As soon as he had finished speaking, the throng in the Comitium began to utter doleful cries, and holding out their hands to the Curia besought the senators to give them back their sons, their brothers, and their kinsmen.
Even the women had been driven by their fear and destitute condition to mingle in the Forum with the crowd of men.1
The senate was cleared of strangers and the debate began.
Opinions differed. Some were for ransoming the prisoners at the public cost; others would have no money disbursed by the state, but would not prohibit ransoming at the expense of individuals, and to such as might not
have the money in hand proposed to grant loans from the treasury, guarding the people against loss by taking sureties and mortgages.
Then Titus Manlius Torquatus, a man of an old-fashioned and, as it seemed to many, a too harsh austerity, was called upon for his opinion and spoke as follows:
“If, in pleading the cause of those who are in the hands of our enemies, their representatives had been content to ask that they be ransomed, I should have said my say in a few words, without reflecting upon any of them; for what else need I have done than warn you to hold fast to the tradition of our fathers and teach a lesson necessary for military discipline?
But as it is, since they have almost boasted of having surrendered to the enemy, and have held that they are to be preferred not only to those who were captured by the enemy in battle, but also to those who made their way to Venusia and Canusium, and [p. 399]
even to the consul, Gaius Terentius himself, I will2
not permit you to be ignorant, Conscript Fathers, of any part of their conduct there.
And I wish that what I am going to say to you I might say at Canusium in the presence of the army itself, the most competent witness to any man's cowardice or valour, or that Sempronius, at least, were with us here, whose leadership if yonder men had followed, they would to-day be soldiers in a Roman camp, not prisoners in the hands of our enemies.
But when the enemy, worn out with fighting, and rejoicing in their victory, had themselves for the most part gone back to their own camp and left the night free for a sally; though seven thousand armed men could have forced their way even through a close array of foes, they neither attempted to do this of themselves, nor yet were willing to follow another.
During almost all that night Publius Sempronius Tuditanus ceased not to admonish and exhort them to let him lead them, while only a few of their enemies were near the camp, while everything was hushed and still, while the darkness might afford a cover for their enterprise. Before daylight, he declared, they could reach a place of safety among the towns of the allies.
If he had said what, within the recollection of our grandsires, Publius Decius, tribune of the soldiers, said in Samnium; or what Marcus Calpurnius Flamma said, when we ourselves were young men, in the former Punic war, to three hundred volunteers whom he was leading to take a hill that rose in the very midst of the enemy: 'Soldiers, let us die, and by our death set free the beleaguered legions' —if
Publius Sempronius had said this,
I should have deemed you no true men, to say nothing of Romans, [p. 401]
if none had come forward to share so brave an exploit.3
But instead he points out to you a road that leads to safety as surely as to fame. He proposes to restore you to your country, to your parents, to your wives and children. You lack even the spirit to be saved! What would you do then if your country called on you to die?
Fifty thousand fellow Romans and allies lay slaughtered round you that very day. If so many brave examples could not move you, nothing ever will. If that dreadful carnage has not made life cheap, none ever will. Long for your country, whilst you are free and unattainted. Nay, rather, long for it whilst it is
your country, whilst you are reckoned with its citizens.
Too late now is your longing; you have forfeited your status, lost your civic rights, been made slaves of the Carthaginians. Do you think to return, for ransom, to that condition which you forfeited by cowardice and turpitude?
You would not listen to Publius Sempronius, your fellow citizen, when he bade you arm and follow him; but you listened to Hannibal a little later, when he bade you betray the camp and surrender your arms. But why do I charge these men with cowardice when I could bring against them a charge of crime?
For not only did they refuse to follow a man who gave them good advice, but they tried to thwart and hinder him; and those heroic men were forced to draw their swords and thrust the cowards from their path. Aye, Publius Sempronius must needs break through a band of Roman citizens before he could break through their enemies: Can their country wish to recover such citizens as these?
If the others had resembled these, she would possess to-day no single citizen of all those who fought at Cannae. Out of [p. 403]
seven thousand soldiers, six hundred were sufficiently4
courageous to force their way through and return to their country, free and armed.
Nor did these six hundred encounter any opposition from the enemy; how safe then, think you, would have been their march, if they had amounted almost to two legions?
You would have to-day under arms at Canusium, Conscript Fathers, twenty thousand brave and loyal men. But how can these men now be good and loyal citizens —for they themselves would hardly claim to be brave?
Unless we are to believe that they helped their comrades to sally out, when in fact they tried to prevent the sally; or that they grudge not those men both the safety and the renown their courage has earned them, knowing, as they do, that fear and cowardice are the cause of their own disgraceful servitude. They had a good chance of escaping in the silence of the night, but preferred to hide in their tents and await both the day and the enemy.
But perhaps, though they lacked the courage to sally forth, they had courage enough for a valiant defence of the camp? Perhaps they were besieged for several days and nights, and protected the rampart with their swords, and themselves with the rampart?
and finally, after suffering the last extremities, when every support of life gave out and their strength was so impaired with hunger that they could now no longer hold up their shields, they were overcome by the necessities of human nature and not by arms?
Nay, the sun was up when the enemy approached the rampart, and the day was not two hours old when, without once putting their fortune to the test of battle, they surrendered both their arms and their persons. Such, mark you, were [p. 405]
the exploits these men performed during two days.5
When they ought to have stood fast in the line and fought, they fled to their tents; when they ought to have fought for their stockade, they surrendered the camp, worthless alike in the field and behind entrenchments.
And you would have us ransom you? When it is time to sally from your camp, you hesitate and stop there; when it is needful that you stop and defend it with your swords, you hand over camp and swords and your own bodies to the enemy!
No, Conscript Fathers, I would no more vote for ransoming these men than I would for giving those others up to Hannibal, who forced their way from the camp through the midst of enemies, and, by exerting the utmost valour, gave themselves back to their country.”