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Under the Yoke

"The Helvetii, are confined on every side by the nature of their situation; on one side by the Rhine, a very broad and deep river, which separates the Helvetian territory from the Germans; on a second side by the Jura, a very high mountain, which is between the Sequani and the Helvetii; on a third by the Lake of Geneva, and by the river Rhone, which separates our Province from the Helvetii....They thought, that considering the extent of their population, and their renown for warfare and bravery, they had but narrow limits."

Julius Caesar, Gallic War (I.2)

Early in the history of the Roman Republic, Livy writes that a consular army was trapped by the Aequi in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Cincinnatus was said to have left his plow, assumed dictatorial power, and defeated the enemy in a single midnight encounter (the Battle of Mount Algidus, 458 BC). He "did not require their blood, they were at liberty to depart; but, as an open admission of the defeat and subjugation of their nation, they would have to pass under the yoke. This was made of three spears, two fixed upright in the ground, and the third tied to them across the top. Under the yoke [sub hoc iugum] the Dictator sent the Aequi" (History of Rome, III.28).

In 321 BC, a Roman army again was trapped, this time by the Samnites in a mountain defile near Caudium on the road between Beneventum and Capua (on what later would be part of the Appian Way). There was no hope of rescue and they were forced to surrender, an especially mortifying defeat because the nominal Battle of the Caudine Forks had been fought without the Romans "receiving a single wound, or using a single weapon, or fighting a single battle" (IX.5). Stripped of their distinctive paludamenta (military cloaks), "The consuls were the first to be sent, little more than half-clothed, under the yoke, then each in the order of his rank was exposed to the same disgrace, and, finally, the legionaries one after another. Around them stood the enemy fully armed, reviling and jeering at them; swords were pointed at most of them, and when they offended their victors by showing their indignation and resentment too plainly some were wounded and even killed" (IX.6).

Appian writes that 50,000 men were caught in the defile, begging either to be killed, sold into slavery, or kept for ransom so as "not to put any stigma of shame upon the persons of the unfortunate" (Samnite History, I.2). But the latter is just what happened. The Samnites did not have the means to sell or ransom tens of thousands of famished men and were fearful of retribution if they were killed. Instead, the Roman envoys were told that the captured army would be permitted "each one of you to pass under the yoke safe and sound with the clothes you stand in" if peace were concluded (I.5). There was much wailing and lamentation at hearing this, "for they considered the disgrace of passing under the yoke worse than death" (I.6). Nevertheless, six hundred hostages having been taken and oaths sworn, a passage from the defile was opened and the Samnites "having fixed two spears in the ground and laid another across the top, caused the Romans to go under it as they passed out, one by one....This method of dismissing prisoners, which they call sending under the yoke, seems to me to serve only to insult the vanquished" (I.6)—which, of course, was just the intention. Not long afterwards, the Roman hostages were recovered and the defeated Samnites, wearing only a single garment, sent under the yoke in their turn, the Roman consul explaining that "he was subjecting them to no novel disgrace but simply retaliating upon them one which they had themselves inflicted" (IX.15). 

In the winter of 110–109 BC, the Romans were defeated by Jugurtha, the king of Numidia, at the Battle of Suthul. Forced to capitulate, the praetor in command was told that his army was surrounded and either could be put to the sword or allowed to starve—or Jugurtha would "spare their lives and content himself with making them pass under a yoke in token of surrender, provided that they evacuated Numidia within ten days" (Sallust, The Jugurthine War, XXXVIII). Orosius (who places the battle at nearby Calama) says that the army numbered 40,000 men (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, V.15). The Romans had not been subjected to such ignominy in more than two hundred years; nor was the disgrace any less because they still possessed their weapons and had not tried to fight their way to safety.

Then only a few years later in 107 BC, 10,000 Romans were killed at the Battle of Burdigala (Bordeaux). The Roman consul Lucius Cassius Longinus and his legate Lucius Calpurnius Piso (the great-grandfather of Caesar's wife Calpurnia, whom he had married just the year before) both were killed and the survivors under Gaius Popillius Laenas, second in command, forced to pass under the yoke. It was a humiliation that Roman historians apparently were loath to dwell upon.

Livy relates only that the battle occurred in the country of the Nitiobriges (on the Garonne river), where the consul and his army were massacred by the Tigurini, "a Helvetian tribe that had left its own country. After the soldiers who had survived the disaster had given hostages and half of their possessions, they arranged to be released unharmed" (Periochae, LXV.5-6). And Appian remarks simply that the Helvetti "had captured a Roman army commanded by Piso and Cassius and sent them under the yoke" (Gallic History, I.3).

Caesar recounted the incident in 58 BC as justification for denying the Helvetti permission to cross into Gaul. He had not forgotten that "Lucius Cassius, the consul, had been slain, and his army routed and made to pass under the yoke by the Helvetti" (Gallic War, I.7). Thwarted in their attempt to force a passage, the Helvetti sent an embassy to sue for peace led by the same Divico who had defeated Rome's legions fifty years before. He now imprudently advised Caesar "to remember both the ancient disgrace of the Roman people and the characteristic valor of the Helvetii" (I.13). If Caesar has been victorious so far, it was due to luck, whereas the Helvetti "rely more on valor than on artifice and stratagem." But Caesar did prove victorious, slaughtering the Tigurini and thereby avenging "not only the public but also his own personal wrongs" (I.12).

Orosius, a Christian apologist writing early in the fifth century AD, provides the longest account of the battle, if only a paragraph. "In these days of the Jugurthine War, the consul L. Cassius, who was in Gaul, pursued the Tigurini as far as the Ocean [which may account for the battle being named after Bordeaux]. When he was on his way back, he was surrounded and slain in an ambush laid by the enemy. Lucius Piso, a man of consular rank and at the same time the legate of the consul Cassius, was also killed. The other legate, C. Publius, in accordance with the terms of a most disgraceful treaty, was handed over to the Tigurini together with hostages and a half share of all their property. This was done in order to save the surviving part of the army, which had fled for refuge to the camp. On returning to Rome, Publius was summoned to trial by the plebeian tribune Caelius on the charge that he had given hostages to the Tigurini. Consequently he had to flee into exile" (V.15).

Although the Battle of Burdigala is thought to have taken place on the border of Aquitania (near Agen on the Garonne), it has particular significance to the Swiss. (Their international country code, for example, is CH, which abbreviates Confoederatio Helvetica, "Helvetic Confederation"). The Tigurini were the most important of the Helvetti tribes and had their traditional home in what is now the canton of Vaud, which commissioned Charles Gleyre, himself a native of Lausanne, to visualize an event in Swiss national history.

Eight years later, in 1858, he had completed The Romans Passing Under the Yoke (above). Divico, his face obscured by a raised arm, sites on his horse, the heads of the consul and his legate impaled on stakes, and the Romans bowed as they pass beneath the yoke in humiliating recognition of their defeat. The scene has shifted, however, to Montreux on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, allowing the artist to depict in the background the mountains of the Dents du Midi across the lake—and to portray what historically would have been constructed of spears as a literal ox yoke. The painting is in the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts (Lausanne), although curiously (given its significance in Swiss iconography) apparently not on display.

And the word that derives from the event? "Subjugate" is from the Latin subjugatus, past participle of subjugare (sub, "under" + jugum, "yoke"), to imply the condition in which men are compelled against their will, like oxen or horses, to submit to another.