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M. Claudius Marcellus

M. Claudius Marcellus was the last Roman general to receive the spolia opima


During the Gallic invasion of Italy between the first and second Punic Wars, Marcellus was declared consul for the first time (222) by the interreges after the election of Flaminius and Furius was declared invalid by the augurs. Marcellus became the third and last person in Roman history to be awarded the spolia opima for having killed the enemy general (King Britomartus of the Insubrian Gauls) himself and despoiled him of his armour.

After the battle of Cannae, Marcellus was placed in command of the remnant of the Roman troops which had taken refuge in Canusium. By a combination of diplomatic wooing of the leading Nolans, who were pro-Carthaginian, and later a victory over Hannibal outside the city walls, Marcellus managed to prevent Nola going over to the Carthaginian side, thus depriving Hannibal of access to the sea and reinforcements.

In the third consulship of Marcellus (214), he was sent to Sicily. He obtained grudging permission from the Senate to recruit Roman deserters after Cannae into his forces. After taking Leontini, he started a siege of Syracuse, which lasted two years thanks to Archimedes' skill as an engineer in constructing defensive weapons. During negotiations with the Syracusans for the release of Damippus, a Spartan captured by the Romans, Marcellus noticed a vulnerable tower in the city's walls, and managed to take it while the Syracusans were enjoying a feast of Artemis. The Syracusans panicked, even though there were still fortifications between the main part of the city and the tower.

In the sack of the city, Marcellus insisted that although money and slaves were fair game, no free person should be raped, killed, or enslaved. Nevertheless, Archimedes was killed by one of the Roman soldiers when he failed to obey the soldier because he was working on a geometrical problem. Marcellus transported the city's art treasures back to Rome, the first time any general had done this. Despite this, Marcellus still enjoyed a reputation for humanity and justice rather than simply as a formidable military man.

From his fourth consulship (210) to his fifth (208), Marcellus fought Hannibal up and down Italy, but was finally ambushed with a small force near Venusia and both Marcellus and his colleague as consul, Crispinus, were killed. Hannibal had his body sent back to Rome in a silver urn with a gold crown. There is some dispute in the ancient sources as to whether the body reached its destination.

Plutarch records that Posidonius called Marcellus the sword of Rome and Fabius Maximus its shield. Hannibal is recorded as saying that Marcellus was the only enemy who did not rest if things went badly for the Romans or allow Hannibal any rest if things went well for them.

Plutarch wrote a biography of Marcellus, pairing him with Pelopidas. The historians covering this period are Livy and Polybius, and Appian.

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