The conquest of Italy by Rome was attended by many interesting events, of which we propose to relate here some of the more striking. The capture and burning of Rome by the Gauls, and the dispersal of her army and people, ruinous as it seemed, was but an event in her career of conquest. The city was no sooner rebuilt than the old regime of war was resumed, and it was no longer a struggle between neighboring cities, but of Rome against powerful confederacies and peoples, such as the Volscians, the Etruscans, the Latins, the Campanians, and the Samnites, the final conquest of which gave her the dominion of Italy.
The war with the Latins was attended with some circumstances showing strongly the stern and indomitable spirit of the Romans. This war was carried into Campania, in Southern Italy; and here, on a celebrated occasion, when the two armies lay encamped in close vicinity on the plain of Capua, the Roman consuls issued a strict order against skirmishing or engaging in single encounters with the enemy. The two peoples were alike in arms and in language, and it was feared that such chance combats might lead to confusion and disaster.
The only man to disobey this order was T. Manlius, the son of one of the consuls. A Latin warrior, Germinus Metius, of Tusculum, challenged young Manlius to meet him in single combat; and the youthful warrior, fired by ambition and warlike zeal, and eager to sustain the honor of Rome, accepted the challenge, despite his father's order. If killed, his fault would be atoned; if successful, victory over a noted warrior must win him pardon and praise.
The duel that ensued was a fierce and gallant one. It ended in the triumph of the young Roman, who laid his antagonist dead at his feet. Shouts of triumph from the Roman soldiers hailed his victory; and when he had despoiled his slain foe of his arms, and borne them triumphantly from the field, the exultation of the Romans was as unbounded as the chagrin of the Latins was deep. Towards his father's tent the young victor proudly went, through exulting lines of troops, and laid his spoils in triumph at the feet of the stern old man.
The poor youth, the rejoicing soldiers, knew not the man with whom they had to deal. A military order had been disobeyed. To old Manlius the fact that the culprit was his son, and that he had added honor to the Roman arms, weighed nothing. Discipline stood above affection or victory. Turning coldly away, the iron-hearted old Roman ordered that the soldiers should be immediately summoned to the prætorium, or general's tent, and that his son should be beheaded before them.
This cruel and inhuman order filled the whole army with horror. Yet none dared interfere, and the unnatural mandate was obeyed, in full view an army whose late exultation was turned to deep woe and indignation. The youngest soldiers never forgave the consul for his inhuman act, but regard him with abhorrence to the end of his life. But their hatred was mingled with fear and respect, and the stern lesson taught was doubtless felt for years in the discipline of the armies of Rome.
The next event worthy of record took place in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, under whose very shadow a fierce battle was fought between the Latin and Roman armies, with the then silent volcano as witness. Two centuries more were to pass before Rome would learn what fearful power lay sleeping in this long voiceless mountain.
Before the battle joined, the gods, as usual, were appealed to. During the night both consuls had dreamed the same dream. A figure of more than human stature and majesty had appeared to them, and told them that the earth and the gods of the dead claimed as their victims the general of one party and the army of the other. When the sacrifices were made, the signs given by the entrails of the victims signified the same thing. It was resolved, therefore, that if the army of Rome anywhere gave way, the general commanding on that side should devote himself, and the army of the enemy with him, to the gods of death and the grave. "Fate," said the augurs, "requires the sacrifice of a general from one party and an army from the other. Let it be our general and the Latin army that shall perish."
It was the left wing of the Romans, commanded by the consul Publius Decius, that first gave way. The consul at once accepted his fate. By the direction of the chief priest, he wrapped his consular toga around his head, holding it to his face with his hand, and then set his feet upon a javelin, and repeated after the priest the words devoting him to the gods of death. Then, arming himself at all points, and wrapping his toga around his body in the manner usual in sacrifices, he sprang upon his horse, and spurred headlong into the ranks of the enemy, where he soon fell dead.
This sacrifice filled the Romans with hope, and the Latins, who understood its meaning, with dismay. Yet the latter, after being driven back, soon recovered, and, despite the self-devotion of Decius, would probably have won the victory had not the remaining consul brought up his reserve troops just in time. In the end the Latins were utterly defeated, and Vesuvius looked down on the massacre of one army by the swords of another, scarcely a fourth of the Latins escaping. Thus the gods seemed to keep their word, though probably the Roman reserve force had more to do with the victory than all the gods of Rome.
The next event which we have to relate took place during the second Samnite war. Its hero was L. Papirius Cursor, one of the favorite heroes of Roman tradition, and the avenger of the disgrace of the Caudine Forks, the story of which we have next to tell. This famous soldier is said to have possessed marvellous swiftness of foot and gigantic strength, with extraordinary capacity for food, while his iron strictness of discipline was at times relieved by a rough humor. All this made his memory popular with the Romans, who boasted that Alexander the Great would have found in him a worthy champion, had that conqueror invaded Italy.
The event we have now to narrate occurred early in the war. One of the consuls, being taken ill, was ordered to name a dictator to replace him, and chose Papirius Cursor. This champion appointed Q. Fabius Rullianus, another famous soldier, his master of the horse, and marched out to attack the Samnites.
As it happened, the auspices taken by the dictator at Rome before marching to the seat of war were of no particular significance. Not satisfied with them, he decided to take them again, and returned to Rome for this purpose, the auspices being of a kind which could only be taken within the city walls. He ordered the master of the horse to remain strictly on the defensive during his absence.
Fabius did not obey this order. He attacked the enemy and gained some advantage. The annals say that he won a great victory, defeating the Samnites with a loss of twenty thousand men; but the annals have a habit of magnifying small affairs into large ones where they have any object to gain.
On hearing that his orders had been disobeyed, Papirius hurried back to the camp in a violent rage, and with the intention of making such an example of discipline as Manlius had made in the execution of his son. On reaching camp he ordered that Fabius should be immediately executed. His authority as dictator gave him power for this violent act; but he failed to reckon on the spirit of the soldiers, who supported Fabius to a man, and broke into a violent demonstration that was almost mutiny. So strong was their feeling that the furious dictator found himself obliged to halt in his purpose.
But Fabius knew too well the iron nature of his antagonist to trust his life in his hands. That night he fled from the camp to Rome, and immediately appealed to the senate for protection. Papirius followed in hot haste, and while the senators were still assembling arrived in Rome, where, under his authority as dictator, he gave order for the arrest of the culprit. In this critical situation the prisoner's father, M. Fabius, appealed to the tribunes for the protection of his son, saying that he proposed to carry the case before the assembly of the people.
The tribunes found themselves in a dilemma. Papirius warned them not to sanction so flagrant a breach of military discipline, nor to lessen the majesty of the office of dictator, and they found themselves hesitating between their duty to support the absolute power of the dictator and their abhorrence of an exercise of this power that must shock the feelings of the whole Roman people. The people themselves relieved their tribunes from this difficulty. They hastily met in assembly, and by a unanimous vote implored the dictator to be merciful, and for their sakes to forgive Fabius. His authority thus acknowledged, Papirius yielded, and declared that he pardoned the master of the horse. "And the authority of the Roman generals," says Livy, "was established no less firmly by the peril of Q. Fabius than by the actual death of the young T. Manlius."
It was well for Rome that Fabius was spared, for he afterwards proved one of their ablest generals. The time came, also, when he was able to confer a benefit upon Papirius Cursor. This was during a subsequent war with the Etruscans, in which he commanded as consul and gained great victories. Meanwhile a Roman army was defeated by the Samnites, and on the news of this defeat reaching Rome the senate at once resolved to appoint Papirius once more as dictator.
But this appointment must be made by a consul. One consul was with the defeated army, perhaps dead. It was necessary to apply to Fabius, the other consul, and the declared enemy of the proposed dictator. To overcome his personal feelings, a deputation of the highest senators was sent him, who read him the senate's decree and strongly urged him to support it. Fabius listened in dead silence, not answering by word or look. When they had ended, he abruptly withdrew from the room. But at dead of night he pronounced, in the usual form, the nomination of Papirius as dictator. When the deputies thanked him for his noble conquest over his feelings, be listened still in dead silence, and dismissed them without a word in answer.
We must now pass over years of war, in which both Fabius and Papirius gained honor and fame, and come to an occasion in which the son of Fabius led a Roman army as consul, and met with a severe defeat by a Samnite army. He had been tricked by the Samnites, and great indignation was aroused against him in Rome. It was proposed to remove him from his office, a disgrace which no consul ever experienced in Roman history. It was also proposed that old Fabius should be appointed dictator. But the aged soldier, to preserve the honor of his son, offered to go with him as his lieutenant, and the offer was accepted by the senate.
A second battle ensued, in the heat of which the consul became surrounded by the enemy, and his aged father led the charge to his rescue. His example animated the Romans, they followed him in a vigorous assault, and a complete victory was won. Twenty thousand Samnites were slain, four thousand taken prisoners, and with them their general, C. Pontius. After other victories the younger Fabius returned to Rome and was given a triumph, while behind him rode his old father on horseback, as one of his lieutenants, delighting in the honor conferred on his son. The Samnite general was made to walk in the procession, and at its end was taken to the prison under the Capitoline Hill and there beheaded. It was thus that Rome dealt with its captured foe.