With the permission of Lentulus, these men sent the most distinguished of the cavalry and centurions, and a select body of the legionary infantry, as ambassadors to Marcellus, to his winter quarters.
Having obtained leave to speak, one of them thus addressed him: “We should have approached you, Marcus Marcellus, when consul in Italy, as soon as that decree of the senate was passed respecting us, which, though not unjust, was certainly severe, had we not hoped, that being sent into a province which was in a state of disorder in consequence of the death of its kings, to carry on an arduous war against the
Sicilians and Carthaginians together, we should make atonement to the state by our blood and wounds, in the same manner as, within the memory of our fathers, those who were taken prisoners
by Pyrrhus at Heraclea, made atonement by fighting against the same Pyrrhus.
And yet, for what fault of ours, conscript fathers, did you then, or do you now, feel displeasure towards us; for when I look upon you, Marcus Marcellus, I seem to behold both the consuls and the whole body of the senate; and had you been our consul at Cannae, a better fate would have attended the state as well as ourselves.
Permit me, I entreat you, before I complain of the hardship of our situation, to clear ourselves of the guilt with which we are charged. If it was neither by the anger of the gods, nor by fate, according to whose laws the course of human affairs is unalterably fixed, but by misconduct that we were undone at Cannae; but whose was that misconduct; the soldiers', or that of their generals?
For my own part, I, as a soldier, will never say a word of my commander, particularly when I know that he received the thanks of the senate for not having despaired of the state; and who has been continued in command through every year since his flight from Cannae.
We have heard that others also who survived that disaster, who were military tribunes, solicit and fill offices of honour, and have the command of provinces.
Do you then, conscript fathers, pardon yourselves and your children, while you exercise severity towards such insignificant persons as we are? It was no disgrace to a consul and other leading persons in the state, to fly when no other hope remained; and did you send your soldiers into the field as per- sons who must of necessity die there?
At the Allia nearly the whole army fled; at the Caudine Forks the troops de- [p. 964]
livered up their arms to the enemy, without even making an effort; not to mention other disgraceful defeats of our armies.
Yet, so far from any mark of infamy being sought for, which might be fixed upon these troops, the city of Rome was recovered by means of those very troops who had fled to Veii from the Allia;
and the Caudine legions, which had returned to Rome without their arms, being sent back armed to Samnium, brought under the yoke that very enemy who had exulted in the disgrace which, in this instance, attached to them.
But is there a man who can bring a charge of cowardice or running away against the army which fought at Cannae, where more than fifty thousand men fell; from whence the consul fled with only seventy horsemen; where not a man survived, except perchance those whom the enemy left, being wearied with killing?
When the proposal to ransom the prisoners was negatived, we were the objects of general commendation, because we reserved ourselves for the service of the state; because we returned to the consul to Venusia, and exhibited an appearance of a regular army.
Now we are in a worse condition than those who were taken prisoners in the time of our fathers; for they only had their arms, the nature of their service, and the place where they might pitch their tents in the camp altered; all which, however, they got restored by one service rendered to the state, and by one successful battle.
Not one of them was sent away into banishment; not one was deprived of the hope of completing the period of his service; in short, an enemy was assigned to them, fighting with whom they might at once terminate their life or their disgrace.
We, to whom nothing can be objected, except that it is owing to us that any Roman soldier has survived the battle of Cannae, are removed far away, not only from our country and Italy, but even from an enemy;
where we may grow old in exile, where we can have no hope or opportunity of obliterating our disgrace, of appeasing the indignation of our countrymen, or, in short, of obtaining an honourable death. We seek neither to have our ignominy terminated, nor our virtue rewarded, we only ask to be allowed to make trial of our courage, and to exercise our virtue.
We seek for labour and danger that we may discharge the duty of men and soldiers. A war is carrying on in Sicily, now for the second year, with the utmost vigour on both sides.
The Cartha- [p. 965]
ginians are storming some cities, the Romans others; armies of infantry and horse are engaging in battle; at Syracuse the war is prosecuted by sea and by land.
We hear distinctly the shout of the combatants, and the din of arms, while we ourselves lie inactive and unemployed, as if we had neither hands nor arms. The consul, Sempronius, has now fought many pitched battles with the enemy with legions of slaves. They receive as the fruits of their exertion their liberty, and the rights of citizens.
Let us at least be employed by you as slaves purchased for the service of this war; let us be allowed to combat with the enemy and acquire our freedom by fighting. Do you wish to make trial of our valour by sea, by land, in a pitched battle, or in the assault of towns?
We ask as our portion all those enterprises which present the greatest difficulty and danger, that what ought to have been done at Cannae may be done as soon as possible; for the whole of our subsequent lives has been doomed to ignominy.”