Rome: Origins of the Empire, Part Three

Samnite Wars

As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and the successive campaigns to control the Italian peninsula lasted several centuries.

In its formative years as a republic, Rome expanded locally but its greatest weakness came in the form of natural defences. With few natural obstacles surrounding the city, an approaching enemy force could be at the city walls within a matter of days.

To expand, Rome would need to militarise on a level it had not seen thus far in its history. It would need to flex its muscle and draw upon every ounce of ingenuity to achieve hegemony over the host of tribes and city states which littered the Italian peninsula.

The Samnite Wars

Many moments throughout Rome’s history propelled the Republic – and later the Empire – into greater positions of power. From the Punic Wars to the conquest of Gaul, Rome continually expanded at a rate matched perhaps only by Macedon under Alexander.

The Samnite Wars can be acknowledged as the moment in which Rome became a true regional power and heralded an era of unprecedented growth.

Lasting over fifty years, the Samnites are among Rome’s first formidable opponents in the Italian peninsula, and their domain encompassed large parts of eastern and southern Italy. With such a compact patchwork of regional powers, it was inevitable that Rome and the Samnites would eventually clash.

The first conflict erupted as a result of alleged Samnite aggression against the Lucanians, who inhabited a region to the south of Rome.

In particular, the city of Capua was at risk of capitulating to Samnite advances. And if the city were to fall then the risk posed to Rome itself would increase tenfold. It would essentially act as a staging ground for any future attacks on Roman-held territory.

Samnite Wars
A map detailing Roman conquests.

The Romans weren’t a people hellbent on mindless conquest. Often throughout their history, conflict arose due to political ties with neighbouring tribes or other powers. We see this later on during the Seleucid Wars, campaigns in which Rome entered at the request of others.

Let us not forget either that before their eventual conquest of Gaul, Rome was invited by Gallic tribes to help them against Germanic tribes. At least, this is the case if one were to believe the honesty of Caesars writings on the matter.

The first Samnite War is no different. Capua forced Rome to act pre-emptively. It is the 3rd century BC equivalent of pre-war manoeuvring that we see in the build up to the First World War. Act decisively to avoid future doubt.

Campanian Surrender

Livy’s accounts of the Samnite Wars detail how Rome was forced into the affair between the Campanians to their south, and the ongoing conflict with the Samnites.

Efforts to quell the advance of the Samnites failed quite conclusively, with defeat enabling the aggressors to take up positions surrounding Capua. In an effort to bring Roman power into the equation, the Campanians petitioned the Roman senate to intervene, highlighting that a potential partnership between the two peoples would prove fruitful in both military and economic terms.

However, Rome was not prepared to enter the fray at such a time, and so in an effort to force their hand the Campanian representatives formally surrendered the city of Capua and its inhabitants into the hands of Roman power.

This will prove a common occurrence in centuries to come; Tribal nations forcing Rome into action. And on several occasions it would prove costly.

Compelled to act, Rome agreed to enter the affair and thus hostilities between Rome and the Samnites formally commenced.

Broken Ties

Some years before, in around 350BC, Rome and the Samnites agreed upon regional boundaries and adhered to what can only be described as a series of non-aggression pacts. In response to their advances in Campania, Roman ambassadors demanded that Samnite forces withdraw from the region and cease hostilities – they were met with a quintessentially brutish response.

Speaking of their refusal to withdraw, Livy states: “Not only did the Samnites declare their intention of waging war against Capua, but their magistrates left the council chamber, and in tones loud enough for the envoys to hear, ordered their armies to march out at once into Campanian territory and ravage it.”

As previously noted, Livy and other contemporary sources must be taken with a pinch of salt. On this occasion – and several others in later years – the narrative points toward Roman honour being a major issue in the affair.

They view themselves as being burdened with the responsibility of defending lesser neighbouring powers. And when one considers Rome’s track record historically, paints a quite contradictory picture.

A Hard-Fought Campaign

Livy’s account of the first Samnite conflict highlights three particular engagements, each with varying levels of success.

Roman consuls Marcus Valerius Corvus and Aulus Conrelius Cossus marched separately against the Samnites in central Italia, with the former marching to Campania and the latter into Samnium.

Valerius is victorious in the first engagement at Mount Gaurus, near Cumae, but it was a hard-fought victory. A battle lasting the whole day was finally put to rest after a last-ditch Roman charge in the dying light broke Samnite lines.

Cornelius Cossus is thought to have been ambushed by a sizeable force in a mountain pass, and a massacre looked imminent. However, the valiant actions of a military tribune saved the day.

Samnite Wars

In the midst of battle, Publius Decius is said to have led a detachment of Roman troops to seize a hilltop position, thus distracting Samnite forces and allowing a window of opportunity for the bulk of Roman troops to withdraw and regroup. In the dim light of the following morning, Roman troops, well rested and prepared for another skirmish, attacked the Samnites and thoroughly routed the enemy host.

With Samnite forces scattered and desperately low on supplies, Valerius struck the killer blow when scouts discovered their camp. Unprepared and with supply lines broken, the Samnites capitulated.

This marks the end of the First Samnite War.

Returning victorious, the consuls were greeted with adulation, and the Roman senate was even presented with a gift from the Carthaginian assembly. This victory appears to have raised eyebrows across the Mediterranean.

The Great Samnite War

The first bout in the long-running Samnite Wars had resulted in Roman victory, however peace was to be short lived. The inter-war years saw a number of conflicts on the Italian peninsula erupt, specifically between the Sidicini and Aurinci tribes. Rome took favour with the Aurinci as they had not opposed Rome during the previous Samnite conflict.

This stoked tensions in the region further and pushed Rome and Samnium closer to conflict.

With Roman expansion beginning to gather pace, this also added to the cauldron of tension in the area. Roman colonies were continually being established to the south and local land disputes were proving to be the breaking point for relations between neighbouring tribes.

The breaking point came when the Roman colony of Fregellae was attacked by inhabitants of Paleopolis, built on the site of modern-day Naples

Paleopolis translates to “old city”, and the new site of the town – Neapolis – was built after the city had been previously sacked by the Samnites.

The Samnites argued that Fregellae was within their area of control, and so any Roman colony was viewed as an act of aggression. As the Romans had a vested interest in the Campania region, it is likely that they viewed this colony as a means to expand even further.

With the attack on Fregellae, the Romans played their diplomatic games. Actively petitioning the Samnite Neapolis colony to cease hostilities, they were likely aware of the fact that no such agreements would be met.

Rome declared war and thus the Second – or ‘Great’ – Samnite War erupted.

Samnite Wars

Two consular armies were swiftly dispatched upon the outbreak of war, with Lucius Cornelius Lentulus marching on Neapolis and Quintus Publilius Phillo penetrating deep into Campania in an effort to prevent Samnite forces from mobilising.

In Rome, rumours of levy raising throughout Samnite territory were rife, and as we witnessed in the previous conflict, these forces were highly mobile and capable of taking on a Roman legion in a variety of terrains.

As such, quelling attacks by Neapolis was the primary goal. Once this was dealt with, Rome could focus its attention fully on the Samnite problem.

There are several different story arks in the Great Samnite War. We have a number of tribes from the Italian peninsula involved, as well as King Alexander of Epirus – a Greek kingdom lying on the opposite side of the Adriatic.

Rome allies itself with the Appulians and Lucanians to the south of Samnium; essentially enveloping the Samnites and restricting any large-scale movement of forces.

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Politicking in Neapolis results in a plot to allow the Romans into the city in order to oust the Samnite levies stationed there. Consular armies continue to ravage the Samnium region, with the cities of Rufrium, Callifae and Allifae all seized.

In the east of Italia, the Samnites ally themselves with the Vesteni tribe, and in response a Roman army under the command of Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva lays waste to their holdings and forces the Vesteni into a pitched battle.

The subsequent engagement cripples the Vesteni, with their forces proving no match for the highly organised Roman host.

Rome was winning this conflict. Land seized would fare them well in years to come, yet accounts from the time, specifically from Livy, highlight a particular lack of action from the Samnites.

Sporadic engagements occur, but as of yet no conclusive victory or defeat had been inflicted upon either side. This changes in 324BC when the Samnites are said to have been routed and cut to ribbons. The location of this battle is unspecified, but we are led to believe it is deep within their own territory.

The Caudine Forks

No nation state or people can stomach humiliation. Rome was no different, and their retribution was often absolute. However, on this occasion they were dealt a crushing blow to their ego.

Thrusting deep into Samnite territory, a Roman Army led by Titus Veterius Calvinus and Spurius Postumius Albinus was destined for defeat. Deep within the Apennine Mountain range very few armies could manoeuvre or effectively engage an enemy force.

It is worth pointing out that at this time, Roman forces were not in what we would call the ‘traditional’ model. The Romans, along with many others throughout the Mediterranean, used the phalanx system.

It is at the Caudine Forks that the Roman host is surrounded. With paths of retreat blocked by Samnite forces, we come to a stalemate. With the Romans unwilling to surrender without a fight, all the Samnites needed do was wait. This treacherous mountain pass was heavily forested, with virtually no room to manoeuvre and yet the Romans do try to force a withdrawal.

Skirmishes to the rear occur and Livy recounts ferocious fighting in an effort to pierce through Samnite lines and make a break for Roman territory. No breakthrough would happen though, and the Romans, surrounded, weary and tired, are forced to accept terms of surrender.

This is a dark moment for Rome. Their fighting men are forced to disgrace themselves before the victors and pass through crowds of baying victorious Samnites. Furthermore, they are required to leave behind all weapons and equipment, which for a Roman soldier to be disarmed, is a mark of disgrace.

Roman prisoners depart in shame.

With Rome forced into negotiations the colony of Fregellae was ceded and 600 hostages from noble houses and the political class were taken as a bartering tool for any future disputes.

A five-year peace treaty was established between Rome and Samnium, and although this event marks an apparent historic defeat for the Romans, it serves as a priceless opportunity to regroup and prepare for future offensives.

Rome is given a free pass to organise for a massive counterstrike. To the Samnites, this period of peace may appeared to have been a welcomed respite from costly conflict, but the storm would return.

This was no ordinary city state or tribe, this was the well-oiled, highly tuned machine that was Rome. Even in its early years, Rome’s ability to mobilise and coordinate its economic and military efforts is virtually unparalleled in the western world, albeit on a smaller scale than that of Macedon or Carthage.

Rome would not stop until this war was won.


During this downtime Rome undergoes somewhat of a military and economic transformation, enacting a raft of institutional reforms. Military standards would change, with Rome switching from the traditional Greek styled phalanx toward a three-line system known as the ‘Maniple’.

Essentially, Rome had changed its fighting style toward what we consider to be the ‘traditional’ Roman combat style. This allowed for greater flexibility on the field and, in situations similar to the Caudine Forks, their forces are able to fight and manoeuvre in tight spaces.

This three-line system also allowed for reserves, which in the event of a flanking manoeuvre from the enemy, or an attack from the rear, they are able to compensate for attacks from all angles. This fighting style would serve the Romans well in Samnium and its mountainous terrain.

On the diplomatic front, Rome was beginning to make headway in establishing alliances with Samnium’s southern neighbours, the Lucanians and Appulians. With these regional alliances we begin to see the complete envelopment of Samnium; they are now at the mercy of Rome and its allies.

The Samnite Wars Resume, 316BC

War resumes in in 316BC and immediately Rome suffers several defeats. Their strategy for neutralising the Samnites was not going to plan and their southern allies appear to be on the verge of deserting Rome.

In addition to this disastrous beginning to the conflict, in 311BC several Etruscan cities join the war on the side of Samnium and win a number of initial victories. Luckily for Rome, not all of Etruria joined the affair, with several powerful cities deciding against campaigns.

This is a blessing, as conflict on several fronts was likely to have resulted in a crushing defeat..

Rome’s military reforms were also beginning to bear fruit, and in both 310 and 308BC Fabius Maximus Rullianus defeats the Etruscans in the open field, thereby driving their northern neighbours out of the war.

Moving south, Rome achieves several victories in Campania and they succeed in completely driving the Samnites from the region, as well as recovering territory lost as part of the previous peace treaty.

Rome is now in a position to strike at the heart of Samnium from all sides. This is enough to bring the Samnites to the negotiating tables, but this time on Roman terms. In 304 yet another treaty is signed between the two warring powers and Rome is thoroughly in the driving seat throughout talks.

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Rome is now essentially the most powerful economic and military entity on the Italian Peninsula and so discussions appear to have been one-sided.

Talks are fruitful for Rome and it could be argued that the subsequent treaty heralds the end for Samnium. The building of Rome’s first highway, the Appian Way, would link the capital with Capua and allow Roman forces to travel far quicker in any future affair, thus solidifying their hold on the region.

With the end of the Great Samnite War, we see a new Rome rising. A modern power with an infrastructure that enables it to dominate the Italian Peninsula and places the state firmly in the driving seat of regional politics.

Rome’s ability to reflect on defeat and consolidate its position is what makes it such an effective power. Many other nations, kingdoms and powers may have fallen apart in the face of a disastrous event such as the Caudine Forks or buckled under the strain of fighting on several fronts.

Roman versatility is what makes it a true superpower of the ancient world.

The End of the Samnite Wars, 298 to 290BC

To describe the period that followed as a peaceful one would be an outright lie. Despite peace between Rome and Samnium, several wars on Rome’s northern frontier erupted. Specifically with the Etruscans in 302BC – and later in 299BC with the Umbrians who lay to the north east of Roman territory.

The Samnites could smell blood in the water. Eagerly awaiting Rome to reach a point of apparent weakness before striking deep into the heart of Campania. The Samnites wanted their lost territory back, and in 298, deep into conflict with the Etruscans, Samnium saw its chance. The final act in the Samnite Wars began.

Rome would once again have to fight on several fronts. Their power had grown since the last conflict, however, and the city state was now well equipped to engage in such a conflict.

An alliance of epic proportions was formed to tackled Rome, with the Samnites, Umbrians, Etruscans, Sabines and Gauls to the north of the Italian peninsula all combining their efforts to stem the growth of a power they feared would envelope them all.

Taking out each power individually was Rome’s main objective in its regional aspirations, and so fighting a combined force from all their neighbours would require a Herculean effort.

Once again in times of peril Rome turns to its experienced commanders and statesmen. Consuls Cornelius Scipio Barbatus and Fulvius Maximus Centumalus would lead the defence of Rome and take the fight to all of Italia.

Scipio pierces deep into Etruria, and when the Etruscans refuse to meet him in the open field, he laid siege to several cities and ravaged the countryside. With the Etruscans in complete disarray and virtually subdued, Fulvius strikes at the heart of Samnium and scores an epic victory at Bovianum.

The following years would see Fabius Maximus Rullianus and Publius Decius Mus elected as consuls and lead their forces to the south, achieving victory at Tifernum. Although this battle was inconclusive and allowed Samnite forces drive northward to link up with the Gauls, Etruscans and Umbrians.

This combined force is thought to have stood in the region of 80,000 men.

Decius ravages Samnium and Fabius launches diversionary attacks across Etruria and neighbouring regions. This attempt to divide the allied forces is successful and when Etruscan forces head home to protect their territory, the Romans now have a situation they can effectively handle.

The Battle of Sentinum, 295BC

Consuls Fabius and Decius are re-elected as consuls and are due to face off against a massive, combined force of 50,000. With 40,000 men, the Roman force divides into two separate blocks with reserves and Campanian cavalry held behind the main force.

For two days both sides stood firm and refused to make the first move. However, Fabius was in no mood for games, and with Rome making the first move we see ferocious close quarters fighting across the field of Sentinum.

The Gallic chariots crashed into Roman lines causing complete disarray and shattering their left flank. In response to this the Romans begin to flee.

Desperate to restore order along the left flank, Decius launches a near-suicidal attack straight into the Gallic lines and dies in the process. In complete disarray the Romans appear to be on the ropes.

The thunderous roar of chariots and the clashing of steel would likely have been deafening, but the Romans, emboldened by Decius’ valour, begin to plug the gaps in their line. Fabius’ keeps a level head and deploys half of his reserves to assist the wavering left flank, for if it were to fall into full retreat then his force would stand no chance against a full-on Gallic charge.

Fabius’ actions at Sentinum prevented disaster. Rather than losing his cool and throwing everything he has into the fray, he decides to first win his own battle against the weaker Samnite forces.

Deploying the remaining reserves on the right enables him to thoroughly dispose of the Samnites and turn his focus toward the now tiring Gauls. With his Campanian cavalry attacking the Gauls from the rear the Samnites flee the field; now all that remains is the Gallic force on his left.

Alone and in danger of being surrounded the Gauls lose heart and begin to flee, with the Romans in hot pursuit of both enemy forces. Hundreds, even perhaps thousands are cut down in the ensuing panicked retreat, with Campanian cavalry picking off Gauls and Samnites with relative ease.

Victory was achieved, and the largest battle fought on Italian soil thus far had come to an end. Contemporary sources state casualties on the Roman side were between six and eight thousand, with the Gauls and Samnites losing anywhere up to 25,000 men. Truly staggering numbers.

Although sporadic fighting continued, Samnium’s time as an independent state was essentially over. After this defeat, they would be firmly under the control of Rome and the Gauls would not venture south for quite some time.

In later years, Samnium would prove a thorn in Rome’s side during the Pyrrhic Wars, but by all means, they are a fallen power.

The Samnite Wars and decades of turmoil had served Rome well. Although the defeats and humiliation would still haunt Roman minds, they now rested easy, safe in the knowledge that they alone were the source of absolute power on the Italian Peninsula.

Their rise to dominance was set in motion and in the decades and centuries to come, Romans may have looked back at the Samnite Wars and acknowledged that these moments were pivotal points in their history.

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