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.