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
2 Kaplan, Robert D., Warrior Politics (Vintage Books, New York, 2001), 29.
3 Livy, 9.2.
4 Ibid., 9.3.
5 Ibid., 9.8.
6 Ibid., 9.12.
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.