A Great Nation?

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To understand who we are, historical references are useful. To know how a people will come through a crisis, look to those traits of character possessed by nations that have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. How did they survive their ordeal? What lessons can we draw from their story? In August of 216 B.C. a catastrophe occurred in Italy. The Carthaginian commander Hannibal destroyed two Roman armies near a town called Cannae, in Apulia. The historian Polybius recorded that 70,000 Roman and allied infantry were killed in a single day, with 10,000 captured and “perhaps” 3,000 escaping alive.

Two centuries later, the Roman historian Titus Livius wrote of this catastrophe, “Never before, while the city [Rome] itself was still safe, had there been such excitement and panic within its walls. I shall not attempt to describe it, nor will I weaken the reality by going into details.” Livy described how the Romans had been previously beaten by Hannibal at Trasimene, “and now there was news not merely of another similar blow, but of a multiple calamity – two consular armies annihilated, both consuls [assumed] dead, Rome left without a force in the field, without a commander, without a single soldier, Apulia and Samnium in Hannibal’s hands, and now nearly the whole of Italy overrun.” Hannibal expected the Romans to give up and make peace. But the Romans continued the war.

Livy wrote, “No other nation in the world could have suffered so tremendous a series of disasters, and not been overwhelmed. It was unparalleled in history.”

We can hardly imagine what it felt like to be a Roman at the time. They expected Hannibal’s army to appear at any moment. The Roman Senate deliberated on a course of action. First, they sent men to make inquiries about the enemy. Next, they moved to establish good order within the city. As the streets were full of women grieving for lost husbands and brothers, it was decided that the women must “be forbidden out of doors, and compelled to stay in their homes: family mourning should be checked,” wrote Livy, “and silence imposed everywhere; anyone with news to report should be taken to the praetors, and all individuals should await in their homes the news which personally concerned them.”

Panic and demoralization had to be contained. Whatever sinful behaviors had occurred prior to the defeat, were promptly punished. Two Vestal Virgins, Optimia and Floronia, were convicted of sexual incontinence. One committed suicide, the other was buried alive. The priest who slept with Floronia was “beaten to death by the pontifex maximus in the place of assembly. The Romans sought to placate the wrath of heaven. They even indulged in a rite of human sacrifice, burying four people alive in the cattle market. The gods being appeased, the Senate drafted 17-year-old boys into military service, forming a new army of four legions."

There arrived in Rome, from the Carthaginian camp, a representative of the captured Roman troops. His plea was simple: No country in the world held its prisoners of war in greater contempt – but we fought hard and surrendered only because “in such circumstances we thought it no crime that a handful of Roman soldiers should survive Cannae….” The assembled crowd burst into tears. But a Roman senator of the old school, Titus Manlius Torquatas, replied: “In my opinion, gentlemen of the Senate, these fellows no more deserve to be ransomed than their brave comrades, who fought their way through the enemy and by their heroic courage restored themselves to their country’s service, deserves to be handed over to Hannibal.” And besides, Rome was broke. There was no money to ransom the prisoners.

What was to be done? Rome’s allies in Italy began to defect. “But neither the defeats they had suffered nor the subsequent defection of all these allied peoples moved the Romans ever to breathe a word about peace,” wrote Livy. “So great, in this grim time, was the nation’s heart, that the consul, fresh from a defeat of which he had himself been the principal cause, was met on his return to Rome by men of all conditions, who came in crowds to give thanks for not having ‘despaired of the commonwealth.’” Livy noted that a Carthaginian general in similar circumstances would have been crucified.

Why were the Romans unbeatable in this war? The historian Polybius believed that Rome’s system of checks and balances, which kept the nobles from abusing power, also brought good order and discipline to the Roman people. This gave them greater morale, cohesion and leadership in a crisis. But there was another element in the equation. According to Polybius, “the sphere in which the Roman commonwealth seems to me to show its superiority most decisively is in that of religious belief. Here we find that the very phenomenon which among other peoples is regarded as a subject for reproach, namely superstition, is actually the element which holds the Roman state together.” Polybius said that men were fickle, “filled with lawless desires, unreasoning anger and violent passions.” He said that the ancients were therefore wise to believe in the punishments of Hades. The moderns were foolish in rejecting these beliefs. Because the Greeks were unbelievers, he said, “[those] who hold public office cannot be trusted with the safe-keeping of so much as a single talent … whereas the Romans … handle large sums of money and scrupulously perform their duty because they have given their word on oath.”

After Cannae, Roman officers agreed to fight without pay as the Senate refused to raise taxes on an already over-burdened populace. Laws were passed against extravagant expenditure, but these were probably unnecessary as most women gave up their personal possessions and jewelry in order to boost the war effort. Such was the patriotism of the Romans that Hannibal was finally defeated and Carthage was forced to make peace. The Romans persevered through the worst defeat imaginable. They not only defeated Carthage, but went on to rule the Mediterranean world for many centuries. The quality of courage in adversity is here exemplified.

How does our country compare to the Romans of 216 B.C.? Take a look around. Observe what is said and done today. Then draw your own conclusions.

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About JR Nyquist