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

The Caudine Forks

Some distance to the south of Rome, among the Apennine mountains, lay the country of Samnium, where lived a brave and warlike people, who were for many years at war with the Romans.

The general of the Samnites, at the time I am going to tell you about, was called Caius Pontius. He was a brave and skilful soldier, the son of a very wise old man, whose name was Herennius.

When Pontius heard that the Romans were marching against Samnium, he led his army to a place called Caudium, in the mountains between Rome and his own country. He made some of his soldiers take off their armour and dress themselves like shepherds. Then he sent them towards the Roman camp, driving sheep before them—so that the Roman sentinels, when they saw them, thought they were real shepherds. The Romans took the disguised Samnite soldiers prisoners, and led them before their consul, Spurius Postumius.

Postumius asked the Samnites, whom he supposed to be shepherds, to tell him anything they could about the Samnite army—where it was, and what it was doing. They answered him, as their general had told them to do, that the Samnite army was gone into Apulia in the south of Italy, and that it was besieging Luceria, a town whose people were friends and allies of the Romans. Now, as these pretended shepherds all told the same story, Postumius thought it must be true, and he determined to go to the help of the Lucerians.

The shortest road to Luceria was past Caudium, where, as I told you, Pontius and his army really were. Near Caudium is a place called the Caudine Forks—and I will try to describe it to you, that you may understand what afterwards happened. The road to Caudium went through a very narrow pass or valley between two steep rocky cliffs; on the other side of the pass, the valley widened out into a large green meadow or plain covered with grass, and quite surrounded by steep hills.

The road went across this plain and then through another little pass between rocks steeper and more difficult even than the first. These two passes were called the Caudine Forks.

The Roman army marched through the first pass, and across the plain without any difficulty, but when they got to the second pass their surprise was great to find the road blocked up with piles of great stones, and with trees which had been cut down and thrown across it, so that neither man nor horse could get through. At the same time they saw the Samnite army appear on the hills above the pass, so as to prevent them from going round.

As quickly as they could, the Romans turned and retreated across the plain to the pass by which they had come; but when they got there they found that the way out was blocked in the same manner, and guarded too by Samnite troops. All along the tops of the hills round them they could see their enemies, whom Pontius had placed there, and they felt that they were shut in hopelessly, and were so astonished that they stood for a long time as still as statues, not knowing which way to turn, or what to do. At last they set to work to pitch their camp and to fortify it, though they saw very well how useless the work was, and knew that the Samnites might, if they pleased, keep them shut up in that deep valley, till they were starved to death. The Samnite soldiers looked on, and laughed and mocked at the unhappy Romans, who turned to their generals and asked from them the comfort and help which the generals could not give.

By and by the night came on, and the soldiers gathering together, began to talk over their dreadful position, and to make plans as to what was to be done.

"Let us break through the blockade," said one, "and force our way along the road."

"Were it not better," cried another, "to climb up the mountain sides and through the woods,—any way so that we carry our swords with us and that we may come at the enemy? If we could only get at them, it would be easy enough to us Romans to fight these pitiful Samnites, whom we have beaten so often in the last thirty years.

"Pooh!" said a third. "How can we possibly get at the enemy, with these steep hills hanging almost over our heads. What does it matter whether we are armed or unarmed, whether we are brave men or cowards? We are caught like rats in a trap, and the Samnites need not even trouble themselves to draw their swords to kill us, but may sit still and watch us die."

In such talk they passed the night, caring neither to take food or sleep.

The Samnites did not know what to do, or what would be the best way to use their victory. At last they decided to send to Herennius Pontius, the father of their general, who, as I said, was a very wise man, and ask him what they had better do. Herennius was now very old, and was living a quiet life away from the toils both of war and of government But though his body was so weak, his mind was strong, and his advice was very much respected by all the Samnite people.

When his son's messengers came to him, he sent back word that the Samnites had better let the Roman army go home safe and unhurt. The Samnites did not like this message at all, and told the messengers to go a second time to Herennius, and ask him again what they should do.

"Let them kill every one of the Romans," said Herennius.

When these words were told to the Samnites, they began to think that the old man's mind must be growing as weak as his body, and that he could have no meaning in sending two such different messages. Still, they thought Herennius so wise, that they sent the messengers a third time, to persuade him to come to their camp, that they might hear what he really thought with their own ears. So the old man was laid in a cart, and driven to the Samnite camp; and when he got there he spoke to them in these words:—

"I advised you to let the Romans go safely home, because if you do so great a kindness to this brave people, you will make them your firm friends for ever. But if you will not do this you must kill them all, so that they may not return to fight you again; for the shame of their defeat will make them hate you more than ever, and they will be more fierce and dreadful enemies than they are now. If you will not do either of these things I have no third advice to give you."

Then Pontius asked him if it would not be better to spare the lives of the Romans, but to make them promise that they would not fight against the Samnites again.

"By doing this," answered Herennius, "you will neither make the Romans your friends nor prevent them from being your enemies. They are such a proud and brave people that if you disgrace them they will never forgive you, and will never rest till they have punished you and revenged themselves."

But Pontius and his army would not take the old man's advice, so he went home again.

By this time the Romans began to be in great want of food. They had made several attempts to get out of the valley, but they were always beaten back. At last the consuls sent messengers to Pontius, to try and make peace, or, if he would not make peace, to challenge him to battle. Pontius sent back word that the battle was already won; that the Romans were his prisoners, and must lay down their arms, and all pass under the yoke; and that the consuls must promise that Rome would be at peace with Samnium.

The yoke was made by planting two spears upright in the ground, and tying a third spear to their tops, so as to make a sort of arch through which the army had to pass. It was the custom at this time in Italy to make a beaten army pass under the yoke, and this was considered a great disgrace, because it showed that the army was completely conquered.

The consuls knew that they had no power to promise that Rome would keep peace with Samnium; but they thought that if they did not promise, the Samnites would kill all their army, and they wished to save their men, so they agreed to do all that Pontius wished.

When the Roman soldiers heard that the Samnite general had sent word that they must all pass under the yoke, there was as much grief and sorrow in the camp as if he had said they should all be put to the sword. They cried out against the consuls who had led them into such danger and disgrace. They thought how shameful it would be to give up their armour and weapons. They fancied how their proud enemies would insult and mock at them, and how sad would be their return to Rome, whence they had started with such joyful hopes of victory.

"We," cried they, "are the only army in the world that ever was beaten without a battle—without a sword being drawn—who wore arms only to give them up to our mortal enemies without striking a blow; and whose strength and courage were good for nothing but to make us feel our disgrace more bitterly."

While they bemoaned themselves in this way, the word of command was given that they should march out of the camp, each man wearing only one garment, and leaving his armour and weapons behind him. First, the consuls, having taken off their splendid robes and rich armour, were obliged to march under the yoke, then came the nobles and officers, and lastly the soldiers. The Samnites stood round jeering and laughing at the unfortunate Romans, who would almost rather have been killed, than have had to bear such disgrace. When they had marched out of the Caudine Pass, and had got away from the Samnites, they might easily have reached Capua, a town which was friendly to Rome, before night came on; but they were so miserable, and so dreadfully ashamed of being seen in such a condition, that they chose to stay away from the town, meaning to sleep on the bare ground, though they had neither food nor clothing, nor tents to shelter them.

But news was brought to the people of Capua that the Roman army was just outside the town in this sad state. The Capuans were very sorry to hear it, and immediately they sent out plenty of clothes and food for the soldiers, and to the consuls they sent arms and horses, and splendid garments such as suited their high rank. When the Romans had eaten and clothed themselves, they marched into Capua. The people came out to meet them with their nobles at their head, and welcomed their visitors with kind words; they took them into their houses, and treated them like dear friends. But the Romans were so unhappy that all the kindness of the Capuans could hardly get them to speak a word, or even to lift up their eyes from the ground. The next day they went away to Rome, seeming more ashamed and miserable than ever, and not speaking a word as they marched along.

Now, by this time, news of the great misfortune at Caudium had got to Rome, and the whole city was full of mourning and grief. The shops were shut up, the courts of law were closed, the nobles left off the splendid scarlet and purple edged robes they generally wore, the ladies put away their golden ornaments, and all the people showed in every way how great was their sorrow, for the disgrace that had fallen on the name of Rome. At first the people were very angry with the soldiers, and said that they ought not to be allowed to come into the city at all. But when the army arrived, their anger changed to pity; for the unhappy men came marching into the town at night, that they might not be seen, and each soldier went at once silently to his own house, and shut himself up there—so that for days after not one of them was to be seen out of doors in the streets. The consuls, too, shut themselves up in the same way, and all they would do was to name a dictator who should govern the city till other consuls could be chosen. As soon as could be, the new consuls called Postumius before them, that he might tell them about the shameful peace that he had made with the Samnites at Caudium.

Postumius came into their presence, with looks as sad and unhappy as on the day when he had to pass under the yoke.

"I know well enough," said he, "that you have called me here not for honour but for shame, and that I am commanded to speak as one who is guilty of a badly managed war and a shameful peace. I will only say to defend myself that I agreed to that peace to save your army from being destroyed. But I think that as it was made without the people of Rome knowing anything about it, they need not keep the promises that I made. Instead of keeping the agreement, give up to the Samnites the men who made these promises. Were you Romans ever asked if you would agree to the peace? Who can pretend that you have deceived them? You never promised anything to the Samnites, and you never ordered us to make any agreements for you. We are the men who promised, and as we cannot keep our word, we will give our lives instead. Give us up to the Samnites then, and let them do what they please with us, and in the meantime let the consuls raise and arm all the soldiers they can, and begin the war over again with better success."

The senate and consuls were very sorry for the brave Postumius, but they and all the people could find no better way of freeing themselves from the treaty of peace to which he had been forced to agree. Every one praised him for being ready to give his life for his country, and the Romans were so filled with anger and so eager for war, that a great army was soon raised, and, with the consuls at its head, marched towards Caudium.

Before the army went the heralds with Postumius and the others who were to be given up to the Samnites. When they came near to the gate of Caudium, the heralds told the soldiers to bind the hands of these men behind their backs, which was done. The soldier who tied the hands of Postumius felt such sorrow and respect for his old general, that he fastened the cords very gently and loosely.

"Draw the cord tighter," said Postumius, "that the law may be obeyed, as is just and right."

Then the heralds led him and the others before Pontius and the Samnite nobles, and said to them,

"These persons, without the leave of the Roman people, have promised to make peace with you. The Roman people will have no peace with the Samnites, and they send you these men to do with them what you will."

Pontius and all the Samnites were extremely angry at this, for they thought that the Roman people ought to have kept the promises that their consul had made. And after a while Pontius said,

"Neither I nor the Samnites will accept these men, whom you pretend to give up to us. I do not blame you, Postumius, who, like a brave and honourable man, have come to give up your life as you cannot keep your promise. But if the Roman people do not like the agreement their consul made for them, let them bring their army back again into the place where we surrounded them. Let them take their arms again, and shut themselves up in their camp and let all be as it was before the consuls made the treaty. Is this your truth? Is this how you keep your word? You have your soldiers safe as I promised you; but where is the peace that you promised to me? I will not accept these men whom you pretend to deliver up to me; but I call upon the gods to punish you for breaking your solemn vows. Go, lictor, unbind these Romans, and let them go wherever they please."

This was soon done, and Postumius and the other prisoners went back unharmed to the Roman camp.

The Samnites now began to understand how wise had been the advice of old Herennius, when he told them either to make friends of the Romans by setting them free, or to kill them all. For the war that began again was fiercer and more cruel than ever.


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