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Battle of the Caudine Forks, 321 BC

Battle of the Caudine Forks, 321 BC


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Battle of the Caudine Forks, 321 BC

The battle of the Caudine Forks (321 BC) was a humiliating defeat inflicted on the Romans by a Samnite army in the Apennine Mountains (Second Samnite War).

After winning a clear victory somewhere in Samnium in 322 BC the Romans rejected a Samnite peace offer, and prepared to resume their campaign in 321. The consuls for the year, Titus Veturius Calvinus and Spurius Postumius Albinus, took their combined army into Campania, and camped at Calatia, just to the east of Capua. Their combined army probably contained at least 18,000 men, if each consul led a single 4,500 strong legion, and at least 27,000 if they each commanded two legions, as was later the case.

The Samnites appointed Gavius Pontius as their captain-general for the year. According to Livy he decided to trick the consuls into a rash crossing of the Apennines. From his base close to Caudium (in the Apennine Mountains to the east of Calatia) he sent ten soldiers disguised as shepherds towards the Roman lines. When they fell into Roman hands they told the Romans that the city of Luceria in Apulia, which had only recently fallen into Roman hands, was being besieged. The consuls fell for this story, and decided to take the fastest route to Luceria, across the mountains.

Livy described the battlefield as being between 'two passes, deep, narrow, with wooded hills on each side'. A continuous chain of mountains extended from one pass to the other, hemming in a 'watered grassy plain through the middle of which the road goes'. Unfortunately this description doesn't match any of the routes across the Apennines, none of which have two narrow enough passes to fit with the rest of Livy's account of the battle.

According to Livy the Romans marched across the first pass, and through the grassy plain without noticing the Samnite forces hidden on the hills above them. When they reached the pass leading out of the plains they discovered that it was blocked by a barricade of felled trees with masses of rock piled against them. Only at this point did the Samnites reveal themselves on the hills above the valley. Realising they had been tricked, the Romans attempted to retrace their steps, only to find that the path had been blocked behind them. They were now trapped between two barricades, with enemy troops on the heights all around them.

The Roman army now sank into a pit of despondency, and couldn’t decide how to react. The consuls ordered the men to construct their normal marching camp, and something of a siege began. Gavius Pontius asked his father, Herennius, for advice on how to treat the Romans. His first response was to say let them go. When this advice was turned down he said 'kill them all'. When asked to explain the contradictory nature of his advice, his response was that the best response was to free the Romans, and use the good will generated to end the war on equal terms. If that wasn't acceptable, then the second best answer was to kill the entire Roman army, weakening the Republic and hopefully preventing them from launched any new invasion of Samnium for several years. Neither course was taken, and instead humiliating terms were imposed on the defeated Romans. As Herennius predicted this caused an outrage in Rome, and increased the Roman determination to fight on.

Other ancient sources suggest that a full scale battle took place somewhere in the hills near to Caudium, with the Samnites fighting from a strong position on the hills. Eventually the defeated Romans were forced to surrender.

The most famous incident of the battle took place after the Romans had surrendered. Gavius Pontius insisted that the entire army, from the two consuls down, should pass beneath the yoke (two spears thrust into the ground, with a third forming a crossbar), wearing only their tunics. This was seen as a major humiliation, signifying that the enemy soldier had been totally defeated, and was completely under the power of the victor.

The consuls were also forced to agree to a peace treaty. The Romans would withdraw their colonies from Samnium, including Cales and the colony at Fregellae that had helped trigger the entire war. After that relations between the two states would be governed by a fair treaty. The consuls and other officers present with the army agreed to this treaty, and then after passing under the yoke the defeated army returned to Rome.

The aftermath of this defeat is unclear. According to Livy the citizens of Rome refused to accept the treaty, and resumed the fight. A series of victories followed, including one at Luceria in 320 BC in which Gavius Pontius was himself captured and forced to pass under the yoke. This last element is almost certainly a later Roman fiction, although it is perfectly possible that the treaty was quickly disowned and some minor victories followed. Despite this, the memory of the Caudine Forks and the yoke remained part of Roman culture to the end of the Empire, becoming a symbol of humiliating failure.

Roman Conquests: Italy, Ross Cowan. A look at the Roman conquest of the Italian Peninsula, the series of wars that saw Rome transformed from a small city state in central Italy into a power that was on the verge of conquering the ancient Mediterranean world. A lack of contemporary sources makes this a difficult period to write about, but Cowan has produced a convincing narrative without ignoring some of the complexity.

[read full review]


Battle of the Caudine Forks

By 321 BC, the Second Samnite War was looking bleak for the Samnites, but their newly-appointed warchief Gaius Pontius was resolved to continue fighting against the Roman Republic and decried any notion that the Samnites would surrender. He and his army encamped at Caudium, where he would face an invading Roman army.


Contents

The Samnite commander, Gaius Pontius, hearing that the Roman army was located near Calatia, sent ten soldiers disguised as shepherds with orders to give the same story which was that the Samnites were besieging Lucera in Apulia. The Roman commanders, completely taken in by this ruse, decided to set off to give aid to Luceria. Worse, they chose the quicker route through the Caudine Forks, a narrow mountain pass near Benevento, Campania. Ώ] The area round the Caudine Forks was surrounded by mountains and could be entered only by two defiles. The Romans entered by one but when they reached the second defile they found it barricaded. They returned at once to the first defile only to find it now securely held by the Samnites. At this point the Romans, according to Livy, fell into total despair, knowing the situation was quite hopeless.

According to Livy, the Samnites had no idea what to do to take advantage of their success. Hence Pontius was persuaded to send a letter to his father, Herennius. The reply came back that the Romans should be sent on their way, unharmed, as quickly as possible. This advice was rejected, and a further letter was sent to Herennius. This time the advice was to kill the Romans down to the last man.

A Roman painting of the Battle of the Caudine Forks

Not knowing what to make of such contradictory advice, the Samnites then asked Herennius to come in person to explain. When Herennius arrived he explained that were they to set the Romans free without harm, they would gain the Romans' friendship. If they killed the entire Roman army, then Rome would be so weakened that they would not pose a threat for many generations. At this his son asked was there not a middle way. Herennius insisted that any middle way would be utter folly and would leave the Romans smarting for revenge without weakening them.


Battle of the Caudine Forks, 321 BC - History


Battle of Caudine Forks &mdash 321 BC

Caudine Forks, or Furculae Caudinae if you like Latin, is a narrow pass in the Southern Apennines, in Samnium, which is located in the south of Italy.


The Battle of Caudine Forks was part of the Second Samnite War .

The Samnites vs. the Romans.

The Samnites won. The Romans lost big.

READ IT STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE

Livy reports on the battle of Caudine Forks in his 9th book .


7 Battle Of Talas River

While the Abbasid Caliphate was expanding east into Central Asia, the Chinese Tang dynasty was expanding west into the same region. Local rulers allied with the Chinese for protection from the Arabs and vice versa. Something had to give, and the two sides faced off in AD 751 at the Talas River.

The Tang forces, led by Korean general Gao Xianzhi, seemed to have the upper hand. But they were betrayed by their Qarluq allies, who switched sides and attacked the Chinese from behind, shattering their army.

As a direct result of the battle, the Muslims gained control of Central Asia, including the Silk Road. They also learned how to make paper from Chinese prisoners. Meanwhile, the defeat helped spark the major An Lushan Rebellion in China.


Event #5269: Battle of the Caudine Forks, humiliation of the Romans by Samnites

The Battle of Caudine Forks, 321 BC, was a decisive event of the Second Samnite War. Its designation as a battle is a mere historical formality: there was no fighting and there were no casualties. The Romans were trapped in a waterless place by the Samnites before they knew what was happening and nothing remained but to negotiate an unfavorable surrender. The action was entirely political, with the magistrates on both sides trying to obtain the best terms for their side without disrespecting common beliefs concerning the rules of war and the conduct of peace. In the end the Samnites decided it would be better for future relations to let the Romans go, while the Romans were impeded in the prosecution of their campaign against the Samnites by considerations of religion and honor.

According to Livy, the Samnites had no idea what to do to take advantage of their success. Hence Pontius was persuaded to send a letter to his father, Herennius. The reply came back that the Romans should be sent on their way, unharmed, as quickly as possible. This advice was rejected, and a further letter was sent to Herennius. This time the advice was to kill the Romans down to the last man.

Not knowing what to make of such contradictory advice, the Samnites then asked Herennius to come in person to explain. When Herennius arrived he explained that were they to set the Romans free without harm, they would gain the Romans’ friendship. If they killed the entire Roman army, then Rome would be so weakened that they would not pose a threat for many generations. At this his son asked was there not a middle way. Herennius insisted that any middle way would be utter folly and would leave the Romans smarting for revenge without weakening them.

According to Livy, Pontius was unwilling to take the advice of his father and insisted that the Romans surrender and pass under a yoke. This was agreed to by the two commanding consuls, as the army was facing starvation. Livy describes in detail the humiliation of the Romans, which serves to underline the wisdom of Herennius’s advice.

Livy contradicts himself as to whether Rome honored or quickly repudiated the Caudine Peace. Livy claims the Roman Senate rejected the terms but, elsewhere, claims Rome honored the Caudine Peace until hostilities broke out afresh in 316.

References:

Livy 9, 2-6
Rosenstein, Nathan S. Imperatores Victi: Military Defeat and Aristocratic Competition in the Middle and Late Republic . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft967nb61p/
Hammond, N.G.L. & Scullard, H.H. (Eds.) (1970). The Oxford Classical Dictionary (p. 217). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-869117-3.

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War Council

Samnite Army
Leader: Gaius Pontius
Take 6 cards
Move First

Roman Army
Leaders: Titus Veturius Calvinus, Spurius Postumius Albinus
Take 4 cards

Special Rules
Units cannot battle UpHill to hill hexes. These hexes are unreachable from the "middle line" area.

Samnite army flee is realtive (up army must flee on the top side of the board, down army must flee on the bottom side).

Roman army on the Left Flank must flee left, Roman army on the Right Flank must flee right and Roman army on the center can choose which side to flee. Every Roman Unit that exit the map count as Victory Point for Samnite Army.


Contents

The Samnite commander, Gaius Pontius, hearing that the Roman army was located near Calatia, sent ten soldiers disguised as shepherds with orders to give the same story which was that the Samnites were besieging Lucera in Apulia. The Roman commanders, completely taken in by this ruse, decided to set off to give aid to Luceria. Worse, they chose the quicker route through the Caudine Forks, a narrow mountain pass near Benevento, Campania. [1] The area round the Caudine Forks was surrounded by mountains and could be entered only by two defiles. The Romans entered by one but when they reached the second defile they found it barricaded. They returned at once to the first defile only to find it now securely held by the Samnites. At this point the Romans, according to Livy, fell into total despair, knowing the situation was quite hopeless.

According to Livy, the Samnites had no idea what to do to take advantage of their success. Hence Pontius was persuaded to send a letter to his father, Herennius. The reply came back that the Romans should be sent on their way, unharmed, as quickly as possible. This advice was rejected, and a further letter was sent to Herennius. This time the advice was to kill the Romans down to the last man.

Not knowing what to make of such contradictory advice, the Samnites then asked Herennius to come in person to explain. When Herennius arrived he explained that were they to set the Romans free without harm, they would gain the Romans' friendship. If they killed the entire Roman army, then Rome would be so weakened that they would not pose a threat for many generations. At this his son asked was there not a middle way. Herennius insisted that any middle way would be utter folly and would leave the Romans smarting for revenge without weakening them.


ROMANS VS SAMNITES, THE “CAUDINE FORKS”

The Romans had formed an alliance with the Samnites with the peace treaty of 341 BC at the end of the first war against that people, it was fought for the defense of Capua, a city under the influence of Rome. This peace made so that the two peoples fought together against the Latins, common enemy, in the 340 BC war it was won easily by two allied armies.

The Romans still had the goal of expanding to southern Italy, which contradicted the Samnites who had expansionist designs in the same territory. The Romans, knowing the strength of the Samnites, began a policy of alliances with the cities in Campania, to build a bridgehead on the borders of Samnium (Sannio) which at the time included almost the entire inner Campania, Abruzzo, Molise, part of Northern Puglia and Basilicata.

They also made arrangements with Alexander the Molossian of Taranto, to take committed the Samnite army in Apulia, thus having a free rain in Campania. They founded the city of Cales, near the Samnite Teano, and the new Flegellae, near present Ceprano, invading the south side of the Liri river, which was Samnium relevance under the peace agreements.

Meanwhile Palepolis, then Neapolis (Naples), sided with the Romans with the people of Greek origin in the city, on the contrary the Oscans, present in the same city, were for an alliance with the Samnites. The Oscans did enter into the walls a Samnites army of 6000 soldiers, taking advantage of a celebration in honor of a god worshiped by the Greek part of the city. The Greeks of Palepolis asked the intervention of the Roman legions to restore their power over the city.

Roma responded to the invitation and in the 326 BC it sent in Campania consuls Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Quintus Publilius Philo with their legions. The first lined up along the Volturno, while Publilius Philo was able to enter the city where quartered his men, chasing away Samnite forces. The new alliance between Palepolis (Naples) and Rome brought the rupture of the peace treaty. This led to a series of skirmishes between the two armies, which ended in a humiliating defeat of Samnites in 322 BC.

Two Roman legions, whose commands were the consuls Titus Veturius Calvinus and Spurius Posturius Albinus Caudinus, were camped in Calatia, near present Caserta, waiting the negotiations was completed for the peace treaty between Roma and Samnium, following the Samnite defeat of 322 BC, which then was not accepted by the Romans. Each legion had approximately 10,000 soldiers divided into centuries. The legionaries were armed mostly with the “Hasta” that was a long and heavy spear that was not launched but used in direct confrontation with opponents and a round shield of Greek derivation.

The Samnites were led by Gaius Pontius, the son of Herennius Pontius the brave and wise leader who was retired from public life because of his advanced age, Pontius knew of the legions in Calatia and put the word out among the Romans, through some of their messengers disguised as shepherds, which Luceria (Apulia, north of Puglia), allied of the Romans, was attacked and besieged by Samnite troops.

At the beginning of the 321 BC the two legions moved to the aid of Luceria falling into the trap set by the enemies. In fact, to save time the Roman legions crossed the valley that is today bounded by Arienzo and Arpaia and is crossed by the Via Appia, rather than take the safer route that would bring the troops on the Adriatic coast from where to point towards the south to reach the town they felt in danger.

The location of the Samnite trap was never identified with precision, since every place has considered dissonances with the description of the places made by Tito Livio in his “Ab urbe condita libri”, where he described a narrow valley with two mountain passes at entry and exit of the same, historians are fairly unanimous in recognizing in the description the valley between Arpaia and Arienzo.

The two legions entered the gorge of the valley they found the pass, the exit of the same, blocked by trees and boulders and Samnite army in their wait. The two consuls ordered to withdraw to the troops perceiving the trap, but also the entrance of the valley had been blocked in the meantime. The legions found themselves completely surrounded by Samnites who were positioned on the hills around the gorge where they were located.

The legionnaires were dismayed realizing that there was no way to escape this trap and that the Samnites, more numerous and better positioned, could have easily won. The commanders nonetheless ordered the night cantonment of the legions. Therefore, the soldiers built the camp, where they would spend the night, with the building of excavation and its embankment, erecting tents of the consuls, and those of the troops, while the enemy insulted them shouting and mocking. In the night they could see big fires called “ndocce”, lit by the Samnites on the hills, which surround them completely.

Gaius Pontius, head of the Samnites, who was marveled at the ingenuity of the Romans in the fall into the trap, sent messengers to elderly father Erennio for ask about what to do. Erennio Pontius advised him to make an honorable peace with the Romans, but Gaius did not accept the advice, and urged again the father, he told him to kill all the Roman soldiers, the two options put forward by Erennio were both wise the first to put into account the gratitude of the Romans for not humiliation and therefore the possibility of a lasting peace, the second, with the destruction of the army, would have prevented the Romans any reaction of revenge for many years to come.

Meanwhile the Roman consuls sent messengers to negotiate the surrender, that would allow their army to return to Rome unscathed. Gaius Pontius did not accept either the father’s advices and he chose the worst solution he made peace with the Romans who re-instated the treaty of 341 BC, providing in the same treaty the humiliation of the vanquished with the disarming of the legionaries, 600 young Roman hostages to guarantee peace and the passage of all the legionaries under a yoke of spears, the so-called “Caudine Forks” (Forche Caudine).

The Roman historians, also Tito Livio, were quite reluctant in reporting the episode of Caudine Forks. All the Roman soldiers, the commanders at the head, were forced to go under the yoke of spears between two enormous wings of Samnite soldiers. Tito Livio describes the humiliation in his “Ab urbe condita libri”:

“They were made go out of the embankment, dressed of only tunic: the hostages were delivered in the first place and led away under custody. Then they commanded the lictors to get away from the consuls the consuls were stripped of the command shell … Before the consuls were passed half-naked under the yoke then all those who held a degree suffered the same ignominious fate ultimately the all legionaries were passed under the yoke. The enemies, armed, surrounded them they covered the Romans with insults and taunts, and they even stuck up the swords against many Romans some Romans were injured and killed, if their attitude was too embittered by those outrages and it seemed offensive to the winners. »

Livio does not tell that all the Roman soldiers were sodomized, and who rebelled he was killed mercilessly.

The two legions were released and retreated to Capua, but they did not dare to enter the city, such a shame for what they had suffered. The people of Capua went to meet them, dressed and refreshed them, the weapons and even consular flags were provided. The legions encamped outside the city walls even in Rome. The city dressed in mourning, the shops were closed, the Senate suspended the work, everyone took off jewelry and amulets. Consuls and centurions closed in their house refusing to leave. Two new consuls were appointed by the Senate: Quintus Publilius Philo and Lucius Papirius Cursor, who had to rebuild from scratch the army.

It was then that a motto spread among the Romans, still widely used, that relates the luck of someone with the measurement of his backside: those soldiers who had a large backside had been more fortunate in comparison to others.

The clashes continued between the Romans and Samnites with mixed fortunes and they lasted until the 305 BC when, in the battle of Bovianum, the Roman legions, led by Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus, defeated hard the Samnites that the following year entered into an onerous peace by ending the second Samnite war.


Beware the Lesson of the Caudine Forks

There are certain events in military history that rise above the rest. They are not merely battles, campaigns, or wars. They teach more than the specifics of military science. There are certain events that teach an art and address moral and philosophical topics of a timeless nature. It is very well to know how to turn the flank of an advancing army. It is something altogether different to understand and balance the competing interests of victory and mercy, efficiency and morality.

During the reign of the great Augustus, Titus Livy wrote his monumental history of early Rome. 1 Tucked deep in its thousands of pages is a short little story likely to be missed or forgotten by the uncareful reader. In a single passage, Livy illustrates the mortal danger of half measures and middle roads in war. His message to the great captains of tomorrow is clear: Beware the lesson learned at the Caudine Forks . 2

Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, and the Hellenistic Age with him. It was then that the Roman Age and its eight centuries of magnificence had its humble beginning. But Rome of the fourth century BC was little more than a city-state. The Empire that the world would come to love, and fear was not yet on the horizon. First, Rome had to wrest control of the Italian peninsula from the various scattered tribes that called it home. To the hills in the east lived the Samnites. Unfortunately for them, they were the first major obstacle on the road of Roman expansion.

There were three Samnite Wars that took place on and off from 343 to 290. But it is the second, which raged from 326 to 304, that most concerns this story. The Romans, clever propagandists that they were, refused to initiate a war of conquest without a cause they could take to the people and the Gods. To circumvent the conundrum the Romans devised the devious moral loophole of provoking the Samnites into attacking first. They did this by belligerently settling Roman citizens in Samnite territory. The Samnites reacted by attacking the Roman ally Neapolis. The Romans advanced to meet them, and drove the Samnites from the city, commencing the Second Samnite War in 327. The first phase of the war was marked by a long list of Roman victories. The Samnites, given that they never asked for war in the first place, sued for peace. But the Roman demands were too great in land and treasure, so the war continued.

In 321 the Samnite commander was Gaius Pontius, son of Herennius. After the olive branch was rebuked, Pontius took his army to the field, determined to force a peace where one could not be negotiated. From his camp outside Caudium he sent ten soldiers disguised as shepherds into Roman territory on a mission to spread misinformation. The ruse was perfectly successful. When questioned by foraging and scouting parties, the spies all informed the Romans that the full Samnite army was besieging the city of Lucera. The Romans, as expected, mobilized under Consuls Calvinus and Postumius and began preparations to march to the aid of their ally. There were two ways to reach Lucera from the Roman position at Calatia. The first was longer and followed an open road along the coast. The second was much shorter but passed through the Caudine Forks. The Forks consisted of an open grassy plain surrounded by thickly wooded hills and cliffs. The road ran through the center and was bookended by two small narrow gaps through the mountains. It was the latter path that the Romans decided to take.

The Romans advanced headlong into the Samnite trap. They found the exit gap from the Forks blocked and barricaded. Upon a retreat to the entrance they found the same. Soon Samnite soldiers appeared on the hills overlooking their entrapped, helpless prey. The ambush at the Caudine Forks is an example of near-perfect military planning and execution. Without bloodshed the Samnites achieved a remarkable victory and handed the Romans a humiliating defeat.

The opening moves and initial encirclement do not contain the lesson of the Caudine Forks. Although there is much to be learned from the ingenuity of Pontius, it was his decisions hereafter that reverberate through time. Roman morale sank to dismal levels upon the discovery of their situation. “Their senses were dazed and stupefied and a strange numbness seized their limbs. Each gazed at his neighbor, thinking him more in possession of his senses and judgement than himself,” 3 writes Livy. Ancient warfare was a brutal struggle, and the mind of Consul and legionary alike dwelled on the unspeakable horrors that may await them. Regardless, Roman fortitude showed its might and the encircled army attempted to fortify their position. But it was hopeless. Everyone knew that all the Samnites had to do was wait the requisite number of days before Roman supplies ran out and hunger set in.

As the Romans toiled the Samnites waited. While victory had been hoped for, its scale was beyond what the Samnites expected. To say that Pontius was unsure of what path to follow is putting it lightly. As the young Samnite commander paced back and forth, it was decided to write to Herennius. The wise old man would have insightful advice for his son and the army. Surely, he knew the best way to handle this peculiar situation and use it to end the war and bring peace once more.

The return letter gave his opinion: that the whole Roman army should be allowed to depart at once and uninjured. The Samnite high council immediately dismissed such an idea. Would it not completely negate their brilliant victory? A second letter was sent to Herennius, and a very different answer came. Herennius wrote that the entire Roman army should be put to death. Clearly the old man was senile. No sane and logical individual would give such contradictory answers to the same question. Or so Pontius and his adjutants thought. They invited him to the camp in person so they could get to the bottom of the confusion.

The Herennius that arrived was the same his son had always known. No evil affliction had affected his mind. At the convening of the council, the old man explained his reasoning to the crowd of anxious officers. It was best, he thought, to immediately release the prisoners so that they may return safely and honorably to their home. Doing so presented the most likely chance of securing a lasting peace and friendship with Rome. Executing the prisoners and thoroughly destroying the entire Roman army was the second most preferable choice. That way, although the Roman populace would hunger for revenge and continue in their desire to eliminate the Samnites, they would be physically unable to do so for a few generations, thus ensuring the security of their tribe and territory into the near future. He concluded by stressing that those were the only two options. There was no third course. There was no middle way.

That, sadly, was not good enough for the all-too-human Samnites. They could not bring themselves to pursue either course: the hyper-conservative or the hyper-aggressive, the extremely generous or the extremely cruel. Pontius asked his father what would happen if he pursued the middle road. What if the prisoners were not massacred, but forced to shamefully retreat back to Rome as the losers they most certainly were? It was the victory deserved by the Samnites and the defeat deserved by the Romans. The wise Herennius shook his head, visibly upset with the logic of his son’s reasoning. “That is just the policy which neither procures friends nor rids us of enemies,” he said, “once let men whom you have exasperated by ignominious treatment live and you will find out your mistake. The Romans are a nation who know not how to remain quiet under defeat. Whatever disgrace this present extremity burns into their souls will rankle there forever and will allow them no rest till they have made you pay for it many times over.” 4 The middle road neither gains friends nor defeats enemies.

Clearly the errors of logic lie with Pontius and not Herennius. To pursue a course of action that left the enemy eager for revenge and capable of achieving it is something no wise leader would willingly do. Yet pursue it he did. Victory and peace were sacrificed to emotion and ethics. The Romans were disarmed, stripped naked, and forced to pass under the yoke before being set free to stumble their way back to Rome. The yoke was the ultimate humiliation, a display of submission that equated the Romans to animals and the Samnites their masters.

The Roman officers were tasked by their conquerors with ensuring the Senate confirm the terms of surrender the army agreed upon in the field. The Roman soldiers were released alive with the understanding that just compensation would be delivered in the form of surrender and peace. A sponsio, whereby the Consuls gave their word of honor to fulfill the obligations of surrender lest they be smote down by Jupiter, was piously enacted. As the shell-shocked Romans staggered home Pontius looked on, sure that he proved his father wrong and got the best of both worlds.

The Roman Senate had a different attitude. Honor was no doubt an important thing to an ancient army. What happened was one of the most embarrassing events in Roman history. They prided themselves on their exceptional history and people. The tragedy at the Caudine Forks threatened the Roman mythos to its very core. But while the deployed army truly suffered an ignoble defeat, at the end of the day the legionaries were still alive. They escaped from a dreadful situation with their lives intact. A second chance was on the horizon. All that stood in the way was that pesky pledge of honor. But do not fret, Consul Postumius had a solution.

After a period of mourning, the sorrowful Postumius emerged from seclusion to address the senators. “This convention” he begins, “was not made by the order of the Roman people, and therefore the Roman people are not bound by it, nor is anything due to the Samnites under its terms beyond our own persons. Let us be surrendered by the fetials, stripped and bound let us release the people from their religious obligations if we have involved them in any, so that without infringing any law human or divine we may resume a war which will be justified by the law of nations and sanctioned by the gods.” 5 There is a loophole for every situation. It was the leaders of the army that surrendered, Postumius stated, not Rome itself. Rome should not be punished for their cowardly acts.

Pontius obviously refused to accept this sneaky legalistic reading of surrender terms. He did not want a few Roman aristocrats as prisoners. He wanted peace. But the specifics of Roman reasoning do not matter. Wise old Herennius knew it would happen one way or another. And so, much to the chagrin of the Samnite people and their leaders, the war continued. This time the Romans were out for blood, and they would make no such mistakes again. While a brief lull in hostilities did take place after the Caudine Forks, no doubt due to excessive Roman caution after the event, by 316 the war was raging again across central Italy. It wasn’t long after that the Samnite people were subjugated and Pontius himself executed.

Livy concludes his Caudine Forks saga by saying: “The Samnites clearly saw that instead of of the peace which they had so arrogantly dictated, a most bitter war had commenced … Now when it was too late, they began to view with approval the two alternatives which the elder Pontius had suggested. They saw that they had fallen between the two, and by adopting a middle course had exchanged the secure possession of victory for an insecure and doubtful peace.” 6 Leadership, especially in war, does not react well to indecisiveness or a lack of commitment. Executing the average of all available options is destined to solve nothing and please no one. From the political advice of Niccolo Machiavelli (“At all costs should the middle course be avoided”) 7 to the financial and philosophical advice of Nassim Taleb (“In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct”), 8 the wisdom of the maxim of half measures and middle roads rings true. If ever there were laws of human nature, society, and war, Livy can be credited with the discovery of a truly vital one. It would be wise to heed his advice. Humanity has often ignored it to its detriment. History provides more examples of hopeless half measures than one would wish. They are everywhere, from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles to the modern addiction to counterinsurgency forces large enough to incite anger, but too small to make a difference. The sooner leaders realize that binary, decisive decision-making often is the surest path to success, the better for us all. Beware the lesson learned at the Caudine Forks. 9

1 Livius, Titus, The History of Rome, Vol.2, (J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905), 9.1-9.46, http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ ah/Livy/Livy09.html.

2 Kaplan, Robert D., Warrior Politics (Vintage Books, New York, 2001), 29.

7 Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Discourses, (Penguin, New York, 2003), 350.

8 Taleb, Nassim Nicholas, The Bed of Procrustes (Random House, New York, 2016) 110.

9 Burnham, James. The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (The John Day Company, Inc., New York, 1943), 43.