Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.17

Jeremiah B. McCall, Clan Fabius, Defenders of Rome: A History of the Republic's Most Illustrious Family.   Barnsley:  Pen and Sword Books, 2018.  Pp. 201.  ISBN 9781473885615.  £19.99.  


Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge (jgh1000@cam.ac.uk))

McCall—he of The Roman Cavalry (2002)—here completes a double-barrelled shot at celebrating the Middle Republic sword and shield of Rome. Marcellus got his own biography in 2012; now Fabius is to be subsumed, after the example followed by Virgil (Aeneid 6.845-6) and indeed set by a repeat pattern gently woven into successive tellings of episodes down the annals, within his clan. Accordingly, the economy of the 2018 follow-up is genealogical, pursuing Fabii from the three brothers of the 485-79 Cremera/Thermopylae saga, through Veii to the next three brothers of the 390 Gallic sack, and on to the emergence of Rullianus, the first Fabius Maximus, from the 321 Caudine Forks through five consulates' worth of engagements with Samnites, Etruscans, Etruscans, and Gauls down to Sentinum in 295.

By now the sub-title's Most Illustrious Family has come to the fore, as Rullianus' grandson or great-grandson inherits, not just the central role of the family at critical military and political junctures through five consulships plus the mantle of Maximus, but the special twist of strong and stable strategics sloganized as cunctatio. Warts and all, the Fabius, The Great Delayer of the Hannibalic War, hogs Chapters 5-6, pp. 86-148, the meat of the book, soon crossing paths with Marcellus and so eliciting a differently modulated version of the superlative crisis narrative.

Naturally the Cornelii Scipiones butt in to pig the limelight, as the irresistible force of Africanus' yang supersedes the Immovable Object yin (p.139)—but Clan Fabius isn't in the business of pitching in against that Most Illustrious Family. Instead the final Chapter moves ahead to the End of the Line, where first the sons of Aemilius Paullus and Servilius Caepio join the Scipios in forging stemmata through adoption, prolonged by their sons (the third most illustrious Fabius Maximus) Allobrogicus and Eburnus, and second the early imperial fakes Paullus and Africanus and the final phut of Paullus' son Persicus take us out with their double decrescendo of whimpers (so Juvenal and Eliot, pp.168-9).

As usual, or always, aristocratic genealogy proves to fail, and so, more important, fails to stitch history together, in a culture no matter how addicted to exemplary memorialization. That's the way it is: the roll-call pipes Cunctator in, he delivers his against-the-grain mould-breaker of wartime anti-heroics, and then the story falls away. Martial Marcellus was the easy touch, he Hammers home; the clan strings Rome along, and the—let's face it, one-off—Fabius Maximus remains ever the Dark Evader.

McCall is by now expert in delivering supple constative narration interset with lucid background information to fill in the political, military, and strategic themes and contexts that pin the prosopography to the history of the Republic. Within its hallowed idiom, this is exactly the sort of upbeat retelling of a Roman passion play that a wide audience, embracing High School cadet and Generalissimo Reader, truly cherishes. Clan Fabius is itself properly practical and cautious, carefully tracking a Gurges here, a SubButeo there, and finally homing on Sanga; crucially, this smartly turned-out book judiciously glosses data and lore with duly informative scepticism, but—and this requires flair—without losing momentum.

In short, I think he's really good at this, and look forward to ... Scipios Galore (or, what I'd like to see, Marius' Mules). If possible, without delay.

The story is reliable; typos are uncommon and for the most part minimal (p.163, Lucius Sergius Catalinus is a hapax.) Highly effective Appendices service the book with nomenclature, main sources plus on-line accesses, notes, bibliography, index.

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