When hostilities with the Samnites ceased in 304 BC, Rome’s grip on peninsular Italy was already becoming tight. Roman arms had been carried into the Sallentine Peninsula (the heel of Italy), and a Roman garrison had been installed, if temporarily, as far north as Perusia in Etruria. New Latin colonies dominated northern Campania, the Liris Valley, western Samnium and the Samnite-Apulian frontier. Old enemies had been bullied into accepting further long periods of truce or scared into requesting treaties of alliance. For example, in 308 BC Decius Mus coerced Tarquinii into provisioning his consular army and accepting a new truce of forty years’ duration. He also cowed Volsinii by storming some of her outlying fortresses and she was forced to seek annual truces to avoid further incursions. It is notable however, that Mus and subsequent Roman generals were unable or unwilling to capture major fortified cities like Volsinii. Fabius Rullianus’ incursion into Umbria in 310/9 BC had stirred up considerable resentment. A further victory over the Umbrians is ascribed to Rullianus in 308 BC, but it seems more probable that it was Mus who soundly defeated the Umbrian army that had mustered at Mevania. More Umbrians were taken captive than were killed in the battle and that level of resistance only prompted the Romans to think of further conquests in the region. A treaty of friendship was promptly negotiated with Ocriculum, which was strategically located in the very south of Umbria at the confluence of the rivers Tiber and Nar. In 303 BC both consular armies were sent into southern Umbria to deal with ‘bandits’ and scored a victory in, of all places, a complex of caves. Ocriculum was clearly on side when, in 300 BC, the Romans embarked on the siege of nearby Nequinum, located in the lower valley of the Nar. Eventually captured in 299 BC through a combination of tunnelling and treachery by Fulvius Paetinus (it is uncertain if he is the same man as the suffect consul of 305 BC), the town was promptly colonized and renamed Narnia, after the river. Nequinum, reminiscent of Latin nequam, meaning ‘worthless’, ‘bad’ and so forth, sounded ill-omened to Roman ears. With a strong ally in Camerinum to the north, and a major ‘bridgehead’ at Narnia in the south, the Umbrian states rightly feared further Roman expansion. The Romans were also busy fighting the Sabines, whose territory lay between northeast Latium, the Aequan country and Umbria. It was becoming clear that Rome would not be satisfied until tota Italia, all Italy, was under her control.
Rome’s behaviour immediately following the Samnite peace in 304 BC was a clear indicator of her intentions. War was declared on the Aequi, now located in the upper valley of the Anio and to the north of the Fucine Lake. Bands of Aequan warriors had fought for the Hernici and Samnites, probably on a mercenary basis, but the Aequi as a whole had not been allied to the enemy. In fact, the Aequi as a nation had probably not fought in any major war since their ejection from Latium, but the Senate had found the necessary excuse to continue the work of extermination that had been carried out so ruthlessly in 388 BC. In 307/6 BC work began on Rome’s second great strategic highway, the Via Valeria, running east from Rome it would eventually terminate at lofty Alba Fucens, above the Fucine Lake, at the eastern edge of the Aequan country. This was the perfect location for a colony to dominate the very centre of Italy. Having not fought on any great scale for almost a century, the Aequi dared not meet the Roman invaders in open battle and instead took to their hill-top forts, but the legions were unstoppable: forty hill forts fell in fifty days and no mercy was shown to the defenders. The neighbouring tribes – Marsi, Paeligni, Marrucini and Frentani – were shocked at the speed of the conquest and quickly patched up new treaties with Rome. The Vestini followed suit in 302/1 BC.
Alba Fucens was duly colonized in 303 BC with no fewer than 6,000 adult males, the most powerful yet of Rome’s new Latin foundations, and with a huge territory that included country confiscated from the Marsi. The Marsi duly revolted but were soon forced into submission by Valerius Corvus (302/1 BC). The desperate Aequi continued to resist the Roman occupation, providing old generals such as the Ploughman (in 302/1 BC) and the Raven again (300 BC) with easy victories; Bubulcus took less than week to complete his campaign. By 299 BC the resistance of the Aequi had come to an end, and a swathe of their territory in the upper Anio region was reorganized as ager Romanus and assigned to the appropriately named voting tribe Aniensis. In c. 298 BC a remnant of the Aequi, known by the disparaging diminutive Aequicoli, were ousted from the town of Carseoli. Lying on the new Via Valeria half way between Latium and Alba Fucens, it was re-established as a Latin colony with 4,000 adult male settlers.
Consolidation of the middle Liris was achieved by re-establishing Sora as a Latin colony (with 4,000 adult male colonists), and Arpinum was incorporated into the ager Romanus, its inhabitants becoming citizens without the vote. As we have seen, Anagnia was annexed in 306 BC, and the territory of Frusino was added to the ager Romanus either in that year or in 303 BC. Along with the annexations in the Aequan country (to which should be added Trebula Suffenas) and the establishment of the voting tribe Terentia on former Auruncan land, directly-ruled Roman territory dominated west-central Italy. By 290 BC ager Romanus would run in an unbroken belt across the peninsula, but before that was achieved Rome had to defeat a grand coalition of Italian peoples led by the resilient Samnites.
The Early Years of the Third Samnite War
As readers will have noticed, ancient Italy was a frighteningly violent land. Just as the Romans fought to drive the Volsci and Aequi from Latium, those peoples now threatened with Roman domination would not give up without a fight. For example, in 302/1 BC the aged but agile Valerius Corvus slaughtered rebellious Etruscans from Arretium and Rusellae as well as Marsian malcontents. Various Etruscan city-states were to prove troublesome for the next forty years, either individually or in alliance. The Samnites sought to exploit this resistance and cement new alliances.
The Etruscans and Umbrians were threatened not only by the Romans, but also by the Gauls. The Gallic peoples of the Po Valley and Adriatic coast found themselves under pressure from a new wave of Gauls crossing the Alps. Gallic incursions into the peninsula were now as much concerned with conquering new lands for settlement as with the acquisition of plunder. In 299 BC Gauls, probably Senones, invaded northern Etruria, but through negotiations and bribes they were actually persuaded (perhaps in part by the Samnites) to ally themselves with the Etruscans, and instead of pillaging Etruria they marched further south and raided the ager Romanus. This caused the Romans to look for allies in the north. The Picentes, whose territory lay between Umbria and the Adriatic Sea, had long been subject to the violent attentions of the Senones who occupied the northern marches of Picenum, and readily entered into alliance with the city well known for her hatred of the Gauls. The Picentes informed the Romans that the Samnites had also been courting them. Between 297 and 296 BC the full extent of the new Samnite alliance became clear: the League had won over Apulians, Umbrians, Etruscans, Senones, Sabines and perhaps part of the Marsi. One suspects that the Picentes chose Rome over the Samnites in 299 BC because the latter had already entered into negotiations with the despised Gauls.
The Third Samnite War broke out in 298 BC, but not because of the Samnites’ machinations in the north of the peninsula. In order to bolster its military strength the Samnite League first attempted to persuade the Lucanians to join it. The Lucanians, briefly allied to Rome at the start of the Second Samnite War, were quickly persuaded by Tarentum to renounce that alliance, but appear to have played little if any part in the long conflict. As we have seen, Lucania was subject to a punitive Roman incursion in 317 BC and it has been suggested that a contingent from Posidonia helped the Samnites to defeat Iunius Bubulcus near Bovianum in 311 BC. However, the Lucani appear to have taken advantage of the Samnites’ preoccupation with Rome to extend their power into the deep south of Italy and threatened the Greek cities of Magna Graecia. The rapprochement with Tarentum did not last, and in 303 BC the Tarentines called on the aid of their mother city, Sparta. However, the Spartan prince Cleonymous was more concerned with establishing his own kingdom than with defending the lands and interests of Tarentum, and the Tarentines turned against him. Prior to the split with Tarentum, Cleonymous had defeated the Lucanians and it may have been then that the Samnite League first made its approach. The ambassadors were rebuffed and the Samnites decided to bring the Lucani over by force. The Lucani then remembered their old friendship with Rome and appealed to the Senate for aid. The consuls of 298 BC, Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus (meaning ‘a Hundred Misfortunes’) and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus drove the Samnites from Lucania and raided the south of Samnium. Interestingly, Centumalus inflicted two defeats on the Samnites by means of ambush:
When Fulvius Nobilior was leading his army from Samnium against the Lucanians, and had learned from deserters that the enemy intended to attack his rearguard, he ordered his bravest legion to go in advance, and the baggage train to follow in the rear. The enemy, regarding this circumstance as a favourable opportunity, began to plunder the baggage. Fulvius then marshalled five cohorts of the legion I have mentioned above on the right side of the road, and five on the left. Then, when the enemy were intent on plundering, Fulvius, deploying his troops on both flanks, enveloped the foe and cut them to pieces.
The same Nobilior on one occasion was hard pressed from the rear by the enemy, as he was on the march. Across his route ran a stream, not so large as to prevent passage, but large enough to cause delay by the swiftness of the current. On the nearer side of this, Nobilior placed one legion in hiding, in order that the enemy, despising his small numbers, might follow more boldly. When this expectation was realized, the legion which had been posted for the purpose attacked the enemy from ambush and destroyed them.
Nobilior (‘the Most Noble’ or ‘Oustanding’) was an additional cognomen of Marcus Fulvius Paetinus, the consul of 255 BC who was famous for his role in the sea battles of the First Punic War, but he did not fight the Samnites and the cognomen has been erroneously retrojected onto his relative, the consul of 298 BC. The detail about the legionary cohorts is erroneous; Frontinus, a Roman general of the first century AD, imagined that the legions of the Samnite wars were organized like his own, in cohorts rather than maniples. Note also the misunderstanding concerning the identity of the enemy, here Lucanians, but the passages are of great interest in demonstrating a Roman consul using classically Samnite tactics against the Samnites, and probably also indicative that he preferred not to meet them in formal battle. That impression is strengthened by another anecdote in Frontinus concerning ‘Nobilior’ = Centumalus:
Fulvius Nobilior, deeming it necessary to fight with a small force against a large army of the Samnites who were flushed with success, pretended that one legion of the enemy had been bribed by him to turn traitor; and to strengthen belief in this story, he commanded the tribunes, the primi ordines [senior centurions] and the centurions to contribute all the ready money they had, or any gold and silver, in order that the price might be paid the traitors at once. He promised that, when victory was achieved, he would give generous presents besides to those who contributed for this purpose. This assurance brought such ardour and confidence to the Romans that they straightway opened battle and won a glorious victory.
That the Samnites were in high morale and the consul needed to motivate the legionaries in such a dubious manner, suggest that the Romans were not immediately successful in the first year of the Third Samnite War. The battle accounts of Livy often suggest that the Romans had to do little more than to turn up to win a battle, but that is far from the reality. Frontinus, like Livy, imagines the Samnites having legions. Considering that the Samnites fought in maniples with similar armament to the Romans and other Italian peoples, it is not impossible that the largest regiments of the armies of the Samnite League were organized in a manner similar to the Roman legions. In fact, we know from an inscription of the late fourth or early third century BC that the Marsi used the Latin word legio to describe their military units.
At least one of the consuls of 298 BC also saw service in the on-going and rather desultory Etruscan War, perhaps defeating the army of Volaterra in the field but unable to take the strongly fortified city. News of fresh Etruscan musters reached Rome during the consular elections for 297 BC, but come the opening of the campaigning season, reports from Nepet, Sutrium and Falerii suggested that the Etruscans would not, after all, take to the field and the new consuls attacked Samnium. The patrician Fabius Rullianus and plebeian Decius Mus were consular colleagues for the second time, a sure sign of political alliance. Rullianus began his campaign at Sora and pillaged his way towards Tifernum (in the Montagne del Matese) but his route of advance is uncertain. Rullianus’ scouts detected a Samnite ambush in the area of Tifernum. According to Livy, the Samnites ‘had drawn their forces up in a secluded valley and were preparing to assail the Romans from above once they had entered it.’ Rullianus put his army into a defensive hollow square formation (agmen quadratum) and halted short of the ambush site. Realizing that they had been discovered, the Samnites came down to fight a regular pitched battle. Rullianus’ son Gurges (‘the Glutton’ or ‘Insatiable’) and Valerius Maximus, son of the Raven, opened the fighting with a cavalry charge, perhaps hoping to scatter the Samnites while they were still forming their battle line, but the Roman squadrons were repulsed and they withdrew in shame and played no further part in the battle. Prior to engaging with the infantry, Rullianus ordered his legate Scipio Barbatus to take the hastati from the First Legion (the first time Livy identifies a legion by its numeral) and to find a way around the enemy army’s position and attack it from the rear. This tactic won the battle. The Samnites stubbornly resisted Rullianus’ main body of infantry and the consul had to bring up his second battle line to prevent the first from being overwhelmed, but when Barbatus’ hastati suddenly appeared behind them the Samnites panicked and attempted to escape. They were under the impression that a second full Roman army was bearing down on them. Livy reports with some disappointment that relatively few Samnites were killed or taken prisoner. The 3,400 dead and 830 captured are a fraction of his usual casualty figures and have the ring of authenticity; records of numbers killed and captured were certainly made and sent to the Senate in dispatches. Commanders would also be keen to discover if they had killed enough to earn a triumph (5,000 enemy dead was the requirement in later centuries). However, the figures may derive from the plausible invention of one of Livy’s sources. As we are not told of their release or execution, it is most likely that the captives were sold or kept by the Romans as slaves. The vastly expanded ager Romanus and colonial territories required slave labour to work in the fields while the peasant soldiers were on campaign.
Meanwhile, Decius Mus boldly advanced from the territory of the Sidicini to the vicinity of Malventum, the capital of the Hirpini. Mus did not, however, fight the Samnites. He instead intercepted an Apulian army before it linked up with Samnite forces. Once again, Livy’s casualty figure is low; he reports only 2,000 Apulians killed.
Mus and Rullianus spent the next four months devastating parts of Samnium, although where exactly is not revealed, concentrating on terrorizing the rural population and destroying farms and crops and herds, but the extent of their devastations is probably exaggerated. Rullianus captured the only notable town. The garrison of Cimetra (its location is uncertain) proved insufficient to save it from the consular army. Of the almost 3,000 defenders, 930 were killed and the rest were added to Rullianus’ haul of captives. Rullianus returned to Rome to oversee the election of the consuls for 296 BC, but Mus wintered with his army in Samnium. The imperium of Rullianus and Decius was prorogued for six months, allowing the latter to continue his work of devastation in 296 BC. Livy asserts that this activity forced a Samnite army, which had apparently refused to engage in battle, to withdraw completely from Samnium. Livy creates the impression that the Samnites had to go elsewhere to find food supplies, but in reality the main Samnite field army led by Gellius Egnatius had no interest in Mus: it was marching to link up with the new allies in Etruria. It is conceivable that Mus was mostly confined to his winter camp and that he, rather than the Samnites, refused to engage in open battle. One wonders if Mus’ winter camp was even in Samnium; perhaps it was located in Apulia or Lucania. Tellingly, once Egnatius had departed, Mus took the opportunity to lead his army on a plundering expedition. Three towns were stormed – Murgantia, Romulea and Ferentinum. They were stripped of valuables, including people. The latter town was clearly not the Hernican settlement and it is conceivably an error for Forentum in Apulia. Maybe it had sided with, or been occupied by the Samnites. If Livy’s Ferentinum is in fact Forentum, the otherwise unknown Murgantia and Romulea should also be located in the same general area. However, it may be that there was a Ferentinum located elsewhere in Samnium. Duplicate place names were not uncommon. For example, towns called Ausculum were to be found in Picenum and in Apulia, and there was a Teanum in the Sidicine country and another in Apulia.
Proconsul Rullianus did not return to Samnium in 296 BC. He was called instead to settle disputes among the new Lucanian allies, who were not a unified nation; some might have preferred to side with their Samnite kin, but the presence of Rullianus’ army persuaded them to stay loyal to Rome.
The consuls of 296 BC were Appius Claudius and Volumnius Flamma Violens. They had a mutual dislike of each other but were forced to co-operate to combat the worrying presence of Gellius Egnatius in Etruria. The Samnite general’s route to Etruria is uncertain. He may have passed through the Marsian country, but in order to rendezvous with his allies in the north (Egnatius is identified by Livy as the mastermind of the grand coalition), he had could not avoid crossing Rome’s territory or that of her allies, which stretched from coast to coast. He must have then crossed Sabine and Umbrian territory and entered Etruria from the Upper Tiber Valley, perhaps in the vicinity of Perusia.
The consuls advanced into Etruria and established a camp close to where Egnatius was ensconced, probably Perusia. Livy tells us that Appius’ consular legions were numbered I and IV, and were accompanied by 12,000 allies. Flamma’s legions bore the numerals II and III and were supported by 15,000 allies; it is uncertain why he had 3,000 more allied troops than his colleague. This is the first time Livy identifies the numerals of all four consular legions and is a rare occurrence of him admitting to the presence of the allies (socii). The allies outnumbered the legionaries (18,000 in total), but many of the socii could have been drawn from the new Latin colonies. In later centuries the ratio of allied to Roman citizen troops varied from one-to-one to two-to-one.
The size of Egatius’ Samnite force is not revealed. He was initially joined by Etruscan contingents (reported by Livy) and probably also by Sabine levies (suggested by the elogium of Appius). There were daily skirmishes between the camps but neither side emerged en masse to offer formal battle. Eventually, a general engagement did develop when some foragers being led by Egnatius were intercepted. Livy reports a Roman victory, but he admits Egnatius held his ground, and the situation for the Romans became so desperate that Appius dramatically vowed a temple to Bellona, the goddess of war, if she would grant the Romans victory. According to Livy, 7,800 of the enemy were killed and 2,120 taken captive. These were substantial losses (almost 10,000 in total), but despite their ‘victory’ the consuls were unable to oust Egnatius from Etruria and more Etruscans soon joined him. The Romans too must have suffered very significant casualties and the outcome of the battle was probably indecisive.
When the prorogations of Fabius Rullianus and Decius Mus came to an end, possibly in mid-summer, they had to return to Rome and disband their armies. They appear to have achieved little in the course of their extended campaigns; neither was awarded a triumph. Volumnius Flamma was assigned the Samnite theatre, leaving Appius Claudius with the unenviable task of containing Egnatius’ ever-growing army of anti-Roman confederates.
With the proconsular armies disbanded and Flamma still in the north, Samnium was temporarily unattended and Campania exposed. The Samnite general Staius Minatius took full advantage, leading a major incursion down the valley of the Volturnus. The ager Falernus and the Auruncan country were pillaged. Thousands of captives were taken, crops and vines destroyed and herds driven off. There was panic in Rome; Egnatius was still undefeated and Minatius’ incursion, almost to the Auruncan border with Greater Latium, recalled the catastrophic situation in 315 BC, when the Samnites charged through the pass of Lautulae and seized Tarracina. However, Minatius’ army was concerned with plundering and not with occupation. The Samnites made no attempt on Cales or any other Roman strongholds. Virtually unopposed in the countryside, Minatius became careless. Unaware that Flamma had rushed south, the Samnite raiders were intercepted as they left their camp on the Volturnus and headed for home. Almost 7,500 captives were freed, a mass of plunder recovered and Minatius himself was captured along with his warhorse, but despite reports of significant Samnite losses (6,000 killed, 2,500 captured), one suspects that a substantial part of the army made good its escape simply by abandoning the slaves, cattle and less portable plunder, and the Romans may have been forced to abandon their pursuit when the Samnite vanguard returned to support the main body of the army. A period of thanksgiving was declared in Rome. It is notable that, despite this success and the apparent victory in Etruria, no triumphs were awarded in 296 BC; the Senate and consuls realized that their successes were little more than holding actions. The real battle was yet to be fought.