these rejoicings were very nearly being embittered by a great disaster in Samnium. The consul Cornelius had advanced from Saticula and led his army by a mountain pass which descended into a narrow valley.
All the surrounding heights were occupied by the enemy, and he did not notice them high up above him till retreat was impossible.
The Samnites were waiting quietly till the whole of the column should descend into the lowest part of the valley, but meantime P. Decius, a military tribune, descried a peak jutting out on the pass which commanded the enemy's camp. This height would have been a difficult one for a heavy-armed force to climb but not for one in light marching order.
Decius came up to the consul, who was in a great state of alarm, and said to him: ‘Do you see, A. Cornelius, that height above the enemy?
If we promptly seize that position which the Samnites were blind enough to leave unoccupied, it will prove a stronghold in which all our hopes of safety will centre. Do not give me more than the hastati
of one legion. When I have reached the summit with them you may march on out of this and save yourself and the army, for the enemy below, a mark for every missile we hurl, will not be able to move without being destroyed.
Either the Fortune of Rome or our own courage will then clear the way for our escape.’
The consul warmly thanked him, and after being furnished with the detachment he asked for, he marched through the pass unobserved and only came into view of the enemy when he was close to the spot for which he was making.
Then whilst every eye was fixed upon him in silent astonishment, he gave the consul time to withdraw his army into a more favourable position until he had halted his own men on the summit.
The Samnites marched aimlessly hither and thither; they could not follow the consul except by the same path where he had been exposed to their weapons and which was now equally dangerous to them, nor could they lead a force up the hill above them which Decius had seized.
He and his men had snatched victory from their grasp, and therefore it was against him that their rage was mainly directed, whilst the nearness of the position and the paucity of its defenders were additional incentives to them to attack it.
First they were bent upon investing the peaks on all sides so as to cut Decius off from the consul, then they thought of retiring and leaving the way open for him so that they could attack when he had descended into the valley.
Whilst they were still in this state of indecision night overtook them.
At first Decius hoped to be able to attack them from his higher ground while they were coming up the height; then he began to wonder why they did not show fight, or, at all events, if they were deterred by the nature of the ground why they did not enclose him with a circumvallation.
He called the centurions round him. ‘What ignorance, what cowardice this is!’ he exclaimed. ‘How on earth did those men win a victory over the Sidicines and Campanians? You see them there marching up and down, at one time forming up in close order, at another extending. We could by this time have been completely invested yet no one begins to entrench.
We shall be like them if we stay here longer than we need. Come along with me and let us reconnoitre their positions while some light is still left and find out where the exit from here is open.’
Disguised in a common soldier's cloak that the enemy might not mark the general going his rounds, and with his centurion similarly attired, he made a thorough examination of all these details.