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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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THE DESPAIR OF ROME

[203] AFTER the victory of Cannæ, Hannibal was deemed more than a mere man. Surely he must be endowed with the power of the gods, or he would never be able to sweep eight legions from his path, as he had done on this last dread battlefield.

Even a number of young Roman knights, of the best patrician families, were so sure that nothing could now save their country, that they determined to fly to the coast and thus escape to another land, where they might yet win honour by their arms.

But Cornelius Scipio, although but a lad like themselves, drew his sword and boldly declared that he would kill any one of them who refused to swear never to forsake his country. His courage made the young knights so ashamed that they gave up their selfish plan.

In Rome itself the people had been more confident than of late years, for was not Varro at the head of their army, and had he not been heard to say that he would conquer Hannibal in a day?

Tidings of the disaster at Cannæ reached the city first as a mere rumour, but even so it filled the hearts of the people with dread forebodings. Rumour said that the whole army was annihilated, that both Consuls were slain—the citizens in despair watched and waited for certain news of the battle.

At length a horseman was seen riding in hot haste toward the city. The people's hopes rose at the sight. For [204] a moment they forgot the rumours that had made them so uneasy, forgot all, save that their favourite Varro had been fighting for them. So they rushed toward the messenger, shouting with expectant voices: "Is it victory of which you have to tell—victory?"

But even as they spoke the people knew how foolish were their hopes. For the face of the rider was pale and stricken with pain, and the folk shrank back, fearful now to hear the truth. And the messenger seemed in no haste to tell his tidings.

But Fabius the Delayer came to him and bade him speak, saying that if he had bad news, they were prepared to listen.

So, amid a sudden silence, the terrible tale was told, nor when it was ended was there a house to be found in Rome that was not filled with mourning. Henceforth the people trembled at the very sound of the conqueror's name.

After the first shock of the tidings, the people awoke to fresh fears. Suppose Hannibal was already marching upon Rome?

In a panic they flocked to the gates, longing to escape from the city that they believed was doomed.

Again it was Fabius who came and talked to the terrified folk, and by his calmness allayed their fears. In these troublous days the Delayer proved indeed so strong and wise that, before long, even those who had been used to mock at his slowness were glad to turn to him for counsel.

It was Fabius who ordered guards to be placed at the gates, that the frightened inhabitants might not desert their city. It was he who ordered the women not to wail and sob in the streets, but to go quietly to their homes to mourn there for their dead.

Meanwhile messengers were sent along the Appian and Latin roads to gather tidings of Hannibal's movements. And soon they returned to tell that the conqueror was not [205] on his way to Rome, but was still in Apulia, dividing the spoil of the battle.

Varro, who was in Venusia, had with much difficulty gathered together the remnant of the army. He was now bidden by the Senate to bring it back to Rome.

It was a command he had dreaded. He had left Rome in joy, proud of the confidence of the people, he was going back shamed and, in his own eyes, disgraced. How would he be received by the Senate, by the people?

When he reached the gates of the city he would not enter, but awaited without the judgment of his fellows.

Then the Senate, knowing that the Consul loved his country and mourned for the humiliation he had brought upon her, went down to the gates to welcome him, followed by many of the people.

Fabius was among the senators, and from none of their lips did Varro hear a word of blame for the disaster of Cannæ. But they praised him for gathering together the remnant of the army, and thanked him, too, that after so great a loss "he had not despaired of the safety of the Commonwealth, but had come back to Rome to help them in their plans to deliver their country from the Carthaginians."

Meanwhile Hannibal had marched to Campania, and been gladly welcomed to its chief city Capua. Here, after their many hardships, he and his army enjoyed through the winter months comfort and ease. It is even said that the great general relaxed the severity of his discipline for a time.

But Capua was punished for opening its gates to Hannibal, for two Roman armies, under Fabius and Marcellus, were sent to besiege the town. The siege lasted during 212 and 211 B.C.

In the latter year Hannibal determined to march to Rome, for by doing so he thought he would force the Roman armies to leave Capua.

So at length what the citizens had often feared actually came to pass. The dreaded Carthaginian was on his way [206] to Rome, and the people were sure that their city would be razed to the ground, while they themselves would be carried away as slaves.

But although Hannibal encamped three miles from the city, and rode round part of her walls, he did not attempt to lay siege to her. He knew that he had not the materials needed to reduce so strong a fortress as Rome.

Hannibal did not achieve all that he had hoped from his march. The siege of Capua was not raised, although Fabius, it is true, was recalled from before her walls.

So the Punic general, having accomplished little, set out, meaning to return to Capua. He was followed by a Roman army, of which he took no notice until five days later.

Then, hearing that Capua was still besieged, he was angry, and vented his wrath upon the army at his rear. Waiting until it was dark and their camp was set up, Hannibal stormed it, and drove the Romans away in utter confusion. As he knew he was not strong enough to relieve Capua, he did not return to the city, and she, thus deserted, was forced to surrender to the Romans.

But thirty of the noblest senators of Capua resolved to die rather than fall into the hands of those they had betrayed, for they feared their vengeance. So they met together for a last solemn feast, after which they each took poison, and so escaped from their enemy.

The senators who had chosen to trust to Roman justice were loaded with chains and sent as prisoners to two different towns.

Fulvius, who longed for a sterner punishment, determined to inflict it himself. He followed the prisoners with a body of cavalry, and reached the first town early one morning. Twenty-eight of the wretched prisoners were at once ordered to be brought before him, that they might be scourged and put to death. Then, hastening to the other town, he ordered twenty-five senators to be put to death, without the trial they had a right to expect.

[207] It is told that before his vengeance was complete Fulvius received a letter from Rome, ordering the punishment of the senators of Capua to be delayed until she herself was able to judge them. But Fulvius, suspecting what was in the letter, left it unread until his horrible work was done.

Meantime, Hannibal was looking for reinforcements from Africa, and he wished to secure a good harbour where they might land in safety. So in 210 B.C. he attacked the citadel of Tarentum, and took it, only, however, to lose it the following year, when it was retaken by Fabius. Hannibal had now no port at which troops might land.

If he was yet further to subdue Italy he must wait until his brother Hasdrubal could bring him fresh troops from Spain.


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