No sooner had their arms clashed together at the first onset than the enemy began to retire, not through fear but for tactical reasons.
Behind them the ground rose gently up to their camp, and owing to their preponderance in numbers they had been able to leave several cohorts armed and drawn up for action in their camp.
After the battle had begun these were to make a sortie as soon as the enemy were near their entrenchments. In pursuing the retiring enemy the Romans had been drawn on to the rising ground and were in some disorder. Seizing their opportunity the enemy made their charge from the camp.
It was the victors' turn now to be alarmed, and this new danger and the uphill fighting made the Roman line give ground. Whilst the Volscians who had charged from the camp pressed home their attack, the others who had made the pretended flight renewed the contest.
At last the Romans no longer retired in order; forgetting their recent battle-ardour and their old renown they began to flee in all directions, and in wild disorder were making for their camp. Camillus, after being assisted to mount by those around, hastily brought up the reserves and blocked their flight. ‘Is this, soldiers,’ he cried, ‘the battle which you were clamouring for? Who is the man, who is the god that you can throw the blame upon?
Then you were foolhardy; now you are cowards. You have been following another captain, now follow Camillus and conquer, as you are accustomed to do, under my leadership. Why are you looking at the rampart and the camp?
Not a man of you shall enter there unless you are victorious.’ A feeling of shame at first arrested their disorderly flight, then, when they saw the standards brought round and the line turning to face the enemy, and their leader, illustrious through a hundred triumphs and now venerable through age, showing himself amongst the fore- most ranks where the risk and toil were greatest, mutual reproaches mingled with words of encouragement were heard through the whole field till finally they burst into a ringing cheer.
The other tribune did not show himself wanting to the occasion. Whilst his colleague was rallying the infantry he was sent to the cavalry. He did not venture to censure them —his share in their fault left him too little authority for that —but dropping all tone of command be implored them one and all to clear him from the guilt of that day's misfortunes.
‘In spite,’ he said, ‘of the refusal and opposition of my colleague I preferred to associate myself with the rashness of all rather than with the prudence of one. Whatever your fortunes may be, Camillus sees his own glory reflected in them; I, unless the day is won, shall have the utter wretchedness of sharing the fortunes of all but bearing the infamy alone.’
As the infantry were wavering it seemed best for the cavalry, after dismounting and leaving their horses to be held, to attack the enemy on foot. Conspicuous for their arms and dashing courage they went wherever they saw the infantry force pressed.
Officers and men emulated each other in fighting with a determination and courage which never slackened. The effect of such strenuous bravery was shown in the result; the Volscians who a short time before had given ground in simulated fear were now scattered in real panic. A large number were killed in the actual battle and the subsequent flight, others in the camp, which was carried in the same charge; there were more prisoners, however, than slain.