The Samnites “I Sanniti”
Rome’s Implacable Enemies
By Niccolò Graffio
“Nothing exists but what has its enemy; one species pursue and live upon the other.” – St. John De Crevecoeur: “Letters from an American Farmer”, II, 1782
The Romans found it no easy task to conquer the Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily in their drive towards regional expansion. In fact, a number of times in their early history if things had gone just a little differently the Romans would have found themselves the conquered instead of the conquerors.
Other peoples (some of them mentioned in previous articles) gave the Romans a run for their money in their march towards empire-building. The Etruscans, for example, never in their history managed to create a single polity. Instead, they were always divided up into smaller city-states that would cooperate with each other in cultural and religious matters but more often than not would balk when it came to military ones. As a result, the Romans were able to pick them off one at a time. The same fate befell the Greeks of Magna Graecia.
The Senones, a Celtic people from Gaul, probably came as close as anyone to destroying the early Romans. In 390/387 BC they routed a much larger Roman army at the Battle of the Allia River. This route basically left the city of Rome wide open to a Senone assault. The Senones obliged by sacking the city. Only reinforcements led by the Roman dictator and general Marcus Furius Camillus succeeded in repelling the Celtic invaders, and then only barely. Nevertheless, the city was almost completely destroyed.
The Romans were badly shaken by this military disaster and many historians believe the reforms instituted by them to prevent a future one were what set them on the road to hegemony. The genius of Roman military commanders was their ability to learn from those they fought and adapt their techniques (and technology) to suit their own purposes.
Yet as ferocious as the Senones and other Celtic tribes may have been, even they never achieved the distinction of being regarded as the archenemies of Rome. That honor would go to another Italic people – the Samnites.
Historians are unsure of the origins of the Samnites but it is believed they were an offshoot of the Sabines, one of the early ethnic stocks that fused into what would become known as the Roman people. As such, the Samnites would have been cousins of the Romans. The Samnites never created for themselves a single polity as did the Romans, but rather the principal tribes (Caraceni, Caudini, Frentani, Hirpini and Pentri) were united for purposes of warfare in a confederacy. “Samnium” and “Samnites” were Latin words, the Samnites referred to their country as “Safinin” and to themselves as “Safineis”.
The Samnites spoke an Oscan tongue, a family of languages spoken in ancient times in central and southern Italy. The earliest mention of them as a distinct people occurred (as reported by the Roman historian Livy) in 354 BC when they concluded a treaty with the Romans. Sometime after this, hordes of Samnite warrior-herdsmen swarmed into Campania where they began to encroach on the territories of the native Campani. Simultaneously, Lucanians and Bruttians, other Oscan speakers, began to harass the cities of Magna Graecia. The Greeks of Magna Graecia appealed to Epirus, a city-state located just north of modern Greece. The Campanians in turn appealed to Rome, which sent them aid.
The result of all this was the so-called First Samnite War (343 to 341 BC). Livy is the sole source of information on this campaign. According to him, ambassadors from the wealthy Campani city of Capua appealed directly to the Roman Senate for aid against the much stronger Samnites. The Roman senators heard their appeal but declined to aid them due to their treaty with the Samnites. Upon hearing this, the Campani ambassadors, acting on instructions from their rulers, unconditionally surrendered their city to the Romans.
The Romans, startled by this turn of events, nevertheless accepted, and subsequently sent envoys to the Samnites to apprise them of the situation and ask that they refrain from any further encroachment on Campani territory, which was now Roman territory. The Samnites not only refused to accept this, but announced their intentions of ravaging the whole of Campania. Further attempts by the Romans to seek redress were rebuffed, and the Roman Senate as a result declared war on Samnium.
Modern historians have problems with Livy’s account for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how such a rich city like Capua would need to surrender everything to Rome in order to avoid conquest by the Samnites. The Capuans were known to have sided with Carthage during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) and the Romans, after having subdued them, punished them mercilessly. Most modern historians are of the belief Livy’s account was nothing more than an attempt to whitewash Rome’s expansion into the region.
At the outbreak of hostilities (in 343 B.C., according to Livy) both Roman consuls marched at the head of armies into hostile territory, Marcus Valerius Corvus went into Samnite-held Campania and Aulus Cornelius Cossus marched into Samnium proper. Livy then relates how the Romans won three important battles against the Samnites over the next two years, forcing them to sue for peace. Modern historians seriously doubt the veracity of Livy’s accounts of these battles (too lengthy to relate in such a short article as this). Suffice to say at the very least they believe his detailing of the casualties suffered by the Samnites, plus the booty taken by the Romans, are clearly exaggerated!
The most common complaint is that Livy was guilty of writing doublets. His description of events during some of these exchanges matches later ones of clashes between Roman and Carthaginian armies during the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.). Whatever the truth, what is believed by modern historians is Livy’s claim that by 341 B.C. the Samnites appealed to the Romans for peace, which was granted (on terms favorable to the Romans, of course). The war ended as a negotiated peace, with the Romans allowing the Samnites to continue their struggle against the Sidicini (whom the Romans didn’t care for, anyway). In return, though, the Romans gained the greater prize – recognition by the Samnites that the Campani were now in the Roman sphere of influence!
Within 15 years of the conclusion of the First Samnite War the Romans, having sufficiently recovered from the conflict, began establishing colonies in Samnium in the hopes this would provoke the Samnites into reigniting the conflict. In this way the Romans sought to reduce the power of the Samnites in that area of Italy. The Samnites, however, were busy establishing a garrison (327 B.C.) in the city of Neapolis (modern Naples), a city of Magna Graecia, in the hopes of using it as a base to expand into surrounding Campani territory. Once again, the Campani sought aid from Rome and the Romans responded by declaring war on the Samnites. This sparked the conflagration known as The Second (or Great) Samnite War (326 to 304 BC).
What started out as what would seem to have been an easy venture for the Romans quickly degenerated and nearly turned into a disaster for them. At the outset the people of Neapolis were divided in their opinion of a Samnite military presence in their city. The upper classes were against it but the populace was in favor it. The upper classes prevailed, however and eventually the Samnites were forced out! Five years after the start of the conflict the Samnites had suffered so many defeats they sued for peace. The terms the Romans offered them, however, were so severe the Samnites rejected them and decided to fight on.
That same year (321 BC, according to Livy) two Roman consuls led a large force into an area known as the Caudine Forks. Here the Romans realized, to their horror, they could neither advance nor retreat. The Samnites, under the leadership of Gaius Pontius, came upon them and would have slaughtered them. Pontius had the option of either freeing them all (as originally advised by his father, Herennius, who believed such an act would gain for the Samnites the friendship of the Romans) or else slaughter them all. Instead, he chose a middle path – forcing the Romans to accept humiliating terms of defeat before letting most of them go. Livy’s account is of questionable veracity but remains as a powerful parable that the middle road is not always the best choice. The Romans agreed to a five-year truce with the Samnites. However, during that time they greatly increased the size of their army through conscription.
The end of the truce brought with it the end of the peace. The Romans, aching for revenge over their humiliation, invaded Samnium and initially met with success. All that changed a year later when the Romans met a crushing defeat at the Battle of Lautulae (315 BC). Thereafter the Samnites picked up a number of additional victories to the point the Campani seriously toyed with deserting Rome and going over to the Samnite standard. In that year the Etruscans allied themselves with the Samnites in the hopes of avenging themselves for earlier defeats suffered at the hands of the Romans.
Shortly after this, though, Fortuna smiled once again on the Romans. Between 311 and 304 BC much of central and southern Italy was plunged into open warfare. Rome and her allies succeeded in forcing the Etruscans to sue for peace in 308 BC. The Samnites finally threw in the towel four years later. Both were given harsh terms by their Roman victors.
The Romans made sure they would not be put into any precarious situations again, as far as the Samnites were concerned. During this time they established colonies in annexed Samnite territory and founded the beginnings of what would become the Roman navy. They also discarded the hoplite system of fighting (learned from the Etruscans) in favor of the manipular system of the Samnites. Under this system, soldiers would march into battle in a checkerboard formation, allowing easier manipulation of forces over rough terrain. The successful conclusion of The Second Samnite War greatly increased Rome’s power and prestige throughout Italy, forcing a number of cities to become her allies.
Peace would not last long, however. In 302 BC the Etruscans once again picked up arms against the Romans. Other Italic peoples quickly joined their side. This conflict, the Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BC) became the first real attempt by the peoples of Italy to check the growing power of Rome and her allies. In addition to Etruscans and Samnites, Umbrians and Gauls likewise joined the fray. Rome found itself fighting determined foes on a number of fronts. Rome’s enemies, on the other hand, now realized the very real threat Rome was to their sovereignty.
Early on Rome succeeded in smashing a large Samnite force, allowing them to turn their attention to their Etruscan and Gallic enemies farther north. In 295 BC the Romans and their allies defeated a large allied coalition at the Battle of Sentinum. According to Livy the number of combatants on the field was greater than at any other time in Italian history.
Unlike in the two earlier conflicts, the Romans granted the Samnites favorable terms in the new treaty (or so said Livy), hoping to force them into an alliance as a vassal people. In actuality since Livy admitted the terms were imposed upon the Samnites, rather than negotiated, we cannot accept his statement as truthful. Among other things it was admitted the Romans demanded troops, rations and clothing from Samnium for their armies. In addition, new Latin colonies were established on Samnite territory. The war ended with Rome the undisputed master of most of Italy, with surrounding cities closely allied with it while keeping only varied degrees of independence. The political consequences of the war were that the Samnites would never again be able to present a united front against Rome’s hegemony.
The irascible Samnites chafed under the terms of this treaty and almost immediately began looking for ways to get out from under it and Rome’s yoke. That opportunity would come scarcely 15 years later during the so-called Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC).
The war began as a minor conflict between Rome and the Greek city-state of Tarentum in Magna Graecia. Tarentum had been growing in power and influence in southern Italy, becoming a major commercial center in the region. Rome naturally began to view them as a threat to its own expansion into the area. A naval violation in Tarentum territory by a Roman consul sparked the war. He had brought a large Roman navy into Tarentum territorial waters to aid a Roman ally in their war against another city. The Tarentum navy responded by attacking the Roman fleet and sinking several ships. The Romans sent a delegation to Tarentum angrily demanding redress but things quickly went south and the Romans declared war on Tarentum.
The rulers of Tarentum, fearing Roman military might, petitioned Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, for aid, citing their earlier aid to him in his war against Korkyra, a Greek city-state on the island of Corfu.
Pyrrhus, seeing an opportunity to expand his empire overseas responded by honoring his military obligations to the people of Tarentum. He arrived with a force of 25,000 men. His army included 20 war elephants. The Romans in turn, amassed a force of about 80,000 men divided into four armies. One was left behind to guard Rome itself, one was sent to keep the Samnites and the Lucanians honest, one was sent north to attack the Etruscans in order to prevent them from aiding Pyrrhus and the fourth was sent to meet Pyrrhus himself.
The first engagement, the Battle of Heraclea, ended in a sound defeat for the Romans. Pyrrhus’ force killed anywhere from 7,000-15,000 of them (depending on sources) and had thousands of others captured. Upon hearing the news of Rome’s defeat many towns and cities in Magna Graecia flocked to Epirus’ standard. Bolstered by this turn of events, He began to march towards Etruria, sacking many towns and cities in Campania and Latium along the way. He stopped at Anagni, a town two days ride from Rome, when he saw another Roman army under the command of Corunciatus. Knowing two other Roman armies were in hot pursuit of him, he decided not to engage them and withdrew. The Romans, in turn, decided not to follow him; Corunciatus wisely deciding to wait to hook up with the other two Roman armies before taking off after him.
While all this was going on the Samnites, seeing an opportunity to rid themselves of their hated Roman taskmasters, managed to send word to him they wished to join his side. He gladly accepted their aid. Samnite infantry and cavalry were present alongside Pyrrhus’ Macedonian and Italian-Greek forces at the second great battle of the Pyrrhic War – the Battle of Asculum (279 BC).
According to ancient sources both sides had about 40,000 men. The battle ended in another defeat for the Romans. However, Pyrrhus lost a goodly amount of his best officers beating them. According to one source, when congratulated on his victory he famously responded, “Victory? One more such victory and we shall be undone!” From this comes the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ – victory won at great cost.
Though he was winning victories, the Romans were bleeding him. Unable to replenish them on Italian soil, he decided to go to Sicily to aid the Greeks there against the Carthaginians, who had decided to ally with Rome against him. The Romans decided to use this opportunity to punish the Samnites for their treachery. Two Roman consuls, Junius and Rufinus, combined their forces and invaded deep into Samnite territory. The Samnites in turn kept retreating high into the hills, luring the Romans into a trap. The result was the Battle of the Cranita Hills (277 BC) which ended in a defeat of the combined Roman forces.
Though defeated, the Romans still held the advantage Junius’ army continued to ravage Samnium after the Roman withdrawal from the Cranita Hills. When word reached them that Pyrrhus had thrown in the towel and returned to Epirus, the Samnites, realizing they could not hold out against the Roman monolith on their own, were forced to sue the Romans for peace. It would come at a terrible price.
Though constantly beaten and humiliated by the Romans these most redoubtable of their enemies could not resist the clarion call of battle when it came again in the person of Hannibal, general of the Carthaginians who invaded Italy during the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC).
Initially the Carthaginians could not find any aid from Italian peoples against Rome, but eventually some Samnites threw their lot in with Rome’s enemies, especially among the Hirpini and Caudini. Once again there were initial victories against them with the promise of victory but once again it ended in a disastrous and humbling defeat. After the defeat and withdrawal of the Carthaginians the Romans severely punished the rebellious Samnites by drastically reducing their territory.
The last time the Samnites turned out in force against Rome was during the Social or Marsic War (91 to 88 BC). This war was a rebellion of Rome’s traditional Italic and Gallic allies against the Roman policy of land and wealth redistribution which, of course, greatly favored Romans over their allies. The cause of the allies was taken up by the plebeian Marcus Livius Drusus, who proposed a number of reforms including granting Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. His reforms were rejected and Drusus himself was ultimately assassinated in 91 BC. Allied outrage over these events led to armed insurrection.
One would have thought that Rome would have had a natural advantage in this war but such was not the case. For decades Rome had sent its allies into battle to spare its own citizens. As a result the allies had many battle hardened veterans in its ranks. What the Romans did have was naval supremacy. This insured no overseas aid to the rebels.
The Samnites, true to their nature and their irreversible hatred of Rome, joined the rebellion and in fact were among its leaders. Diodorus, in fact, places their name first among the rebel peoples. Unfortunately for the Samnites, however, the Romans (or rather, the Roman patricians) found their savior in the person of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (138 – 78 BC). Sulla, as he was known, was a champion of the patricians against the plebs. These two groups were at odds with each other even while they were battling the rebels. Sulla won over the hearts and minds of many Romans by convincing them of the threat of a Samnite menace and proposing his own version of a Final Solution to the Samnite problem.
Sulla won great acclaim for himself by bringing the Social War to a successful conclusion. Even though the Romans won, they made a number of concessions to their erstwhile allies, the Samnites notwithstanding. As the last holdouts in the Social War they felt the full extent of Sulla’s genocidal campaign. Though not physically exterminated, after the Social War and later Sulla’s civil war the name of Samnium was effectively erased from the pages of history. As the Greco-Roman historian Strabo (63 BC to 24 AD) would later record in his book Geographica “…the towns of Samnium have become villages, and most have vanished altogether.”
Thus passed away from the pages of history perhaps Rome’s greatest and most stubborn enemy – the Samnites!
E.T. Salmon: Samnium and the Samnites: Cambridge University Publishing; 1967