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Battle of Caudine Forks

(321 BCE)

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The battle of the Caudine Gorge, sometimes also called the battle of Caudium, was a significant defeat of the Roman army during the Second Samnite War (327-304 BCE). The battle took place near Caudium near Capua (Campania region). Roman troops were commanded by consuls Spurius Postumius and Titus Weturius Calvinus, and the Samnite army led by Gavius ​​Pontius.

Fresco depicting the Battle of Caudium.

Battle

The battle took place in a narrow ravine in which Roman troops were surrounded by the Samnite army. The Romans, locked by the enemy, had to surrender and accept the shameful conditions of peace in order to avoid total extermination. They were forced to hand over 600 hostages to the Samnites, and themselves, stripped of their weapons, had to walk under the yoke from the lances, which was considered a great disgrace. Titus Livius describes the shame of Roman soldiers as follows:

There they were, looking at each other, gazing sadly at the armour and weapons which were soon to be given up, their right hands which were to be defenceless, their bodies which were to be at the mercy of their enemies. They pictured to themselves the hostile yoke, the taunts and insulting looks of the victors, their marching disarmed between the armed ranks, and then afterwards the miserable progress of an army in disgrace through the cities of their allies, their return to their country and their parents, whither their ancestors had so often returned in triumphal procession. They alone, they said, had been defeated without receiving a single wound, or using a single weapon, or fighting a single battle, they had not been allowed to draw the sword or come to grips with the enemy; courage and strength had been given them in vain. […]
The consuls were the first to be sent, little more than half-clothed, under the yoke, then each in the order of his rank was exposed to the same disgrace, and finally, the legionaries one after another. Around them stood the enemy fully armed, reviling and jeering at them; swords were pointed at most of them, and when they offended their victors by showing their indignation and resentment too plainly some were wounded and even killed. Thus were they marched under the yoke. But what was still harder to bear was that after they had emerged from the pass under the eyes of the foe though, like men dragged up from the jaws of hell, they seemed to behold the light for the first time, the very light itself, serving only to reveal such a hideous sight as they marched along, was more gloomy than any shape of death.

Titus Livy, Ab urbe condita, IX.5-6

Tradition considered the defeat of the Romans to be the result of the disapproval of the gods. In reality, however, the Samnites had won a well-deserved victory after a long and exhausting struggle. The conditions of peace were extremely disgraceful, even at that time – giving up the occupied territories and handing over hostages. Roman tradition did not allow even a short period in history to dishonour the name of Rome. Therefore, it was decided to take immediate military action in 316 BCE.

Sources
  • Członkowska-Naumiuk Małgorzata, Furculae Caudinae - wąwóz hańby, "Mówią Wieki", 5/2011 (616)

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