The First Samnite War


Samnite Wars by Peter Connolly


Roman Warriors.


Map showing expansion of Roman sphere of influence from the Latin War (340–338 BC) to the defeat of the Insubres (222 BC).

The Samnites were the archetypal warriors of the ver sacrum (Sacred Spring). Claiming descent from the Sabines (hence the Samnites and other Oscan speakers were known as Sabelli or Sabellians) they believed that a bull sent by Mamers guided them to their homeland in the southern central Apennines. They divided into four tribes, the Pentri, Caudini, Caraceni and Hirpini. The latter took their name from Mamers’ hirpus (wolf), which they followed in a subsequent ver sacrum. The four tribes cooperated in a military alliance.

In 354 BC the Samnite League sent an embassy to Rome, requesting friendship and alliance between their peoples. According to Livy, the Samnites were prompted to do so because they were impressed by a Roman victory over Tarquinii, but Rome’s reduction of the Hernici in 358 BC would have been of more interest to the Samnites; the victory over Tarquinii merely reinforced the growing reputation of Roman military prowess. However, the allies fell out in 343 BC when the Samnites attempted to expand west into northern Campania and the territory of the Sidicini, and Capua, the leading Campanian city-state, appealed to Rome for help against the invaders. The Romans scented an opportunity to massively expand their little empire and renounced the treaty with the Samnite League.

The Romans sent priests called fetiales to the border of Samnium, perhaps in the vicinity of Sora, where the chief fetial declared war by symbolically casting a spear into the territory of the enemy. The consul Valerius the Raven (Corvus) was assigned the war in Campania, while his colleague Cornelius the Greasy (Arvina) invaded Samnium. The Raven pushed south to Mount Gaurus, in the hills above Puteoli, drawing the Samnite army away from Capua. The Samnites were defeated after a long struggle, requiring the heroic Valerius to dismount from his horse and lead a counter-attack on foot, and they withdrew from Campania.

Meanwhile, Cornelius the Greasy had advanced into the territory of the Caudini located immediately east of Capua. In the vicinity of Saticula his army was trapped in a heavily wooded defile; this was a favourite tactic of the Samnite mountain men. However, Cornelius’ army was extricated by a military tribune, Publius Decius Mus. Tradition asserted that before the Samnites completed the encirclement and closed in, the military tribune led the hastati and principes of the consular legion (2,400 legionaries) through the woodland to a hill above the enemy; distracted by Mus’ sudden appearance on the hill, the rest of the consul’s army was able to escape. The dauntless Decius was now surrounded by the full Samnite army (apparently numbering in excess of 30,000 warriors), but during the night the tribune led his legionaries down the hill, broke through the encirclement and reunited with the consul’s army. In the morning the Samnites, still disorganized from the confusion resulting from Decius’ escape, were surprised by the Romans and soundly defeated. Decius was where the fighting was thickest, claiming that he had been inspired by a dream in which he achieved immortal fame by dying gloriously in battle. It has been suggested that Decius’ peculiar cognomen, Mus, meaning ‘rat’, derived from his exploits at Saticula, perhaps because he dared to fight at night, a most unusual enterprise for a Roman commander.

Despite these two heavy defeats the Samnite League was not ready to throw in the towel. A new army of 40,000 men (another exaggeration of the later Roman sources) was raised from the populous tribes of Samnium, and it established a camp by Suessula, a city on the eastern edge of the Campanian plain. The army of Cornelius Arvina had evidently withdrawn from the territory of the Caudini, and it fell to the Raven to fight this last battle of the campaign. He marched from his camp at Mount Gaurus and overcame this new Samnite army as well. Suessula was located at the mouth of a valley that led to the Caudine Forks, an important pass into western Samnium. The defeated Samnites presumably retreated by way of the Forks into the country of the Caudini and Hirpini and thence to their homes, but the Raven did not follow. He was sensible not to. The Suessulans may have informed him that the pass was the perfect spot to trap an army and he had no desire to repeat the error of his colleague.

The consuls returned to Rome to celebrate triumphs (21 and 22 September 343 BC) and news of their victories spread quickly across Italy. The Faliscans were prompted to seek a formal treaty of friendship and alliance (foedus) with their old enemy, perhaps fearing that if they simply maintained the forty years’ truce imposed on them in 351 BC, the bellicose Romans would find an excuse to declare war and seize their territory. The news also travelled overseas. Ambassadors from Carthage arrived in Rome, keen to bolster the alliance of 348 BC, full of congratulations for the victories over the Samnites and bearing the not inconsiderable gift of a gold crown weighing 25 pounds. However, the war was not over and substantial Roman garrisons were installed in Capua and Suessula to protect them from Samnite incursions.

In 342 BC the Samnites nursed their wounds. The scale of their defeats could not have been as great as Livy’s account suggests, but the Romans had administered a serious blow to their military prestige and confidence. Samnite manpower in 225 BC (by which time their territory was very much reduced) is reported by the reliable Polybius as 70,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry. Afzelius and Cornell have estimated the population of Samnium in the middle of the fourth century BC at around 450,000 persons, and the report of the geographer Strabo that the Samnites had 80,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry may belong to this period. Strabo’s manpower figures would represent somewhat less than 20 per cent of the estimated population. The total number of adult males, including seniores, would have been well in excess of 100,000, but these figures are misleading and should be regarded as potential reserves of manpower rather than the number of warriors the Samnite League could mobilize at one time. If the Samnites had lost 30,000 men at Saticula and suffered similarly enormous casualties at Mount Gaurus and Suessula, as Livy’s accounts suggest, then their military power would have been utterly broken and their rural economies, which required men to tend crops and herds, would have collapsed.

The strengths of the consuls’ armies are not attested. It is uncertain if the practice of enrolling two legions per consular army was yet in effect. It is generally believed that the regular strength of a consular army was raised from one to two legions in 311 BC. However, because the Romans could not draw on any substantial Latin manpower in the 340s BC, it may be that extra consular legions were raised. Campanian levies would have bolstered the Roman legions, and the aristocratic cavalrymen of Capua and the other cities were famed for their martial prowess. The number of soldiers in a consular army may be estimated at 9,000 – 18,000, that is one or two legions of c. 4,500 (4,200 infantry plus 300 cavalry) and an equal number of Campanians. The Samnite armies were probably of similar size.

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