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Translated by Rev. Canon Roberts
Book VII Chapter 34: War with Samnites. Publius Decius Mus saves a Roman Army.[343 BC]
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But these rejoicings were very nearly being embittered by a great disaster in Samnium. The consul Cornelius had advanced from Saticula and led his army by a mountain pass which descended into a narrow valley. All the surrounding heights were occupied by the enemy, and he did not notice them high up above him till retreat was impossible. The Samnites were waiting quietly till the whole of the column should descend into the lowest part of the valley, but meantime Publius Decius, a military tribune descried a peak jutting out on the pass which commanded the enemy's camp. This height would have been a difficult one for a heavy-armed force to climb but not for one in light marching order. Decius came up to the consul, who was in a great state of alarm, and said to him: "Do you see, Aulus Cornelius, that height above the enemy? If we promptly seize that position which the Samnites were stupid enough to leave unoccupied, it will prove a stronghold in which all our hopes of safety will centre. Do not give me more than the hastati and principes of one legion. When I have reached the summit with them you may march on out of this and save yourself and the army, for the enemy below, a mark for every missile we hurl, will not be able to move without being destroyed. Either the Fortune of Rome or our own courage will then clear the way for our escape." The consul warmly thanked him, and after being furnished with the detachment he asked for, he marched through the pass unobserved and only came into view of the enemy when he was close to the spot for which he was making. Then whilst every eye was fixed upon him in silent astonishment, he gave the consul time to withdraw his army into a more favourable position until he had halted his own men on the summit. The Samnites marched aimlessly hither and thither; they could not follow the consul except by the same path where he had been exposed to their weapons and which was now equally dangerous to them, nor could they lead a force up the hill above them which Decius had seized. |
He and his men had snatched victory from their grasp, and therefore it was against him that their rage was mainly directed, whilst the nearness of the position and the paucity of its defenders were additional incentives to them to attack it. First they were bent upon investing the peaks on all sides so as to cut Decius off from the consul, then they thought of retiring and leaving the way open for him so that they could attack when he had descended into the valley. Whilst they were still in this state of indecision night overtook them.
At first Decius hoped to be able to attack them from his higher ground while they were coming up the height; then he began to wonder why they did not show fight, or, at all events, if they were deterred by the nature of the ground why they did not enclose him with a circumvallation. He called the centurions round him. "What ignorance, what cowardice this is!" he exclaimed. "How on earth did those men win a victory over the Sidicines and Campanians? You see them there marching up and down, at one time forming up in close order, at another extending. We could by this time have been completely invested yet no one begins to entrench. We shall be like them if we stay here longer than we need. Come along with me and let us reconnoitre their positions while some light is still left and find out where the exit from here is open." Disguised in a common soldier's cloak that the enemy might not mark the general going his rounds, and with his centurion similarly attired, he made a thorough examination of all these details.
Event: First war with Samnites
|Ceterum hoc gaudium magna prope clade in Samnio foedatum est. Nam ab Saticula profectus Cornelius consul exercitum incaute in saltum caua ualle peruium circaque insessum ab hoste induxit nec prius quam recipi tuto signa non poterant imminentem capiti hostem uidit. Dum id morae Samnitibus est quoad totum in uallem infimam demitteret agmen, P. Decius tribunus militum conspicit unum editum in saltu collem, imminentem hostium castris, aditu arduum impedito agmini, expeditis haud difficilem. Itaque consuli territo animi "uidesne tu" inquit, "A. Corneli, cacumen illud supra hostem? Arx illa est spei salutisque nostrae, si eam, quoniam caeci reliquere Samnites, impigre capimus. Ne tu mihi plus quam unius legionis principes hastatosque dederis; cum quibus ubi euasero in summum, perge hinc omni liber metu, teque et exercitum serua; neque enim moueri hostis, subiectus nobis ad omnes ictus, sine sua pernicie poterit. Nos deinde aut fortuna populi Romani aut nostra uirtus expediet." Conlaudatus ab consule accepto praesidio uadit occultus per saltum; nec prius ab hoste est uisus quam loco quem petebat appropinquauit. Inde admiratione pauentibus cunctis, cum omnium in se uertisset oculos, et spatium consuli dedit ad subducendum agmen in aequiorem locum et ipse in summo constitit uertice. Samnites dum huc illuc signa uertunt utriusque rei amissa occasione neque insequi consulem nisi per eandem uallem, in qua paulo ante subiectum eum telis suis habuerant, possunt, nec erigere agmen in captum super se ab Decio tumulum; sed cum ira in hos magis, qui fortunam gerendae rei eripuerant, tum propinquitas loci atque ipsa paucitas incitat; et nunc circumdare undique collem armatis uolunt, ut a consule Decium intercludant, nunc uiam patefacere, ut degressos in uallem adoriantur. Incertos quid agerent nox oppressit. Decium primum spes tenuit cum subeuntibus in aduersum collem ex superiore loco se pugnaturum; deinde admiratio incessit quod nec pugnam inirent nec, si ab eo consilio iniquitate loci deterrentur, opere se ualloque circumdarent. Tum centurionibus ad se uocatis: "Quaenam illa inscitia belli ac pigritia est? Aut quonam modo isti ex Sidicinis Campanisque uictoriam pepererunt? Huc atque illuc signa moueri ac modo in unum conferri modo educi uidetis; opus quidem incipit nemo, cum iam circumdati uallo potuerimus esse. Tum uero nos similes istorum simus, si diutius hic moremur quam commodum sit. Agitedum ite mecum ut, dum lucis aliquid superest, quibus locis praesidia ponant, qua pateat hinc exitus, exploremus." Haec omnia sagulo gregali amictus centurionibus item manipularium militum habitu ductis? Ne ducem circumire hostes notarent, perlustrauit.|