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Battle of Thatis River
The Battle of Megiddo
The Third Battle of Anchialus
Second Samnite War Phase 2
The Roman Disaster at Adrianople
Second Samnite War
War in So. Italy 342-327 BC
First Samnite War
Pompey and Ancient Piracy
Brasidas - Spartan Commander
Battle of Kadesh
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King Arthur
Roman Invasion of Anglesey
Agricola - The Final Invasion

Gordon Davis Articles
Third Romano-Samnite War - Phase 1
Second Samnite War Phase 2
Second Samnite War
War in So. Italy 342-327 BC
First Samnite War

Recommended Reading

The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third

Roman Warfare (Smithsonian History of Warfare)

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The First Samnite War
The First Samnite War
by Gordon Davis

The First Samnite War is an event of great importance to the history of Italy and of Rome. Although of short duration it was the significant opening act in a wider conflict which eventually drew in all of the contemporary powers of Italy and within seventy years decided who was to be the mistress of the peninsula. The war provides a study of two almost equally powerful but fundamentally different peoples: one a well-organized and centralized city-state; the other a confederation of fierce mountain tribes, much less possessed of higher civilization but fully gifted and successful in the art of war. The First Samnite War was the opening round of almost many decades of brutal conflict between the two belligerents and within its details exists some of the reasons for Rome’s success in the wider struggle for Italy and in later times: its great martial instincts and capabilities, its superior ability to bring its abundant man-power and resources to bear and its stubborn cunning and resolve to win, despite any setback.

Modern scholarship has been quite sceptical about this war, with some questioning even its very existence. Those doubts, championed by Mommeson and Adcock, have now become less accepted. The outright historicity of the war is presently unquestioned. To those who value detail however, such a general statement of acceptance can only go so far. The main problem is the extant material to draw on. One must be very careful when dealing with the history of the early republic, given that primary sources for the events are well-nigh non-existent and secondary sources at best several generations removed. It cannot surprise then that various details of the war, as described by Livy and others, raise important and cogent questions among scholars. The diplomatic and military aspects of the struggle, the focus of this article, must therefore remain very much open to debate. That said, it should be noted that in the absence of more data, most of the events as related are not and cannot be disputed by historians. Livy’s account, contained in Book VII of his Ab Urbe Condita, which provides the most comprehensive description of the war and events surrounding it, shall be the main but not only well-spring for this brief analysis.

The Roman Army of the Early Republic

Before delving into the events surrounding the war, a brief overview and comparison of the military potential of the two adversaries is in order. The Roman army of the early Republic was an army of citizen soldiers, very similar in its development to other Greek-influenced city-states throughout Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Constant, never-ending annual deployments and campaigning made the army a veteran one, inured to campaigning and in large part efficiently led. The census, undertaken every few years, allowed the state to gauge properly its strength and organize military drafts competently. The institution of pay around the end of the 5th Century BC and the distribution of war booty made life away from the farmstead possible and perhaps sometimes even lucrative for the Roman citizen. In 343 BC, the standard Roman army in the field comprised of two legions of roughly 5,000 spears, each enrolled and commanded under the auspices of the years twin Consuls, the supreme leaders and generals of the Roman republic. The legions were capable of acting separately or in unison, as need arose. Contingents of allies could bring a Consular army up to perhaps between 7,500 and 10,000 spears, making a the Romans a formidable adversary for any contemporary Italian state. In emergencies, the Romans could take the field with a much larger force. Livy (7.25), for example, states the combined crises of Gallic and Greek incursions in 349 BC led to the enrolment of no less than 10 legions, for a total of 50,000 spears. Such a large figure may well be exaggeration, but the point should be that by scraping the proverbial bottom of its potential recruiting pool in times of crisis, Rome could go beyond the two standard legions and be able to campaign against multiple adversaries simultaneously and win. As for the individual Roman soldier, they were largely drawn from the tough rural folk farming and grazing the lands around the city, being divided into catagories based on their relative wealth. Due to constant warring, under normal conditions the two standard Consular legions would have comprised in good part of veteran soldiers, well-drilled, with the notches of several campaigns on their shields.

The actual tactical array of the Roman army in the mid-4th century BC remains a hotly-debated and very fascinating topic. Rome was from the latter half of the 8th century BC very much influenced by Greek ideas and civilization and no less so in the practical methodologies of military tactics. It is therefore rightfully accepted that the during the regal period the Greek phalanx was adopted for use. Livy (8.8) describes the Roman phalanx at mid-4th century BC as already having come a long way towards the composition of the later manipular legion of the Carthaginian Wars, with the 3 main lines of the triplex-axis being sub-divided into a more flexible array of smaller units. Some scholars raise doubts about Livy’s description, making the relevant point that he was far from being a primary source on the legion of the 4th century BC, while Polybius actually saw with his own eyes the manipular legion he described at the beginning of the second century BC. Still, Livy may well have derived his description from a valid early source and since no serious evidence disputes him, his account should stand. That would mean that a breakdown of the phalanx into maniples very likely did not occur as a result of fighting in the mountains of Samnium, as some contend, but occured at some earlier date during Rome’s fighting with her closer neighbours. This makes sense if the logic of the change from a solid block of fighting men to smaller components was to make better use of the soldiers at the back of the phalanx, allowing avenues for those worn out to move to the rear, while permitting the rear lines to come to the front fresh, thereby increasing the legions efficiency and staying power. The alternative, that the smaller units were created to allow movement over broken and mountainous terrain is possible but seems more likely as a an anciliary benefit. Roman commanders would have sought flat and open plains whenever coming to a set battle piece against any foe, including the Samnites, where their superior organization and tactics could be brought to bear. Disasters in the mountains of Samnium, such as the Roman defeat at Saticula in 343 BC and later at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC were mostly not set battles, but surprises of an army on the march. Lautilae in 315 BC may be the big exception, but the exact terrain and circumstances of that battlefield is not clear. The Roman adoption of the javelin from the Samnites, as purported in the anonymous Vatican document, is very possible but ultimately unverifiable. The Romans of the mid-4th century BC would very likely have campaigned on a long-established pattern, with set-down marching formations, the prudent fortification of camps and a rudimentary supply train overseen by Roman officers (Quaestors) specially tasked for the function. Pillage of the enemies countryside, a common and effective tactic in, would have taken much pressure off the supply system. Roman nobility aspiring to a successful public career spent years at war learning from their superiors how to conduct such operations. Inevitably, some Roman generals proved more adept at conducting campaigns and battles, while others achieved mediocrity or had their careers cut short by failure and death.

The Samnite Arms, Mid-4th Century BC

Of the Samnite arms, little is known for certain. The peoples of the four Samnite tribes, the Pentri, Caudini, Hirpini and Caraceni, were hardy mountain folk who made good fighting stock. It is well-known and accepted by scholarship that the Samnite tribes worked together in military undertakings (Salmon, 1967, pg 95-96; Eckstien, 2006, pg 140-141, et al), but it is very unlikely that in the First Samnite War there was any sort of organized war effort akin to that of Rome. The Samnite army that set off hostilities by attacking the Sidicini in 343 BC was likely only a constituent part of the full military strength of the Samnite League, consisting mostly of contingents of soldiers from various pagi or towns in the Liris-Volturnus region who chose to fight for new lands and plunder, under the command of a respected war-leader, perhaps even one of the tribal Meddices. Roman annalists have left such details, even the very names of the leaders of 343 BC out of the record. War with the Volsci of the Liris valley had been ongoing for some time and had been successful, so likely the army was a seasoned one of good morale. What sort of formations the Samnites would have employed in battle is an open question. Livy hints of the use of a phalanx-like ‘square’ in 343 BC, and at a much later date describes the employment of battalions of 400 spears, which if accurate may have been the result of innovations as the conflict drew on. Cicero (de orat., 2.80.325) implies that they used a open and flexible order of fighting, rather than the solid phalanx, which would correspond well with the mountainous country in which they dwelt. Perhaps there was no standard at all, and such dispositions left to the Commander to formulate. In battle, the Samnites like the Celts are said to have employed a powerful initial charge to achieve victory in battle, meant to break the enemy’s formation by the weight of its momentum. If such could be achieved, quick victory was well in hand and speaks to the possibility of there being a much lesser emphasis on a tightly organized battle array. In this situation, if the initial charge did not break the enemy and a bloody, extended toe-to-toe melee developed, the better armed and organized phalanxes of littoral city-states such as Rome would have stood a better chance of prevailing. The primary hand weapon of the Samnites was the spear, variations of which could he used for throwing or for close-in combat. As stated earlier, the javelin, a variation of the traditional spear, was a weapon which the Romans adopted from the Samnites, which is entirely possible. Graves of Samnite dead were often marked by a spear. As for armour, a long triangular shield seems to have been in general use. Likely there was no common standard and one’s accoutrements would have reflected one’s position in society, with those at the bottom making due with some rough hides and a bronze-tipped spear in combat, while the better-off sported a full panoply of offensive and defensive arms. Samnite cavalry apparently acquitted themselves well in battle and like the Romans probably would have consisted of the better-equipped and trained upper strata of Samnite society. Unfortunately, no surviving account specifically attests to their deeds.

The Prelude and Catalysts for War

The catalyst that provoked the First Samnite war was the possession of the rich, fertile plain of northern Campania. Salmon (1967, pg 191-193) cogently points out that the well-known previous treaty of 354 BC between Rome and the Samnites concerned only a division of the territory north-west of Campania, that of the Liris valley Volsci, with the river itself as the likely line of demarcation. The lower Liris, from where it transects the Monti Aurunci and the Roccamofina massif down to the sea, would not have been covered by such a treaty. Northern Campania at the time was organized under a league of cities led by the formerly Etruscan city of Capua, second only to Rome in size and population. Since the league was an independent power at the time, neither the Samnites or the Romans would have considered the Capuan League as within its rightful sphere of influence in 354 BC. The Romans and Samnites at the time had enough enemies to occupy them, especially now that they would be moving to defeat the still-strong Volsci on their respective sides of the Liris river. In addition to this work, Rome had Gauls and the ever-formidable Etruscan city-states north of the Ciminian forest to consider, while the Samnites and their neighbours the Lucani faced off against the powerful city-state of Taras (Latin Tarentum). This cities’ contemporary general, or strategos, the philosopher Archytas is said to have made a consistent habit of defeating them in battle. Only after his death in 347 BC did the threat to Samnium’s southern frontier significantly diminish. The main point and cause of the coming war between Samnium and Rome was basically that neither side could allow the other control of rich and populous northern Campania without accepting a seriously unfavourable adjustment in the balance of power between the two. The wars of the 350’s BC had brought Roman and Samnite armies to the very borders of northern Campania. When the Samnites made their bid in 343 BC, the Romans could not refuse to challenge it.

The First Samnite War as brought down to us in the surviving sources comprised three annual campaigns and six known battles. Every one of them, interestingly, is accounted for by Livy in 343 BC. The crisis began in the early spring of that year, when a Samnite army under an anonymous general invaded the territory of the Sidicines, a Sabellian people whose main city was Teanum Sidicinum, a significant polis located on the southern slopes of the Roccamofina massif. Frederiksen (1984, pg 184) conjectures that the Sidicines were friends of both the Volscians and Aurunci, and it was with the Volscians that the Samnites had been making war on for the past decade, close by to the north in the Liris basin. Salmon (1967, pg 194), quoting various sources, has Samnite armies making large gains in hard fighting against the Volsci in the years prior to the war, conquering the Liris valley towns of Interamna, Casinum, Arpinum and outright destroying Fregellae between 354 and 343 BC. It is quite possible, but un-provable, that as allies of the Volsci, the Sidicini would have been aiding their friends in this fighting, which would help to at least partly explain subsequent Samnite aggressions against them. In any case, the Liris River being reached to the north, the Samnites could go no further in that theatre without risking war with Rome. A turn to the south, towards Sidicine lands, would have beckoned as a safer avenue for further conquest. Besides possessing some excellent agricultural lands, Teanum itself was a significant city, considered second only to Capua in its neighbourhood (Strabo 5.4.10) and though Sabellian, likely was somewhat akin in prosperity and civilization to its Campanian neighbours. The Sidicines thus made a sensible and lucrative target for Samnite aggression in 343 BC.

The Samnite invasion commenced in the spring of 343 BC, most likely from the directions of Rufrae and Callifae, both Samnite strongholds only ten or so miles north-east of Teanum. Under the auspices of the anonymous general, the Samnite army swept into Sidicine lands, in much greater strength, Livy (7.29) states than the Sidicines could hope to muster. If the Sidicines ventured on a pitched battle at this early point, no indication is given, but if they did, they were defeated. Probably a good portion or all of the Sidicine frontier lands between Rufrae and Teanum were laid waste before the first known battle was fought. With clouds of smoke rising from burning farmsteads in the distance, Teanum would have been flooded with waves of peasants seeking the safety of the main city, while still more refugees would have made for inaccessible mountain strongholds and sanctuaries common to central Italy at this time. Faced with this grave threat, the Sidicines took drastic action. Livy (7.29) states that they ”united themselves with the Campani”. The “Campani” to whom the Sidicines united themselves in 343 BC was the Capuan League of cities. With the Volsci south of the Liris river greatly diminished and the Sidicines now invaded, there is little doubt that the Campani saw themselves as gravely threatened and a likely future target. Sidicine appeals for help were answered positively and the cities of the League mustered an army.

The exact nature of the Sidicine – Campanian alliance is not dwelt upon by the surviving accounts. It could have taken a form similar to the purported Capuan deditio to Rome that was to follow, or it could have been a long-standing or impromptu alliance on more equal terms. In any event, it is apparent that the Campani acted quickly. The sensible place to muster the separate contingents from the league cities would have been Capua, it being the capital and the city closest to Teanum. Once concentrated, it was only fifteen miles, a days march, to Teanum, north along the western edge of the Mons Trebulani. Either at the city or somewhere in its vicinity, the Campanian and Sidicine armies met and combined. Both belligerents now closed with one another and battle was offered and accepted. Where exactly the contest was fought is not known. Livy (7.29) only reports that it was on Sidicine territory. Most likely it was contested somewhere nearby to the Sidicine capital, across the rough table-lands of the Roccamofina as it slowly descends onto the plain. Roman descriptions of the luxuriant weakness of the Campani should be dismissed. The Campanians and Sidicines would have fielded a powerful combined armament, well equipped and trained to fight in the phalanx, like all contemporary city-states. For the Sidicines especially, the implications of defeat were all too clear. The Samnites they met in battle, however, had been fighting and storming towns for at least ten years, and therefore were a hardened and veteran corps. As Livy (7.29) states: “They were beaten on Sidicine territory by men who were inured to the use of arms”. Defeated, the Campanian army retreated back into its own territory, perhaps with all or part of the Sidicine army joining it. Teanum, as later events show, did not fall at this point, even though a good part of the country surely was ravaged and overrun. As the war moved to another theatre, pressure from the Samnites surely would have fallen off. Archaeological digs at Teanum have shown the rough polygonal walls from pre-Roman times to be dated to the later 4th century BC (Frederiksen, 1984, pg 182). Therefore, they were either built by the Sidicines around the time of the war or by the Samnites after its fall years later. In any event, the conflict now moved into northern Campania.

The Samnites now made their fateful decision to pursue the defeated Campani and divert their invasion towards Campania. There can be little doubt that the rich, opulent cities and the fertile lands about them presented a most inviting target. The defeat of a Campanian army on Sidicine territory presented both a convenient pretext for aggression and an excellent test of Campanian military power, which had been found lacking. The Samnite army, or a large part of it, now marched for Capua, following up the remnants of the Campanian forces. Passing over or around the Monti Trebulani, the Samnite army forded the Volturnus River, likely somewhere above its issue onto the plain and passed onto the Mons Tifata above Capua. The old, formerly Etruscan city now lay in grave danger. Livy reports that the Samnite host systematically cleared the Mons Tifata of enemy and fortified a camp on it. Caudian Caiata up the Volturnus valley to the north-east would have provided a good base of operations. Once prepared, the Samnite army, leaving a sufficient force to guard its camp, formed up and moved down the slopes and onto the plain to offer battle.

While the Samnites had been making their advance to Tifata, the Capuan League was surely busy levying the full extent of its military might, in answer to the crisis. Somewhere on the level plain nearby to Capua the two sides again met in bloody battle. Livy gives no detailed account of the fight. It is interesting to note that he has the Samnites approaching battle in a definite formation, as opposed to a disorganized mass: “They marched down from [Tifata] with their army formed in a square into the plain which lies between Capua and Tifata.” (Livy, 7.29). His description, if accurate, provides evidence of the Samnite use of a phalanx; an entirely possible occurrence given prevailing military orthodoxy. In any event, the opponents came to blows and the battle, at least for a time, was bloody and obstinate. Finally, the Campanian phalanx went down in shattering defeat. Leaving “the flower of their youth” (Livy 7.29) to variegate on the plain, the survivors dispersed south to other league cities or retreated within the walls of nearby Capua. One can only imagine the desperate panic and fear which now would have enveloped the great city. The Samnites, victorious and sensing success, now blockaded Capua and commenced a siege, while other groups dispersed over the plain to plunder and pillage. For a second time in less than a century, Campania was set to fall to a Sabellian invader from the Apennines.

Following victory on Sidicine territory, the Samnites (in pink) could have approached Capua from either east or west, around the Monti Trebulani. Likely they took the eastern route.

Seeing their main city besieged and their hopes for defeating the invaders grow dim, it was now that the Capuans turned to Rome for succour. There were few alternatives for them to turn to at this time. Greek Neapolis on the coast may have been able to act as a bridge to large Hellenic states farther south. The Neapolitans surely had amicable relations with Taras and Syracuse but whether such good nature could be extended by those southern cities to the Sabellian Campani was another matter. A common interest in holding the Samnites in check certainly existed between the Campani and Greeks. The main problem was that both Taras and Syracuse were in a decline of sorts. Archytas was now dead and pressure from Lucania now fully occupied the Tarentines. Their new champion, Archidamus of Sparta, had not yet arrived to begin operations. Syracuse, under the guidance of Timolean of Corinth, was only now recovering from years of the twin evils of internecine strife and a never-ending conflict with Rome’s friend Carthage. The Roman republic, on the other hand, was in no such dire straits. Its primary enemies of the last several decades, the Latins, Volsci and Etruscans had recently all been either defeated or dealt serious blows. Relations and business contacts between Capua and Rome must have been fairly extensive. To complicate matters, there existed parties within the Capuan League favourable both either Rome and Samnium. What becomes clear is that under the circumstances the Roman faction now won out, perhaps in light of being viewed as the lesser of two evils. As for Rome’s posture, the fertile and highly populated plain would have beckoned as a very much prized asset to acquire. So much so if fact that to seize it, the Romans did so while still in the throes of war closer to home. As for the likelihood of Capua’s deditio to Rome, long a hotly debated topic, it has been pointed out by many scholars that such acts of formal surrender under similar circumstances were not uncommon in the ancient world (Cornell, 1995, pg 347, et al). So, Livy’s account should stand.

Following Capua’s deditio, ambassadors were dispatched to Samnium to ward off the Samnites from Rome’s newly acquired territory. They apparently met with some sort of federal assembly of the Samnite tribes, perhaps at Bovianum, identified by some sources the capital of the civitas Samnitium (Livy 8.23). The Samnites, on the cusp of a great victory in Campania, were incensed at the Capuan’s diplomatic manoeuvring and Rome’s unexpected demand. The friendship of 354 BC was now thrown aside and war was declared, neither party being the least bit willing to compromise. So fierce was the determination of the Samnite nobles, Livy (7.30) states, that even in the presence of the Roman ambassadors, orders were shouted to send reinforcements to Campania, with express instructions to lay fire and sword to the land. Now only the formalities were necessary. At Rome, fetial priests were duly sent on their solemn errand. Oaths were sworn, demands voiced and ignored and a ceremonial spear cast into enemy territory. The great battle for Italy had now begin.

The Clouds Burst: The Decisive Campaign of 343 BC

The Consuls elevated in 343 BC were two men of old and illustrious patrician gens: A. Cornelius Cossus and M. Valerius Corvus. Deciding with the senate on bold action, both Consuls resolved to make for the south soon as could be. Time was of the essence, as Capua was besieged and could fall at any time. If the years legio had not already been undertaken, it was now enacted. From the Janiculum mount, flags and trumpets would have called the Romans from their villages and homesteads to the field of Mars, near the city walls. With the tribal contingents organized and lists in hand from the latest census, the Consuls would have ordered the calling out of names for those to be enrolled in the legions for that year. A myriad of tasks necessary for organizing for a summers campaign needed to be carried out; a process of long experience for the Romans, but in this case coloured by the excitement of a new and formidable enemy. The quality of the Roman army at this time was no doubt of a high order. From the capitulation of the Latins fifteen years earlier in 358 BC, major campaigns had been undertaken against the Etruscans, Latins, Volsci and Aurunci, all with a fair degree of success.

Livy states that the Consuls decided on a two-pronged strategy. Valerius would conduct operations in Campania, while Cornelius would support his colleague by executing a punitive drive into Samnium: Likely a third force covered Rome itself but this is not attested. Livy does not mention the route taken by the legions as they marched south. There are three prospective ways that they could have proceeded: by sea, by the coastal route or down the inland conveyance of the Trerus-Liris valleys. Given Rome’s lack of naval capability at this juncture, the first option although it cannot be ruled out, becomes unlikely. It was not until the Second Samnite War that naval operations occurred on the littoral. A march down the inland route would have been difficult but feasible. With war underway, the old boundary of 354 BC was no longer any obstacle. The problem was that the lands of the central Liris and Volturnus valleys were covered by a patchwork of Samnite strongholds that a Roman army would have to thread, such as Casinum, Callifae, Rufrae, Allifae and Telesia. The army would thus be cut off from a proper base of operations in the Volturnus valley and in a perilous situation if a setback was met with. Still, this route should not be dismissed out of hand; certainly for a covering operation such as that undertaken by Cornelius, it would have made sense to conduct a demonstration through this area. The last option for marching south was the coastal route, over the heights inland from Tarracina and past friendly Formiae. There should be no doubt that Valerius at least took his army by this route, and quite possibly Cornelius too. That it was feasible is made clear by Livy (7.39) in describing the mutiny of 342 BC, where Roman contingents are shown as being sent home by this route. Such are the considerations for the route of march south of the Roman legions in 343 BC.

The Campaign of 343 BC: Operations on the Campanian Plain

Given the course of events to this point, it is likely that the campaign took place in full summer. The subsequent truimphs were held in late September, so a conclusion in August at the latest makes sense. The first clashes occurred in Campania, between Valerius and the anonymous Samnite General then besieging Capua. Marcus Valerius Corvus was a competent general with a storied history in the surviving accounts. Livy (8.16) even lauds him as ‘maximus ea tempestate imperator’. Like other contemporary commanders, he would have been schooled in the art of war under the tutelage of commanders like M. Furius Camillus, that most notable and successful of Roman generals and also by family members such as P. Valerius Potitus (cos. 386, 384, 380, 377, 370, 367) and L. Valerius Poplicola (cos. 383, 380). Valerius is said to have owed his cognomen to the divine help he received from a crow when fighting a Gaul in single combat during the crisis of 349 BC (Livy 7.26). In the following year, at the age of only 23, he attained the first of six consulships. Two years later, in 346 BC, he conducted a successful campaign against the Volsci of Latium, defeating them in a set battle piece and subsequently burning their town of Satricum to the ground; a success for which he earned his first triumph (Tr. Fasti, Feb 1, 345 BC). The fact that he was made Consul in 343 BC has led some scholars (Salmon, 1967, pg 205-6 et al) to conjecture that he was a member, perhaps even the leader, of that group of the Roman nobilitas who pushed for a policy of southern expansion. His name has been associated with the Via Valeria, the Roman road across central Italy (Forsythe, 2006, pg 309) and he is also attributed with the Lex Valeria of 300 BC. Such a singularly glorious career has inevitably aroused suspicions among scholars that annalists such as his descendant Valerius Antius exaggerated his achievements. That he was Consul in 343 BC should be accepted.

Having finished his preparations, Valerius left Rome and made his way south into Campania; a march that would have taken roughly a week at best, but likely took more like a fortnight. Once past hostile Volscian towns like Antium, Satricum and Privernum, a difficult climb into the mountains east of Circii and through unfriendly Auruncian territory would have occurred. Next the army would have to thread the difficult Lautelae Pass, site of a future Roman defeat some twenty-eight years later, before reaching the flat coastal plane about friendly Volscian Formiae. From there the road to Campania was only a few days. There has been some debate about the location of the major battle which was to follow. Livy places it at Mons Gaurus, a range of volcanic hills 15 miles south-east of Capua. A direct Roman march on Capua would have forced the Samnites to lift the siege and immediately concentrate their forces. With this in mind, Salmon (1967, pg 198) and others have wondered at why the Romans and Samnites would have ended up battling so far from Capua. It has been put forward that the battle may have been adjacent to a sanctuary called Gaurus nearby to Capua. This may indeed be the case. There are however some valid reasons for the Mons Gaurus location indeed being historical. A fortified camp on the Mons Gaurus is one good candidate for a camp given the tactical advantage of its heights. Thirdly, the Mons Gaurus was neigh to Atella, another city in the Capuan League and presumably not yet under close siege. Atella could have acted as a safe base and source of supplies for the Roman army. It also could have served as a rallying point the remains of the Campanian army, allowing it to combine with its new ally before a battle with the Samnites was ventured. Fourth, a hasty march directly into battle would not likely have been considered prudent by a competent general. Bringing a recently raised army up to full efficiency, especially against a new and untried enemy, by way of small engagements and manoeuvres was a tactic that would have been very familiar to Roman generals like Valerius. Finally, by fortifying and taking a favourable position on the Mons Gaurus, the Samnites must now look askance at a major enemy force not far away, thereby relieving some pressure on Capua. Livy (7.32) implies that exactly this occurred. While there is no direct proof for most of these suppositions, they are indeed worth considering in light of the recorded events.

What Livy does allude to for sure is that a certain amount of manoeuvring and skirmishing on the Campanian plain took place before the main battle. Both Romans and Samnites were meeting a new and formidable enemy for the first time and making some tests of the enemy would have been a prudent course of action. Livy (7.32) indeed indicates that skirmishing occurred for a few days before the battle. The preliminaries over with and the Romans and Campanian armies concentrated, the main event followed, perhaps sometime in June or July, somewhere on the level plain near to the Roman camp. Valerius exhorted his soldiers and led them onto the plain, where they formed up and offered battle. There they found the Samnite army waiting and the bloody struggle commenced. Livy (7.32-33) lets on a few details about this battle. The early stages found both sides evenly matched and neither side gave way. To break the stalemate, Valerius ordered a cavalry charge, which was met and repulsed, possibly by their well-respected Samnite counterparts. Not meeting with success, Valerius dismounted and himself led a renewed infantry assault on the enemy. At this point the Samnites began to give ground. Most illuminating however, they did not break. Night terminated the battle, which in the speak of Roman annalists meant likely nothing decisive was accomplished; in other words a stalemate. The lack of a rout of either side would have meant that casualties would have been roughly equal and not lop-sided. Given that it was an obstinate struggle, long-maintained, the carnage would have been frightful. Both Romans and Samnites retired to their camps. For the few not drowned into unconsciousness by mental and physical exhaustion, the screams and laments of the dying in the fields nearby would have made for an uneasy sleep.

Valerius and his army (in red) either came by sea, or more likely by land along the coastal route. A fortified camp on the Mons Gaurus near to Neapolis and hard by Atella would have made sense. Forced to lift the siege of Capua, the Samnite army (in pink) marched south and a battle was fought. It was a stalemate, but the Samnites retreated soon after.

The next day, Livy (7.33) states the Samnites marched off, leaving their camp and the battlefield in Roman hands, and therefore with the field of battle and a symbolic and moral victory. The reasons for the Samnite retreat are not articulated in the tradition. The implication is that they had been seriously bloodied and so felt it expedient to move off to a safer area to lick their wounds and receive reinforcements. The northern Campanian plain was definitely not a friendly locale for the Samnites at this time. Another noteworthy consideration is that a second Roman army was operating somewhere in the Samnites rear and in the absence of a decisive victory, their position was not practically tenable. Whither they went is not exactly clear. Given the location of the following clash, the most likely answer is south-east towards Suessula and perhaps past or it down the valley which leads to the Caudine Forks, so famous in the next Samnite war. With the second Roman army under Cornelius known to be operating in the Volturnus valley, a retreat farther north would have been perilous. The most sensible line of march therefore would have either been south along the coast into areas known to be friendly to the Samnites at a later time, such as Nola or Nuceria Alfertina, or east into the Caudine Forks, which throughout 343 BC provided a safe avenue all the way into Samnium proper. This last point however, was contingent on events in the Volturnus valley and this is where we turn to next.

The Campaign of 343 BC: Operations in the Volturnus Valley

Aulus Cornelius Cossus Arvina[1], the first Roman general to invade Samnite territory, was in 343 BC commanding for the first time a consular army under his own auspices. His military career to date was less impressive than his colleague. No doubt he had held lesser commands as part of his military career, like others of his generation and class. He is attested to have twice held the post of magister equitum under dictatorships of the famous T. Manlius Torquatus Imperiosus, but aside from a raiding operation against Etruscan Caere and the Falisci in 353 BC, nothing of note has been recorded under those subordinate commands. Cornelius was again attributed to army commands after his chequered performance in the campaign of 343 BC. He attained another consulship in 332 BC, during which he may have conducted operations on Sidicine territory. In 322, Livy (8.38.39) states that he was made dictator and won an important battle against the Samnites. The fasti triumphales, however, do not agree with this assessment, instead attributing the victory to that years Consuls. Finally in 320 BC, he is said to have travelled to Samnium in the solemn role of a fetial, to deliver up the disgraced Consuls of the previous years Caudine Forks disaster.

What is known for sure from the annalistic tradition is that Cornelius somehow brought his legion into the Volturnus valley, which in 343 BC was definitively Samnite and likely shared by both the Pentrian and Caudine touto's (Latin tribes). How he got there is a mystery, but feasible entry points are limited. As stated earlier, he either could have entered the valley from one of the passes from Campania proper or from the middle Liris region to the north. In any case, he got there and acting to draw off reinforcements and attention, snaked his way across that large valley raiding and plundering as he went. For some reason, he is next recorded as making an attempt to march through the pass where the Isclero River threads between the Monti Taburno and the Monti Tairano. This was a dangerous gamble. The pass was difficult of access, ascending and heavily forested, as per Livy (7.35). Also, hard by its entrance lay the unreduced Caudine stronghold of Saticula, a risky enemy placement to leave in ones rear. The events surrounding this affair have evoked much scepticism and debate among scholars, especially the reports surrounding the heroics of P. Decius Mus. Such details as Decius’s exploits may indeed be exaggerations, but Roman defeats are generally as a rule to be taken seriously, since Romans historians rarely concerned themselves with inventing them.

Cornelius with his army (in red) lay fire and sword to the Volturnus valley, before attempting the pass leading towards Caudium. He was defeated in a surprise attack and thrown back down into the valley. Soon after, he retreated into Campania, likely by way of friendly Calatia.

That Saticula in 343 BC was a defeat is clear. Livy (7.34) calls it “A great loss sustained in Samnium”, letting on also that Cornelius failed to properly scout ahead, if the case a grave and unpardonable mistake. Unavoidable was the extension of the army as it wound through the pass. While thousands of Roman soldiers snaked their way up and through the defile, a large force of Samnites, no doubt having tracked the enemy for some time, lay in ambush on both sides of the route. With the army strung out along the hilly trail, they suddenly attacked and in a sharp action easily routed the Romans, sending them fleeing back down into the valley below with great loss. It is not beyond reason that some quick-thinking Romans, perhaps led by P. Decius, managed to grab hold of an eminence and so serve to cover the retreat of the main army. In the combat at Maya in 1813, several companies of British regulars performed the exact same service for a smashed brigade being bundled down a mountain by a larger French force, managing also to make their way back to the main force after. The kernel of fact that is recorded in the annals, however, is that the Romans got into serious trouble attempting the defile and were defeated. The next day, Livy records that this setback was turned into victory, when Cornelius rallied is smashed legion and made a surprise attack on the Samnites, driving them into their camp where they were slaughtered, to the fanciful tune of 30,000 souls (Livy, 7.36). This miraculous turnaround, although possible, should be viewed with the utmost scepticism. It likely is a face-saving exercise for the Roman reader. Victory or not, Cornelius was not long in leading his army into the safety of Campania; the most direct, easy and likely route being along the north side of the Monti Lognano leading to friendly Calatia, less than ten miles away as the crow flies. Under the circumstances he could count himself fortunate not losing his army entirely.

Why Cornelius was trying to make such a risky move is unclear and open to debate. One possible reason is that he was trying to make a hard strike at the Caudini, having already smashed their settlements in the Volturnus region and whose namesake town and possible capital of Caudium lay only five miles beyond the far exit of the gorge, hoping perhaps to quickly knock them out of the war. If the gambit proved successful, Hirpinian Malventum was only nine miles further on inside Samnium as another potential target. Another consideration was that if he made it through the pass into the valley of the Isclero, Cornelius could cut off a major supply route and line of retreat for the Samnite army in Campania. The attempt would be a logical and potentially decisive effort by the two Roman Generals to trap the main Samnite army between them and destroy it completely. In any event, the gamble failed and Cornelius paid the price in a significant defeat. That said, he was at least helpful to Valerius by drawing off large Samnite forces which might otherwise have been sent into Campania. His laying of fire and sword to the Volturnus valley before the engagement at Saticula likely helped along Samnite sentiment towards seeking an end to hostilities. Aiding his colleague in such a way would have gone far to earn him the triumph recorded in the Fasti (Sept. 22, 343 BC).

Following the main Samnite army’s setback at Mons Gaurus, its position in Campania became tenuous. With Cornelius and his army operating to the east, somewhere in the Volturnus valley, the possibility of being trapped and destroyed was very real and perhaps only narrowly averted by the Roman setback at Saticula. Making an orderly retreat, Livy (7.37) implies that the Samnite army, avoiding the Volturnus region, moved towards Suessula, a Campanian city not then affiliated with the Capuan league. Suessula lay at the entrance to the narrow valley which led past the famous Caudine forks into the valley of the Isclero, that same vale which Cornelius had been trying to gain from another entrant. Somewhere near to Suessula, the Samnites made camp, likely on a nearby height as was tactically sensible. From this new location, they commenced plundering the lands about for provisions. Reinforcements may have joined the army at this stage, coming down the forks from Samnium. If Cornelius had already been defeated, these may have been the same warriors who had emerged victorious at Saticula. Reinforcements or not, the Samnites were apparently not yet ready to quit Campania. Being informed by the Suessulans of the Samnites movements and their new position only a day or so march distant, Valerius, travelling light and moving fast, marched and made camp close by to the Samnites. There a waiting game of an indefinite period commenced. The stalemate was broken by decisive action by Valerius. Observing his enemy closely and seeing them disperse in search of provisions, the Roman Commander struck his foe in a sudden surprise attack, taking the Samnite camp at the first onset. Caught at unawares and unable to make a proper resistance, great slaughter was made of the Sabellian foe. Livy (7.37) declares that 40,000 shields and 170 standards were captured as booty. Such figures are clearly exaggeration, but buried within the embellishment remains the likely fact of a second Samnite defeat in Campania.

Their hold on Campania severed, the Samnites now quit the Campanian plain for good, flying either back up the Caudine Forks pass into Samnium or possibly towards friendlier territory to the south. With this movement, the campaign season of 343 BC as described in the annals was thus brought to an end. The Samnites were pushed completely out of the zone of contention or at the very least bottled up in the far south, where they enjoyed good relations with cities such as Nuceria and Nola. Capua and its league had been protected and delivered from oblivion, but at a great price, as was soon to become clear. As for the Sidicines, nothing is certain, but in view of later events they were as yet undefeated and ready to fight on. Teanum was not in Samnite possession at the end of the year, as is made clear by events leading to the Latin War several years later. By September, both Consuls were back in Rome, where on the 21st Valerius celebrated the second triumph of his career. Cornelius followed with his own martial procession the very next day (Tr. Fasti, Sept 21 and 22, 343 BC). The military festivals of the Equus October and Armilustrium could now be looked forward to by the Romans in the best of spirits.

Outcomes and Strategy: Winter, 343-342 BC

With 343 BC brought to a close, the war now becomes more hazy in the historical annals. A notice in Livy (7.38) about a Latin expedition against the Paeligni of central Italy is clearly a miss-placed or fabricated event from the coming Latin conflict and has no bearing on the First Samnite war. No great battles are elucidated by Livy for the next two years. Instead he concentrates on another important event: the large-scale mutiny of the Roman army over the winter months of 343/342 BC. This episode, while not directly part of the Samnite War, should be discussed in light of its bearing on the Romano-Samnite conflict. Over the winter a large part of the Roman army was left to garrison Campania; a logical step and anticipatory of more fighting to come. The war was not yet over in 343 BC and Rome did not intend to simply make a treaty with its new possession and leave, but rather it intended to stay, garrison and prop up the pro-Roman faction that had invited the Romans into the land. These prudent actions were however shaken by what is termed in the annals as an army mutiny, but which may have been more along the lines of a state social crisis. Sent home from Campania, hard-pressed by poor economic circumstances and perhaps angry at being deprived of a chance for potential plunder available to their brothers remaining in the south, Roman soldiers rose up and subsequent events make it apparent that they had the sympathy of the populus. Livy states that they gathered together while marching home, but an alternative tradition relates that, already at Rome, they left the city, fortified a camp and made ready for armed confrontation to achieve their aims. Crisis was averted by timely compromise, in the classic Roman way. Laws were enacted says Livy (7.41-2), pointing towards efforts to alleviate dire economic circumstances in the lower classes and to protect the rights of Roman soldiers. Pointedly in this respect, a military devoting law was enacted, making it impossible to erase a soldier from the rolls, except with his own consent. Evidently much anger had been generated by arbitrarily sending home legionaries from rich Campania. The Roman edifice, so recently crowned with new glories, was shaken at its foundations but held together. The last important point to be made is that the Latins in this year refused to send their contingents, as stipulated under the treaty of 358 BC: a harbinger of future conflicts closer to home for the Romans and another indicator that all was not fully in order on the Roman home front.

The situation in Samnium is much harder to ascertain. While the Samnite arms could point to successes, overall strategy had failed and northern Campania had been lost. The middle Volturnus valley, Samnite from circa 400 BC, had been ravaged and plundered. The Sidicines were as yet free and prepared to renew the struggle. Perhaps worst, the Romans were now holding northern Campania, with no apparent intention of leaving. The pre-eminent power of Tyrrhenian Italy, whose lands in the middle Liris valley stood disconcertingly close to the metal deposits of the Samnite Meta region, was now a bitter foe. The question for the Samnites was clear: Should war be further prosecuted and to what end? Perhaps the major deciding factor lay not in western Italy at all, but farther to the south at the Greek city of Taras. Unable to find another Archytas from amongst their leading men, Archidamus of Sparta had been invited into Italy by that city in 343 BC to take war into the mountains of Lucania. The Lucanians, although distinct from the Samnite League politically, were brethren Sabellians and it is likely that a Greek condottieri campaigning close to Samnites borders, perhaps astride them, could not be dismissed. The Samnite toutos of the Caudini and Hirpini likely maintained close ties and sympathies with their Lucanian neighbours and probably their leaders were looking south as well as north in 343 BC. A protracted war against Rome then may have seemed very unpalatable to the Samnites. Given the situation both belligerents faced over the winter of 343/342 BC, an end to hostilities would have been quite worthy of consideration.

The War Continues: The Campaign of 342 BC

Evidently, however, the war continued and there was campaigning in 342 BC. The Consuls for that year were C. Marcius Rutilus and Q. Servilius Ahala. Campania fell by lot to Marcius and he arrived to take command over the winter, while Servilius covered Rome with his army. Likely Marcius brought reinforcements with him to bring the army up to full strength and Livy (7.39) states that in Campania he led his army out to war in a summer campaign. Marcius, a plebeian by social standing, was a tried and tested field commander, a now four-time Consul (357, 352, 344, 342 BC) and once Dictator (356 BC). He may have been a descendant of the famous but ephemeral Roman Gaius Marcius Coriolanus of the 5th century BC. Marcius cut his teeth in battlefield command during the late stages of Rome’s conquest of Latium. Having gained the Consulship for the first time in 357 BC, he had led a campaign against the Volsci of Privernum, whose lands he ravaged and whose capital he stormed and plundered. For this, he gained the honour of a triumph (Tr. Fasti, June 1, 356 BC). The following year, he was called to the Dictatorship to meet the emergency of a large Etruscan plundering expedition on the Roman salt-works at the mouth of the Tiber. Moving fast and with the aid of boats, he surprised the Etruscans and drove them from Roman territory (Livy 7.17). For this service, he won a second triumph (Tr. Fasti, May 6, 355 BC). Because of his attainment of the Consulship in 342 BC, it has been supposed that Marcius was also one of the Senate’s supporters of a policy of southern expansion.

Beyond Livy’s (7.39) blithe statement that Marcius led his army on campaign in 342 BC, there is no detailed relation of events. Livy in the same paragraph does say that the Samnites were quiet, so it appears that there were no battles of consequence and that hostilities were reduced to plundering expeditions and the familiar practice of raid and counter-raid. Potential targets for Marcius would have been the middle Volturnus valley and the environs of the Monti Trebulani, while the Samnites could make similar raids from those same areas into Campania. Possibly Samnite operations against the Sidicines continued, but this is not attested and no knockout blow against that unfortunate people was forthcoming in 342 BC. Therefore, in the second year of the war Rome held onto Campania, the Samnites were quiescent and the war did not move outside the boundaries into new theatres, so far as we know. The year ends with a notice by Livy that in the south of Latium, the Volscians again began to stir. Clearly this general area, comprising the peoples of the Sidicini, Aurunci, Volsci was emerging from recent events as a restive and roiling patchwork of unhappy peoples. Run roughshod over by the two main powers of central Italy for the last decade, they were now ready to break out into open conflict to protect their fading freedom. To those peoples could also be added those recalcitrant Latins who viewed Rome’s recent successes with surprise and fear. Livy (7.42) states that the Volsci of Privernum, the same town defeated by Marcius in 357 BC, made raids in 342 BC on the Roman colonies of Norba and Setia on the Monti Lepini. It is not impossible that Marcius’s 342 BC campaign was conducted against this people, but this is only speculation. In any event, it is apparent that the Romans continued to garrison northern Campania at the end of the year.

The Campaign of 341 BC

For 341 BC, the Romans lifted L. Aemilius Mamercinus and C. Plautius Venno to the Consulship. At this point the wind-down of the Samnite War seriously meshes with the opening moves of the next conflict: the Latin War of 340-338 BC. This is due to the fact that the Latin Volsci of Antium and Privernum in 341 BC now openly armed for war and put armies into the field, a development significant to both conflicts, as the whole of Tyrrhenian Italy now descended into a more general stage of anarchy and war. The Volscian uprising, specific to the ongoing Romano-Samnite conflict, made Latium a new theatre of war for the Romans. This was among other setbacks grave threat to communications with their forces in Campania. The prosecution of the new Volscian war was allotted to Plautius, while the continuance of the operations against the Samnites fell to Aemilius. C. Plautius Venno, Consul now for the second time, was of plebeian rank with little in the way of prior top-tier command experience. He was a friend of Marcius, the outgoing Consul (Marcius had made him his magister equitum when Dictator in 356 BC) and had campaigned with him against the Etruscans. His first Consulship in 347 BC had been a rare year of peace for the Roman state, a dismaying situation to any Roman noble intent on furthering his career and family. Now Plautius was to have another chance for glory. Having enrolled his legion and taken the customary auspices, Plautius marched from Rome. Somehow he bypassed or out-maneuvered a Volscian army encamped at Satricum to his west and hastened south, perhaps by paths over the Monti Lepini. After relieving the threatened colonies from enemy pressure, Plautius arrived in the environs of Privernum, a well-placed Volscian town upon a hill in a small valley nestled in the mountains. The Privertines sallied forth and battle was engaged. Here Plautius met in victory. Again Privernum fell and this time Roman arrangements were much harsher. Two-thirds of Privertine lands were confiscated, likely being attached to the colony of Setia only 7 miles to the north-west. In addition to this punishment, the town was garrisoned to prevent further outbreaks from this quarter. Next Plautius moved against the second Volscian army, still inexplicably motionless at Satricum. There a second battle (Livy 8.1) was fought, with great slaughter to both sides. Livy states the battle was ended by a rainstorm, a notice which in annalistic jargon likely denotes a stalemate. The next day, Livy reports, the Romans discovered the Volscians to be absconded to nearby Antium, giving symbolic victory to the Romans. Unable and unwilling to assault that impregnable fortress, Plautius made due with laying fire and sword to Antium’s surrounding farmlands, bringing his campaign to a close. The route to Samnium was now again open, if only tenuously so.

Operations against the Samnites further south went equally well for the Romans in 341 BC. Plautius’s colleague, L. Aemilius Mamercinus, a patrician by birth, was in that year entering into the first of two Consulships (the other to come in 329 BC). His cognomen, derived from the Sabellian war-god Mamers, indicates a streak of success in war against Rome’s Italian cousins. While his greatest achievements on the battlefield still lay ahead of him, he did enjoy moderate success in this year if the annals are accurate. Somehow making his way through the hostile Volsci of southern Latium to his command in Campania, perhaps aboard ship, he is attested by Livy (8.1) as putting his army in motion and entering boldly into Samnium, subjecting it to devastations while meeting on his march no Samnite army of consequence. Clearly, he did not get into the central Samnite plateau beyond the Montagna del Matese, a feat only accomplished by the Roman arms in the closing stages of the Second Samnite War, but another going over of the Pentrian and Caudine lands of the middle Volturnus, about the Mons Tifernus and into the lower reaches of the middle Liris is quite conceivable. No Samnite strongholds are described as stormed, so plunder and rapine of village and farmstead was the order of the day, with frightened Samnites fleeing for their lives to mountaintop sanctuaries, many of whose crude walls of polygonal masonry can still be seen today (see Oakley, 1995). Seeing their territory ravaged, unable or unwilling to meet in pitched battle and watching the Spartan condottieri Archidamus take war close to their southern borders, the Samnites reportedly sued for peace. The resolution of the conflict, however, may have not been so one-sided as the Roman annalists indicate. Representative of an equal desire for peace among the Romans is the fact that the Romans accepted peace on the terms of a return to the status quo ante bellum. Also, Teanum Sidicinum and its lands were arbitrarily apportioned to the Samnite sphere of influence, a move no doubt to the dismay the Capuans, Rome’s erstwhile allies. Seeds of future strife were sown by this decision. The treaty between the two sides notably did not place the Samnites in a position of inferiority to the Romans. The war had been a fight for the territory of a third party and at the end of hostilities Samnium proper, although partly ravaged, remained wholly unconquered. With war stewing in its Latin backyard and northern Campania successfully held, Rome was ready to content with a foedus equaum, a treaty between equals, with the Samnites. The region of the middle Liris, clearly defined by the reconstituted treaty of 354 BC, remained apportioned as before, with the unfortunate Volsci still the bitter foe and prey of both sides. This area was only to become a bone of contention in the Second Samnite war, by which time the once-proud Volsci as a free and separate people were no more.

The Outcomes of the War

As a result of the First Samnite War, a war now generally accepted as historical by modern scholarship, a great shift in the balance of power vis-à-vis Rome and Samnium became the new reality. While much fighting still lay in the future for both sides to solidify their gains in the treaty, it was the Romans who could boast of a much greater increase in both territory and population. While the Samnites could still boast of a larger territory, their lands in economic potential were actually dwarfed by the fertile plains of Latium and northern Campania. As for population and recruiting potential, it has been argued that following this war the Romans and Samnites came into rough equilibrium, whereas the Samnites had previously held the advantage. This may be true, but it was the superior organization and efficiency of the centralized littoral Roman over the loose confederation of widely-spread out Samnite tribes that allowed the eventual victor to utilize its population and resources more effectively. Militarily, Roman general-ship, strategy and will-power seem to have out-classed its Samnite counterpart. In particular the Campaign of 343 BC displayed the tactical and strategic capabilities of the early Republican army. Two Roman legions operating in conjunction served to successfully disrupt Samnite operations, leading in 343 BC to their ejection from Campania. Still, the conflict had not been one-sided. The hard-fought stalemate at Mons Gaurus showed that the Samnite army in 343 BC was a formidable force, even on the flat plain of the littoral; a place where the veteran Roman phalanx would have been expected to be decisive. Roman domination of the battlefield was indeed not to be the story-line for Roman success in their long wars with the Samnium. The Samnite victory at the battle of Saticula displays also that Samnite general-ship could be competent and inspired as well. Saticula also showed to the Romans that in future conflicts they must be cautious and prudent when operating in mountainous enemy territory. More such hard lessons would be forthcoming before Rome’s eventual triumph over the doughty highland foe.

The failure of the Samnites to press harder for victory in the war after the decisive year of 343 BC may be due to several reasons. The arrival of Archidamus at Taras in 342 BC must certainly be taken into consideration as well as the demoralizing effects of Samnite defeats in 343 BC. But were there other reasons? Perhaps the nature of Samnite society in the mid-4th century provides a good explanation. Clearly the Samnite confederation was not a tight, centralized state in 343 BC, with its component tribes sharing the same existential concerns and marching in lock-step. The Samnite forces fighting about the middle Liris and who subsequently made an attempt on Teanum Sidicinum and the Capuan League in 343 BC would not have represented the full Samnite confederacy mobilized for war. Rather, Samnite operations on their north-western frontier should likely be understood as a voluntary effort, primarily the concern of the nearby toutos and something Samnites far to the south and east need not fully concern themselves with, at least until the Roman power began to threaten all. Under this theory, the Samnite invasion force would have consisted primarily, but not uniformly, of contingents from the Pentrian and Caudine tribes, with other bands from farther a-field welcomed to join the expedition if they wished. Such freebooting efforts perhaps can be seen as a late version of the of the great Sabellian migrations of the 8th-5th centuries BC, as opposed to the earlier and more fanciful process of the ver Sacrum, the Sacred Spring. Both processes served the same important function as outlets for surplus Samnite population. The downside of this less-organized process was that when faced with setbacks and a Roman invasion, the army was left to its own devices by a less interested, perhaps even hostile and angry brethren at home in the upper Apennines, and could not expect a supreme effort along the lines of full mobilization to be implemented, as a Roman army in dire need could rightfully expect. The Samnite confederation in the mid-third century was simply not the centralized state of Rome. The four tribes could work together in defence against common enemies, but would not necessarily cooperate in foreign conquests, where initiative was left to those independent groups or personalities who chose to organize and command such endeavours. Under this situation, with the main Samnite invasion force operating in Campania in 343 BC, attempts at defence in the Volturnus and Isclero valleys could be seen as local responses to Roman invasion. Once the main army in Campania was defeated and forced back into Samnium proper, it may have simply dispersed or proved incapable of further action due to conflicts of leadership or demoralization. Unfortunately, with a lack of any interest from Roman or Greek historians in providing detailed evidence, such possibilities must remain in the realm of informed guesswork.

The war as a whole certainly represents a significant and epochal event in Italian history, marking the beginning of almost a century of conflict over the length and breadth of the mainland peninsula. True to the eventual outcome of this mighty struggle, the Romans in the First Samnite War emerged the victor, holding onto the rich, populous and fertile plains of northern Campania and in doing so tipping the balance of strategic power to their favour. This was achieved against the powerful and warlike Samnites by a strong and steady application of the full force of the city-state’s military might in the first year of the war, from which the Samnite confederation failed to rebound in the following two years, despite Roman setbacks on the home front and in Latium. On the battlefield, the Samnites and Romans both showed moments of inspiration and incompetency. The smashing of the Campanian League and surprise attack of the Roman army at Saticula in 343 BC showed the potential of the Samnite arms, while allowing their camp at Suessula to be stormed in a surprise attack displays the other side of the proverbial coin. The move to reconstitute the treaty of 354 BC under as a foedus Equaum, with northern Campania and Sidicine territory divided between the Romans and Samnites respectively, extended their mutual border from the Liris valley down far to the south. This effectively cut off the Samnites from the Tyrrhenian Sea as far south as the area of Neapolis, incidently a major flashpoint for the following Second Samnite war of 327 – 306 BC. The decision to rather abruptly make peace in 341 BC also suggests some outside pressure on the two belligerents. On the Samnites part, Archidamus was now campaigning against the Lucani close to their southern borders, while the Sidicines and Liris Volsci continued to struggle on in the north-west. For the Romans, the Volsci also posed a serious problem, with Antium and Privernum in 342 BC opening hostilities which continued into 341 BC. It was the Volsci, along with the Latins and Campani who rose the very next year in 340 BC to fight for their lives against the Roman and Samnite behemoths in the so-called Latin War. The resumption of Romano-Samnite hostilities would have to wait until these smaller peoples were ground down and fully conquered.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Gordon Davis.

Written by Gordon Davis. The author retains the copyright to this piece bearing his name. No reproduction, copying or other forms of retrieval without permission. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Gordon Davis at:

About the author:
Gordon Davis is an amatuer military historian, residing in Toronto, Canada. He is especially interested in the Early Roman Republic and Napoleonic History.

Published online: 12/30/2008.

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