Ancient History & Civilisation

6. ROME’S WIDENING HORIZON

At one moment it appeared possible that the growing power of Rome might have been ground to insignificance by the upper and nether millstones of Etruria and Magna Graecia, but in the end the central power expanded at the expense of the extremities. The decline of Etruria, caused by internal dissension and weakness and by the pressure of other nations, had been gradual. After the loss of Rome and Latium southern Etruria had echoed to the tramp of Roman armies. Carthage, Etruria’s ally, had so weakened under the Greek attack in Sicily that the Sicilian Greeks became strong enough to help Cumae to break the Etruscan sea power in 474. The Etruscan hold on Campania was finally lost at the end of the fifth century when the Sabellian tribes swept down from the mountains over the Campanian plain, overwhelming Etruscan and Greek alike. Finally, the Etruscans had lost control of the region of the Po under the assault of the Gauls; by 350 their stronghold Felsina succumbed, and some fifteen years later the Adriatic shore submitted. At the same time Hellenism in southern Italy was weakening. As ever, the Greek cities were frequently torn by party strife; even if united internally they often quarrelled with their neighbours, whether for racial, political, constitutional, or economic reasons. But a more potent cause was the threat from the inland peoples, a danger to which Greek coastal colonies were always exposed. In southern Italy they had easily reached a modus vivendi with the early inhabitants, but the balance was upset by the arrival of the Sabellian tribes.

The steady southward movement of the Sabellian peoples has already been mentioned. Caused by overpopulation and pressure from the north and ex -pedited by the custom of the Sacred Spring, it led to a new grouping of the powers, by which the Etruscan and Greek colonies lost their primacy. The Sabellian mountain-dwellers, shouldered off by the Etruscans and the warlike Picenes, had pressed further southwards, thus incidentally forcing the Aequi and Volsci down into the Latin plains where they had been checked by the Latins. The Sabellians themselves had gradually reached the hills and valleys above the Campanian plain and were soon tempted down by its fertility. The invaders quickly swept over the plain; Capua succumbed c. 423 and Cumae in 421. Neapolis served as a refuge for the fleeing Greeks, but virtually the whole of Campania from Cumae to Salerno became Sabellian. Yet the superior Greek and Etruscan civilization of the earlier inhabitants soon conquered the hardy mountain-dwellers who adapted their mode of life to their new surroundings. These Campanians, now in possession of the richest land in Italy which produced three garden crops a year, soon settled down to city life and grew very wealthy. Their chief city, Capua, became the second city of Italy and the head of a league, which did not, however, include all the Oscan towns of Campania. The attractiveness and ease of their life led to a certain deterioration of character, so that later they readily became a spoil to their mountain kinsmen, especially as foreign tyrants were constantly draining their military resources by hiring mercenaries from them.24

South of Campania another band of Sabellians, known as the Lucanians, settling in what is practically the instep of the foot of Italy, absorbed the earlier population. Here the Greek cities were hard pressed by Dionysius of Syracuse, who, having defeated the Carthaginians in Sicily, tried to carve out in South Italy a continental addition to his Sicilian empire (405–367). To this end he entered into a league with the Lucanians and recruited Gallic mercenaries. The allied Greek cities were defeated by the Lucanians in 390 and at Elleporus in 389 by Dionysius himself, who captured Rhegium, raided the Etruscan coast, reoccupied Elba and pressed up the Adriatic coast, founding colonies at Ancona and Adria. Hellenic Italy was saved from the Syracusan danger on the death of Dionysius’ son, but it had not learnt its lesson. Cities continued to quarrel, though Tarentum attained some eminence under the wise rule of Archytas. This weakness elicited further attacks from the Italians in the second half of the fourth century. The aggressions of a league of the Bruttians in the toe of Italy forced the Greeks to appeal to the mother country, whence King Archidamus of Sparta and later Alexander of Epirus came to champion the cause of western Hellenism, just as Timoleon had come from Corinth to save the Sicilian Greeks. It was during these disturbed days following the break up of Dionysius’ empire that some Greek privateers raided the coast of Latium.25

The Sabellians who settled in central Italy were known to the Romans as Samnites. They formed a loose league, which did not include outlying tribes as the Lucanians, the Oscans of Campania, the Paeligni, Marsi, Marrucini or Vestini. They were highland farmers and crofters, who lived in villages rather than towns, and though some larger landowners probably existed, differences in wealth were not great. Each valley or plateau comprised a pagus with an elective leader (meddix), whose functions were largely limited to leadership in war and a summary jurisdiction. These pagi were loosely grouped together in cantonal associations (Caraceni, Pentri, Hirpini, and Caudini), and each of these populi formed a touto, led by a meddix tuticus. These in turn were grouped in a wider league with a central meeting-place at Bovianum Vetus, where cantonal chiefs would gather in emergencies to appoint a federal commander-in-chief and where a federal council, and possibly an assembly, also met. But the lack of a really strong central administration made it difficult for the Samnites to sustain a long war. Though they could easily be roused to heroic vigour and had a passionate sense of unity in defence of their land, they tended to scatter quickly when on the hunt for booty. In 354 they made an alliance with the Romans, and the interests which both peoples had in the middle Liris valley were probably defined to their mutual satisfaction. However, a more potent factor in driving them to co-operate was probably common fear of the Gauls, and when this fear became less urgent the preoccupation of Rome with the Latins and of the Samnites with southern Italy rendered the alliance still useful. In the same year Rome had made a truce with Praeneste; perhaps she feared a coalition of Latins and Samnites. But beside bringing the Romans and Samnites into contact for the first time, the Samnite alliance created a barrier in central Italy against the southward advance of the Gauls and the northward spread of Greek civilization.26

In another direction also Rome’s horizon widened. In 348 she made a treaty with Carthage, which revised the old agreement reached at the beginning of the Republic. The fact that the Romans allowed Carthage to stiffen up the conditions shows that their real interests were still confined to Italy and that their commercial ambitions were very humble. The treaty asserted Rome’s claim to speak for the cities of the Latian coast as far south as Tarracina (Anxur). Antium and the Volsci naturally disliked this and trouble followed; in 346 M. Valerius Corvus captured Satricum and celebrated a triumph over the Antiates, Volscians and men of Satricum.27 This discontent quickly communicated itself to the Latins who decided to make one supreme bid for freedom. But before the Latin revolt broke out, the Campanians, who by defending the Sidicini had drawn a Samnite attack on themselves, are said to have appealed to Rome for help against the Samnites; the Romans responded and waged the First Samnite War in 343–341 against their former allies. The military details of this war are very confused and improbable, and Diodorus knew of no such war before the great Samnite War of 327. Further, it is very unlikely that the Romans would risk breaking with their Samnite allies on the very eve of a Latin revolt. Many believe, therefore, that the war was invented to justify Rome’s later dealings with Campania. The evidence is not conclusive, but it must be admitted that the whole narrative of these years becomes clearer if the war is rejected. In any case the Romans renewed their alliance with the Samnites in 341 and disclaimed any responsibility for the Sidicini, the very people on whose behalf their war with Samnium is said to have been fought.28

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