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main index  © Jeff Matthews   entry Aug 2011

T
he "Battle" of the Caudine Forks



North of Naples, about halfway between Caserta and Benevento we find the Caudine Valley. It is named for the ancient Samnite people called the Caudini; their ancient city, Caudium, is today the town of Montesarchio. In the valley, there are two small towns, Arpaia and Forchia—just a couple of miles, one from the other—that both lay claim to being the exact site of a famous episode in Roman military history. The term "forks" is a bit confusing; it is not a geographical term such as "fork in the road". It comes from the Latin forculae and means an oxbow, that U-shaped wooden or metal frame that fits under and around the neck of oxen, with the upper ends inserted through the bar of the yoke worn by a team of oxen in the field. It is a plural and is rendered as such both in modern Italian and English—forche and "forks"—although it would make better sense to say yoke...thus, the Battle of the Caudine Yoke.

It is quite common to read of the Battle of the Caudine Forks as a devastating Roman military defeat; one thinks of other defeats inflicted on Rome—maybe the Battle of Cannae in the Second Punic War, when the forces of Hannibal killed at least 50,000 Roman soldiers. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that the devastation wrought upon Rome was psychological and not physical. The Battle of the Caudine Forks was not really a battle, at all. There were almost no casualties.

Briefly, in 321 BC the Samnites tricked their great enemies, the Romans, into sending a large army into a valley that they (the Samnites) then barricaded at both ends. Livy describes the situation in detail in Book 9 of his History of Rome. The Romans had no escape; they were bottled up and surrounded by the enemy on peaks on either side. Livy reports the Roman soldiers as lamenting,
Where are we to go?...Are we preparing to move the mountains from their seat? How will you get at the enemy as long as these peaks hang over us? Armed and unarmed, brave and cowardly we are all alike trapped and conquered. The enemy will not even offer us the chance of an honourable death by the sword, he will finish the war without moving from his seat.

The Samnites had two choices: let the Romans go or slaughter them to the last man. The first course would be a great act of kindness, very diplomatic and might even establish a durable peace and friendship between Rome and Samnium; the second choice would destroy the power of Rome for generations, giving the Samnites a strategic advantage. Livy reports that the Samnites chose a strange middle way: they opted to "...dismiss [the Romans] unhurt but under such conditions as by the rights of war are imposed on the vanquished." That is, disarm and humiliate them. Livy, however, cites a Samnite as warning,
That is just the policy that neither procures friends nor rids us of enemies. 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.
The Samnites then set up an arch of sorts, a symbolic yoke at one end of the valley. One by one, Roman soldiers lay down their arms, and passed beneath the yoke as a sign of submission, and then were allowed to go home. Livius was right. The episode rankled for a few hundred years, but Rome got payback in a big way, eventually destroying the Samnite culture to the last man.

The dispute between Arcaia and Forchia over bragging rights is relatively recent. In 1947, the prefect of Arpaia wrote and had this inscription engraved on the facade of the city hall:

Here in the ancient heart of the Caudine Valley in the Year 433 of Rome, the legions of consuls Veturius and Postumius surrendered to the forces of the Samnite, Pontius, concluding the peace by passing unarmed and saddened beneath the yoke imposed by the victors, passing over the same threshold which they had so often crossed in triumph on their way to the City of Rome.

Not so fast, said Forchia. The name of our town even sounds like "Forche." And there is even an old monastery nearby named S. Maria del Giogo [yoke]. This must be the place. Forchia did a bit of research to determine that there was, in fact, no ancient town crest, so they designed one (photo, top). It was approved and registered in 1954; the description of the crest says that the affair depicts "the yoke beneath which a Roman soldier passes with his hands tied behind him." So, the friendly rivalry continues between the towns (combined population: 3,000). Maybe they should have a battle or something. I know just the place.


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