Friday, February 01, 2013

Rome vs. the Samnites

The ancient Romans were not exactly good neighbors, supposedly every year about March they would meet together just to decide which neighboring tribe or colony to conquer during the seven-month war season when food was more abundant.  As the Italian peninsula in the times of the founding of Rome consisted of many small Italic states, some Greek colonies, the Samnites in the central highlands, the Etruscans to the north and the Goths further north, there was a lot of pushing and shoving amongst them all. 

One neighbor the Romans especially feared were the warrior herdsmen Samnites, and they waged three wars against them ending in 290 BC, and eventually won of course.  One of the stranger battles of those wars occurred when a Roman legion was tricked (again by enemy agents) into taking a short cut through the mountains where they discovered the way forward barricaded and the way back occupied by their enemies.  With no way in, out or over this area, called the Caudine Forks, without water they would soon perish.  The Samnite leader Gaius Pontius apparently had not thought what to do if his plan worked, for he decided send for advice to his father as to what to do next.  His father  told him to quickly let the Romans go.  Pontius thought this was too lenient, and sent another message.  This time the answer was to kill them all.  Pontius thought this was too cruel, and went to his dad for an explanation.

His father said if they let the Romans go without harm, they had a great opportunity to end the conflict and become friends with Rome.  On the other hand, if this was not done, then they should kill every one of the trapped soldiers, which would so damage Rome's war-making ability as to make the Samnites free of their incursions.   However Pontius did not like either alternative and thought a middle way between them was best, that of humiliating the Romans by having them bend down under a symbolic ox yoke made of their own spears and after taking 600 hostages, forcing them to accept an unfavorable five year peace treaty.  This may not sound like a big deal to us today, but apparently in those days honor was everything and a humiliating surrender was worse then dying on the battlefield.  

The upshot of it was that the Samnites achieved neither peace nor victory by this decision, and after the five year term was up the Romans went after them with renewed vigor, and eventually defeated them despite the intervention of the Etruscans and Gauls on the Samnite side.  The Romans borrowed the Samnite battle formation called the manipular system, replacing the phalanx formation they previously utilized, and used it with great effect throughout the days of the Republic and Empire.

Comparisons have been made with this kind of compromised peace agreement with the end of World War I and the Versailles Treaty, which started out being harsh on defeated Germany but then was abrogated piece by piece in the coming years, leaving the Germans so humiliated that the Nazis were to ride to power on these feelings.  Wilson's original 14 points did not contemplate harsh reparations imposed upon Germany, and had such a huge debt not been imposed, perhaps the Weimar Republic could have survived challenges by the extremists of the right and left.   But there are many variables that made such a forgiving plan difficult, mainly having to do with finding a way to compensate France for the incredible destruction of its farms and factories by the Germans, not to mention loss of blood and treasure.  I believe it was certain the German and Austrian high command used the excuse of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to start a preemptive war against  France and Russia, so forcing them to accept responsibility for the war was not unreasonable.  Unfortunately, since Allied armies did not fight their way into Germany and prove to the German public that they had utterly lost fair and square, the Armistice allowed the false impression to grow that they had been somehow created of victory and this lead to the rise of Hitler.   

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