Text #9209"Samnite Wars", in .
During the interwar years the Roman Republic continued to expand its power into central Italy. The Aequi were crushed in a short campaign in 304 BC. The neighbouring tribes of the Abruzzi, the Marsi, Paeligni, Marrucini and the Frentani, concluded permanent treaties of alliance with Rome that same year and the Vestini in 302. Rome consolidated these gains by founding colonies at Sora, Alba Fucens, and Carseoli. Hostilities with the Etruscans resumed in 302 and in 299 Rome captured the Umbrian town of Nequinum such that by the outbreak of the Third Samnite War in 298 the Romans were again fighting on multiple fronts. The Third Samnite War represents the first attempt by the people of Italy to unite against Rome as the Samnites joined forces with the Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls to the north.
In 298 the Romans elected as consuls L. Cornelius Scipio Barbatus and Cn. Fulvius Maximus Centumalus. The sarcophagus of the former has been preserved and is inscribed with an epitaph claiming that he captured Taurasia and Cisauna in Samnium, subdued all Lucania and brought back hostages. The inscription does not state in which year these events took place, but is most likely to refer to Scipio’s exploits during his consulship, the pinnacle of his political career. The dating of the inscription is disputed, with estimates ranging from the middle third of the third century to the early second. However even if the youngest date is correct, the inscription is still the oldest surviving testimony of the Samnite wars while an earlier date is no guarantee against distortion.
According to Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus the war originated with a Samnite attack on the Lucanians. Unable to resist, the Lucanians sent ambassadors and hostages to Rome to plead for an alliance. The Romans decided to accept the alliance offer and sent fetials to insist the Samnites evacuate Lucania, they refused and the war began. If it was Scipio who negotiated the treaty with the Lucanians and received the hostages, the later claim that he “subdued” them is a natural embellishment. In Dionysius’ opinion the true cause of the war was not Roman compassion for the wronged, but fear of the strength the Samnites would gain if they subdued the Lucanians. Rome might well have deliberately sought a new war with Samnium by allying with her enemies.
Livy writes that the consuls of 298 divided the military commands between them, Scipio receiving Etruria and Fulvius Samnium. Scipio then marched to Volaterrae where he fought an indecisive engagement with the Etruscans before retreating to Falerii where he set up camp and started ravaging the Etruscan countryside. Meanwhile, Fulvius is said to have won a battle against the Samnites at Bovianum and then attacked and captured first Bovianum and later Aufidena. For his victories against the Samnites Fulvius celebrated a triumph. Frontinus records three stratagems employed by one “Fulvius Nobilior” while fighting against the Samnites in Lucania. The cognomen Nobilior is not otherwise recorded before 255, long after the Samnite wars were over. A plausible explanation is therefore that Nobilior is a mistake and the stratagems should be attributed to the consul of 298. However, as mentioned above, Scipio’s epitaph claims that it was he who fought the Samnites, and then not at Bovianum and Aufidena, but at Taurasia and Cisauna. Taurasia was most likely located in the Tammaro valley, the site of Cisauna is unknown. The issue is further complicated by the Fasti Capitolini, according to which Fulvius triumphed against both the Samnites and the Etruscans.
Given these contradictions it is impossible to perfectly reconcile the available sources. Modern historians would like to place primacy in Scipio’s epitaph as the oldest surviving source. Furthermore, Livy’s narrative is problematic, especially the supposed capture of Bovianum, one of the Samnites’ principal towns, in the very first year of the war. Over the years historians have proposed various alternative scenarios wherein one or both of the consuls campaigned against both the Samnites and Etruscans. In the end no definite conclusion can be made with the presently available evidence.
For 297 the Romans elected as consuls Q. Fabius Maximus Rullianus (consul for the 4th time) and P. Decius Mus (consul for the 3rd time). These two were among Rome’s most experienced commanders and had been consuls together in 308. According to Livy the elections for 297 took place amid rumours that that Etruscans and Samnite were raising huge armies and that the Etruscans were blaming their leaders for not allying with the Gauls. The Romans therefore turned to Rullianus who declared that he would only accept election if P. Decius was elected as his colleague. It is impossible to establish today whether Livy had any evidence for the existence of these rumours, or if they are just conjecture by Livy or his sources.
Livy is the only source for the events of 297. He writes that envoys from Sutrium, Nepete and Falerii arrived in Rome with news that the Etruscans were suing for peace. Based on this news both consuls could march against the Samnites, Fabius advancing by way of Sora and Decius through the territory of the Sidicini. A Samnite army had hidden in a valley near Tifernum, but was discovered and defeated by Fabius in a pitched battle. Meanwhile, Decius camped at Maleventum where he defeated an Apulian army before he too led his army into Samnium. The two consular armies then spent five months ravaging Samnium. Fabius also captured the city of Cimetra (otherwise unknown). There are no major problems with Livy’s account for 297, but no parallel sources survive to confirm it either. Fabius’ route via Sora to Tifernum is convoluted, but not insurmountable. The appearance of an Apulian army at Maleventum is surprising since nothing is known of Apulian hostility to Rome since the conclusion of peace in 312. However the Apulians might have been divided in their alliance with Rome or have been provoked to war by Scipio’s campaign the previous year. Decius’ campaign fits within the larger pattern of Roman warfare in south-east Italy, he might even have wintered in Apulia. No triumphs are recorded in this year for either of the consuls, hence they are unlikely to have had any victories of great significance or made any deep inroads into Samnium.
When the Romans saw the Etruscans and Gauls in northern Italy joining the Samnites they were alarmed. The Romans had benefited from a lack of coordination among their enemies, but now they faced them all at once.
Some relief came with a victory over the Samnites in the south, but the crucial battle for Italy took place in 295 at Sentinum in Umbria, in Central Italy, where more troops were engaged than any previous battle in Italy. At first the Romans gave way before an attack by Gauls in chariots. Then the Romans rallied and crushed the Samnites and Gauls, the Romans benefiting from their self-discipline, the quality of their military legions, and their military leadership.
Nevertheless, the stubborn Samnites fought on until a final defeat in 291 BC made further resistance hopeless, and in the following year peace was made on more favourable terms for the Samnites than Rome would have granted any less dogged foe.
The Campanian cities, Italian or Greek, through which Rome had been involved in the Samnite wars, Capua and others, were now allies of Rome, with varying degrees of independence. Roman military colonies were settled in Campania as well as on the eastern outskirts of Samnium.
After Rome’s great victory at Sentinum, the war slowly wound down, coming to an end in 282. Rome emerged dominating all of the Italian peninsula except for the Greek cities in Italy’s extreme south and the Po Valley — the Po valley still being a land occupied by Gauls.
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