Gaius Pontius (fl, 321 BC) sometimes called Gavius Pontius or simply Pontius, was a Samnite commander (clan Varry/Varriani) during the Second Samnite War. He is most well known for his victory over the Roman legions at the Battle of the Caudine Forks in 321 BCE. He was eventually captured and executed by Fabius Maximus Rullianus.
Gaius Pontius was a Meddix, a Samnite position similar to a Roman Consul or Magistratus at the beginning of the Second Samnite War. He controlled a force of nearly 9,000, including nearly 1000 cavalrymen. With this force, he won a series of early victories, which included taking the towns of Canusium and Gnaitha, and defeating the army under the command of Cornelius Lentulus. The Samnites failed to take advantage of these victories, however, and the Romans continued to press into Samnite territory.
Battle of the Caudine Forks
In 321 BCE, the Romans were moving into Samnium, and Pontius, who was encamped at Caudium, discovered that the army led by the Roman Consuls was near the town of Calatia. He devised a plan to trap the Roman army, and quickly sent ten shepherds to the Roman encampment. They told the Romans that the Samnite army was laying siege to the town of Luceria, in the region of Apulia.
The Romans fell for his trap, and found themselves cornered by the Samnite army in a narrow pass. They were forced to surrender to Pontius.
As recorded by Livy, Pontius was confused as to what should become of the Roman army which had surrendered to him. He sent a letter to his father, the Samnite statesman Herennius Pontius, and the reply was that he should free them all, and therefore make Rome an ally. Pontius did not like this idea, and sent another letter to his father, saying so. Herennius, in a seemingly hypocritical manner, told his son to execute the entire army, saying that it would destroy the threat of Rome for a long time. Pontius knew that the number of Romans were simply too large to have them all executed, so he sent for his father in person, and asked him if there was a middle road. Herennius advised his son not to take that road, as it would not only humiliate the Romans, but leave them with the means to carry out revenge.
Pontius ended up ignoring his father's advice and forcing the Romans to walk under a yoke composed of Roman spears. This was supreme humiliation, as it was seen as cowardly for a Roman soldier to lose his spear, and the army went back to Rome smarting but intact.
Rome's revenge was swift, and ended up with the Samnites being soundly defeated, and Pontius being executed years after the battle.
During the Second Samnite War, the Romans adopted the manipular system of military organization, which the Pontius and the Samnites used throughout the conflict.
Gaius Pontius may be an ancestor of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of the province of Judaea and judge at the trial of Jesus, thus being the ancestor of the Gens Pontia, who also gave Roman consuls Marcus Pontius Sabinus, Marcus Pontius Laelianus and Pontius Proculus Pontianus.
- Appian's History of Rome: The Samnite Wars (1)
- The Caudine Forks
- Livy's History of Rome: Book 9
- From Barbarians to New Men: Greek, Roman, and modern perceptions of peoples from the central Apennines by Emma Dench
- The History of Rome by Theodor Mommsen
- Livy: Periochae 11-15