marked the first significant time, so far as we know, that Roman armies had operated outside Italy, and they did so ostensibly at the invitation of the Mamertines. This group of Italian mercenaries had brutally occupied the Sicilian city of Messana and controlled it for the past twenty years. Now they found themselves hard pressed in a war with King Hiero and the forces of Syracuse. The Mamertines sought aid from both of the greatest powers of the region, Carthage and Rome. Conflicts of interest soon erupted and the two powers had maneuvered into a great war.2 The majority of the war took place in and off the waters of Sicily as the Romans fought the Syracusans, the Carthaginians, and a variety of Greek city states on the island. King Hiero of Syracuse, an astute diplomat, quickly shifted from his initial alliance with the Carthaginians to the Romans when faced with the prospect of battling two consular armies. From then on, the Romans directed their energies against the Carthaginian forces. Though the Romans did launch a brief campaign against Carthage itself, landing an invasion force in Tunisia, they were ultimately unsuccessful in this effort, and the war shifted back to Sicily for another fifteen years or so. Finally, after more than twenty years of conflict, the Carthaginian land forces in Sicily, commanded by Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, were ultimately forced to surrender when the Carthaginian fleet was destroyed at the naval battle off the Aegates islands and Hamilcar’s supply lines were severed. Among the other terms of this surrender, Carthage was forced to remove all its forces from Sicily, yield the island, and pay a considerable sum of reparations to the Romans.3 Eventually, perhaps by 227, it became regular practice for a Roman praetor to govern western and northern Sicily; eastern Sicily was essentially under the administration of Hiero of Syracuse, who had become a trusted ally of the Romans. In addition to the strategic importance of the island, Sicily also seems to have provided Romans with grain from its fields, so important for feeding the Roman army and the growing population of the city.4

The First Punic war had not settled matters between the Romans and Carthaginians. Carthage had lost control of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica to the Romans but subsequently acquired an empire in the Iberian Peninsula. Hamilcar, the father of Hannibal and the commander who conducted the final surrender in Sicily, spearheaded the Carthaginian efforts in Spain. When he died in 226, control of Carthaginian operations in Spain passed to his son-in-law, Hasdrubal. Finally, in 221, Hannibal took the reins of command. Later Romans for whom Hannibal was the ultimate terror – an excellent bogeyman to frighten recalcitrant children – had no doubt that the Carthaginian had dreamed of avenging his humiliated father since childhood. Livy states that the boy swore an oath to his father to do so as soon as he was able.5 Whether this was true – and it certainly seems possible that the father hoped his son would avenge his defeat – it is only reasonable to suppose Hannibal hoped to exact some measure of vengeance from Rome.6

The technicalities that started the war are a bit complicated and not completely understood. Suffice to say, when Hasdrubal had succeeded Hamilcar, the Romans sent envoys to make a treaty with the Carthaginian. This designated the River Ebro as the northernmost limit to Carthaginian expansion in Spain. It may well have been understood that the Romans would, in turn, not attempt to influence Spain south of that border. If this was the understanding, however, it is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the Republic had already forged an alliance with the city of Saguntum, south of the Ebro, several years prior to 226. Regardless of who had the more easily justified view of the conflict, Hannibal took advantage of an opportunity to provoke the Romans by besieging the city of Saguntum. The Saguntines, in turn, sent messengers to their Roman allies asking for aid against the Carthaginian army. When the request for assistance reached the city, the senate apparently debated the matter for some time. Small wonder; any effort to stop Hannibal’s attack might well lead to another war, one that would be costly and require the Romans to send soldiers to Spain, farther away than they ever had before. Rather than jump immediately into a major war, the senate decided to deliver an ultimatum to Carthage first.7

Hannibal, however, seemed to have been planning an invasion of Italy already, for he finished besieging Saguntum, sent emissaries to the Gauls, and began his long trek from Spain to Italy, apparently without any news that an ultimatum had been delivered to Carthage. This should cause no surprise, however, considering how slowly messages traveled in the age of sail, horse, and foot. His army marched along the coast of Spain and France, eventually reaching the River Rhone by September of 218. In the meantime, the Romans prepared to send an army to Spain, only to find, much to their surprise, that Hannibal was no longer there. The consul Publius Scipio had harboured his army at the mouth of the Rhone at the same time Hannibal’s force was farther up the same river. Roman cavalry engaged the Carthaginian cavalry successfully, but Hannibal was able to move on. At this point, Publius Scipio opted to send his brother and military legate Gnaeus ahead to Spain with the legions, while he returned to northern Italy to prepare a defence against Hannibal.8

What was Hannibal’s plan? His strategy has been analyzed by historians as best as can be, considering he left no writings and no eyewitness accounts of his actions. Certainly, he would have anticipated the Roman invasion of Spain should war break out. He could have opted to prepare to meet the Romans in Spain. As some historians have noted, however, the Romans had proven capable of sustaining and replacing staggering military losses in their first war against Carthage over Sicily. No doubt, Hannibal was fully aware of this. Based on what he did do, it seems his goal was different: to shatter the core of Roman political and military power. That core was the Roman alliance system.9

The Roman alliance system was strong and flexible, based upon a series of bilateral treaties between Rome and other Italian states. Once a state became part of the Roman alliance, its sole treaty was with Rome, keeping Rome at the centre of the whole system. One of the fundamental treaty relationships was that which granted Latin status to an ally. After the difficult struggle known as the Latin War, the Romans imposed a settlement in 338 on the defeated Latin states. Essentially, these states were given various degrees of citizenship with or without the right to vote. This meant, among other things, that each state was obligated to provide Rome with soldiers and to follow Rome’s lead in foreign policy. Members of these states with so-called ‘Latin Rights’ could also intermarry and trade with Romans and had the right to move to the city of Rome itself and exercise full citizen voting rights. Throughout the Republic, Latin rights were given to various states, most often to those that were culturally Latin, including colonies of Roman and Latin citizens that were founded during the Republic.10

The second form of treaty relationship existed between Rome and its allies, the socii. The exact terms of treaties between Rome and each socius must have varied. The general terms are believed to be based upon those established in the Foedus Cassianum, a treaty crafted in 495 and quoted by the first century historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus:

Let there be peace among the Romans and all the Latin cities as long as the heavens and the earth shall remain where they are. Let them neither make war upon one another themselves nor bring in foreign enemies nor grant a safe passage to those who shall make war upon either. Let them assist one another when warred upon, with all their forces, and let each have an equal share of the spoils and booty taken in their common wars. Let suits relating to private contracts be determined within ten days, and in the nation where the contract was made. And let it not be permitted to add anything to, or take anything away from these treaties except by consent both of the Romans and of all the Latins.11

The core, then, was a military alliance complete with the provision that spoils of war be shared among Roman and allied soldiers.12 Over the century before Hannibal’s invasion, this alliance had proved strong enough to secure Roman control over Italy, then allow Rome to wage war successfully against Carthage. This was the alliance system that Hannibal seems to have targeted.

By the end of 218, Hannibal began his legendary trek across the Alps and into Italy. The march was costly; by the end, his large army was reduced to half its size, perhaps 20,000 African and Spanish infantry, and 6,000 cavalry. Marching south, Hannibal encountered the legionary forces in north Italy now commanded by Publius Scipio, who had made his way there quickly from the Rhone. At the Ticinus, a river which branches north from the western end of the River Po, Roman and Carthaginian forces had their first battle, limited almost entirely to cavalry. Hannibal deployed his heavier cavalry in the centre of his formation with the swifter Numidian light cavalry on the flanks.13

Scipio, on the other hand, deployed Gallic cavalry in his font line, with the Romano-Italian cavalry in support. He also followed the common Roman tactic of deploying light infantry along with the cavalry. Unaided, light infantry would generally fare poorly against cavalry. Unlike close-order heavy infantry soldiers, who held the psychological advantage against cavalry so long as they stood their ground, light infantry tended to fight in an open order. While this open formation allowed light infantry to dodge missile weapons – arrows, sling bullets, javelins, etc. – more easily, it also made them quite vulnerable to cavalry. It took an unusually determined individual to stand and receive charging. However, light infantry provided an excellent complement to cavalry, particularly against enemy cavalry. In this role, the light infantry served as a quick-moving defensive line that anchored the charges and wheels of their mounted comrades, providing protection. They could also form around downed troopers and provide support in other ways. If the Roman cavalry pinned its opponents into a stationary battle, something the Roman cavalry had a penchant for, the light infantry could go on the offensive, working their way into the battle, dodging between the horses, and causing harm to the enemy.14

When the two forces engaged, the Carthaginian horses swiftly drove the Roman light infantry back, forcing them to retreat through the gaps between the cavalry squads. Then the cavalry forces engaged front-to-front. For a time, the Roman forces held their own, but the Numidian cavalry on the wings ultimately flanked the Romans and launched a devastating attack on the Roman rear line. The Romans fled from the battle and Scipio shifted his army into a defensive posture, camped in a strong position on high ground.15Hannibal clearly did not wish to assault the Roman position. At the same time, the Carthaginian army was able to roam the countryside freely, while the Roman forces were dug in. Hannibal used this freedom to his advantage, marching to Clastidium and persuading the Italian commander there to surrender the Roman grain depot.16 Provisions like these were both critical and in short supply for Hannibal’s army throughout its stay in Italy, so the acquisition of the Clastidium granaries was a significant victory.

Prior to this battle, the Senate had received word that Hannibal was in Italy. The consul Sempronius Longus was recalled from Sicily where he had been preparing to invade Africa. By the time Sempronius reached Rome, reports had reached the city of the defeat at the Ticinus, and the consul was sent to reinforce Scipio’s army. When he arrived, he found Scipio’s army still safely ensconced in its defensive fortifications on high ground and Hannibal’s camp several miles distant. Once the two Roman armies combined, an expeditionary force of light infantry and cavalry patrolled the countryside, looking to hamper Carthaginian movements. One day, perhaps 4 December, the Roman forces engaged in a significant skirmish, checking the Gallic and Numidian cavalry forces. Carthaginian reinforcements arrived to tip the balance. Sempronius opted to commit all of his light infantry and cavalry to the engagement. Hannibal refused to escalate further, or at least did not do so, and the Roman forces got the better of their opponents that day.17

The next day, Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry lured the Romans out of their camp before they had eaten their breakfasts. Sempronius, buoyed by his success the day before, ordered his cavalry to take the lead and the rest of the army to follow. In their pursuit of the Numidians and the main Carthaginian army, they crossed the River Trebia, the waters high from heavy rains and, since it was in the winter, no doubt quite cold. Cold and wet, hungry and exhausted, the Romans engaged Hannibal’s forces. Hannibal’s cavalry drove the Roman cavalry off and his infantry attacked the exposed Roman flanks. When a Carthaginian reserve force emerged from its hiding place in a shallow stream bed and attacked the Roman rear, the Roman infantry crumbled and routed.18 Ten thousand legionaries made their way to safety. The fate of the rest of the army, which potentially numbered between 30,000 and 40,000 soldiers, is unclear.19

The next year (217), the senate determined to face Hannibal in the field again and sent the consuls, Gaius Flaminius and Marcus Servilius Geminus, with full consular legions to engage Hannibal. The battle of Lake Trasimene was the result, where the Roman infantry were surprised and trapped on the lakeside, forced to choose between a death by iron or water. Reeling from two major defeats in half a year, the Romans named Fabius Maximus Verrucosus dictator. Fabius adopted a strategy of attrition, shadowing Hannibal’s army and hampering its movements, while avoiding pitched battles. These tactics gave the Romans time to regroup in 217.20

It is in the context of the elections for 216, held presumably in the autumn of 217, that Marcellus’ name surfaces in Livy. After noting the consuls Marcus Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus and the praetors charged with judging suits between citizens and foreigners, Livy reports that two additional praetors were elected, Lucius Postumius Albinus and Marcellus. The former was assigned a military command in Gaul, while Marcellus was charged with command in Sicily – later in Livy’s account it appears this included command of a fleet. Livy went on to note that Marcellus, along with most of the other candidates, was elected in absentia.21 In other words, Marcellus was not present at Rome as a candidate for election. This raises a number of questions that, unfortunately, cannot be answered with any certainty.

First of all, where exactly was Marcellus during the elections? The most reasonable implication of noting that a candidate was elected in absentia is that he was away on official business, which at that point would likely have meant a military command. But if Marcellus held any magistracy in 217, there is certainly no mention of it in any source. It is more likely that he was on some business as a member of the senate, perhaps even as a propraetor or some such rank, though what exactly that business might have been remains hidden, and there is no evidence to support such a position. Second, why was Sicily a land and naval province? The strategic importance of Sicily at the time is unquestionable, but, so far as our sources suggest, the only theatres of war were Italy and Spain. Perhaps the Roman senate wanted to be ready to attack Africa, as it did in the first war, should it appear advantageous, but it is difficult to imagine that the senate anticipated expanding Roman military operations in this way after the losses at Trebia and Trasimene. More likely, senators reasoned that the Carthaginians might invade Sicily and wanted to bolster the Roman province. Finally, did Marcellus actually submit his name for election to the praetorship or was he elected without announcing any desire for the office on his part? Unfortunately, there is no way to know and both options are plausible.

What is clear, however, from the elections for 216 is that it cannot be assumed, however reasonable it seems, that the Romans elected their consuls even during times of war solely because of their perceived military experience and success. While Lucius Aemilius Paullus had been consul in 219 and earned a triumph against the Illyrians on the Balkan side of the Adriatic, similar things could be said about other men of consular rank, including Marcellus. Marcus Terentius Varro, however, had no such distinction, coming from a new family to politics and having only a praetorship before this office. When the ranks of potential candidates included men such as Fabius Maximus and Marcellus, there were far more illustrious choices than Paulus and Varro if voters were motivated solely by the military records of their candidates.

The elections for 216 may have brought hope for a change in the trend of defeats. As it happened, there was still worse to come for the Roman armies – the disastrous defeat at Cannae. Hannibal’s infantry in that battle numbered perhaps 40,000 – he had supplemented his forces with Gallic allies. The exact size of the Roman army was debated even in the ancient world. Polybius explicitly states the Romans had eight legions of 5,000 citizen soldiers each at Cannae and that these troops combined with the allied infantry brought the Roman force up to 80,000 infantry. Livy, on the other hand, notes two conflicting traditions, the one recorded by Polybius and a rival account that said the total number of Roman and allied infantry amounted to somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000. Both Polybius and Livy agree that there were about 10,000 Spanish, Gallic, and Numidian cavalry in Hannibal’s army; the Roman cavalry forces were presumably somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000, depending on how many legions one supposes the Romans fielded and whether each had the normal sized cavalry contingent.22

On the day of battle, the citizen cavalry deployed on the right wing next to the river, the Italian allied cavalry deployed on the left wing, and the Roman infantry occupied the centre. The consul deployed the maniples of the Roman legions, according to Polybius, so that they were much deeper than wide and closer to each other than normal. While this could theoretically give higher morale and greater penetrating power to the columns, the practical result that day was that the infantry had far less room to maneuver and engage in their typical function of rotating maniples in and out of combat. In front of the entire force, Varro positioned the velites.23

The Spanish and Gallic cavalry deployed opposite the citizen cavalry, while the Numidian cavalry faced the Italian allies. Because the Spanish and Gallic contingents numbered significantly more than 4,000, they outnumbered the citizen troopers on the right flank by at least 2:1 and perhaps by considerably more. The key to the cavalry battle at Cannae was the restricted space in which the Roman cavalry on the right wing operated. On their left stood the heavy infantry, packed in an unusually close and deep formation. On their right was the river, and they deployed close to it. Their primary task was to guard the flank of their army rather than to assault the enemy flank. Hannibal’s significantly larger cavalry force also probably forced the cavalry along the river to focus on defence. The right wing was important enough for the consul Aemilius to command it.24

As it happened, Hannibal’s Spanish and Gallic cavalry drove the Roman horsemen back, cutting them down as they went. Once the cavalry along the river were decimated, Hannibal’s troopers rode past the right flank of the Roman infantry, wheeled across their rear, and attacked the Italian allied cavalry, already engaged with the Numidians. The allied cavalry units scattered under the dual attack. Finally, the Spanish and Gallic horses turned his forces once more and assaulted the rear ranks of the Roman infantry. While these cavalry engagements occurred, the Roman infantry drove back the centre of the Carthaginian line, only to find itself enveloped by the wings of the Carthaginian infantry. Attacked on the flanks by infantry, the rear by cavalry, and compressed into a tighter space than normal anyway, the demoralized Roman infantry were hemmed in, then slaughtered.25 It was a disastrous defeat. The commander Varro survived, but the consul Aemilius Paullus died leading the Roman cavalry on the right flank. The exact number of Romans slain that day is unclear, but a good guess is somewhere in the range of 40,000 – a horrific figure even by modern standards.26 The damage to the political classes was perhaps even more severe when it came to the percentage of casualties. According to Livy, those among the dead included both the quaestors attached to the consuls, Lucius Atilius and Lucius Furius Bibulcus, twenty-nine military tribunes, several ex-consuls, ex-praetors, and ex-aediles (amongst them Gnaeus Servilius Geminus and Marcus Minucius, who was Master of the Horse the previous year and, some years before that, consul), and in addition to these, eighty men who had either been senators or filled offices qualifying them for election to the senate and who had volunteered for service with the legions.27 This amounted to roughly a third of those who were or would have been senators within the next few years slain in one day.

Meanwhile, Marcellus was in command of the fleet at Ostia, the main port of Rome, and played a critical role managing the crisis that faced the Republic for the remnant of the campaign season. When news reached him about Cannae, Marcellus sent 1,500 soldiers from his command to help garrison Rome. Meanwhile, the senate hurriedly deliberated on the proper course of action under such dire circumstances. On the coast, the remnants of the Roman army that had fought at Cannae slowly gathered at the Apulian town of Canusium, approximately ten miles inland from Cannae.28

The senate instructed Marcellus to join the army at Canusium and relieve the consul Varro so that the latter could return to Rome and report. Accordingly, Marcellus sent ahead a legion south-east to Teanum Sidicinum in Campania. This town was located along the Appian Way, one of the most important Roman roads running from Campania into Samnium and then into central Apulia. Then he made the necessary arrangements to transfer command of the fleet to Publius Furius. In a few days, the transfer was complete and Marcellus hurried with a force to Canusium, perhaps collecting the legion at Teanum along the way.29

Meanwhile, fresh from their victory at Cannae, Hannibal and his troops first marched to Samnium, establishing a base at Compsa in the southern part of the region and less than 20 miles from where the Appian Way passed. He left his lieutenant Mago there with a portion of the army and instructions to bring the towns of the region over to the Carthaginian cause. Then Hannibal moved to Campania. This fertile coastal plain lay directly to the south-east of Latium and was a critical agricultural centre dominated by the powerful city of Capua. Capua remained loyal to Rome until the defeat at Cannae; soon after this the Capuan senate decided to ally itself with Hannibal.30 Allying with Capua was a critical step for Hannibal to secure the loyalty of Campania, and its defection weakened Rome. Hannibal still needed, apparently, an acceptable port in western Italy through which he could receive supplies and soldiers from Spain, Sicily, and Carthage itself. Accordingly, Hannibal moved with his army to the Campanian port of Neapolis, near Capua, in the hopes of winning over the city.31 The leaders of the city refused to ally with Hannibal, however, and rather than bog his army down in a siege of the formidably defended city, Hannibal shifted his sights to the important inland city of Nola. Nola was one of the main urban centers in Campania, less significant than Capua and Neapolis, but critical to any strategy for controlling the region. The city was well fortified and approximately twenty miles from Capua, roughly in the center of Campania, perhaps offering slightly better access to Neapolis. There seems to have been considerable conflict within the city concerning the approaching Hannibal. The leaders of Nola wished to remain loyal to Rome, according to Livy, while the general populace wished to side with Hannibal.32

As Hannibal began operations in Campania, we find Marcellus stationed with his army at Casilinum, a town several miles north of Capua. This fortified settlement guarded the northern reaches of the Appian Way and the Latin Way, the two roads that ran straight from Campania to Rome itself.33 Marcellus must have positioned his forces there to hold the route to Rome once he determined that Hannibal had moved westwards from Cannae, first to Samnium, then Campania. The Nolan senate sent messages to Marcellus at Casilinum airing their concerns that the city walls would be betrayed to Hannibal in an act of treachery and asking him to come to Nola and reinforce the Roman loyalists.34 Nola, as Marcellus must surely have calculated, was too important to lose to Hannibal, since it was one of the main Campanian settlements, a fortified town at that, and one within striking distance of the road to Samnium.

Marcellus responded that he would come to the city’s defence. A direct march to Nola from Casilinum, however, was barred by the now hostile Capua, which had a strong cavalry force that could pose considerable difficulties for a Roman army on the march. Instead of the more direct route, Marcellus circumvented Capua by marching east/north-east along the River Volturnus to Caiatia. Then he crossed the river, and passed south-east, keeping Mount Tifata as a buffer between his army and Capua. The army continued this way into the hill country north of Suessula and, finally, arrived at Nola.35 When the Roman army approached, however, Hannibal withdrew west to the vicinity of Neapolis to try his hand again at negotiating with the Neapolitans.

A quick study of a map of Campania suggests that Hannibal was essentially maneuvering in a very small territory around Marcellus – the two armies were likely never more than twenty miles apart at any moment and closer than that most of the time. His goal was to gain an advantage in the remaining key settlements of Campania: Neapolis, Nola, and Nuceria. He may well have concluded that a pitched battle over Nola was an unnecessary expense at the moment when other important targets existed. Neapolis continued to hold firm against Hannibal, however, and his army soon moved on to Nuceria. Bounded on the south by hills, Nuceria was the southernmost major settlement of Campania. Hannibal did not succeed in winning the loyalty of Nuceria and ultimately destroyed the settlement through what must have been a quick siege.36

Marcellus, on the other hand, remained at Nola. Perhaps he reasoned that attempting to follow Hannibal around would simply allow the latter to control the pace and timing of another battle. He may also have been busy strengthening the resolve of the Nolan senate and rooting out those inclined to surrender the city to Hannibal. With the disaster at Cannae, the shifting allegiances of so many key southern cities, and Campania wavering with the defection of Capua, Marcellus must have judged that securing Nola was critical to maintaining Roman influence in Campania, particularly since Neapolis, another critical location, persisted in rebuffing Hannibal. It seems incredible to think he would not have received word about Nuceria, but whether he was unwilling or unable to come to the town’s aid is a mystery.

Livy and Plutarch suggest that at this point a distinguished young Campanian cavalryman, Lucius Bantius, was one of the focal points for disaffected Nolans wishing to join Hannibal. This Bantius had earned a reputation among the allied cavalry as an outstanding rider and combatant. The disaster at Cannae, however, moved Bantius to question the Roman cause. He had apparently fought with great distinction at Cannae, slaying a number of opponents. The weight of the enemy’s numbers eventually overwhelmed him, and he was left for dead on the battlefield.37 Found among the slain by the victorious Carthaginians, the young cavalry trooper was brought to Hannibal, who had his injuries nursed then sent him home to Nola with gifts.38 Upon arriving at Nola, Bantius was among the leaders who advocated joining Hannibal. Though historians must be cautious when such an anecdote crops up in the ancient sources, this particular episode is not farfetched. A pillar of Hannibal’s Italian strategy was to dissolve the bonds of the Roman alliance system by gaining the support of the Italian peoples. If Hannibal came across a young man like Bantius who was not only a member of the Italian municipal elite – all allied cavalry were – but from an important city in Campania, he would assuredly have recognized the potential to form an advantageous relationship with the man.

While at Nola, Marcellus learned of Bantius’ political leanings through personal observation or report and opted to address the situation directly. He summoned Bantius to a meeting and discussed his concerns. Livy and Plutarch both offer direct quotations of the words Marcellus offered Bantius; at best these might reflect the gist of the conversation. Marcellus praised Bantius for his service at Cannae and rewarded him with a large sum of silver coins and a warhorse.39 Livy adds that Marcellus encouraged Bantius to serve with him personally in the future. The results of these and any other encouragements were that Bantius came to support wholeheartedly the Roman cause. It is hazardous at best to try to unearth the character of Marcellus from an event of this sort, but it certainly is plausible that one who had carved out a reputation for audacity and valour in cavalry battles would have found Bantius to be a kindred spirit of sorts.

With Nuceria destroyed, Hannibal decided the time was right to make an attempt on Nola.40 He returned to the vicinity of the town and camped near the Roman army, itself camped outside the city walls. According to Livy, though each army’s foragers and light infantry scouts engaged in sporadic skirmishes, neither commander would commit to a pitched battle. Hannibal, for his part, had apparently been negotiating covertly at night with disaffected Nolans for the surrender of the city.41 For the moment, waiting in the hope of gaining the city through treachery was the more sound strategy, particularly now that the alliance with Capua – not to mention most of southern Italy – must have helped alleviate Hannibal’s daily supply problems somewhat. Hannibal had turned waiting patiently for his enemies to make mistakes into an art form, and it would have made little sense to commit to battle precipitously.

Marcellus, for his part, probably had little strategic reason to initiate a battle with Hannibal. The latter had destroyed three Roman armies; indeed, the survivors from the most recent catastrophe at Cannae formed a significant portion of Marcellus’ army at Nola. Not that Hannibal’s reputation would have been sufficient to stop Marcellus; he clearly liked to play against the odds. But he had never, so far as we know, seen the Carthaginian’s army in battle, nor had he actually witnessed Hannibal’s tactics. It was one thing to be courageous and quite another to be foolhardy. In the context of any larger strategy, forcing a battle in the current circumstances was likely not a sound strategy. At that particular moment, the city of Rome was recovering from Cannae; the consul Varro had returned to the city to give his report; and the senate was deliberating how to rally to the grave challenge Hannibal posed. Many of the most important Greek cities of south Italy had transferred their allegiances to Hannibal. Now the powerful city of Capua had forged an alliance with the Carthaginian. With this arrangement, the allegiance of the entire region of Campania, which it is worth noting again was just south of Latium, was hanging by a thread. Neapolis had remained loyal to the Roman cause, but a Roman failure at Nola could cause the Neapolitans to have a change of heart.42 Securing Nola, maintaining the Roman position in Campania, and providing the senate with time to recover and plan were paramount among the strategic goals Marcellus entertained, or certainly should have been. None of these goals was served by committing to a pitched battle hastily. And so, the two armies and their commanders apparently waited for days. When Marcellus received word of the nocturnal meetings between Carthaginians and Nolan conspirators, however, he withdrew his army into the walls of Nola and planned to test Hannibal in battle.43 Marcellus must have judged the benefits of waiting were now outweighed by the disadvantage of giving the Nolan conspirators time to solidify their plans against the Roman army.

Livy and Plutarch report Marcellus’ battle plan as follows. The walls of Nola had three gates facing the Carthaginian camp and Marcellus intended to use these gates to launch an attack. The obvious danger, however, was that the Nolan conspirators would close the city gates to the Roman army once it engaged Hannibal, leaving the army trapped between two hostile forces. To guard against any betrayal within the city, the baggage train and camp servants were left within the city walls along with the wounded and a reserve force of soldiers. This group would ensure that the city walls remained in Roman hands while the army engaged in battle. To guard further against any attempt to close the gates behind the Roman army, Marcellus issued an order that none of the Nolans were to come near the walls or gates of the city.44

Then Marcellus stationed his best legionaries at the center gate along with the Roman citizen cavalry, while the allied cavalry, light infantry, and newest recruits in the army were stationed at the gates on either side.45 Either these preparations took some time or Marcellus paused after making arrangements for a few days because Hannibal was caught off-guard by several days of Roman inactivity. Livy and Plutarch suggest he assumed that the Romans had surrendered the field to him completely and gave the orders to bring up siege equipment.46 At this point when a portion of the Carthaginian army was occupied elsewhere making siege preparations, Marcellus gave the orders to attack. Complete with blasts of the trumpets and shouts intended to startle the enemy, Marcellus ordered the heavy infantry, supported by the cavalry, to close quickly with the Carthaginian forces.47

The element of surprise was with the Romans. In such battles it was not necessary that the enemy be caught completely unawares to gain an advantage; introducing any uncertainty and fear into the minds of the enemy combatants could turn the tide. Mental uncertainty translated into less effective fighting, sometimes even chaos, and the collapse of enemy units. The loud initial noises, the continued shouts of the baggage train, and the rush of the Roman army at an unexpected moment successfully disrupted the Carthaginian center. Once the center was clearly thrown into some confusion, Marcellus’ lieutenants manning the side gates issued forth with cavalry and light infantry to attack the flanks of the Carthaginian force.48 Marcellus had executed a well-planned surprise attack designed to disrupt, demoralize, and drive off the enemy. Still, the battle was far more a moral victory than a decisive blow of any sort. Even Livy, who had no experience of military affairs and was not above trusting inflated casualty reports, was reluctant to believe that so many as 2,800 Carthaginians died and only 500 Romans. Plutarch, on the other hand, gave the larger and more even number of 5,000 Carthaginian dead.49

Regardless of the actual casualties inflicted, the attack was quite successful. It drove off the Carthaginian army, secured Nola, and demonstrated that there was a Roman field army in Campania that would fight, and could win. Indeed, this victory became a core part of Marcellus’ historical reputation. The distinction was so commonplace that 170 years later Cicero compared his spirits raised by a letter from a friend to the Roman people first picking themselves up after Cannae because of Marcellus’ victory at Nola.50 Livy, for his part, waxed poetically a generation later when he said, ‘I rather think that the greatest thing in that war was accomplished that day. For not to be defeated by Hannibal was a more difficult thing than it was later to defeat him,’ a sentiment uttered later by Valerius Maximus and Plutarch.51 An exaggeration, to be sure, but it must have been a significant bolster to Roman morale that Marcellus was the first Roman commander to have any success against Hannibal in battle. The Carthaginian was not invincible.

Repulsed at Nola, without hope of easily acquiring the city, and with the constant pressure to supply and motivate his army, Hannibal must have felt he could not afford to spend more time in his current camp. Consequently, his army moved to nearby Acerrae.52This town lay between Capua and Nola and was less than ten miles from Neapolis, that port city still arguably a primary objective for the Campanian campaign. The men of Acerrae, and though Livy does not say, presumably the women and children, abandoned the town as Hannibal made preparations to besiege it. Emptied of any resistance, the Carthaginians plundered the city and set it afire.53

Meanwhile, now that the danger from the Carthaginian army was momentarily averted, Marcellus turned his attention to the conspirators in Nola. He set up headquarters in the town forum and launched an inquiry into the identities of the Nolans who had met with the Carthaginians. More than seventy, Livy records, were convicted of treason.54 In a time of war outside the city of Rome, however, conviction hardly implies anything like a formal trial. Though Marcellus may have wanted to conduct a fair investigation so as to secure the loyalty of Nola further, as the supreme Roman military commander there, he technically needed only to satisfy himself that these seventy-plus Nolans were guilty. Once satisfied, the guilty were beheaded and their property forfeited to the Romans – such was the power of consular imperium in action.

With that grim business concluded and Nola secured for the future, Marcellus withdrew his forces to a camp north of Suessula. Perhaps this was in response to news of Hannibal at Acerrae, though the precise chronology is not clear. Even if not, the camp was well located. Midway and within a good half day’s march of both Capua and Nola, the camp allowed Marcellus to pressure the former and provide support for the latter. From there, he could also guard the leg of the Appian Way that extended from Campania into nearby Beneventum, an important Roman colony in Samnium. Occupying this position allowed Marcellus to restrict Hannibal’s movements both by containing him in Campania and putting pressure on his newly acquired and important Capuan allies; Roman cavalry could patrol the countryside and attack foragers while the full army could mobilize if needed for a larger threat. Marcellus’ choice of camp was advantageous enough that it was maintained for years later, and dubbed the castra Claudiana (or ‘Claudian Camp’) after its founder.55

It appears that encamping above Suessula did put pressure on Hannibal. After the sack of Acerrae, Hannibal was concerned that the Capuans might return to the Roman fold with a Roman army encamped so near, and so marched his forces north to Casilinum, only a few miles distant from Capua, to make sure that Capua kept to its newly struck alliance.56 Casilinum was held by a small Roman garrison and guarded, as noted earlier, two major roads to Rome. The fact that Hannibal did not march on Rome after Cannae suggests that attacking the city, which most historians agree would have been futile, was not part of his strategy. Nevertheless, taking Casilinum would certainly keep his options open and kept the danger of an attack on Rome – however remote – present in the mind of Marcellus and other commanders. Obfuscation was a critical strategic tool in an ancient commander’s kit, and the threat of an attack could serve to pin an enemy commander and force down just as effectively as an actual attack.

Casilinum was garrisoned by a force of perhaps 1,000 soldiers, mostly from the Latin towns of Praeneste and Perusia.57 Hannibal dispatched a small detachment ahead of his army to negotiate for the surrender of the city and the installment of a Carthaginian garrison. The detachment was driven off by the Casilinum garrison, however, and Hannibal soon arrived with his main force, intending to storm the city.58 The garrison successfully blunted the Carthaginian attack, however, and Hannibal shifted to siege tactics, attempting to mine the city walls. What an impressive force those Latin soldiers must have been; no more than 1,000 strong, they held off the great Hannibal and his army. They headed off the Carthaginian mines with their own countermines and stalled the enemy attempts to undermine the walls.

Thwarted for the time being and with winter approaching, Hannibal left a small force in a reinforced camp and took the bulk of his army to Capua to spend the winter months.59 Marcellus’ army, on the other hand, wintered at the castra Claudiana above Suessula. Finally, sometime in the autumn or winter of 216, the army that had been hastily assembled at Rome after Cannae – two city legions, composed partly of freed slaves and pardoned murderers – encamped near Casilinum.60 This force of some 25,000 was under the command of the dictator Marcus Junius Pera and his second-in-command – the position Romans titled ‘master of cavalry’ – Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Gracchus was one of the curule aediles for 21661 before Pera selected him to be master of horse. Livy notes that these soldiers were levied in the aftermath of Cannae but makes no reference to their destination or activities until the spring of 215, at which point he notes that Gracchus waited in camp with the army, commanded to undertake no action, while the dictator was fulfilling important religious obligations at Rome.62 Perhaps this simply reflects that it took some time after Cannae to levy troops, form legions, and march to Casilinum, since presumably they could have helped relieve Casilinum if they had arrived earlier. Most likely, this hastily levied force consisting largely of soldiers drawn, from a Roman perspective, from the dregs of society, was intended to remain fixed near Casilinum to guard the roads to Rome while the senate undertook the required administrative recovery after Cannae. It may have been considered far too chancy at this critical stage in the war to commit untrusted troops to battle unnecessarily.

Winter arrived, major military operations ceased with the exception of the blockade at Casilinum, and at Rome a number of loose ends had to be tied. Among the most important of these was the replenishment of the senate. It had been five years since the senate roll had been updated and many had died in the past few years, some from old age, but certainly many more in the battles against Hannibal.63 A second dictator – pretty much unheard of to Romans – was appointed solely for the purpose of revising the lists of senators.64 Ordinarily, vacancies in the senate, historians think, were filled by those who had held public office, but in 216 there were far too many vacancies to be filled in this way. Accordingly, the dictator, M. Fabius Buteo, went beyond this standard approach to include Romans who had not held office but who, in Livy’s words, ‘had spoils of the enemy affixed to their houses or had received the civic wreath’65 the latter a reward for saving a citizen in battle.

According to Livy, it was after the senate rolls had been revised that the senate instructed Marcellus, the dictator Pera, and his master of horse Gracchus to leave their forces under subordinates and report to the senate at Rome. The three complied, and following their reports, Pera initiated the elections for magistrates for the following year (215).66 Lucius Postumius Albinus, the praetor who had spent the year in Gaul, was elected consul in absentia and his colleague was Pera’s master of horse, Gracchus. The praetors elected for the year were Marcus Valerius Laevinus, Appius Claudius Pulcher, Quintus Mucius Scaevola, and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, this last one for the second time.67

These names in and of themselves should not register with most readers, but the omission of Marcellus’ name from among them is surprising until one recalls that the Roman electorate did not limit itself to electing only those with the best military records. In the elections for 216, however, Marcellus had been one of a number of well-qualified candidates that were passed over. His omission from the elections for 215 underscores, however, that even in times of great military need, elections followed the normal lines, whereby there was far more to winning office than a successful record as a commander. Here was the only commander who had won any sort of victory against Hannibal, a man who had kept Campania secure and discharged his duties for the year admirably, to say the least. These were all achievements of the last few months before the elections, yet he was not elected to office.

The best explanation, as hollow as it might seem, is that elections were simply unpredictable affairs then as they are now. The voters simply preferred Gracchus and Albinus. One might have thought that those with the best military records were most likely to win high office. The relationship between a reputation for virtus, a martial quality, a victorious military record and election to high office seems commonsensical; in reality, any such connection is very murky to us, and no doubt was to the Romans themselves. Certainly a reputation for virtus, that abstract quality of Roman manliness, could qualify one to be selected as a senator; Buteo demonstrated this in 216 when he selected new senators from among those common citizens who had earned honours in battle. Surely, all else being equal, such a reputation might help one win election. Nevertheless, throughout the Republic, Roman voters often did not prefer the candidate with the superior military record. What’s more, they seem to have had a marked indifference to holding an aristocrat’s military failures against them in any future bids for high office,68 Instead tending to explain defeat in terms of angry gods and insufficiently virtuous soldiers. It is worth remembering in this context that Marcellus was not the only highly successful commander passed over in the elections. Quintus Fabius Maximus, the dictator of 217 who had waged a successful campaign of attrition against Hannibal, during which the Romans lost no significant battles and kept Italy essentially under their control, was also passed over in the elections.

Indeed, the striking feature of the administrative arrangements for 215 was not that the voters elected others instead of Marcellus; it was that the senate did not plan any military command for Marcellus in the upcoming year, even after disaster struck. The consul-elect Albinus, it seems, led his army into a Gallic ambush in the forest. His army was routed and Albinus himself was killed in the fighting. On a fascinatingly gruesome note, the victorious Boii turned Albinus’ skull into a gold-adorned drinking cup for religious ceremonies.69 After word of the disaster reached Rome, Gracchus, still master of horse, called a meeting of the senate. Gracchus reported on the status of the dictator Pera’s troops, Marcellus made a similar report, and the status of the consul Varro’s forces in Apulia was ascertained. The senate determined to send the forces under Pera – the city legions, freedmen and convicts – to join Varro. Varro, the commander during the disaster at Cannae, was to remain in command of his forces. Those who had served with Marcellus for the past few months from the army at Cannae, however, were sentenced – indeed Livy’s account of the decree reads like a sentence – to serve in Sicily until the war in Italy ended. Other troop redistributions were made. Ultimately, however, there seems to have been no army left for Marcellus. So the senate took Marcellus’ army away, decreed that the consul Varro would have his command extended as consul for an additional year, and made no such provisions for Marcellus.70 This was no accident or oversight. Marcellus had not been elected to office; by not extending his tenure of imperium the senate had deliberately arranged for the end of his military command.

It is important to avoid the mistake that is so often made for groups in general, however, of treating the senate as a body of one mind and purpose. Quite the contrary; the senate was composed of proud Roman aristocrats, each of whom not only had their own opinion on how best to manage the affairs of the Republic, but also kept at least some watch on how different courses of action would affect their own reputation and honour and those of their families in an intensely competitive political system. So there was significant room for disagreements in the senate. For practical purposes, however, many of the conflicting opinions on the topics of the day might never be heard, let alone voted upon. Discussion in the senate was led by the consuls, who gave preference of speaking to those of highest rank first: assuredly former consuls and praetors, possibly, according to some historians, former censors and dictators at the front of the line. Though the junior senators could speak when their turn came, and all could vote, if the most powerful men, the lead speakers, reached a rough consensus, that consensus of the few might well become the voice of the senate on the issue in place of a vote.71 Tradition and the social hierarchy reinforced by tradition dictated that the senate, once senators had arrived at a decision, spoke with a unified voice. When the statement is made from Livy’s record that the senate gave no place to Marcellus in the military arrangement for 215 while extending Varro’s command, then, what is really being said is that those senators who were most able to control and shape the decisions of that session did not see fit to grant Marcellus a command. They hardly constituted the whole of the senate, however.

Much as it would be illuminating to know if anyone in the senate deliberately moved debate so that Marcellus’ command was not continued, there is too little evidence to go on. Fabius Maximus could hardly have been a fan of Marcellus and was a very senior senator with an important role in leading senatorial debate. That is not enough to prove that he made any special effort to end Marcellus’ command. In addition, the consul Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus presided over that particular meeting of the senate and could have influenced the discussion.72 Again, however, there is no evidence that Gracchus opposed Marcellus. Perhaps a better way of envisioning the matter is not that anyone actively opposed a continued command for Marcellus, but that no one who offered opinions during that session suggested his command be continued; without an official extension of his command, it would lapse.

If that had been the end of the matter it would seem the aristocracy had checked the prestige of one of its own, limiting Marcellus’ continued political rise by taking no action to extend his command. As it happened, the voters in the assembly, a sufficient number of them in any event, were not willing to stand by while Marcellus was retired from the field. When March came and the new magistrates for the year entered office, the assembly voted Marcellus the command that the senate had not seen fit to give. Here was an instance where Marcellus’ reputation worked to his advantage. Ordinarily, prorogation was the result of a senatorial decision and the assembly simply confirmed the senatorial appointments.73 In this instance, however, the assembly granted Marcellus his command despite the senate leaders who had passed him over that year. That this was something outside the ordinary handling of such affairs is preserved in Livy’s wording: ‘That Marcus Marcellus should have full military authority as proconsul was ordered by the people, because he alone of the Roman commanders since the disaster at Cannae had met with success in Italy.’74 In other words, Marcellus received a rare honour from the assembly of Roman voters. This can hardly have endeared him to his detractors, those who had been satisfied with letting his command lapse.

In a very real sense Marcellus had managed to override the decision of the senate or, more precisely, his rivals in the senate. This could not have happened, however, without the support of at least one official. Citizen assemblies were not allowed to meet of their own volition; they had to be summoned by the appropriate magistrate. Furthermore, the assemblies of the Republic, unlike the more democratic Athens of the fifth century BC, were not places of debate and discussion. When the assembly gathered it was presented a motion by the presiding official. It was the right of the assembly to pass the motion, making it a law binding for all Romans, or reject it. For Marcellus to have been granted an extraordinary prorogation of his command by a vote of the people meant that a magistrate, a senator, had taken the initiative to present the motion to the assembly. Apparently, there was a fair amount of disagreement in the senate over Marcellus’ right to command. Enough so, in fact, that a magistrate countered the implied wishes of the senate and proposed an extended command for Marcellus. That magistrate may have been reacting to a critical mass of senators who wished Marcellus to remain in command; as will soon be clear, there were certainly many who felt that way in the senate. Alternatively, the magistrate may have been responding to a popular groundswell of support for Marcellus in the city.

The matter of Marcellus’ command was far from settled. The senator and indeed all Romans were bound to follow a motion passed by the assembly; Marcellus was now a proconsul for the year. His first assignment for the year, however, was of dubious importance for a Roman of his stature and authority. The two city legions had been ordered to muster for the year at Cales in Campania. Marcellus was assigned to meet these legions at Cales and chaperone them to the Claudian Camp. From there, the praetor Appius Claudius’ subordinate would take the army to Sicily.75 This was hardly the type of military command those who had voted proconsular authority to Marcellus had envisioned.

Only after Marcellus had left the city on this errand did preparations begin to fill the consulship left empty by Postumius Albinus. This was simply too much for Marcellus’ supporters. Livy suggests that murmurs began to rise in the senate, some senators openly suggesting that Marcellus had been removed on purpose to prevent him standing for the consulship.76 Between the magistrate who had called the assembly to grant Marcellus’ command and the murmurings in the senate, although an admittedly vague attribution, it is apparent Marcellus had supporters perhaps no less significant than his detractors. According to Livy, the consul Gracchus moved to quash such grumblings, assuring the senators that the elections would not be held until Marcellus could return from his assignment.77 Gracchus may have shared the sentiments of Marcellus’ supporters, or he simply may have chosen to stop a political squabble that was growing before it became a liability to the war effort. He was certainly not opposed to Marcellus being consul if, as Livy suggested, he told the senate anything remotely along the lines of:

Both acts were to the advantage of the state, fellow-senators, that Marcus Claudius should be sent to Campania to make the change of armies and that the coming election should not be proclaimed until he, after accomplishing the task which was assigned him, should return thence, so that you might have the consul whom the critical situation in the state requires and whom you particularly desire.78

Plutarch, however, suggests that neither Gracchus nor the other magistrates wanted to postpone the election and only did so at the demand of the people. Perhaps, but Livy’s account is more plausible in that it recognizes that Marcellus had political support within the senate and explains in a way that Plutarch does not, how it came to be that elections were actually delayed. Either way, the matter was tabled until Marcellus returned. For the moment, those who had opposed a command for Marcellus were stymied.

It would be so very illuminating to know Marcellus’ role in these maneuvers, or even his personal feelings on the matter. Suffice to say, while he must have been pleased to find supporters willing to make waves on his behalf, there is absolutely no evidence that Marcellus himself publicly stirred the pot or in any way openly challenged the authority of the senate, regardless of whether it was led by his opponents. Marcellus was consistent in this approach. The consummate political player, he couched his achievements, as essentially every successful Roman aristocrat did, in terms of service to the Republic. The fact that he personally and publicly benefited from the offices and the honours, awards, and glory that accrued from them, to his Roman aristocrat’s mind, in no way undermined his claim to be seeking only to serve the Republic. It would strain credulity to suppose Marcellus did not privately voice his frustrations and hopes to trusted friends and associates, and it is only reasonable to suppose he encouraged those who wanted to support his political ambitions. Nevertheless, it would seem that he toed the line of respect for the institutions and procedures of the Republic very carefully and very well, even as he accumulated an unprecedented set of honours.

The extent of Marcellus’ ability to challenge powerful institutions and rivals when they limited his ambitions while wholeheartedly claiming – and almost assuredly believing – that his actions were in the best tradition of service to the Republic becomes clearer when one considers that Postumius Albinus was a patrician and Marcellus was a plebeian. When Albinus died, Gracchus was inaugurated; the Republic had its plebeian consul and a rigid tradition dictated that there be one and only one plebeian consul every year – with a patrician colleague. What Marcellus’ supporters were proposing, a proposal with which Marcellus clearly agreed, was nothing short of a major constitutional innovation in a society where innovation was often not regarded kindly. If he were elected to replace Albinus, the Republic would have two plebeian consuls. The exact legality of such a thing is murky. It is far from clear that the law opening both consulships to plebeians actually took place in 342 as recorded by Livy; it may have only come to be in the early second century. Nor is it clear there was any explicit law against having two plebeian consuls once the fourth century laws were passed requiring one consul be plebeian.79 It is abundantly clear, however, from the lists of consuls elected every year that tradition dictated one consul be plebeian and one patrician until the early second century. What was Marcellus thinking in putting his name in for consideration to the consulship? Perhaps he did not; perhaps like the prorogation, his supporters considered him without his direct instigation. Whatever the case may be, others clearly felt Marcellus deserved the office since he was elected by a ‘great consensus’ of voters, as Livy says. For the first time, two plebeians had been elected to serve as consuls.80 When Marcellus dedicated thespolia opima, seven years earlier, he claimed to have earned a exceptionally rare honour to be sure, but one that had some precedent. There was no precedent for two plebeian consuls and good reason to suspect that many would be upset by the innovation.

Strange as it may seem to modern readers, just as Marcellus entered office, thunder was heard, a well-recognized omen from the gods. It was not for just any Roman to determine whether the gods had sent a bad omen when it pertained to the welfare of the Republic as a whole. The college of augurs was the body of priests charged with determining whether the signs from the gods had been negative, usually during sacrifices, but also in cases like thunder and other celestial messages. They were summoned, considered the omen, and declared that there had been a flaw in the election, though it appears they did not specify exactly what the cause of the flaw was. It is tantalizing to note that Marcellus himself was an augur. Questions arise: Did he take part in the discussion of the thunderclap? It certainly fell under his jurisdiction as an augur. Had he heard the thunder? So long as someone of sufficient authority had heard the thunder or persuasively claimed to have done so, it did not matter. Did he agree with the consensus opinion of the other augurs that the thunder represented a flawed election? He had established a reputation of attending carefully to the gods and he may have persisted in that stance. Or perhaps the augurs silenced his objections? Regardless of how the augurs came to their conclusions, if indeed they did not specify exactly why the gods were upset, a number of senators were happy to offer an obvious interpretation: The gods were angered by the election of a second plebeian consul.81

It is important to understand the nature of their objection. In the days of the foundation of Rome there were two classes of Romans: patricians, who were the nobility, and plebeians, who were everyone else. When the Republic was created, it was essentially the result of the patricians chafing under the restrictions of a monarchy and wanting to establish a political system where they wielded greater power and influence. Hence in the earliest Republic the patricians alone were eligible for the highest magistracies. For the first century and a half of the Republic or so, there were a number of social and political conflicts between the plebeians and patricians. While the exact nature of the conflict is as hazy as everything else in that early period, it appears that the poorest plebeians wanted a set of legal protections, particularly involving matters like debt, so that they could not be oppressed by wealthier creditors. The wealthier plebeians – and there were a number who had wealth but chanced not to be born into the noble patrician families – wanted a share in the political power and prestige that the patricians had gained. In other words, they wanted access to the political offices. The details of this struggle need not detain us here.82 What is most important is that somewhere in the middle of the fourth century a law was passed guaranteeing that one of the consuls every year from then on would be plebeian. This was a major concession from the patricians for it meant that their supply of consulships was cut in half.

By Marcellus’ day the distinctions between patricians and plebeians that held political office had faded to a certain extent, and a patrician-plebeian aristocracy of office holders and senators had been well established.83 The practice that one consul would be patrician and one plebeian, however, was a tradition. Or to look at it another way, there had never been two plebeian consuls. The Romans, like all ancient peoples, took their traditions seriously. After all, the world was a dangerous place. In the absence of modern industry, science, technology, and medicine, bad weather could kill by destroying crops, childbirth was far too frequently lethal to mother and child, and minor bacterial infections could prove fatal. With so many fewer solutions to the problems that all humans face, the effective practices of ancestors, tested and confirmed through the centuries, were the generally accepted means of making sure individuals and the commonwealth survived in a dangerous world. Many of these practices revolved around placating the gods. By observing the proper rituals, prayers, and sacrifices, the Romans generally hoped to maintain the goodwill of the gods as protection against the dangers of the world. Failure to respect the gods could turn them against the commonwealth with devastating effect.

So, it was no small thing for Marcellus to win election as the second plebeian consul for the year, and when the augurs indicated that the gods were angry, something had to be done. His critics had him over a barrel. Ultimately, there was no debating that Marcellus’ election violated precedent – no one could deny that. As such, there really was little Marcellus could do. Violating the received will of the gods was not a viable option, certainly not when the augurs had identified a problem and the interpretation that Marcellus had caused the offense had gained momentum. It is noteworthy in this context that Cicero would much later refer to Marcellus as augur optimus (‘the best of augurs’) while writing at the same instant that ‘[Marcellus] used to say that, if he wished to execute some maneuver which he did not want interfered with by the auspices, he would travel in a closed litter.’84 This was not an illogical claim on Cicero’s part. The gods and humans, the Romans seemed to believe, played a very strictly legalistic game. If one did not see the signs of the gods’ displeasure, they, strictly speaking, did not exist.85 The obverse of this reasoning was also true – the augurs agreed an ill omen from the gods had been delivered. Marcellus had shown himself to be interested in following the will of the gods and following tradition of a sort – hardly the sort to cross them now. ‘He abdicated the office’ was Livy’s only comment on the outcome. The patrician Quintus Fabius Maximus became consul to replace Albinus.86

What are we to make of this episode? Certainly, it strains the credulity of those with modern political sensibilities to assume the whole episode – from the hearing of the thunderclap to Marcellus’ abdication – was completely above board. Surely, one might suspect, Marcellus’ enemies – those who had initially managed to prevent him having a military command for the year, those who had inspired complaints that Marcellus had been given busywork to keep him away from the elections – must have manipulated the religious beliefs of the Romans to engineer his embarrassment? It hardly calms suspicions to note that Fabius Maximus was an augur too,87 the very one whose family monopoly of ties to the cavalry and whose very temple to Honos were undermined by the claims of Marcellus less than a decade earlier. He was an augur and he replaced Marcellus as consul. Did Fabius, a senator of considerable influence, take a lead position in determining that a bad omen had indeed been sighted and that the omen was because of Marcellus’ election? The timing of the thunder seems very convenient. Was the whole episode a plan by Marcellus’ opponents to stop him from a major innovation in the constitution?88 It is illuminating to remember that Fabius was a patrician and by simple arithmetic, Marcellus had taken an office that had always been reserved for patricians. If allowed to stand, Marcellus’ innovation could potentially limit the number of consulships available to patricians severely. This was not a precedent that Fabius would likely have willingly tolerated. Certainly not from a rival who had already shown his willingness to claim what might be seen as unorthodox privileges in the past. None of this proves conclusively, of course, that Fabius had a hand in this, but he had means, motive, and opportunity.

In this instance, Marcellus had broken with convention and opponents rallied to stop him. They had leverage in their obstruction. Regardless of the reality of the omen, a questionable enough electoral innovation would have made many pause. Omens indicating flaws in elections, not to mention flaws in all sorts of public business, were not that rare. The Roman state, as far as Romans were concerned, depended on the good will and material support of the gods for its prosperity, and it was critical that the laws of the gods be obeyed for that good will to be maintained. It is a bit misleading to cast the objection solely as the plot of a group of politically motivated rival senators potentially taking advantage of a religious technicality. Such a view runs the risk of misunderstanding the inseparability of the public religion and politics in the Republic and, indeed, in all ancient societies. The public religion protected the commonwealth; pleasing the gods helped ensure a prosperous state, angering the gods meant courting disaster. There is no need to suppose any distinction between the political and religious stances of Marcellus’s enemies on this point. His enemies did not want him to be consul or even to have a military command. They assumed, as do most of us in such situations when we feel animosity to others, that they were justified in their opinions of Marcellus. Why, then, would they think the gods disagreed? Rather, the thunderclap for Marcellus’ enemies simply confirmed what they already believed; Marcellus was unworthy. In the end though, it is highly unlikely that all the senators who raised the point that the gods were angered were enemies of Marcellus.

Still, a citizen assembly had granted Marcellus the authority of a consul for the year and there had been no irregularities in that procedure. The senate dispatched Marcellus to the army at the Claudian camp in order to keep Nola secure. Fabius took command of the dictator Pera’s forces and Gracchus of the slave volunteers, both of which were wintering at Teanum.89 In this, the fourth year of war, the Roman military efforts in Italy continued to focus on Campania and on a series of marches, countermarches, sieges, and relief efforts focused on controlling the critical strategic forts and towns that dominated the countryside. Casilinum had fallen to Hannibal’s siege in the winter or early spring. There seems to have been no major effort to recover the city this year, however. Marcellus’ primary activities that summer focused on garrisoning Nola and launching punitive raids from the city into neighboring Samnite and Hirpini territory, both peoples having allied with Hannibal after Cannae.90 The raids were highly effective, according to Livy, driving both peoples to complain to Hannibal that he was leaving them wholly defenceless.91 According to Livy, Hannibal returned to the region of Nola to check Marcellus’ predations on the lands of his allies and another indecisive battle was fought between the two commanders. This second battle at Nola, however, has been doubted by a number of historians who suggest Livy or his sources had mistakenly duplicated the authentic battle episode from the year before. Whatever the case may be, at the end of the summer Nola held, the Samnites and Hirpini were perhaps doubting the wisdom of siding with Hannibal, and Marcellus, in compliance with the consul Fabius’ orders, released all his soldiers for the winter except those needed to garrison Nola.92

At the end of the year, Fabius came to the Campus Martius field outside the city of Rome and announced the elections for next year’s officials. The consular elections this year produced another curious irregularity. In the late third century, the century that voted first for consuls was chosen by lot; it was considered a distinction to vote first, and it was not uncommon for the first century’s picks for consul to be elected. Perhaps subsequent centuries liked the idea of picking a winner. The young men of the Aniensis tribe – as opposed to the century of older men from that same tribe – picked Titus Otacilius Crassus and Marcus Aemilius Regulus to be consuls. Fabius, the presiding consul, however, strongly rebuked the tribe for selecting these two men. If Livy’s constructed speech is boiled down to its essence, Fabius criticized the military qualities and successes of both men and ordered that the junior Aniensis century be called upon to vote again for more suitable candidates. This was not a common phenomenon, to say the least. Interfering in consular elections, particularly by the presiding consul, would have been a habit dangerous to the Republic, for it would put too much power into the hands of the consuls. It appears Otacilius at least was aware of Fabius’ grave impropriety and sputtered that Fabius was trying to architect an extended consulship. Fabius, however, would not brook any challenge to his consular authority. He reminded Otacilius that they were both outside the city limits of Rome, and as such, that his lictors still carried the axes in their fasces. To translate: Fabius as consul outside the city could lawfully execute a Roman citizen, even Otacilius, with just a word of command to his axecarrying lieutenants. Otacilius ceased his public protest, the junior Aniensis tribe voted again, and Fabius and Marcellus were elected consuls for 214.93 It would be interesting to know how Fabius felt about Marcellus being elected this year. Did his plan backfire? Likely Fabius was pragmatic about these matters. If he did wish Marcellus to be kept from the highest honours, he must have realized with the events of the previous year that he could not do so with any certainty. Marcellus, for his part, cannot have played any large part in Fabius’ manoeuvre. He was with the army in Campania and elected in absentia.94

Marcellus had remained in the field in the winter and returned to protect Nola early in the spring of 214 when the city leaders requested his help.95 Most of Marcellus’ time and energy for the season were invested in Nola again, since Hannibal had returned to the region from the south and there continued to be concerns about the city’s loyalties. Fabius, on the other hand, prepared to retake Casilinum. He sent word to Marcellus asking whether he could assist or Fabius should seek aid from Gracchus at Beneventum. Marcellus left part of his force to guard Nola and joined Fabius at Casilinum. The two Roman armies must have tested the city walls for assault, for some Roman soldiers close to the walls of Casilinum were wounded. According to Livy, Fabius and Marcellus hotly debated whether to continue the siege in light of the Roman causalities. Fabius advocated lifting the siege rather than committing additional time and resources. Marcellus, on the other hand argued that withdrawing in failure would needlessly tarnish their reputations.96 The whole debate seems a bit formulaic since, conventionally, the historical tradition emphasized that Marcellus was audacious and Fabius cautious. This may have been an instance where the Livy chose to illustrate the sword and shield of Rome metaphor through an improvised debate. Certainly, Casilinum’s location along the Appian and Latin Ways was hardly insignificant, the Romans had persevered despite suffering terrific casualties in the past, and there is no clear evidence of great casualties here other than a vague reference. Most importantly, though, the commanders maintained the siege regardless of whether there had been any formal debate on doing so.

Subsequent events, however, suggest that the two commanders did have a decided difference of opinion about how to conduct operations at Casilinum. Livy’s account is a bit puzzling in that he seems to be compressing events: ‘While sheds and all other kinds of siege-works and apparatus were being brought up, and the Campanians were begging Fabius for permission to go to Capua in safety, after a few had left the city, Marcellus occupied the gate by which they were leaving.’97

Probably the best way to untangle this rushed account is to separate the three parts in time. Therefore, while the Roman forces began to prepare the siege works needed to take the city, some of the Campanians within the garrison at Casilinum seem to have negotiated with Fabius that they be allowed to leave the city and travel under safe conduct to Capua. Presumably, Fabius agreed, else it is difficult to explain why the Campanians began leaving the city. Why he would have done so is not clear since these Campanians were returning to Capua, still an ally of Hannibal. Perhaps Fabius reasoned that the defection of these Campanians would weaken Casilinum more than they would strengthen Capua. Certainly, this would make sense of Livy’s report that Fabius thought the city too difficult to be worth taking at that moment in time. Marcellus, however, seems to have been left out of these negotiations, or at least did not receive any word of them. Any number of scenarios might explain this. Marcellus must have been elsewhere – there was much to do to prepare for a siege after all – when Fabius was approached. Perhaps Fabius did not see fit to communicate the arrangement to Marcellus. Perhaps events happened so quickly that Fabius did not have time to communicate with Marcellus. Or perhaps Fabius did communicate with Marcellus and counted on him to obey, since Fabius was an elected consul for the year.

Regardless of whether and how the arrangement was communicated, though, Marcellus clearly had very different ideas about how the Campanians should be handled. To their horror, Marcellus and his soldiers occupied the gate from which they began to depart and began slaughtering those inside the city gates indiscriminately. Marcellus felt no sense of mercy for those in the city. Indeed, his force moved from the gate into the city and continued to attack. Meanwhile, a few Campanians escaped the city – perhaps fifty – and sought the protection of Fabius. Fabius, true to his word, sent them under armed escort safely to Capua.98 He must not have been part of any plan with Marcellus to betray the Campanians. Rather, it seems that the two commanders acted without any sort of cooperation. This episode suggests several important things about Marcellus. First, that he had little remorse for enemies. Though Livy hides it in the brevity of his description, Marcellus had decided to subject the inhabitants of Casilinum, a rebel city, to a rampage of killing, making them an object lesson in the penalties for disloyalty to Rome. He was hardly alone among Romans in believing that no fate was too harsh for an enemy and that all who resisted in any way during a time of war were enemies. At the same time, though, Fabius did not share these ideas about Casilinum, so it appears that this stance may have been part of Marcellus’ particular world-view. Second, Livy’s brief description of the episode at Casilinum seems likely to have glossed over a serious inability of the two men to work together. Not only did the left hand not know what the right was doing, the left actively challenged the right. Combined with the other traces of problems between the two men, it becomes increasingly reasonable to conclude that Marcellus and Fabius were, if not complete political enemies, probably bitter rivals.

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A careful analysis of Marcellus’ activities from the aftermath of Cannae to 214 indicates that his political career was supercharged by the demands of the war. He had built a strong reputation based upon military achievements before the beginning of the Hannibalic War. This reputation was greatly magnified by his victory over Hannibal at Nola. By 215, he was powerful enough to challenge the restriction against two plebeian colleagues in the consulship. Yet despite his abilities and growing prestige, he suffered delays in his early career and attempts to exclude him from a command and elections in 215. Even the exceptional success of winning election as the second plebeian consul of 215 was ultimately checked when the augurs declared a flaw in the auspices. There was a limit to how much even as successful an aristocrat as he could innovate to his own advantage. As we shall see, the years from 214 to 210 would catapult Marcellus even farther past his peers in terms of honours and prestige, yet he would face even greater political challenges designed to limit his laurels.

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