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the Samnites 
Samnium, the Little Empire that Couldn't

From the 6th to 4th centuries b.c. Samnium spread from coast to coast in central Italy. This map is on the belfry in the main street of the city of Benevento, the ancient capital of Samnium. 

By 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

pietrabbondante ruins 3The 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.

Samnite archaeological site
at Pietrabbondante

pietrabbondante ruins2Round 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

pietrabbondante ruins1When 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).

In the year 82 b.c. the history of the Samnites as a historically distinct people came to an end at the battle of the Colline Gate, the northernmost gate in the Servian Wall, a defensive barrier around the city of Rome. The battle marked the end of the Social War. In the struggle, the Samnites had allied themselves with other members of the anti-Roman faction to take part in an invasion of the city of Rome, itself. They were stopped and defeated by Sulla's forces in a ferocious battle in which the existence of Rome, itself, was at stake since the invaders had sworn to raze the city. Some sources claim that 50,000 soldiers on each side died in the battle. When it was over, Sulla had all the Samnite prisoners put to the sword, slaughtered within earshot of Roman senators who had assembled nearby. The remaining inhabitants of Safinim were dispersed. 

As a historical curiosity, plays in the language of the Samnites, Oscan, were still put on in Rome as late as the first century a.d. Also, Oscan writers are said to have strongly influenced the great flair for satire in Latin literature. There are, today, even some apparent Oscan influences in modern Italian. There is a Samnite museum in Benevento and a formidable archaeological site at Pietrabbondante, still a remote town on the northern heights. But it isn't much, really, to remind us of a people who once gave the future Caesars a real run for their money, and of whom the Roman historian Livy respectfully wrote, "only death could conquer their resolution". 

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