Taking control of Italy was far from easy for the Romans. For centuries they found themselves opposed by various neighbouring powers: the Latins, the Etruscans, the Italiote-Greeks and even the Gauls. Yet arguably Rome’s greatest rivals were a warlike people called the Samnites.
‘Samnites’ was the name given to a confederation of native Italiote tribes. They spoke the Oscan language and lived in the interior of southern-central Italy in a region dominated by the Apennine Mountains. The Romans dubbed the region Samnium after these people.
Samnium’s harsh terrain helped forge these tribesmen into some of the most hardened warriors on the Italian Peninsula.
The early history of the Samnites
Prior to the 4th century BC, our knowledge of the Samnites is relatively sparse, although we do know they regularly raided more lucrative, neighbouring regions: the rich fertile lands of Campania predominantly, but on occasion they also raided Latium further north.
We best remember the Samnites today as virulent enemies of the Romans, but these two peoples did not always have such hostile relations. Livy, the Roman historian who scholars cautiously rely heavily upon for Samnite history, mentions that in 354 BC a treaty was concluded between the two peoples that established the Liris River as the border of each others’ influence.
But the treaty did not last long.
Hostilities erupt: the Samnite Wars
In 343 BC, the Campanians, who had always lived in fear of neighbouring Samnite incursions on their territory, begged the Romans to protect them against their warlike neighbours.
The Romans agreed and sent an embassy to the Samnites demanding they refrain from any future attacks on Campania. The Samnites outright refused and the First Samnite War erupted.
Several Roman victories later, the Samnites and the Romans reached a negotiated peace in 341 BC. The old spheres of influence were reestablished at the Liris River, but Rome maintained control of lucrative Campania – a key acquisition in Rome’s rise.
The Great War
Seventeen years later, war once again broke out between the Romans and Samnites in 326 BC: the Second Samnite War, also known as ‘the Great Samnite War’.
The War lasted over twenty years, although the fighting was not non-stop. It was epitomised by intermittent years of hostilities where notable victories were gained by either side. But the war was also marked by prolonged periods of relative inaction.
One of the Samnites’ most famous victories of this war was won in 321 BC at the Caudine Forks where a Samnite army successfully trapped a large Roman force. The Romans surrendered before a single javelin was thrown, but what made the victory so important was what the Samnites did next: they forced their foe to pass under a yoke – a humiliating symbol of subjugation. The Romans were determined to avenge this humiliation and so the war continued.
A peace was eventually agreed in 304 BC after the Romans defeated the Samnites at the Battle of Bovianum.
Within six years, however, war once again broke out. This one was much quicker than its predecessor, culminating in a decisive Roman victory against a great coalition of Samnites, Gauls, Umbrians and Etruscans at the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC.
With this victory, the Romans became the prime power in Italy.
Nevertheless, the Samnites still proved a thorn in Rome’s side for the next two centuries. Following Pyrrhus’ devastating victory at Heraclea in 280 BC, they rose up against Rome and sided with Pyrrhus, believing he would be victorious.
Half a century later, many Samnites once again rose up against Rome following Hannibal’s crushing victory at Cannae.
As history shows, however, both Pyrrhus and Hannibal eventually left Italy empty-handed and the Samnite revolts were subdued.
The Social War
The Samnites did not stop rebelling following Hannibal’s departure. In 91 BC, over 100 years after Hannibal departed Italy’s shores, the Samnites joined forces with many other Italian tribes and rose up in armed revolt after the Romans refused to give them Roman citizenship. This civil war was called the Social War.
For a time Bovianum, the Samnites’ largest city, even became the capital of a breakaway Italian state.
The Romans eventually emerged victorious in 88 BC, but only after they had conceded to the Italian demands and given the Samnites and their allies Roman citizenship.
The Samnites’ last hoorah
During the civil wars of Gaius Marius and Sulla, the Samnites supported the Marians with devastating consequences.
In 82 BC, Sulla and his veteran legions landed in Italy, defeated the Marians at Sacriportus and captured Rome. In a last ditch-attempt to retake Rome, a large Marian force consisting largely of Samnites fought Sulla’s supporters outside the eternal city at the Battle of the Colline Gate.
Before the battle Sulla ordered his men to show the Samnites no mercy and after his men won the day, many thousands of Samnites lay dead on the battlefield.
Still, despite Sulla’s brutal command, his men did capture some of the Samnites, but Sulla soon had them brutally slaughtered with throwing darts.
Sulla did not stop there as Strabo, a Greek geographer writing over 100 years later, noted:
“He would not stop making proscriptions until either he had destroyed all Samnites of importance or banished them from Italy… he said he had realised from experience that a Roman could never live in peace so long as the Samnites held together as a separate people.”
Sulla’s genocide against the Samnites was brutally effective and never again did they rise up against Rome – their people and cities reduced to a shadow of their former prestige.