Ancient Rome


The Samnite Wars


Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition.  Robert A. Guisepi:  Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)


"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war." 

During the 40 years after the second treaty with Carthage, Rome rapidly rose to a position of hegemony in Italy south of the Po valley. Much of the fighting during this time consisted of three wars against the Samnites, who initially were not politically unified but coexisted as separate Oscan-speaking tribes of the central and southern Apennines. Rome's expansion was probably responsible for uniting these tribes militarily to oppose a common enemy. Both the rugged terrain and the tough Samnite soldiers proved to be formidable challenges, which forced Rome to adopt military innovations that were later important for conquering the Mediterranean.

Despite its brevity (343-341 BC), the First Samnite War resulted in the major acquisition to the Roman state of the rich land of Campania with its capital of Capua. Roman historians modeled their description of the war's beginning on the Greek historian Thucydides' account of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Nevertheless, they were probably correct in stating that the Campanians, when fighting over the town of Capua with the Samnites, allied themselves with Rome in order to utilize its might to settle the quarrel. If so, this may have been the first of many instances in which Rome went to war after being invited into an alliance by a weaker state already at war. Once invited in, Rome usually absorbed the allied state after defeating its adversary. In any event, Campania now somehow became firmly attached to Rome; it may have been granted Roman citizenship without the right to vote in Rome (civitas sine suffragio). Campania was a major addition to Rome's strength and manpower.

The absorption of Campania provoked the Latins to take up arms against Rome to maintain their independence. Since the Gallic sack of Rome in 390 BC, the city had become increasingly dominant within the Latin League. In 381 BC Tusculum was absorbed by being given Roman citizenship. In 358 BC Rome created two more rustic tribes from territory captured along the Volscian coast. The Latin War (340-338 BC) was quickly decided in Rome's favour. Virtually all of Latium was given Roman citizenship and became Roman territory, but the towns retained their local governments. The large states of Praeneste and Tibur maintained nominal independence by becoming Rome's military allies. Thus the Latin League was abolished; but the legal rights that the Latins had enjoyed among themselves were retained by Rome as a legal status, the Latin right (ius Latii), and used for centuries as an intermediate step between non-Roman status and full Roman citizenship.

Rome was now the master of central Italy and spent the next decade organizing and pushing forward its frontier through conquest and colonization. The Romans soon confronted the Samnites of the middle Liris (modern Liri) River valley, sparking the Second, or Great, Samnite War (326-304 BC). During the first half of the war Rome suffered serious defeats, but the second half saw Rome's recovery, reorganization, and ultimate victory. In 321 BC a Roman army was trapped in a narrow canyon near the Caudine Forks and compelled to surrender, and Rome was forced to sign a five-year treaty. Later Roman historians, however, tried to deny this humiliation by inventing stories of Rome's rejection of the peace and its revenge upon the Samnites. In 315 BC, after the resumption of hostilities, Rome suffered a crushing defeat at Lautulae. Ancient sources state that Rome initially borrowed hoplite tactics from the Etruscans (used during the 6th or 5th centuries BC) but later adopted the manipular system of the Samnites, probably as a result of Samnite success at this time. The manipular formation resembled a checkerboard pattern, in which solid squares of soldiers were separated by empty square spaces. It was far more flexible than the solidly massed hoplite formation, allowing the army to maneuver better on rugged terrain. The system was retained throughout the republic and into the empire. During these same years Rome organized a rudimentary navy, constructed its first military roads (construction of the Via Appia was begun in 312 BC and of the Via Valeria in 306), and increased the size of its annual military levy as seen from the increase of annually elected military tribunes from 6 to 16. During the period 334-295 BC, Rome founded 13 colonies against the Samnites and created six new rustic tribes in annexed territory. During the last years of the war, the Romans also extended their power into northern Etruria and Umbria. Several successful campaigns forced the cities in these areas to become Rome's allies. The Great Samnite War finally ended in Rome's victory. During the final phase of this war, Rome, on another front, concluded its third treaty with Carthage (306 BC), in which the Carthaginians acknowledged all of Italy as Rome's sphere of influence.

The Third Samnite War (298-290 BC) was the last desperate attempt of the Samnites to remain independent. They persuaded the Etruscans, Umbrians, and Gauls to join them. Rome emerged victorious over this formidable coalition at the battle of Sentinum in 295 and spent the remainder of the war putting down lingering Samnite resistance. They henceforth were bound to Rome by a series of alliances.

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