Skip to content

Chapter XIII: A Fatal Decision at the Caudine Forks

The exact place is one of the unsolved mysteries of via Appia. Nobody knows the precise location of the Battle of the Caudine Forks. But it was somewhere on the way to Benevento from Capua.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

Somewhere very near this area passing beneath the tires of my bike, a Samnite leader turned an impressive victory into tragic loss.

The exact place is one of the unsolved mysteries of via Appia. Nobody knows the precise location of the Battle of the Caudine Forks. But it was somewhere on the way to Benevento from Capua.

I had a battle of my own to deal with. It took a long time to get through rush hour traffic and put Caserta behind me. There weren’t any bike paths, and often there was no shoulder. At one point I got stuck in an underpass, and there was no room to get out of the way of the cars and trucks blaring their horns.

Eventually I made it through the heavy traffic, and reached the charming little town of Maddaloni.

Did I say “little?”

“No,” a man in the bar set the record straight, as I sipped a cappuccino and enjoyed a cornetto spread thick with Nutella. “Maddaloni is bigger than Caserta!” 

The barista wore a bow tie and jacket with faded jeans and polished brown shoes. He told me his city’s history as he made coffee for a throng of customers. It seems that Maddaloni had encountered every race or civilization that ever existed.

“The Greeks were here. The Arabs were here,” he ticked off a list of conquerors. “The Bourbons. The Lombards. The Normans. Every great civilization came to Maddaloni.”

“The Chinese?” I asked.

“Si!” he insisted gravely. “The Chinese are here right now, today. We have two Chinese restaurants! Every civilization gave something to Maddaloni. We have paintings. We have sculptures. We have bigger cathedrals than Caserta!”

He seemed to have a special contempt reserved just for Caserta. He nodded sympathetically when I told him about my battle with the traffic.

“In Caserta they have commerce,” he said, “but in Maddaloni we have culture.” He gestured towards a wide screen in the back of the bar. “I play music and movies here at night.”

While I finished my cappuccino he turned on the screen and showed videos of musicians playing Miles Davis and other hits.

“In Maddaloni, we listen to good music,” he said. “In Caserta, they listen to trucks all day. Baah! Baah!” he imitated the sound of honking horns. 

As I finished my cappuccino he asked me, “Do you like Italian coffee?”

“Si!”

“In America you drink coffee in big cups, big like my hand! In Italy we prefer espresso in these little cups.” He held an imaginary cup between his thumb and finger.  “Our coffee is small.”

“But it is bigger than Caserta,” I suggested.

This made him laugh so hard, he wouldn’t let me pay for my cornetto.

As I left  Maddaloni, both sides of the road were crowded with industrial warehouses and chain-link fences. Bulldozers and heavy farm machinery rested on concrete pads. It was a disappointment after the natural beauty of the last few days.

But eventually the road headed upward into the forest and mountains, towards the area most scholars agree upon as the general location of the Caudine Forks.

In 312 BCE, the same year construction began on the Appian Way, the Samnites managed to trap a huge Roman army in a narrow ravine. They barricaded the exit with fallen trees, and manned the ridges with warriors.

The Romans couldn't fight from here. There was no cover. The Samnites could rain arrows, rocks, and javelins on them, and the Romans would have to climb steep slopes and cliffs under this fire in order to fight back or get out.

There was a long deliberation over what to do with the trapped Romans. The leader of the Samnite army, Gaius Pontius, sent a messenger to his father to ask advice. His father, Herennius, suggested he release the Romans unconditionally. He said to let them keep their lives, their arms and their dignity.

“What, are you crazy?”

Pontius sent a reply that he could not possibly throw away this golden opportunity. Herennius then advised Pontius to kill every single Roman soldier.

Meanwhile, the Romans were growing hungry, tired, and eager to have their fate resolved. Pontius didn't understand his father's contradictory advice, so he asked Herennius to come in person and explain what he meant.

Herennius told his son that if the Romans were released, this would be a noble and generous gesture. The Romans might cease hostilities, and the Samnites could enjoy years of peace. 

On the other hand, if he massacred the large Roman army, he would cripple Rome’s military for years. It might take a generation to recruit and train enough soldiers to replace the losses and launch another assault on Samnite territory.

Pontius wanted to find a middle course. His father warned him that anything other than the two extreme solutions would have dire consequences. 

Pontius should have listened to his father. Instead, he sealed the fate of his people forever.

The two parties negotiated a truce. Pontius released the Romans, but he couldn’t resist humiliating them first. He stripped them of their arms and possessions, and made them pass beneath a yoke on their way out of the valley.

The yoke is an insult that's hard to understand in modern times. It was a device to link animals to a plow or a cart. By forcing the Romans to pass under a yoke, he was essentially forcing them to behave like cattle. He was degrading them and asserting his dominance over them.

Psychologically, it was the same as sodomizing the entire army.

It must have been a wonderful sight for the enemies of Rome. Just beyond the edge of their territory, the might of the growing Republic was helpless and her soldiers were forced to grovel like animals. But it ended badly for the Samnites.

Depending on the sources you read, a truce may have lasted as long as five years. But the Romans made their way back to safe territory with zero casualties and dreams of revenge.  When war broke out against the Samnites again, the Romans fought with the ferocity of a bitter grudge. 

Pontius had managed to enrage the Romans without causing them any harm. Without any casualties on either side, he had won a battle but lost the war. Rome would be ruthless in her dealings with the Samnites as long as the Romans remembered the humiliation of the Caudine Forks. 

There’s no consensus on the location of the Caudine Forks. Your guess is as good as anybody’s, and this adds to the fun of trying to find the place. 

I rode steadily up through a steep, hilly country. The road moved in wide, slow curves like the maneuvers of armies.

The SS7 does pass through a narrow valley where a town is called “Forchia.” This could be interpreted as “Fork,” and can also mean a yoke. But there are other narrow valleys nearby. I passed one of the possible sites, a shadowy ravine that leered out of the earth beneath a cloud-darkened sky. Thick forest surrounded the road, and the wind smelled like anise.

There was a strong, unmistakable feeling of defiance and resistance in this place, as if the land itself rejected foreigners and invaders. Everything seemed cold and grey as old asphalt. The sky was the same color as the road beneath me. The tree trunks, road, and sky all looked like dead, stale marble.

I felt an overwhelming sense of being unwelcome here, an unusual feeling almost anywhere in Italy. I stopped at a bar to shake the bad mood with a coffee, but the owner and patrons grew noticeably bitter when I told them I was American. As I left, someone muttered, “Imperialiste,” loud enough to be certain I could hear it. 

I couldn’t find the Caudine Forks. There should have been a deep ravine, some place where an army could be trapped. My own mind seemed to be caught in a narrow channel, following the route which might not even be the right way, dumbly marching like a centurion into my doom.

The oppressive atmosphere lifted as I got closer to Benevento. The sun returned to the sky as I crossed the Ponte Leproso, the bridge over the Sabato River. This is where the Via Appia entered the city of Beneventum, which we'll get to in a minute.

The well-placed stones of the bridge reminded me of the Ponte degli Aurunci. But I looked over the edge and saw part of a decaying couch, two shopping carts, and piles of plastic trash bags in the river. This bridge has seen better days, as most of the Italian websites will remind you.

Benevento was originally called Maloentum in the Oscan language spoken by the Samnites and the Aurunci. It means the place where the flocks return. But when the Romans arrived, the name Maloentum was corrupted into Maleventum, which means “bad wind” or “bad event.” Later that would change.

Here, the Romans put a final stop to Pyrrhus and became the architects of their own fate. Not long afterwards, the Romans themselves would be the invaders of many lands. 

Benevento was a crossroads, both historically and literally. It was about to become an important turning point for me, as well.

This is the 13th Chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking Down an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me From a Life of Quiet Desperation. I'll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I'm also reading them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Here's the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xiv-trajans-crossroads/

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.