In 321 BC the Romans clashed with Samnites: it ended badly for the Romans. Even today we often use an expression, to measure the fortune of a person based on the size of the backside, which was created in the following days of the defeat of the Romans who wanted to use bullies to the soldiers humiliated by Samnites.
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 betweem 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. Perceiving the trap the two consuls ordered to withdraw to the troops, 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 Romn 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; finally 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.
Gaetano De Sanctis, Storia dei Romani II, Torino, Fratelli Bocca Editori, 1907,
Amedeo Maiuri, Valle Caudina, in Passeggiate campane, Hoepli, 1940
Paolo Sommella, Forche Caudine, in Antichi campi di battaglia in Italia: Contributi all’identificazione topografica di alcune battaglie d’età repubblicana, De Luca, 1967
Tito Livio, Ab Urbe condita libri