Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (circa 280 – 203 BC) was a Roman statesman and general whose cautious delaying tactics and strategies against the Carthaginian general Hannibal earned Fabius the nickname Cunctator, or “the Delayer”, and saved a Rome reeling from a string of humiliating defeats, giving it time to recover its equilibrium and gird itself for a difficult war.
Hannibal had led an army into Italy at the start of the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) and won crushing victories against Rome, threatening its hold on Italy, as allies joined Hannibal or declared neutrality. Fabius by then was a respected senior statesman, having been elected Consul in 233 and 228 BC, as well as Censor – a highly prestigious position – in 230. Faced with a dire emergency, the Romans appointed him dictator for 6 months.
He realized that Rome had no general at the time, including himself, who was Hannibal’s equal as a battlefield commander, so he adopted an attrition strategy which came to be known as “Fabian”. He shadowed the Carthaginian, refusing to offer pitched battle, gradually whittling the enemy’s strength with scorched earth tactics, coupled with attacks against his supplies and isolated detachments.
That stabilized the situation but was resented by Romans who took to calling Fabius Cunctator, or “Delayer” – an insult that, in hindsight, became a badge of honor. When Fabius’s 6-month term as dictator expired, his countrymen amassed 87,000 men, the biggest Roman army to date, and marched off to crush Hannibal. He was eager to let them try, and at Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal adopted a brilliant tactical plan that was executed to perfection, lured the eager Romans into a double envelopment, and destroyed them. Of 87,000 Romans, only 10,000 escaped – all the rest were slaughtered or captured.
There were no more snide comments and sneers, and Cunctator became an honorific instead of an insult. Fabius was elected consul three more times before his death in 203 BC, and his Fabian strategy became the official one followed by Rome for the remainder of the war, which was finally won in 201 BC. Fabius did not live to see the victory, but he laid the groundwork leading to it.