The Italians in Roman armies

South Italic warriors, c. 400BCE, art by Giuseppe Rava

Semper populum Romanum alienis rebus arbitrio alieno usum; et principium et finem in potesta tem ipsorum, qui ope sua velint adiutos Romanos, esse.

The Roman people had always employed the property of other peoples with their consent; the decision to provide assistance, both the beginning and the end, was under the control of those who wished the Roman people to enjoy their aid. (Livy 32.8.14)

The Romans relied heavily on the resources of their Italian allies, as the Senate informed Attalus II of Pergamum in 198 BCE in the passage above (all dates BCE unless otherwise noted). Of course there was a significant difference between the façade of willing, even eager, assistance the Romans promoted and the reality of allied support. In the centuries in which Rome rose from one among many Italian communities to hegemon of the peninsula, the story of the peoples of Italy in Roman armies is one of gradual integration and subordination. Roman armies in the fourth century and earlier resembled other Italian armies of the day. An important aspect of early Italian warfare was military cooperation, facilitated by overlapping bonds of formal and informal relationships between communities and individuals. Over the third century and culminating in the Second Punic War, the Romans organized their Italian allies into large conglomerate units that were placed under Roman officers. At the same time, the Romans generally took more direct control of the military resources of their allies as the idea of military obligation developed. The integration and subordination of the Italians under increasing Roman domination fundamentally altered their relationships. By the late second century, the Italians were vestiges of past traditions that no longer fitted into a changing world, resulting in growing feelings of discontent and eventually outright rebellion. Italian military resources were key to the growth of the Roman empire, but over time the balance of power changed the fundamental military relationship of the Romans with the other peoples of Italy.

Early Italian warfare

Italy prior to the Roman conquest, ending ca. 265, was a land divided amongst hundreds of communities constantly in conflict, often at war, with one another. The narrative of early Roman history is dominated by annual wars with neighbors, while the great men of Rome were nearly all warriors. The evidence that survives in the literary record is naturally one sided, focusing on the supposedly inevitable rise of Rome to hegemon of Italy. Where Italians come into the narrative is secondary, as opponents or supporting characters in a Roman tale. Despite the limitations of the sources, what survives reveals the Italian foundations of the Roman army’s reliance on allied soldiers. While warfare was common there was also an important aspect of cooperation, which is important when looking at the nature of military interaction in Italy. Both the contentiousness and cooperation shaped how the Italians fit into Roman armies and the eventual growth of empire.

The fluid and chaotic nature of community interactions is clearly demonstrated in the events from 343 to 338, the First Samnite War and the great Latin War (Livy 7.32?8.14; Oakley 1997?2005, 2.307?311). Around the year 343, the Samnites launched attacks from the central Apennines on the Sidicini in northern Campania, who in turn called upon the nearby people of Capua for help. After suffering defeat at the hands of the Samnites, the people of Capua persuaded the Romans to abandon a previous treaty with the Samnites and enter the war on their side. The Romans brought their Latin allies with them. After three years of fighting, the Romans and Samnites concluded peace to the dismay of the Latins, Campanians, and Sidicini who jointly decided to continue the fight against the Samnites (and supposedly attack Rome afterwards). In response, the Romans and Samnites, so recently enemies, joined forces and together defeated the forces of the Romans’ former allies in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius (Livy 8.8.19?11.2; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 15.7.3). After two more years of fighting, the Latins were put down and “given” full Roman citizenship, the Campanians became Roman allies with civitas sine suffragio, and the Sidicini became Samnite allies. These developments occurred over about five years. It is hard not to be impressed by the ease with which the Italians of the central Apennines created and abandoned their alliances when deemed profitable or useful. Such a chaotic environment made alliances and military cooperation of significant importance for the survival of Italian communities. By pooling military resources together, smaller communities were able to protect themselves and larger communities could project their influence abroad.

The communities of Italy were tied together in a complex web that facilitated military cooperation. In the plains cities were common, while in the mountains looser tribal organizations existed. Trade routes linked the peninsula, with goods flowing across community boundaries. While a number of different languages existed in Italy prior to the Roman conquest (such as Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, Etruscan) linguistic and material evidence suggests close interaction of peoples regardless of linguistic differences (Adams 2003, 112?183). Many Italian communities throughout the peninsula worshipped at common shrines, which formed the basis for religious associations called nomina (Cornell 1995, 294?299; Bradley 2000, 62?77; Isayev 2007, 31? 41; Alföldi 1965, 119). On an individual level the elites of Italian communities intermarried and maintained ties of hospitality such as the Fabii in Caere (Holloway 1994, 71?72; Livy 9.36). The various communities of Italy were a diverse group in many ways. Nevertheless, they were able to cooperate effectively with each other militarily through the connections that existed.

In particular, cooperation relied heavily on the generally similar militaristic societies of Italy. Roman militarism is well understood and quite obvious in their historical accounts (Harris 1984). However, the Romans were hardly unique in their bellicosity in the peninsula (Eckstein 2006, 118?147). Fortifications blanket Italy (city walls and hill forts). Artwork commonly depicted warfare as a motif, while ritualistic burials included military goods. Indeed, an individual’s position in society relied heavily on military accomplishments. A stark example of this comes from the story of P. Horatius Cocles, who single-handedly defended the only bridge over the Tiber from enemy invaders, earning praise from his fellow citizens. However, despite the reputation he achieved, a severe hip wound taken during the fight left him lame, which ended his ability to participate in war and thus precluded any future military commands or political offices (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 5.25.3). The story of Horatius, although undoubtedly embellished, is a stark example of the importance of warfare in Roman society. While we lack such stories from the traditions of any other Italian people, the material record (burial goods, burial frescoes, pottery) and the historical record of constant warfare suggest a similar outlook.

Formal and informal relations between communities and individuals made cooperation possible. Formal treaties (foedera) existed between communities that included mutual defense clauses in addition to various legal clauses. The foedus Cassianum stated “let [the Romans and Latins] assist each other with all their forces when either is attacked,” and forbade assisting foreign enemies (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 6.95.2; Cornell 1997, 299?301). Less formal agreements existed as well, including indutiae (truces that were mostly used in Etruria), sponsiones (personal guarantees), and the religious ties of nomina, although the military implications of these relationships is unclear. These less formal arrangements could become formal treaties under the right circumstances (Crawford 1973, 1?7). In addition, personal social relations were important especially in terms of military cooperation. Within communities, prominent individuals could maintain personal bands of warriors such as those described in the Lapis Satricanus (Stibbe 1980; Smith 1996, 235?237), the Fabii at the Cremera (Livy 2.48.8?10; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 9.15; Richard 1988, 526? 553, contra Welwei 1993, 60?76), and Numerius Decimius in the Second Punic War (Livy 22.24.12). These warbands could be led to the support of foreign individuals or communities with whom their leaders had personal relations. In 327 Samnite military assistance to Neapolis was described as “some individuals with private ties of friendship (?d??? e?? a) . and friends of the Neapolitans who are helping that city by their own choice” (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 15.8.4). Likewise, Etruscan assistance to Veii, which was being attacked by the Romans, was limited to young men with personal ties to the Veientes without any official support or condemnation from their home cities (Livy 5.17.9). Military cooperation among the Italians relied on the complex web of formal and informal relationships that linked communities together in diverse ways.

Cooperation in tactical situations was also made possible by a similar panoply of arms and armor as well as approach to warfare. Italian arms and armor showed a good deal of local variation, but generally indicate a similar style and approach to warfare. From the fifth century onwards, Italian armor suggests an emphasis on individual combat in battle. Helmets came in a variety of styles variously inspired by Celtic influence in the north and Greek influence in the south (Paddock 1993). Despite local variations, these helmets shared an open face and uncovered ears that did not hinder the wearer’s sight or hearing, indicating the importance of situational awareness. Body armor consisted of heart-protectors, triple-disc breastplates, and chainmail depending on the region, while shields were generally oval in shape and somewhat smaller than their Greek equivalents (Stary 1981). These forms of armor allowed freedom of movement, relying on personal mobility for protection rather than Greece’s heavy bronze that provided superior protection but inhibited movement. Mobility and space trumped heavy armor and dense formations. Weaponry likewise suggests an importance on individual combatants. The peoples of Italy seem to have preferred a certain kind of weapon (e. g. swords in Latium, spears in Samnium), but many regions also indicate variation of weapons within a single population (different types of spears, swords, axes) (Stary 1981). Ultimately, weapon choice was likely personal. Polybius confirms this disparity of arms and armor, albeit within larger age groups of Roman armies (Polyb. 6.22?23; Walbank 1957?1971, 1.703? 706). Where the individual is emphasized over the group, personal variations had less of an impact. Common arms and armor, as well as approaches to warfare, facilitated the military cooperation of the peoples of Italy.

Military cooperation was made possible by a common military culture in Italy and served an important function in the survival and expansion of communities. Domination of the peninsula ultimately came down to who could best utilize allied military resources through formal and informal relationships. The fourth and early third centuries witnessed a brutal series of wars that engulfed the peninsula in a constantly shifting set of alliances among communities. Although Rome’s wars naturally dominate the narrative, there were many others, many of which did not involve the Romans. Throughout these conflicts, exploitation of military alliances proved vital but alliances were often fleeting. An important aspect of Roman success in the wars of Italy was their attempts to solidify control over their allies’ military resources, by incorporating many allies as full or partial citizens into Rome’s military structure (Livy 8.14.1?12; Oakley 1997?2005, 2.538?571). By the middle of the third century the Romans managed to solidify their hegemony through warfare, colonization, citizenship extensions, land seizures, aristocratic relationships, and treaties. At its heart, though, Roman domination of Italy was built on preexisting military and political systems of the peninsula. The Italians remained autonomous Roman allies who continued to provide military assistance through the ancient systems of cooperation that had long been in place. Roman hegemony, however, fundamentally altered the balance of power in Italy and would, in time, result in a subordination and integration of the Italians into a Roman military and political system.


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