Marcus Claudius Marcellus
Marcus Claudius Marcellus (ca. 268–208 BC), five times elected as consul of the Roman Republic, was an important Roman military leader during the Gallic War of 225 BC and the Second Punic War. Marcellus gained the most prestigious award a Roman general could earn, the spolia opima, for killing the Gallic military leader and king Viridomarus in hand-to-hand combat in 222 BC at the battle of Clastidium. Furthermore, he is noted for having conquered the fortified city of Syracuse in a protracted siege during which Archimedes, the famous inventor, was killed. Marcus Claudius Marcellus died in battle in 208 BC, leaving behind a legacy of military conquests and a reinvigorated Roman legend of the spolia opima.
Early life: distinguished soldier and politician
Little is known of Marcus Claudius Marcellus’ early years since the majority of biographical information pertains to his military expeditions. The fullest account of Marcellus’ life was written by Plutarch, a Roman historian. Plutarch’s collection, titled "Life of Marcellus," focuses on Marcellus’ military campaigns and political life, rather than being a full-life biography, as one might surmise from the title. Plutarch supplies some general information about Marcellus’ youth. Marcellus’ exact birth date is unknown, yet scholars are certain he was born prior to 268 BC because he earned his fifth and final Roman consulship in 208 BC, after he was 60. Marcellus was said to have been the first in his family to take on the cognomen of Marcellus; yet there are genealogical records of his family line tracing the cognomen all the way back to 331 BC. According to Plutarch, Marcellus was a skilled fighter in his youth and was raised with the purpose of entering military service. Marcellus’ general education may have been lacking. In his youth, Marcellus quickly distinguished himself as an ambitious warrior, known for his skill in hand-to-hand combat. He is noted to having saved the life of his brother, Otacilius, when the two were surrounded by enemy soldiers in Italy.
As a young man in the Roman army, Marcellus was praised by his superiors for his skill and valor. As a result of his fine service, in 226 BC, he was appointed to the position of curule aedile in the Roman Republic. The position of curule aedile was quite prestigious for a man such as Marcellus. An aedile was an overseer of public buildings and festivals and an enforcer of public order. This is generally the first position one might take in seeking a high political career. The title of curule is quite peculiar because this distinction signifies that that person is a patrician, or upper classman, rather than a plebeian, or commoner. Marcellus was so highly regarded by his superiors that he was distinguished as a patrician, though technically his family was of the plebeian class. Around the same time that he became an aedile, Marcellus was also awarded the position of augur, which Plutarch describes as being an interpreter of omens. By about the age of 40, Marcellus had already become an acclaimed soldier and public official. Marcellus’ early career came to a close in 222 BC, at which time he achieved greater historical importance upon his election as consul of the Roman Republic—the highest political office and military position in ancient Rome.
Middle life: the spolia opima
Following the end of the First Punic War in which Marcellus fought as a soldier, the Gauls of the North declared war upon Rome in 225 BC. In the fourth and final year of the war, Marcellus was appointed one of the two consul seats, his colleague being Cn. Cornelius Scipio Calvus. The previous consuls had defeated the Insubrians, the primary Gallic tribe involved, all the way up to the Po River. Following such terrible defeats, the Insubrians surrendered, but Marcellus, not yet consul, persuaded the two acting consuls not to accept the terms of peace. As Marcellus and his colleague were ushered into office as the new consul, the Insurbrians mustered 30,000 of their Gallic allies, the Caesatae, to fight the Romans. Marcellus invaded the Insubrians up to the Po River, just as the previous consuls had done. From here, the Gauls sent 10,000 men across the Po and attacked Clastidium, a Roman stronghold, to divert the Roman attacks. This battlefield was stage of Marcellus’ confrontation with the Gallic king, Viridomarus, which cemented his place in history.
The confrontation, as told by Plutarch, is so heavy in detail that one might question the veracity of his narration. Plutarch recounts that prior to the battle, Viridomarus spotted Marcellus, who wore commander insignia upon his armor, and rode out to meet him. Across the battlefield, Marcellus viewed the beautiful armor upon the back of the enemy riding toward him. Marcellus concluded that this was the nicest armor, which he had previously prayed would be given by him to the gods. The two engaged in combat whereupon, Marcellus, “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.” Marcellus extracted the armor from his fallen foe, upon which he pronounced it as the spolia opima. The spolia opima, meaning "ultimate spoil," is known in Roman history as the most prestigious and honorable prize that a general can earn. Only a general who kills the leader of the opposing army prior to a battle may be honored with taking a spolia opima.
After he had slain the formidable warrior, whom he later learned was the king, Marcellus dedicated the armor, or spolia opima, to Jupiter Feretrius, as he had promised before the battle. Herein lies a wrinkle in Plutarch’s retelling of the event. When Marcellus first saw the finely dressed warrior, he did not recognize him as a king, but merely a man with the nicest armor. But immediately following the battle, Marcellus prayed to Jupiter Feretrius, saying that he had killed a king or ruler. This inconsistency indicates that Plutarch’s story may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, causing discrepancies. Furthermore, Plutarch had probably written the account to glorify Marcellus as a hero of Rome, instead of as a record of history.
Following the battle between Marcellus and the king of the Gauls, the outnumbered Romans broke the siege of Clastidium, won the battle and proceeded to push the Gallic army all the way back to their primary headquarters of Mediolanum. Here, the Romans defeated the Gauls who surrendered themselves to the Romans. The terms between the Romans and Gauls were accepted and the Gallic war ended. Polybius, a historian of the 2nd century BC and client to the Scipiones, states that much of the overall success in the Gallic War belongs to Marcellus’ colleague, Scipio, but because Marcellus had won the spolia opima, Marcellus was celebrated triumphantly. Following the Gallic wars, Marcellus seems to drift from the historical radar until the year 216 BC, ushering in the latter part of his life.
Later life: Second Punic War
Marcus Claudius Marcellus re-emerged onto both the political and military scene during the Second Punic War, in which he took part in important battles. In 216 BC, the third year of the Second Punic War, Marcellus was elected praetor. A praetor served as either an elected magistrate or as the commander of an army, the latter of which duties Marcellus was selected to fulfill in Sicily. Unfortunately, as Marcellus and his men were preparing to ship to Sicily, his army was recalled to Rome owing to the devastating losses at Cannae, one of the worst disasters in the long history of Rome. By the orders of the Senate, Marcellus was forced to dispatch 1500 of his men to Rome to protect the city after the terrible defeat by Hannibal of Carthage. With his remaining army, along with remnants of the army from Cannae, (who were considered to have been disgraced by the defeat and by surviving it), Marcellus camped near Suessula, a city in the region Campania of Southern Italy. At this point, part of the Carthaginian army began to make a move for the city of Nola. Marcellus repelled the attacks and managed to keep the city from the grasp of Hannibal. Although the battle at Nola was rather unimportant in regards to the Second Punic War as a whole, the victory was “important from its moral effect, as the first check, however slight, that Hannibal had yet received.”
Then, in 215 BC, Marcellus was summoned to Rome by the Dictator M. Junius Pera, who wanted to consult with him about the future conduct of the war. After this meeting Marcellus earned the title of proconsul. In the same year, when the consul L. Postumius Albinus was killed in battle, Marcellus was unanimously chosen by the Roman people to be his successor. Unfortunately, because the other consul was also a plebeian, the senate would not allow Marcellus to hold the position. Apparently, the senate found bad omens in two plebeian consuls. Marcellus therefore returned to his job as proconsul, whereupon, he defended the city of Nola, once again, from the rear guard of Hannibal’s army. The following year, 214 BC, Marcellus was elected consul yet again, his colleague being Fabius Maximus. For a third time, Marcellus defended Nola from Hannibal and even captured the small but significant town of Casilinum.
Sicily and Syracuse
Following his triumph at Casilinum, Marcellus was sent to Sicily, which Hannibal had set his sights upon. Upon arriving, Marcellus found the island in disarray. Hieronymus, the new ruler of the Rome-allied Kingdom of Syracuse, had recently come to the throne upon his grandfather's death and fallen under the influence of the Carthaginian agents Hippocrates and Epicydes. He then declared war against the Romans after the Carthaginian victory at the Battle of Cannae. However, Hieronymus was soon deposed; the new Syracusean leaders attempted a reconciliation with Rome but could not quell their suspicions and then aligned themselves with the Carthaginians. In 214 BC, the same year that he was sent to Sicily, Marcellus attacked the city of Leontini, where the two Syracusean rulers were residing. After successfully storming the city, Marcellus had 2000 Roman deserters who were hiding in the city killed, and moved to lay siege to Syracuse itself. At this point, several cities in the province of Sicily rose in rebellion against Roman rule. The siege lasted for two long years, with the Roman effort being thwarted in part by the military machines created by the famous inventor Archimedes. Meanwhile, leaving the bulk of the Roman legion in the command of Appius Claudius at Syracuse, Marcellus and a small army roamed Sicily, conquering opponents and taking such rebellious cities as Helorus, Megara, and Herbessus.
After Marcellus returned and continued the siege, the Carthaginians attempted to relieve the city, but were driven back. Overcoming formidable resistance and the ingenious devices of Archimedes, the Romans finally took the city in the summer of 212 BC. Plutarch wrote that Marcellus, when he had previously entered the city for a diplomatic meeting with the Syracusans, had noticed a weak point in its fortifications. He made his attack at this fragile spot, using a night attack by a small group of hand-picked soldiers to storm the walls and open the gates. During the attack, Archimedes was killed, an act Marcellus regretted. Plutarch writes that the Romans rampaged through the city, taking much of the plunder and artwork they could find. This has significance because Syracuse was a Greek city filled with Greek culture, art and architecture. Much of this Greek art was taken to Rome, where it was one of the first major impacts of Greek influence on Roman culture.
Following his victory at Syracuse, Marcellus remained in Sicily, where he defeated more Carthaginian and rebel foes. The important city of Agrigentum was still under Carthaginian control, though there was now little the Carthaginian leadership could do to support it as the campaigns against the Romans in Spain and Italy now took precedence. At the end of 211 BC, Marcellus resigned from command of the Sicilian province, thereby putting the praetor of the region, M. Cornelius, in charge. Upon his return to Rome, Marcellus did not receive the triumphal honours that would be expected for such a feat, as his political enemies objected that he had not fully eradicated the threats in Sicily.
Death in battle
The final period of Marcus Claudius Marcellus’ life began with his fourth election to Roman consul in 210 BC. Marcellus’ election to office sparked much controversy and resentment towards Marcellus because of accusations by political opponents that his actions in Sicily were excessively brutal. Representatives of Sicilian cities presented themselves before the senate to complain about Marcellus past actions. The complaints prevailed and Marcellus was forced to switch control of provinces with his colleague so that Marcellus was not the consul in control of Sicily. Upon switching provinces, Marcellus took command of the Roman army in the region of Apulia. In control of the Apulian army, Marcellus led many decisive victories against the Carthaginians. First, Marcellus took the city of Salapia and then continued along his way by conquering two cities in the region of Samnium. Next, when the army of Cn. Fulvius, another Roman general, was completely dismantled by Hannibal, Marcellus and his army stepped in to check the progress of the Carthaginian leader. Then Marcellus and Hannibal fought a battle at Numistro, where a clear victory could not be decided, although Rome claimed victory. Following this battle, Marcellus continued to keep Hannibal in check, yet the two armies never met in a decisive battle.
In 209 BC, Marcellus was named proconsul and retained control of his army. During that year the Roman Army under Marcellus faced Hannibal's forces in a series of skirmishes and raids, without being drawn into open battle. Marcellus defended his actions and tactics in front of the senate and he was named consul for the fifth time for the year 208 BC. After entering his fifth consulship Marcellus re-entered the field and took command of the army at Venusia. While on a reconnaissance mission with his colleague, T. Quinctius Crispinus and a small band of 220 horsemen, the group was ambushed and nearly completely slaughtered by a much larger Carthaginian force of Numidian horsemen. Marcellus was impaled by a spear and died on the field. In the following days, Crispinus died of his wounds.
In the year 23 BC, Emperor Augustus recounted that Hannibal had allowed Marcellus a proper funeral and even sent the ashes back to Marcellus’ son. The loss of both consuls was a major blow to Roman morale, as the Republic had lost its two senior military commanders in a single battle, while the formidable Carthaginian army was still at large in Italy.
Marcus Claudius Marcellus winning of the spolia opima earned him great fame in his lifetime. The spolia opima was one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon a Roman general. Plutarch informs how the spolia opima was acquired. He stated that, “only those spoils are ‘opima’ which are taken first, in a pitched battle, where general slays general.” Only two others in Roman history, Romulus, the founder of Rome, and Aulus Cornelius Cossus, were allegedly honored with this prize. Marcellus is the only one of the three whose achievement has been historically confirmed. In terms of the history of the spolia opima, Marcellus holds great significance because he reinvigorated the meaning of the honored prize. Prior to Marcellus, the spolia opima was not of special importance in the minds of Romans because it had happened only twice before, if at all. Furthermore, the actual ritual of the spolia opima was not confirmed until Marcellus made it customary to dedicate the armor to Jupiter Feretrius. No one else accomplished the same feat to continue the tradition. In this way, Marcellus publicized the winning of the spolia opima and turned it into a legend.
Marcellus was an important general during the Second Punic War and his five time election as consul has its place in Roman history. His decisive victories in Sicily were of history altering proportions, while his campaigns in Italy itself gave Hannibal himself pause and reinvigorated the Roman Senate. But it is Marcellus’ triumph as a warrior and winner of a spolia opima that confirmed his place in ancient Roman history. Due to all of this, he is known as the Sword of Rome.
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- Plutarch "Life of Marcellus", The Parallel Lives, 30 Apr. 2008, 26 Nov. 2008.
- Smith, William, Sir, ed. "M. Claudius M. F M. N. Marcellus", A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (Boston: Little, 1867) 927; Plutarch "The Life of Marcellus", The Parallel Lives, 30 Apr. 2008, 26 Nov. 2008
- Flower, Harriet I. "The Tradition of the Spolia Opima: M. Claudius Marcellus and Augustus", Classical Antiquity, Apr. 2000: 37.
- Lendering, Jona. "Marcus Claudius Marcellus", Livius: Articles on Ancient History, 26 Nov. 2008.
- Rorres, Chris. "Death of Archimedes: Sources". Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Retrieved 2010-09-28.
- Marcellus By Plutarch
- Flower, Harriet I., "The Tradition of the Spolia Opima: M. Claudius Marcellus and Augustus", Classical Antiquity, Apr. 2000: 37.
- Lendering, Jona. "Marcus Claudius Marcellus", Livius: Articles on Ancient History, 26 Nov. 2008.
- Plutarch's "Life of Marcellus", The Parallel Lives, 30 Apr. 2008, 26 Nov. 2008 (Plutarch's "Life of Marcellus" Mirror at Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Smith, William, ed. (1867). "article name needed". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.