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.
Here, at a confrontation outside Clastidium, Marcellus singlehandedly shattered the army of Viridomarus, the Gallic king. When Viridomarus taunted Marcellus before the battle, the Roman commander rode out to meet fearsome Gaul — and promptly lanced him through the breastplate, struck him twice more on the ground, ripped the armor from his corpse and rode home in triumph. In doing so, Marcellus earned Rome’s highest honor, the spolia opima (“ultimate spoils”), bestowed only for defeating an enemy king in single combat.
But any respite was short-lived, as Marcellus, in what should have been his golden years, was called upon once more to face Rome’s greatest enemy of all.
“If ever there were any men whom, as Homer says, Heaven ‘from their first youth to their utmost age, appointed the laborious wars to wage,’ certainly they were the chief Romans of their time,” the ancient biographer Plutarch wrote, “who, in their youth, had war with the Carthaginians in Sicily, in their middle age with the Gauls in defense of Italy itself, and at last, when now grown old, struggled again with Hannibal and the Carthaginians.”
After crossing the Alps in 218 B.C., Hannibal quickly laid waste to much of Italy, defeating three large Roman armies in the process. Marcellus was named one of Rome’s two supreme commanders for the fourth time, and was given orders to attack the Sicilian fortress city of Syracuse.
After a two-year siege against defenders assisted by the legendary inventor Archimedes, Marcellus and his men finally took Syracuse in 212 B.C., in a merciless sack against a city that had offered surrender. This ugly incident marred Marcellus’ reputation, as many Romans believed the gods would frown upon such brutality. But with Hannibal still in Italy, Rome had little choice but to offer its most-grizzled veteran one last command.
But in Hannibal, Marcellus had finally met his equal as a warrior. After a few skirmishes in southern Italy, Hannibal trapped Marcellus in a fatal ambush. According to Plutarch, when Marcellus was found dead, Hannibal “ordered the body to be honorably robed, suitably adorned, and burned, then he collected the remains in a silver urn, placed a golden wreath upon it, and sent it back to his son.”
History is usually too senseless to teach us anything — though it should be learned anyway, if only for learning’s sake. For all his bravery and sacrifice, Marcellus was just an imperialist aggressor who ended up gored by the most bullish imperialist of all in Hannibal.
But it seems wholly appropriate that a shale formation that has caused so much political polarization would be named after a bitterly tenacious Roman general. Marcellus, after all, had plenty of stories to tell about implacable foes and intractable conflicts.
JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.