History of Europe

"Pass under the yoke", when the Samnites humiliated the Romans

Back in the fourth century B.C. Rome was an incipient Republic, compressed in the center of the Italian peninsula, whose only alternative for growth was to absorb all those peoples that surrounded it in its expansion. After imposing itself on other peoples of Lazio in the so-called Latin Wars, Rome set Samnium as its next objective, the mountainous region of the central Apennines that was an obstacle to expansion to the south (Magna Graecia). In the interval between 343 and 290 B.C. there were three bloody wars (Samnite Wars) that led to the complete submission of the Samnites to Roman power. On this occasion, we will analyze the second, which was the origin of the expression «pass under the yoke » (swallow or accept dishonorable conditions).

Caius Pontius he was the commander-in-chief of the Samnites during the second war between this people and the Roman Republic. Son of Herennius Pontius, Gaius Pontius held the position of meddix tuticus , a Samnite position similar to that of Roman consul although with less real power, and he mustered an army of 8,000 infantry and 900 cavalry to face his neighbor. The proof that he was a brilliant commander and a great strategist were the capture of the cities of Canusium and Gnaitha, the victory over a Roman army that had penetrated Samnium, composed of 11,000 infantry and 1,200 horsemen and under the orders of the consul Cornelio Lentulo, and the fact of establishing the manipule (200 men) as a basic military unit -later it would be copied by the Romans-. However, the Samnites failed to capitalize on these victories, and the Romans continued to press their enemies into Samnite territory.

In 321 BC the Samnite leader learned from his agents that a huge Roman army was encamped outside Calatia (six miles from Capua). It was commanded by the two consuls of the year, Spurius Postumius Albinus and Titus Veturius Calvinus, who had mobilized nearly fifty thousand men (according to Appian's version). Pontius sent some of his soldiers disguised as shepherds to the Roman camp to alert the consuls of the false Samnite siege of Lucera (in Apulia), an ally of Rome, a ruse that had an effect, as the consuls immediately raised their camp and set out on their way to Rome. Apulia entering the shortest path... and the most dangerous. Without prior precautions, the Roman army entered the Caudine gallows , a narrow gorge between the Tifata and Taburno mountains near the city of Caudium (today Montesarchio). When the Roman avant-gardes -disturbed by such a long and too silent encirclement- discovered that the only way out of the pass had been blocked with logs and stones, it was already too late. According to Livy, the consul Postumius, then aware of the trap they had fallen into, gave orders to turn around, but could not escape in time as half a Samnite army blocked the entrance and the other half was arranged along the gorge. to riddle the Romans with their spears.

They were trapped, without food and without hope of victory. Pontius sent a messenger to his father asking for advice. Herennius recommended that they disarm the Romans and let them go. The Samnite commander was stunned by his father's advice, so he insisted and sent him a new messenger. The new response also surprised him, because in his second letter, his father recommended that he kill them all. Confused by those antagonistic approaches, Herenius was called to clarify his position, and he clarified it:the old man explained that if they freed the Romans after disarming them, they could achieve the respect and perhaps the friendship of Rome, but if they executed them all, Rome it would be so weakened that it would not pose a threat to Samnium for generations, any other decision would be tepid or dishonorable and would not resolve the conflict. Gaius Pontius ignored his father's wise advice and opted for an intermediate situation:he freed the Romans, but under humiliating conditions that were accepted by the consuls before seeing his men starve to death on that cliff of infamous memory.

It was Appian who described this scene that would go down in universal history:the soldiers were disarmed and stripped of equipment and clothing, and dressed only in their tunics, they were forced to pass one by one under a horizontal spear arranged on top of two others stuck in the ground. the ground, enduring the taunts and humiliation of bowing to her. This affront of the Caudina gallows gave rise to the expression «pass under the yoke «, which means irremediably accepting dishonorable conditions.

Pontius was not content with this public humiliation. The ignominious pact that the consuls had to accept included the cession of three important border places of the Republic, the Roman evacuation of Lucera and Apulia, the unconditional withdrawal of all the troops stationed in Samnium and a five-year truce. Holding six hundred horsemen with him as hostages, Pontius sent Calvin and Albinus back to Rome for the Senate to ratify the agreement. Later Roman eulogies extolled the consuls' emotional speech before the Senate, putting their lives and those of the hostages at the service of the fatherland and urging the chamber not to accept such ignominious conditions. It was not so; the Senate ratified the pact even though it was dishonorable, the consuls took off their robes as a sign of mourning and parties and weddings were prohibited for a year, marking that day as disastrous. Old Herenius was going to be right:Rome did not renew the truce in 316 BC. C. and entered into belligerence again with the Samnites, thirsty for revenge before one of the harshest opprobriums in the history of the Republic. The city of Lucera fell that same year into Roman hands, recovering at the same time the weapons, banners and hostages lost five years earlier... Gaius Pontius continued to fight against the army of the consul Lucius Papirius Cursor as commander of the Samnites, again defeating the Romans. Romans at the Battle of Latulae (near Terracina) in 315 BC. C. he continued in arms against Rome until the year 295 a. C., in which he faced Quinto Fabio Máximo Rulliano in Sentino, a battle that opposed Rulliano with a confederation of Samnites, Gauls, Etruscans and Umbrians, and from which the Roman emerged victorious. It is known that a Gaius Pontius was executed in Rome after the triumph of Maximus in 292 BC. C., although due to the dates perhaps he was the son of the author of the greatest affront made by an Italic people to Rome:the Caudina Forks.

As a final curiosity, due to the praenomen Pontii , of Samnite origin, probably Pontius Pilate, the famous governor of Judea at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, was a descendant of this man.

Source:Archenemies of Rome