Character Learning, Ortega y Gasset, Punic Wars

Punic Wars, Lessons in Character


This week we were learning about the Second Punic War.

Hannibal and the Carthaginians against the Romans.

The Romans have had Fabius as dictator, with plenary powers, and Minucius as the second in command, or man of the horse. Fabius has a plan that is not popular among Minucius, the soldiers, or anyone in Rome. Fabius refuses to engage in battle.

Others, such as Minucius, are burning to show Hannibal and the Carthaginian army who is boss. They are eager to prove themselves, to fight, and they believe they’d have a different outcome than previous consuls who fought with heart but without head.

Isn’t that what many of us who are young, or immature, or very impatient, think of ourselves? Let me try! I’m sure I can… “open that bottle, move that obstacle, mount that Ikea piece of furniture, change that person, or beat those arrogant Carthaginians!” You name it. We believe we’d have a different lack to those who have tried moved just by their burning to succeed but who have failed miserably. We believe that it’d be different for us, even if there’s nothing different to grant a different outcome.

In the Roman camp, Quintus Fabius Maximus returns from Rome with a resolution that makes his second in command, -the man of the horse-, Minucius, his equal. Fabius is not brokenhearted by this negative resolution. Despite of Minucius and the masses being against his military strategy of not engaging in battle with Hannibal, but chasing the Carthaginians in order to weaken them, Fabius thinks (acording to Livy), that they have divided the command between him and Minucius, not his skills as a general.

That part when the masses, stirred up by Varro (an advantageous character devoted to advancing ignoble causes with the power of money), win, and manage to undermine Fabius’ absolute power as dictator, reminds me of the book I’m reading by Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses. Dictator is a word with bad connotations. The Romans chose Fabius as their dictator because of his prowess as a general, in times of emergency, after a disastrous defeat of the two consuls prior to him. It’s the principle of uniting their strength and forces, and placing them under the absolute command of a person with authority. Fabius had the best of Rome and his men in command as his guiding goal. Here there’s a case in which the role of dictator proves to be not only better than a democratic structure for the military, but it became a matter of life or death.

Minucius is boastful. He thinks justice is now done, by putting a men of the people such as him on equal rank with Fabius. He goes to Fabius with a few ideas on how to divide their power. Why don’t we alternate daily, or on blocks of time? No. Fabius knows that as soon as Minucius gets hold of the troops, he’s going to engage in reckless battle against Hannibal. Fabius decides then to split the troops and Minucius goes solo, to a different camp with his men. If Fabius cannot save all his soldiers, he’d save half of them.

Battle ensues. Hannibal, with his hunch for strategy, finds an open plain the perfect place for ambush, just because it looks like ambush is impossible in such an open space. There’s rocks with holes that can hide 200 men. To do this discreetly, though, (for any shining armor or noise can disastrously give them away), he starts off some battle at the top of the hill. Minucius is scarily happy. Can he really think Hannibal is as stupid as to start a battle with a few man? Minucius goes to battle, and as his men retreat, the ones hiding attack, causing panic in his ranks.

Fabius hears the cries and knows immediately what’s going on. This is no time to be angry, or to teach a lesson, but to help his fellow men. He goes to assist Minucius. The retreating men form a fresh line of attack with Fabius’ men. Hannibal gives the order to retreat, signaling, as Livy says, that he has defeated Minucius, and Fabius has defeated him.

Now in the camp, what follows was a moving scene. Minucius totally gets it. He acknowledges his inferiority, his lesser experience and skills. He acknowledges Fabius as father. He tells him he owns him even more than to his own father, because, while a father gives you your life, Fabius saved not only his life, but his men’s lives as well. Fabius did not have to tell him anything. Minucius was as quick to admit his errors as he was to act upon them before.

Up to today, I had been admiring Fabius with the same zeal I was disliking Minucius. But today, after we read this section, my oldest daughter said, ‘mom, that’s such a christian attitude. To know when you have done something wrong, and to ask for forgiveness for that, to repent of your wrong ways”. I admit that there’s more of Minucius in me than of Fabius. But, if all the qualities that Minucius has are now submitted under Fabius’ command, the Romans will be a force to reckon with. We have a few more weeks to continue learning from this lesson in history.And not only, but lessons in character, citizenship, morality, etc. No wonder Abigail Adams read about the ancients, in an attempt to better understand her own times of conflict.


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