The violent spirit of the youth was so much soothed by the courteous treatment of Marcellus, that thenceforward no one of the allies displayed greater courage or fidelity in aiding the Roman cause.
Hannibal being now at the gates, for he had moved his camp back again from Nuceria to Nola, and the commons beginning to turn their attention to revolt afresh, Marcellus, on the approach of the enemy, retired within the walls;
not from apprehension for his camp, but lest he should give an opportunity for betraying the city, which too many were anxiously watching for.
The troops on both sides then began to be drawn up; the Romans before the walls of Nola, the Carthaginians before their own camp. Hence arose several battles of small account between the city and the camp, with varying success, as the generals were neither willing to check the small parties who inconsiderately challenged the enemy, nor to give the signal for a general engagement.
While the two armies continued to be thus stationed day after day, the chief men of the Nolans informed Marcellus, that conferences were held by night between the commons of Nola and the Carthaginians;
and that it was fixed, that, when the Roman army had gone out at the gates, they should make plunder of their baggage and packages, then close the gates and post themselves upon the walls, in order that when in possession of the government and the city, they might then receive the Carthaginian instead of the Roman.
On receiving this intelligence Marcellus, having bestowed the highest [p. 854]
commendations on the senators, resolved to hazard the issue of a battle before any commotion should arise within the city.
He drew up his troops in three divisions at the three gates which faced the enemy; he gave orders that the baggage should follow close by; that the servants, suttlers' boys, and invalids should carry palisades; at the centre gate he stationed the choicest of the legionary troops and the Roman cavalry, at the two gates on either side, the recruits, the light-armed, and the allied cavalry.
The Nolans were forbidden to approach the walls and gates, and the troops designed for a reserve were set over the baggage, lest while the legions were engaged in the battle an attack should be made upon it. Thus arranged they were standing within the gates.
Hannibal, who had waited with his troops drawn up in battle-array, as he had done for several days, till the day was far advanced, at first was amazed that neither the Roman army marched out of the gates, nor any armed man was to be seen on the walls;
but afterwards concluding that the conferences had been discovered, and that they were quiet through fear, he sent back a portion of his troops into the camp, with orders to bring into the front line, with speed, every thing requisite for assaulting the city; satisfied that if he urged them vigorously while they were indisposed to action, the populace would excite some commotion in the city.
While, in the van, the troops were running up and down in a hurried manner in discharge of their several duties, and the line was advancing up to the gates, suddenly throwing open the gate, Marcellus ordered that the signal should be given, and a shout raised, and that first the infantry and after them the cavalry should burst forth upon the enemy with all possible impetuosity.
They had occasioned abundant terror and confusion in the centre of the enemy's line, when, at the two side gates, the lieutenant-generals, Publius Valerius Flaccus and Caius Aurelius, sallied forth upon the wings.
The servants, suttlers' boys, and the other multitude appointed to guard the baggage, joined in the shout, so that they suddenly exhibited the appearance of a vast army to the Carthaginians, who despised chiefly their paucity of numbers.
For my own part I would not take upon me to assert what some authors have declared, that two thousand eight hundred of the enemy were slain, and that the Romans lost not more than five hundred.
Whether the [p. 855]
victory was so great or not, it is certain that a very important advantage, and perhaps the greatest during the war, was gained on that day; for not to be vanquished by Hannibal was then a more difficult task to the victorious troops, than to conquer him afterwards.