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
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.
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.