A savagely fought contest ensued. The two sides were, however, animated by very different feelings. The Romans went into battle eager for the fray, confident of victory, exasperated against the enemy and thirsting for his blood. The Samnites were, most of them, dragged in against their will by sheer compulsion and the terrors of religion, and they adopted defensive rather than aggressive tactics.
Accustomed as they had been for so many years to defeat, they would not have sustained even the first shout and charge of the Romans had not a still more awful object of fear possessed their minds and stayed them from flight.
They had before their eyes all that paraphernalia of the secret rite —the armed priests, the slaughtered remains of men and beasts scattered about indiscriminately, the altars sprinkled with the blood of the victims and of their murdered countrymen, the awful imprecations, the frightful curses which they had invoked on their family and race —these were the chains which bound them so that they could not flee.
They dreaded their own countrymen more than the enemy.
The Romans pressed on from both wings and from the centre and cut down men who were paralysed by fear of gods and men. Only a feeble resistance could be offered by those who were only kept from flight by fear.
The carnage had almost extended to the second line where the standards were stationed when there appeared in the side distance a cloud of dust as though raised by the tread of an immense army. It was Sp. Nautius —some say Octavius Maecius —the commander of the auxiliary cohorts.
They raised a dust out of all proportion to their numbers, for the camp-followers mounted upon the mules were dragging leafy boughs along the ground. At first the arms and standards gradually became visible through the beclouded light, and then a loftier and thicker Cloud of dust gave the appearance of cavalry closing the column.
Not only the Samnites but even the Romans were deceived, and the consul endorsed the mistake by shouting to his front rank so that the enemy could hear: ‘Cominium has fallen, my victorious colleague is coming on the field, do your best to win the victory before the glory of doing so falls to the other army!’
He rode along while saying this, and commanded the tribunes and centurions to open their ranks to allow passage for the cavalry. He had previously told Trebonius and Caedicius that when they saw him brandish his spear aloft they should launch the cavalry against the enemy with all the force they could.
His orders were carried out to the letter; the legionaries opened their ranks, the cavalry galloped through the open spaces, and with levelled spears charged the enemy's centre. Wherever they attacked they broke the ranks. Volumnius and Scipio followed up the cavalry charge and completed the discomfiture of the Samnites At last the dread of gods and men had yielded to a greater terror, the ‘linen cohorts’ were routed;
those who had taken the oath and those who had not alike fled; the only thing they feared now was the enemy.
The bulk of the infantry who survived the actual battle were driven either into their camp or to Aquilonia, the nobility and cavalry fled to Bovianum. The cavalry were pursued by cavalry, the infantry by infantry; the wings of the Roman army separated, the right directed its course towards the Samnite camp, the left to the city of Aquilonia. The first success fell to Volumnius, who captured the Samnite camp.
Scipio met with a more sustained resistance at the city, not because the defeated foe showed more courage there, but because stone walls are more difficult to surmount than the rampart of a camp. They drove the defenders from their wails with showers of stones.
Scipio saw that unless his task was completed before the enemy had time to recover from their panic, an attack on a fortified city would be a somewhat slow affair. He asked his men whether they would be content to allow the enemy's camp to be captured by the other army, whilst they themselves after their victory were repulsed from the gates of the city.
There was a universal shout of ‘No!’ On hearing this he held his shield above his head and ran to the gate, the men followed his example, and roofing themselves with their shields burst through into the city.1
They dislodged the Samnites from the walls on either side of the gate, but as they were only a small body did not venture to penetrate into the interior of the city.