Chapter 2

The rise of a superpower, 343–146 BC

The conquest of Central Italy: the Latin and Samnite Wars, 343–290 BC

The Celts of Central Europe were not the only people on the move in the 4th century BC. It was an age of migrations. The causes are not fully understood, but we can propose a general hypothesis. New states were being built as military competition forged larger political units. War leaders and their retinues took control of society, surpluses were invested in arms and armour, and men were trained and organized for war. The world became less safe, and only powerful polities were able to retain their independence and freedom of action, subsuming smaller cities and tribes under their hegemony. Probably, also, population was growing and pressure on resources – farmland, pasture, water, woods – was increasing. Perhaps, too, there was ecological crisis. A localized failure of the human ecosystem, especially in a marginal zone – such as a drought that drained the springs and parched the grasslands on which highland people depended – could, in a world densely peopled and heavily armed, set off a chain reaction of folk movements and wars. Some such event may have started the Oscan-speaking Samnite peoples of the southern Apennines in motion.

Once thought of as impoverished highland pastoralists with a taste for plunder, the Samnites are now known to have had a mixed farming economy supporting numerous rural settlements spread across the upland plateaus and valleys of their homeland. They cultivated cereals, vines and olives, as well as raising stock, and while some lived in isolated farmsteads, others lived in villages. Excavations at the Samnite village of Saepinum have revealed a cluster of buildings around a crossroads, where the main road was a droveway linking summer and winter pastures. Remote hilltops were crowned with circuits of rough polygonal walling to provide refuges in time of danger; and sometimes the more accessible of these, like that at Monte Saraceno, were also, like the more low-lying villages, permanently settled. In other places, there were rural sanctuaries, where, one imagines, the people of a district would periodically come together to settle community affairs, make sacrifice together, and thus refresh a common identity and solidarity; the excavated site at Pietrabbondante is an example, though the rather grand buildings revealed here are of later, 2nd century BC date.

The Samnites stuck together. One or more villages (vici) formed a canton (pagus), governed by an elected magistrate (meddix), and a group of such cantons constituted a tribe (populus), also with its ruling magistrate (meddix tuticus). There were four of these tribes, each with a distinct territory and, possibly, a special tribal sanctuary (Pietrabbondante may have been that for the Pentri Samnites). These four tribes formed the Samnite Confederation, which, in war, had a reputation for unity, resilience and martial prowess. These Samnites, moreover, were close cousins of other Oscan-speaking peoples in southern Italy, with whom they shared beliefs, customs and institutions. The Oscans had spread throughout the region during the 5th century, so that a single Oscan koine(cultural identity) now united the peoples of Samnium, Campania, Lucania, northern Apulia, and Bruttium.

Among other things they shared the myth of the ver sacrum or ‘sacred springtime’. An origin myth which explained the existence of territorially based tribes, the sacred springtime was a response to a crisis – such as famine – that threatened the community’s survival and compelled part of it to migrate. The year’s harvest and all the beasts were sacrificed to Mars (widely venerated as a god of fertility in the Apennines). The children of the tribe were designated ‘sacrificial’, but instead of being killed, upon reaching maturity, they were sent into the wilderness, following the lead of a wild animal, until they found a place to settle and form a new tribe at the place where the animal came to rest.

The 5th century BC had been a time of sacred springtimes. The Oscan peoples of the hills had descended on the Greek and Etruscan cities of the coast, and one after another these cities had succumbed to ‘barbarian’ rule, until, by about 400 BC, only two on the entire west coast remained under Greek authority. The invaders, however, were not destroyers. Though they formed a new elite, they quickly adopted the refinements of urban life. Monumental architecture, great art, advanced technology, the luxury trades, the literature and learning of the East, all these continued to flourish under the Samnites at Capua or the Lucanians at Paestum. More than that: threatened by a new outpouring from the mountains in the mid 4rd century BC, the by-then very mixed populations of Greeks, Etruscans and Oscans in the coastal cities of the south looked around for external support. In 343 BC, the Romans received an embassy from the city of Capua in Campania offering an alliance in return for support against Samnite intruders. The Romans had previously been on friendly terms with the Samnites. But, as smaller states nearer home were absorbed, the dynamic of military competition in peninsular Italy was propelling these two power blocks, Rome and the Latin League on one side, the Samnite Confederation on the other, into collision. So Rome seized the chance for an alliance with one of the richest cities in the south – and launched herself into the First Samnite War (343–341 BC).

The result was anticlimax. Though a combined Roman-Capuan force drove the Samnites out of Campania, the Roman soldiers, unused to long service far from home, mutinied and demanded repatriation. Theirs was, in fact, part of a wider discontent, for the First Samnite War had brought the entire Latin League to the brink of revolt. The driving grievance was simple: while the Latins, as subordinate allies within the League, were obliged to fight Rome’s wars – an increasing burden – it was the citizens of the dominant city who got most of the spoils. The Latins therefore issued an ultimatum demanding the restoration of equal shares (as required by the Treaty of Cassius, which had ended the First Latin War in c. 493 BC).

Faced with this new crisis, the Romans restored their previous treaty with the Samnites, and, leaving their Campanian allies in the lurch, hurried their mutinous army home. They refused the Latins’ ultimatum, and, when the latter broke with Rome and formed an alliance with Campanians and Volsci, the Romans, in an extraordinary volte-face, launched a combined attack on them in concert with the Samnites. The main Latin and Campanian force was crushed at the battle of Suessa Aurunca, and the Campanians were then detached from their allegiance by favourable terms (340 BC). The Latins and the Volsci were gradually reduced over the succeeding two years. (Among the gains was the seaboard town of Antium, wrested from the Volsci, notable because the curved prows of pirate ships captured there were fixed to the speakers’ platform in the Roman Forum and gave to it the name Rostra, meaning ‘beaks’ or ‘prows’.)

Complete victory allowed the Romans to impose their own terms on the Latins, but those terms seem to have been designed to bridge the gap between victor and vanquished. ‘Do you choose to adopt harsh measures against men who have surrendered or suffered defeat?’ asks the Roman consul of his fellow senators in Livy’s treatment of the story. ‘You may destroy the whole of Latium, and create vast deserts out of the places from where you have drawn a splendid allied army to make use of in many a major war. Or do you want to follow the example of your ancestors and extend the state of Rome by admitting your defeated enemies as citizens?’(1) Livy’s grasp of the principles at work was sound. Rome needed the Latins to fuel her expansion with men, war matériel, and sources of supply. Ancient empires were built not by serfs but by free men with an interest in what they did. True, the old Latin League was broken up, and each town entered into private contract with Rome; even the pretence of a federation of equals was abandoned. True also that, depending on their wartime stance, five towns were incorporated into the Roman state, while ten others remained of subordinate Latin status – creating a hierarchy of privilege that exacerbated local rivalries and made it easier for the hegemon to divide and rule. All the same, in other circumstances towns taken in war might be destroyed and their populations slaughtered or enslaved. The Latin towns survived as self-governing communities, and were soon to flourish under the Roman aegis. Probably, too, the settlement of 338 BC reduced the relative military burden on them, and, at the same time, offered them a serious share in both movable booty and land gained through war. ‘The Roman system,’ explains ancient historian Tim Cornell, ‘has been compared to a criminal operation which compensates its victims by enrolling them in the gang and inviting them to share the proceeds of future robberies.’ More prosaically, from the perspective of the subject towns themselves, ‘By joining a large and efficient operation and sacrificing their political independence, Rome’s Italian allies obtained security, protection and profit for a relatively modest premium.’(2) Consequently, when Rome next moved against the Samnites, there would be no mutiny. Nor, in fact, would Rome ever again find herself at war with the Latins. Over time, moreover, the very distinction between Roman and Latin would fade away.

The settlement of the Second Latin War launched Rome on 75 years of conquest that would give her effective control of the whole Italian peninsula. A measure of this expansion is the increase in Roman (as opposed to Latin or allied) territory, which grew from 5,525 square kilometres in 338 BC to 26,805 on the eve of the Punic Wars in 264 BC. Incremental increases in Roman strength through the centuries-long battle for supremacy in Latium and central Italy had suddenly reached critical mass. An Italian superpower had emerged from its Latin incubator. Only one other state in Italy could still compete on equal terms: the Samnite Confederation. Along a 100-km front, from the Liris Valley in the north to the Bay of Naples in the south, the two states bordered each other, and a decade of Roman encroachment was enough to provoke war, as the outward-thrusting energy of the Oscan sacred springtimes was increasingly boxed in.

Like the five newly enfranchised Latin towns, the Capuans had also been granted Roman citizenship – albeit a halfway-house citizenship, offering rights to marry (conubium) and trade (commercium) with other Romans, but not the right to vote (a status known ascivitas sine suffragio, in contrast to the civitas optimo iure of full citizens). Others on the borders of Samnium had been enrolled as ‘allies’ (socii) of Rome. Though formally independent, the treaties which governed their relations with Rome were unequal, since, in return for the protection of the superior power, they were obliged to supply troops on demand. The Romans were also founding new colonies (coloniae).

This practice dated back to at least the 5th century BC, when the Latin League had planted colonies of settlers on its borders as a defence against the raids of Aequi and Volsci. Colonies were established on captive land. The colonists were probably volunteers, often a mix of Romans, Latins and others. Led by three commissioners, they would march to the site under a banner, and, once arrived, sanctify it by taking auspices, making sacrifice, and ploughing ritual furrows. The commissioners set the boundaries to the colony’s territory (territorium), and surveyed the land and divided it into plots, allocating these by lot to the colonists. The results of their work (known as ‘centuriation’) often survive in modern field-systems and can be seen from the air: the land is arranged in a chequerboard of squares (centuriae), each divided into 100 two-iugera strips. These small strips (a iugerum – or ‘yoke’ – was two-thirds of an acre, the amount a single team could plough in a day) were the basic building-blocks of the colonists’ plots. We know little about how the allocation was determined, but the common view that, at least in early colonies, the two-iugera strip constituted a plot must be wrong, since no citizen family could have made an adequate living from such a small patch of ground. Boundary stones marked the limit of each farm. Two bronze or stone inscriptions were later displayed in the local forum, one recording the law founding the colony (lex coloniae), the other the ownership of land in the territory.

Founding a town on a suitable site, laying out a regular street-grid, and designating plots for public buildings and private residences were also the responsibility of the commissioners. Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber, an ancient city with exceptionally well-preserved remains of later date, was originally a Roman colony founded in the 4th century BC. Essentially a strongly fortified camp, it guarded the river approach to Rome, an estuarine harbour, and valuable coastal salt deposits. Though engulfed by the later expansion of the town, the original colonial settlement – known now as the ‘Castrum’ – is still represented by fragments of defensive wall and a fossilized street-plan. Only 2.2 hectares were enclosed, space for no more than two or three hundred settlers; other early colonies were bigger, sometimes numbering thousands. All the earliest colonies were probably of Latin status, Roman citizenship still being linked with residence close to Rome itself; later, colonies might be either Roman or Latin. Either way, and especially after 338 BC, the coloniae were effective instruments of Roman domination, guarding borders and strategic points, providing manpower for the army, and beginning the process of Romanization which would eventually produce a uniform Latin culture across Italy.

New colonies added to the ring tightening around Samnium. Cales was founded with 2,500 settlers in 334 BC. Planted in the Volturnus Valley close to the Samnite border in a position to support the Campanians, it was at the time the most southerly of Rome’s colonies. Fregellae was founded a few years later, in 328 BC, this time on former Samnite land in the Liris Valley, effectively blocking off that key north-south communications route between Latium and Campania. The following year, after the Samnites had sent a garrison to Naples in response to an appeal for help from the common citizens there, the Romans put the town under siege and engineered a pro-Roman oligarchic coup. The Samnites found themselves being driven from the western seaboard, rolled back into their gloomy mountains, away from the rich cities and harbours of the coast. War broke out in 327 BC.

The Romans immediately went on to the offensive and invaded Samnite territory. This was to be the pattern for the war. Only once did the Samnites reciprocate and invade Roman territory: the dynamism of Roman imperialism – its predatory aggression, its reserves of offensive strength – kept the Samnites on the defensive. But in their own mountains, they were formidable opponents. We learn something of their appearance and fighting methods from the panoplies found in graves, the paintings on the walls of stone sarcophagi, and an archaic bronze statuette in the Louvre known as ‘the Samnite Warrior’. At first, it seems, like typical highlanders, they had fought as skirmishers, wearing little armour and equipped with javelins and lightweight shields. Latterly, however, after long contact with the Greek and Etruscan civilization of the coast, they had elaborated their military system by adopting new equipment and tactics. Spears and swords for close-quarters action had been added to javelins. More and better armour was worn: Attic-style helmets crowned with crests and feathers; cuirasses of the Samnite triple-disc or the Greek ‘muscled’ type; sometimes greaves for the lower leg; and always a wide bronze belt that was perhaps, among Samnites, some symbol of manhood. The round Argive shield sometimes replaced the lighter oval or rectangular shield traditionally favoured by Italic peoples. The Samnites thus equipped themselves for heavy infantry action as well as skirmishing, and were now able to hold ground at close quarters behind shield wall and hedge of spears. The Samnites also fielded – now if not before – large contingents of cavalry, both light javelin-throwers and armoured knights. Yet they retained the cunning of mountain fighters. At the Battle of the Caudine Forks in 321 BC, they manoeuvred the invaders into a trap between two heavily defended passes, forcing the surrender of the two Roman consuls and their entire combined army. Agreeing to Samnite peace proposals – that they should withdraw from occupied territory – they were allowed to go free, though only after each man had been reduced to wearing a single garment, and had submitted to the humiliating ritual of passing ‘beneath the yoke’ before the jeering victors.

The Romans treated the Caudine peace as mere respite. By 315 BC, with a new army of 35,000 men, they were ready to launch a fresh invasion. Though outwitted by the Samnites again – they were defeated and forced to retreat at the Battle of Lautulae – this time there was no break in hostilities. The Romans returned to the field the following season, and, carefully avoiding any more precipitate lunges into enemy territory, they used the years 314–311 BC to build a tight ring of colonies and allies around the Samnites, and a new road, the Appian Way, to facilitate rapid movement between Rome and Capua. Then, from these secure bases, every year from 310 BC onwards, the Romans attacked and devastated the Samnite heartlands. The fighting was heavy and the strain on both sides severe. Rome, moreover, was under attack elsewhere, from Etruscans, Aequi and Hernici taking advantage of her commitment in Samnium. So when the Samnites sued for peace, the Romans seized the chance of another pause. They kept their existing gains, but, for the time being, withdrew from the rest of Samnium.

The resilience of the Roman state had proved extraordinary. Not only had the Romans bounced back easily from the disasters of 321 and 315 BC, but, while corralling the Samnites in their mountains and bringing them to the brink of defeat in 314–304 BC, they had launched successful simultaneous offensives on their northern and eastern borders. The Second Samnite War had revealed that the drip-drip-drip of political change and military expansion by the Roman state had produced, by the late 4th century BC, a dynamic military imperialism of terrible power and intent. Its relentlessness was daunting: every year was a year of war, always on one front, sometimes two or three. The political system almost guaranteed this. Each of the two annually elected consuls was eager for his chance of military glory. But the whole Roman order was geared to encourage and sustain their efforts. It was a predator state feeding on the spoils of war – on hauls of bullion and slaves, on plundered stock and grain, on annexed land for new colonies. The only limit to its aggression and appetite was its reserve of men and matériel; the only possible impediment to its continued advance a coalition of comparable military power. In 298 BC, such a coalition, perhaps years in the making, emerged. In the Third Samnite War (298–290 BC), Rome faced an alliance of Etruscans, Umbrians, Samnites and Gauls; and the war would culminate in one of the most decisive battles in Italian history: a battle, in effect, to decide whether or not the whole of Italy would become Roman.

Such was its geographical extent, the enemy coalition had the Roman line across Italy stretched thin, and in 296 BC the main Samnite army broke through, moved north, and linked up with the Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls. The following year, they repeated this feat, and this time turned on the pursuing Roman army and crushed it at the Battle of Camerinum. The Roman state was plunged into crisis. The constitution was suspended as special commands were created and incumbent officeholders continued beyond their normal terms. Older men and ex-slaves were mobilized to fill the ranks of new legions, and another two consular armies, 35,000 men in total, were sent into the field before the end of the summer of 295 BC. Even so, as the Romans approached the coalition army encamped at Sentinum on the border between Umbria and Picenum, they were heavily outnumbered. To improve the odds, a detached Roman force invaded Etruria, hoping that the threat of devastation would draw off the Etruscan and Umbrian forces; which it did. Despite this, when the Romans offered battle, the remaining Samnites and Gauls accepted the challenge (an almost essential precondition of combat in ancient warfare, since an army which chose to remain in its fortified camp, often defensively sited, could be attacked only at grave disadvantage).

The Samnites were deployed on the coalition’s right flank, facing the consular army of Quintus Fabius, the Gauls on the left, facing the consul Publius Decius. Roman military doctrine was essentially offensive, though it counselled caution in preparing for this and choosing an opportune moment. On this day, the older consul Fabius represented caution, his younger colleague Decius the spirit of the offensive. Fabius was determined to hold back on the left, confident that the enthusiasm of the barbarian warriors opposite would erode more quickly in a long wait than that of the stolid citizen-peasants of Latium. But Decius was determined to attack on the right as soon as the battle opened.

The Roman army that fought at Sentinum was very different from the hoplite phalanx of the 5th century BC. A century of wars against lightly equipped enemies who fought in more open, fast-moving formations, wars often fought in difficult terrain favourable to the guerrilla and the skirmisher, had transformed Roman equipment, organization and tactics. The Second Samnite War may have completed the transition. The dense blocks of men with spears and overlapping shields who had formed the phalanx had become looser formations of men armed mainly with javelin (pilum) and a lighter oval or rectangular shield (scutum). Large units – the legion (legio) of approximately 4,200 men – were divided into small subunits of 120 called ‘maniples’ (manipuli means ‘handfuls’), and these were deployed in an open chequerboard formation and trained to manoeuvre independently. The new legions were designed for mobile, offensive warfare. Unlike the relatively slow, cumbersome and defensive phalanx, they were expected to deploy, advance, wheel and, if necessary, alter front rapidly; and when the time came to close, they would hurl javelins to disorganize the enemy ranks, and then charge in with sword and shield.

Even so, Sentinum was hard-fought. Decius’ attack on the right was soon bogged down in a head-on clash with the Gallic line, and when he unleashed his cavalry on the far right in an effort to turn the enemy flank, they were met by the Gallic cavalry and, once embroiled, counter-charged and routed by the Gallic chariot force. The panic quickly began to infect the legionaries, and, as it did so and their line faltered, the Gallic infantry pushed forwards. Decius, unable to shore up the collapsing Roman right, was soon lost to a bizarre religious frenzy. Calling on Mother Earth and the Gods of the Underworld to accept the legions of the enemy along with himself as a sacrifice, he galloped his horse into the Gallic line and perished. Fabius offered more practical help. Detaching units from the rear line of his legions on the left, he was able to stem the rout and launch a counter-attack on the right – a complex sequence of manoeuvres made possible only by the greater flexibility of the new legions. The Gallic advance was halted, and, as the Romans reformed and renewed their attack, the Gallic warriors formed a defensive shield-wall. Meantime, probing on the left, Fabius found the spirit of the Samnites in front of him flagging – as anticipated. Launching his infantry frontally and his cavalry on the left flank, he broke the Samnite line after brief resistance, leaving the Gallic shield-wall isolated on the battlefield. Mentally and physically exhausted by hours of fighting and now surrounded, the Gallic units disintegrated and fled. The carnage of battle and pursuit claimed, it is said, 25,000 Samnites and Gauls, with another 8,000 taken prisoner; but Roman losses, at 9,000, were also heavy, especially in the wake of yet heavier losses at Camerinum earlier that year. Nonetheless, Sentinum had secured Roman hegemony in Italy.

Events between 293 and 264 BC are obscure, since the relevant parts of Livy’s History of Rome, our principal source, are lost. But if we do not know a precise chronology, the overall thrust and outcome are clear. Sentinum left the anti-Roman coalition broken backed, and relentless year-on-year Roman offensives thereafter precluded any possibility of its restoration. Samnium, Etruria, Umbria, and the land of the Gallic Senones were conquered and made subject to Rome, mainly as ‘allies’ bound by treaty, though some land was annexed to the Roman state or settled with Latin colonists. Victory at Sentinum made the Roman Republic the only Italian superpower, and within a generation it had absorbed most of the minor states. Some still clung to independence – such as the Greek cities of the far south, foremost among which was Tarentum. Others, unwilling allies of Rome, still aspired to break free – the democrats ruled by pro-Roman oligarchs in the cities of Campania, and many among the Oscan-speaking peoples of the central and southern Apennines. But, too weak to take on Rome alone, rebels against the Pax Romana were forced to look abroad for a more powerful ally. The Greeks, at least, soon found one – a latter-day Alexander, a military adventurer and would-be champion of Greek ‘freedom’: King Pyrrhus of Epirus.

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