The same summer during which these decrees were passed at Rome, and these transactions took place in Africa, Publius Quinctilius Varus, the praetor, and Marcus Cornelius, the proconsul, fought a pitched battle with Mago the Carthaginian in the territories of the Insubrian Gauls.
The legions of the praetor were in the first line; Cornelius kept his in reserve, riding forward into the front himself, and the praetor and proconsul, leading on the two wings, exhorted the soldiers to attack the enemy with the utmost vigour.
Finding they produced no impression upon the enemy, Quinctilius said to Cornelius: “The battle, as you perceive, does not proceed with spirit, the enemy, having succeeded in their resistance beyond expectation, have become callous to fear, and there is danger lest it should be converted into boldness.
We must stir up a tempest of cavalry if we wish to disorder and drive them from their ground; therefore, either do you sustain the fight in front, and I will lead the cavalry into the action; or else, I will act in the front line and you send out [p. 1306]
the cavalry of the four legions against the enemy.”
The proconsul offering to take whichever part of the service the praetor pleased, Quinctilius the praetor, with his son, surnamed Marcus, a spirited youth, went off to the cavalry, and desiring them to mount, instantly led them to the charge. The confusion occasioned by these was increased by a shout raised by the legions;
nor would the line of the enemy have stood unbroken, had not Mago, as soon as he saw the cavalry in motion, immediately brought into the action his elephants, which he kept in readiness. The horses were so terrified at the snorting, the smell, and appearance of these animals, that the aid of the cavalry was rendered ineffectual.
As the Roman horseman had the advantage in point of efficiency in a close fight, when he could use his javelin and sword hand to hand, so the Numidians had the advantage when throwing their darts from a distance upon enemies borne away from them by their terrified horses.
At the same time the twelfth legion, though a great number of them were slain, maintained their ground through shame rather than a reliance on their strength;
but they would not have continued to do so longer, had not the thirteenth legion, brought up into the front line from the reserve, taken up the doubtful conflict. Mago, also, bringing up the Gauls from his reserve, opposed them to the fresh legion.
The Gauls being routed without any great effort, the spearmen of the eleventh legion formed themselves into a circular body and charged the elephants, which were now disordering the line of infantry;
and as scarcely one of the javelins which they threw upon them failed of taking effect, as they were close together, they turned them all upon the line of their own party.
Four of them fell overpowered with wounds. It was then that the front line of the enemy gave ground, the whole body of the Roman infantry at the same time rushing forward to increase the panic and confusion, on seeing the elephants turn their backs.
As long as Mago stood in front, the troops stepped back slowly, preserving their ranks and not relaxing their ardour in fighting; but when they saw him falling, from a wound in his thigh, which was transfixed, and carried off the field almost lifeless, in an instant they all betook themselves to flight.
As many as five thousand of the enemy were slain, and twenty-two military standards captured on that day. Nor did the Romans obtain [p. 1307]
a bloodless victory. Two thousand three hundred of the army of the praetor, by far the greater part of whom belonged to the twelfth legion, were lost.
Two military tribunes, Marcus Cosconius and Marcus Maenius, of the same legion; and of the thirteenth legion also, which joined in the action at its close, Cneius Helvius, a military tribune, fell in restoring the fight; and about twenty-two distinguished horsemen, together with several centurions, were trampled upon and killed by the elephants. The contest would have continued longer, had not the enemy conceded the victory, in consequence of the wound of their general.