Mommsen’s fervid nationalism led him to declare that ‘history cannot but do the noble people [the Samnites] the justice of acknowledging that they understood and performed their duty’, that is, they fought for Italian liberty. In the same strain Livy made a Samnite spokesman declare: ‘Let us settle the question whether Samnite or Roman is to govern Italy.’ But probably neither side was conscious of what fate held in the balance. War developed from some petty frontier dispute and its result was still hidden in the womb oftime. Rome was conscious, or soon became conscious, of the immediate difficulty rather than of the ultimate meaning of the task that lay ahead. The mountain warriors of Samnium might be defeated by the Roman phalanx and the Campanian cavalry on the plains, but once they had to be tackled amid the broken ground of their mountainous terrain, fighting for their homeland in small organized bands, they would present the Roman legionaries with a stiffer problem, though one not insuperable to a nation so adaptable as Rome. It was probably to meet these needs, rather than those that had arisen just after the Gallic sack of the city, that the Romans decided to make their army more flexible by introducing manipular tactics in place of the stiffer phalanx: these reforms are discussed below in the context of the history of the army (pp. 312ff.).
The military history of the early years of the Second Samnite War, which broke out in 326, is very obscure, as the details given by Livy are unreliable. While one legion covered Latium or Campania a second could take the initiative. In 325 D. Junius Brutus in a turning movement through the central Apennines won a victory over the Vestini; the other small Sabellian tribes, the Marsi, Paeligni, and Marrucini, were presumably friendly to Rome. The dictator of 324, L. Papirius Cursor, is credited with a victory at the unknown Imbrivium. The Romans scarcely penetrated into Apulia, as tradition maintains, though a Samnite attack on Fregellae is plausible. Little is known of these years of guerrilla warfare, during which the Romans were learning more pliant tactics. In 321 they determined on more vigorous action. The two consuls, T. Veturius and Sp. Postumius, marshalled both consular armies at Calatia in Campania and advanced in what was probably an attempt to defeat the Caudini in Samnium itself. Alternatively, they may have been tricked into believing that the Samnite army under Gavius Pontius was in Apulia, and thrust forward in the hope of cutting it off from its base and winning a decisive victory on the Apulian plains. Whatever their intentions, they advanced into the valley of the Caudine Forks, where they found the way blocked by the Samnites. On trying to withdraw they discovered that the entrance to the defile was also held by the enemy. After vain attempts to cut their way through the encircling ring the consuls surrendered to avoid starvation. Pontius dictated terms: the Romans were to withdraw their garrisons from territory which the Samnites regarded as their own; they were not to reopen the war; six hundred Roman knights were to be given as hostages; and the Roman army was to pass under a ‘yoke’ of spears.3
Roman annalists tried to palliate the disgrace by making the Senate repudiate the agreement, and by crediting the Roman legions with a series of fictitious victories. In fact, however, the peace was observed; the Romans surrendered Fregellae and refrained from hostilities against the Samnites.4 Yet the blow to Rome’s prestige made some of the subject communities restless. Hostages were exacted from Canusium and Teanum in Apulia, and Roman prefects were sent to steady Capua and Cumae in 318. Two new tribes were formed in land which was still lying idle; the territory confiscated from Privernum became the home of the Oufentina tribe, and the district north of Capua of the Falerna.
By 316 both sides were ready for war again. The Romans had quietened much of the discontent and were now able to put four legions into the field each year; the Samnites were looking askance at Rome’s increasing influence in Apulia. War restarted when the Romans seized Satricum-on-Liris; in 315 they sent L. Papirius Cursor to capture Luceria, where he established a Latin colony (in 314). But the Samnites, who were now strengthened by the adhesion of the league of Nuceria, advanced past Sora to the Liris valley and the coast where they defeated a hastily levied army of Roman reserves at Lautulae, near Tarracina (315). They perhaps even forced their way into the Latin plain and raided Ardea.5 Rome was in grave danger, her prestige was shaken, the Aurunci and Capua revolted, the Campanian cities began to waver, but the Latins remained loyal. The Samnites had reached the high-water mark of their success and could not shake the solidarity of the Roman confederacy: Lautulae, no less than Hannibal’s successes later, tested and proved the wisdom of Rome’s treatment of her allies. In the next year, with characteristic doggedness and untiring energy, the Romans gathered strength to launch an offensive and won a great victory over the Samnites, probably at Tarracina.
It remained to reassert their leadership. Capua and the Aurunci were speedily brought to heel; Fregellae and Sora were recaptured and the latter was severely punished (313 or 312); Nola and Calatia were defeated and made allies. Latin colonies were sent to Suessa Aurunca and Pontia to watch the coast road, to Saticula to cover the Campanian frontier, and to Interamna to guard the middle Liris valley. The construction of the ‘Queen of Roads’, the Via Appia, through the Volscian and Campanian coast land was commenced. In 311 the Romans, persuaded perhaps by their new Greek allies at Naples, turned their thoughts to the sea; a small Naval Board, duoviri navales, was set up, perhaps to reorganize the fleet captured from Antium in 338. The following year a small squadron, doubtless manned largely by Greeks, was sent to effect a landing at Pompeii and to attack the district of Nuceria, but the move was not a success. The days of an effective Roman fleet were not yet come, though the ships may have afforded some protection to the colony at Ostia. Thus by 312 Rome had recovered from the disasters of Caudium and Lautulae, had strengthened her hold on Campania and her influence in Apulia, and had begun to hem in Samnium with a narrowing ring of allies and fortress colonies. Her recovery was due not a little to her superior numbers and to her wisdom in adapting her equipment, tactics and strategy to meet her foe (pp. 309ff.).
The Etruscans had long remained quiet and had taken no share in the Roman-Samnite struggle, partly perhaps because remembering how the restless Samnites had overthrown their empire in Campania they did not desire to see them become their southern neighbours in place of the more civilized Romans; and partly because towns like Sutrium, Nepete, Caere, Tarquinii and Falerii were on friendly terms with Rome and would check any hostile feeling on the part of their northern kinsmen, who, in the days of their decadence, were preoccupied with the Gauls. But when this danger decreased and when they saw that Rome’s star was rising, they were more ready to interfere to restore the balance. Further, Rome’s forty years’ truce with Tarquinii was now expiring. In 311, therefore, the Etruscans threw in their lot with Samnium and advanced against Sutrium. But in 310 the Roman consul Q. Fabius Rullianus in a bold counter-stroke forced his way through the dread Ciminian Hills into central Etruria, where he is credited with a victory. The Romans made treaties with Cortona, Perusia and Arretium; Volsinii was taken, and in 308 the alliance with Tarquinii was renewed for another forty years and alliances were made with the Umbrian towns of Camerinum and Ocriculum.6
Meantime the Samnite war dragged on. In 312 the Romans captured Peltuinum in the country of the Marrucini, and attacked Samnium from northern Apulia, where they only succeeded in capturing Allifae. No sooner had Q. Fabius induced Nuceria to return to her alliance with Rome than he had to hasten north to the country of the Marsi, which the Samnites invaded in 308. Just when Rome might have been expected to undertake a more vigorous offensive the Hernici revolted: Sora, Arpinum, Frusino, Anagnia, and Calatia all went over to the Samnites, though Aletrium, Ferentinum and Verulae remained inactive. In 306 Q. Marcius stormed Anagnia, which received civitas sine suffragio, while the inactive towns were made Roman allies; Frusino surrendered. In 305 the Aequi and Paeligni supported the uncrushed Hernici, and the Samnites broke into the ager Falernus. They were repulsed, and after a severe struggle a relieving Samnite army was defeated, probably near Bovianum;7 the capture of Arpinum, Sora and Cerfennia ended the resistance of the Hernici and Paeligni. In 304 the Aequi were defeated by P. Sempronius, and the Samnites at long last accepted the foedus antiquum. Alliances were made with the Marsi, Paeligni, Marrucini, and Frentani, and two years later with the Vestini. Civitas sine suffragio was granted to Arpinum and Trebula. A Latin colony was settled at Sora, and two strong ones on Aequian territory at Alba Fucens (303 or 300) and at Carsioli (302 or 298). The territory confiscated from the Aequi was distributed to Roman citizens. Two new tribes were formed in 299, the Aniensis from Aequian territory south of Carsioli and the Teretina in the Trerus valley from land taken from Frusino.
Thus after twenty years of stiff fighting the Samnites still retained their independence but had been thrust back into their own country. Rome’s gains were solid rather than spectacular. She had won some frontier towns, for example, Saticula, Arpinum, Sora and Luceria; she had allied herself with the hill folk of the Abruzzi in central Italy and with the people of northern Apulia; the treaties with Nola and Nuceria completed her hold on Campania; and her fortresses along the Liris and at Luceria were real accessions to her strength. She had thus become the first state in Italy, and, as such, a Mediterranean power.8 Consequently, when the Carthaginians wished to avert the risk that Agathocles of Syracuse, who was contesting their control of western Sicily, might appeal to Italy for help, the two republics may well have entered into a closer political agreement which excluded the Romans from interfering in Sicily and the Carthaginians in Italy (306).9 Though Rome was not yet ready to measure her strength against Carthage or against the kingdoms of Macedon, Egypt and Syria which at this very time were being carved out of Alexander’s empire, yet her territory exceeded not only that of each of the surviving leagues of Italy, but also that of the Syracusan empire of Agathocles.