An audience of the senate was granted by the dictator to the delegates of the prisoners. The chief of them, Marcus Junius, thus spoke: “There is not one of us, conscript fathers, who is not aware that there never was a nation which held prisoners in greater contempt than our own.
But unless our own cause is dearer to us than it should be, never did men fall into the hands of the enemy who less deserved to be disregarded than we do;
for we did not surrender our arms in the battle through fear; but having prolonged the battle almost till night-fall, while standing upon heaps of our slaughtered countrymen, we betook ourselves to our camp.
For the remainder of the day and during the following night, although exhausted with exertion and wounds, we protected our rampart.
On the following day, when, beset by the enemy, we were deprived of water, and there was no hope of breaking through the dense bands of the enemy; and, moreover, not considering it an impiety that any Roman soldier should survive the battle of Cannae, after fifty thousand of our army had been butchered;
then at length we agreed upon terms on which we might be ransomed and let off; and our arms, in which there was no longer any protection, we delivered to the enemy.
We had been informed that our ancestors also had redeemed themselves from the Gauls with gold, and that though so rigid as to the terms of peace, had sent ambassadors to Tarentum for the purpose of ransoming the captives.
And yet both the fight at the Allia with the Gauls, and at Heraclea with Pyrrhus, was disgraceful, not so much on account of the loss as the panic and flight. Heaps of Roman carcasses cover the plains of Cannae; nor would any of us have survived the battle, had not the enemy wanted the strength and the sword to slay us.
There are, too, some of us, who did not even retreat in the field; but being left to guard the camp, came into the hands of the enemy when it was surrendered.
For my part, I envy not the good fortune or condition of any citizen or fellow-soldier, nor would I endeavour to raise myself by depressing another: but not even [p. 829]
those men who, for the most part, leaving their arms, fled from the field, and stopped not till they arrived at Venusia or Canusium; not even those men, unless some reward is due to them on account of their swiftness of foot and running, would justly set themselves before us, or boast that there is more protection to the state in them than in us.
But you will both find them to be good and brave soldiers, and us still more zealous, because, by your kindness, we have been ransomed and restored to our country.
You are levying from every age and condition: I hear that eight thousand slaves are being armed. We are no fewer in number; nor will the expense of redeeming us be greater than that of purchasing these. Should I compare ourselves with them, I should injure the name of Roman.
I should think also, conscript fathers, that in deliberating on such a measure, it ought also to be considered, (if you are disposed to be over severe, which you cannot do from any demerit of ours,) to what sort of enemy you would abandon us.
Is it to Pyrrhus, for instance, who treated us, when his prisoners, like guests; or to a barbarian and Carthaginian, of whom it is difficult to determine whether his rapacity or cruelty be the greater?
If you were to see the chains, the squalid appearance, the loathsomeness of your countrymen, that spectacle would not, I am confident, less affect you, than if, on the other hand, you beheld your legions prostrate on the plains of Cannae.
You may behold the solicitude and the tears of our kinsmen, as they stand in the lobby of your senate-house, and await your answer. When they are in so much suspense and anxiety in behalf of us, and those who are absent, what think you must be our own feelings, whose lives and liberty are at stake?
By Hercules! should Hannibal himself, contrary to his nature, be disposed to be lenient towards us, yet we should not consider our lives worth possessing, since we have seemed unworthy of being ransomed by you.
Formerly, prisoners dismissed by Pyrrhus, without ransom, returned to Rome; but they returned in company with ambassadors, the chief men of the state, who were sent to ransom them. Would I return to my country, a citizen, and not considered worth three hundred denarii? Every man has his own way of thinking, conscript fathers.
I know that my life and person are at stake. But the danger which threatens my reputation affects me most, if we should [p. 830]
go away rejected and condemned by you; for men will never suppose that you grudged the price of our redemption.”