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.
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.