Rome, having survived the invasions of the Celtic Gauls in the early 4th century BC, set its sights on further expansion in the middle part of the century. They re-conquered those Latin and Etruscan towns that had left the fold during the Gallic occupation, and in absorbing others, reconsolidated their position as the dominant force in Latium and Central Italy. With their home turf secured (or so it seemed) the Romans looked south towards Campania.
At this time, the Samnites had moved into the fertile lands of Campania, from the south-central Appenines. They already controlled the towns of Capua and Cumae to the south of Rome, and held sway to the east, as well. Rome, to protect its flanks while still in the midst of re-taking Latium and Etruria, wisely entered into an alliance with the Samnites in 354 BC. Conflict with Samnium over Campanian dominance was inevitable, however, and would soon turn into a series of wars lasting from 343 - 290 BC.
The First Samnite War
In the 340s BC, while Philip II of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great) was occupied with the Persians to the east, war in Italy broke out on the plains of Campania, near the Greek colony of Neapolis (Naples). Philip and the Macedonian armies were occupied with Persians to the east and various other regional conflicts, while Lucanian and Bruttian tribes were harassing the Greek colonies farther to the east on the Adriatic coast. These colonies called to Epirus for help, while Neapolis, in a more isolated position, had no choice but to call on Rome for assistance.
The most powerful group of the highland Sabellian people, the Samnites, in the middle of the fourth century, were invading into Campania and taking territory easily. The warlike Samnites far outmatched their civilized neighbors and found the fertile lands a much better place for herding than the rough hills of the Appenines. According to unreliable accounts, Roman envoys, at the behest of Neapolis, went to the Samnites to discuss mutual terms of peace in the region. Their intervention was supposedly rudely rebuffed, and war would be the result.
The resulting First Samnite War, was a brief but consequential affair. While historical accounts, including one by Livy, are rife with un-trustworthy depictions, it is safe to assume that the war was marked by Roman victories in the field. Despite the successes, trouble again with her Latin neighbors would force Rome to make peace with 2 years of the onset of war.
Angry over conscription into a Roman war outside of their own territory, the Latins revolted once again. Increasingly dependent on Rome, the Latin League saw the Samnite pre-occupation as a perfect opportunity to withdraw from Rome's dominance. In response, the Romans had no choice, but to break off their southern conquests and deal with their neighbors once again.
Despite its brevity, and lack of true historical references, the First Samnite War was a resounding success for Rome. It resulted in the major acquisition of the rich lands of Campania with its capital of Capua. The Campanians, civilized and peaceful were probably no match for the aggressive Samnites and an alliance with the powerful young Roman Republic seems a natural occurrence. It illustrates the model of Roman diplomacy in which an alliance results in the absorption of the ally into Rome's dominion. Whether through political and diplomatic necessity or through military intimidation there is no dispute that Campania became firmly attached to Rome at the end of the First Samnite War. The addition of Campania not only added considerable wealth and territory to the growing power of Rome, but boosted her already sufficient manpower recruiting base for future legionary campaigns.
The Second Samnite War
After the end of the Latin War in the 330's BC, the Romans expanded into the territory of the Aurunci and Sidicini to the south of the Volsci. They also attempted to reassert control of Campania by moving south across the Liris River. In 328 the Romans, clearly looking for another fight with Samnium, established a colony at Fregellae on the Liris in and another at Cales, earlier in 334 BC.
The Samnites, of course, found this to be an unacceptable intrusion by Rome, but were too pre-occupied to respond immediately. They were involved in a conflict with the Greek colony of Tarentum and its ally, King Alexander of Epirus. At the end of this war, in 331 BC, the Samnites were free to deal with the reality of Roman expansion. The Romans had claimed that the Samnites were encouraging the people of Neapolis to expand into the territories of Campania and necessitated the creation of colonies in disputed areas. The Samnites, in response, sent troops to garrison Neapolis (modern Naples), and the elite class called to Rome for help. In 327 BC, a Roman army arrived and threw out the Samnite garrison, setting off the Second Samnite War.
By the beginning of this renewed war, the Samnites controlled approximately twice as much territory, though mostly mountainous and not as fertile, as the Romans. Initially, the war went clearly in the favor of Rome, even prompting Samnium to sue for peace in 321 BC. The Romans over-confidant, offered terms that were so lopsided that the Samnites rejected them, and the war continued. While seemingly in dire straits, the Samnites would learn to use their mountainous terrain to their advantage, and turn the tides.
Later in 321 BC, the two Consuls for that year advanced a Roman army deeper into Samnite territory. The territorial advantaged Samnites, at what would become the Battle of the Claudine Forks, soon trapped the Romans in a mountain pass. Finding themselves completely surrounded and faced with certain annihilation, the Romans capitulated and were forced to march out under a "yoke of spears". The Romans were forced to give up their spears and march under them, a sign of the ultimate battlefield humiliation. Some sources suggest that Six hundred equites had to be handed over as hostages and the Romans had to pledge a five-year treaty while also giving up her colonies at Fregellae and Cales. Later Roman historians, however, tried to claim that these terms were rejected, but its quite clear that operations against Samnium did cease until about 316 BC.
In this 5-year respite, the Romans took the opportunity to strengthen their military position. In 318 they absorbed two more regional tribes, the Oufentina at the south of Volsci territory, and the Falerna to the north of Capua. They also surrounded the Samnites with Roman allies by attacking and overtaking the Apulia and Lucania to the east and south of Samnium. Several more tribes were forced to take allied status with Rome, further increasing the pressure on the Samnites.
When military operations resumed in 316, however, Rome still found itself on the losing side of the conflict. They were defeated in several successive engagements including a crushing defeat at Lautulae in 315. Within a year, Campania was on the verge of rejecting Rome and joining the Samnites, so the Romans were forced to sue for peace again with some of the Samnite factions. The Samnites, however, kept the pressure on by encouraging the Etruscans of Etruria to join them. By 311, at the end of a forty-year treaty, the Etruscans joined the conflict, but just at the time the tide was beginning to turn.
Initially the Romans were continuously defeated by both of their enemies, but between 311 and 304, they won a series of victories against both the Etruscans and the Samnites. In 308 BC the Etruscans were forced to capitulate on severe terms and in 304 BC the Samnites followed suit. While not conquered, the Samnites were severely weakened, and Rome, despite the struggle, came to take considerable territory where many new colonies were established.
In addition to the gain of territory, some ancient sources suggest that the Romans adopted the Manipular military formation of the Samnites as a result of their early successes. It was far more flexible than the hoplite system of the Greeks and Etruscans that Rome had been using, and allowed great maneuverability on all sorts of terrain and conditions. The system was in use throughout the Republic and later evolved into the cohort formation that would later conquer Europe.
The Second Samnite War is a perfect example of Rome's long-range campaign tactics and how planning for the long term would nearly always pay off. As a result of this strategy, the construction of the Via Appia (by Censor Appius Claudius) was begun in 312 and the Via Valeria in 306 BC. The Via Appia, covered the 132 miles between Rome and Capua in Campania, and provided a fast moving highway for the early legions to advance against the Samnites. The first of many remarkable Roman engineering achievements, literally paved the way for the conquest of Southern Italy.
This final decade of the fourth century was the culmination of resistance to Roman domination by several neighbors. The Aequi and Hernici both revolted and joined the Samnites. Several other previously unmolested tribes, the Marsi, Marrucini, Paeligni, Frentani and Vestini, also joined Samnium against Rome. Their efforts were too late to stop the spread of Roman expansion and in 305 BC a Roman victory led the Paeligni and Hernici to surrender. In 304 the Aequi were defeated in the same year the Samnites sued for peace, and all the other tribes of Central Italy would make alliances with Rome within another 2 years. The Samnites were still a thorn in Rome's side, however, and conflict would be renewed within the decade.
The Third Samnite War
At the close of the 4th century 298 BC, after only 6 years of peace, the Romans again found themselves at odd with the Samnites. Old wounds were slow to heal and the Samnites decided that intervention was still necessary to stop the Roman spread of power. The Third Samnite War became the last desperate attempt of the Samnites to remain independent and were able to convince Rome's old enemies to join against them once again. The Etruscans, the Umbrians, the Gauls, and other regional tribes joined in arms with Samnium to check Rome's ever increasing regional authority.
The war began again near Neapolis where possession of the plains of Campania had been a constant source of conflict. The threat to Rome was very real, facing newly coordinated enemies from all sides, the Samnites to the south and east, and the Etruscans and Gauls to the north. Until now, Rome had mostly been able to stand against single enemies at a time, but unification of these old foes made the challenge more difficult. This coalition of states not only created challenges, but proved the desperation of these tribes to reverse Roman expansion.
Early in the conflict, Rome shattered a Samnite army in the south, allowing attention to be focused on the Etruscans and Gauls in the north. The pivotal battle for Italy took place in 295 at Sentinum in Umbria, where, according to various sources, more combatants were engaged in a single encounter than at any time previous in Italy. Chariot driving Celtic Gauls forced the Romans back initially, but Roman discipline soon commanded the field, crushing the coalition against them. The Samnites, despite their less than favorable results, held out for 5 more years, finally capitulating in 290 BC.
Rome granted Samnium a favorably treaty forcing them into alliance and ending their unified resistance for the remainder of Rome's history. The Campanian cities both Italian and Greek, Capua and almost all others, were now the undisputed allies of Rome, with varying degrees of independence. The Sabines ceded territory as well, and several Roman colonies (13 known in total) were settled in Campania as well as on the eastern outskirts of Samnium.
The years surrounding the Samnite Wars were not only one of military prowess for Rome, but of great public works, as well. In 329 BC, the Circus Maximus got one of many face-lifts throughout its history, gaining permanent horse-stalls and starting gates. The first Roman road, the Via Appia was constructed from Rome to Capua in 312 BC and the first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia was also established at the same time. These magnificent structures not only were of great benefit to Rome and her people, but proved the flourishing disposition of the state even during time of war and expansion. At the end of the Samnite Wars, Rome held perhaps as many as 150,000 people making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean region. As many as 1,000,000 people claimed citizenship to Rome, and vastly larger numbers were obligated through Latin rights and allied status.
With the defeat of Samnium, the last major Italian threat, Rome was the master of nearly the entire Italian peninsula, save for the Gauls occupying the Po valley in the north and the Greek holdout cities like Tarentum in the far south. This growing power soon gained the attention of regional powers in Greece and later, the masters of the Mediterranean, the Carthaginians.
Roman Conquest of Italy - Table of Contents
- Veii and the Etruscans
- The Gallic Sack of Rome
- The Samnite Wars
- The Latin Revolt and the End of the Latin League
- The Pyrrhic War
Did you know...
The language of the Samnites was called Oscan. A relative of Latin, it was the dominant language of Italy from ca. 500 BC until the spread of Latin with the Roman conquest.
Did you know...
Livy is our primary source for the entire conflict with Samnium. Although he describes the wars and battles with enthusiasm and detail, the historical accuracy of much of the account remains suspect.
Did you know...
The Umbrians were Italic people of Indo-European roots. They built associations and large polygonal walls to defend their villages. These irregular shapes of stone walls can still be seen today in the Umbrian towns of Spoleto, Amelia, Todi and Narni.