Night surprised them while they were lamenting over their situation rather than consulting how to meet it The different temperaments of the men came out; some exclaimed: ‘Let us break through the barricades, scale the mountain slopes, force our way through the forest, try every way where we can carry arms.
Only let us get at the enemy whom we have beaten for now nearly thirty years; all places will he smooth and easy to a Roman fighting against the perfidious Samnite.’
Others answered: ‘Where are we to go? How are we to get there? 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.’
Indifferent to food, unable to sleep, they talked in this way throughout he night.
Even the Samnites were unable to make up their minds what to do under such fortunate circumstances. It was unanimously agreed to write to Herennius, the captain-general's father, and ask his advice.
He was now advanced in years and had given up all public business, civil as well as military, but though his physical powers were failing his intellect was as sound and clear as ever.
He had already heard that the Roman armies were hemmed in between the two passes at the Caudine Forks, and when his son's courier asked for his advice he gave it as his opinion that the whole force ought to he at once allowed to depart uninjured.
This advice was rejected and the courier was sent back to consult him again.
He now advised that they should every one he put to death. On receiving these replies, contradicting each other like the ambiguous utterances of an oracle, his son's first impression was that his father's mental powers had become impaired through his physical weakness. However, he yielded to the unanimous wish and invited his father to the council of war.
The old man, we are told, at once complied and was conveyed in a wagon to the camp. After taking his seat in the council, it became clear from what he said that he had not changed his mind, but he explained his reasons for the advice he gave.
He believed that by taking the course he first proposed, which he considered the best, he was establishing a durable peace and friendship with a most powerful people in treating them with such exceptional kindness; by adopting the second he was postponing war for many generations, for it would take that time for Rome to recover her strength painfully and slowly after the loss of two armies.
There was no third course. When his son and the other chiefs went on to ask him what would happen if a middle course were taken, and they were dismissed unhurt but under such conditions as by the rights of war are imposed on the vanquished, he replied:
‘That is just the policy which 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 for ever, and will allow them no rest till they have made you pay for it many times over.’