Samnite Wars: How Rome Conquered the Samnites (History & Aftermath)

This is the story of the Samnite Wars, the young Roman Republic’s conquest of southern Italy, and the start of an empire.

Jun 21, 2024By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History

samnite wars rome origins

 

Before the Roman empire stretched from Scotland to Syria, before there were emperors whether good, bad, or mad, and before Caesar, Pompey, and Sulla, Rome was simply another central Italian city. The young Republic was one of a number of states that controlled regions of the Italian peninsula, each with their own cultures and politics. However, as Roman influence began to swell, pushing against the boundaries shared with neighboring states, conflict became inevitable. The Samnite Wars, three conflicts with Rome’s rivals in Campania, were a crucial staging post on Rome’s journey from Italian city state to Mediterranean Empire.

 

Before the Samnite Wars: The Roman Republic in Italy

The Expulsion of Tarquin and His Family from Rome, by Maestro di Marradi, c. 1500 CE, Source: Discovery

 

As tradition puts it (a knot of myth and history that remains difficult to unpick), the Roman Republic had emerged in 509 BCE following the overthrow of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus. The years that followed were characterized by a series of wars as the nascent Republic defended itself against its neighbors.

 

The Etruscans, in support of the deposed King, had come to Tarquin’s aid in an attempt to restore him to power. The principal source for historians to rely on for reconstructing these wars is Livy. Writing in the late first century BCE, Livy was himself so far removed from the events that large swathes of his narrative are built on mythology.

 

The Apollo of Veii statue, taken from the city during the Roman sack, Villa Giulia (Rome), photo by Ptyx, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

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Although the Republic was able to progressively add Etruscan territory to its control, this was not a period without setbacks and losses for the Romans. Most infamously, an army of Gauls from northern Italy, led by Brennus, had sacked the city in 390 BCE. It was after this sack that the Romans built a wall around their city.

 

Known as the Servian Wall, it is less well-preserved than the formidable defensive circuit built by the emperor Aurelian in the late third century. However, portions of it can still be seen in the modern city, most famously in a fast-food restaurant below the modern city’s main train station. The wall itself was built from tufa, which was quarried from the territory of Veii, a city conquered in the aftermath of Brennus’ sack of Rome.

 

The continued expansion of Roman power highlights how, despite the psychological shock of the Gallic sack, it actually did little to shake the Romans in practical terms. By the middle of the 300s BCE, the territory of the Roman Republic appears to have reached the River Liri. The river worked well as a natural boundary, separating the Romans from their southern neighbors, the Samnites, in Campania. Like the Romans, the Samnites were consolidating control of their neighboring territory. Tensions between the two states would soon begin to escalate…

 

The First Samnite War: Triumphs and Treaties

End detail of bronze “Samnite” belt with nude male figures, 350-250 BCE, Source: The British Museum

 

The First Samnite War began with a dispute over the city of Capua in Campania. Having surrendered to Roman control in an attempt to stave off the encroaching power of the Samnites, Roman attempts at diplomacy were rejected. The Samnites, according to Livy, informed Roman envoys of their attempts to wage war on Capua regardless and this was the spark that ignited the conflict in 343 BCE. Although Livy’s account of the war poses some problems that continue to puzzle historians (namely, why it was that Capua felt so enfeebled to surrender its territory to Rome in the first instance), we are nevertheless reliant on the narrative he presents.

 

A section of the Fasti Triumphales, listing the triumphators of the First Punic War, beginning with Manius Valerius Messalla in 262 BCE, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Roman consuls for the year 343 BCE—March Valerius Corvus and Aulus Cornelius Cossus—both led armies against the Samnites. Although there were some near misses, including a near-disaster at a mountain pass, the Romans ultimately won three victories over them.

 

The consuls were rewarded with the privilege of a Triumph each on consecutive days in September (the 21st and 22nd according to the Fasti Triumphales). More striking still, the Carthaginians, who were friends of Rome at this stage, sent a golden embassy to Rome, with a great crown to be dedicated at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.

 

The following year seems to have been taken over less by inter-state fighting than by internal mutiny. A series of reforms were passed in 342 BCE, including the Leges Genuciae (which stated that no one could be re-elected to the same office within ten years or less) as a result of a soldier’s mutiny in Rome.

 

The First Samnite War ended in 341 BCE when the Samnites sued for peace. The consul of Rome, Lucius Aemilius Mamercus, had been ravaging Samnite lands largely unopposed. The negotiated peace that followed outlined that the Samnites now recognized Rome’s alliance with the wealthy and prosperous Campanians. This would be a significant boon to the nascent Empire on its journey of expansion.

 

The Second Samnite War: The Shame of the Caudine Forks

Fresco depicting a scene of Samnite Warriors, ca. 330 BCE, from a tomb in Nola, photo by Shonagon, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The continued growth of Roman power in the second half of the 4th century meant that conflicts with neighboring states and other rivals were almost inevitable. This included the Samnites.

 

Tensions had been growing for some time, not least as a result of Rome’s alliance with Alexander of Epirus—the uncle of the Macedonian, Alexander the Great—who had crossed to southern Italy in 334 BCE and defeated a Samnite force in support of the Greek polis of Tara (Tarentum, modern Taranto).

 

The catalyst for the Second Samnite War can be directly attributed to Roman expansion, namely the foundation of a colonia at Fregellae in 328 BCE, as well as provocations by the cities of Paleopolis (“Old City”) and Neapolis (“New City,” i.e. modern Naples), and war broke out in 327. Initially, the Romans were successful. Having been appointed dictator, Lucius Papirius Cursor smashed the Samnites in 324, compelling them to sue for peace.

 

Romans Under the Yoke, by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, 1858, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

However, the Samnites rejected the Roman terms and fought on, and in 321, the Samnites inflicted a crushing, humiliating defeat on their enemies. Led by Gaius Pontius, the Samnites had placed an army at the Caudine Forks, a valley in Campania.

 

Having dispatched some trusted men, in the guise of shepherds, towards the town of Calatia, they began to spread misinformation. Pontius’ agents spread the rumor that the Samnites were about to attack Lucera, a Roman ally in Apulia. The Romans rushed to the aid of their apparently threatened allies, and taking the route through the Caudine Forks, they marched right into Pontius’ trap.

 

With the Romans surrounded, Pontius reputedly asked his father—an elderly statesman—for advice and he received two conflicting opinions: either release the Romans, or slaughter them all. Not amenable to either option, he sought instead to force the Romans to surrender and evacuate Samnite territory. Ultimately, the consuls caught in the trap had no choice but to accept Pontius’ terms.

 

As the Roman legions left the camp, they passed under the Samnites’ yoke, as a symbol of subjugation. According to Appian, Pontius’ yoke was created by fixing two spears in the ground and another across the top. The shame of the Caudine Forks lived long in Roman memory.

 

The Second Samnite War: The Roman Republic’s Retaliation

Iron short sword, possibly Etruscan of the Akinakes type, ca. 6th to 4th centuries BCE, Source: The British Museum

 

Hostilities between the Romans and the Samnites began again in around 316 BCE. For several years, the conflict proved rather inconclusive. However, in around 312, rumors began to swirl that the Etruscans were mobilizing. By 311, the re-energized Romans were in the field again; one consul, Gaius Junius Bubulcus, marched on Samnium, and the other, Quintus Aemilius Barbula, set out against the Etruscans.

 

The fighting in that year proved rather indecisive. However, the years that followed were more significant. First, the Romans achieved a costly victory at the Battle of Lake Vadimo. In what would prove to be the largest battle between the Romans and Etruscans, both sides sustained heavy losses. However, the Romans won the day when the cavalry were ordered to dismount; acting as fresh troops, they were able to deliver the decisive blow against the exhausted Etruscans. The defeat, though not final, crushed the Etruscans’ fighting spirit.

 

Denarius minted by the C. Papius Mutilus, a Samnite, with Bacchus (obverse) and a Bull goring the Roman she-wolf (reverse), 90-89 BCE, Source: The British Museum

 

Indeed, the Roman victory at Vadiamo was a turning point, swinging the momentum back in their favor. By 305, the Roman consuls—Lucius Postumius Megellus and Titus Minucius Augurinus—were marching into Samnium territory. When the major Samnite city of Bovianum (modern Bojano) fell very quickly to a Roman siege, the Samnites sent envoys to Rome to sue for peace in 304.

 

Roman suspicions of Samnium subterfuge were allayed when the consul, Publius Sempronius Sophus, was sent to their territory with an army to investigate; he was greeted warmly and offered supplies by a people exhausted by war. In the aftermath of the Second Samnite War, the Romans moved to consolidate control of their territories.

 

Allies of the Samnites, such as the Hernici, were incorporated within the fledgling Roman Empire and given citizenship. Crucially though, they were not given the right to vote, excluding them from the political decision-making processes.

 

Although such tactics were useful then, over time they would ferment tensions between Rome and her erstwhile allies, including the Samnites, that would erupt during the Social War of the early 1st century BCE. Similarly, new Roman colonies were established, further extending Roman power. Nevertheless, Roman control over central and southern Italy was not yet complete…

 

The Third Samnite War: The Road to Roman Control of Italy 

Bronze statuette of a warrior, Etruscan 5th Century BCE, Source: The Met Museum

 

Into the early years of the third century BCE, tensions continued to simmer between the Romans, the Samnites, and the Etruscans. The Third Samnite War broke out again in 298 when the Romans came to the aid of the Lucanians, who appealed for help after the Samnites had invaded their territory.

 

The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose account of the Samnite Wars is, unfortunately, fragmentary, is skeptical of Rome’s role as peacekeeper in this instance. They had not, he claims, previously been allied with the Lucanians, but instead saw this as a solid pretext for a decisive war against their longtime rivals.

 

The Third Samnite War is notable for the size of the coalition that armed itself against Rome; by 295, the Etruscans were arming themselves to join the Samnites and Umbrians, and money had been offered to encourage the Gauls in northern Italy to join the fight. Rome’s most able commanders, Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus and Publius Decius Mus, were duly elected consuls and Rullianus replaced Appius Claudius, the man who gave Rome its most famous road, the Via Appia.

 

The Battle of Sentinum was to prove crucial. The Romans took on the coalition that faced them in a pitched battle. In the final stages of the battle, the Senone Gauls had formed a testudo formation, the famous “tortoise,” which defended the front ranks while raised shields protected their troops from projectiles. However, Rullianus ordered his cavalry to flank the Senones and attack from the rear. The result was a crushing defeat for Rome’s enemies. According to Livy, over 20,000 perished compared to 8,700 in the Roman lines.

 

Manius Curius Dentatus Refusing the Presents of the Samnite Ambassadors, by Fedele Fischetti, 1732-1792, Source: The Metropolitan Museum

 

The decisive battle came just two years later at Aquilonia. Here, the Roman forces annihilated the Samnite armies and followed up their victory by advancing into and sacking  Samnite towns, including Herculaneum.

 

The events that followed are somewhat harder to piece together, as Livy’s narrative comes to a rather abrupt end due to the loss of some of his books. However, one of the consuls in 290, the final year of fighting, is notorious as an exemplum, a model of moral authority admired by the Romans: Manius Curius Dentatus.

 

Famously frugal, it is said that during his campaigns mopping up the final pockets of Samnite resistance after Aquilonia, he was visited by Samnite ambassadors bearing expensive gifts. Unfortunately for the visitors, Dentatus was more interested in the turnips he was roasting! According to Valerius Maximus, famously, Dentatus refused the gifts, warning the Samnites: “Remember, I can be neither overcome in battle, nor corrupted with money.”

 

Aftermath: Rome, the Samnite Wars, and an Emerging Empire

Relief from the so-called altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus showing the Roman soldiers, end of the 2nd century BCE, Source: The Louvre Museum, Paris

 

The years following the Roman victory in the third, and final, Samnite War were characterized by consolidation. This included crushing any vestiges of Sabine power and forcing an alliance on the Samnites. The result was that Roman power in central Italy was now unrivaled.

 

The final Samnite War also exposed more and more states within Italy to the benefits of joining the Romans. They were amenable to local elites maintaining a degree of control over local issues (while the Romans shared the spoils they took from war), provided that these neighboring states supported Rome’s causes. The ability to draw on these allies and their manpower and resources would prove crucial in the decades ahead, as Rome progressively became the dominant power in the Mediterranean. What started as a small war between two Italian states, therefore, can be seen as an important precursor toward Rome’s domination of first Italy, then the Mediterranean, culminating in an empire that stretched from the northern edges of Britain to the deserts of Arabia…

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.