Gateway to the Classics: Stories from the History of Rome by Emily Beesly
Stories from the History of Rome by  Emily Beesly

The Death of Decius

I N the last story I told you how Titus Manlius loved his country better than his son. Now I am going to tell you how Publius Decius Mus, who was consul at the same time as Manlius, loved his country better than himself.

Some years before the time when Manlius and Decius were consuls together, a war broke out between the Romans and the Samnites. Valerius Corvus, who was then consul, gained a great victory over the Samnites in Campania. The other consul, Cornelius Cossus, advanced towards Samnium, and in doing so led his army through a pass in which was a narrow valley. On one side of this valley the Samnite army was hidden among the rocks, so that the Romans could not see them. The Samnites intended, as soon as all the Roman army were in the valley and trying to make their way through the narrowest part, to rush upon them and so win an easy victory. Fortunately the Romans found out that the Samnites were in ambush there before the whole army was in the valley; and while the consul was planning how he could get his soldiers safely out of this dangerous place, Publius Decius, one of his officers, came to him. Decius had noticed that there was in the pass a hill from which all that was being done by the Samnites could be seen, and that it would be easy for lightly armed men to seize it before the enemy could prevent them.

"See you not, Cornelius," he said to the consul, "the top of yonder hill above the Samnites? If we can take that hill we shall be safe. Give me a few soldiers and let me try to take it; and if I do so, then do you march your army out of the pass without fear. For the enemy being just under the hill will not dare to follow you for fear of our attacking them behind. As to us, the good fortune of Rome and our own courage will bring us safely back to you."

The consul praised Decius for his brave plan; and having got together the soldiers he had asked for, he marched quickly and silently through the rocks, and got possession of the hill before the enemy noticed him.

The Samnites did not know what to do when they found that Decius had posted himself so well on the top of the hill. They did not dare to pursue the consul, who was now able to march the main body of the army safely out of the pass, and they were afraid to charge up the hill and attack Decius. Before they could make up their minds what to do, night came on.

Decius wondered that the Samnites did not attack him; but when evening came, he called some of his officers together and spoke to them.

"How idle or how ignorant these Samnites are," said he; "they might by this time have shut us up in ditches and walls, but not a man has begun to work. They do not seem to know what to do. But we shall be as stupid as they are if we stay here a minute longer than we need. Come on then with me; and before it grows too dark, let us see how they have placed their guards and where we may get out most easily."

Then he and some of the other officers dressed themselves like common soldiers, and so went and found out all that he wanted to know. Then he sent word to the soldiers that they should all come to him quite silently and ready armed.

"Fellow soldiers," he said, "keep silence while I speak to you, and if you agree to my plan, show me that you do so by going to my right hand. We are here surrounded by an enemy; but we are not like men who have been overtaken because they are lazy or cowardly. You won this place by your bravery, and the same bravery must help you to get out. You saved a Roman army by coming here—now save yourselves. You who delivered so many though you are so few, you need no help but your own. We have to do with an enemy so stupid that they never found out this important hill till we had taken it. You outwitted them when they were awake; surely it will not be difficult to do so again now that they are asleep.

"There is only one way of safety left us. We must sally out and make our way through the Samnites who surround us. Now they are all sound asleep, and you shall try to pass through them in silence without their knowing that you are there; but if they wake, then astonish them by setting up a sudden outcry and dreadful shouts, and cut your way through them with your good swords. And now, let those of you who think my plan a good one pass to my right hand."

Every man of them went to his right hand, and Decius at once led them down the hill, and into the enemy's camp.

They had got safely to the middle of the camp, when one of the Romans as he stepped across the guards who were lying fast asleep, happened to stumble against a shield, which gave such a clang that the sentinel to whom it belonged awoke. Starting up he woke the man next him, who gave the alarm to others. At first the Samnites did not know whether these strangers were friends or enemies, whether they were the Romans on the hill, or whether they were some of the consul's soldiers come back to attack them. But Decius now commanded his men to set up a shout, which they did, and so startled and amazed the Samnites that they were all confused and did not know what to do. So Decius and his soldiers, striking down the guards who tried to stop them, broke through, and got safely away from their foes.

It was still dark, and when they had got quite out of danger, Decius stopped and spoke to his followers.

"This noble deed of yours, my brave Romans," he said, "will be praised and admired for many a hundred years. But now, you deserve better than that darkness and silence should cover you when you return with so much glory to the camp. Here, therefore, let us rest and wait for day."

The soldiers obeyed him gladly, and as soon as it was light he sent a messenger to the consul to tell him of their coming. As soon as the soldiers in the Roman camp heard that the brave men who had risked their lives to save the army were coming back safe, they ran out to meet them with thanks and praises, calling them deliverers, and giving thanks to the gods. When Decius and his followers came to the consul's tent, Cornelius called all the army together by sound of trumpet, and began to make a speech to them in praise of Decius.

But Decius interrupted him.

"General," he said, "do not waste the time in praising me, but take the chance and attack the Samnites while they are still in fear and wonder."

The consul took his advice, and the army at once marched back and charged the enemy, who did not expect them, and were quite unprepared.

Many of the Samnites were unarmed and straggling about the pass. The Romans easily drove them back into their camp, and then followed them there, took and plundered it, and killed a great many of the Samnites.

Next day the consul called the Roman army together, and finished making the speech in praise of Decius, which had been interrupted the day before. Many rich presents were given to Decius, and among them was a crown of gold. His brave soldiers too were well rewarded.

I must now go on to that war against the Latins, in which young Titus Manlius was put to death by his father's order. The elder Manlius and Decius were consuls at that time, as I told you. After the death of the young man, the two consuls resolved to fight a battle with the Latins, and they drew up their army in proper order, Manlius leading the right and Decius the left wing. At first they fought on both sides with the same bravery, but after a while the Romans on the left wing, who were commanded by Decius, found the Latins too strong for them, and began to give way.

When Decius saw this he called to him Marcus Valerius, the high priest of the Romans, and said,

"I see, Valerius, that we are now in want of the help of the gods. Do you now, therefore, say the solemn words with which I may devote myself for our army, and I will repeat them after you."

The Romans believed that a general could certainly win victory for his army by devoting  himself as they called it. The general must say some very solemn words, standing in one particular way, and wearing a certain dress. Then if he let himself be killed directly afterwards, they believed that the army against which he was fighting would certainly be destroyed.

Valerius told Decius to put on a long embroidered purple mantle, and to cover his head with it; then to stand with both his feet on a spear, while he said after him these words:—

"O Jupiter, Mars, and all ye heavenly and infernal gods, I ask your pardon and I pray for your favour. I pray that you will give victory and power to the people of Rome, and strike their enemies with fear and death. And for the good of the people of Rome, I here devote the army of the enemy and myself to the infernal gods."

When he had said this prayer, he sent a messenger to the other consul, Manlius, to tell him what he had done. Then, girding his purple mantle round him and taking his arms, he mounted his horse and spurred into the midst of the enemy. To both armies he seemed wonderful, more like a god than a man. Wherever he came he terrified the Latins; he rode right through their front ranks, and then charged into their main body, while they stood trembling, struck with fear and awe. And when at last he fell, beaten down by numbers, the Latins began to give back in their terror, while the Romans fell upon them with redoubled courage.

When Manlius heard of what Decius had done, he wept for him and praised him for daring to die for Rome. Then he led on some of the Roman troops who had not yet fought.

"Forward!" he said. "Remember your country and your parents, your wives and children, and more than all remember your noble consul, who gave himself to die that you might win the victory."

The soldiers, full of hope and courage, charged the Latins with such fury that they defeated them, killed a great number, and put the rest to flight.

The body of the brave Decius could not be found that day, for it was late when the battle was over, and evening was coming on. But next morning it was found lying covered with darts and spears among a heap of Latins whom he had killed. Manlius made a splendid funeral for him, as his great courage well deserved.

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