Roman History in a Nutshell – The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE

Samnite soldiers from a 4th century BCE tomb frieze. As you can see, Samnites wore shinguards, but no trousers or any leg coverings. Partly because a lot of men at the time would have just worn long tunics and partly because…well…get a load of dat booty! Dose bootays! I’m not sure if Samnite men were renowned for being pretty boys with great arses but this certainly makes it appear so. (Credit: Public Domain)

Not to be confused with the Samsonite wars, where a lot of Romans all had disagreements about what to do about a briefcase they want to return to a mysterious woman they barely know called ‘Mary’. That is not actually an episode of Roman history but rather the plot of the movie ‘Dumb and Dumber’, there is a lot that the Romans will do that you will think dumb, and a lot more you will think dumber, so you can be forgiven for getting these things confused.

No, the Samnite wars were an important conflict in Roman history with a group called, unsurprisingly, the Samnites. They inhabited a lot of the mountainous regions in the Apennines south of Rome.

The Samnites were a people of Osco-Umbrian heritage, not unlike the Sabines, indeed there are some who argue Samnites are just Sabines from a bit further south. By this point we should have a good enough idea that until total Roman dominance of the entire Italic peninsula that wouldn’t happen for another century or two yet, the whole area was made up of different groups, cultures and tribes. Samnites are just another such group, a loose confederation of tribes.

The first Samnite war is relatively inconsequential. Apparently the Samnites went a-raidin’ on the Sidicini, a tribe in Campania, and after their success they felt Billy-Big-Bollocks enough to try to take Capua. This would have been the main city in Campania at the time and they appealed to the Romans for assistance.

Yup, it’s that same map again. As you can see, the Samnites were pretty much the main barrier of Roman conquest from the Tyrrhenian sea to the Adriatic sea. Their eventual spread to Illyria (roughly modern Croatia) would have been a lot harder without control of that Eastern coast. But even after the main Samnite wars, these tribes were not done sticking it to Rome! (Credit: Javierfv1212, Public Domain)

Now according to Livy this led to a delegation from Capua meeting at Rome to be like “Yo, we’re rich, sign a treaty we’ll make it rain, mah dudes!” but the Romans already had a treaty with the Samnites so they we like, “Errr…nah, mate!” Which was a bit disappointing for the Capuan dignitaries. They found a great way around, though.

You see it was clear they didn’t have the military might to take on the Samnites alone, so the city was lost to them anyway. So, and again this is only according to Livy who wasn’t there and is a bit of a shit-stirrer, they just immediately surrendered the city to Rome!

Well now defeating the Samnites is no longer a Capuan problem, but a Roman one! As far as surrenders go it was a very forward-thinking, tactical and brilliant one.

Roman delegates were sent to Capua but the Samnites weren’t in the mood and got huffy and said “This means war!”

Actual footage of the Samnite delegation (with the moustache – not Groucho Marx) to the Romans (in the hat) in their negotiations over Capua. (Credit: Copyright Paramount Pictures, via Gifycat)

There was some fighting, but overall it was only a few battles and this first war was over in two years. Inconsistencies in accounts lead some modern historians to even doubt there was a conflict at all, although many do not doubt the historicity of the disputes they don’t necessarily believe it an all-out war.

Eventually Rome and the Samnites would ally against the Latins in the Latin Wars.

The Second Samnite War, though, is much more important, lengthy (326-304BCE) and overlaps with other conflicts we’ve spoken about (particularly with the Etruscans).

You see it revolves around an issue regarding Neapolis, modern Naples, which was a Greek enclave in central Italy. The Samnites attacked it and nicked it. Which wasn’t very nice but that’s how these things worked at the time. Of course the Romans, being displeased, nicked it back.

The Samnites, thankfully, left behind material artefacts of their existence. This is a bronze cuirass – a breastplate, or chest armour – believed to be of 4th or 3rd century BCE Samnite origin. (Credit: J. Paul Getty Musuem, Public Domain)

Romans would have been aware of Greek culture, but this recapture of Neopolis from the Samnites would be the first taste they would get of it. The city, now known as Naples, would go on to become a jewel in the crown of Rome’s Hellenism and it’s appreciation of Greek culture. It’s the start of a love affair and the thing about Roman love affairs is have you noticed how many of them end with death or subjugation?

Moving on.

The Capture of Neopolis is around 326 BCE and then it’s battle after battle, city of city, siege after siege. Honestly, there’s a great chronology on the wiki page – just go hit that up. The fact is the only source we really have to go on for this is Livy so how much of this actually happened is up for debate. There was a one year truce around 324 BCE, then the Romans get themselves stuck in the mountains and, at the risk of a rout by Samnite forces, have to negotiate a surrender. It was known as the Battle of the Caudine Forks, although it is believed no actual battle took place. What is important is that a treaty was struck up that, seemingly, the Romans obeyed out of honour.

The Samnites, though, decide to totally wreck Fregellae, a Latin colony and at this time allied with Rome. This brought the Romans back into the fray and what happens next is a back-and-forth series of battles and sieges. In 318 BCE the Samnites would ask for peace and the Romans would tell them “Piss right off, and fuck yourselves whilst you’re doing it!” this would start a Campanian campaign with Romans taking towns, Samnites taking towns etc. and this period sort of culminates in the Roman defeat at the Battle of Lautulae.

A close-up of a figure engraved on the front of the cuirass from above. A winged man of some clear detail and artistry. Again – just because Rome dominated the Mediterranean in time it does not mean the other cultures, certainly the ones entirely consumed by Rome (Gauls, Celts, the various Italic tribes etc.) did not have sophisticated lives and cultures before the arrival of the Romans. Roman dominance leads us to believe in their cultural and social primacy or superiority but…all they were ever superior at was killing and subjugating. (Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum, Public Domain)

What was important about this defeat is something where we’re going to have to rewind….blblblbllblbllb….(that’s a rewind noise, right? Like a VHS tape? Am I old?) I don’t like to talk about military history because it’s the dwelling zone of wankers. It’s where the Wellactualliis live, the tribe of people who love to step in and go “Well, actually…” but we have to for a bit.

We talked about how Roman military tactics changed in their interactions with the Etruscans, they would have started out with little more than a leather chestplate and a spear or sword of some kind and by the end of their first few conflicts with Etruscans, ended up with organised phalanx units stolen wholesale from the Greeks via Etruria.

Only small, but see the map again. That central spine where the Samnites live? Mainly the Apennine mountains. They fight differently up there! (Credit: Javierfv1212, Public Domain)

The thing about Samnites is they were mountain people, much like the Sabines, only the Sabines had been a lot less organised and, frankly, a lot easier adopted into the Roman fold. Many major Roman families were Sabine in origin, they didn’t take a lot of convincing to join the family. The Samnites resisted and they resisted well, utilising tactics that did not require large ‘units’ like the phalanx, but smaller ‘maniples’.

This maniple was a smaller unit of soldiers, now you could still arrange them into a larger phalanx, but when it was required it could be divided into the maniples. They basically stole this system from the Samnites at this time, after their defeats.

What this gave versus the large units is more manoeuvrability and, to put it bluntly, the ability for cocksure young upstarts to show-off.

The best visual metaphor for the maniple. As and when required, the individual maniples could be brought together to form a big unit (teehee), such as a phalanx. However, in their brick form they are free and able to act with more independence, rather than having to follow the instructions of the big unit (teehee) – For fighting in tough terrain, mountains, raiding enemy camps or besieging etc. this provided scope for different tactics and individuals to act according to their own assessment of the battle situation. Later Roman generals (particularly Caesar) would go on to renown not necessarily for their innate skill but their knowledge and ability to adapt to battle conditions. A sort of ‘War IQ’ that with the rigidity of a larger unit is just not possible. (Credit: Alan Chia CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Military discipline is all very well and good but when it’s holding back your star players it’s a little restrictive. Likewise, everyone wanting to go it alone for the heroics is only going to get you killed. It’s about finding the balance. Like playing Messi as a false 9 for all you football folks. You still want the team cohesion, but by allowing slightly greater freedom to some you increase your chance of success.

That’s as much detail as I am willing to go into before I start sounding decidedly Gammonesque.

For the five years following the defeat at Lautulae the Romans went on a tear, and by 311 BCE the Etruscans, as we’ve talked about in their article, got themselves embroiled in the war, leading to their decisive battles at Lake Vadimo. Again, for the next five years or so Romans would dominate proceedings leading to eventual end of the second Samnite war in around 304 BCE.

The third Samnite war lasted between 298 BCE and 290 BCE – a fairly long campaign, with a little give-and-take that mostly resulted in Roman gains.

By the end of these three major conflicts Rome had achieved three things. Rome was now in touching distance of the two other great superpowers nearby, Carthage and Hellenistic Greece, specifically the nearby Kingdoms of Epirus and Macedonia.

A 5th-4th century BCE depiction of the Mediterranean basin – Phillip II and his son Alexander would form an alliance, a Panhellenism, of Greek states and turn that orange purple too, but it gives you a basic gist. Rome, in having pacified most of central Italy to its cause, was now close to butting heads with Greece in their colonies on the very South Coast of Italy. What’s more, Carthage and Greece would share Sicily and the Romans weren’t far from there either. Either Roman expansionism was going to have to stop, or else these great cultures were going to clash. But Romes expansionism was making a lot of people very rich and glorious. (Credit: Utah State University via intechopen, used without permission )

In pacifying (not conquering, as we shall find out) the Samnites of the Apennines, Rome has effectively broken the backbone of resistance to Rome in Central Italy. By this stage the embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Gauls was a distant memory. Indeed, if it served as anything it was a wake-up call, a sharp blow to Roman arrogance that they should never show themselves so weak again. Slowly but surely Rome’s influence was radiating out from this small city on the Tiber; first Latium, then Etruria, Umbria, Campania, now Samnium.

Throughout all these conflicts, slowly adding new populations, new lands and new citizens, Rome had enriched its population. It had given vast wealth and power to the few patricians at the top of the heap, and in the intervening years their greed had created such unrest that the plebeians were unhappy with their lot, too, and with the Lex Hortensia, had cemented a plebeian heap upon which one could climb, too.

But with all this new territory Rome was placing a target on its back, and the borders of its influence closer and closer to so very aggressive superpowers. The Samnite wars did not end until 290 BCE and as we’ve seen with the Gauls and Etruscans, those conflicts went on until around 282 BCE.

Again, for all of their talk of Pax, Romans were children of Mars. They enriched themselves on war, not peace.

Dating from around the 3rd or 4th century CE this Roman statue of Mars was found at Eboracum, modern York, in the UK. For hundreds of years prior to this Mars had been depicted not as a deity-of-on-high, not in swirling gowns or linens and clearly of-the-divine. He was depicted dressed as a Roman soldier. Soldiers were the fundamental business of the Roman empire, conquest was their trade, plunder was their stock, people were their currency. Sure they minted coins, but if you could fit 100 slaves in a purse on your belt Romans would have used those instead. (Credit: Carole Raddato, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Indeed it is with great sadness, as someone with no love for military history, that I have to tell you the next 200 years of Roman history are absolutely defined by war.

Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
Introduction
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE

Want to read more about Romans? We’ve got a little for you.

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia (Some might argue I did it better…), the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.

A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.

Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.

The Fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome – A look at the moral virtues of Roman life.

What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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