Prev | Next | Roman Legends | Main Page


In the four hundred and thirty-third year after the building of the city there was war between the Romans and the Samnites. Now there is in the land of the Samnites a certain pass which men call the Pass of Caudium. Near to this the captain of the host of the Samnites, a man very skilful in war, Caius Pontius by name, pitched his camp, hiding it from sight as much as might be. This done he sent twelve soldiers, clad as shepherds, to Calatia, in which place he knew the Consuls to be with the army of the Romans. He commanded these men that they should feed their flocks not far from the camp of the Romans, one in one place and another in another, and that when the plunderers should fall upon them and take them they should tell all of them the same tale, that the legions of the Samnites were in Apulia, laying siege to the town of Luceria with all their might, and were on the point to take it. Now this same report had been spread abroad before of set purpose, and had come to the ears of the Romans; and now when these prisoners said the same words, agreeing all of them one with another, the Romans must needs believe it to be true. Now that the Romans would help the men of Luceria was manifest, because they were good allies and faithful, and because also, if it should be taken, all Apulia would fall away from them from present fear of the enemy. But by which way they would go men doubted much: for there were two ways, the one broad and easy, along the coast of the Upper Sea; but this way, as it was safe, so also was long. The other way, and this the shorter by far, lay through the Passes of Caudium. Now the nature of these passes is this. There are two deep glens, narrow and grown with woods, having mountains on either side of them; and between these there is a plain, of no small extent, grassy and well watered, and the road passes through the midst of it. But before a man can come to this plain he must needs go through the first pass; and when he would leave, if he will not return by the way by which he came, he must needs go through the second, and this is yet more narrow and difficult than the first. Into this plain, therefore, the Romans marched with their whole army through a cleft in the rocks--that is to say, through the first pass; but when they came to the second, they found it shut with the trunks of trees and great stones. And now the stratagem of the enemy became manifest, and at the same time also there was seen on the mountains above them a great army of the Samnites. And when they went back in all haste to the pass by which they had entered, they found this also shut by a fence of the like sort, kept by armed men. Thereupon they halted, though no man had given the word, for they were utterly confounded, neither was there any strength left in their limbs; and they stood speechless, looking upon each other as men that sought for help. Nevertheless, the tents of the Consuls were set up, and the tools for fortifying the camp got ready, though it seemed an idle thing for men that were in such plight to fortify a camp; but because they would not make their trouble worse by neglect they addressed themselves to work, and, without bidding or command from any man, fortified a camp; but not the less they knew their labour to be in vain; nor did the enemy cease to mock at them. This being done, the lieutenants and the tribunes came together without any bidding, for the Consuls called no council, as knowing that there was no device or knowledge that could avail them. The soldiers also ran together to the Consuls' tent, asking from their leaders such help as the gods themselves could scarce have given. And while they doubted what might be done darkness came upon them. Some said, "Let us make our way through these things that bar the way," and others, "Why should mountains and wood hinder us while we have swords in our hands? Suffer us only to come at the enemy, whom we have conquered now for thirty years; there is no place whereon the Romans cannot prevail over the Samnites, how many soever they may be."

But others said, "Whither shall we go? and by what way? Shall we move these mountains from their place? for while they yet hang over us how can we come at our enemies? Truly we are given into their hands bound hand and foot, and they will conquer us without so much as moving from their place." Thus did they talk one to the other; and that night they thought neither of food nor of sleep.

The Samnites also doubted much what they should best do now that their counsels had so greatly prospered. With one consent, therefore, they wrote letters to Herennius Pontius, father to Pontius their general, seeking for his advice. Now Pontius was a very old man, and had long since withdrawn himself not from war only, but also from all affairs of state. Nevertheless, though his body was weak, the power of his mind was not abated. When he heard that the Roman army had been shut in between the Passes of Caudium, and that his son would fain have his counsel, he said, "Let the men go, and harm them not." And when, despising this counsel, they sent the messenger again, asking the same question, he answered, "Slay them all; spare not one." When they heard these two answers, being so different the one from the other, it seemed to Pontius that his father's mind had failed him, even as his body had failed him. Nevertheless, when all would have it that the old man himself should be sent for, he yielded to their desire. And Pontius the elder agreeing was carried to the camp, they say, in a waggon; and when he was come they brought him into the council. There he spoke, changing indeed nothing of that which he had said, but adding his reasons. "My first counsel I yet judge to be the best, for thus by a great benefit ye will make peace and friendship for ever with a very powerful nation. If ye follow my second counsel ye will put off war with Rome for many generations; since, losing two great armies, they will not readily recover their strength. But counsel other than these two there is none." And when his son and others of the captains asked him whether there were not some middle way, so that the prisoners should be sent away unhurt but with conditions according to the right of war, "That," said he, "is a counsel which will neither get friends for you nor rid you of enemies. For think who they are that ye will provoke by such disgrace. The Romans cannot endure to sit quiet under defeat, nor will they rest till they have got manifold vengeance for that which present necessity shall have compelled them to suffer." Then, the Samnites not approving either counsel, Pontius departed to his home.

And now the Romans, having sought many times in vain to break forth, and being now destitute of everything, sent ambassadors to the Samnites to seek peace, and, if peace were not given, to challenge the enemy to battle. To these Pontius made answer, "Since ye will not confess your plight, prisoners though ye be, I will send you under the yoke without arms, each having one garment only. As to the conditions of peace, they shall be equal and right. Ye shall depart from the land of the Samnites, and take away your colonies; and hereafter both Romans and Samnites shall live under their own laws. If these conditions please the Consuls, I will make a treaty with them; if they please them not, return not hither again." When this message was brought back there arose a general lamentation; for it seemed better to die than to suffer such disgrace. And when the Consuls knew not what to say, Lucius Lentulus, being first of the lieutenants, both in respect of valour and of the honours which he had received, then spake: "Consuls, I have often heard from my father that he only gave counsel to the Senate that they should not ransom their country for gold, and that he did this because the Gauls had not enclosed the capital, and that therefore they might sally forth, not indeed without danger, yet without certainty of destruction. I also would give like advice this day if we could come near our enemies to fight with them. But seeing this may not be, and that if this army be destroyed, Rome is destroyed with it (for how can an unarmed multitude defend it?) my counsel is that we accept these conditions. So shall we deliver our country, not indeed by our death, yet by our disgrace."

Thereupon the Consuls going to Pontius made with him, not indeed, a treaty, for such could not be made without the consent of the people and the ministry of the heralds, but a covenant, for which the Consuls, lieutenants, quaestors, and tribunes were made sureties. And because peace could not be confirmed forthwith it was agreed that six hundred horsemen should be given as hostages, who should suffer death if the covenant should not be fulfilled. But when the Consuls came back to the camp the grief in the camp broke out afresh, and the soldiers could scarcely be kept from doing them violence. "Your rashness," they cried, "brought us into this place, and through your cowardice we come out of it with disgrace. No guide had ye, nor sent scouts to explore, but went blindly, even as beasts fall into a pit. As for us, we have been overcome and yet have not suffered a wound or struck a blow." While they thus murmured the time came when they must endure this great disgrace. First they were bidden to come without the rampart, having no arms and one garment only for each man. Afterwards the hostages were given up and led away to prison. Then the lictors were commanded to leave the Consuls; and these had their soldiers cloaks taken from them, so that they who had just cursed them, crying out that they should be delivered to the torturers, now pitied them, turning their eyes away, and thinking not of their own condition for shame that the majesty of so high an office should be so brought low. First the Consuls were sent under the yoke, half naked, and after them the other officers, according to their rank, and lastly the soldiers according to their legions. The enemy stood about, mocking and reviling them; some they threatened with their swords, and others that seemed to bear themselves too proudly they wounded and even slew.

Then, going on their way, the Romans came near to Capua, but for shame and for fear lest their allies should desert them, entered not the city, but cast themselves down upon the road. But the men of Capua had compassion on them, and sent to them all that they needed, and entertained them both publicly and privately with all hospitality. But the Romans answered not a word, nor so much as lifted up their eyes, so overwhelmed were they with shame and grief. The next day certain young noblemen of Capua, going with them to the borders of their country, made this answer to some that questioned them in the Senate concerning the behaviour of the Romans: "These men are wholly sunk in grief and despair, and have lost not their arms only but also their courage. Verily they seem to have yet on their necks the yoke under which they were made to pass; and as for the Samnites, they have won a victory to which there will be no end. The Gauls took the city of Rome, but these men have taken the very courage of the Roman people." Then said a certain Calavius, a man of renown and venerable for his age, "This silence, this shame, this refusing of all comfort are signs of a wrath that is both great and deep. If I know aught of the Roman people from this silence will come loud lamentation to the Samnites."

Meanwhile these ill tidings had been carried to Rome. First they heard that the army was besieged; after that there had been made this shameful peace. Thereupon the soldiers, whom the magistrates had begun to levy on news of the siege, were dismissed, and a public mourning made by common consent. The shops were shut round the market-place, and also the courts of the judges; and the magistrates laid aside their ornaments and gold rings. At the first there was great wrath, not against the generals alone, but also against the soldiers, whom they counted unworthy to be admitted into the city; but when the army came in pitiable plight wrath was changed to compassion.

So soon as the Consuls of the next year were appointed they called the Senate to consider what should be done concerning the peace of Caudium. And first they bade Postumius, that was one of the Consuls, speak his mind. Then said Postumius (and as he spake he bare the same look that he had borne under the yoke), "I hold that by this peace the Roman people is not bound, seeing that it was made without their authority, but only they that made themselves surety for it. Let us therefore be delivered up to the Samnites naked and in chains by the heralds; so shall we set free the people if they be in any wise bound. I hold also that the Consuls should forthwith levy an army and march forth therewith, but that they should not cross the border of the enemy till all these things be duly finished. And I pray to the Gods of heaven that they be satisfied with our disgrace, and that they prosper the arms of Rome even as they have prospered them in time past."

To these words two tribunes of the Commons, having been among the sureties, made objection, saying, "Ye cannot set the Roman people free by giving up the sureties, but only by restoring all things as they were at Caudium. Neither do we deserve punishment because we saved the army; and seeing that we are sacred we may not be surrendered to the enemy."

To this Postumius made answer, "If this be so, men of Rome, give up us that are common persons; and as for these sacred tribunes, touch them not till their time of office be ended. Only, if ye will listen to me, afterwards, before ye give them up, beat them with rods in the market-place, and so take usury for the delay of payment. That the Roman people are bound by this peace I deny. Think ye that they had been bound if we had promised to surrender their city, their temples, their land, their rivers, so that all that now belongs to the Romans should belong to the Samnites? And if ye ask me why I made such a peace having no authority, I answer this only. Nothing at Caudium was done wisely, but all things foolishly. The Gods smote not us only, but also the enemy with madness. We went blindly into the peril, and they cast away the victory which they had won. For why did they not send ambassadors to Rome, seeing that it was but a three days' journey, that peace might be made in due form? Surely neither Fathers nor Commons are bound to that in which they had no part. We that were sureties are bound, and we will give ourselves up that they may work their will on us."

Even the tribunes of the Commons were persuaded by these words, so that they abdicated their office, and were given to the heralds to be led to Caudium together with the consuls and the other sureties. Thereupon the heralds, going before, when they came to the gate, commanded that their garments should be stripped from them that had been sureties for the peace, and that their hands should be bound behind their backs. And when the lictor, for reverence' sake, would have tied the cord loosely about the hands of Postumius, Postumius said, "Nay, but bind tight the cord that the matter may be done rightly." Afterwards, when they were come to the judgment-seat of Pontius, the herald thus spake: "Forasmuch as these men here present without bidding of the Roman people gave themselves as sureties that a treaty should be made, and so did great wrong, I now give up these men to you, that the Roman people may be set free from guiltiness in this matter." While the herald was thus speaking, Postumius with his knee smote him on the thigh with all his might, saying, with a loud voice, "I am a citizen of Samnium, and thou art an ambassador; I have smitten a herald contrary to the law of nations, so that ye will wage war not without good cause."

Then said Pontius, "I accept not this surrender, neither I nor the Samnites. If thou believest, Postumius, that there are gods, why dost thou not either undo all that has been done or stand by thy covenant? But I ask not this of thee, I ask it of the Roman people. If this peace please them not, let them send back the legions to their place. Let all that hath been done be undone. They shall have the arms which they gave up. Then, if ye will, refuse this peace. Will ye never lack a cause for going back from your word? Ye gave hostages to Porsenna and got them back by stealth. Ye ransomed your State from the Gauls for gold, and slew them even while ye paid it. Ye made peace with us that ye might get back your legions that were taken, and now ye would disannul it. Is this the law of nations, thou herald, as thou takest it to be? As for these men, I accept them not. They may go back to their own country and carry with them the wrath of the Gods whom they have despised. Ye will wage war forsooth with us because Portumius hath struck the herald with his knee. Ye will persuade the Gods that he is not a Roman but a Samnite, and that therefore ye have just cause of war against us. Shame that old men that have borne office should not be ashamed to work such mockeries in the light of day, excusing themselves for their falsehood by such tricks as verily children would count to be unworthy of them. Go, lictor, loosen the bonds of the Romans; let no one hinder them from going whither they will." So the Romans, having acquitted certainly their own faith, and it may be the faith of the State, departed to their own homes.

Prev | Next | Roman Legends | Main Page is an online encyclopedia and archive of texts and information about the Roman Empire