. Fabius and P. Decius were now entering their year of office, the former being consul for the fifth time, the latter for the fourth.
Twice before they had been consuls together, they had held the censorship together, and the perfect unanimity between them, quite as much as their discharge of its duties, made their tenure of office a distinguished one.
But this was not to last for ever; the conflict which broke out between them was, however, I think, due more to the antagonism of the two orders to which they belonged than to any personal feeling on their part.
The patrician senators were extremely anxious that Fabius should have Etruria assigned to him without going through the usual procedure; the plebeian senators urged Decius to insist upon the question being settled in the usual way by lot. There was, at all events, a sharp division of opinion in the senate, and, when it became apparent that the Fabian interest was the stronger, the matter was referred to the people.
As both were first of all soldiers, trusting more to deeds than to words, their speeches before the Assembly were brief.
Fabius declared that it would be an unworthy proceeding if another should gather up the fruit beneath the tree which he had planted; he had opened up the Ciminian forest and made a way through pathless jungle for the arms of Rome. Why had they troubled him at his time of life, if they were going to carry on the war under another general?
Then he turned to Decius: ‘Surely,’ he said, ‘I have chosen an opponent, not a comrade, in office; Decius is annoyed at our three years of joint power having been so harmonious.’
Finally, he asserted that he desired nothing more than that if they thought him worthy of that command, they should send him there; he had bowed to the will of the senate and should accept the decision of the people.
P. Decius, in reply, protested against the injustice of the senate. The patricians, he said, had done their utmost to exclude the plebeians from the great offices of the State.
Since personal merit had so far won the day that it no longer failed of recognition in any class of men, their object was now not only to stultify the deliberate decisions of the people as expressed by their votes, but even to turn the judgments which Fortune is ever passing into so many reasons for retaining their power, small as their number was.
All the consuls before his time had drawn lots for their commands, now the senate was giving Fabius his province independently of the lot.
If this was simply as a mark of honour, then he would admit that Fabius had rendered services both to the republic and to himself and he would gladly consent to anything that would add to his reputation, provided it did not involve casting a slur upon himself.
But who could fail to see that when a peculiarly difficult and formidable war is entrusted to one consul without any resort to the lot, it means that the other consul is regarded as superfluous and useless?
Fabius pointed with pride to his achievements in Etruria; Decius wished to be able to do so too, and possibly he might succeed in totally extinguishing the fire which the other had only smothered, and smothered in such a way that it was constantly breaking out where one least expected in fresh conflagrations.
He was prepared to concede honours and rewards to his colleague out of respect to his age and position, but when it was a question of danger or of fighting he did not give way, and would not voluntarily.
If he gained nothing else from this dispute, he would at least gain this much, that the people should decide a question which was theirs to decide, rather than that the senate should show undue partiality. He prayed Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the immortal gods to grant to him the impartial chance of the lot with his colleague, if they were going to grant them each the same courage and good fortune in the conduct of the war.
It was, at all events, a thing eminently fair in itself, and an excellent precedent for all time, and a thing which touched the good name of Rome very closely, that both the consuls should be men by either of whom the Etruscan war could be conducted without any risk of failure.
Fabius' only reply was to entreat the people to listen to some despatches which had been sent by Appius before they proceeded to vote. He then left the Assembly. The people were no less strong in his support than the senate had been, and Etruria was decreed to Fabius without any casting of lots.