The Patient General: Fabius Maximus

Roman consul and general Fabius Maximus (280 – 203 B.C.) is exemplary in terms of his patience, endurance and self-sacrifice.  He reminds one in many ways of George Washington. Both men lost battles, but in the long run their steady and sensible strategies won wars. According to Plutarch’s account, Fabius was cautious, which led many to underestimate his abilities.

[A]s time went on and his mind was stirred by the demands of the life action, he soon proved to all alike that this apparent lack of energy was really due to his freedom from over-mastering passions and that his caution proceeded from a soundly based judgment, while the fact that he never acted on impulse and was not easily persuaded meant that he was steadfast and resolute in all circumstances.

Fabius embodied the Latin virtues of civic humility. He could be gentle and forgiving, even towards his rivals. Likewise he showed great wisdom in dealing with rebellious Italian cities, preferring lenience to harsh reprisals. Typical was his dealings with Lucius Minucius, supported by the populist faction in Rome. The impulsive cavalry leader ridiculed Fabius and insisted on sharing the supreme command. When Minucius suddenly found himself surrounded by Carthaginian forces, Fabius rescued him. After the battle, the Roman consul returned to his tent without uttering a single reproach.

Plutarch’s biography also reveals how the democratic element (and its demagogic leadership) is usually the first to clamor for war when it feels confident of victory and is the first to become defeatist at the slightest setback. Fabius was utterly determined to oppose Hannibal’s invasion. Once engaged, however, he avoided the foolhardiness of many of his colleagues. Like Washington in the American Revolution, he knew that he could not afford a major defeat. He had to slowly wear down his enemy until a major counter-attack could be successfully undertaken.

Plutarch only criticizes the famous consul on two points. The first is his army’s sack of the city of Tarentum, by which he “incurred the charge of bad faith an inhumanity.” Secondly there was his stubborn opposition to Scipio’s attack on Carthage, which ultimately defeated Hannibal. That said, it was fitting that upon his death every Roman contributed toward his funeral as a way of honoring a “father of the country.”

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