Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Caudine Forks

Westward from Rome rise the Apennine Mountains, the backbone of Italy; and amid their highest peaks, where the snow lies all the year long, and whence streams flow into the two seas, dwelt the Sabines, an important people, from whom came the mothers of the Roman state. There is a legend concerning this people which we have now to tell. For many years they had been at war with their neighbors, the Umbrians; and at length, failing to conquer their enemies by their own strength, they sought to obtain the help of the divinities. They made a vow that if victory was given to them, all the living creatures born that year in their land should be held as sacred to the gods.

The victory came, and they sacrificed all the lambs, calves, kids, and pigs of that year's birth, while they redeemed from the gods such animals as were not suitable for sacrifice. But, as it appeared, the deities were not satisfied. The land refused to yield its fruits, and the Sabines were not long in deciding why their crops had failed. They had neither sacrificed nor redeemed the children born that year, and had thus failed in their duty to the gods.

To atone for this fault, all their children of that year's birth were devoted to the god Mamers, and when they had grown up they were sent away to make themselves a home in a new land. As the young men started on their pilgrimage a bull went before them, and, as they fancied that Mamers had sent this animal for their guide, they piously followed him. He first lay down to rest when he had come to the land of the Opicans. This the Sabines took for a sign, and they fell on the Opicans, who dwelt in villages without walls, and drove them out from their country, of which the new-comers took possession. They then sacrificed the bull to Mamers; and in after-ages they bore the bull for their device. They also took a new name, and were afterwards known as Samnites.

While the Romans were extending their dominion in Central Italy, the Samnites were conquering the peoples farther south. Their dominion became great, and at one time included the famous cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii and many others of the cities of the southern plains. In the centre of the Samnite country stood a remarkable mountain mass, an offshoot from the Apennines. This mountain, now called the Matese, is nearly eight miles in circumference, and rises abruptly in huge wall-like cliffs of limestone to the height of three thousand feet. Its surface is greatly varied in character, now sloping into deep valleys, now rising into elevated cliffs, of which the loftiest is six thousand feet high. It is rich in springs, which gush out in full flow, and disappear again in the caverns with which limestone rocks abound. Its valleys yield abundant pasture and magnificent beech forests, while on its highest summits the snow tarries till late summer, and in the hottest months of summer the upland pastures continue cool.

This mountain fastness formed the citadel from which the Samnites issued in conquering excursions over the surrounding country, and enabled them in time to extend their dominion far and wide, and to rival Rome in the width and importance of their state. Thus Rome and Samnium approached each other step by step, and the time inevitably came when they were to join issue in war.

Three wars took place between the Romans and the Samnites. In the first of these Valerius Corvus (the origin of whose name of Corvus we have already told) led the Roman army to victory. In honor of this victory Rome received from Carthage (with which city it was to engage in a desperate contest in later years) a golden crown, for the shrine of Jupiter in the Capitol.

In 329 B.C. Rome finally overcame the Volscians, with whom they had been many years at war, and three years afterwards war with the Samnites was again declared. The latter were invading Campania, in which country lay the volcano of Vesuvius and the city of Naples. Rome came to the aid of the Campanians, and a war began which lasted for more than twenty years.

Of this war we have but one event to tell, that in which Rome suffered the greatest humiliation it had met with in its entire career, the famous affair of the Caudine Forks. It was in the fifth campaign of the war that this event took place. Two Roman armies had marched into Campania and threatened the southern border of Samnium, which the Samnite general Pontius was prepared to defend. His force occupied the passes which led from the plain of Naples into the higher mountain valleys; but he deceived the Romans by spreading the report that the whole Samnite army had gone to Apulia, where they were besieging the city of Luceria. His purpose was to lure the Romans into these difficult defiles under the impression that the Samnites were trusting to the natural strength of their country for its defence.

The trick succeeded. The Roman consuls believed the story, and, in their haste to go to the aid of their allies in Apulia, chose the shortest route, that which led through the Samnian hills. The absence of the Samnite army would enable them, they thought, to force their way through Samnium without difficulty; and, blinded by their false confidence, the consuls recklessly led their men into the fatal pass of Caudium.

This pass was a narrow opening in the outer wall of the Apennines, which led from the plain of Campania to Maleventum. To-day it is traversed by the road from Naples to Benevento, and is called the valley of Arpaia. In the past it was famous as Caudium.

Into this defile the Romans marched between the rugged mountain acclivities that bounded its sides, and through the deep silence that reigned around. The pass seemed utterly deserted, and they expected soon to emerge into a more open valley in the interior of the hills.

But as they advanced the pass contracted, until it became but a narrow gorge, and this they found to be blocked up with great stones and felled trees. Brought to a halt, the troops stood gazing in dismay and dread on these obstacles, when suddenly the silence was broken, loud war-cries filled the air, and armed Samnites appeared as if by magic, covering the hills on both flanks, and crowding into the pass in the rear.

The Romans were caught in such a trap as that from which Cincinnatus had rescued a Roman army many years before. But there was here no Cincinnatus with his stakes, and they were far from Rome. The entrapped army made a desperate effort to escape, attacking the Samnites in the rear, and seeking to force their way up the rugged surrounding hills. They fought in vain. Many of them fell. The Samnite foe pressed them still more closely into the rocky pass. Only the coming of night saved them from total destruction.

But escape was impossible. The gorge in front was completely blocked up. The pass in the rear was held by the enemy in force. The flanking hills could hardly have been climbed by an army, even if they had not been occupied. No resource remained to the Romans but to encamp in the broader part of the narrow valley, and there wait in hopeless despair the outcome of their folly.

The Samnites could well afford to let them wait. The rear was held by the bulk of their army. The obstacles in front were strongly guarded. Every possible track by which the Romans might try to scale the hills was held. Some desperate attempts to break out were made, but they were easily repulsed. Nothing remained but surrender, or death by famine.

One or other of these alternatives had soon to be chosen. A large army, surprised on its march, and confined within a barren pass, could not have subsistence for any long period. Nothing was to be gained by delay, and they might as well yield themselves prisoners of war at once.

So the Romans evidently thought, and without delay they put themselves at the mercy of their conquerors. "We yield ourselves your captives," they said, "to do with as you will. Put us all to the sword, if such be your decision; sell us into slavery; or hold us as prisoners until we are ransomed: one thing only we ask, save our bodies, whether living or dead, from all unworthy insults."

In this request they forgot the record that Rome had made; forgot how often noble captives had been forced to walk in Roman triumphs and been afterwards slain in cold blood in the common prison; forgot how they had recently refused the rites of burial to the body of a noble Samnite. But Pontius, the Samnite general, was much less of a barbarian than the Romans of that age. He was acquainted with Greek philosophy, had even held conversation, it is said, with Plato, and was not the man to indulge in cruel or insulting acts.

"Restore to us," he said to the consuls, "the towns and territory you have taken from us, and withdraw the colonists whom you have unjustly placed on our soil. Conclude with us a treaty of peace, in which each nation shall be acknowledged to be independent of the other. Swear to do this, and I will grant you your lives and release you without ransom. Each man of you shall give up his arms, but may keep his clothes untouched; and you shall pass before our army as prisoners who have been in our power and whom we have set free of our own will, when we might have killed or sold them, or held them for ransom."

These terms the consuls were glad enough to accept. They were far better than they would have granted the Samnites under similar circumstances. Pontius now called for the Roman fecialis, whose duty it was to conclude all treaties and take all oaths for the Roman people. But there was no fecialis with the army. The senate had sent none, having resolved to make no terms with the Samnites, and to accept only their absolute submission. They had never dreamed of such a turn of the tide as this.

In the absence of the proper officer, the consuls and all the surviving officers took the oath, while it was agreed that six hundred knights should be held as hostages until the Roman people had ratified the treaty. Why Pontius did not insist on treating with the senate and people of Rome at once, instead of trusting to them to ratify a treaty made with prisoners of war, we are not told. He was soon to learn how weak a reed to lean upon was the Roman faith.

The treaty made, the humiliating part of the affair came. The Roman army was obliged to march under the yoke, which consisted of two spears set upright and a third fastened across their tops. Under this the soldiers of the legions without their arms, and wearing but a single article of clothing,—the campestre or kilt, which reached from the waist to the knees, passed in gloomy succession. Even the consuls were obliged to appear in this humble plight, the six hundred hostage knights alone being spared.

This was no peculiar insult, but a common usage on such occasions. The Romans had imposed it more than once on defeated enemies. They were now to endure it themselves, and the affair, under the name of the Caudine Forks, has become famous in history.

Pontius proved, indeed, generous to his foes. He supplied carriages for the sick and wounded, and furnished provisions to last the army until it should arrive at Rome. When that city was reached the senate and people came out and welcomed the soldiers with the greatest kindness. But the wounded pride of the legionaries could not be soothed. Those who had homes in the country stole from the ranks and sought their several dwellings. Those who lived in Rome lingered without the walls until after the sun had fallen, and then made their way home through the darkness. The consuls were obliged to enter in open day, but as soon as possible they sought their homes, and shut themselves up in privacy.

As for the city, it went into mourning. All business was suspended; the patricians laid aside their gold rings and took off the red border of their dresses which marked their rank; the plebeians appeared in mourning garbs; there was as much weeping for those who had returned in dishonor as for those left dead on the field; all rejoicings, festivals, and marriages were set aside for a year of happier omen.

The final result was such as might have been expected from the earlier record of Rome. The senate refused to recognize the treaty. The defeated consuls themselves sustained this bad faith, saying that they and all the officers should be given up to the Samnites, as having promised what they were unable to perform.

This was done. Half stripped, as when they passed under the yoke, and their hands bound behind their backs, the officers were conducted by the feciales to the Samnian frontier, and delivered to the Samnites as men who had forfeited their liberty by their breach of faith. The surrender completed, Postumius, one of the consuls, struck a fecialis violently with his knee,—his hands and feet being bound; and cried out,—

"I now belong to the Samnites, and I have done violence to the sacred person of a Roman fecialis and ambassador. You will rightfully wage war with us, Romans, to avenge this outrage."

This transparent trick was wasted on Pontius. He refused the victims offered him. They were not the guilty ones, he said. The legions must be placed again in the Caudium Valley, or Rome keep the treaty. Anything else would be base and faithless.

The treaty was not kept. The war went on. And nearly thirty years afterwards, as we have told in the preceding story, Pontius, who had behaved so generously to the Romans, was led as a prisoner in a Roman triumph, and then basely beheaded while the triumphal car of the victor ascended the Capitoline Hill. His death is one of the darkest blots on the Roman name. "Such a murder," we are told, "committed or sanctioned by such a man as Q. Fabius, is peculiarly a national crime, and proves but too clearly that in their dealings with foreigners the Romans had neither magnanimity, nor humanity, nor justice."