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    Mother's Education, Other Thoughts

    Festina Lente: What Made Fabius So Great

    September 17, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    I first heard of the Latin maxim festina lente (make haste slowly) a month or two ago. Being a big fan of Aesop’s story The Hare and the Tortoise  — and tortoises in general, of course — I immediately “got it.” But I googled around, being hungry for more, and found this wonderful, fabulous talk by Chris Perrin. I’ll embed it here.

    Watch it now, watch it later — your choice. But do watch it.

    What jumped out at me in this was actually not the educational application (on which I’ve been thoroughly sold already), but the military application. It was like a huge light-bulb went on in my brain, and oh how I wish I’d known this last year when I was teaching Plutarch’s Life of Fabius. So here’s the deal about the Life of Fabius: the entire life pretty much takes place during the Second Punic War — the war against the infamous Hannibal-Who-Crossed-the-Alps.

    Festina Lente: How Fabius embodied a Roman ideal.

    Fabius has a strange way of making war, or at least I thought so. He tries to drag the war out, and trap Hannibal into playing himself out before he ever reaches Rome. In fact, in Lesson 1 of her study guide, Anne White says:

    “Slow and steady” was a good description of young Fabius; he didn’t seem like anyone who would ever set the world on fire.

    And this was before he was fighting with Hannibal, but we see this come into play immediately upon Hannibal’s arrival into the area. He doesn’t go fiercely into battle. Instead, Plutarch says of Fabius:

    [T]hus prepared, [Fabius] set forth to oppose Hannibal, not with intention to fight him, but with the purpose of wearing out and wasting the vigor of his arms by lapse of time …

    In this story, Fabius is the tortoise (Anne White says as much in her study guide), and Plutarch tells us that the only man who isn’t deceived by this behavior is Hannibal himself. Fabius is, arguably, Hannibal’s only equal in things warfare.

    At one point in the story, a hare shows up. A rash, headstrong young man named Minucius experiences a bit of triumph in battle, and suddenly the people are overcome with admiration of him. For a time, the people forget their own maxim — festina lente  — and cheer for the hare. They elect him to be equal in authority in warfare with Fabius, and Minucius is so unimpressed by Fabius’ slow and steady successes that the army is eventually divided between the two of them.

    Hares and tortoises cannot, apparently, work together.

    Fabius warns Minucius. But Minucius doesn’t heed his warning. And Hannibal? Hannibal, Plutarch informs us, is “not altogether ignorant” of these proceedings, and decides to use all of this to his advantage. Hannibal may not be able to trick the tortoise into a losing battle, but the hare is altogether different.

    Minucius swallowed the bait, and first sends out his light troops, and after them some horse, to dislodge the enemy; and, at last, when he saw Hannibal in person advancing to the assistance of his men, marched down with his whole army drawn up. He engaged with the troops on the eminence, and sustained their missiles; the combat for some time was equal; but as soon as Hannibal perceived that the whole army was now sufficiently advanced within the toils he had set for them, so that their backs were open to his men whom he had posted in the hollows, he gave the signal; upon which they rushed forth from various quarters, and with loud cries furiously attacked Minucius in the rear. The surprise and the slaughter was great, and struck universal alarm and disorder through the whole army. Minucius himself lost all his confidence; he looked from officer to officer, and found all alike unprepared to face the danger, and yielding to a flight, which, however, could not end in safety. The Numidian horsemen were already in full victory riding about the plain, cutting down the fugitives.

    Fabius, naturally, has to rush in and save the day, as much as such a day can be saved.

    In the end, even Minucius praises him:

    “You have this day, O dictator, obtained two victories; one by your valor and conduct over Hannibal, and another by your wisdom and goodness over your colleague; by one victory you preserved, and by the other instructed us; and when we were already suffering one shameful defeat from Hannibal, by another welcome one from you we were restored to honor and safety.”

    Fabius goes on to have a stunning career, and it is he, and not Minucius, whom Plutarch studies in his Lives. The Roman maxim was proven true once more. Festina lente  — make haste slowly. It’s the only way to succeed. Much of life consists of marathons, not sprints.

    Anne White’s guide was trying to tell me this, but I didn’t fully get it. I never understood that Aesop’s story embodied a maxim that everyone knew. Christopher Perrin says they wrote it on walls and depicted it in their art. Festina lente was wisdom, yes, but also popular wisdom. I know that Aesop attempted to teach wisdom, but I didn’t realize that this particular story was a Roman (and prior to that, a Greek) ideal.

    No wonder Plutarch featured Fabius! He embodied the ideal. I didn’t get this, so when I taught it, I taught it as wisdom, yes, but I think I failed to help my students connect that this was an Ideal.

    Of course, I have enough students that this is not my last chance to teach Fabius. Next time, I’ll remember. Next time, I’ll introduce the concept of festina lente to them before we begin the term’s study. And then they’ll know that here was an ideal made incarnate by a man.

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    5 Comments

  • Reply Leanne Davidson December 12, 2020 at 8:04 pm

    A bit like the saying “Less, haste, more speed.”

  • Reply Jeanne September 18, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Oh, that is so incredibly excellent. I love this post. Alas, I will not be studying Fabius again. We will, however, be reading The Two Towers next year. Perhaps I can talk about hares and Fabiuses and tortoises in connection with Ents. Maybe?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      Why not? 🙂

      I noticed the principle in a children’s book by Brinton Turkle that I read to my youngest the other day. I’m starting to see it so many places now that I’m looking for it! 🙂

  • Reply Mama Squirrel September 17, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I like your insights into Fabius and Minucius! It also made me think of the Ents (the tree-like ones who refuse to rush ANYTHING), because we are reading The Two Towers right now.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 17, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      Ooh! I like that connection to the Ents!

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