AmblesideOnline: Plutarch's Life of Fabius

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study by Anne White

Lesson 1
Lesson 2
Lesson 3
Lesson 4
Lesson 5
Lesson 6
Lesson 7
Lesson 8
Lesson 9
Lesson 10
Lesson 11
Lesson 12

Introduction to Quintus Fabius Maximus

(Some material taken from The Pageant of the Past, by D.C. Trueman and J. H. Trueman, copyright The Ryerson Press, 1965)

Plutarch wrote his Life of Fabius as a parallel to that of Pericles, which we studied last term. If you have done that study, you will remember that Pericles was known for his calm temper and love of reason. Fabius had much the same temperament. Like Pericles, he was a governor and military leader of his people: in this case, the Romans of the 3rd century B.C.

But to understand the life of Fabius, you need to know something about Hannibal, and his city, Carthage. If you have a copy of V.M. Hillyer's A Child's History of the World, the chapters "Picking a Fight" and "The Boot Kicks and Stamps" should give you the background information you need in a few pages. Van Loon's The Story of Mankind gives more detail in the chapter "Rome and Carthage." Briefly, Hannibal was the brilliant general of the city of Carthage (in North Africa, across the sea from Sicily), and Carthage was a longtime rival of Rome. Shortly before the opening of this story, he had already invaded Italy from the north, over the Alps, with his army and his elephants. (To quote Susan Schaeffer Macaulay: "At last I know why Hannibal crossed the alps!")

"The combined Roman armies totalling 40,000 men assembled at the River Trebia one bitterly cold December morning [218 BC]. Before the Romans had even had their breakfast Hannibal sent a weak cavalry detachment across the river against them. It was easily defeated, and the Romans exultantly charged through the ice-cold river after it. They had fallen into Hannibal's trap. A strong Carthaginian force was lying in wait for them, and they were ambushed.

"Winter came and Hannibal rested at Bologna. Rome, who had lost 30,000 men at Trebia, licked her wounds and feverishly raised new armies. It was obvious that north Italy would have to be abandoned by Hannibal.

"The next May Hannibal crossed the Appenines. Then misfortune struck him. In the marshes flooded by the river Arno he contracted ophthalmia and lost the sight of one eyeyet still, riding high on his elephant, got his army through in four days. He proceeded to march south towards Rome, ravaging the land as he went, while an outnumbered Roman army of 25,000 trailed along in his wake declining battle. But once again Hannibal outwitted them. In the hills surrounding Lake Trasimene, the Carthaginians waited in the early mists of morning until the unsuspecting Roman army marched into a narrow defile. Two hours later 15,000 Romans lay dead and most of the rest were captured [217 BC].

"Panic swept Rome. In their desperation the people elected a dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus." (from The Pageant of the Past, pp. 248-249)

And that is a summary of the events just before the opening, and those covered in Lesson One, of the Life of Fabius.

If you have not done much reading of Roman history (or have not done Plutarch's Poplicola), it would help to review some background on the Roman Republic. For instance, it is important to know Rome was ruled by men elected each year, called consuls; it was normal for two consuls to rule together. (But it was possible in certain cases for a single man to take on full responsibility, as happened to Fabius.)

Suggested text: Brandy Vencel prepared Dryden's version with necessary ommissions here. It is divided into 12 sections to correspond to these lessons.



"Slow and steady" was a good description of young Fabius; he didn't seem like anyone who would ever set the world on fire. Certainly his boyhood nicknames "Warty" and "Lamb" didn't show that others had a great opinion of his strength and intelligence. However, Plutarch points out that slowness may just mean someone is too smart to rush into things.

Plutarch's story of Fabius doesn't tell much else about his early life. It moves quickly into the Second Punic War, when the Romans faced an invasion from their rival city Carthage. As co-consul with the impulsive and hot-tempered Flaminius, Fabius tried to keep the Roman army out of direct battle with the Carthaginians. Unfortunately for Rome, he was ignored. Fortunately for Fabius, his common sense was suddenly recognized and rewarded.


Lake Thrasymene - alternate spelling of Lake Trasimene
insensible - without feeling
came into employments - began to do adult work
inuring - toughening, hardening
sententious - given to using many pithy sayings or maxims (Random House College Dictionary)
depredation - plundering, robbery
portent - an omen, especially of something momentous (RHCD)
prodigies - extraordinary, supernatural things
aliment - something that sustains or supports another thing (nourishment)

SECTION TO READ: From the beginning to "his temper was a happy compound of confidence and cautiousness."


After narrating this lesson, discuss the following questions:

What impressions do you have of Fabius so far? What are the greatest obstacles he had to overcome in his early life?

Reread this sentence: "Living in a great commonwealth, surrounded by many enemies, he saw the wisdom of inuring his body (nature's own weapon) to warlike exercises, and disciplining his tongue for public oratory in a style conformable to his life and character." Look up the following Bible verses: Romans 6:13, Ephesians 5:15&16, 1 Timothy 4:8, 1 Peter 5:8 and 9. Explain how a Christian's necessary training may be similar to the task Fabius set for himself.



Most of you have probably played checkers or chess. Have you ever been in a game where you had so few pieces that you thought you couldn't win, but you let your opponent chase you around for awhile, hoping he would get bored and perhaps make a mistake? This is Fabius's favourite strategy against Hannibal. The Romans do have some advantages: they are close to home and get easily get more supplies (and can afford more); they even have more men! However, Fabius is convinced that Hannibal's army is better-armed, and against everyone else's advice, he attempts to delay and frustrate the enemy rather than fighting directly.


command of the horse - command of that part of the army that served on horseback
ask leave - ask permission
lictors - special force of bodyguards who used fasces (see below)
fasces - symbols of power carried by the lictors, made up of long bundles of sticks with ax-heads sticking out. They could also be used for non-symbolic purposes.
propitiate - appease
dilatory - slow, delaying
pedagogue - usually this means a schoolteacher, but in this case the critics are referring to a slave who was employed as a boy's tutor, or who might be responsible for taking the boy to and from school and supervising him when he went out. "Governess" or even "nanny" might be modern-day equivalents.
obloquy - bad opinions held by the general public

READ FROM: From "Fabius, being thus installed in the office of dictator" to "he makes the slaves of those whose errors it is his business to control."


After narrating this passage, discuss some or all of these questions:

Why was Fabius reluctant to engage Hannibal in a direct battle? What were the ways he planned to wear out the Carthaginians?

Discuss this sentence: "Hannibal was himself the only man who was not deceived, who discerned his skill and detected his tactics...." What does this show about Hannibal? How did he resolve to conquer Fabius?

Discuss Fabius's attitude toward religious ceremonies and the gods. What was his personal (vs. public) opinion about the favour of the gods? What does this say about his character?

Discuss, orally or in writing, Fabius's response at the end of the passage. Do you agree with his viewpoint? Some things to do with this quotation: you could use it for copywork; memorize it; or dramatize the scene between Fabius and his friends.



I once received an answering machine message meant for another phone number: it was from a man who wanted to have some kind of a box made. He gave all the measurements and specifications, but left no phone number that I could call to let him know he had made a mistake. A couple of weeks later, I came home and there was another message: "where's my box?"

A tiny misunderstanding can cause a great deal of trouble, as Hannibal found out when his army ended up in the wrong place. However, he was a creative and crafty general, and in getting out of this predicament he caused a great deal of trouble for the Romans, and for Fabius especially. Listen at the end for a response by Fabius that shows his commitment to his people.


had recourse to stratagem - had access to a plan for surprising or deceiving the enemy
precipitately - too soon
van - foremost or front division of the army
obloquy - bad opinion by the public
depressing - putting into a lower position

READ FROM: From "An oversight of Hannibal occurred soon after" to "which Fabius in all cases declined."


After narrating this section, discuss the following questions.

What were the chief reasons for the public's resentment of Fabius at this time? Were they justified?

How did Fabius raise the ransom money for his soldiers who had been taken by the enemy? What does this show about his character?



(Lessons 4 and 5 together make up one story from the life of Fabius and the ongoing battle against Hannibal.)

If Fabius was the "slow and steady" tortoise, his next-in-command Minucius must have been the hare. Headstrong, impulsive and rash, Minucius was everything Fabius hated; yet he was left in command of the army when Fabius was needed in Rome. He ignored an order to leave the Carthaginians alone and...attacked them. Successfully. How would the enemies of Fabius react to this?


forage - can mean to go out and look for supplies, but can also mean to plunder or loot
detachment - a certain force of troops; group of soldiers
doing great execution - causing a great deal of damage to the other side
apprehended - realized
extolled - praised
succours - aid
expedite - hurry up
magistrateal - a magistrate is one who administers the law; "that magistrateal one" refers to Metilius in his position of tribune. He still had a great deal of authority although Fabius was the dictator.
the temper of the man - this refers to temper not in the sense of getting angry, but of temperament, personality

SECTION TO READ: From "About this time, he was called to Rome" to "so also of the auxiliary forces each had an equal share."


How did Minucius's success go to his head? Why didn't Fabius have him punished as he could have?

Discuss this sentence: "The news spread to Rome, where Fabius, on being told it, said that what he most feared was Minucius's success." Was this just a case of sour grapes? What did Fabius mean?

Think about the story of Diogenes, "who, being told that some persons derided him, made answer, "But I am not derided," meaning that only those were really insulted on whom such insults made an impression...." Does this "refusing to play" remind you of the personality of Jesus? How? Can you think of an example from your own life where this philosophy could be useful?



Have you seen the Veggie Tales video "The Star of Christmas"? Two musical producers decide to put on the biggest Christmas show ever, and "to teach London how to love" at the same time. However, their wonderful goals get sidetracked by their jealousy of a little church pageant that happens to have the one thing they don't: the best "Star of Christmas" in the world. Not to spoil the story if you haven't seen it, but they end up not only ruining their own show, starting a fire and landing in jail, but almost wrecking the church pageant as well.

Does this sound at all similar to the story of Fabius and Minucius? Desire for personal gain can destroy more than a play, as Minucius finds out. But like Bob and Larry, he also learns something about grace.


eminence - hill, elevated place
sustained their missiles - [his men were] hit with their arrows (but there is an understanding here that the army bore these injuries without yielding)
within the toils he had set for them - in this case, "toils" means traps or snares
forbore - past tense of the verb forbear, meaning to stop, give up
the spoils of the field - the loot (armour, supplies) they could take from the battlefield
beneficence - kindness

SECTION TO READ: From "Minucius, thus exalted, could not contain himself" to "embraced one another with gladness and tears of joy." In the first sentence of the last paragraph (beginning "Fabius, after his men had picked up the spoils of the field"), make sure it's clear that the one who made the speech starting "To conduct great matters" was Minucius, not Fabius.


How did Minucius show a poor understanding of teamwork at the beginning of this section? How was Fabius's response an extremely Roman one? (especially if you have done the previous studies of Poplicola and Brutus) Roman or not, do you think this was wise advice? Have you ever known of a situation like this? (For further discussion: consider what sometimes happens when leaders become rivals for power within the same church, team, or other group of people. If this story could be used as an analogy for spiritual warfare, what position would Hannibal symbolize?)

Who showed more bravery: Minucius or Fabius? If you were Fabius, what might you be tempted to say to Minucius after the battle with Hannibal? How did the restraint (or "soft answer") of Fabius win the real battle?

For copywork or memorization: "To conduct great matters and never commit a fault is above the force of human nature; but to learn and improve by the faults we have committed, is that which becomes a good and sensible man."



Some notes from Pageant of the Past, p. 249:

"Impatient Romans rejoiced to see Fabius out of office in 216 B.C., and readily granted permission to the eager [new] consuls to force a battle.

"Late in the summer the consuls found Hannibal near Cannae. Here in the plains by the Adriatic, a perfect place for a cavalry engagement, the 50,000 Romans faced even odds: 40,000 Carthaginian infantry and 10,000 cavalry."

The Romans seemed ready to take on the Carthaginians. But Hannibal, making use of everything from a dust storm to his own weakest men, had moves ready that even the great Roman army didn't expect.


succeeded - followed [Fabius as dictator]
succored their allies - aided the cities that were their allies
vaunting - boasting
prevailed - succeeded
temerity - reckless boldness
importunity - persistence
wings - the two side portions of an army (the soldiers on the edges of the group rather than those making up the main, middle part)
more advanced - further in front
in the flank - at the rear

SECTION TO READ: From "Not long after, Fabius laid down the dictatorship" to "those authors who have written at large upon the subject." For those keeping track of dates, The Battle of Cannae (pronounced KAN-ee), "one of the most brilliant victories in history" (Concise Columbia Encyclopedia) was fought in 216 B.C.


After narrating this section (did you follow Hannibal's strategy and the events of the battle?), discuss the following questions:

Describe the character of each of the two new consuls, Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paulus. Why was it difficult for Fabius to get Paulus to stand up to Varro's loud insistence on fighting? How successful was he? What was the compromise that Paulus was forced into?

Twice in this passage, men are led (or misled) by the example of their leaders. First, Hannibal's army is spurred on by the sound of their leaders laughing hilariously - at the Roman army, they assume. Later, the Roman army, already surrounded, is further confused by one of the generals being thrown from his horse, and other officers dismounting to help him; all the rest of the soldiers get off their horses because they think they're being ordered to fight on foot! Consider how our actions can, sometimes inadvertently, encourage others or be a stumbling-block to them. Who might be watching you for cues? (younger siblings, friends?)

LESSON 7: After Cannae


After the disaster at Cannae, the two Roman consuls handle their defeat in ways that clearly show their characters (or lack thereof). Without Fabius there, there are no heroic speeches or brave acts (except that of Lentulus); there is only defeat, and then fear that Hannibal will take Rome itself. The people, as they did before, realize that strong leadership is desperately needed.


(I'm giving you the direct link for convenience, but this site may prefer that we link to their main page,
, and click on the listing of their e-texts, in this case Stories from Rome by Dalkeith. Be sure to check out their other books, too!)


a despatching blow - a blow that would kill him
patrician - noble
the commonwealth - the Roman Republic
would dearly want - would desperately need
banditti - bandits, outlaws
credible - believable
pusillanimous - cowardly
procuring auspicious signs and presages - obtaining good omens (from the gods)
augurs - soothsayers

READ FROM: From "The consul Varro, with a thin company" to "in their prospect of future deliverance," with omission as noted in the introduction.


This passage contains a tragic story: that of the consul Aemilius Paulus. The one word that seems to define him is "weak," and he was weak right to the end. How did his character and behavior contrast with that of Varro? With Fabius? How does Plutarch use the last sentence of the passage to emphasize this contrast?

Do you think Varro deserved the commendation that Fabius gave him? Why or why not? (Was Fabius really praising him, or only hinting that he should do a lot better in the future?)

Why were the Romans quick to call Fabius "pusillanimous" when they were in a prosperous condition, but ready to place "their whole remaining hopes" in him now that they were in danger? Could things perhaps have gone better if they had trusted him all the way along? (Does that remind you of the way that people sometimes act toward God? Explain.)

LESSON 8: Fabius, the best boss in the world


Have you ever had a coach or a teacher (or if you're older, a supervisor or employer) who made you want to do a great job? Someone who knew just how to reward hard work (maybe by assigning more responsibility!) or how to deal with a bad attitude? It's the stuff of great stories: the wild horse or stubborn student eventually becomes the champion or valedictorian, thanks to someone who understands and cares. (A valedictorian is the student, usually with top marks, who makes a farewell speech at graduation.)

In this passage (after a comparison with yet another gung-ho Roman general, Marcellus), Fabius shows his extraordinary ability at managing people. From a disgruntled, underappreciated Marsian to a lovesick Lucanian, Fabius handles each situation authoritatively, individually and effectivelyall amidst the chaos of war. Just call him Colonel Potter. (Ask your parents, if you've never watched the T.V. series MASH.)


buckler - shield
impetuous - violent, moving with great force
praetors, proconsuls - high-ranking Roman officials
intimations - hints
inauspicious - suggesting bad luck
entertain them - in this case, it means to take hold of them
sensible - aware
more by favor than by desert - more by personal favor than by merit
transgression - crime
she must answer for you - she must promise that you will remain in the camp

READ FROM: From "When word was brought to Rome" to "on account of love, or for any other worse design."


After narrating this passage, choose either the story of the Marsian or the Lucanian, and discuss (orally or in writing) why Fabius's tactics were successful. What principles would you say he used in approaching and solving the problem? What other solutions might someone else have tried; do you think they would have worked as well? Can you think of any tough situations like this that you have faced or are facing (either as the person in charge or the one under authority)? Were they handled well? Do these stories of Fabius give you any ideas for dealing with "difficult customers?" (If no other examples come to mind, think about a babysitter trying to deal with some unruly children!)



In the last lesson, we saw examples of Fabius's wisdom in guiding and correcting those under his authority. This passage begins with a similar incident, but it leads into something bigger: the regaining of the town of Tarentum, which was exactly the right move to completely discourage Hannibal's plans for Italy.

It may be worthwhile sorting out a few of the characters in this passage before you start. First of all there is a young soldier and his sister. The sister lives in Tarentum, which is guarded by Hannibal's forces; their commander is a Bruttian (where he's from, not his name), who is in love with the sister. Fabius decides to make use of this situation and ends up as the hero of the day, although his final acts in the battle are somewhat questionable..

GRAMMAR NOTE - In this passage (if you're using Dryden's translation) you'll notice places where Plutarch slips from the past tense into the present. (They aren't typing mistakes!) You might want to discuss this, or possibly have your student correct Plutarch's grammar as a writing exercise, and watch for similar problems in his/her own writing.


Tarentum - seaport city in Italy, now called Taranto. Taranto lent its name to both the tarantula and the tarantella! For more information, see the overview on the Frommer's travel website, here:
, or just go to
and find your way to Taranto.
garrison - military post, fortified area (in this case, the guard around the city)
a deserter in show - the soldier pretended that he had deserted Fabius's army
abstained from visiting - did not visit
make addresses - pay romantic attention, woo someone
mercenary - fighting for a cause solely for pay
prowess - skill
perfidy - treachery

READ FROM: From "Another passage there was" to "with the forces he then had, to master Italy," with omission as noted in the introduction. In the second-last paragraph, Plutarch refers to the general Marcellus and his clemency and humanity; you may want to clarify at that point that he is referring to Marcellus, not Fabius.


Why did Fabius, in taking the town, feel it was "not safe to rely wholly upon the plot?" How did he make doubly sure that the plan would go smoothly?

What do you think of Hannibal's reaction? Why did these events discourage him so much?

Though Plutarch generally admires Fabius, he admits that Fabius's behaviour at the end of this passage is both uncharacteristic and cruel. Why do you think Fabius acted this way? Is it possible for someone who has once shown so much wisdom and grace to completely "blow it" at another time? Should we continue to admire such a person?



In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says, "It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses--say mother love or patriotism--are good, and others, like the fighting instinct, are bad....Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. [A piano] has not got two kind of notes on it, the "right" notes and the 'wrong" ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another." It's interesting that he includes patriotism in that list, because the following passage demonstrates Fabius's extreme loyalty to Rome. To think about while you read: how did that patriotism make Fabius an excellent ruler? Was there anything wrong or misplaced about it?


triumph - the triumphal procession given to a successful Roman general
antagonist - enemy
foil his arts - defeat his skills
dissolute - corrupt
venerable - worthy of respect because of great age
becoming a pious father - this doesn't mean that he became a pious father; becoming is in the sense of fitting, appropriate to his position

READ FROM: From "Upon this success, Fabius had a triumph" to "which he committed afterwards to writing."


Should Fabius's son, the new consul, have treated his father with more honour? Why was Fabius so pleased with his son's response? Discuss Fabius's statement: "This was the way by which we and our forefathers advanced the dignity of Rome, preferring ever her honour and service to our own fathers and children." Do these values parallel Christian thinking in any way, or do they oppose it? (For further discussion: if you were a Christian speaking to the Romans (as Paul did about 250 years later), how would you address this part of their "Romanness?")

Or to take the discussion in a slightly different direction: is patriotism always a positive thing? If not, when does it become wrong? Would it have been possible for Fabius to rule as well as he did if he had not had such extreme love for Rome?



At this point, Plutarch suddenly allows the focus to shift onto a rising star in Rome, the army commander and new consul Publius Cornelius Scipio. Fabius is aging; Scipio is less than 30 years old. Fabius is still holding back in the long-running war with Hannibal; Scipio is ready to take the war into Carthage itself. Fabius is losing the confidence of the people; Scipio is gaining it. Although Plutarch gives little background on Scipio (perhaps assuming that we know who he is), he is not a sudden arrival in Rome. He has already had a great deal of military success (including defeating Hannibal's brother in Spain), and The Pageant of the Past says he could even be called the founder of the Roman Empire. For more background on Scipio (and a sculpture of him), you may want to look at this link:


unexampled - unparalleled, unequalled
acclamation - loud shouts of praise
contesting - fighting for
seat - main location
temerity - reckless boldness
espouse - accept
colleague - in this case, the other general
impeded the levies - held up the collecting of the promised funds
declaim - make a formal speech

SECTION TO READ: From "After Cornelius Scipio, who was sent into Spain" to "the dictates of his own wary temper."


After focusing on Fabius for so long, it's hard to shift our interest onto a newcomer who hasn't even appeared in the story until now; it feels like the beginning of the end.. Do you see the character of Fabius changing or weakening during this difficult time? Or is he still pretty much right on, but losing out to a changing mood in Rome?

Why might Fabius find it difficult to trust Scipio as a general?

Imagine (acted out or in writing) a conversation between Fabius and someone who is trying to convince him that this time--and only this time--he really is just plain wrong.

LESSON 12 Fabius, the Grumpy Old Man?


We come to the end of the story and see Fabius in what seems to be fading glory. He is still highly respected for what he has done for Rome, but his opinions are no longer taken too seriously (although he still does have some ability to worry people with his pronouncements). Times have changed, and the tactics needed to defeat Hannibal have changed. Will Fabius be completely forgotten?


spoils - riches
eminent - distinguished
transcending - excelling
extolled - praised
mutability of fortune - changeability of fortune
morosity - gloominess
pusillanimity - cowardice
forbear - hold back
declamations - public declarations

SECTION TO READ: From "But, after that Scipio was gone over into Africa" to the end.


After narrating this passage, discuss some or all of the following questions:

Did Scipio owe some of his eventual success over Hannibal to what Fabius had done before him? Explain.

Describe the peoples' feeling toward Fabius as demonstrated by their actions at his death. If you like, imagine a speech that might be given at his funeral. What words would sum up his character, his leadership, and his contribution to Rome?

If you read Plutarch's Life of Pericles last term, you may want to find and read Plutarch's comparison of Pericles and Fabius; or try writing your own. What did they have in common? What were their differences?

Next term we will return to Greece and the Peloponnesian War, with the Life of Nicias.