Third Samnite War: Rome’s Ascent


Before the Roman domination of Italy, there were many groups of city-states or alliances around Italy. Rome and its Latin league, the Greek-influenced states in the South, Etruscans and Umbrians to the North, and the Samnites in central-southern Italy were amongst the most notable.

The Samnites and Rome had previously fought two wars over the areas in central Italy. Both sides had a healthy dosage of fear for the other.

In the aftermath of the second Samnite War, peace was reached between the two parties, but mutual fear still lingered. Ultimately, the desire of both sides to expand and knock each other out paved the way for the final Samnite War.

Who Were the Samnites?

The Samnites were a coalition of tribes that lived in and around the mountains of Southern Italy and were a Southern neighbour to the Roman and Latin League. They consisted of 4 tribal groups that were the Hirpini, Caudini, Caraceni, and Pentri. Sources have said that in times of war, the leaders of the 4 tribes would elect a leader.

The Samnites (Orange) were a major player in Italy prior to the Roman conquest.

Italy was a land of constant warfare. The Samnites were one of the larger powers and had allied with the Roman Republic in the past, against the Gauls in 370s BC and the Volscii.

However, both sides were expansionists and had a great deal of mutual distrust, making conflicts between them inevitable.

Summary of the First Two Samnite Wars

The First Samnite War was a 2-year engagement fought from 343BC-341BC. The Samnites invaded the region of Campania, and Rome feared their expansion into the fertile plains of Campania. Both sides were slogging it out, despite multiple Roman victories. Ultimately, Roman troops in Campania mutinied in 342 BC and there was the impending Latin Revolt, halting Roman momentum. The two sides would sign a peace which would last for a couple of decades.

The Second Samnite War, known as the great war occurred when Rome expanded its interests and colonies at Fregellae. As the two sides went into a slogging contest over the next couple of decades, there were major defeats for both sides, including the Roman defeat at the Caudine Forks. It is likely around this time, the Roman Phalanx was dropped in favour of the Manipular legion.

The Roman Army was humiliated at the Caudine Forks

The conflict would later escalate as the Umbrians and Etruscans also entered against Rome. Ultimately, Rome and its Latin allies prevailed.

Rome was now the most powerful state in Italy, but the Samnites, Etruscans and Umbrians were yet to be broken. A final war was inevitable.

Commencement of Roman-Samnite Hostilities

The Samnites were not the only ones worried about Roman expansion. The Etruscans and Umbrians were also keeping an eye on the growing power of Rome. To try and boost their power, the Samnites invaded Lucania, a region towards what we know as the Italian Boot. The Lucanians sent a delegation to Rome and an alliance between the two was finalized.

The Samnites refused the Roman demand to leave the lands of the Lucanians and the war began in 298 BC. By then Rome was fighting both the Etruscans and Samnites, with each consul in either of the enemy land. The Legions were generally victorious in these initial battles.

In 297 BC, with the Etruscan forces pushed back, Rome spent 4 months ravaging the traditional homelands of the Samnites. However, the Samnites noted that Rome despite having the better of the battles, was struggling in waging war against both the Etruscans and Samnites together.

The Grand Coalition Against Rome

In 297 BC, the Samnite commander Gellius Egnatius marched into the Etruscan and Umbrian territories. There an alliance between the Samnites, Etruscans and Umbrians was finalized. The Senones Gauls were bought in as well, to serve as mercenaries.

While this grand army began to arm itself, raids by smaller forces against Campania and Eturia hampered Roman progress. However, it should be noted Rome had achieved a high state of mobilization. Not only were there 2 consular armies but there were a further two armies under proconsular command to allow the Romans to fight on multiple fronts.

In 295 BC, Rome elected Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus and Publius Decius Mus to lead the main Roman force against the large allied army building up in the North. The Roman army and its allies crossed the Apennine Mountains to meet the enemy army near the town of Sentinum. Even though the Roman army numbered 36,000 men, it is estimated the combined allied army facing them was significantly larger.

The Decisive Encounter: Sentinum

As the two armies faced off, the Romans were informed of the allied battle plan by deserters from the enemy. The alliance planned to let the experienced Samnite and Gallic warriors engage the Roman army and pin them down. As the battle would be raging, the Umbrian and Etruscan armies would then encircle the Romans and finish them off.

Armed with this knowledge, Rullianus acted swiftly. Messengers were swiftly dispatched to two smaller Roman forces led by former consuls Ganeus Fulvius and Lucius Postumius. These forces were to raid the Etruscan and Umbrian lands to draw away their forces. This worked and within days the Etruscan and Umbrian troops had left Sentinum to defend their lands.

The remaining members of the Grand Alliance still had around 40,000 men arrayed against the Romans. In the battle, Rullianius engaged in an attritional battle to tire the Samnites while Decius’ men after a strong advance were outflanked by the Gauls and suffered heavy casualties. Noticing that the Roman army on his side was routing, Decius pledged a devotio.

Proclaiming to his men loudly,

‘I carry before me terror and rout and carnage and blood and the wrath of all the gods, those above and those below. [17] I will infect the standards, the armour, the weapons of the enemy with dire and manifold death, the place of my destruction shall also witness that of the Gauls and Samnites’
– Livy Book 10, Chapter 28

Uttering his pledge, he charged into the Gallic lines and was slain in combat. Aware of the prophetic meaning of their general, the Romans rallied and advanced against the Gauls.

Publius Decius Mus, a Four-time Consul of Rome sacrificed his life at the battle.

At this moment, realizing the battle on the other wing was not going well, Rullianus sent some of the reserves two bolster the line. By that time, his battle against the Samnites had reached his desired point. His men had worn out their enemy who was now exhausted. The remaining reserves joined Rullianus’ wing. His infantry and cavalry launched a renewed assault that broke the Samnite line.

As he pursued the broken Samnites, he ordered most of his forces to break off and help the Romans who had been under Decius’ command to finish off the Sennones. These brave men despite being encircled, fought to the death.

The battle was won. Despite Rome suffering at least 8,700 dead (a high cost for them), the Samnites and Sennone Gauls suffered at least 25,000 dead and 8,000 captured. Considering these men were the prime warriors of the alliance against Rome, it permanently broke the alliance’s power.

The Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath, Fulvius’ Roman army which had orders to distract the Etruscan and Umbrian armies, inflicted a decisive defeat on them.

The Samnites would continue to resist the Romans for at least 5 more years but their power was permanently broken and on the decline. The same was true for the Etruscans and Umbrians as well.

Between 294 BC – 290 BC, the Samnites resisted from Samnium but were mostly defeated time and time again by the Roman armies. In 290 BC, the Romans moped up the last of the Samnite forces and the entire region was incorporated into Roman territory.

The Umbrians and Etruscans would follow suit and by 260BC, except in Northern Italy (which was under the Sennones), Rome was the master of Italy.

The Third Samnite War saw the rise of Rome’s power as a force in Italy. After this war, no Italian league had the strength to stand up to the might of the Roman legions. However, this was just the beginning of the Roman expansion and domination across the Mediterranean.

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