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Appian's History of Rome: The Hannibalic War §§11-15


Legionary standard (of XXX Ulpia Traiana reenactment group). Photo Jona Lendering.
Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) is the author of a Roman History and one of the most underestimated of all Greek historians. Although only his books on the Roman Civil Wars survive in their entirety, large parts of other books have also come down to us. Although his account of the War against Hannibal contains not much information that can not be found in other sources (Polybius of Megalopolis and Livy), it is fortunately well-preserved and certainly accessible.

The translation was made by Horace White; footnotes and additions in green by Jona Lendering. 


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  [§11] [217] When Hannibal saw the Plestine marsh and the mountain overhanging it, and Centenius between them guarding the passage, he inquired of the guides whether there was any way around. When they said there was no path but that the whole region was rugged and precipitous, he nevertheless sent a body of light-armed troops, under the command of Maharbal, to explore the district and pass around the mountain by night. When he judged that they had reached their destination he attacked Centenius in front.

While the engagement was in progress, Maharbal was seen pushing forward strenuously on the summit above, where he raised a shout. The Romans thus surrounded took to flight, and there was a great slaughter among them, 3,000 being killed and 800 taken prisoners. The remainder escaped with difficulty.

When this news reached the city they feared lest Hannibal should march against them at once. They collected stones upon the walls, and the old men armed themselves. Being in want of arms they took down from the temples those that had been hung there as trophies of former wars, and, as was customary in times of great danger, they chose a dictator, [Quintus] Fabius Maximus being selected.

[§12] But divine Providence turned Hannibal away toward the Adriatic, where he ravaged the sea-coast and gathered vast plunder. The consul Servilius, marching parallel with him, came to Ariminum, being distant from Hannibal by one day's march. He retained his army there in order to hearten those Gauls who were still friendly to Rome. When Fabius Maximus, the dictator, arrived, he sent to Rome Servilius, who could be no longer either consul or general after a dictator had been chosen.

Fabius followed Hannibal closely, but did not come to an engagement with him, although often challenged. He kept careful watch on his enemy's movements, and lay near him and prevented him from besieging any town. After the country was exhausted Hannibal began to be short of provisions. So he traversed it again, drawing his army up each day and offering battle. Fabius would not come to an engagement, although his master of horse, [Marcus] Minucius Rufus, disapproved of his policy, and wrote to his friends in Rome that Fabius held back on account of cowardice.

As Fabius had occasion to go to Rome to perform certain sacrifices, the command of the army fell to Minucius, and he had a sort of a fight with Hannibal, and as he thought he had the best of it he grew bolder and wrote to the Senate accusing Fabius of not wanting to win a victory; and the Senate, when Fabius had returned to the camp, voted that his master of horse should share the command equally with him.

[§13] They accordingly divided the army and encamped near each other; and each held to his own opinion, Fabius seeking to exhaust Hannibal by the lapse of time and meanwhile to receive no damage from him, while Minucius was eager for a decisive fight. Shortly afterward Minucius joined battle, and Fabius looked on to see what would happen, holding his own forces well in hand. In this way he was enabled to receive Minucius when he was beaten, and to drive Hannibal's men back from the pursuit. Thus did Fabius save Minucius from a great disaster, bearing him no malice for his slander.

Then Minucius, recognizing his own want of experience, laid down his command and delivered his part of the army to Fabius, who held to the belief that the only time for a skillful captain to fight is when it is necessary. (This maxim, at a later time, was often brought to mind by Augustus, who was slow to fight and preferred to win by art rather than by valor.)

Fabius continued to watch Hannibal as before and prevented him from ravaging the country, not coming to an engagement with his whole army but merely cutting off stragglers, well knowing that Hannibal would soon be short of supplies.

[§14] They were now approaching a narrow pass of which Hannibal was ignorant. Fabius sent forward 4,000 men to occupy it, keeping the remainder of his force at the other extremity where he encamped on a strong hill. When Hannibal discovered that he had been caught between Fabius and the defended pass he was more alarmed than he had ever been before, for there was no way of escape, but all the country round about was rugged and precipitous. He could not hope to overcome Fabius or those defending the pass, on account of the difficulties of the ground.

In this desperate situation he put to death his 5,000 prisoners lest they should add a new tumult to the danger. Then he tied torches to the horns of all the cattle he had in the camp (and there were many), and when night came he lighted the torches, extinguished all the camp fires, and commanded the strictest silence. Then he ordered the most courageous of his young men to drive the cattle up the rocky places between Fabius and the pass. These, urged on by their drivers and burned by the torches, ran furiously up the mountain side, and if any of them fell down they would get up and run on again.

[§15] The Romans on either side when they observed the silence and darkness in Hannibal's camp and the many and various lights on the mountain side, could not exactly make out what was taking place, because it was night. Fabius, indeed, suspected that it was some stratagem of Hannibal's, but not being sure he kept his army in its position on account of the darkness.

But those who held the pass imagined, just as Hannibal wished, that in his extremity he was trying to escape by scaling the cliffs above. So they hastened away to the place where they saw the lights, in order to catch Hannibal there in difficulties. The latter, when he discovered that the pass was deserted, advanced with a flying detachment, in dead silence and without light, in order to conceal the movement. Having seized the pass and strengthened his position he made a signal by trumpet, and the army in camp answered him with a shout and immediately relighted the fires.

Then the Romans saw that they had been deceived. The remainder of Hannibal's army and those who drove the cattle now advanced to the pass without fear, and when he had brought them all together he moved forward. Thus did Hannibal succeed beyond expectation and rescue his army from danger.

Thence he advanced to Geronia, a city of Apulia, which was well stored with provisions. This town he captured, and here went into winter quarters in the midst of abundance.

Appian   :   Roman History   :   Hannibalic war   :   part 4
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