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Translated by Rev. Canon Roberts
Book X Chapter 40: The Battle of Aquilonia. Omens.[293 BC]
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These details the consul had gathered from information supplied by deserters, and his mention of them increased the exasperation of the troops. Assured of the favour of heaven and satisfied that humanly speaking they were more than a match for their foes, they clamoured with one voice to be led to battle, and were intensely disgusted at finding that it was put off till the morrow; they chafed angrily at the delay of a whole day and night. |
After receiving the reply from his colleague, Papirius rose quietly in the third watch of the night and sent a pullarius to observe the omens. There was not a man, whatever his rank or condition, in the camp who was not seized by the passion for battle, the highest and lowest alike were eagerly looking forward to it; the general was watching the excited looks of the men, the men were looking at their general, the universal excitement extended even to those who were engaged in observing the sacred birds. The chickens refused to eat, but the pullarius ventured to misrepresent matters, and reported to the consul that they had eaten so greedily that the corn dropped from their mouths on to the ground. (1) The consul, delighted at the news, gave out that the omens could not have been more favourable; they were going to engage the enemy under the guidance and blessing of heaven. He then gave the signal for battle.
Just as they were taking up their position, a deserter brought word that 20 cohorts of the Samnites, comprising about 400 men each, had gone to Cominium. He instantly despatched a message to his colleague in case he should not be aware of this movement, and ordered the standards to be advanced more rapidly. He had already posted the reserves in their respective positions and told off an officer to take command of each detachment. The right wing of the main army he entrusted to Lucius Volumnius, the left to Lucius Scipio, and two other members of his staff, Gaius Caedicius and Titus Trebonius, were placed in command of the cavalry. He gave orders for Spurius Nautius to remove the pack-saddles from the mules and to take them together with three of the auxiliary cohorts by a circuitous route to some rising ground visible from the battle-field, where during the progress of the fight he was to attract attention by raising as great a cloud of dust as possible.
While the consul was busy with these arrangements an altercation began between the pullarii about the omens which had been observed in the morning. Some of the Roman cavalry overheard it and thought it of sufficient importance to justify them in reporting to Spurius Papirius, the consul's nephew, that the omens were being called in question. This young man, born in an age when men were not yet taught to despise the gods, inquired into the matter in order to make quite sure that what he was reporting was true and then laid it before the consul. He thanked him for the trouble be had taken and bade him have no fears. "But," he continued, "if the man who is watching the omens makes a false report, he brings down the divine wrath on his own head. As far as I am concerned, I have received the formal intimation that the chickens ate eagerly, there could be no more favourable omen for the Roman people and army." He then issued instructions to the centurions to place the pullarius in front of the fighting line. The standards of the Samnites were now advancing, followed by the army in gorgeous array; even to their enemies they presented a magnificent sight. Before the battle-shout was raised or the lines closed a chance javelin struck the pullarius and he fell in front of the standards. When this was reported to the consul he remarked, "The gods are taking their part in the battle, the guilty man has met with his punishment." While the consul was speaking a crow in front of him gave a loud and distinct caw. The consul welcomed the augury and declared that the gods had never more plainly manifested their presence in human affairs. He then ordered the charge to be sounded and the battle-shout to be raised.
(1): The auspices were taken from the observation of birds, either from their flight, as in the case of the vultures seen by Romulus and Remus, or from their cries or notes, as in the case of the eagle mentioned as portending the royalty of the Tarquins, or thirdly from the way they took their food. These latter were sacred chickens kept in cages, which always accompanied the Imperator on his campaigns. The pullarii were the augurs in charge of the chickens whose business it was to take the auspices from them. If the birds refused their corn it was naturally regarded as a bad omen, but if, going to the other extreme, they picked it up so greedily that some fell from their bills, the omen was in the highest degree favourable. There was a special term applied to the way the corn thus dropped on to the ground, which was ultimately used a general description of the method of augury.
Event: Fourth war with Samnites