XVIII[18arg] On the strict observance by the Romans of the sanctity of an oath; and also the story of the ten prisoners whom Hannibal sent to Rome under oath.
AN oath was regarded and kept by the Romans as something inviolable and sacred. This is evident from many of their customs and laws, and this tale which I shall tell may be regarded as no slight support of the truth of the statement. After the battle of Cannae Hannibal, commander of the Carthaginians, selected ten Roman prisoners and sent them to the city, instructing them and agreeing that, if it seemed good to the Roman people, there should be an exchange of prisoners, and that for each captive that one side should receive in excess of the other side, there should be paid a pound and a half of silver. Before they left, he compelled them to take oath that they would return to the Punic camp, if the Romans would not agree to an exchange. The ten captives come to Rome. They deliver the message of the Punic commander in the senate. The senate refused an exchange. The parents, kinsfolk and connexions of the prisoners amid embraces declared that they had returned to their native land in accordance with the law of postliminium, 1 and that their condition of independence was complete and inviolate; they therefore besought them not to think of returning to the enemy. Then eight of their number rejoined that they had no just right of postliminium, since they were bound by an oath, and they at once went back to Hannibal, as they had sworn to do. The other two remained [p. 77] in Rome, declaring that they had been released and freed from their obligation because, after leaving the enemy's camp, they had returned to it as if for some chance reason, but really with intent to deceive, and having thus kept the letter of the oath, they had come away again unsworn. This dishonourable cleverness of theirs was considered so shameful, that they were generally despised and reprobated; and later the censors punished them with all possible fines and marks of disgrace, on the ground that they had not done what they had sworn to do. Furthermore Cornelius Nepos, in the fifth book of his Examples 2 has recorded also that many of the senators recommended that those who refused to return should be sent to Hannibal under guard, but that the motion was defeated by a majority of dissentients. He adds that, in spite of this, those who had not returned to Hannibal were so infamous and hated that they became tired of life and committed suicide.