The sun of Hellenism was slowly sinking in the west. The Greek cities in southern Italy had long suffered at the hands of the Sabellic Lucanians and Bruttians, who were receiving the final thrust of that pressure of peoples which began beyond the Alps. Unwilling, as always, to cooperate voluntarily, and not forced into a semblance of unity by the strong hand of a tyrant, many Italiote cities had succumbed to the natives. The southernmost cities, of which Tarentum was the strongest thanks to its trade with the neighbouring hinterland and with Greece, had maintained their ground by hiring professional soldiers from Greece. Archidamus of Sparta had been called in and involuntarily did Rome the service of distracting the attention of the Samnites during the Latin revolt before he fell fighting in 338. Soon afterwards, with the help of Alexander the Molossian, King of Epirus and brother-in-law of Alexander the Great, the Tarentines tried to establish a claim to the downlands of Apulia. It was perhaps at this time that they made a treaty with Rome, by which Roman warships were not to sail east of the Lacinian promontory, near Croton; the Romans were not yet particularly interested in Apulia or the south.13 Alexander’s ambitions, which soon outran the desires of his Tarentine employers, were quenched by his death in 330. Rome’s alliance with Naples in 327 must have attracted the notice of the southern Greeks, while her operations in Apulia during the Second Samnite War, especially the founding of a colony at Luceria, irritated the Tarentines, who were probably forced to resign their claims to northern Apulia. Renewed attacks by the Lucanians induced the Tarentines to call in Cleonymus of Sparta in 303; his personal ambitions soon caused his dismissal after a defeat by the barbarians, who were probably not supported by the Romans as tradition relates. The intervention of Agathocles of Syracuse temporarily checked the Bruttians (c. 298–295), but more significant was the founding of a Latin colony at Venusia in 291.14 The smaller Greek cities began to look for help from the Romans, who though allied to the Lucanians had overthrown the Samnites, rather than from Tarentum or from Agathocles, whose early brilliance had declined and whose empire collapsed at his death in 289.
About 285 Thurii appealed to the Romans for help against the Lucanians. Some aid was apparently given, in return for which a Roman tribune was honoured with a golden crown. In 282 Thurii again appealed and the Romans sent C. Fabricius with a consular army to drive back the Lucanians and to garrison Thurii. Rhegium, Locri and perhaps Croton also availed themselves of Rome’s protection. Rome was thus suddenly forced to define her policy towards southern Italy. After due deliberation she decided to intervene rather than to abandon the Greek cities to the onslaughts of her Lucanian allies; this decision was due perhaps to the influence of the younger plebeian leaders whose power was increased by the recent political victory of the plebs in 287.15 But although it was becoming increasingly evident that the Senate must now think in terms of Italy as a whole and extend the range of its policy, it is equally true that the Romans liked quiet neighbours. Alexander of Epirus had advanced as far as Paestum and Agathocles had caused considerable trouble; Rome would be glad to end the need for these foreign condottieri. Also the infant Roman fleet might find Thurii a useful station now that Rome had established colonies on the Adriatic. Finally, as the Lucanians had become restless when the Gauls attacked Rome’s northern frontier, the Romans would welcome the opportunity of punishing them. Thus all considerations forced Rome to undertake the cause of Thurii.
The Tarentines, who had done little to justify their hegemony among the Italiotes, replied by attacking ten Roman ships which appeared off their harbour; they sank four, captured another and scattered the rest. They followed up this unprovoked attack by marching to Thurii, driving out the Roman garrison and sacking the town. Roman envoys, who demanded very moderate reparations, were insulted. War was forced on the Romans; the consul L. Aemilius Barbula was sent to attack Tarentum if it still refused to make redress (281). The Tarentines, who had already summoned the help of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, were on the point of capitulating when the King’s envoy, Cineas, arrived and turned the scales in favour of war. The cause of this remarkable outburst is perhaps found in the party politics of Tarentum. It is true that by sailing east of the Lacinian promontory the Romans had broken their formal treaty; but as this was old and had been made with King Alexander it might well be considered to have been abrogated. The Roman fleet may have been innocently cruising round on a tour of inspection or on its way to the new Adriatic colonies, but more probably it had come to offer moral if not physical support to the pro-Roman oligarchs in Tarentum. The Tarentine democrats may thus have had good cause to distrust its presence and resorted to violence in the expectation of help from Pyrrhus. Rome’s quarrel with Tarentum would have soon been over and have had little significance, had not Pyrrhus answered the appeal.