But this joy was well nigh alloyed by a great loss sustained in Samnium. For the consul Cornelius, having set out from Saticula, incautiously led his army into a mountainous tract, passable through a deep defile, and beset on all sides by the enemy;
nor did he perceive the enemy stationed over his head, until a retreat could no longer be made with safety.
Whilst the Samnites delayed only till he should bring down his entire army into the valley; Publius Decius, a tribune of the soldiers, espies in the tract a hill higher than the rest, hanging over the enemies' camp, rather steep to be ascended by an encumbered army, not difficult for such as were lightly armed.
He says therefore to the consul, greatly alarmed in mind, "Aulus Cor- [p. 490]
nelius, do you perceive that elevated point above the enemy? That is the bulwark of our hope and safety, if we briskly gain possession of it, which the Samnites in their blindness have given up.
Only give me the first rank and spearmen of one legion; when with these I shall have gained the summit, do you proceed hence free from all apprehension, and save yourself and the army. For the enemy, lying beneath us and [exposed thereby] to all our weapons, will not be able to stir without destruction to themselves. After that either the good fortune of the Roman people or our own bravery will extricate us.
Being commanded by the consul, he received the body of men [required] and proceeds by
secret paths through the mountain, nor was he observed by the enemy until he approached the place which he was making for.
Then, whilst all were struck with astonishment, after he had attracted the eyes of all to himself, he both afforded the consul time to draw off his army to more advantageous ground, and he himself was posted on the top of the hill.
The Samnites, whilst they march their forces now in this direction, now in that, having lost the opportunity of effecting either object, can neither pursue the consul, unless through the same defile in which they had him a little before exposed to their weapons, nor march up the rising ground over themselves, which had been seized on by Decius.
But both their resentment stimulated them more against the latter, who had taken from them the favourable opportunity of achieving their object, and also the proximity of the place, and the paucity of the enemy; and one time they would fain surround the hill on all sides with armed men, so as to cut off Decius from the consul;
at another time they wished to open a passage, so that they may fall on them when they had descended into the defile. Before they had determined on what they should do, night came on them.
Decius at first entertained a hope, that he would have to engage them from the higher ground, as they ascended against the steep; then surprise took possession of him, that they neither commenced the fight, nor if they were deterred from that by the unevenness of the ground, that they did not surround him with works and a circumvallation.
Then summoning the centurions to him, he said, “What ignorance of war and indolence is that? or how did such men obtain a victory over the Sidicinians and Campanians? You see that their [p. 491]
battalions move to and fro, that sometimes they are collected to one spot, at other times they are drawn out. As for work, no one attempts it, when we might by this time have been surrounded with a rampart.
Then indeed should we be like to them, if we delay longer here than is expedient. Come on, accompany me; that whilst some day light remains, we may ascertain in what places they put their guards, in what direction an escape may lie open from hence.”
All these points he carefully observed, clad in a soldier's vest, the centurions whom he took with him being also in the attire of common soldiers, lest the enemy might notice the general going the round.