From the Archives - Marcus Sergius Silus
At one point in his encyclopedic Natural History, the Roman scholar, soldier, administrator, and naval officer Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23-79), better known as Pliny the Elder, remarks “What person has possessed the most outstanding courage is a subject of unending enquiry.”
Pliny then goes on to mention several notable warriors, among them Lucius Siccius Dentatus, possibly the most decorated soldier in history. But then he says “although these cases exhibit great achievements of valor, yet they involve still greater achievements of fortune,” and then goes on to discuss Marcus Sergius Silus, who lived from about 240 BC until some time after 197 BC.
. . . nobody, in my judgment at all events, can rightly rank any human being above Marcus Sergius, albeit his great-grandson Catilina diminishes the credit of his name.
Sergius lost his right hand in his second campaign. By the end of two further campaigns, he had been wounded twenty-three times, with the result that he was crippled in both hands and both feet, only his spirit being intact; yet although disabled, he served in numerous subsequent campaigns.
Sergius was twice taken prisoner by Hannibal (for it was with no ordinary foe that he was engaged), and twice escaped from Hannibal's fetters, although he was kept in chains or shackles on every single day for twenty months. He fought four times with only his left hand, having two horses he was riding stabbed under him.
Sergius had a right hand of iron made for himself and going into action with it tied to his arm, raised the siege of Cremona [c. 206-207 BC], saved Piacenza [209 BC], captured twelve enemy camps . . . .
All of these exploits are attested in a speech Sergius delivered during his praetorship when his colleagues wanted to debar him from the sacrifices as infirm—a man who with a different foe would have accumulated what piles of wreaths! inasmuch as it makes the greatest difference with what period of history a particular man's valor happens to coincide. What civic wreaths were bestowed by Trebbia or Ticinus or Trasimenus? what crown was won at Cannae, where successful flight was valor's highest exploit? All other victors truly have conquered men, but Sergius vanquished fortune also.
Sergius was a patrician from a very ancient family, though one that had fallen on hard times; there had not been a consul in the family since 380 BC. He was a military tribune during the early years of the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC), when he suffered his most serious injuries. His “iron hand” – probably a simple hook – doesn’t appear to have interfered in his activities, and Sergius continued to hold important commands throughout the war, and even later, being elected praetor urbanus for 197 BC, the chief judicial officer for the city. After that, the record is silent.