The Sword of Rome: Marcus Claudius Marcellus

It is late 216 BC. The Romans have just suffered a catastrophic defeat at Cannae. 40,000 Romans were packed in like sardines and massacred. The dreaded mastermind behind that massacre, Hannibal remains in southern Italy, campaigning against the town of Nola in modern Naples. Few Romans have the guts to confront him. One dares to try. He is The Sword of Rome: Marcus Claudius Marcellus. All his life, he has served Rome on the battlefield.

Plutarch says the following about his character:

He was by experience a man of war, of a sturdy body and a vigorous arm. He was naturally fond of war, and in its conflicts displayed great impetuosity and high temper but otherwise he was modest, humane, and so far a lover of Greek learning and discipline as to honor and admire those who excelled therein, although he himself was prevented by his occupations from achieving a knowledge and proficiency here which corresponded to his desires.

Now he will need to put his character and all of his experience to the test against the most formidable foe Rome has ever faced.


Marcus Claudius Marcellus was born in 271 BC to a plebian, rather than a patrician family. The plebians had succeeded over the past century in winning full political rights, and that victory would prove vital for Rome in the Second Punic War. Marcus Claudius Marcellus distinguished himself long before Hannibal rampaged through Italy.

He was a veteran of the First Punic War, where he saw repeat action against the Carthaginians in Sicily, the principal land theater of the conflict. There, he won the at least one Civic Crown, a reward for saving the life of another soldier. Plutarch tells us about this feat of arms:

Marcellus was efficient and practiced in every kind of fighting, but in single combat he surpassed himself, never declining a challenge, and always killing his challengers. In Sicily he saved his brother Otacilius from peril of his life, covering him with his shield and killing those who were setting upon him.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus Sword of Rome
The young Sword of Rome.

After this, Marcus Claudius Marcellus would distinguish himself in the Roman Senate. During his time as aedile (an office in charge of civic infrastructure) his son, also named Marcus, received sexual advances from one of his colleagues, Capitolinus. He denounced Capitolinus in front of the Senate, which eventually fined him. He had the proceeds melted down into silver libation bowls and dedicated them to the gods, according to Plutarch.

Here we see Marcus Claudius Marcellus as a protective father, confirming Plutarch’s earlier impression of his character. Yet, Rome always had a conflict to fight in those days. Another was brewing.

The Sword of Rome Earns his Name

In 225 BC, war broke out with The Insubrians, a powerful tribe in Cisalpine Gaul. In 223, they sued for peace after a defeat. Marcus Claudius Marcellus, elected consul for the year 222, persuaded the Senate to reject these negotiations, and another tribe, the Gaesatae, then entered the hostilities.

A reasonable observer might accuse Marcus Claudius Marcellus of being a warmonger here. That was, however, the standard practice for Roman senators at this time. They competed with one another to see who could bring the most renown to their names, families, and to the state. Either way, the Gaesatae forced the issue.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus and his consular colleague, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio (an uncle of the future Scipio Africanus), moved on the town of Clastidium, a Gallic village allied to Rome. The Gaestae were, according to Plutarch, putting it to siege with an army of 10,000 men.

Eager for action, he took a small force of about 600 men and most of the cavalry to meet the Gauls, who had learned of the Romans’ arrival. This was the spot where the “Sword of Rome” would create his legend. The Gauls were noted for their skill as horseborne warriors. Their cavalry was of much better quality than that of Rome. The Gallic cavalry followed behind their king, Britomarus himself.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus formed his force up to engage, but his horse shied away. This was taken as a bad omen. The consul was quick-witted, however. Taking a page from the same playbook William the Conqueror would use at Hastings, he turned toward the sun and appeared to pray, as if this were the reason for his horse’s hesitance to charge the enemy. This restored morale. The word of a bad omen was not permitted to spread. Anticipating Caesar, he had controlled the news cycle with action.

Then came the incident which cemented his place as the Sword of Rome. Plutarch says:

Meanwhile the king of the Gauls espied him, and judging from his insignia that he was the commander, rode far out in front of the rest and confronted him, shouting challenges and brandishing his spear. His stature exceeded that of the other Gauls, and he was conspicuous for a suit of armor which was set off with gold and silver and bright colors and all sorts of broideries; it gleamed like lightning.

Accordingly, as Marcellus surveyed the ranks of the enemy, this seemed to him to be the most beautiful armor, and he concluded that it was this which he had vowed to the god. He therefore rushed upon the man, and by a thrust of his spear which pierced his adversary’s breastplate, and by the impact of his horse in full career, threw him, still living, upon the ground, where, with a second and third blow, he promptly killed him.

This feat permitted Marcus Claudius Marcellus to dedicate the spolia opima in the main temple to Jupiter in Rome, where he carried the arms of the slain Britomarus into the building on an oak branch. It was Rome’s highest military decoration, given to a general who had killed his opposite in single combat. He was only the third man in Rome’s history to receive this honor (and the other two, one being Romulus, were legendary or semi-legendary).

Spolia opima

His dedication of the spolia opima earned him the reputation for being the “Sword of Rome,” but that reputation would now be put to the ultimate test. Only a few years later, the Second Punic War broke out.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus vs. Hannibal

Hannibal stormed into Italy and wiped Roman armies out like a whirlwind. Relieved that Hannibal had not marched on Rome after Cannae, the Romans nevertheless were desperate for any kind of victory. Rome’s sword was now the nearest commander to Hannibal, who was moving against the town of Nola. In late 216 and into 215, small skirmishes raged around the area. There, he actually got the better of the dreaded Hannibal, preventing him from capturing the town. It was no great victory, but it proved that Hannibal was not invincible. A third encounter at Nola in 214 saw the same result. Hannibal was not able to get the better of the Sword of Rome.

The Sword had earned his country a much-needed morale boost, but he was to go on to do greater things in the Second Punic War.

The Siege of Syracuse

Marcus Claudius Marcellus next returned to Sicily, the island where he first won fame as a soldier. There, in 214, he commanded the Roman attack on Syracuse, the famously stubborn Greek city which had allied with Carthage in the war.

This was a long, obstinate struggle. The famous scientist Archimedes built siege engines which proved a massive pain for the Romans. During the siege, the Sword of Rome conquered other parts of Sicily that defected or were not yet under Roman rule and stopped Carthaginian attempts to relieve the city.

With the insight of a great general, Marcus Claudius Marcellus finally spotted an opening:

As the siege went on, one Damippus, a Lacedaemonian, putting to sea in a ship from Syracuse, was taken. When the Syracusans much desired to redeem this man, and there were many meetings and treaties about the matter betwixt them and Marcellus, he had opportunity to notice a tower into which a body of men might be secretly introduced, as the wall near to it was not difficult to surmount, and it was itself carelessly guarded. Coming often thither, and entertaining conferences about the release of Damippus, he had pretty well calculated the height of the tower, and got ladders prepared. The Syracusans celebrated a feast to Diana; this juncture of time, when they were given up entirely to wine and sport, Marcellus laid hold of, and before the citizens perceived it, not only possessed himself of the tower, but, before the break of day, filled the wall around with soldiers, and made his way into the Hexapylum. The Syracusans now beginning to stir, and to be alarmed at the tumult, he ordered the trumpets everywhere to sound, and thus frightened them all into flight, as if all parts of the city were already won, though the most fortified, and the fairest, and most ample quarter was still ungained. It is called Acradina, and was divided by a wall from the outer city, one part of which they call Neapolis, the other Tycha. Possessing himself of these, Marcellus, about break of day, entered through the Hexapylum, all his officers congratulating him.

Here the Sword of Rome displayed the true greatness of his character. He was aggressive and impetuous, but humane indeed. Archimedes was killed in the fighting, a fact which he deeply regretted. He also took whatever steps he could to bring his men to order:

Looking down from the higher places upon the beautiful and spacious city below, he is said to have wept much, commiserating the calamity that hung over it, when his thoughts represented to him how dismal and foul the face of the city would be in a few hours, when plundered and sacked by the soldiers. For among the officers of his army there was not one man that durst deny the plunder of the city to the soldiers’ demands; nay, many were instant that it should be set on fire and laid level to the ground: but this Marcellus would not listen to. Yet he granted, but with great unwillingness and reluctance, that the money and slaves should be made prey; giving orders, at the same time, that none should violate any free person, nor kill, misuse, or make a slave of any of the Syracusans. Though he had used this moderation, he still esteemed the condition of that city to be pitiable, and, even amidst the congratulations and joy, showed his strong feelings of sympathy and commiseration at seeing all the riches accumulated during a long felicity now dissipated in an hour. For it is related that no less prey and plunder was taken here than afterward in Carthage.

The Sword of Rome indeed brought great and rare treasures back to Rome, where his enemies in the Senate denied him the right to a triumph, forcing him to accept a lesser ovation instead. Nevertheless, what stands out in the sack of Syracuse was the Sword of Rome’s attempt to spare what he could and not harm people unnecessarily. For someone with such an aggressive reputation, it was a peculiar quality, standing out in his time and long afterward.

The mark of a truly special man – a man who is not only great but also good, a man who Herodotus can tell us would truly die happy – is the achievement of glorious deeds which will live on in time, and also dying with a good name. A special man goes out on top, beloved, without suffering a dramatic reversal of fortune that ruins him and leaves him in disrepute. This is a rarity. So many men pursue greatness, regardless of the rightness of their actions, sticking their heads out and asking for fortune to hammer them. Andrew Cuomo is a recent example.

To make a long story short, a special man is one who will have achieved glory, but with virtue as his guide and guardrail.

Siege of Syracuse 212 BC
Artist’s rendition of one of Archimedes’ devices in the Siege of Syracuse, 212 BC.

In Syracuse campaign, we see that Marcus Claudius Marcellus bears the mark of a special man. He had won his greatest victory, but exercised his power as moderately as he could, following the classical virtues of temperance and justice. He had proven his courage on the battlefield many times and his wisdom in how he handled his army in the face of Hannibal.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus had secured his name in Rome and his renown afterward. The war, however, was not over. Hannibal remained in Italy. With the fall of Syracuse and Sicily secure, the Sword of Rome returned home once again to confront his old enemy.

The Battle of Numistro

In 210, Marcus Claudius Marcellus was elected consul for the fourth time. That year, he again confronted Hannibal at the Battle of Numistro. This battle came on the heels of yet another Roman disaster in Italy, as the proconsul Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus Maximus was killed in battle along with 11 tribunes and, according to Livy, 13,000 troops at the Battle of Herdonia.

The consul, however, “was not disturbed by this serious disaster.” He ensured a jittery Senate that he was the same man who had blunted Hannibal’s advances three times and would now meet him. In his usual aggressive manner, the Sword of Rome was “the first to offer battle,” according to Livy. The dramatic account suggests a fierce fight that became a stalemate. Eventually, “night separated the combatants whilst the victory was yet undecided.”

Hannibal then retreated. Naturally, the Sword of Rome followed him:

Here for some days there were skirmishes between the outposts and slight actions in which both cavalry and infantry took part, but no regular battle. In nearly every case the Romans had the advantage. Both armies traversed Apulia without fighting any important action, Hannibal marching by night always on the look-out for a chance of surprise or ambush, Marcellus never moving but in daylight, and then only after careful reconnoitering.

Rome’s sword had bested its most feared antagonist. These were not crushing victories, but by the classical conduct of warfare, he had beaten Hannibal, as he remained in control of the field. We see his virtue again mentioned by Livy here. The Sword of Rome may have been of an aggressive disposition, but in his encounters with Hannibal, temperance was a must. He made sure that his attacks came in the best possible circumstances and kept his army in tight control at all times. Anything less would have meant certain defeat.

One final round awaited the Sword of Rome and Hannibal. It would prove the decisive one. Who would score the knockout?

Rome’s Sword vs. Hannibal – The Final Round

In 208, Marcus Claudius Marcellus was again elected consul. He again moved against Hannibal, taking a selection of 220 cavalry and some light infantry on a reconnaissance mission against the Carthaginian lines, along with his consular colleague, Titus Quinctius Crispinus. They rode toward an elevated position that seemed ideal for an encampment. Marcus Claudius Marcellus and his colleague scratched their heads, wondering why Hannibal would not have occupied such a position.

Hannibal did indeed consider it fertile ground for a camp, but even more fertile ground for an ambush. The Romans knew that they would gain an advantage if they occupied that ground. Unfortunately for them, Hannibal stationed detachments of men there, concealed in the woods. They set upon the Romans, and Plutarch tells us about the end:

Now, the crest of the hill was covered with woods, and on its summit a man had been stationed by the enemy to keep a lookout; he could not be seen himself, but kept the Roman camp in full view. This man, then, told those who lay in ambush what was going on, and they, after permitting Marcellus to ride close up to them, rose up on a sudden, and encompassing him on all sides, hurled their javelins, smote with their spears, pursued the fugitives, and grappled with those who made resistance. These were the forty men of Fregellae, who, though the Etruscans at the very outset took to flight, banded themselves together and fought in defense of the consuls, until Crispinus, smitten with two javelins, turned his horse and fled, and Marcellus was run through the side with a broad spear (the Latin name for which is ‘lancea’). Then the surviving men of Fregellae, few all told, left him where he lay dead, snatched up his son who was wounded, and fled to their camp. Hardly more than forty were slain, but five lictors were taken prisoners, and eighteen horsemen. Crispinus also died of his wounds not many days after. Such a disaster as this had never happened to the Romans before: both their consuls were killed in a single action.

Hannibal had at last outfoxed his most frustrating adversary to that point in the war. It was a fitting end for the Sword of Rome. He had gone down, but at least he had gone down bravely, in battle.


The Greek historian Polybius, probably the most reliable reporter on the Second Punic War, says the following about the Marcus Claudius Marcellus’ end:

Thus fell Marcus Marcellus from an act of incautiousness unworthy of a general. I am continually compelled in the course of my history to draw the attention of my readers to occurrences of this sort; for I perceive that it is this, more than anything else connected with the science of tactics, that ruins commanders. And yet the blunder is a very obvious one. For what is the use of a commander or general, who has not learnt that the leader ought to keep as far as possible aloof from those minor operations, in which the whole fortune of the campaign is not involved? Or of one who does not know that, even if circumstances should at times force them to engage in such subordinate movements, the commanders-in-chief should not expose themselves to danger until a large number of their company have fallen? For, as the proverb has it, the experiment should be made “on the worthless Carian” not on the general.

And it is true in a certain regard. Marcus Claudius Marcellus took too few men with him on this mission. If the Romans really did want to turn that hill into a camp, they should have used a much stronger force to take it. It would have been a force too big to easily ambush. Both consuls certainly should not have exposed themselves on the mission, either. One can reasonably accuse Marcus Claudius Marcellus of finally letting his impetuosity get the best of him.

Yet, Polybius’ assessment of his subject’s character is unfair. We have seen how aggressive but also deliberate Marcus Claudius Marcellus was throughout the Second Punic War. He was, to that point, the only Roman general to directly frustrate the designs of Hannibal, and he did so through a use of force which was no less careful than aggressive.

More importantly, we have seen how Marcus Claudius Marcellus rates as a special man. He died in good renown. He and his generation had guided Rome through the worst crisis it had ever faced. The war was not yet over, but the worst of it was. The following year, a new generation took to the field, beginning with the decisive triumph at the Metaurus, where Hasrubal, brother of Hannibal, met destruction, along with his entire army. In Spain, the future Scipio Africanus was making a name for himself.

Had it not been for Marcus Claudius Marcellus and his generation, these triumphs and ultimate victory would have been impossible. They had steered Rome through some of the worst years it ever faced. In this regard, the “Sword of Rome” was an expression not just of individual virtue, but of national. Carthage lacked the same virtue and in the end, it proved fatal.

Rome, by setting up a system where aristocrats competed with each other not to just to glorify themselves and their families, but the nation (feats which in turn helped secure their own power and prestige) created a positive feedback loop. Polybius would praise the Roman Republic. America’s own founding fathers obsessed with the civic virtue in the early Roman Republic, thinking it indispensable to any free country. We have seen how right they were, and how without such virtue, evil advances like a column of ants and smothers everything in its wake.

The Sword of Rome looms large among us today. Who will take that responsibility and answer the call, when our own republic is beset by foes within and without?

For more examples of virtue like Marcus Claudius Marcellus, read Lives of the Luminaries.

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