The Samnite Wars

The Samnite Wars were a series of military conflicts fought in the period between 343-290 BC by the Roman Republic and theSamnite Confederacy. The last great war between Rome and an major Italic power the Samnite conflict resulted in the Republicgaining dominion over nearly all of Southern Italy.

At the same time as Philippos II of Makedon was gaining his dominion over Hellas trouble arose in Southern Italy. By the 340s BC the startlingly quick recovery of the Roman Republic from the horrific Sack of Rome by the Gallic Celts had forced many of the Italic tribes in the southern half of the peninsula into alliances or confederacies for mutual protection from Rome. The greatest of these was theSamnite Confederacy, formed by the Oscan and Sabellian mountain tribes of what would later be called Samnium in their honor. In the search for more fertile land to raise their crops and tend their livestock the Samnites, in conjunction with their Lucanian and Bruttiicousins, launched an invasion of the rich lowlands. Both Italic Campania and the Hellenic colonies of Megale Hellas were threatened by this invasion. The Samnites focused upon the city-states of Campania and achieved great success against the unwarlike lowlanders. When the great city of Capua and the allied Hellenic city of Neapolis suddenly found themselves in danger of falling into Samnite hands the Campanians, in desperation, called for aid from Rome.

The Roman Republic was more then happy to get involved, and had been waiting for some time for an excuse to enter into richSouthern Italy. Later Roman historians would paint a picture of their diplomats attempting to broker a peaceful division of power with the Samnites, only to be rudely spat on. In actuality the Romans had no intention of sharing power with the Samnites or anyone. When the Senate approved intervention in 343 the Roman war machine rolled south for the first great bout with the hill tribes of Italy. The First Samnite War had begun.

Sadly not much is known about this first war. In contrast to most Roman conflicts the ancient sources are remarkably sparse on theFirst Samnite War. As a result modern historians have tried their best to reconstruct events from what we do have and conjecture. The Romans were able to defeat the Samnites in the open field several times, but they could not follow up on their success because of an army mutiny. The DictatorMarcus Valerius Corvus, put the mutiny down with his famous eloquence but then concluded a hasty peace with Samnium. In any case the true importance of the First Samnite War is not the conflict itself but its aftermath. For in the months following the treaty in 341 the Republic annexed Campania entirely. This set a dangerous precedent for future Romanexpansion as from this point on the Romans would take advantage of alliances to win new territory both through war and by annexing the same allies who invited them in. Rome had become like the very wolf that she so admired. The addition of Campania was a great boon to the Republic. For not only did Rome now acquire the great prosperity of those lands but also a new, and much needed, source of manpower.

Following the treaty there would be a lull, but not for long. The army mutiny of 341 had been a portent of things to come. Within a year the Latin allies of the Republic had risen in revolt out of disgust with Rome. In the resulting Latin War the Samnites actually joined the Romans in putting down her rebellious former allies. With the end of the war and the incorporation of the former Latin League into the Republic the Samnites went back to their own affairs. In 334 BC the Romans established the colony of Cales on theLiris River, in Samnite territory. This was a provocative move on the Romans’ part and one that Samnium could not let go unanswered.But at the time they had bigger problems.

Earlier in the decade the Lucanians and Bruttii, still at war with the colonies of Megale Hellas had called on Samnite aid, which they obliged. The primary city under pressure by the Italics was the city-state of Taras. With the full intervention of the Samnites theHellenes issued a call for aid across the sea. This call was answered by none other then Alexandros I Molossis, uncle of the futureMegas Alexandros, and king of Epeiros in 334. Despite the affront presented by the Romans the Samnites were smart enough to realize that the Epeirote King was a far bigger threat. In the resulting war King Alexandros was able to defeat the Samnites and their allies several times but never decisively. He was finally defeated by treachery and killed in 331, and the remaining Epeirote forces retreated back across the sea.

Now Samnium could turn to deal with Rome. The Romans continued to egg the Samnites on, and in 328 they established another colony on the LirisFregellae. At this the Samnites began to gear up for war, but would not make the declaration. In 327 the Romansbroke the last straw when they claimed that Samnium was encouraging Neapolis to expand into Campania. In response the Republichad to create those colonies now on the Liris, to protect their interests. The Samnites, angered by these accusations, decided to preempt any Roman move on Neapolis, which was under their protection, by investing it with a garrison. When the Samnite garrison arrived the nobility of Neapolis rejected them and called on Rome for aid. The Senate quickly approved the intervention and before long a Roman army had kicked the Samnites out of Neapolis. The Second Samnite War had begun.

Also called the Great Samnite War, the second contest between Rome and Samnium is the most famous of all. As the war began theRoman field armies were easily able to defeat the Samnites, and victory after victory followed. By early 321 the war had gone so badly that the leadership of the Samnite Confederacy sued for peace. But the Romans had been infected by victory disease, and theSenate was so overconfident that they dictated terms that were so one-sided that later Roman historians looked upon the whole affair with embarrassment. This served to reinvigorate the Samnites and they rejected the terms handily. The progress of the war thus far had taught the Samnites that as long as the Romans remained on the open field they were nigh on invincible. But the plains were not the Samnites’ native element, the mountains were.

So the Samnite leadership decided to pull their armies back to the mountains, thus leading the Romans to follow into territory unfriendly to them.This plan worked brilliantly as a army led by the year’s ConsulsSp. Potsumius Albinus and T. Verturius Calvinus, was baited by a large Samnite army led by Gaius Pontius, the Meddix (a Samnite position roughly equivalent to a Consul). The twoConsuls followed Pontius into a narrow mountain pass called the Caudine Forks. As the Romans entered the defile the Samnites, who had dispersed into the hills, sprung the trap. Before the Romans knew what happened they had been caught between a rock and a hard place, literally. Rather then fall upon the Romans and slaughter them as his men urged him to do, Pontius, after much indecision, choose to allow the Romans to surrender. After much deliberation the two Consuls agreed. The resulting surrender terms went down in Roman history as one of the most infamous events in the Republic’s history. In addition to having to give up their weapons and armor the Samnites forced the Romans to march out of the defile under a yoke made from their own spears, all the while enduring taunts and insults from the victors. 600 equites were also forced to be left behind in Samnite hands. But most insulting of all the twoConsuls were forced to surrender all of Rome’s colonies in Samnium and not make war upon them for the next 5 years.

The war was over, or so it seemed. The forced surrender of a Consular army was a massive prestige boost to the Samnites, for never before had Rome been humiliated on the field. The Romans themselves were so outraged that they would later deny the whole incident even happened. In the course of the truce period the Romans attempted to outmaneuver the Samnites politically by isolating them. One by one the Romans either absorbed or forced into alliance all of the neighboring peoples that lived in the area aroundSamnium. Even the Lucanians were forced to turn against the Samnites. But the Samnites were also active and in secret they forged an alliance with Rome’s ancient foe, the Etruscans.

When the truce period expired in 316 the Romans marched to war with new confidence in their victory. But in a series of military engagements culminating at Lautulae in 315 the Samnites smashed the Romans again and again, defeating them on the open field for the first time. By 314 the situation had become so grave that the Campanians were seriously considering joining the Samnite Confederacy. For one of the few times in the entire history of the Republic the Senate proposed peace terms. But the Samnites did not accept although they held the advantage. In 311 the reason why became apparent when the 40 year peace with the Etruscansexpired and they joined the war. The entry of Rome’s old foe into the fray reinvigorated them and the Republic fought back with a vengeance. Adopting the Samnites‘ manipular field formation (they had previously been using a modified Etruscan phalanx), increasing recruitment, and taking advantage of the construction of new roads, such as the Via Appia and Via Valeria, the Romans took the offensive. By 308 the Etruscans had been smashed and forced to submit to harsh peace terms. The Samnites, bolstered in 306 by an alliance of Italic tribes lead by the Aequi, held out until 304 when they finally surrendered.

Following the peace treaty of 304 the Samnites were down, but not out, not yet. The Second Samnite War was one of the greatest conflicts of the Republican period of Roman history. It is held today as one of the best examples of Roman perseverance in a war even when conditions had gotten to the point where most states would have just surrendered. For this perseverance Rome had won for herself near total dominion over Italy and a new military. This was the greatest impact of the Samnite Wars, in that the Samnitesforced the Romans to totally reinvent their military machine. The Manipular Legion that resulted would become the basic building block for all future Roman militaries. The Second Samnite War also become the earliest example of Roman wartime engineering, as roads were constructed for the sole purpose of allowing ease of travel to the Samnite and later Etruscan fronts. Aqueducts were also constructed to bring water to newly built military colonies. All of this would later become integral pieces in the greater Romaninfrastructure in Italy.

However the Samnites were not subdued and although defeated as long as they remained free they would never stop fighting theRomans. Over the course of the following 6 years the Samnites worked in secret for yet another war with Rome. On the political frontSamnite diplomats forged an coalition with the EtruscansUmbrians (an Italic people unrelated to the Samnites), and the Celtic Senones. Internally they rebuilt their shattered military. The fact they kept all of this a secret from the Roman inspectors is still considered an amazing feat. Despite this however other events would force them into conflict prematurely. In 298 the Samnitesattempted to draw their old allies the Lucanians into their growing coalition. But the Lucanians had chosen to remain allied to Rome. In anger at what they perceived to be betrayal by their own kin the Samnites attacked the Lucanians near the city of Neapolis. When theLucanians sent a call for aid to Rome the Senate did not hesitate to grant it. But as the Roman war machine marched to war withSamnium for the third and final time the Samnites unveiled their coalition, and the Republic was caught off guard.

The Third Samnite War had begun. In previous conflicts the Roman Republic had been able to fight off her opponents because they were not united, or in the case of an alliance war, not coordinated enough to form a serious threat. But what became apparent this time was that the coalition that was arrayed against them was perfectly coordinated. For the first time Rome had to face her most determined enemies all at once, united as one. The Samnites took advantage of this initial shock to march their massive main army under Gellius Egnatius into Lucanian territory (that is Lucania), to force them into joining the coalition. The Republic responded by sending an army under Consul L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus. At CamerinumGellius was able to inflict a grievous defeat on theRomans, but when the Roman reaction was to raise the largest army in the history of the Republic thus far, the Samnites decided to withdraw from Lucania.

Over the course of the following years the war went back and forth between the two sides, neither gaining the decisive advantage needed. In 295 Gellius attempted to force the decisive engagement and marched north to join the other members of the coalition.Rome got whiff of this and marched their own forces under the year’s Consuls, P. Decius Mus and Q. Fabius Maximus. A second force was also sent north. News of this second force, which was marching towards the homelands of the Etruscans and Umbrians, forced them to withdraw their forces. Now the Samnites and Senones stood alone. At the flat plains near the town of Sentinum the two forces met. In the ensuing battle the main advantage of the coalition lay with the chariots of the Senones, which were still formidable weapons at this point. The chariot charge nearly did in fact win the battle when they crashed into the Roman flank. But when Decius Mus made a wild countercharge that cost him his life the Roman troops held and repulsed the SenonesFabius Maximus routed theSamnites on his flank and Gellius was slain in the rout. He then turned and rolled up the Senones. When the battle was over the power of the coalition had been broken forever, and total victory for Rome was from then on only a matter of time.

In quick succession the Umbrians, Etruscans, and Senones all surrendered. But the Samnites, determined to the last, held out. This stubborn resistance in the face of certain defeat earned the Samnites the admiration of their foes. When they finally did surrender in290 the Romans gave them peace with honor. They were incorporated into the Republic and given citizenship, but without the right to vote. Still this was a high honor, given only to foes that had earned Rome’s respect. With treaty of 290 the long Samnite Wars finally came to an end.

In conclusion the Samnite Wars were one of the greatest conflicts in the history of Rome. As a direct result of the Samnite conflict theRomans had become the masters of nearly all of Italy save the last remnants of Megale Hellas and the Celtic tribes in the Po valley. But more importantly Rome now had the military machine that would lead them to carve the greatest empire of antiquity.