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Battle in Samnium, 322 BC

Battle in Samnium, 322 BC

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Battle in Samnium, 322 BC

According to Livy the Romans won a significant battlefield victory in Samnium during 322 BC (Second Samnite War), at an unnamed location, and with either a specially appointed Dictator or the consuls for the year in command.

The problem in identifying the commander pre-dated Livy's work. All of the records available to him agreed that A. Cornelius Arvina was appointed as Dictator during 322 BC, but they don't agree on the reason. In some sources he was appointed by the consuls Q. Fabius Rullianus (the victor of Imbrinium three years earlier) and L. Fulvius Curvus, when they learnt that the Samnites had raised a large army reinforced with mercenary troops. Arvina then commanded the army in Samnium. In the alternative tradition he was appointed Dictator in Rome after the praetor L. Plautius fell ill. His only duty was to officially start the chariot races for the year, and then he resigned. This second tradition was supported by the Fasti Capitolini, which credit the consuls with a triumph in this year,

Whoever was in command didn't make a particularly good job of the advance into Samnium, choosing a bad place for one of their camps. The Samnites took advantage of this mistake, and late in the evening built their own camp very close to the Roman position.

This must have put the Romans in a very vulnerable position, for that night their commander decided to retreat. The Samnite cavalry followed the retreating Romans, but didn't attack them until dawn. The Romans were then caught crossing difficult ground, and the Samnite infantry was able to catch up with the retreating army. The Roman commander decided to build a new camp where the army stood, but the Samnite cavalry prevented the Romans from gathering timber. The Romans were forced to turn and fight.

The fighting began at about nine in the morning, and continued without any advantage to either side until two in the afternoon. About then a party of Samnite cavalry found the Roman baggage, which had been sent on ahead of the army, and soon the entire Samnite cavalry force was attracted by the plunder. The Roman cavalry took advantage of the inevitable disorder that followed, and drove the Samnite cavalry off the battlefield. That left them free to ride around the main Samnite army and attack the infantry from the rear. Trapped between two Roman forces the Samnite line finally crumbled, and the army scattered. Livy states that the Samnites suffered very heavy losses, amongst them the commander of the army, who was killed by the Roman cavalry.

In the aftermath of this defeat the Samnites attempted to negotiate a peace deal. They found a scapegoat for the war in Brutulus Papius, an aristocrat who had been responsible for the renewal of the war after an earlier truce, but he killed himself before he could be handed over to the Romans. The Samnites had to make do with handing over his body, along with all Roman prisoners and booty captured during the war.

These peace offerings arrived at a Rome that was in a triumphant mood, and they were rejected. The war would continue in 321 BC, when the Romans would suffer one of the most embarrassing defeats in their history, at the Caudine Forks.

Roman Conquests: Italy, Ross Cowan. A look at the Roman conquest of the Italian Peninsula, the series of wars that saw Rome transformed from a small city state in central Italy into a power that was on the verge of conquering the ancient Mediterranean world. A lack of contemporary sources makes this a difficult period to write about, but Cowan has produced a convincing narrative without ignoring some of the complexity.

[read full review]

Battle of Geronium

The Battle of Geronium or Gerunium took place during the Second Punic War, where a large skirmish and battle took place in the summer and autumn of 217 BC respectively.

After winning the Battle of Ager Falernus, the army of Hannibal marched north then east towards Molise through Samnium. Hannibal was cautiously followed by the Roman army under the dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, keeping with the Fabian strategy. This policy was becoming unpopular in Rome, and Fabius was compelled to return to Rome to defend his actions under the guise of observing religious obligations.

Marcus Minucius Rufus, left in command, managed to catch the Carthaginians off guard near their camp in Geronium and inflict severe losses on them in a large skirmish, while losing 5,000 Romans killed. This action caused the Romans, disgruntled with Fabius, to elevate Minucius to the equal rank of the dictator. Minucius took command of half the army and camped separately from Fabius near Geronium. Hannibal, informed of this development, laid an elaborate trap, which drew out Minucius and his army in detail, and then attacked it from all sides. The timely arrival of Fabius with the other half of the army enabled Minucius to escape, but with a substantial number of Romans killed. After the battle, Minucius turned over his army to Fabius and resumed the duties of Master of Horse.

From 327 BC to 322 BC

Quintus Publilius Philo positioned his army between Paleopolis and Neapolis to isolate them from each other. The Romans introduced an institutional novelty. Publilius Philo and Cornelius Lentulus should have gone back to Rome at the end of their term to make way for the consuls elected for the next year, who would continue the military operations. Instead, their military command (but not their authority as civilian heads of the Republic) was extended until the termination of the campaigns with the title of proconsuls. In 326 BC two leading men of Naples, who were dissatisfied with the misbehaviour of the Samnite soldiers in the city, arranged a plot which enabled the Romans to take the city and called for renewed friendship with Rome. In Samnium the towns of Allifae, Callifae, and Rufrium were taken by the Romans. The Lucanians and the Apulians (from the toe of Italy) allied with Rome.

News of an alliance between the Samnites and the Vestini (Sabellians who lived by the Adriatic coast, to the north-east of Samnium) reached Rome. In 325 BC the consul Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva ravaged their territory, forced them into a pitched battle and took the towns of Cutina and Cingilia. The dictator Lucius Papirius Cursor, who had taken over the command of the other consul, who had fallen ill, inflicted a crushing defeat on the Samnites in an unspecified location in 324 BC. The Samnites sued for peace and the dictator withdrew from Samnium. However, the Samnites rejected Rome’s peace terms and agreed only a one-year truce, which they broke when they heard that Papirius intended to continue the fight. Livy also said that in that year the Apulians became enemies of Rome. Unfortunately, this information is very vague as the region of Apulia was populated by three separate ethnic groups, the Messapii in the south, the Iapyges in the centre and the Dauni in the north. We know that only Daunia (Land of the Dauni) was caught up in this war. However, this was a collection of independent city-states. Therefore, we do not know who in this area became enemies of Rome. The consuls for 323 BC fought on the two fronts, with C. Sulpicius Longus going to Samnium and Quintus Aemilius Cerretanus to Apulia. There were no battles, but areas were laid waste on both fronts. In 322 BC there were rumours that the Samnites had hired mercenaries and Aulus Cornelius Cossus Arvina was appointed as Dictator. The Samnites attacked his camp in Samnium, which he had to leave. A fierce battle followed and eventually the Samnites were routed. The Samnites offered to surrender, but this was rejected by Rome.



Second Samnite War (326-304 BC)

The First, Second, and Third Samnite Wars (343–341 BC, 326–304 BC and 298–290 BC) were fought between the Roman Republic and the Samnites, who lived on a stretch of the Apennine Mountains to the south of Rome and the north of the Lucanians. The Second Samnite War resulted from tensions which arose from Roman interventions in Campania. The immediate precipitants were the foundation of a Roman colony (settlement) at Fregellae in 328 BC and actions taken by the inhabitants of Paleopolis. View Historic Battle »

327-322 BC: Quintus Publilius Philo positioned his army between Paleopolis and Neapolis to isolate them from each other.

321-316 BC At the Caudine Forks: Gaius Pontius, the commander of the Samnites, placed his army at the Caudine Forks and sent some soldiers disguised as shepherds grazing their flock towards Calatia.

316-313 BC Operations at Saticula, Sora, and Bovianum: Aemilius was in a position which was difficult to attack, drove the Saticulans back into the town and then confronted the Samnites, who fled to their camp and left at night.

312-308 BC The Etruscans intervene: In 312 BC, while the war in Samnium seemed to be winding down, there were rumours of a mobilisation of the Etruscans, who were more feared than the Samnites.

307-304 BC Final campaigns in Apulia and Samnium: He defeated the Samnites in a pitched battle near Allifae and besieged their camp. The Samnites surrendered, passed under the yoke and their allies were sold into slavery.

Aftermath: After the defeat of the Hernici in 306 BC, Roman citizenship without the right to vote was imposed on this people, effectively annexing their territory.

Related Articles

First Samnite War (343-341 BC)

The Samnite Wars were fought between the Roman Republic and the Samnites. The first of these wars was the result of Rome's intervening to rescue the Campanian city of Capua from a Samnite attack. View First Samnite War (343-341 BC) »

Second Samnite War (326 to 304 BC)

The second one was the result of Rome's intervention in the politics of the city of Naples and developed into a contest over the control of much of central and southern Italy. The Samnites were one of early Rome's most formidable rivals. View Second Samnite War (326 to 304 BC) »

Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BC)

The wars extended over half a century and the peoples to the east, north and west of Samnium as well as the peoples of central Italy north of Rome and the Senone Gauls got involved to various degrees and at various points in time. View Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BC) »

Second Samnite War (326-304 BC)

The First, Second, and Third Samnite Wars (343–341 BC, 326–304 BC and 298–290 BC) were fought between the Roman Republic and the Samnites, who lived on a stretch of the Apennine Mountains to the south of Rome and the north of the Lucanians. The Second Samnite War resulted from tensions which arose from Roman interventions in Campania. The immediate precipitants were the foundation of a Roman colony (settlement) at Fregellae in 328 BC and actions taken by the inhabitants of Paleopolis.

Related Articles

First Samnite War (343-341 BC)

The Samnite Wars were fought between the Roman Republic and the Samnites. The first of these wars was the result of Rome's intervening to rescue the Campanian city of Capua from a Samnite attack. View Historic Battles »

Second Samnite War (326 to 304 BC)

The second one was the result of Rome's intervention in the politics of the city of Naples and developed into a contest over the control of much of central and southern Italy. The Samnites were one of early Rome's most formidable rivals. View Historic Battles »

Third Samnite War (298 to 290 BC)

The wars extended over half a century and the peoples to the east, north and west of Samnium as well as the peoples of central Italy north of Rome and the Senone Gauls got involved to various degrees and at various points in time. View Historic Battles »

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article "Samnite Wars", which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

Marcellus' successes and Centumalus' demise

The Roman advance in southern Italy continued in 210 BC. Two armies stood against Hannibal in Apulia. One was under the consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus. The proconsul Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus commanded the other. Their overall strength was four Roman legions, plus an approximately equal allied contingent. Γ] Since they operated not far from each other, Hannibal did not dare to challenge them. This allowed Marcellus to capture the city of Salapia (see the map), that was betrayed to him by a fraction of its citizens, and to destroy the Carthaginian garrison. Δ]

Following this setback, Hannibal retreated and a rumour was spread that he was going away to Bruttium. Upon learning this, Marcellus moved to Samnium and reduced two more towns that served as Carthaginian bases in this region. Ε] Meanwhile, Hannibal returned to northern Apulia with forced marches and managed to catch Centumalus off-guard when the latter was besieging Herdonia. Despite the Carthaginian numerical superiority the proconsul did not decline the battle. He arranged his army in two battle lines and clashed with the Carthaginian infantry. Hannibal waited until the Romans and their allies were fully engaged and sent his Numidian cavalry to surround them. Part of the Numidians attacked the Roman camp which was insufficiently protected. The others fell upon the rear legion and dispersed it. The same happened to the Romans fighting in the front line. Centumalus, eleven (out of twelve) military tribunes, and 7,000–13,000 Ζ] soldiers were slain. The rest were scattered and some escaped to Marcellus in Samnium. Γ] Ε]

A Samnite house

The Samnites gained a reputation as fierce and formidable warriors renowned for their brilliant cavalry and prompt attack and then they just as quickly disappeared. They were the first tribe to defeat Hannible in 217 BC.

Soldiering was a large part of the Samnite lifestyle. The warriors were only men and carried a rectangular shield tapered at the bottom and flared at the top. Warriors wore leather greave (skin armor) on the left leg to just below the knee and a band on the right ankle.

Their sword arm was protected with a leather armguard. Whey wore short hair and close beards and a winged helmet with crest, visor and plume on their heads. Their weapons were a short sword or javelin.

All Samnite warriors were required to swear a secret oath to follow their commander&aposs every order and to fight to the death.

When not fighting, they lived in the mountainous areas of Molise. The Samnites were pantheistic believing in many gods. In fact, it was through the gods that the Samnites believed they arrived in the Molise area of Italy. The story is an interesting one.

Circe, a sorceress, and daughter of the Sun god, detained Ulysses and his crew for a year on her island off the coast of Italy. According to legend, Circe then bore Ulysses two sons named Latinos and Ayrios (the barbarian). From these two sons sprang two great Italian societies - the Oscans and the Etruscans.

The Oscans eventually divided into two tribes - the Osci (laborers of the plain) and the Sabelli (sheep herders of the mountains). The Samnites, an off-shoot of the Sabelli, became the sheep herders of the Molise mountains.

And, it was throughout these Molise hills and mountains that the Samnites built more than one hundred hill-forts for defense. They chose highly defensible positions, for example in Frosolone, with its jagged rock formations.

Pietrabbondante was considered their most elaborate, cultural, religious and political sanctuary of the Petri tribe of Samnites. It was built atop a mountain. and it contained a theater with entry corridors (parados) and arches, and an orchestra with semi-circular tiered seating called the cavea.

Above all that sat the massive temple with a flight of stairs leading to the vestibule or pronaos. Archaeologists date the temple from the end of the second century BC. Within 150 years of the Iron Age, these village type settlements dominated the Molise region of the Italian Peninsula.

The villages and farmsteads of the Samnites were settled on open land lower than the hill forts. Palisades likely enclosed the villages offering some protection. There were no big landowners among the Samnites as everyone used pastoral land communally.

The Samnites&apos business transactions were inscribed on animal hides, clay tablets and they read from right to left. Their written language was standardized about the end of the 5th century BC.

Ancient Samnium had a high number of free persons as the Samnites did not keep slaves. Their emphasis was on group identity. It was a patriarchal society who respected the customs and beliefs of other peoples.

From the time of the Iron Age, the Samnites were goat and sheep herders for the meat, milk and wool. The seasonal herd migration was sacred and their routes in the Molise mountains formed the network of tralluri (pathways) that would be used for more than two thousand years. Ancient inscriptions, like sign-posts, have been found along the main routes.

They lived the semi-nomadi life of shepherds which gave the Samnites a love of independence. Large settlements such as Isernia, Venafro, Larino, Bojano, and Aquilona minted their own coins and had a monetary system in place.

Young Samnite men and women were not allowed to express emotion or romantic feelings toward one another. At annual gatherings, men chose their brides with the approval of the elders. The first choice of brides went to warriors who had distinguished themselves in battle.

The town of Pietrabbondante, Italy today.

The Battle of Caudine Forks. Second Samnite War.

The Second Samnite War

After the end of the Latin War in the 330's BC, the Romans expanded into the territory of the Aurunci and Sidicini to the south of the Volsci. They also attempted to reassert control of Campania by moving south across the Liris River. In 328 the Romans, clearly looking for another fight with Samnium, established a colony at Fregellae on the Liris in and another at Cales, earlier in 334 BC.

The Samnites, of course, found this to be an unacceptable intrusion by Rome, but were too pre-occupied to respond immediately. They were involved in a conflict with the Greek colony of Tarentum and its ally, King Alexander of Epirus. At the end of this war, in 331 BC, the Samnites were free to deal with the reality of Roman expansion. The Romans had claimed that the Samnites were encouraging the people of Neapolis to expand into the territories of Campania and necessitated the creation of colonies in disputed areas. The Samnites, in response, sent troops to garrison Neapolis (modern Naples), and the elite class called to Rome for help. In 327 BC, a Roman army arrived and threw out the Samnite garrison, setting off the Second Samnite War.

By the beginning of this renewed war, the Samnites controlled approximately twice as much territory, though mostly mountainous and not as fertile, as the Romans. Initially, the war went clearly in the favor of Rome, even prompting Samnium to sue for peace in 321 BC. The Romans over-confidant, offered terms that were so lopsided that the Samnites rejected them, and the war continued. While seemingly in dire straits, the Samnites would learn to use their mountainous terrain to their advantage, and turn the tides.

Later in 321 BC, the two Consuls for that year advanced a Roman army deeper into Samnite territory. The territorial advantaged Samnites, at what would become the Battle of the Claudine Forks, soon trapped the Romans in a mountain pass. Finding themselves completely surrounded and faced with certain annihilation, the Romans capitulated and were forced to march out under a "yoke of spears". The Romans were forced to give up their spears and march under them, a sign of the ultimate battlefield humiliation. Some sources suggest that Six hundred equites had to be handed over as hostages and the Romans had to pledge a five-year treaty while also giving up her colonies at Fregellae and Cales. Later Roman historians, however, tried to claim that these terms were rejected, but its quite clear that operations against Samnium did cease until about 316 BC.

In this 5-year respite, the Romans took the opportunity to strengthen their military position. In 318 they absorbed two more regional tribes, the Oufentina at the south of Volsci territory, and the Falerna to the north of Capua. They also surrounded the Samnites with Roman allies by attacking and overtaking the Apulia and Lucania to the east and south of Samnium. Several more tribes were forced to take allied status with Rome, further increasing the pressure on the Samnites.

When military operations resumed in 316, however, Rome still found itself on the losing side of the conflict. They were defeated in several successive engagements including a crushing defeat at Lautulae in 315. Within a year, Campania was on the verge of rejecting Rome and joining the Samnites, so the Romans were forced to sue for peace again with some of the Samnite factions. The Samnites, however, kept the pressure on by encouraging the Etruscans of Etruria to join them. By 311, at the end of a forty-year treaty, the Etruscans joined the conflict, but just at the time the tide was beginning to turn.

Initially the Romans were continuously defeated by both of their enemies, but between 311 and 304, they won a series of victories against both the Etruscans and the Samnites. In 308 BC the Etruscans were forced to capitulate on severe terms and in 304 BC the Samnites followed suit. While not conquered, the Samnites were severely weakened, and Rome, despite the struggle, came to take considerable territory where many new colonies were established.

In addition to the gain of territory, some ancient sources suggest that the Romans adopted the Manipular military formation of the Samnites as a result of their early successes. It was far more flexible than the hoplite system of the Greeks and Etruscans that Rome had been using, and allowed great maneuverability on all sorts of terrain and conditions. The system was in use throughout the Republic and later evolved into the cohort formation that would later conquer Europe.

The Second Samnite War is a perfect example of Rome's long-range campaign tactics and how planning for the long term would nearly always pay off. As a result of this strategy, the construction of the Via Appia (by Censor Appius Claudius) was begun in 312 and the Via Valeria in 306 BC. The Via Appia, covered the 132 miles between Rome and Capua in Campania, and provided a fast moving highway for the early legions to advance against the Samnites. The first of many remarkable Roman engineering achievements, literally paved the way for the conquest of Southern Italy.

This final decade of the fourth century was the culmination of resistance to Roman domination by several neighbors. The Aequi and Hernici both revolted and joined the Samnites. Several other previously unmolested tribes, the Marsi, Marrucini, Paeligni, Frentani and Vestini, also joined Samnium against Rome. Their efforts were too late to stop the spread of Roman expansion and in 305 BC a Roman victory led the Paeligni and Hernici to surrender. In 304 the Aequi were defeated in the same year the Samnites sued for peace, and all the other tribes of Central Italy would make alliances with Rome within another 2 years. The Samnites were still a thorn in Rome's side, however, and conflict would be renewed within the decade.

The Battle

According to Livy, the fight started early in the morning. Marcellus put his "I Legion" and "Right Alae Sociorum" in the front line. Γ] During the combat both units were relieved by the "III Legion" and "Left Alae". Punic forces described by Livy included Balearic slingers and Spanish infantry, as well as elephants. The battle lasted one day but after a hard fight the result was inconclusive, since it ended due to nightfall, Δ] with Hannibal retreating to Apulia the next day. Though Goldsworthy counts it as a marginal Roman victory. Ώ] Marcellus left his injured soldiers at the town to recover and followed Hannibal to hunt him in that territory, having minor engagements until the end of that year's campaign. Frontinus tells that the battle was won by Hannibal thanks to the surrounding terrain. Ε]

Both generals met again in battle the following year in Canusium. Numistro and Canusium were probably separated in time by no more than six months, as the former happened during the last period of the 210 BC consulship while the latter was in the early months of 209 BC.

Contact: Jeff Matthews

B y the year 1000 b.c. the great Indo-European migrations had spread along a broad front all the way from northern India to the Mediterranean and Western Europe, leaving in place on the Italian peninsula dozens of related tribes: Apuli, Lucani, Umbri, Campani, Marsi, Volsci, Falisci, Hernici, and so forth. Some of them are still remembered in geographical names on the map of modern Italy, and one of them, in particular, stands out: the Latini, a portion of whom by two or three hundred years into the millennium had settled on the Tiber river. Much later, when these "Romans," as victors always do, wrote the history of their conquests, they hung condescending tags on many other peoples of the peninsula—the Fat Etruscans, the Undemanding Umbrians, and so on. To at least one people, however, the Romans affixed a term that showed respect, even fear: belliger Samnis, the Warrior Samnites.

[For a separate item on "The Ancient Peoples of Italy," click here.]

If you head into the rugged terrain east of Naples, to Benevento, you enter an area called Safinim by its Oscan-speaking inhabitants of 500 b.c. and Samnium by Latin-speaking neighbors a few hundred miles to the north. Today, you will notice something very interesting on the tower in the main street. On one side there is a map of the Duchy of Benevento, the Lombard state that lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire to the coming of the Norman Kingdom of Naples in the 11th century. On the other side of the tower is a map of pre-Roman Samnium. There is nothing, whatever, to tell us that the area was ever part of anything called The Roman Empire. This "oversight" is, perhaps, a holdover from enmity that led to long bloody wars and even genocide, before this tough race of mountain warriors, the Samnites, in their stand against Rome, eventually went the way of the Etruscans, Greeks, and Carthaginians.

The Samnites were immigrants to the area, replacing the Opici (or Osci —Oscans), who, however, have given their name to the large family of languages spoken by many Indo-European inhabitants of Italy at the time, including the Samnites, the Sabines to the north of Rome, and the Campanians of this area. Oscan was related to Latin as, approximately, Spanish is to Italian, or English to German. The Samnites, themselves, had no written language until 425, when they penetrated western Campania and came in contact with the Greeks of Neapolis and subsequently adopted —and adapted— the Greek alphabet.

Setting aside the special cases of the earlier Etruscans and Greeks, 400 b.c. marks the beginning of various attempts by competing peoples in Italy to gain an upper hand. At that time, Samnium was already made up of a Samnite League of four peoples, the Caudini, Hirpini, Caraceni and Pentri, and their territory was bigger than any other contemporary state in Italy. (Names of other tribes generally held to be of Samnite origin, such as the Frentani , along the Adriatic coast, also crop up in sources about Samnium.) Although these people were generally landlocked between the mountains in today's eastern Campania and the plains of Puglia on the other side of the peninsula, at the point of their maximum expansion they actually controlled coastlines on both sides. They were bounded by Lucania in the south and Latium in the north. The first official dealing between the Samnites and Romans that we know of was a treaty they signed in 354 b.c., most likely a pact in the face of what were still formidable threats from the Etruscans as well as the ferocious Celts, who had sacked Rome a few years earlier.

By the middle of the 4th century the Romans were already enjoying some local success at consolidation. In 338 they had dissolved the Latin League, making other member peoples part of the Roman state in what had now become a Greater Latium of sorts. To the south, however, they were totally unable to play the sister peoples of Samnium off against one another. The Samnites were resistant to the outside world and content to hole up in the mountains, building their characteristic polygonal fortifications on the heights and living in a social system based on tribal communities. They hunted and herded, existing—subsisting—on the sparse soil and by barter. As warriors, their army was organized into cohorts and legions, much like the Romans, and they also used cavalry. Some speculate that the Romans borrowed the idea of those gruesome gladiatorial fights to the death from the Samnites, who at the time of their first face-offs with Rome already had the reputation of being merciless fighters who took no prisoners.

These were two stubborn peoples on a collision course. In retrospect, the Romans were more expansive (the irresistible force) and the Samnites more interested in digging in (the immovable object). Eleven years after the signing of the treaty, the first Samnite War broke out. It was over land in Campania. After two years of fighting it was a standoff, and the combatants agreed to renew their earlier pact. Rome, however, had gained northern Campania in the deal and become as big as Samnium.

Samnite archaeological site
at Pietrabbondante

The real struggle for the future of the peninsula began in 327 when the Samnites took over Naples with the help of an internal Samnite faction. The ensuing treaty between Naples and the Samnites swiftly brought the future empire builders into the fray, and for six years the second war between Rome and Samnium see-sawed back and forth in a series of indecisive border raids. In 321 the Romans tried to break the stalemate by heading into the heart of Samnium towards its most important city, Malventum (later rechristened "Beneventum" by the Romans, changing the name of the town, thus, from "ill wind" to "good wind"). They marched straight into an ambush of sorts there was, according to Roman historian, Livy, no real fighting although one does read and hear of the "Battle of the Caudine Forks." The Romans were bottled up at both ends of a valley with no hope of escape, at which point the Samnites, despite their bloodthirsty reputation, let their Roman prisoners go in exchange for Rome abandoning its colonies on the border of Samnium. The Romans were disarmed and humiliated by being made to pass beneath an arch, or yoke, as a symbol of their defeat. In spite of the lack of actual military action, it was a devastating experience for the Romans 2,300 years later the memory of it is still fresh in the modern Italian expression, le forche Caudine, as in "that was his Caudine Forks"—his downfall, his Waterloo, to use another appropriate military metaphor. (The Samnites would later discover that it doesn't pay to be nice to sore losers.)

The Romans spent the next five years signing treaties with southern Italian peoples, such as the Lucani, ensuring that in future conflicts Samnium would be surrounded. The Romans also rearmed, and hostilities in this Second Samnite War resumed in 316. Samnium thrust towards Rome, putting that city, itself, under threat of invasion. This was more or less the highwater mark of Samnium. Their attention was diverted, however, by Roman victories in the south and by a no-show on the battlefield by Samnium's potential allies from the north, the Etruscans. Peace broke out in 304. The Samnites returned to their mountain fortress, but they remained very powerful and unyielding foes.

Round 3 began a few years later. The last great threat to potential Roman domination of the peninsula came at the battle of Sentinum, near modern Ancona, in 295. Again, the allies of Samnium were elsewhere when it counted—yet the Samnites came close. It was a massive battle, in which a Samnite victory might have changed the history of Western civilization. "Coming close," however, counts in horseshoes—not at Marathon or Gettysburg. After 290, the Samnites were never again a match for the Romans, and that date traditionally marks the beginning of true Roman expansion.

What is commonly called the "Pyrrhic War" was also a fourth Samnite War. It lasted from 284 to 272 and entailed Pyrrhus of Epirus coming to Italy to protect the enclaves of Magna Grecia from the ambitious Romans. The Romans, themselves, viewed the affair as more than just another Samnite war because now other peoples on the peninsula were resisting the looming Roman hegemony. The Samnites sided with Pyrrhus, who, however, went home after paying a prohibitively high price for a victory at Beneventum. He has left us the expression "Pyrrhic victory," shorthand for, "With victories like this, who needs defeats?!" He also left the Samnites holding the bag. Their league was dismembered and they were made officially "allies of Rome," itself Roman shorthand for, "We don't trust you enough to make you Roman citizens, but you belong to us." The mountain warriors were now rapidly heading for the footnotes of history.

Samnite archaeological site
at Pietrabbondante

When Hannibal invaded Italy, the Samnites were split among themselves on whether or not to help him help them get rid of the Romans. Indeed, the first defeat of Hannibal on Italian soil was actually inflicted by an army of Samnite soldiers in 217 yet, Samnium continued to be regarded by the Romans as hostile, and potential trouble. The Samnites later confirmed this by joining all the wrong sides in the Social War, the enormous civil disorders at the beginning of the first century b.c., a series of conflicts between the Roman Republic and a number of members of the so-called Italic Confederation. As with Hannibal and Pyrrhus, the Samnites had again picked losers, and in doing so incurred the wrath of the winners, principal of whom was the Samnite-hating Roman general, Sulla (Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix: 138 BC-78 BC).

Contact: Jeff Matthews

The future of the southern Italian peninsula was shaped by the different peoples who inhabited it between the years 800 and 200 BC. These include the Etruscans, Greeks and the many Italian tribes such as the Latins, Campanians, Samnites, Sabines, etc. Such tribes had spread out much earlier into Europe from the east and southeast both as invaders and, more gradually, as farmers, giving up hunting and gathering for the more efficient process of tilling the soil. In the process they developed towns, government and written language. This slow process started before 6,000 BC.

By 1000 BC early Italic peoples were in place on the peninsula these are the peoples who would become the Latini, Sabines, Oscans, etc. etc. They were in place as a result of the Indo-European population diffusion, Indo-European being a term that declares common origin (3,000-4,000 years ago) of peoples as different as Swedes and Iranians or Punjabis and Spaniards. These pre-Italic Indo-Europeans can plausibly be figured to have started trickling onto the peninsula around 2500-2000 BC. There were, obviously, already some non-Indo-European inhabitants of Italy, just as there were elsewhere in Europe. (The caves in Matera have been lived in for 10,000 years, for example. There was also earlier prehistoric presence. See Homo Aeserniensis.) The most significant non-Indo-Europeans in early Italy were the Etruscans, but they were late-comers. (See below.) The extent to which Indo-Europeans mixed with or displaced (or even left alone) the earlier peoples they came in contact with on the peninsula is not clear. We can simply say that by the early part of the first millennium BC work in both linguistics and molecular genetics supports the idea of common Indo-European origin for a significant part of the population of Italy. This meant that the speakers of Latin (hence “Lazio,” the area around Rome) spoke a language like Oscan, the language of their neighbors the Sabines, Samnites and Campanians (Naples is in “Campania”). Though no modern descendant of Oscan exists, it was to Latin as, say, modern Italian is to Spanish. An additional sister language of Latin was Umbrian, spoken by inhabitants of central Italy.

With that brief introduction, here then is a cast of some of the peoples who made southern Italy (with a few others thrown in from up north!):

The Etruscans. Having mentioned “Indo-European” it is noteworthy that this truly great ancient culture was not Indo-European. Their language (written in an alphabet borrowed from the Greeks) has never been deciphered. At one time, scholars thought they might have arrived in Italy long enough ago to be called “indigenous —perhaps descendants of the stone-age cave painters of 20,000 years ago. Recent thought, however, places them much later. They may have arrived in the 9th century BC from Lydia, the area of the mainland opposite the Greek island of Samos. In any event, they built the first true towns in Italy. The Etruscans were a loose federation centered in what is now Tuscany. At one time, the Etruscans ruled the Romans that ended in 509 BC when the Romans overthrew the Etruscan King, Tarquin, and declared itself a Republic. The Etruscans made their last bid for historical permanence a few years later at the battle of Cuma against the Greeks. They lost. Then, in 396 BC the Etruscan city of Veil fell to a Roman siege and the Etruscans were assimilated. Their influence extended far enough south into what is now the Campania region of Italy to be included in this summary.

The Greeks. Between 800 and 500 BC the peoples of the Aegean peninsula and archipelago colonized portions of Sicily and the southern Italian peninsula. Those settlements made up “Magna Grecia”—Greater Greece. There arose in Italy centers of Hellenic culture, marketplaces for the ideas of Archimedes, Pythagoras and Plato, ideas that so influenced later Roman conquerors that today most Europeans regard themselves as inheritors of a wondrous hybrid culture called 'Greco-Roman'.

In 750 BC Greeks founded the first colony of Magna Grecia, Pithecusae, on the island of Ischia. There followed Cuma and Paestum on the nearby mainland and Syracuse in Sicily, which became one of the great cities in the ancient Greek world. Naples, itself, was founded as 'Parthenope' in the 6th century BC. It was rebuilt somewhat inland a few years later and called New City, Neapolis—Naples. Magna Grecia suffered from fragmentation and was not a single entity. The settlements of Greater Greece were independent and spent much of their time fighting each other. They never managed to unite against their true enemies: Carthage and Rome.

By the 4th century BC. Sicily had become so powerful that its ruler, Dionysus, tried to establish a single Empire of Magna Grecia. He couldn't, however, fend off the increasingly belligerent Romans, who took Taranto in 272 BC, putting an end to Magna Grecia. (To read a separate article on Greek Naples, click here.)

Other peoples lived along the Tiber river among these were, of course, the Latini. There is confusing historical overlap of Latini and Romans. Traditionally, Rome is said to have been founded in 753 by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War. Well before Virgil’s treatment of this legend, the Romans regarded Aeneas as the founder of their race, the one who succeeded Latinus, king of the local tribe, and whose descendant, Romulus, founded Rome. Archaeology places Latini culture as early as 1100 BC. True imperial expansion of Rome starts in 295 BC when the Romans, at the Battle of Sentium (near modern Ancona), put an end to the competition in Italy by defeating a combined force of Samnites and Etruscans.

•Along the Tiber, too, were the Sabines. Various accounts of The Abduction of the Sabine Women show just how dangerous it was to live next-door to Romulus & Sons. The proximity of the Sabines to Rome has made it difficult to identify their ruins with certainty, although there are some from as early as the 9th century BC. The Sabines were related to the Samnites to the south, and they adopted writing from the Etruscans.

•Other neighbors of the Romans in central Italy were the Volscians and the Equians. Most knowledge of them comes from later Roman historians complaining about these piddling little peoples getting in the way of real empire! They were Indo-European and spoke languages closely related to Latin.

The Samnites were an important sister tribe of the Latins. Their capital was modern Benevento in the rugged terrain east of Naples. At the time of the first contacts between Roman and Samnite (around 350 BC), Samnium was larger than any other contemporary state in Italy. For almost two centuries, the Romans and Samnites fought for control of South/Central Italy. As warriors, the Samnites were ferocious, and some say they were the ones who gave the Romans the idea for those gruesome gladiator fights to the death. In the year 321 BC Samnium defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Caudine Forks near Benevento. It was one of the most devastating defeats in Roman military history. The Romans, however, rearmed and prevailed. In 82 BC the history of the Samnites as a distinct people came to an end when Sulla defeated them at one last battle and slaughtered the thousands of Samnite prisoners. The remaining inhabitants of Samnium were dispersed. Today, there is a Samnite museum in Benevento and an impressive archaeological site, Pietrabbondante, in the mountains of the province of Isernia. (To read a separate item on the Samnites, click here.)

The Siculians (Sikeloi) inhabited eastern Sicily, having migrated there from Campania. Remains from 1000 BC have been found that show the influence of the earlier great Mycenaean culture of Crete. The Greeks later wrote that they had received land from the Siculian King, Hyblon, to build a city. The island was also inhabited by two other groups: the Sicanians (Sikanoi) in the center (also from mainland Italy) and the Elymians (Elymoi) in the west with their important city of Segesta. All three were in place when the Greeks started to spread out into Magna Graecia. Of these three, the Elymoi are the most interesting because it is not all clear where they came from. Like all other groups in Italy, they adopted the Greek alphabet, but nothing has been deciphered. The situation is similar to that of the Etruscans (above). One possible conclusion is that they were not Indo-Eoropean and, like the Etruscans, came from Anatolia. All of these pre-Greek peoples of Sicily were Hellenized quickly and then the Greek city-states of Sicily were eventually assimilated by Rome. (The small scale bar at the lower left in 100 km/60 mi long.)

The Enotrians inhabited the Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts. The Greeks, upon their arrival in Italy, regarded the Enotrians almost mythically, holding them to be descended from the ancient pastoral people of Arcadia. Tradition spoke of the first great Enotrian King, Italos, who organized their culture in the middle of the second millennium BC. (Somehow, the name “Italos” stuck!) By the sixth century BC the Enotrians had merged with the history of Magna Grecia. Another etymology for the word "Italy" suggests that it derives from Viteliu an Oscan word for "calf," that animal being the totem of a central-Italian tribe in the first millennium b.c. It is a fact that the first use of "Italy" to denote a political unit was for "The Italic Confederation", a short-lived union of central Italic peoples that united against Rome in the Social War of 91 b.c.

The Opicians lived in ancient Campania, the region in which Naples is located. The Greeks, themselves, wrote of having founded Cuma “in Opicia”. Pre-Greek Opician items have, in fact, been found at Cuma. The Opicians were a farming people and had early contact with the Etruscans.

The area of central Italy on the Adriatic known today as Le Marche was home to the Picenians. Evidence along the coast indicates that they were navigators and part of a series of “trading posts” connecting the early peoples of the Adriatic to the Mycenaean culture to the south. In the 8th century BC, the Etruscans started encroaching on these peoples somewhat later the Greeks did the same from the south. Picenian tombs have been found with warriors dressed in full battle armor, not a common burial ritual among early peoples of Italy.

The Ligurians were the eponym of the modern Italian region, Liguria, a narrow northwestern coastal strip with Genoa as capital. Most sources say that the ancient Ligurians occupied a much larger area, stretching into modern France and east into the Po river basin and into the Alps to the northeast. There are remains from as early as 1300 BC, but there is no unanimity of opinion as to origins of the people. Some claims put them at the beginning of the Indo-European invasions before 2000 BC and some say they are indigenous in the area even before those invasions. The Ligurians dealt not only with the Etruscans to the West and Veneti to the east, but even with northern peoples from beyond the Alps.
Also see this link.

The area around Venice was thriving well before the founding of the famous city (a “recent” event —the 5th century AD!). As early as 1000 BC a people lived there whom we call Veneti. The Greeks wrote of them, and the early Venetians seem to have been traders much like their descendants, trading glass, amber and ceramic items along the Adriatic coast. They traded with the Etruscans to the west and adopted the alphabet from them. They also traded north of the Alps, where they acquired horses.

Today’s Puglia was home to various groups known collectively as Iapigi. Prominent were the Messapians, originally from Illyria, across the Adriatic (modern Albania). They controlled a strategic part of the southern Adriatic, a fact evident to the Greeks who tried to settle there at mid-millennium. The Greeks who founded Taranto wrote of intense conflict with the Messapians. In spite of wars between them, trade also flourished and late Messapian pottery is often adorned with figures from Greek mythology.

The Umbrians, too, have given their name to a region of modern Italy. They traded with the Etruscans and were highly regarded as warriors. They fought and lost alongside of the Etruscans against the Greeks at the famous battle of Cuma in the 6th century BC, a defeat that marked the end of Etruscan power in Italy.

The Nuraghi culture on the island of Sardinia. (See separate item.)

There, that’s some of them. My treatment of Indo-European diffusion was hasty, given the brief space for this entry. Also, I did not deal with the important, but brief, incursions into Italy by Carthage and by the Celts. Lastly, remember that there were countless small tribes, Indo-European and non, historic and pre-, who simply came and went unnoticed. There’s a bit of cave-painter in a lot of us.

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making

Some might say Julius Caesar was the most influential figure in Roman history. Others might nominate Brutus, the man who drove out the last of Rome&rsquos kings, or Augustus, who 700 years later essentially went on to became one. But although this figure&rsquos admittedly less known, there&rsquos another strong contender for being one of Roman history&rsquos most influential: the humble pullarius, or &ldquopriest of the sacred chickens&rdquo.

The pullarius was responsible for keeping sacred chickens and using them to make divinations or &ldquopredictions.&rdquo These holy birds, which had been sourced from the island of Negreponte (now Euboea, near Athens), were kept unfed in their cages for a predetermined amount of time before being released and presented with some grain. If they ate the grain, the venture upon which the Romans were consulting them was deemed favorable. If they didn&rsquot touch it, however, the venture lacked the god&rsquos backing and was therefore to be abandoned.

This was just one of many forms of augury — not to be confused with &ldquoorgy&rdquo, though the Romans had plenty of those too — that completely consumed Roman decision-making. There were many ways of trying to divine the will of the gods through auguring. Observing and interpreting natural or manmade phenomena — a thunderstorm, perhaps, or an inauspicious chant by the crowd at the games — are a couple of examples. But the most common, ritualized, and legal methods of auguring were getting a priest to either read the entrails of a slaughtered animal or extrapolate meaning from the behavior of birds.

Bas relief depicting a haruspex (the priest responsible for the reading of entrails) hard at work. Theodore Darlymple

Augury was central to Roman policymaking if the auguries weren&rsquot good, the undertaking would be abandoned. If you think that&rsquos insane, imagine how Rome&rsquos enemies must have felt (frustrated, most likely chickens being notoriously difficult to bribe). I mean it&rsquos not like antiquity was lacking in genius. These were, after all, the centuries that produced Socrates and Plato Cicero and Virgil. You might have thought one of Rome&rsquos enemies would consider sneaking some food into the coops: satiating the sacred chickens&rsquo hunger and thereby saving their city from marauding Roman forces.

Then again, in the one episode for which we have any substantial information about the pullarius such guile wasn&rsquot even necessary. For as important as the sacred chickens were to the superstitious practices of the Romans, on this one occasion they were simply ignored. The episode in question took place during the Third Samnite War (298 &ndash 290 BC), fought between the Roman Republic and one of its southern, persistently troublesome neighbors, the Samnites.

The Samnites inhabited the area of what is now the Italian region of Campania — famous for cities such as Naples, and sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and of course Vesuvius. As native speakers of Oscan, the Samnites were linguistically and ethnically different from the Latin speaking Romans. They were politically autonomous too, eventually bringing them into conflict with territorially snowballing Romans.

Map of Ancient Samnium. The site of the battle, the city of Aquilonia, appears here as Beneventum (a name later given by the Romans). Wikimedia Commons

This wasn&rsquot the first time the two powers had come to blows. As the name of the war suggests, they had already fought two wars, in the late fourth century BC, when Rome began expanding southwards. Rome had won both, but not without suffering some serious and humiliating defeats, particularly at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC. The Third Samnite War wouldn&rsquot be the last conflict between the two either. The Samnites were the last to hold out against the Romans during the so-called Social War of the 90s and 80s BC an effort that ushered in their ethnic cleansing under the ruthless Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla.


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