Quintus Fabius Cunctator: a general who stands askew in the pantheon of Roman heroes

He may have failed to gain a decisive victory over Hannibal but the consul, nicknamed ‘the hesitator,’ is proof that watchful waiting sometimes pays off.

Fabius Cunctator
Fabius Cunctator. Credit: Ivy Close Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Names matter. Vlad the Impaler sends a clear message; Erik Bloodaxe is a masterclass in brand management. Peter, Catherine, and Alfred the Great say what they do on the tin. Labels shape perception and the Romans knew this very well. They had three names: A praenomen they might be called in private (Marcus), a nomen, roughly analogous to a surname (Julius), and a cognomen (Caesar), a nickname, based on some characteristic they, or an ancestor had. The cognomen Caesar, he himself claimed, came from the Punic for elephant, which one of his ancestors putatively slew during the first Punic War. The cognomen Caligula means ‘little sandals’, a nickname given to him by the soldiers in his father’s camps. A cognomen was a chance to define yourself, preferably with reference to a military victory. Of all these cognomina, some awe-inspiring (Augustus, ‘most revered one’), some ridiculous (Cicero, ‘chickpea’), none would fail to strike the enemy with quite as much with fear as Quintus Fabius Cunctator: Quintus Fabius, the Hesitator.

Quintus Fabius started life with a worse cognomen than ‘hesitator’: born in the early third century B.C. he was a slow and cautious child with the nickname ‘ovicula’ — little lamb. The name particularly stung in contrast to Fabius. The Fabii were perhaps the most influential families in the early Republic. A few centuries before they waged a war at their own expense against nearby Veii where all but one of the 306 Fabii sent to fight perished in an ambush.

Despite the uninspiring nickname, Quintus Fabius lived up to the family name. He was elected consul in 233 B.C. and won a triumph against the Ligurians in the Alps. It may have been around that time that he was given the congnomen ‘Verrucosus,’ referring to a small wart growing above his lip. It might not have been perfect, but it was slightly more dignified than ovicula.  In 218 B.C. he was somewhere around age 60, and had lived the perfect Roman life. He had been elected consul, won a military victory, fathered a son who was ascending to public office. Retirement beckoned. Then Hannibal crossed the Alps and routed the first army the Romans sent to stop him at Trebia.

The Romans were eager to avenge the defeat immediately. Fabius counselled caution: Hannibal was completely cut off from Carthage’s supply lines, deep within enemy territory. It would be better to play defensively and wait for Hannibal to snuff himself out, like a small scrap of paper burning in a fireplace. The Romans did not listen— instead sending out troops to meet Hannibal before he reached the walls of Rome. They were ambushed at Lake Trasimene in 217 B.C. One of the armies was, along with its consul, killed or captured in its entirety. The other army, also caught unawares, merely lost half its cavalry.

Rome was thrown into tumult by these defeats and, in this chaos, they recognised the need for a coherent command of one, rather than competing, consuls. They chose the man who had warned them what would happen: Fabius Maximus.  His first action was to restore a relationship with the gods, offering all the year’s new livestock as sacrifice. He marched his army out against Hannibal, but did not engage. He recognised Hannibal’s prowess in command, the skill of his smaller army and, twice bitten, recognised he should be twice shy. His army shadowed Hannibal’s soldiers across Italy but he refused to give them battle, despite the general’s best attempts. Through Fabius’s careful manoeuvring, he was able to trap Hannibal’s army on the plains near Capua, north of Naples, but Hannibal tied torches to horns of stolen cattle. In the dark, this gave the appearance of a massive army, and scattered the Romans guarding a pass, allowing the enemies to escape. Fabius quickly realised what was happening but refused to send his men out to stop him, fearing an ambush and another disastrous defeat.

The Romans tired of Fabius’ caution. Every day that Hannibal roamed free was an insult to them and a display of impotence to Rome’s Italian ‘allies.’ It demeaned their virtus; their manliness. Incompetence could be excused, but cowardice could not. It was then that Fabius earned the pejorative cognomen ‘Cunctator.’ Fabius realised that he was fighting against a far more potent enemy than the one-eyed general: public opinion. Hannibal exploited this, and when he ravaged Rome’s land, he preserved Fabius’ farms alone. He hoped to pressure Fabius into a battle and use his superior tactics and army to win. Fabius resisted, but he was fighting the very nature of the Roman Republic.

The Roman state was its army: most of its revenue was spent campaigning; the chief role of its chief magistrates, the consuls, was leading Rome’s legions. Up until the time of Augustus in 14 B.C., Rome, from its founding, would only be at peace twice. Military service was all-important, and the privileged disproportionately shouldered that burden (or opportunity), justifying their rule. Rome was a clockwork machine that placed the power in the hands of ambitious elites on the understanding they would win glory and plunder. The system was predicated on battle — the one thing Fabius was trying to avoid.

Whilst Fabius held himself back from the temptation of victory, his deputy, Minucius could not. He chafed under his leader’s strategy of grinding Hannibal’s army down. Whilst Fabius was away in Rome Minucius engaged a section of Hannibal’s army and won a partial victory. Impressed, the Roman people, eager for action and displeased at Fabius’ performance, appointed Minucius as co-dictator, the first in Rome’s history. Minucius made no secret of his intention to force a battle with Hannibal and saw Fabius’ warnings as an attempt to retain his own authority. Fabius, in order to salvage what he could, suggested they split the army between them, rather than alternating command of the whole army.

Minucius agreed and the very next day, sought out Hannibal and, initially successful, committed more and more troops. When Hannibal sprung his inevitable trap and attacked from behind, Minucius had no reserves. There was no area to retreat to, only a plain of marauding Numidian cavalry, salivating at the prospect of Rome’s third great defeat.

Fabius, watching from nearby, sent in his half of the army. He fought off the Hannibalic cavalry and — just — was able to rescue Minucius and his troops. The day had ended in the slightest of Roman victories, but Minucius was chastened: ‘You have won two victories, one over Hannibal through valour, another over your colleague by wisdom and kindness.’ The lesson was learnt by Minucius, but not by the Roman People.

As soon as Fabius’ and Minucius’ six-month terms as dictators expired, the Romans elected new consuls in 216 B.C. Whilst one, Varro, was sympathetic to Fabius’ caution, the other, Paulus, was elected by promising to smash Hannibal. Together, they led an army of around 70,000, the largest Rome had ever fielded. They fought at Cannae, were surrounded and almost entirely perished. Twice as many Romans died at Cannae as British soldiers on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, two millennia later.

To Fabius, it must have felt like groundhog day: against his protestations an overconfident Roman army had been utterly routed by Hannibal and the future of the city stood in the balance again. Just as before, he took command. He was elected (and re-elected the following year) as consul. The conscription age was reduced to seventeen, and slaves were freed and recruited into the Roman army. At this time of terror, Fabius held his nerve and resisted the urge to recall Rome’s garrisons across Italy and overseas to defend the metropole. He doggedly continued his ‘Fabian strategy,’ harassing Hannibal but never engaging directly. His watchful waiting paid off and, when the opportunity presented itself in 209 B.C., he snatched the southern coastal city of Tarentum back with Hannibal’s army just five miles outside. The loss of this city, the lynchpin of Hannibal’s southern theatre, was crushing. Another cognomen was given to Fabius: Maximus, the greatest.

That was the closest Fabius ever got to victory over Hannibal. The battle that won the war, sixteen years after it started, was Zama, in 202 B.C., part of Scipio’s African expedition. Fabius never saw this final, cathartic fight, in fact, ever the ovicula, he counselled against it: he saw the expedition as too risky and was wary of Scipio’s star rising too far.

Fabius stands slightly askew in the pantheon of Roman heroes. He never won a decisive victory against Hannibal; he let him escape through a gorge; and counselled vociferously against Scipio’s African expedition — the one that finally brought the war to a close. Sometimes a Fabian strategy of delay pays off, sometimes a Scipionic strategy of attack works. Fabius misjudged and misstepped. He was not full of exceptional wisdom, but it was precisely this that made him exceptional. He knew Hannibal was a better general; that his own troops were untrained and unready, so,  quite simply, he avoided him.

Whilst Hannibal was the master tactician, it was Fabius, the master strategist that won. As a contemporary poet would put it: ‘unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem’: ‘one man restored the state to us by hesitating.’ Through his dogged determination, Fabius turned ‘Cunctator’ from a slur to a name he was proud to use. Cunctator might not fill an enemy with terror, but it should nevertheless make them hesitate.


James Darnton