As an ancient history and geography buff living in upstate New York, I’ve noticed a lot of towns and cities on the map that ring a familiar bell. Rome, Carthage, Syracuse, Alexandria and Troy, to name just a few, borrowed their venerable names from legendary ancient places.
Others are named after ancient historic figures; Romulus, Pompey, Cato, Cicero and Hannibal could be found in both an upstate New York gazetteer and a Who’s Who of classical antiquity. But as readers of our newspaper can attest, one of these names in particular has found its way into a lot of headlines recently: that of Marcellus.
This, of course, is purely coincidence. The Marcellus shale formation, with its large reserves of natural gas, got its name from a chance discovery near an Onondaga County town that happened to be named Marcellus.
That’s enough to satisfy most readers’ curiosity, but it doesn’t answer a question I’ve been asked: who is Marcellus? The town was likely named for Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a man born some 2,281 years ago, but whose story is still worth telling.
Around 268 B.C., when Marcellus was born, an array of tiny, disparate kingdoms circled the Mediterranean shores, like frogs around a pond. The fledgling Roman Republic had only recently expelled the warlord Pyrrhus of Epirus from Italy’s shores after a brutal struggle, from which the term “Pyrrhic victory” arose.
But after subduing all of Italy through war and diplomacy, Rome had become one of two would-be superpowers of the Hellenistic world. The other was Carthage, a North African maritime power with venerable Bronze Age roots. In between was Sicily, the sea’s largest island and a tempting prize for the two imperial powers.
Born into this world, Marcellus had to endure the toils of war early and often. As a young soldier fighting in Sicily during the First Punic War, Marcellus rescued his brother Otacilius from a Carthaginian attack. After earning various civil and military posts, Marcellus rose to the supreme military command in 222 B.C., in an hour of great peril for Rome — some 30,000 Gauls, like those who had sacked Rome a century earlier, had crossed the Alps into northern Italy.