Thirty More Famous Stories Retold - James Baldwin

How Decius Mus Saved Rome

It was early morning in Italy two thousand, two hundred, and forty years ago. The first faint streaks of daylight were just beginning to appear on the top of a hill where the Roman army was resting and waiting for the dawn. It was not a large army, for Rome had not yet grown to be great and powerful; but every man in it was ready to lay down his life for his country.

Not far away, on one of the lower slopes of Mount Vesuvius, the Latin hosts were encamped. They outnumbered the Romans three to one, and the Latin soldiers were already boasting of the victory they expected to win.

Two men were walking in front of the Roman encampment and anxiously waiting for the dawn. They were Decius Mus and Manlius Torquatus, the consuls of Rome and generals of the Roman army.

"I had a dream last night," said Decius.

"And so had I," said Manlius. "I dreamed of the battle that is soon to begin."

"And I dreamed of the way in which it is to end," said Decius. "There are to be great losses on both sides.—But tell me your dream."

"In truth it was rather a vision than a dream," answered Manlius. "As I lay on the ground with all my faithful men around me, a gray-eyed maiden, clad in shining armor and carrying a shield and, spear, came and stood beside me. 'Manlius,' she said, 'to-morrow's battle will decide the destiny of Rome, whether she shall be the mistress of the world, or whether she shall perish by the hands of her Latin foes. If you will save her, you must heed what I say. That army which loses its general in the fight shall be victorious and shall utterly overcome the other.' And with this, the vision disappeared and I awoke."

"My dream was much the same," said Decius. "The same maiden with the shield and spear and piercing gray eye appeared to me. 'Do you want to know how to-morrow's battle will end?' she asked. 'The side that does not lose its leader will surely lose its army.' And then she vanished."

"We have each had a message from the gods," cried Manlius, "and we must heed it. I understand it means that if a Roman general perish in the battle, then Rome will be saved."

"That is the way I understand it," said Decius; "and I am ready to be sacrificed for Rome."

The two consuls finally agreed that each would lead, as usual, a wing of the Roman army against the enemy, and that the one whose wing first began to waver should give his life for his country.

The sound of busy preparation was already heard in both camps. The Roman soldiers were impatient to begin the fray. The sun was scarcely above the mountain tops before the battle was raging.

Furiously the Romans fought, contesting every foot of ground. The left wing, commanded by Decius Mus, was the first to waver.

Then Decius, with great dignity, like that of a conqueror, strode alone to the summit of a little hill where both armies could see him. Standing with a javelin beneath his feet, and raising his hands and eyes toward heaven, he cried, "Rome! I give the victory to thee!"

With these words he rushed into the midst of the enemy. A dozen spears were thrust at him, and he died with the name of his country on his lips.

With a cry of vengeance the Romans followed their leader, striking and grappling and slaying, and heeding nothing but to destroy their foes. The Latins were thrown into confusion; then a panic seized them and the whole army fled.

Decius had saved Rome.