Incidents of War - Gaius Pontius' Dilemma
Although Romans fought many enemies during their long
history, a good case can be made that no people came closer to defeating them
than did the Samnites, nor resisted longer, from the first known clash between
the two peoples in 343 B.C. to the last, in 80 B.C.; at least 29 Roman generals
celebrated triumphs for victories over the Samnites, more than those earned
fighting any other enemy.
came closest to defeat during the Second or "Great"
Samnite War (326-304 B.C.). In 321 B.C. the
entire Roman Army fell into a trap at a mountain pass known as the Caudine
Forks and was forced to surrender.
The Samnite commander at the Caudine Forks was Gaius
Pontius. Having captured the entire
Roman Army, including both consuls, he couldn't figure out what to do with
So he sent a courier to consult his father, Herennius
Pontius. And the old man told him to
free the captives. This didn't seem
appropriate, so Gaius once again asked his father for advice. This time Herennius said that the Romans
should all be killed.
That still didn't satisfy Gaius, so he went in person to ask
his father if there was a "middle way." The old man explained that choosing a middle
way might inflame the Romans even more without harming their fighting
power. A noble gesture, such as freeing
the Romans without penalty might cause a reconciliation between the two
peoples, or, deciding upon the equally dramatic gesture of slaughtering their
entire army might injure Roman power for generations.
Instead, Gaius decided to conduct a formal surrender
ceremony, during which the Romans had to lay down their arms and then pass
under the "yoke," an elaborate construct of spears that symbolized
defeat. Gaius then extracted a five
years' truce from the Romans and freed them.
Gaius' "middle way" so humiliated the Romans --
after all, only oxen are subject to the yoke -- that they burned for vengeance,
and would ultimately exact it by repeated defeats of the Samnites until they
almost literally exterminated their last army before the gates of Rome in 80
B.C. By then, of course, Gaius Pontius
was long dead, having been captured by the Romans late in the Great War and
Note: Herennius and Gaius Pontius came
from a very prominent family that provided the Samnites with leaders for
virtually their entire known history.
They were probably the ancestral kinsmen of Pontius Pilate, who also
couldn't make up his mind.