The Fabian Strategy

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Sometimes the best way to win is simply not to lose. 

This strategy is called the Fabian Strategy and was given its name from an ancient Roman General and has been used throughout history, not just in warfare, but in many other areas as well. 

Learn more about the Fabian Strategy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The origins of the Fabian Strategy date back to the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome. (The word Punic comes from the fact that the Carthaginians were Phoenicians, and Punic was the word to describe all things Phoenician.)

Rome was getting its butt handed to them by the Carthaginian General Hannibal. He was the guy who famously brought African elephants over the Alps to attack Rome.

The elephants didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things, but his military brilliance did. Hannibal was unquestionably one of, if not the greatest, generals in the ancient world. 

As Hannibal marched into Italy, he began taking over town after town. Moreover, he was converting many of the tribes who had alliances with Rome, to his side, growing his army.

The Romans were used to being the superpower in the region. They figured that they would meet Hannibal in open battle and defeat him because they were Rome and that was what Rome did.

In 218 BC, the armies lined up at what became known at the Battle of Trebia. With forces of about 40,000 on each side, the armies seemed evenly matched, but the results were not. The Romans were encircled and slaughtered. Of the 40,000 Roman soldiers on the field, an estimated 20-30,000 were killed.

After the battle, many of the Gallic tribes saw the writing on the wall and joined Hannibal, growing the size of his army.

The next year in 217 BC things didn’t get any better for Rome. As Hannibal marched south, he hatched one of the greatest ambushes in history at Lake Trasimene where he attacked an army of 25,000 Romans. 15,000 were killed and almost all of the rest were captured.

This defeat caused a panic back in Rome. The Romans had never experienced something like this before, and Hannibal was an existential threat to Rome itself.

In times of emergency, the Romans had a legal office called a Dictator, where they would elect someone to have supreme control over everything for a period of six months. They selected Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator to stop Hannibal.

The strength of Fabius was knowing his weakness. He realized that he was up against one of the greatest generals in history. In an open field, set-piece battle, the way almost every ancient battle was fought, Rome was going to lose. 

Fabius, now with the power of dictator, set about avoiding a direct fight with Hannibal. He would harass and skirmish. He would disrupt his supply lines, and burning all the crops in the area he was advancing to. He sent out scouting parties to know where the bulk of Hannibal’s forces were at all times so they could be avoided.

The Romans hated this approach. They were Romans after all, and Romans didn’t chicken out of a fight. They gave Fabius the nickname of “Cunctator” which meant “the delayer”.

The position of Dictator also had the position of Master of the Horse, who was the #2 person under the Dictator. Fabius’ Master of the Horse was a guy by the name of Minucius, who was a political opponent of Fabius. Minucius, like everyone else, wanted to fight. Minucius openly called Fabius a coward.

Minucius had the support of the Tribune of the Plebs, who was the only authority not under the dictator, so Fabius couldn’t do anything. What Fabious did was split the army so half the army was under the command of Minucius, and half the army was under his control. He knew that Minucius would immediately attack Hannibal, and that is pretty much what happened. 

Minucius met Hannibal in battle, got pulled into a trap set by Hannibal, and would be been routed if Fabius hadn’t come to save the day. Minucius was on board with the program from thereafter.

There was one person who totally understood the strategy: Hannibal himself. Hannibal knew that he was in foreign territory, had no supply lines, and was dependent on success to keep his allies. Hannibal knew this was the right strategy to beat him and was worried about its success.

However, the rest of Rome still wasn’t. They wanted victories. After Fabuis’ term as dictator was over, a new pair of consuls were elected who ran on a platform of victory in battle. 

This led directly to the Battle of Canne in 216 BC, which was unquestionably the biggest Roman defeat ever. The arrogant consuls assembled a huge army and threw the giant block of men at Hannibal. Even though outnumbered 80,000 to 50,000, Hannibal emerged victorious in one of the most lopsided battles in history. Rome suffered almost 50,000 dead, and 20,000 captured, including an enormous part of the Roman Senate. 

After Canne, which will probably be a separate episode at some point, everyone in Rome was on board with the plan. The term Cunctator,  which began as an insult, became an honorific. They followed the strategy for years on the Italian peninsula until the war eventually concluded by bringing the war to Carthage itself. 

Fabius, the general who didn’t win any major victories, was given a triumph and became one of Rome’s greatest heroes.

The lessons of Fabius have echoed throughout history. 

In the 100 Years War between England and France (refer back to my episode on the longbow), the French suffered a series of staggering defeats to the English. French commander Bertrand du Guesclin adopted a Fabian approach and avoided any large military confrontations. Eventually, the French gained back all the territory they lost using this approach.

Most famously, this was the tactic used by the Americans during the American Revolution. After some early success, which was mostly due to the element of surprise, the Americans began suffering setbacks to the far superior British Army. The American’s didn’t have the training, resources, funding, or equipment that the British had. 

The Fabian approach was explicitly advocated by Gen. Nathaniel Greene and was eventually adopted by Washington. The Americans went years without any major battles, waiting, harassing, and thining out British supply lines until the time was right. That time was the decisive Battle of Yorktown, which ended the war. 

As with Fabius, the strategy was not popular at the time. John Adams, who was not a military man, was quoted as saying “I am sick of Fabian systems in all quarters!” 

The Russians adopted a Fabian strategy against Napoleon, avoiding direct battles and continually falling back until the Russian winter did the work for them. 

The Fabian strategy has been adopted by guerilla forces around the world who fight against superior forces.

Chinese Communist forces used this against the Japanese in WWII. The strategy as dictated by Mao Zedong was, “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

The North Vietnamese used this tactic against the Americans. Believe it or not, the North Vietnamese didn’t actually win many major battles. The famous Tet Offensive was actually a major defeat for them. However, they had the home-field advantage, and like Fabius, they were able to just grind down the Americans until eventually, they left. 

The Fabian strategy can be used in areas other than in war. 

At its essence, a Fabian strategy is all about patience and self-control. 

Many people have found success in life by just not giving up. Just stick with something until you eventually find success.

This podcast that you are listening to is a giant Fabian exercise. I know that the vast majority of podcasters give up after only a few months. If I can just not quit, and be patient, then I know I can eventually be successful. It is totally a Fabian approach of winning by surviving. 

So, the lessons of Fabius, developed 2,200 years ago can still be of use today. Not just by generals but by everyone.