The Early Republic: Samnites, Latins and Campanians (343-327 BCE)

Samnite armour.

In 343 BCE a war broke out between the Romans and Samnites, an Oscan-speaking people that lived in the hills and mountains of southern Central Italy. Roman behaviour was exceptionally opportunistic, as little more than ten years ago they had made an alliance with the Samnites. Now, however, they decided to intervene for the benefit of the Campanians, who found themselves under severe pressure from the Samnites. The plains of Campania were among the most fertile territories in all of Italy and the region was inhabited by many different peoples. Apart from the Samnites and native Campanians, who were already mentioned, there were also Greeks and Etruscans. In the last quarter of the fifth century BCE the Samnites had come down from the hills to the plains, while the previously divided Campanian tribes had united into a single nation. Greek cities such as Cumae and Neapolis and Etruscan cities such as Capua had subsequently fallen into Samnite or Campanian hands. The conquerors were then quickly assimilated by the inhabitants of these cities, and so a particularly rich hybrid culture was born, comprising native, Greek, Etruscan and Samnite elements.

The First Samnite war: the first year (343 BCE)

The cause of the first war between Rome and the Samnites was a conflict between the latter and the Sidicini, a people that lived in the city of Teanum Sidicinum. Teanum is currently known as Teano and played an important symbolical role during the Italian struggle for independence in the nineteenth century. It was here that, on 26 October 1860, the Italian rebel leader Garibaldi and the future king Victor Emmanuel II met and shook hands. The Sidicini requested aid from the Campanians, who had formed a kind of confederacy with Capua as its capital. There can be little doubt that there were Samnites among these Campanians, as Capua had been captured by the Samnites in 423 BCE.[1] However, these must have been fully assimilated 80 years later and now faced their former kinsmen, just like Roman Sabines sometimes fought their kinsmen still living in the Apennines on the battlefield.

Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II meet at Teano. Statue in Fiesole (Tuscany).

The Campanian attempt to help the Sidicini was not a success. Not only were the Campanians defeated, the Samnites now also decided to march on Capua, a very prosperous city. They made their camp on the Tifata, a hill north of the city, and then descended to the plains to do battle. Again the Campanians suffered a defeat. As they had lost many men and Capua was now about to fall into enemy hands, the Campanians decided to ask the Romans for help. According to Livius the Romans initially refused to intervene. After all, the Samnites were their allies. But when the Campanians surrendered themselves and all their territories to the Romans, the latter changed their minds and offered support after all.[2]

The whole story sounds rather implausible and may have been fabricated later to cover up Roman bad faith. It is much more likely that Rome simply broke the treaty with the Samnites and sent her army to Campania for opportunistic reasons. As was already mentioned, the Campanian plains were very fertile and the Romans seem to have been eager to add the region to their sphere of influence. Moreover, they may have felt instinctive sympathy for the inhabitants of the plains who, like the Romans themselves, had suffered so much from attacks by peoples living in the hills or mountains. Supporting a weaker side against a stronger party would eventually become an important element of the Roman foreign policy. It was a policy that was not so much intended to support the weaker side, but rather to keep the stronger side in check.

In any case, the Romans and Campanians reached an agreement and the comitia centuriata decided to declare war on the Samnites. Both consuls of 343 BCE, Marcus Valerius Corvus and Aulus Cornelius Cossus, were sent to the warzone. Corvus was to stay in Campania, while Cossus marched into the hills of Samnium. At the Mons Gaurus, not far from Neapolis, Corvus clashed with a Samnite army. The Romans quickly discovered that they were up against battle-hardened soldiers who did not just throw away their weapons and run. The battle went on for hours with neither side gaining the upper hand. Ultimately the Romans were said to have broken the ranks of their adversaries when the consul personally led a charge on foot. Rome had her first victory against the Samnites, but it had been a close call.[3]

The east of Latium and Campania (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Samnite warrior (source: Europa Barbarorum).

In the meantime, the consul Cossus had taken his army from Saticula, east of Capua, into the hills. His men marched through a mountain pass and to their utter astonishment suddenly found themselves surrounded on all sides. The Roman army could have been destroyed here, but a military tribune named Publius Decius Mus kept his nerve. With a small group of soldiers he occupied a high hilltop from where he could threaten the Samnites. These shifted their attention to Decius, which allowed the consul and the main Roman force to escape from the pass. Now it was the tribune who was surrounded, but during the night he and his men managed to break out and re-join the consul. Cossus then reportedly turned around, slaughtered scattered groups of Samnites and took the Samnite camp. The claim that 30,000 Samnites were killed inside that camp may however be discarded as a Roman fabrication. Decius was hailed as the saviour of the Roman army and awarded the so-called ‘grass crown’, the corona graminea or corona obsidialis.[4] This may have been the first time in history that this prestigious decoration was awarded to a Roman officer.

There was a third confrontation this year at Suessula on the plains. The consul Corvus had made his camp here and initially refused to leave it. The Samnites thereupon started to pillage the surrounding fields. This lured the consul out of his camp after all. Corvus attacked and took the Samnite camp. With his army in full battle order he then picked off small groups of looting enemies and massacred them all. Especially the Roman cavalry managed to kill scores of enemies. 40,000 enemy shields and 170 military standards were said to have fallen into Roman hands, numbers that are no doubt exaggerated.[5] Nevertheless, others were seriously impressed by the Roman victory. The North-African city of Carthage, with which the Romans had renewed a treaty of friendship in 348 BCE, sent congratulations and a golden crown with a weight of 25 pounds. The Romans were now furthermore able to finally sign a peace treaty with the city of Falerii, as a follow-up to the armistice that had been agreed in 351 BCE.[6] Both consuls were granted a triumph, which according to the Fasti Triumphales they celebrated one day apart, first Corvus and then Cossus.

The First Samnite war: the next phase (342-341 BCE)

The Roman victories at the Mons Gaurus, Saticula and Suessula had basically decided the First Samnite war. The Romans were unable to achieve much in the second year of this war (342 BCE), and their lack of success was mostly related to an insurrection that took place under unclear circumstances and with unclear goals. Livius gives us an accurate summary of the conflict when he writes that:

“Thus the ancient authorities agree in nothing but the simple fact that there was a mutiny and that it was suppressed.”[7]

Modern Terracina (photo: tittimi, CC BY 2.0).

According to the classical story, which we do not only find in Livius’ work, but also in that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus[8], the Roman garrisons in Campania suffered from a serious lack of discipline. The region offered the men many sweet temptations, and they were even said to have made plans to take cities such as Capua from the Campanians. These plans had, however, been discovered by the new consul Gaius Marcius Rutilus, an experienced statesman who held the office for the fourth time. He had immediately taken action and tried to remove as many of the agitators from the legions as was possible. A part of the troublemakers then convened at Anxur/Tarracinae and began looking for someone to lead them. The person they wanted for the job was reportedly Titus Quinctius Poenus, a former consul and dictator who had withdrawn from public life and now lived on a farm near Tusculum. The conspirators were said to have forced him to become their captain. The mutinous soldiers then marched on Rome, and when they were about 12 kilometres from the city they were met by Marcus Valerius Corvus, by now appointed dictator, who managed to calm them down. In the end a law was passed (a lex sacrata militaris) that stipulated that none of the mutineers were to be punished.

The whole story is difficult to believe, and between the lines Livius mentions an alternative version, which sounds a lot more plausible. In this version, there was not an insurrection outside Rome, but rather another (plebeian) secession from the city. Mutinous soldiers had entrenched themselves in a camp that was located some 6 kilometres from Rome and it was not the dictator, but the consul Rutilus and his colleague Quintus Servilius Ahala who in the end succeeded in restoring the peace. The mutiny can thus be seen as a new chapter in the Conflict of the orders between patricians and plebeians, and that interpretation actually matches quite well with the legislative measures that were taken in 342 BCE. The people’s tribune Lucius Genucius tabled several bills – Leges Genuciae – that prohibited interest on loans, opened both consulships to the plebeians, prohibited holding two different offices in the same year and created a ten-year interval between holding the same office twice.[9] This legislation, once adopted, addressed both the needs of poor plebeians and those of the rich.

A second reason why the Romans could not fully focus on the war with the Samnites was an attack by the Volscian city of Privernum on the Latin colonies of Norba and Setia, that were both heavily damaged. In 341 BCE the consul Gaius Plautius was sent to Privernum. He took the city and punished the inhabitants with the loss of two thirds of their territory. The consul was furthermore successful in the struggle against the Volsci of Antium, who were once again causing trouble. After a bloody battle he drove them back to their camp. In the meantime Plautius’ colleague Lucius Aemilius Mamercus laid waste to Samnium, which led to the Samnites asking him for peace. Still in 341 BCE, the two peoples signed a peace treaty, and a consequence the Samnites fought on the Roman side during the Latin war of 340-338 BCE.[10] Opportunism ran rife in Antiquity.

The Latin war: causes

Mosaic from Tusculum (Dionysus in India, fourth century CE).

Relations between the Romans and their Latin allies were chiefly regulated by a treaty concluded in 493 BCE, the Foedus Cassianum. The treaty compelled both Romans and Latins to come to each other’s aid in the event of war, but in practice it was the Latins that were frequently required to assist Rome in her wars. At least half of the Roman army was composed of Latin troops. Gradually the Roman demands for troops began to cause ever more resentment among the Latin cities, and that led some of these cities to try and break away from Rome. A good example would be Praeneste (modern Palestrina), which was involved in a war with the Romans in 383-380 BCE. Between 361 BCE and 354 BCE, Tibur had rebelled, and this city had even made an alliance with a band of invading Celts. Finally, the Romans had problems with their colony at Velitrae on numerous occasions and their relationship with Tusculum, of which the citizens had acquired Roman citizenship, was anything but unproblematic.

Although we should judge all of these conflicts on their own merits, it seems fair to conclude that many Latin cities and colonies aimed for looser ties with Rome. What they wanted was fewer obligations to provide the Romans with troops and a relationship that that allowed them to act with greater independence and pursue their own foreign policy. This is for instance demonstrated by a war that several Latin cities (we do not know which ones) fought against the Paeligni without Roman participation, and by the alliance that they later made with the Sidicini and Campanians.[11] In this context Livius’ claim that the Latins were aiming for a closer relationship with Rome and demanded one of the consulships and half of the seats in the Senate for themselves[12], is just not very credible. In fact, the account given by the Roman historian seems to match much better with the Social War that the Romans had to fight in the first century BCE (91-88 BCE). During this conflict Rome’s allies demanded Roman citizenship as a reward for centuries of loyal support. It does not seem that this was what the Latins wanted in 340 BCE, on the contrary.

Latium in the fourth century BCE (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Not all of the Latin cities participated in the Latin war. A relatively obscure city such as Laurentum, but also Gabii and colonies such as Labici, Norba and Cora for instance did not take part. The cities that did join the war do not seem to have all done so simultaneously, and their degree of enthusiasm varied. The first year of the war (340 BCE) saw fighting in Campania and it appears that the conflict chiefly involved rebellious Roman and Latin colonies. It was not until the second year that ancient Latin cities such as Praeneste and Tibur became involved. As a consequence, the Roman legions did not have to be everywhere at the same time. Nevertheless, the Latin war proved to be a tough struggle for the Romans, as they were up against people who spoke the same language and fought with the same weapons and tactics.

Maiden with a dove from Norba, fourth-third century BCE.

The Latin war: the first year (340 BCE)

During the first year of the Latin war, the cities that fought against the Romans included the colonies of Setia, Circei, Signia and Velitrae, the latter recalcitrant as ever. We know that Setia and Circei were involved because their highest magistrates (known as praetors) travelled to Rome to negotiate in the Senate.[13] The two colonies had incited Signia and Velitrae to rebellion, and the Volsci as well. Now that the Volsci had been drawn into the conflict, Antium may have become involved in the war too (this was certainly the case in the second year). The Latin army furthermore comprised horsemen from Tusculum, which we know because of the story of the consul Titus Manlius Torquatus. The consul had his son executed because the young man had ignored a direct order and had fought a Tusculan horseman in a duel. After the execution the imperia Manliana – very strict orders – became proverbial.[14] It is, by the way, up for debate whether the Tusculan horsemen had been ordered by their city to join the Latin rebels. It is not inconceivable that they were volunteers or mercenaries. That is in fact how the Romans interpreted their participation after the war had ended.[15] The city of Lavinium seems to had have strong hesitations to join the rebels: these had already been beaten when the city finally decided to send troops. When news of the Latin defeat reached Lavinium the troops were immediately recalled.[16]

The aforementioned Latin defeat must be situated in Campania, where the Latins had joined up with troops from their new allies the Sidicini and Campanians. Men from the Aurunci also fought on their side. The consuls Titus Manlius Torquatus and his colleague Publius Decius Mus, the former military tribune who had been awarded the grass crown, had subsequently invaded Campania. As the rebels controlled the eastern plains of Latium, the consuls had been forced to take a route further to the north, through the territories of the Marsi and Paeligni.[17] At Casilinum they crossed the river Volturnus and marched on to Capua.[18] In the meantime auxiliaries from the Samnites had joined their ranks; it was already mentioned above that the Samnites fought on the Roman side during this war. From Capua the Roman army continued to the Vesuvius (Mons Vesuvius). In the vicinity of the mountain it clashed with the Latins and their allies, although the ‘road to Veseris’ mentioned by Livius can no longer be traced.[19]

Marcus Curtius.

The battle at the Vesuvius was a fierce struggle and the consul Publius Decius Mus was killed. He had devoted himself to the deities of the underworld and had subsequently jumped onto his horse and charged the Latin battle lines.[20] By doing so, the consul had in a way followed in the footsteps of Marcus Curtius, the brave Roman who in 362 BCE had jumped into the rift on the Forum Romanum that was later named Lacus Curtius after him.[21] But the consul’s sacrifice was not in vain. In the end the Romans and their Samnite allies won a hard-fought victory over the Latins, Sidicini, Aurunci and Campanians. The Latins that survived the fighting fled to Minturnae and Vescia in the land of the Aurunci.[22] There they waited for reinforcements. Although his army was battered and he himself had lost his colleague, Titus Manlius Torquatus decided to engage the Latins in a second battle. Fortunate smiled upon the consul: at Trifanum, not far from Minturnae, he annihilated the remaining Latins and earned himself a triumph.

The Latins and Campanians now chose to surrender. The rebellious colonies lost much of their territory, and so did the Volscian city of Privernum, which had already been punished previously (see above). The Campanians were forced to cede a part of the fertile Ager Falernus (north of the Volturnus). This land was granted to Roman plebeians. 1,600 Campanian equites that had fought for the Romans were given Roman citizenship (without the right to vote) as a reward. This was the start of a strong relationship between the Romans and the Campanian elite.[23]

Spinario, first century BCE (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The Latin war: the next phase (339-338 BCE)

The first year of the Latin war had brought Setia, Circei and Signia back in line again. Velitrae, however, was still openly rebellious. Nevertheless, the fighting of 339-338 BCE was concentrated around the city of Pedum, which was situated some 25 kilometres east of Rome. Pedum did not just receive aid from Tibur and Praeneste, but also from Velitrae, Lanuvium and Antium. In 339 BCE the consuls Tiberius Aemilius Mamercinus and Quintus Publilius Philo won a victory over the Latins on the Fenectan plains (Campi Fenectani), for which Philo was awarded a triumph. We do not know the exact location of these Fenectan plains, but the name may have referred to a flat area in the vicinity of Pedum.[24]

The Romans were unable to capture Pedum itself, and so the rest of the year was spent on having the popular assembly adopt important legislation proposed by Philo in his capacity as dictator. The new laws clearly favoured the plebeians, the class that Philo himself belonged to. The new Lex Publilia stipulated that at least one of the censors had to be a plebeian and that both could be. Furthermore, the Senate – still dominated by patricians – lost its right of veto with regard to legislation discussed in the comitia centuriata. Finally, decisions taken by the concilium plebis, the assembly of the plebs, were reportedly made binding for the whole Roman people. However, this was likely subject to ratification by the Senate or another popular assembly, as it is generally assumed that plebiscita did not become binding for the entire populus Romanus until the Lex Hortensia was passed in 287 BCE.[25]

Helmet from Lanuvium, ca. 475 BCE (Museo Nazionale Romano).

In 338 BCE, the last year of the Latin war, the consuls Lucius Furius Camillus and Gaius Maenius prevented the rebels from merging their armies. Aricia and Lanuvium had now also jumped on the bandwagon and had merged their forces with troops from Velitrae and Antium. At the river Astura, in the south of Latium, Maenius managed to intercept this little army and destroy it. Tibur and Praeneste did manage to send auxiliary forces to Pedum, which was now targeted by the consul Camillus. Troops from Nomentum probably also participated in the fighting, for this city is mentioned among the cities with which the Romans made arrangements after the war. The fighting at Pedum was fierce and especially the troops from Tibur gave their utmost. But in spite of this display of bravery, Camillus managed to defeat the Latins outside Pedum and take the city itself. Together the two consuls then began mopping up the last pockets of resistance in Latium. Among these cities was Antium, which was finally recaptured by the Romans. After their successful crusade the two consuls were both allowed to celebrate a triumph. As a special tribute equestrian statues of the two men were erected on the Forum.[26]

The aftermath of the Latin war (338-327 BCE)

After having pacified all of Latium, the Romans dissolved the Foedus Cassianum and, as a consequence, the Latin League. From now on Rome made separate treaties with the individual cities. The inhabitants of Lanuvium, Aricia, Nomentum and Pedum were granted full Roman citizenship. At first glance this appears to be a generous gesture, but it gave the aforementioned cities the status of municipia, which meant that they were closely tied to Rome. The cities were now bound by Roman law and Rome basically controlled their domestic and foreign affairs. The Latin war had been fought to retain the last bit of independence and autonomy, so Lanuvium, Aricia, Nomentum and Pedum cannot have been very pleased with this outcome.

Remains of the Imperial Rostra. The Republican Rostra is no longer extant.

Rome restored the old ties with Tusculum: the city was not blamed for the participation of a couple of Tusculan ‘troublemakers’ in the war.[27] Velitrae, on the other hand, was severely punished. Its senators were deported to the other side of the Tiber and a large number of new colonists was sent to the town. At Antium a new colony was founded. The ships of the Antiates were confiscated and some of them were burned. Livius claims that the prows (rostrata) of these ships were subsequently attached to the speaker’s platform on the Forum Romanum, which was henceforth known as the Rostra.[28] It is, however, more likely that the prows put on display here once belonged to Carthaginian warships that were captured during the First Punic War. There were no naval battles during the Latin war. In fact, Rome did not even have a fleet.

Tibur and Praeneste were punished with the loss of territory and both cities were also lambasted for having been in league with the Celts (which was correct in the case of Tibur, although the city’s alliance with the Celts had been over twenty years ago). The inhabitants of the other Latin cities – Livius does not explicitly mention them, but perhaps they included Setia, Circei and Signia and/or Lavinium – lost the right of intermarriage and were no longer allowed to trade with each other or hold meetings. Their Latin status and the separate treaties with Rome did give them the right to marry and trade with Roman citizens.[29] And obviously all the Latins, irrespective of the status they had acquired after the Latin war, were required to provide the Romans with troops in the event of war. The Romans furthermore granted citizenship without voting rights to the inhabitants of Fundi and Formiae and to part of the Campanians, presumably the nobility in Capua, Cumae and Suessula.[30] In 332 BCE the population of Acerrae in Campania was also given citizenship without the right to vote.[31] All of these measures ensured that Rome became ever more dominant in this part of Italy.

Bust of Demeter from Aricia, fourth-third century BCE.

The years after the Latin war were characterised by relative peace. It was in fact a domestic affair that caused the biggest turmoil. I am referring to the 331 BCE affair of the matron poisoners, a story that sounds a lot like a witch hunt.[32] Twice there was fear of a renewed Celtic invasion, but the threat did not materialise and Polybius even claims that around 332-331 BCE a peace treaty was concluded. Marcus Valerius Corvus was in the spotlights again when, serving as consul for the fourth time, he took the city of Cales from the Aurunci in 335 BCE. A year later a Latin colony was founded here, followed by a colony at Fregellae in 328 BCE. In 329 BCE a (new) Roman colony, i.e. a colony of Roman citizens, was founded at Anxur/Tarracinae.[33]

In 329 BCE the Romans also dealt with Privernum, which had once again proved to be troublesome when it pillaged the territories of Setia, Cora and Norba. Privernum had furthermore allied itself with Fundi, a town whose citizens had been granted Roman citizenship, as was mentioned above. The army of Privernum was even commanded by a man from Fundi, one Vitruvius Vaccus, who owned a house in Rome. In the end, Fundi was treaty rather leniently, although it is possible that several agitators were executed. Privernum’s fate was far worse: its senators were exiled to the other side of the Tiber (the inhabitants that stayed behind were later given Roman citizenship). Vitruvius Vaccus was paraded in the consuls’ triumph and was then executed. That was how Rome dealt with traitors.[34]

In the meantime, relations with the Samnites had deteriorated. The main reason that no war broke out yet was probably that the Samnites were embroiled in a conflict with another enemy: king Alexander of Epirus. He was the brother of Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, and therefore Alexander’s uncle. Having married Alexander’s sister Cleopatra, he also happened to be his brother-in-law. The king had crossed the sea to Italy at the request of the Greek colony of Taras (Tarentum in Latin). Initially he won successes on the battlefield, but in 331 BCE he was killed fighting the Lucani and Bruttii. With this threat out of the way, the Samnites could now focus on the Romans again. They were deeply worried about the Roman presence in Campania. Ultimately it would be a conflict over Neapolis that led to the Second Samnite war.


Primary sources

  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Book 14-15;
  • Livius, Ab urbe condita, Books 4 and 7-8.

Secondary sources

  • Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse leger, p. 102;
  • Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 37 and 122;
  • Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 69-70;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 66-69;
  • E.Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 233-234.


[1] Livius 4.37.

[2] Livius 7.30-7.31.

[3] Livius 7.32-7.33.

[4] Livius 7.37. For this decoration, see Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse leger, p. 102.

[5] Livius 7.37.

[6] Livius 7.38.

[7] Livius 7.42 (translation: Rev. Canon Roberts).

[8] Livius 7.38-7.42; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 15.3.

[9] Livius 7.42.

[10] Livius 8.1-8.2.

[11] Livius 7.38 and 8.4.

[12] Livius 8.5.

[13] Livius 8.3.

[14] Livius 8.7.

[15] Livius 8.14.

[16] Livius 8.11.

[17] Livius 8.6.

[18] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 15.4.

[19] Livius 8.8.

[20] Livius 8.9.

[21] Livius 7.6; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 14.11.

[22] Livius 8.10-8.11.

[23] Livius 8.11. The granting of citizenship to these equites was mentioned on a bronze plaque attached to the temple of Castor and Pollux on the Forum Romanum. Castor and Pollux had a special relationship with the cavalry.

[24] Livius 8.12.

[25] Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 37 and 122.

[26] Livius 8.13.

[27] The citizens of Tusculum were members of the tribus Papiria.

[28] Livius 8.14.

[29] In principle the Latins also enjoyed the ius migrationis, which gave them the right to settle in Rome and eventually acquire Roman citizenship. See E.Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 233-234.

[30] In 188 BCE the citizens of Formiae and Fundi were granted full Roman citizenship. They were subsequently enrolled in the tribus Aemilia. Marriages between Romans and Capuans were quite common. It was a practice that was brutally ended when the Carthaginian Hannibal conquered Capua in 216 BCE.

[31] Livius 8.17.

[32] See Livius 8.18.

[33] See Livius 8.16 and 8.21-8.22 for the founding of these colonies.

[34] Livius 8.19-8.21.

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