Text #9207"Samnite Wars", in .
Diodorus Siculus and Livy report that in 354 BC Rome and the Samnites concluded a treaty, but neither lists the terms agreed upon. Modern historians have proposed that the treaty established the river Liris as the boundary between their spheres of influence, with Rome’s lying to its north and and the Samnites’ to its south. This arrangement broke down when the Romans intervened south of the Liris to rescue the Campanian city of Capua (just north of Naples) from an attack by the Samnites.
Livy is the only preserved source to give a continuous account of the war which has become known in modern historiography as the First Samnite War. In addition, the Fasti Triumphales records two Roman triumphs dating to this war and some of the events described by Livy are also mentioned by other ancient writers.
According to Livy, the First Samnite War started not because of any enmity between Rome and the Samnites, but due to outside events. The spark came when the Samnites without provocation attacked the Sidicini, a tribe living north of Campania with their chief settlement at Teanum Sidicinum. Unable to stand against the Samnites, the Sidicini sought help from the Camanians. However, Livy continues, the Samnites defeated the Campanians in a battle in Sidicine territory and then turned their attention toward the Campanians. First they seized the Tifata hills overlooking Capua (the main Campanian city) and, having left a strong force to hold them, marched into the plain between the hills and Capua. There they defeated the Campanians in a second battle and drove them within their walls. This compelled the Campanians to ask Rome for help.
At Rome, the Campanian ambassadors were admitted to an audience with the Senate. In a speech, they proposed an alliance between Rome and the Campanians, noting how the Campanians with their famous wealth could be of aid to the Romans, and that they could help to subdue the Volsci, who were enemies of Rome. They pointed out that nothing in Rome’s treaty with the Samnites prevented them from also making a treaty with the Campanians, and warning that if they did not, the Samnites would conquer Campania and its strength would be added to the Samnites’ instead of to the Romans’. After discussing this proposal, the senate concluded that while there was much to be gained from a treaty with the Campanians, and that this fertile area could become Rome’s granary, Rome could not ally with them and still be considered loyal to their existing treaty with the Samnites, and for this reason they had to refuse the proposal. After being informed of Rome’s refusal, the Campanian embassy, in accordance with their instructions, surrendered the people of Campania and the city of Capua unconditionally into the power of Rome. Moved by this surrender, the Senators resolved that Rome’s honour now required that the Campanians and Capua, who by their surrender had become the possession of Rome, be protected from Samnite attacks.
Envoys were sent to the Samnites with the introductions to request that they, in view of their mutual friendship with Rome, spare territory which had become the possession of Rome and, if this was not heeded, to warn them to keep their hands off the city of Capua and the territory of Campania. The envoys delivered their message as instructed to the Samnites’ national assembly. They were met with an defiant response, “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.” When this news reached Rome, the fetials were sent to demand redress, and when this was refused Rome declared war against the Samnites.
The historical accuracy of Livy’s account is disputed among modern historians. They are willing to accept that while Livy might have simplified the way in which the Sidicini, Campani and Samnites came to be at war, his narrative is here, at least in outline, historical.
Historians have noted the similarities between the events leading to the First Samnite War and events which according to Thucydides caused the Peloponnesian War, but there are differences as well. It is clear that Livy, or his sources, has consciously modelled the Campanian embassy after the “Corcyrean debate” in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
There are many parallels between the speech given by the Campanian ambassador to the Roman senate in Livy and the speech of the Corcyrean ambassador to the Athenian assembly in Thucydides. But while Thucydides’s Athenians debate the Corcyreans’ proposal in pragmatic terms, Livy’s senators decide to reject the Campanian alliance based on moral arguments. Livy might well have intended his literary educated readers to pick up this contrast. The exaggerated misery of the surrendering Campani contrast with the Campanian arrogance, a stock motif in ancient Roman literature. It is also unlikely that Livy’s description of the Samnite assembly is based on any authentic sources. However it does not necessarily follow that because the speeches are invented, a standard feature in ancient historians, the Campanian surrender must be invented as well.
The chief difficulty lies in how rich Capua in 343 can have been reduced to such dire straits by the Samnites that the Campani were willing to surrender everything to Rome. During the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) Capua famously sided with Carthage, but after a lengthy siege she had to surrender unconditionally in 211 BC, after which the Capuans were harshly punished by Rome. Salmon (1967, p. 197) therefore held that the Campanian surrender in 343 is a retrojection by later Roman historians. This invention would serve the double purpose of exonerating Rome from treaty-breaking in 343 and justifying the punishment handed out in 211. What Rome agreed to in 343 was an alliance on terms similar to the treaties she had with the Latins and the Hernici.Cornell (1995, p. 347) accepts the surrender as historical. Studies have shown that voluntary submission by one party was a common feature in the diplomacy of this period. Likewise Oakley (1998, pp. 286–9) does not believe the surrender of 343 to be a retrojection, not finding many similarities between the events of 343 and 211. The ancient historians record many later instances, whose historicity are not doubted, where a state appealed to Rome for assistance in war against a stronger enemy. The historical evidence shows the Romans considered such supplicants to have technically the same status as surrendered enemies, but in practice Rome would not want to abuse would-be allies. Forsythe (2005, p. 287), like Salmon, argues that the surrender in 343 is a retrojection of that of 211, invented to better justify Roman actions and for good measure shift the guilt for the First Samnite War onto the manipulative Campani.
Livy portrays the Romans as selflessly assuming the burden of defending the Campani, but this is a common theme in Roman republican histories, whose authors wished to show that Rome’s wars had been just. Military success was the chief road to prestige and glory among the highly competitive Roman aristocracy. Evidence from later, more well documented time periods shows a Roman senate quite capable of manipulating diplomatic circumstances so as to provide just cause for an expansionary war. There is no reason to believe this was not also the case in the second half of the 4th century. There are also recorded examples of Rome rejecting appeals for help, implying that the Romans in 343 had the choice of rejecting the Campani. …
Modern historians have doubted the historical accuracy of Livy’s description of these three battles. Livy’s battle-scenes for this time period are mostly free reconstructions by him and his sources, and there are no reasons why these should be different. The number of Samnites killed and the amounts of spoils taken by the Romans have clearly been exaggerated. Historians have noted the many similarities between the story of Publius Decius Mus, and an event said to have taken place on Sicily in 258 when the Romans were fighting the First Punic War against Carthage. According to the ancient sources, a Roman army was in danger of being trapped in a defile when a military tribune led a detachment of 300 men to seize a hilltop in the middle of the enemy. The Roman army escaped, but of the 300 only the tribune survived. It is unlikely that this latter, in ancient times more famous, episode has not influenced the descriptions of the former.
Salmon(1967) also found several other similarities between the campaigns of 343 and later events which he considered to be doublets. Both the First and the Second Samnite War starts with an invasion of Samnium by a Cornelius, the way in which a Roman army was led into a trap resembles the famous disaster at the Caudine Forks in 321, and there are similarities to the campaigns of Publius Cornelius Arvina in 306 and Publius Decius Mus (the son of the hero of Saticula) in 297. He also thought Valerius Corvus’ two Campanian victories could be doublets of Roman operations against Hannibal in the same area in 215. On the other hand, the entries in the Fasti Triumphales supports some measure of Roman success. In Salmon’s reconstruction therefore there was only one battle in 343, perhaps fought on the outskirts of Capua near the shrine of Juno Gaura, and ending with a narrow Roman victory.
Oakley(1998) dismisses these claims of doublets and inclines towards believing there were three battles. The Samnites would have gained significant ground in Campania by the time the Romans arrived and Valerius’ two victories could be the outcome of twin Samnite attacks on Capua and Cumae. And while Samnite ambushes are somewhat of a stock motif in Livy’s narrative of the Samnite wars, this might simply reflect the mountainous terrain in which these wars were fought. The story of Decius as preserved has been patterned after that of the military tribune of 258, but Decius could still have performed some heroic act in 343, the memory of which became the origin of the later embellished tale.
Forsythe(2005) considers the episode with Cornelius Cossus and Decius Mus to have been invented, in part to foreshadow Decius’ sacrifice in 340. P. Decius might have performed some heroic act which then enabled him to become the first of his family to reach the consulship in 340, but if so no detail of the historical event survives. Instead later annalists have combined the disaster at the Caudine Forks with the tale of the military tribune of 258 to produce the entirely fictitious story recorded by Livy, the difference being that while in the originals the Romans suffered defeat and death, here none of Decius’ men are killed and the Romans win a great victory.
No fighting is reported for 342. Instead the sources focuses on a mutiny by part of the soldiery. According to the most common variant, following the Roman victories of 343 the Campani asked Rome for winter garrisons to protect them against the Samnites. Subverted by the luxurious lifestyle of the Campani, the garrison soldiers started plotting to seize control and set themselves up as masters of Campania. However the conspiracy was discovered by the consuls of 342 before the coup could be carried out. Afraid of being punished, the plotters mutinied, formed a rebel army and marched against Rome. Marcus Valerius Corvus was nominated dictator to deal with the crisis, he managed to convince the mutineers to lay down their arms without bloodshed and a series of economic, military and political reforms were passed to deal with their grievances. The history of this mutiny is however disputed among modern historians and it is possible that the whole narrative has been invented to provide a background for the important reforms passed this year. These reforms included the Leges Genuciae which stated that no one could be reelected to the same office within less than ten years, and it is clear from the list of consuls that except in years of great crisis this law was enforced. It also became a firm rule that one of the consuls had to be a plebeian. …
The First Samnite War ended in a negotiated peace rather than one part dominating the other. The Romans had to accept that the Sidicini belonged to the Samnite sphere, but their alliance with the Campani was a far greater prize. Campania’s wealth and manpower was a major addition to Rome’s strength.
The many problems with Livy’s account and Diodorus’ failure to mention it has even caused some historians to reject the entire war as unhistorical. More recent historians have however accepted the basic historicity of the war. No Roman historian would have invented a series of events so unflattering to Rome. Livy was clearly embarrassed of the way Rome had turned from being an ally to an enemy of the Samnites. It is also unlikely that the Romans could have established such a dominating position in Campania as they had after 341 without Samnite resistance. Finally Diodorus ignores many other events in early Roman history such all the early years of the Second Samnite War, his omission of the First Samnite War can therefore not be taken as proof of its unhistoricity.
Cornell, TJ (1995), The Beginnings of Rome — Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000–264 BC), New York: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-01596-7
Ross Cowan, Roman Conquests: Italy. Barnsley 2009.
Forsythe, Gary (2005), A Critical History of Early Rome, Berkeley: University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-24991-7
Lukas Grossmann, Roms Samnitenkriege. Historische und historiographische Untersuchungen zu den Jahren 327 bis 290 v. Chr., Düsseldorf 2009.
Oakley, SP (1998), A Commentary on Livy Books VI–X, II: Books VII–VIII, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-815226-2
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