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The Fabian Strategy

The U.S. Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island teaches a Fleet Seminar Program for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard officers of grade O3 and above. The "Strategy & War" course includes discussion of the Fabian Strategy.

"Fabian Strategy - A strategy of wearing down the enemy by limiting combat to harassing attacks while simultaneously avoiding any decisive engagement.

The term derives from Quintus Fabius Maximus Verruscosus (agnomen, Cunctator, which means “the delayer”), a Roman military leader who employed this strategy against Hannibal and the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War. Many Romans, desirous of a full-scale battle, opposed Fabius' strategy. When he stepped down as dictator in 216 B.C., the policy was discarded, resulting in the Romans' disastrous defeat at Cannae. The Romans then returned to Fabius' strategy, which laid the foundation for Rome's eventual victory."
-2021/2 Syllabus for the Fleet Seminar Program Strategy & War Course 

Battle of Cannae, 2 August 216 BC

Hannibal on the battle field of Cannae after the defeat of Rome that resulted in 50-85K Roman soldiers being killed. Public domain image from "Rom" by Wilhelm Wagner (1877), via Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Baptist Hagenauer, 1773–1780; The marble sculpture depicts Fabius Cunctator (Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus) as the thoughtful and patient leader, Vienna, Schönbrunn Palace Park. Image used and modified under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license via Wikimedia Commons. Plutarch explains his surname in Life of Fabius Maximus, "He had the surname of Verrucosus from a physical peculiarity, namely, a small wart growing above his lip; and that of Ovicula, which signifies Lambkin, was given him because of the gentleness and gravity of his nature when he was yet a child." Ovicula is a diminutive “Ovid” or sheep. “Warty little lamb” is not exactly a flattering nickname.


Fabius was initially ridiculed for his strategy. When his rival Minucius had a successful battle against Hannibal's troops, Minucius was deemed the better leader. It wasn't long before Fabius had to rescue Minucius from trouble. Eventually Fabius’ strategy gained respect. Plutarch summarizes the strategy and has Hannibal praising his enemy:

"Fabius hoped, if nobody fought with Hannibal, that Hannibal’s forces, being under continual strain, would soon give out. Wherefore Hannibal said that he had more to fear from Fabius who would not fight than from Marcellus who would."
-Plutarch, Moralia, Fabius Maximus 

George Washington, The American Fabius

The modern Strategy & Warefare course includes a case study in which George Washington applies a Fabian Strategy to defeat the British during the American Revolution.

"Washington’s partisans ascribe much of the credit for colonial victory to his strategic and operational leadership, his understanding of the profession of arms, and his capacity for making ethical decisions. After numerous mistakes, he adapted enough to deny Britain an early victory and sought decisive battles when the opportunity allowed. As much by necessity as by choice, he employed a Fabian strategy, or one that avoided large high-stakes battles in favor of wearing out the British Army. Although this approach required staying on the strategic defensive for most of the war, it enabled the Continental Army to survive. Tactical offensives supplied “incremental dividends” until Washington could seize the initiative and transition to the strategic offensive. However, even during the war, some questioned Washington’s skill as a strategist."
-2021/2 Syllabus for the Fleet Seminar Program Strategy & War Course 
"I know the comments that some people will make on our Fabian conduct. It will be imputed either to cowardice, or to weakness. But the more discerning, I trust, will not find it difficult to conceive, that it proceeds from the truest policy, and is an argument neither of the one nor the other. The liberties of America are an infinite stake. We should not play a desperate game for it, or put it upon the issue of a single cast of the die."
-Alexander Hamilton, June 28, 1777

The Coin

Today's coin of interest is from a moneyer who is the great grandson of Lucius Aemelius Paulus and great grandson, by adoption of his father, to the Fabius Maximus Verruscosus Cunctator (for whom the Fabian Strategy is named). His adoptive father was Q. Fabius Maximus praetor peregrinus in 181 BC. His adoptive grandfather was Quintus Fabius Q.f. Q.n. Maximus.

Roman Republican, Q. Fabius Maximus, 127 BC, AR denarius (17mm, 3.89g, 12h), Rome mint

Obv: Q. MAX/ROMA, helmeted head of Roma right, with star on flap; mark of value below chin

Rev: Cornucopia superimposed on a thunderbolt; all within wreath composed of ears of barley, ears of wheat, and assorted fruits.

Ref: Crawford RRC 265/1


The Moneyer

This moneyer as a youth was known as "Jupiter's chick" for having been struck by lightning on his buttocks (potentially a birthmark).

"Then there was Q. Fabius Maximus Eburnus (cos. 116) who had the unfortunate youthful nickname of pullus Iovis ('Jupiter's Chick') since it was said that he had been struck by lightning on his buttocks (Festus, 285L).32 His disability, if it was such, did not, however, prevent this politician from becoming censor in 108 nor ordering the execution of his own son for adultery (Val. Max. 6.1.5)."
-Evans, R. J. “Displaying Honorable Scars: a Roman Gimmick.Acta Classica, vol. 42, 1999, pp. 77–94.


Q. Fabius, who was known as "ivory" (Eburno) because of his fair complexion (candorem), was called "Jupiter's chick" (Pullus Iovis), because he was struck by lightning in his buttocks (natis). The ancients called a boy whom a man loved his "pullus".
- Sextus Pompeius Festus

He served as consul, in 116 BC. His harsh punishment of his son, in his role as censor in 108 BC, was the end of his political career:

"During those same days Q. Fabius Maximus sent his youthful son away to his country estate and there had him put to death by two slaves who were accomplices in this murder. He at once manumitted these slaves as a reward for their part in the crime. Upon the accusation of Cn. Pompeius, he was tried and found guilty."
-Orosius, 5.16.8 

The Reverse

Although I have not read a reference to this, it seems plausible that the thunderbolt on the reverse of this coin could also be playing on "Pullus Iovis". Crawford attributes the Cornucopia and thunderbolt to the close timing of the festivals of Ceralia (and agricultural festival celebrated for Ceres the goddess of grain on 12 April) and the festival of Jupiter Victor and Jupiter Libertas (13 April).


It is worth noting too that there is a coin from Valentia (example from Ibercoin Auction 51 lot 685 in June 2021 - not my coin) that clearly is linked by its imagery to the denarius above.

VALENTIA (Valencia), (AE As 19.66g /28mm), 150-50 BC

Obv: Galley head of Rome to the right, around legend: TAHI TFYL TRINI LF Q.

Rev: Cornucopia on beam of rays, below legend: VALENTIA, all within laurea.


The open question: are these coins inspired by the denarius of Quintus Fabius Maximus, OR does the denarius perhaps allude to victories gained by other Fabii: Q. Fabius Maximus Aemillianus over Viriathus in 144 BC, or Q. Fabius Maximus Servilianus in 142 BC, OR something else?

"This reverse type is identical with that on bronze coins of Valentia in Spain, which also have a helmeted head (Roma?) on the obverse (Heiss, Mon. ant. l'Esp., pi. xxviii., nos. 1-5). It may be an allusion to the victory gained near that city by Q. Fabius Maximus Aemilianus over Viriathus, B.C. 144, or to the subsequent success of Q. Fabius Maximus Servilianus in the same district, B.C. 142 (Mommsen, Hist. Mon. Rom., t. ii., p. 338, note)."
-Herbert A. Grueber, Coins of the Roman Republic in the British Museum, 1910, p. 178.

Restored Issues from Sulla

Sulla revived this coin type in 82-80 BC with this coin referencing another Q. Fabius Maximus (the nephew of the moneyer of the coin above). This coin is one of three restored issues that are all a parallel to coins from 127 BC with Apollo in place of Roma on the obverse.

Q. Fabius Maximus, Sullan Restoration Issue, AR Denarius (17mm, 4.00 g), struck circa 82-80 BC

Obv: ROMA Q MAX, laureate head of Apollo right; lyre before

Rev: Cornucopiae upon thunderbolt; all within wreath

Ref: Crawford 371/1; Sydenham 718; Fabia 6


These are the two other coins from 127 that were restored at the same time by Sulla.

M. Caecilius Q.f. Q.n. Metellus, 127 BC, AR denarius (16mm, 3.90g, 9h), Rome mint

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right, star on flap; mark of value below chin; ROMA downward behind

Rev: Macedonian shield with elephant's head in central boss, M METELLVS Q F around, surrounded by laurel wreath

Ref: Crawford 263/1b

C. Servilius Vatia, 127 BC, AR denarius (17mm, 3.8g, 7h), Rome mint

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right, star on neckpiece of helmet; lituus to left, mark of value below chin

Rev: Horseman (M. Servilius Pulex Geminus) galloping left, holding shield inscribed M (Marcus), piercing with spear another horseman, who fights back armed with shield and sword

Ref: Crawford 264/1; Sydenham 483; Servilia 6; RBW 1069


Here are drawings from Babelon, 1885, of the three restored issues with Apollo on the obverse.

Crawford speculates that Sulla may have issued these restored coins to avoid having to appoint trimviri monetalis in 82 BC OR to celebrate the restoration of the republic in 80, and also to honor his key supporters. The rationale for Apollo is that Sulla considered him a personal protector.

"There is also a story that Sulla had a little golden image of Apollo from Delphi which he always carried in his bosom when he was in battle, but that on this occasion he took it out and kissed it affectionately, saying: O Pythian Apollo, now that thou hast in so many struggles raised the fortunate Cornelius Sulla to glory and greatness, can it be that thou hast brought him to the gates of his native city only to cast him down there, to perish most shamefully with his fellow-countrymen?"
-Plutarch, Life of Sulla, 49 

I recently added another of these to my collection:

Roman Republican, M. Caecilius Q.f. Q.n. Metellus, restored issue, 82-80 BC. AR Denarius  (18mm, 3.92g, 3h).. Rome mint.

Ref: Head of Apollo right, wearing taenia; mark of value below chin, ROMA behind.

Rev: M METELLVS Q F, macedonian shield with elephant's head on central boss; all within laurel wreath.

Ref: Crawford 369/1; Sydenham 719; Caecilia 30; RBW 1389


Whether it is Crawford's speculation on this coin or the many questions about the reverse with cornucopia and thunderbolt, there is inevitably a challenge to understand what the Roman at the time of issue might have seen, or the moneyer may have intended. Sometimes an inscription, another coin, archeological evidence, hoard evidence or an original source can tell us more, and sometimes we are just left to ponder the options...why? and how might we find a more definitive answer?

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