So Polybius told the Romans how they had nearly lost their city because they refused to ransom their own soldiers.
What was that story?
Hannibal’s biggest victory was at Cannae. He annihilated the Roman army of 50,000 and took about 8000 prisoners. There were no Roman soldiers left anywhere. Rome was helpless, the city was defenceless. Livy, who likes to criticize Hannibal wherever he can, says he was a fool for not taking Rome right then, just after Cannae.
The leaders that were left back in Rome never even considered surrender as an option. They sat together and tried to imagine how to get another army together, fast—very fast. Hannibal was a two-day march away. Just what he was doing meanwhile, why he held back, has never been explained. Livy says he was counting his money, his booty. Everyone said, starting with Hannibal’s own Carthaginian enemies, that he loved money. Now after Cannae, he must have enjoyed rolling in it. Less silly critics say he was giving his army a rest and finally rewarding them for years of unpaid service; that before the battle they were on the point of mutiny, that he had pushed them to the edge and now he had no choice but to let them unwind.
Hannibal (public domain photo)
Hannibal was a wily sort and now he came up with one of his famous schemes. Those 8000 Roman prisoners were a hindrance—he had to feed them and to use his own good men to guard them. “Their families in Rome would pay good money to get them back,” he thought. “Rome is desperate for soldiers now and imagine how they would welcome 8000 defenders into that empty city.” So he told the prisoners to choose ten men as their representatives to go to Rome with his proposal for ransom. His price was 3 minae (Livy says 300 denarii) a head—a little more than had been agreed when they surrendered. Hannibal had raised the amount: he had them over the barrel, after all. He would be glad to get the prisoners off his back, their families would be glad to have them home, and the men would be glad to be free. Everybody happy.
Before he let them go he made those representatives swear they would come back. One of them, with a wink-wink, just after they had passed out of the camp gates, told his comrades to wait a moment, he had forgotten something. And he went back to get it. “I swore to Hannibal I’d come back, didn’t I?” he said, laughing at his cleverness as he rejoined the party of representatives. He considered himself free now. They may have thought that was funny; most didn’t approve. But anyway none of them doubted that they would be ransomed and taken back. They would come back and give Hannibal the money and he would free them and all their buddies.
Their first surprise came when they got to Rome and saw the gates closed to them. They called—they could see some of their relatives waving from the wall. Why didn’t somebody open up?
A quaestor came out to ask them what they wanted. He was very cold. He said he would take their proposal to the Senate, it would have to be debated. Livy, who was good at this, invented the speeches of both the man who pleaded their case and the Senator who urged his fellows not to accept Hannibal’s proposal by any means. Their gist was as follows.
“These poor men have done nothing unworthy of Roman soldiers,” the prisoner’s advocate told the senators. “Most of them were ordered to guard the camp during the battle of Cannae and when they learned that the entire army had been destroyed, what else could they do but surrender? It would have been pointless to defend the empty camp.”
The other side, the stern voice of True Romanness, as good as called the whole bunch cowards. Quite a few of these soldiers, he said, were survivors of the terrible battle. They saw all their comrades die: they had 50,000 examples of obedience and bravery around them, men who were also their friends. But did that teach them how to behave? They threw away their swords and ran to camp. And once in camp, rather than follow the plans of the bravest of them, to try to escape by night and join up with other survivors of the battle who were willing to fight, they only thought of surrender, of saving their own skins. “If we allow these soldiers to come back,” he said, “ we are in effect telling our men that there is salvation to the soldier who manages to survive a battle; that it is beautiful to die in defence of your country; but if you don’t feel like dying, you can always surrender, get ransomed, and go home again. No, gentlemen: a Roman has two options out there in the field: he beats the enemy or he dies fighting.”
“Your army was gone,” Polybius now told the Romans who had been listening to his story. “You had lost all your allies, and you expected from day to day to lose your city. But you didn’t forget your dignity and you didn’t let yourselves lose sight of what had to be done….. You sent those representatives back to Hannibal. You foiled his scheme.”
“And what happened to the wise-guy who had tried to get out of his oath to return?” asked the Romans, amused, gloating. “We can’t remember exactly.”
“Your Senate ordered him to be put in chains and returned to Hannibal to do with him as he liked.”
“Well, that was right too,” said the Romans. “You don’t break an oath.”
Then the Romans put in a little objection they knew Polybius would easily whisk away. They wanted to hear him go on about their virtues. “There were also practical considerations in refusing to ransom those men,” they said. “Rome had just bought 2000 able-bodied slaves from their owners to be soldiers—to fill the ranks of the men who had been killed at Cannae. All the money we had left had to pay for weapons and food and horses. We weren’t going to hand it to the enemy, for God’s sake. Probably under other circumstances those men would have been taken back.”
“Under what circumstances? If you didn’t pardon the men then you wouldn’t pardon them ever. Those were the direst times imaginable. Men were more important to you than money. You needed every man you could get to defend Rome: you were practically refusing your last offer of survival. Even if before freeing them Hannibal had made them promise not to fight again, they would have been useful inside the city, helping the war effort, freeing other men for military service. You must have absolutely awed Hannibal. Carthage was stubborn but it wasn’t that tough. You were putting those virtues of yours—loyalty, obedience, bravery, patriotism—above your own survival. Many would have told you that “under those circumstances” it was a foolish mistake to send those compatriots of yours back. And the pleas of so many of your families never touched your hearts. Your new consul ordered all the women indoors and forbade public mourning.”
“Well, you have to be tough sometimes,” they allowed. “The army teaches us all what we have to do.”
See How Rome Conquered the World (part 3) and learn about its no-nonsense citizen’s army
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