Gaius Pontius, Sabine leader

Gaius Pontius came from a leading Samnite family - the Samnites being a large confederation of Italiot tribes who occupied the mountains of central Italy. The Samnites were a warlike people, and their expansion westward threatened Greek cities such as Naples on the Campanian coast. This gave another expansionist and warlike people - the Romans an excuse to become involved in Samnite affairs.

Under the pretext of defending the Greek cities, the Romans fought a series of battles which later became collectively known as the First Samnite War. Of particular interest to us in this war is a Samnite attempt to trap a Roman army in a mountain pass. This attempt failed, but it is clear that such entrapments were a known Samnite military tactic. The war ended through exhaustion with neither side having gained a clear advantage.

The war resumed some twenty years later in 321 BC when, by building colonies controlling strategic access to Samnite land, the Romans provoked the Samnites into breaking the peace. According to the historian Appian, the Romans saw this confrontation as a struggle for supremacy in Italy. Therefore, once a series of Roman victories had forced the Samnites to sue for peace, the Romans demanded that the Samnites explicitly recognize that supremacy.

It is probably at that point that Gaius Pontius was selected as Maddox, the Samnite counterpart of a Roman consul (Roman consuls of the fourth century were primarily war leaders). Livy gives a long and almost certainly fabricated speech by Pontius in which the war leader claimed that Rome was the driving force behind the war, and that the Gods supported the Samnites because they had been forced to fight in self-defence. 'A war is just and right, Samnites, when it is forced upon us; arms are blessed by the Gods when there is no hope except in arms.' (Livy bk 9.9 here and ibid.)

Peace talks failed and each side launched raids into the other's territory. After the initial fighting in Campania, Pontius pulled back his army, taking care that the Roman consuls had no idea where it had gone. The Roman commanders, Titus Veturius Calvinus and Spirius Albinus immediately sought intelligence as to the enemy's whereabouts, and Pontius carefully supplied this. He made sure that soldiers disguised as shepherds pastured cattle in the path of Roman foraging parties. Each set of 'shepherds' gave the same story that the Samnites were besieging the city of Luceria, in Apulia.

Apulia is on the other side of the Apennines (the mountain range which runs down the length of central Italy). Aware that there was no time to waste if Luceria was to be relieved, the consuls took the shortest route through the mountains, which was via Maleventum (modern Benevento) and a pass known as the Caudine Forks.

Livy describes the location, apparently from personal experience. 'The nature of the place is thus; there are two deep narrow passes, with wooded hills on each side, with a continuous stretch of mountains between the two. The road goes through the middle where there is a watered grassy plain. Before the plain, one passes through the first defile and must then return by the same path, or exit by a still narrower and more difficult pass at the other end.'

The Romans entered the pass believing that Pontius and his army were still many miles away. Consequently they were annoyed but not alarmed to find the exit from the Forks securely barricaded. When the commanders turned the army to leave the valley by the way that they had come, they found this now blocked as well. However, it was only when attempts to storm the wooded slopes on the sides of the valley were thrown back that the consuls realized that Pontius were present and that his army had trapped the Romans in the defile.

The Roman position was hopeless. The legions were securely bottled in and had little choice but to make camp where they were. The initiative was firmly with Pontius. This gave the Samnite general a problem, for he had literally succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. He had no idea what to do with the Roman army he had trapped. He was in no hurry, for the Romans would only get more hungry and desperate while he waited, so he sent to his father for advice.

Herrenius Pontius had been a former Samnite leader and in part Gaius Pontius owed his position to the respect in which his father was held. Herrenius had heard of the situation, and was on the way to the Samnite camp when he met his son's messengers. The advice he gave was that the Romans should be freed unharmed, and generous peace terms offered. Pontius replied that it was unacceptable that so great an advantage should be thrown away. Herrenius responded by saying that if so, all 50,000 Romans should be immediately slain.

Arriving in camp, Herrenius explained that either Pontius should take the chance to befriend the Romans, or he should cripple them by destroying much of their available manpower. The 'middle road' would be to humiliate and anger the Romans without destroying their capacity to make war. This was nevertheless the road which Pontius took. He made the Roman consuls agree to peace terms, and then forced the army to pass 'under the yoke' - this 'yoke' being a bar which each soldier had to bend low to pass under. It was, by the convention of the day a total and humiliating admission of defeat.

What happened next is uncertain. By some accounts the Samnite victory led to a brief and uneasy peace which the Romans broke as soon as honour permitted. Livy has the Romans behave even more duplicitously. By his account the Senate repudiated the peace agreement and expelled those who had made it from the Roman citizen body. In exchange for breaking the peace agreement the consuls and their senior officers were handed over to Pontius as dishonourary Samnite citizens. Even before Pontius could decide what to do with these men, Albinus kicked one of the Roman heralds as hard as he could. Albinus then declared that as a Samnite he had violated a Roman herald and therefore Rome was justified in resuming the war.

Pontius scornfully remarked that 'old men of consular rank were inventing excuses for breaking their word which even children would think beneath them,' and ordered the prisoners released. The war resumed, but neither side prosecuted it vigorously until 316, by which time it appears that Pontius was no longer in command, for he drops out of the historical record until 292 BC. At this time, after yet another transitory peace, war between Rome and the Samnites had broken out again. The Romans defeated the Samnites, and an excerpt from a lost book of Livy says that 'C. Pontium, imperatorem Samnitium' (Gaius Pontius, the Samnite general) was exhibited in a Roman Triumph and afterwards beheaded. (Livy Periochae 11)

We should not immediately associate this G. Pontius with the Samnite commander of twenty years previously. 'Gaius' was a common name among Samnites and Romans alike, and we have already seen that the Pontius family were prominent citizens. For all the Roman satisfaction at capturing and killing someone bearing the name, this Gaius Pontius may have been a son or nephew of the commander who trapped the Romans at the Caudine Forks.

Even less likely is that our Gaius Pontius was an ancestor of the (in)famous Pontius Pilate of three centuries later. We know that Rome had an even more ancient Pontius clan of its own, and anyway the surname was not that uncommon. For the same reason Cicero once remarked, 'Just because I share the name [Tullius] with him does not mean I am descended from the [sixth] king of Rome.'

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