In 293 BC the Samnite League enforced a levy by means of lex sacrata: the lives of those men who ignored the summons, or later deserted, were forfeit to Jupiter. The Samnite army mustered at Aquilonia, the location of which is uncertain, but probably lay somewhere in the north of Samnium, not far distant from Bovianum. Despite heavy losses in recent years, we are told that 40,000 men of military age gathered at Aquilonia. From this great host, 16,000 warriors were formed into an elite corps called the Linen Legion (legio linteata), on account of them wearing fine white linen tunics. Like the Etruscan sacrati at Lake Vadimon, each warrior of the Linen Legion chose another according to his courage and nobility, and the corps was gradually assembled.
The consuls of 293 BC were Lucius Papirius Cursor, son of the hero of the Second Samnite War, and Spurius Carvilius Maximus. The latter consul took over the legions of Atilius Regulus, which had wintered at Interamna Lirenas. Considering Regulus’ losses at Luceria, they must have been substantially reconstituted. While Cursor was levying new legions Maximus advanced against the enemy. Livy reports that the consul captured Amiternum in Samnium. However, no town or stronghold of this name is known in Samnium. It is not impossible that there was an Amiternum in Samnite territory, but it seems that Maximus had in fact captured the well-known Amiternum in the Sabine country. The Sabines had, of course, fought with the Samnites in 296 BC and the Romans had unfinished business with them. Maximus boasted of his success at Amiternum – 2,800 killed and 4,270 enslaved. Cursor could not allow his colleague to hog the glory and led his newly levied army to the otherwise unknown Samnite town of Duronia, which was duly stormed. Cursor did not take as many captives, but killed more of the enemy, and so evened the score with his plebeian colleague. The consuls then joined forces and marched on Aquilonia. They passed through the territory of Atina and devastated it. This former Volscian town had been pillaged by the elder Cursor in 313 BC but was now clearly back in Samnite hands.
Cursor established camp near Aquilonia, but Maximus took his army to nearby Cominium and placed it under siege. The Samnites detached twenty cohorts, perhaps c. 8,000 men, to reinforce the garrison of Cominium. With the Samnite army now substantially reduced in size, Cursor whipped his troops up into a frenzy, formed the army into battle line and attacked. The Linen Legion and the other corps of the Samnite army absorbed the shock of the initial Roman charge, but Cursor had a surprise in store for the enemy. Prior to advancing, the consul had detached three allied cohorts and all the baggage mules from the army. While Cursor engaged the Samnites, the cohorts and mules were to form a column and, raising as much dust as possible, march towards the Samnites’ flank. The ruse was highly effective: the Samnites mistook the allies and mules for the consular army of Maximus, arriving victorious from Cominium and about to assail their flank; they panicked and started to break ranks. Cursor had held most of his cavalry behind the infantry, rather than on the flanks, and lanes were opened up between the maniples allowing the Roman and allied equites to charge the enemy head on, a rare occurrence in ancient warfare (Valerius Corvus is is reported as employing a similar tactic at Rusellae in 302/1 BC). The right and left divisions of the Roman infantry, respectively commanded by Volumnius Flamma and Scipio Barbatus, followed up the cavalry charge. This was too much for the Samnites. The Linen Legion held out for longer than the other Samnite regiments, but ultimately it too broke. Flamma’s division captured the Samnites’ camp, while Barbatus led the assault on Aquilonia. With four centurions and a maniple of hastati, the handsome and bearded legate formed a testudo and captured one of its gates; the Samnites fled out of another. The number of Samnites killed at Aquilonia – in the battle, at the camp, the town and in the pursuit by Roman cavalry – is reported as 23,040. Some did escape to Bovianum, but these were mostly cavalrymen and nobles. The twenty cohorts sent to reinforce Cominium did not arrive in time, nor were they quick enough to return to Aquilonia, where they could have stemmed the rout. The bulk of this force managed to retreat to Bovianum as well, but only because one of the cohorts fought a courageous rearguard action against the rampant Roman cavalry.
As Cursor was victorious at Aquilonia, so too was Maximus at Cominium. The Samnites defended the town with vigour, but when the Romans gained the battlements and forced the Samnites into the marketplace, they threw down their arms and surrendered. Livy reports 4,800 killed and 11,400 made captive. Maximus’ army went on to capture three other Samnite towns, Velia and Herculaneum (not to be confused with the more famous cities on the coast of Campania) and Palumbinum. At Herculaneum the Samnites fought a pitched battle before the town and inflicted substantial casualties on the consul’s force, but they were ultimately forced inside the town and it was stormed. Around 5,000 Samnites were killed in these engagements, and a slightly greater number were enslaved.
Cursor crowned his success at Aquilonia with the capture of Saepinum, a major hill fortress where the Samnites had deposited the wealth of the surrounding townships and farms. The capture of Saepinum was not easy. The Samnites made frequent sorties from the town to fight in the open, and it was sometime before Cursor could establish an effective cordon and reduce the fortress by siege. Of the defenders 7,400 are reported killed and less than 3,000 taken captive. Cursor had allowed his men to sack Aquilonia, but following his triumph on 13 January 292 BC, all the profits from the capture of Saepinum, and probably also of Duronia, and from the sale of captives were handed over to the Roman state treasury, much to the disgust of the legionaries and their families, who hoped that a donative from the spoils would offset the special tax they paid to sustain the Roman war effort. Carvilius Maximus took note and at his triumph (13 February 292 BC) granted each of his legionaries a donative of 102 bronze asses. Centurions and equites received double that amount. Maximus still had enough left from the spoils to make a healthy donation to the state treasury and to pay for a temple dedicated to Fors Fortuna. He also had the bronze helmets and other armour stripped from the enemy melted down and used in the production of an immense statue of Jupiter that dominated the Capitol in Rome. This famous statue was so tall that it could be seen from the sanctuary of Jupiter of the Latins (Latiaris) on the Alban Mount, 12 miles away.
The numbers of Samnite dead and captives reported for 293 BC may have the ring of authenticity, but the total seems much too great for a nation that had already suffered very heavy losses, and so the figures are probably erroneous or exaggerated. It is true that the Samnites did not sue for peace until 290 BC and in 292 BC even inflicted a notable defeat on the inept consul Fabius the Glutton (Gurges). However, after Aquilonia the Romans were able to traverse Samnium with relatively little opposition, indicating that the Samnites, as a League or as the four individual tribes, no longer had the manpower to adequately defend their territory.
In the winter of 293/2 BC Papirius Cursor wintered with his army in the territory of Vescia, which had been targeted by Samnite raiders. It may have been in this area or northern Campania that a Samnite force defeated Fabius Gurges: 3,000 of his men were killed and many more wounded. Fabius Rullianus exerted all of his influence to prevent Gurges from being recalled to Rome and disgraced, and joined his son’s army as a legate. In the 291 BC proconsul Gurges, under the guidance of his father, defeated the Samnites near Caudium, and is even said to have captured the aged Gavius Pontius, though this latter detail is probably a fiction invented to enhance the reputation of the Fabii. Gurges is found next besieging Cominium. Rullianus seems to have left the army by this point, for there was no-one to defend Gurges from the bullying of Postumius Megellus.
Megellus had avoided prosecution for his illegal triumph by serving under Carvilius Maximus as a legate in 293/2 BC. This emboldened him to add to his list of misdemeanours. When the consuls left office early in 291 BC Megellus was appointed interrex (‘interim king’, clearly a relic of the monarchical period) to oversee the election of new consuls: he made sure that he was one of them! Assigned the Samnite War (his colleague fought Etruscans and Faliscans), he cut his way through Samnium, starting in the north at the recently rebuilt Cominium, where he dismissed the unfortunate Gurges, and took the town, apparently killing 10,000 in the process and receiving the surrender of 6,200. He ended his campaign at Venusia on Samnium’s southern frontier with Apulia and Lucania. This highly strategic town was conquered and its territory earmarked for distribution to 20,000 colonists. It was a triumphant campaign, but Megellus could not give up his unconventional habits. It was discovered that he was using 2,000 legionaries to clear land on his estate near Gabii in Latium. The use of the legionaries – paid stipendia to fight for the state, not to labour for a noble – was illegal, and, even worse, sacrilegious, because the area they cleared included a grove sacred to Juno Gabina. What is more, many of the soldiers died, perhaps of a pestilence that was affecting Rome. This act led to Megellus’ prosecution and he was duly found guilty and forced to pay a heavy fine, but one wonders if the disgrace bothered Megellus overmuch. The trial cost the state more than it did him. He deliberately gave all of the booty from his campaign to his legionaries and then dismissed them, forcing the incoming consuls to conduct time-consuming levies.
The section of Livy’s great history covering the last years of the Third Samnite War and the completion of the conquest of peninsular Italy in the 260s BC does not survive. We do possess the so-called Periochae, epitomes of his lost books, and with other sources we can piece together an outline of events.
The consuls Manius Curius Dentatus and Publius Cornelius Rufinus (‘the Red’) administered the final blow in 290 BC causing the Samnites to sue for peace. Both consuls earned triumphs but we possess not details of their campaign in Samnium. The ‘old treaty’ between Rome and the Samnites was renewed, but doubtless the terms were adapted heavily in favour of the victors. The Samnites may also have been required to pay an indemnity; after having had their country stripped bare by Roman pillagers, they would have found it difficult to pay. As well as the great chunk of southern Samnium conquered by Postumius Megellus and organized as the territory of the colony of Venusia, the Romans also stripped from the Samnites the territory between the Liris and the middle and upper Volturnus, the country the Samnites had conquered from the Volscians. Thus Sora and Intermna Lirenas were no longer on the frontier but deep within the ager Romanus.
The cognomen Dentatus means ‘having teeth’ and is perhaps indicative of the consul’s forceful character, though it may be a typically abusive Roman nickname, highlighting prominent or buck teeth. He was a novus homo, that is a new man, meaning the first of his eminent plebeian family to reach the consulship, but he was already of considerable military renown and this attracted a following of 800 young men – a forerunner of the political gangs that were a feature of the later Republic. After subduing Samnium he turned on the Sabines, still unpunished for their role in the Gellius Egnatius’ grand alliance. Rather cviently, Sabine raiders provided Dentatus with the opportunity to attack:
When the Sabines levied a large army, left their own territory, and invaded ours, Manius Curius by secret routes sent against them a force which ravaged their lands and villages and set fire to them in divers places. In order to avert this destruction of their country, the Sabines thereupon withdrew. But Curius succeeded in devastating their country while it was unguarded, in repelling their army without an engagement, and then in slaughtering it piecemeal.
Dentatus’ victory was as total as it was rapid. He did not merely overrun the Sabine country and the adjoining territory of the Praetuttii (separating the Picentes from the Vestini) on the Adriatic coast, he conquered it. With the exception of territory set aside for the establishment of a Latin colony at Hadria (probably with 4,000 adult male settlers), it was annexed to the ager Romanus. Dentatus had almost doubled the size of the ager Romanus in a single campaign, an extraordinary achievement. Part of the land was retained directly by the state as ager publicus (public land) to be leased out, and the rest distributed in allotments of 7 iugera to Roman citizens, but there were complaints that the size of the farm plots was too small. Dentatus dismissed the critics: ‘he prayed there might be no Roman who would think too small that estate which was enough to maintain him.’ The consul famously refused to receive more than 50 iugera for himself – one doubts that Postumius Megellus would have been so modest. There were no objections from the Senate or People to Dentatus being awarded a second triumph in the space of a year. He could justifiably boast that he was uncertain about which was greater, the extent of the land conquered, or the numbers of people subdued.
The Sabines and Praetuttii were enrolled as Roman citizens without the vote. This surge of conquest suddenly carried Roman territory from the Tyrrhenian seaboard to the Adriatic coast. Admittedly, this belt of citizen territory narrowed considerably at the Adriatic, but nonetheless it was unbroken, dividing Rome’s northern and southern enemies, who would never again unite. Dentatus is to be numbered among the most important Roman conquerors, for it was through his actions that the conquest of central and upper peninsular Italy was rapidly achieved. His next great conquest would be the country of the Senones.
Dentatus’ campaign in the ager Gallicus was the result of the on-going war in Etruria. Postumius Megellus’ capture of Rusellae did not mark the ceasation of hostilies. In 293 – 291 BC Rome fought Etruscans (Troilum, otherwise unknown, is the only town identified) and a rebellious Falerii. Troilum was easily subdued by Carvilius Maximus, but the defeat of Falerii was completed by his consular successor, Iunius Britus Scaeva. Brutus also ravaged the territories of Etruscan states, suggesting that treaties had been broken and troops sent to aid the Faliscans. Discontent simmered but it was not until 284 BC that the Romans fought again in Etruria. A Senonian army appeared at Arretium and the consul Lucius Caecilius Metellus rushed north to defend the city, the leading families of which were now firmly allied to Rome. It is uncertain if the Gauls were on a plundering mission, seeking to conquer new land, or if they were employed as mercenaries by other Etruscan states hostile to Rome. Recalling the shame of the defeat at Sentinum, the Senones utterly routed the army of Metellus. The consul and seven of his military tribunes were among the 13,000 Roman and allied casualties. Curius Dentatus was promptly installed as suffect consul. He sent an embassy into the ager Gallicus to treat for the return of Roman captives, but a Senonian chief called Britomaris executed the envoys. Dentatus was incensed, invaded the ager Gallicus, defeated the Senones in battle and, according to Polybius, drove the tribe out of the region completely. That is an exaggeration, but like his conquest of the Sabines, the reduction of the Senones was achieved with amazing swiftness. The ager Gallicus was annexed, but only a small citizen colony was planted on the coast, around 100 miles north of Hadria and called Sena Gallica, after the former inhabitants. It was not until 268 BC and the establishment of a strong Latium colony at Ariminum that the ager Gallicus was truly consolidated. The conquest of the Senones meant that the Picentes, nominally allies of Rome, were sandwiched between the Roman-controlled ager Gallicus to the north, and ager Romanus and Latin territory (Hadria) to the south, while the Sabine country and Roman-dominated Umbria lay to the west. In 269 BC the Picentes ‘rebelled’. The war continued into 268 BC but the Picentes were unable to resist both consular armies indefinetly. A battle at Ausculum is highlighted as the decisive engagement. When the fighting was interrupted by an earth tremor (a frequent occurrence in Italy), the consul Publius Sempronius Sophus vowed a temple to Tellus, the earth goddess. This calmed the Roman troops, who promptly took advantage of the Picentes’ disarray. The defeated Picentes lost much of their territory to the ager Romanus and the inhabitants of those parts became citizens without the vote, clearly a second-class status. Portions of Picenum did remain allied territory, most notable the regions around Ausculum and Ancona (colonized in 387 BC by Dionysius I of Syracuse as a staging post for his Gallic and Italian mercenaries), but to prevent future rebellions a very considerable number of Picentes were also deported west to a new ‘Picenum’, the ager Picentinus, sandwiched between Campania and Lucania. The lowland Sabines were promoted to full Roman citizenship in 268 BC, indicating rapid Romanization, while the Sassinates were conquered in 266 BC, securing northernmost Umbria. Control of the new eastern territories and Adriatic seaboard was further enhanced by the foundation of a Latin colony at Firmum in Picenum in 264 BC.
The completeness of the defeat of the once-great Senones is emphasized by the reaction of the Boii. Fearing that they would be next on the Romans’ hit list, they allied themsleves with Etruscans (no particular states are identified) and in a forerunner of the Gallic invasion of 225 BC, decided on a pre-emptive strike against Rome. However, in 283 BC at Lake Vadimon and in the following year at Vetulonia they, and their Etruscan allies, were defeated. Volsinii and Vulci continued the fight against Rome until 280 BC. Caere rose up in 273 BC, but was easily beaten, her territory annexed and her people incorporated as Roman citizens without the vote. In that year the Latin colony of Cosa was planted on the Etruscan coast. In 264 BC a second coastal colony, but of Roman citizens, was established between Ostia and Cosa and named Castrum Novum (New Fortress). The destruction of Volsinii, also in 264 BC, triggered by the rebellion of its large population of slaves and serfs against a minority of pro-Roman ruling families, is to be regarded as the completion of the conquest of Etruria and, indeed, of the conquest of peninsular Italy. But what of the south of Italy? The subjection of Sabellian and Greek southern Italy resulted from the war against Tarentum and the celebrated Pyrrhus of Epirus.