Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould

A Roman Undismayed

Ten thousand Gauls, horsemen and footmen, waited on the plain for the onset of the Romans. The king was a very tall man. As he sat on his horse he seemed a giant. His armor, spangled with silver and gold, shone brightly in the sun. The Romans were led by the consul, Marcellus. They were advancing in a long, thin line.

The consul pressed his horse to a gallop, and pierced the breastplate of the Gaul with his spear. When he had slain the king, Marcellus leaped from his steed, took from the dead man some of his armor, and held it toward heaven, saying:

"O Jupiter, who seest how men bear themselves in battle, to thee I consecrate these spoils. Do thou grant us equal success in the rest of this war."

The armies then attacked each other, and the Romans won.

Not long afterward a terrible host of men from Africa—the men of Carthage, led by Hannibal—made its way through the passes of the Alps, and swept across North Italy toward Rome. It was sixteen years before the Romans defeated this general. At the battle of CannŠ the armies of Rome were beaten, and thousands of Romans fled to the city.

The elders of the senate resolved that these men who fled should not stay in Rome. They were all banished to the island of Sicily, with orders never to set foot on Italian soil again so long as Hannibal remained at war with Rome.

These Romans met Marcellus when he landed in Sicily with an army, on his way to the siege of Syracuse. That seaside town had taken sides against the Romans.

"Oh, sir," said the runaway Romans to the general, "we did indeed fly from the slaughter of CannŠ, but we still long to serve Rome, and we are ready to die for our fatherland. Take us into your service."

They knelt before him as they spoke.

Marcellus looked at them with pity. He was willing to try their courage. He had faith in them. So he wrote a letter to the senate at Rome, asking if he might add these men to his forces.

"Yes," replied the senate; "but however well they fight, you must give them no rewards."

They entered his army, and acted as brave men.

The siege of the large and beautiful city of Syracuse lasted about three years. Marcellus had a fleet in the harbor, as well as soldiers on land. The fleet consisted of sixty galleys, full of slings and stones, and other weapons of attack. Eight warships were fastened together so as to make a broad platform, on which were set up high scaling-ladders. As this vast engine reached the walls at the water-side, the Romans would climb up the ladders and leap on to the battlements of the walls.

The King of Syracuse saw with alarm the preparation of this machine. He called for his wisest man.

"My friend," he said, "you are the only man in Syracuse who can help me. Leave your drawings and your diagrams, your triangles, your cubes, your circles, your cones, your cylinders, your polygons, and all the rest. The city is in peril."

So the wisest man in the city busied himself for some days in ordering workmen to set up engines for slinging stones, and other objects of large size. These were not the only machines the engineer made, as you will see.

The Roman ships were rowed toward the town walls.

The engines began to act. Masses of stone and lumps of lead were hurled at the galleys of the besiegers, smashing the rigging and crushing the fighting-men and sailors.

Some of the Roman ships managed to reach the walls. Then huge beams of wood were lifted by machines, and their ends fell with tremendous force upon the galleys, beating down masts and men in their descent.

Other machines were yet more frightful. They thrust out enormous iron hooks over the walls, which gripped hold of a galley, lifted the ship half out of the water, and then quickly let it go, so that it heeled over and sank. The soldiers who tried to storm the walls on the land side of the city were baffled by engines of the same awful power. The Romans became at last so nervous that if they only saw a stick pushed over the top of the wall, they thought the mysterious engineer was about to work some mischief, and they retired in confusion.

Marcellus could not help smiling.

"This engineer," he said, "has a hundred hands."

The name of the clever engineer was Archimedes (Ar-ki-mee-deez). He was a great geometer—that is, he had a mighty mind for studying the measurements of things, and the forces by which they moved. Or, if you will pardon my using another long word, he was a great mathematician. Yet you see he did not keep his science for his own pleasure, in his own chamber, in his own house. He used his skill, or genius, to help his native country.

Marcellus, however, was undismayed. Never did he lose heart, no matter what dangers he had to withstand. He left off the attacks by sea and land. The city must be starved. After a long while the king sent word to ask Marcellus to parley, or treat, with him, and the Roman general went ashore to talk over terms of surrender. He went several times. Each time he took particular notice of a certain tower near the water, which he thought was easier to scale and capture than other towers of the city. One night, when the people in the city were drinking wine freely at the festival of the goddess Diana, the Romans climbed and captured the tower, and sounded their trumpets, and woke the whole city to surprise and terror. But months passed before the besiegers were able to take Syracuse from end to end. Then the city was sacked.

In the midst of the tumult a soldier ran into the house where Archimedes lived, and found the geometer tracing lines on the floor, and thinking deeply of some problem he was at work upon.

"Hold! hold!" cried the man of science, "don't disturb me. I am very much engaged!"

The soldier raised his sword and killed Archimedes. Marcellus was deeply grieved to hear of this deed.

After the taking of Syracuse, Marcellus again fought Hannibal in Italy. In one battle he was defeated. The Roman soldiers struggled back to their camp, dull and downcast. The general ordered that all the troops should be drawn up in array so that he might address them.

"I see before me," he said, sternly, "Roman arms and Roman bodies, but not one Roman man."

"General," called out one of the soldiers, "we regret that we fled."

"I will not pardon you," said he, "until you are victorious. To-morrow you will face the enemy again, and the news of your victory will reach Rome as soon as the news of your defeat."

Then, turning to the master of the stores, he added:

"Give these runaways barley."

So they had barley for supper, while the rest of the army had wheat.

Early next morning a red cloth was hung over the general's tent. That was the signal for battle. The men who ate barley took the front rank. That was where they wished to be posted.

Hannibal's elephants advanced in a terrible line. A Roman thrust his spear at one of these beasts. It retreated, and the rest of the elephants followed. The troops of Carthage were thrown into confusion. The Romans—barley first, wheat behind—charged with fury. Hannibal was beaten.

For the fifth time Marcellus was chosen consul of Rome. It was the last time; he was soon to die.

Very eagerly he sought to meet Hannibal again, to win one great and final victory. At length his scouts came in with the news that the general of Carthage was close at hand. The place was near Venusia.

Between the two armies was a hill, covered with copses and clumps of trees, and broken into hollows and rugged places. In these hollows Hannibal had concealed a good number of archers and spearmen. The Romans were anxious to seize this hill, as it overlooked the enemy's camp.

Marcellus, with his fellow-consul, his son, and two hundred and twenty horsemen, set out at a trot toward the hill. A sentinel had been posted on the hilltop to give warning. He saw Marcellus coming; he gave notice to his comrades. When the Romans were on the slope of the hill the men in ambush sprang out. Some of the Roman horsemen fled. Some closed round their general in a hand-to-hand fight. Both consuls were slain. This was in 208 B.C.

When the mighty captain of Carthage heard that Marcellus was dead he came to the fatal spot, and for a long time stood in silence, looking at the body of a man who was never dismayed. Being brave himself, he esteemed bravery in others. Presently he issued an order to his attendants.

"Let the body of Marcellus be dressed in rich robes, and then burned on a funeral pyre. Place the ashes in a silver urn. On the lid of the urn set a crown of gold, and carry it to his son. Marcellus was a noble Roman."

Hannibal and Marcellus