A peaceable enough mission, had it not contained envoys of a violent temper, more like Gauls than Romans.
After they had delivered their instructions in the council of the Gauls, the following reply was given: ‘Although we are hearing the name of Romans for the first time, we believe nevertheless that you are brave men, since the Clusines are imploring your assistance in their time of danger.
Since you prefer to protect your allies against us by negotiation rather than by armed force, we on our side do not reject the peace you offer, on condition that the Clusines cede to us Gauls, who are in need of land, a portion of that territory which they possess to a greater extent than they can cultivate.
On any other conditions peace cannot be granted. We wish to receive their reply in your presence, and if territory is refused us we shall fight, whilst you are still here, that you may report to those at home how far the Gauls surpass all other men in courage.’
The Romans asked them what right they had to demand, under threat of war, territory from those who were its owners, and what business the Gauls had in Etruria. The haughty answer was returned that they carried their right in their weapons, and that everything belonged to the brave. Passions were kindled on both sides; they flew to arms and joined battle.
Thereupon, contrary to the law of nations, the envoys seized their weapons, for the Fates were already urging Rome to its ruin. The fact of three of the noblest and bravest Romans fighting in the front line of the Etruscan army could not be concealed, so conspicuous was the valour of the strangers.
And what was more, Q. Fabius rode forward at a Gaulish chieftain, who was impetuously charging right at the Etruscan standards, ran his spear through his side and slew him. Whilst he was in the act of despoiling the body the Gauls recognised him, and the word was passed through the whole army that it was a Roman ambassador.
Forgetting their rage against the Clusines, and breathing threats against the Romans, they sounded the retreat.
Some were for an instant advance on Rome. The older men thought that ambassadors should first be sent to Rome to make a formal complaint and demand the surrender of the Fabii as satisfaction for the violation of the law of nations.
After the ambassadors had stated their case, the senate, whilst disapproving of the conduct of the Fabii, and recognising the justice of the demand which the barbarians made, were prevented by political interests from placing their convictions on record in the form of a decree in the case of men of such high rank.
In order, therefore, that the blame for any defeat which might be incurred in a war with the Gauls might not rest on them alone, they referred the consideration of the Gauls' demands to the people. Here personal popularity and influence had so much more weight that the very men whose punishment was under discussion were elected consular tribunes for the next year.
The Gauls regarded this procedure as it deserved to be regarded, namely, as an act of hostility, and after openly threatening war, returned to their people. The other consular tribunes elected with the Fabii were Q. Sulpicius Longus, Q. Servilius —for the fourth timeand P. Cornelius Maluginensis.