But this rejoicing came near to being marred by a great reverse in Samnium. For the consul Cornelius, marching from Saticula, had unwarily led his army into a forest which was penetrated by a deep defile, and was there beset on either hand by the enemy;
nor, until it was too late to withdraw with safety, did he perceive that they were posted on the heights above him.
While the Samnites were only holding back till he should send down the whole column into the bottom of the valley, Publius Decius, a tribune of the soldiers, espied a solitary hill, which rising above the pass, commanded the enemy's camp, and though arduous [p. 479]
of access to an army encumbered with baggage, was1
not difficult for men in light marching order.
He accordingly said to the consul, who was much perturbed: “Do you see, Aulus Cornelius, that summit that rises above the enemy?
It is the fortress of our hope and safety, if we are prompt to seize it, since the Samnites have been so blind as to neglect it. Give me no more than the first and second lines of a single legion;2
when with these I have mounted to the top, do you go forward fearlessly and save yourself and the army; for the enemy, exposed to all our missiles, will not be able to stir without bringing destruction on themselves.
As for us, thereafter the fortune of the Roman People or our own manhood will extricate us.”
Being commended by the consul and receiving his detachment, he advanced under cover through the wood, nor did the enemy perceive him till he had nearly reached the place which he wished to gain.
They were then all overcome with astonishment and dread, and while they turned, every man of them, and gazed at him, the consul was given time to withdraw his army to more favourable ground, and Decius himself took his post on the top of the hill.
The Samnites, turning their standards now this way and now that, threw away both opportunities; they could not pursue the consul, except through the same defile where a little before they -had held him at the mercy of their javelins, nor could they charge up the hill which Decius had captured over their heads.
But not only did their resentment urge them rather against those who had snatched victory from their grasp, but so also did the nearness of the place and the fewness of its [p. 481]
and first they would be for surrounding3
the hill with troops, so as to cut Decius off from the consul, and next for leaving his road open, so that they might attack him when he was got down into the valley.
Before they had made up their minds, night overtook them.
Decius at first had hopes of fighting from the higher ground, as they mounted the hill; then he marvelled that they neither began to attack, nor, if they were deterred from that design by the difficulty of the ground, attempted to shut him in with trench and rampart.
Then, calling the centurions to him, he said: “What want of military skill, what slothfulness can that be? How did those people conquer the Sidicini and Campanians? You see their standards moving now this way, now that, first closing in together, then deploying, while no man falls to work, though we might ere this have been fenced in with a palisade.
Then in truth should we be no better than they, were we to tarry here longer than suits our interest. Come on then and follow me, so that while there is yet a little light we may find out where they post their guards, and where the way out from this place lies open.”
Wrapped in a common soldier's cloak and accompanied by his centurions, who were also dressed like privates, lest the enemy should notice that the general was on his rounds, he investigated all these matters.