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Profile - The Unusual Military Career of Titus Pontius Sabinus

Titus Pontius Sabinus was a Roman soldier who was probably born around A.D. 80-85, and died some time in the middle of the Second Century.  Although he hailed from Ferentinum [Ferentino], in Latium about 65 miles southeast of Rome, the gens Pontius was originally of Oscan origin.  It first appears in history borne by a number of notable Samnite generals during in the interminable series of Roman-Samnite Wars; one Gaius Pontius commanded the Samnites when they inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Romans at the Caudine Forks, in 321 BC.  It seems likely that these generals were probably related, and that persons in later ages bearing the name Pontius had some family ties to them.  Thus, it’s probable that Titus Pontius Sabinus and the best known member of the family, Pontius Pilate, who flourished in the early First Century, were kinsmen.  

The evidence we have for T. Pontius Sabinus’ military career derives from his funerary monument.  Although it actually doesn’t say a word about anything prior to about the year A.D. 110, from it we can infer a great deal about his earlier life.  Pontius was probably born early in the reign of Domitian (81-96), because by 110, he was commanding an auxiliary cohort, an appropriate command for an up-and-coming junior officer in his mid-to-late 20s.  As member of the equestrian order, the Roman upper middle class, he had probably served a tour as a contubernius when he was 16 or 18, during Nerva’s reign (96-98) or perhaps early in that of Trajan (98-117).  A contubernius was a volunteer aide-de-camp and orderly, serving for a year or two on the staff of a kinsman or family friend who held some field command or possibly even a governorship; something like the one year volunteer n the old Imperial German Army.  During such service, the young man would learn the ropes, perhaps find himself at the head of an occasional detail, often a cavalry troop, to give him a taste of command, and perhaps even see some combat.  After that short tour of military duty, Pontius would have completed his education, and perhaps even served in some junior administrative or electoral post in his home town.   

By 110 Pontius was prefectus of the Cohors I Pannoniorum et Delmatarum equitata cR, an impressive command, since it was a partially mounted auxiliary regiment which, unusually, was composed of Roman citizens recruited from Dalmatia and Pannonia (Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary today), as indicated by the “cR.”  During Trajan’s Parthian War (114-116), Pontius was tribune in the legio VI Ferrata, and appears to have seen considerable action; he was awarded the corona muralis, usually given for being the first to scale an enemy fortification or for distinguished service in defending a fortress, plus the hasta pura, an untipped silver spear, believed by some historians to indicate an outstanding non-combat contribution to victory (much like the Distinguished Service Medal), and a small silver replica of the legionary standard.

Now not long after the Parthian War, Pontius did a curious thing; he transferred to the centurionate, that is, in imprecise modern terms, he went from being a field grade officer to being a senior NCO.  Although not unheard of, this was an unusual career move, but Pontius’ experience, not to mention his superior education and considerable wealth, landed him the rank of hastatus in the 1st Cohort of the legio XXII Primigenia, stationed in Germania, in effect, the third ranking “enlisted man” in the division.  And over the next few years (117-122), Pontius rose quite rapidly, and did a good deal of traveling through the empire.  He served in the XIII Gemina in Dacia, and was then promoted to primus pilus – command sergeant major – of the III Augusta in Numidia.

Now Pontius’ rapid rise, and the transfers that accompanied them, suggest that he benefited from some friendly outside influence.  He may have been related to the Pontii Laeliani, a prominent senatorial family with holdings in Italy and what is now southern France, two of whom would hold the consulate.  In addition, Pontius was married to a woman of equestrian rank named Valeria Procula, the sister of Lucius Valerius Proculus.  Valerius Proculus was already building a very distinguished career as a civil servant, and would eventually rise to be Governor of Egypt, the plumiest post in the Empire, and one reserved for equestrians – never senatorials – with the strongest ties to the Emperor.   Both Pontius Laelianus and Valerius Proculus had strong ties to Hadrian, who assumed the Imperium in 117, and they may have looked out for their younger kinsman. 

Now while Pontius had been rising rapidly, a persistent rebellion had been plaguing Britain, which required the Emperor’s attention in 122.  Pontius was appointed  commander of three vexillationes – task forces – of 1000 men each, drawn from the VII Gemina and  XXII Primigenia in Germany and the VIII Augusta in Spain, a force which probably also had some attached auxiliaries.  Presumably, who was apparently serving in Germany or Spain, perhaps as primpilus of the VII Gemina or VIII Augusta, for he held this post twice in his career, or holding some staff assignment.  In any case, command of such a substantial force on such a crucial mission certainly testifies to Pontius’ skill and reliability as an officer.  Pontius seems to have seen considerable service in Britain.  During his tour there, he apparently organized a new cavalry squadron, for we hear of an ala Sabiniana in the British garrison for the next 200 years.   He also seems to have come to the attention of his emperor, from the evidence of his subsequent assignments.

From Britain, Pontius was transferred to Rome, and served as tribune commanding the III Cohort of the Vigiles.  A paramilitary force of some 7,000 men in seven battalions, the Vigiles combined the duties of a fire department and police force for the imperial city.  Following that assignment, Pontius was given command of the Cohors XIII Urbana, in Lugdunum (Lyons in France)The cohors urbanae consisted of 14 battalions assigned to internal security – and counter coup – duties, mostly in Rome, but with one each at Carthage and Lugdunum.  After completing that assignment, Pontius returned to Rome as tribune of the Cohors II Praetoriana, that is, of a battalion of the Imperial Guard.

Some time in the mid-130s, when he was in his 50s, Pontius was given a final assignment, governor of Narbonnensis, essentially Mediterranean France, a comfortable and profitable assignment in a region in which the Pontii Laeliani had strong ties, once again suggesting some family connection. 

Titus Pontius Sabinus seems to have retired around the time Hadrian died (138).  He returned to his home town, Ferentinum, where he served a five year term as a “Quadrumvir”, one of the four city managers, was elected flamen – senior priest – of the local religious establishment, and was named patron of the city,.  He died some time in the reign of Antoninus Pius.

Pontius was the father of Titus Pontius Proculus, who seems to have been a jurist, and may perhaps have been the ancestor of Tiberius Pontius Pontianus, who served as consul in 238.

 


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