On the following year, in the consulate of Quintus Fabius and Lucius Fulvius, Aulus Cornelius Arvina being made dictator, and Marcus Fabius Ambustus master of the horse, a levy being held with more than usual rigour in consequence of their apprehension of a very serious war in Samnium, (for it was reported that some young men had been hired from their neighbours,) led forth a very strong army against the Samnites.
Although in a hostile country, their camp was pitched in as careless a manner as if the foe were at a great distance; when, suddenly, the legions of the Samnites approached with so much boldness as to advance their rampart close to an out-post of the Romans.
Night was now coming on; that prevented their assaulting the works; but they did not conceal their intention of doing so next day, as soon as the light should appear.
The dictator found that there would be a necessity for fighting sooner than he had expected, and lest the situation should be an obstruction to the bravery of the troops, he led away the legions in silence, leaving a great number of fires the better to deceive the enemy.
On account of the proximity of the camps, [p. 555]
however, he could not escape their observation: their cavalry instantly pursued, and pressed closely on his troops, in such a way as to refrain from attacking them until the day appeared.
Their infantry did not even quit their camp before daylight. As soon as it was dawn, the cavalry venturing to attack the enemy by harassing the Roman rear, and pressing them in places of difficult passage, considerably delayed their march.
Meanwhile their infantry overtook the cavalry; and now the Samnites pursued close with their entire force. The dictator then, finding that he could no longer go forward without great inconvenience, ordered the spot where he stood to be measured out for a camp.
But it was impossible, while the enemy's horse were spread about on every side, that palisades could be brought, and the work be begun: seeing it, therefore, impracticable, either to march forward or to settle himself there, he drew up his troops for battle, removing the baggage out of the line.
The enemy likewise formed their line opposite to his; fully equal both in spirit and in strength. Their courage was chiefly improved from not knowing that the motive of the Romans' retreat was the incommodiousness of the ground, so that they imagined themselves objects of terror, and supposed that they were pursuing men who fled through fear.
This kept the balance of the fight equal for a considerable time; though, of late, it had been unusual with the Samnites to stand even the shout of a Roman army. Certain it is, that the contest, on this day, continued so very doubtful from the third hour to the eighth, that neither was the shout repeated, after being raised at the first onset, nor the standards moved either forward or backward; nor any ground lost on either side.
They fought without taking breath or looking behind them, every man in his post, and pushing against their opponents with their shields. The noise continuing equal, and the terror of the fight the same, seemed to denote, that the decision would be effected either by fatigue or by the night.
The men had now exhausted their strength, the sword its power, and the leaders their skill; when, on a sudden, the Samnite cavalry, having learned from a single troop which had advanced beyond the rest, that the baggage of the Romans lay at a distance from their army, without any guard or defence; through eagerness for booty, they attack it: of which the dictator being informed by a hasty messenger, said, “Let them only encumber themselves with [p. 556]
Afterwards came several, one after another, crying out, that they were plundering and carrying off all the effects of the soldiers:
he then called to him the master of the horse, and said, “Do you see, Marcus Fabius, that the fight has been forsaken by the enemy's cavalry? They are entangled and encumbered with our baggage.
Attack them whilst scattered about, as is the case of every multitude employed in plundering; you will find few mounted on horseback, few with swords in their hands; and, while they are loading their horses with spoil, and unarmed, put them to the sword, and make it bloody spoil for them.
I will take care of the legions, and the fight of the infantry: yours be the honour which the horse shall acquire.”