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Mary Macgregor

The Caudine Forks

One of the chief events of the Second Samnite war took place in 321 b.c. , at a gorge or pass called the Caudine Fork.

Gaius Pontius, the general of the Samnite army, was encamped at Caudium. He had hoped to hold the passes which led from the plain of Naples to the higher mountain valleys among the Apennines.

But one day he thought of a better plan. If he could but entice the Roman army into the mountain passes, he would have them in a trap before they were aware.

So he sent two countrymen to Rome, bidding them report to the Consuls that the Samnite army had left Caudium and marched to Apulia, where they were besieging the town of Luceria.

The Consuls had no reason to doubt the truth of the countrymen's words, and as Luceria was held by allies of Rome, they resolved to send an army to her help, lest she should fall into the hands of the enemy.

So before long the Roman legions were marching toward Apulia. As the shortest way lay through the pass of the Caudine Forks, and as the Consul Postumius, who was at the head of the legions, believed that the Samnite army was far away, he did not hesitate to enter the gorge.

It was a deep and gloomy pass, between rugged mountains. As the Romans advanced, the gorge grew more narrow and precipitous, and they were glad when at length they approached the end of the dangerous path. But their pleasure was soon changed to anxiety, for the exit from the pass was barricaded with trees and great masses of stone.

Postumius began to suspect treachery. It was plain that the trees had but recently been cut down. Suppose the barricades were the work of the Samnites! The Consul at once ordered the army to retreat.

But long before the weary legions reached the opening by which they had entered the pass they felt sure that they were caught in a trap.

The Samnites were indeed guarding the entrance, and escape was impossible.

Nevertheless, the Romans made a gallant attempt to scale the side of the steep mountains that brooded over the gorge, and when they reached the opening they even tried to make their way through the enemy. But the Samnites killed or wounded all who tried to escape.

When night fell, Postumius ordered his army to encamp in the valley at its broadest point, and here he awaited the will of Gaius Pontius.

But the Samnite general was in no haste to make terms with his prisoners. Each day that he delayed, famine would stare the Roman army more closely in the face. Before long it would be forced to agree to whatever terms he chose to dictate.

And, indeed, before many days had passed, the Romans were compelled to yield, crying to their foes: "Put us to the sword, sell us as slaves, or keep us as prisoners until we be ransomed, only save our bodies, whether living or dead, from all unworthy insult."

It was plain that the Romans feared lest they should be treated in the same way as they used their captives.

For the Romans dragged their prisoners in chains at the chariot wheels of their victorious generals. Often, too, their captives were beheaded in the common prison, and their bodies refused the rite of burial.

But Pontius used his power generously. If his terms were heard, yet they were just, and had in them no trace of cruelty.

"Restore to us," said the Samnite general, "the towns you have taken from us, and recall the Roman colonists you have unjustly settled on our soil. Then conclude with us a treaty, which shall own each nation to be alike independent of the other. If you will swear to do this I will spare your lives and let you go without ransom, each man of you giving up your arms merely and keeping his clothes untouched, and you shall pass in sight of your army as prisoners, whom we . . . . set free of our own will, when we might have killed them, or sold them, or held them to ransom."

The Consuls and officers of the army vowed to observe this treaty, and six hundred knights were given as hostages to the Samnites.

But Pontius, had he been wise, would have gained the consent of the Senate and people of Rome to his terms, before he was content.

To the Romans, the demands of Pontius seemed severe, but yet deeper was the humiliation they were to endure.

The entire army, along with the Consuls, were forced to pass beneath the yoke, in the presence of their foe. It was the only way of escape from the pass of the Caudine Forks.

Giving up their arms, and wearing only a kilt which reached from their waist to their knees, the vanquished army filed sullenly out of the gorge beneath the yoke.

This was no unusual humiliation, but was the custom in those days, and equal to our demand that arms should be laid down on the surrender of a garrison.

Pontius was indeed strangely kind to his conquered foes, ordering carriages for the wounded, and giving them food to eat on the march back to Rome.

But nothing could comfort the Romans, whose pride had been gravely wounded by being forced to pass beneath the yoke.

In silence, shame written clear upon their faces, they marched gloomily along, with no desire to reach the end of their journey.

When they drew near to Rome, those who lived in the country slipped away to their homes, hoping that none would notice them. Those who lived in the city waited until it was dark that they might enter unseen.

The Consuls were not able to shun the attention of the crowd, for they entered the city during the day. But they, too, were so ashamed that they deemed themselves no longer fit to be Consuls, and escaping from the people as soon as possible, they shut themselves up in their homes.

Rome was a gloomy city for days after the return of the disgraced army.

The senators laid aside their gold rings, and no longer wore on their robes the red border which was the sign of their rank. In somber attire and with grave faces they sat in the Senate-house, or paced the streets, thinking of the disgrace that had overtaken their people.

Shops were shut, business was laid aside, while the citizens mourned alike for those who had returned as for those who had been slain.

Ere long new Consuls were elected, and they, with the Senate, agreed that the treaty made with Pontius must not be kept.

Postumius then offered to go back to the Samnites, with his colleague and officers, as a punishment for agreeing to so humiliating a treaty. To this proposal the Senate gave its approval.

The Consuls and officers were then stripped of all save the kilt which they had worn when they passed beneath the yoke, and thus, with their hands tied behind them, they were sent back to the Samnites.

"These men are forfeited to you in atonement for the broken treaty," cried those who accompanied the miserable penitents, when at length they stood in the presence of Pontius.

But the Samnite general refused to receive such atonement. "Either," said he, "you must put your army back in the Caudine Forks, or you must keep the treaty to which your Consuls agreed."

As the Romans refused to do this, the second Samnite war continued to be waged.