In 354 BCE the Romans had concluded an alliance with the Samnites of southern Central Italy. The First Samnite war of 343-341 BCE had ended this alliance, but it had been renewed after the Roman victory in the conflict. The Samnites had subsequently fought on the Roman side during the Latin war (340-338 BCE), especially during the first year of that war, when the fighting took place in Campania. In later years, however, relations between Rome and Samnium deteriorated. Bones of contention for the Samnites were the recently founded Latin colonies of Cales and Fregellae. However, it would be a conflict over the originally Greek city of Parthenope or Palaepolis that ignited the Second Samnite war in 327 or 326 BCE.
The Second Samnite war: introduction
The first Greek colony in Italy was Pithecusae, which was founded around 775 BCE on the island of Ischia off the coast of Campania. From Pithecusae the colony of Cumae was founded on the mainland several decades later. Cumae quickly prospered and this success led to the founding between 700 and 650 BCE of another city some fifteen kilometres to the east. This city was called Parthenope. We do not really know much about life in Parthenope, but in the sixth century BCE a new Greek city was built just north of it, which was given the name Neapolis (‘new city’). In the last quarter of the fifth century BCE both cities must have been overrun by the Samnites and Campanians, who also captured cities such as Capua (an Etruscan settlement) and Cumae. Neapolis and Parthenope were still inhabited by Greeks and the two cities remained culturally Greek, but Samnites and Campanians must have settled there as well. For the year 327 BCE Livius claims that Parthenope – which he calls Palaepolis (‘old city’) – had a garrison of 4,000 Samnite soldiers and 2,000 men from the Campanian city of Nola.
From Palaepolis attacks were launched on the Roman colonists that had settled in the fertile areas of the Ager Campanus and Ager Falernus, and the consul Quintus Publilius Philo was sent to the region to end these attacks. Philo had made his camp on a strategic site between Neapolis and Parthenope and had started the siege of the latter city. The Senate decided to prorogue his term of office so that he could continue the siege in 326 BCE. As the very first proconsul in history (from pro consule, ‘in the consul’s place), Philo managed to capture the city with a little inside help. Parthenope was betrayed to him, either by some of the Greek inhabitants or by the Samnite garrison. The reason for the betrayal was probably that relief forces from the Greek city of Taras (Tarentum) and the Samnite hinterland failed to arrive on time. The proconsul was awarded a triumph for his victory. The Romans may very well have razed Parthenope to the ground after the capture. They then allied themselves with Neapolis, a city we now know as Naples.
Meanwhile negotiations with the Samnites had broken down and the Second Samnite war had become a fact. It was a war that, with a duration of 22-23 years, was on a par with the First Punic War of the next century. The fact that the Second Samnite war lasted much longer than the first was due to several factors. First of all, the theatre of war was much larger geographically. Unlike the first conflict with the Samnites the fighting was not limited to Campania and Samnium. There were also confrontations in Lucania, Apulia and Latium. On more than one occasion the inhabitants of these regions had to determine whether their allegiance lay with either the Romans or the Samnites, and so did peoples such as the Vestini, the Marsi and the Paeligni. A second reason for the long duration of the conflict was the fact that Rome, although it granted the Samnites several truces, refused to make peace. What Rome wanted was the complete subjugation of this people. This made the Second Samnite war perhaps the first clear example of the Roman desire to get an unconditional surrender or deditio from an opponent.
A third reason for the long duration was the fact that the Samnites were fierce warriors. They were hardened by life in the mountains, but certainly not uncivilised barbarians. Although Rome suffered just one clear defeat during the whole war and won a string of victories, the Samnites time and time again managed to raise new armies and attack Roman territory or Roman allies. It should be noted that the Samnites themselves were not a single nation. Individual tribes such as the Hirpini, Caudini, Carricini and Pentri are considered Samnite, and sometimes the Frentani as well. The latter were in any case descended from the Samnites and had close ties with them. Some kind of Samnite confederacy or Samnite league seems to have existed, but this did not entail that the subjugation of one tribe automatically led to the subjugation of the others. Lastly, many battles of the war were fought on difficult terrain, which also happened to be the deciding factor in the biggest Roman defeat in the conflict.
And yet the Roman army of the late fourth century BCE was much more capable than its fifth-century BCE predecessor to fight battles on this kind of terrain. The single phalanx of hoplites, supported by light troops, had by now been completely replaced by the famous acies triplex consisting of three battle lines, one behind the other. Maniples of hastati, principes and triarii made up the heavy infantry. The latter perhaps still wore the equipment of the classical hoplite, including the famous circular shield. The hastati were supported by light troops (leves), armed with javelins and spears, while units of rorarii and accensi were deployed with the triarii in the rear. We do not know the precise role on the battlefield of the rorarii and accensi, but they may have fought as skirmishers and slingers. A legion of about 4,200-5,000 light and heavy infantry was furthermore supported by 300 horsemen (equites), but much more important were the troops provided by the Latin and Italian allies. These made up at least half of the infantry and the lion’s share of the cavalry. And Rome’s pool of manpower seemed to be almost inexhaustible. The city was able to field at least ten legions (ca. 50,000 men), not including the allied troops. With so many men under arms the Romans had no trouble fighting wars on multiple fronts.
The Second Samnite war: the first years (326-322 BCE)
Except for the capture of Parthenope, not much happened during the first year of the war against the Samnites. This was partially due to domestic unrest in Rome. A dictator had been appointed to preside over the election of the consuls, but his appointment had been declared invalid on religious grounds. There had been no less than fourteen interreges – and some 70 days had elapsed – before new consuls had finally been chosen. The new consul Gaius Poetelius had important business in Rome itself, as his Lex Poetelia put an end to several centuries of debt bondage. From now on only goods were acceptable as collateral for a loan. The year 326 BCE did see some fighting in Samnium, as the cities of Alifae, Callifae and Rufrium were captured by the Romans. Auxiliaries from the Lucani and Apuli had joined the Roman armies, but under pressure from the Samnites the Lucani defected not much later. In 325 BCE the Vestini, a people that lived in the Abruzzi, also joined the Samnites and the new consul Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva was forced to lead a punitive expedition against them. The fighting was heavy and Scaeva suffered many casualties, but in the end his campaign proved to be a success.
The other consul of 325 BCE was Lucius Furius Camillus, a hero from the Latin war whose equestrian statue adorned the Roman Forum. Camillus, however, fell ill and was therefore unable to take charge of the war in Samnium. Lucius Papirius Cursor was subsequently appointed dictator, with Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus acting as his magister equitum. Papirius Cursor was a phenomenon in his own age. He was strong as a bull and fast as lightning (cursor means ‘runner’), and was moreover known for his voracious appetite. The dictator was a very talented general, but he was also very strict, as is demonstrated by a famous conflict between him and his master of horse. The dictator had once left the army camp and had travelled to Rome to take the auspices (auspicia) again. He had given Fabius strict orders not to engage the Samnites before he returned. The master of horse had, however, seen a brilliant opportunity to deal the enemy a heavy blow and had subsequently annihilated a Samnite force at Imbrinium (the location is unknown). Thousands of Samnites were said to have been killed.
When he returned to the camp, Papirius was furious that his order had been disobeyed. He was about to have his lieutenant flogged and decapitated, but Fabius managed to escape to Rome, where he sought the protection of his father, the former consul and former dictator Marcus Fabius Ambustus. While the younger Fabius was addressing the Senate, Papirius suddenly arrived in Rome, still hell-bent on punishing the master of horse. In the end it was an intervention by the people that made the dictator refrain from doing what he had intended. Fabius was thus much more fortunate than the son of the consul Titus Manlius Torquatus, who had been executed by his father in 340 BCE for ignoring Torquatus’ orders. Papirius did side-track his master of horse, and the whole affair proved to be detrimental to his popularity within the army, but the dictator was able to quickly restore order and in 324 BCE won such a decisive victory over the Samnites that he was awarded a triumph. Peace negotiations were now opened, but all the warring parties could agree on for the moment was a one-year armistice.
When the armistice ended, the war was continued in 323 BCE. The Romans attacked Samnium itself and the Samnite allies in Apulia, but there were no pitched battles. The next year, things were very different. In 322 BCE a particularly bloody battle was fought at an unspecified location in Samnium. After five hours of fighting it was reportedly the greed of the Samnite cavalry that caused the Samnite defeat. It was said that these horsemen had been more interested in the Roman baggage train than in defeating their opponents. They were quickly routed by the Roman cavalry, who were then able to attack the Samnite infantry in the rear. We do not know how many enemies were killed, but among them was the Samnite general. The Roman consuls Lucius Fulvius Curvus and Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus were awarded triumphs for their victory.
The Second Samnite war: the disgrace at the Caudine Forks (321 BCE)
After their defeat in 322 BCE the Samnites were again prepared to make peace. They even delivered the body of one Brutulus Papius to the Romans, a nobleman who was held responsible for the resumption of hostilities after the truce had expired. Brutulus had committed suicide, so as not to fall into Roman hands alive, but for the Romans his death and the delivery of his corpse was not sufficient. They decided to continue the war, and such arrogance was bound to explode in their faces sometime. It did in 321 BCE, the year that Titus Veturius Calvinus and Spurius Postumius served as consuls. The two men were stationed at Calatia and received word that the Samnites were besieging the city of Luceria in Apulia. As Luceria was a Roman ally, the consuls immediately decided to come to the rescue. There was, however, one problem: the city was situated on the other side of the Apennines (see the map above). Veturius and Postumius decided to take the shortest route and march their army through the Caudine Forks. Once in this mountain pass they suddenly saw Samnite soldiers on all sides on the rocks above them. The Samnites had blocked all entrances and exits with rocks and tree trunks, and 40,000 Romans were trapped.
At the time the Samnites were commanded by a talented general named Gaius Pontius. He could have destroyed the Roman army, but instead decided to negotiate. The consuls surrendered. They and all their men were disarmed, stripped and left just a single piece of clothing. Then they were sent under the yoke while the Samnites hurled insults at them. Sending defeated enemies under the yoke was an archaic ritual that entailed the loss of warrior status for the soldiers involved. After this humiliation the Roman army marched to Capua, where the men were warmly welcomed by their allies, which must have provided some comfort. The consuls had concluded a provisional peace treaty with Pontius and had personally pledged themselves to the agreement. Moreover, 600 Roman equites had been left behind as hostages. However, in 320 BCE both the Senate and the popular assembly refused to ratify the peace treaty, and so the two former consuls had to be handed over to the Samnites. They were taken back to Caudium, where Gaius Pontius refused to accept their surrender. This meant that the Samnites ended up empty-handed. Pontius should of course have listened to his father’s advice to either let all the Romans go free (in order to win their friendship) or to slaughter them to the last man.
This is the classical story as it is told by Livius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, but modern historians have raised many doubts about it, and for good reasons. On other occasions during the war the Samnites were more than happy to butcher Roman soldiers, so it seems rather incredible that they were reluctant to do so at the Caudine Forks. It is quite possible that the Romans were in fact defeated in a battle here, and that the whole story of the surrender, the yoke and the return of the former consuls to Pontius was made up later. The story undeniably contains a lot of moralistic elements, for instance the faithful former consuls remembering their pledges and returning to the site of the disaster and Pontius not listening to his father’s wise words. Lastly, what is remarkable is that only Spurius Postumius was given the ironic nickname ‘Caudinus’, or ‘conqueror of Caudium’. Perhaps only his army was ambushed in the mountain pass.
The Second Samnite war: Rome turns the tide (320-312 BCE)
Whatever really happened at the Caudine Forks, it temporarily left the Romans reeling. However, the new consuls Quintus Publilius Philo and Lucius Papirius Cursor launched a fierce counteroffensive. Philo, a plebeian and the victor of Parthenope, was now consul for the third time. In a ferocious battle fought near Caudium he defeated the Samnites, winning a victory that somewhat compensated for the disgrace of the previous year. Papirius Cursor, consul for the second time, marched into Apulia. Livius claims the 600 Roman hostages mentioned above were held there in the city of Luceria, which had by now fallen into Samnite hands. Papirius had taken a safer route to Apulia and reached the city of Arpi without experiencing any problems. Having suffered a lot from Samnite attacks, most of the local Apuli favoured the Romans, but the consul and his army soon found their provisions depleted. Arpi sent some food, but was apparently unable to support such a large army.
The situation improved when the consul Philo arrived in Apulia as well. While one of the consuls began the siege of Luceria, the other pillaged the surrounding countryside. The Roman presence in Apulia caused great alarm in the Greek city of Taras, which in vain tried to mediate in the conflict. Taras then threatened to intervene militarily, but that threat made no impression whatsoever on either of the warring parties. The Samnites made a last-ditch effort to break the siege of Luceria, but the consuls easily drove them back. The city was in the meantime systematically starved and was ultimately forced to surrender. The 600 Roman hostages were released and now it was the Samnites’ turn to be sent under the yoke. Reportedly all the standards and weapons that the Romans had lost at the Caudine Forks were recovered. Somehow this outcome seems a little bit too good to be true.
Further to the west the state of affairs was less satisfactory for the Romans. There the Samnites had launched a fresh offensive. After fierce fighting they took the Latin colony of Fregellae, and they also convinced Satricum to defect. Satricum’s defection was truly remarkable, as the city was a Roman colony in Latium, situated less than 50 kilometres from Rome. Papirius, elected consul for the third time, managed to retake the colony in 319 BCE. The consul won an easy victory, for during the night a couple of citizens that were still loyal to the Romans opened a gate. They had also informed the consul that the Samnite garrison would try to flee that same night. As a result, the Romans were able to march into Satricum without opposition and then set up an ambush for the Samnites. And so the city was recaptured by Papirius. The citizens that were held responsible for Satricum’s defection to the Samnites were executed and the consul was allowed to celebrate a triumph back in Rome. Meanwhile, his colleague Quintus Aulius Cerretanus had successfully campaigned against the Frentani, who have already been introduced above as allies and kinsman of the Samnites.
Now that Rome had turned the tide, the Samnites again asked for peace. The Romans, however, were only willing to grant a two-year armistice. In these two years they focused on Apulia and Lucania. In 318-317BCE the cities of Teanum, Canusium and Forentum in Apulia were brought under Roman rule and in 317 BCE the city of Nerulum in Lucania was captured. The next year the Samnite war was resumed with a Roman attack on Saticula, a city that had sided with the Samnites. The dictator Lucius Aemilius Mamercinus began the siege of this city. Mamercinus had been consul in 341 BCE and had in that capacity participated in the first war against the Samnites, although he had not seen much fighting. Now a Samnite relief army tried to break the siege of Saticula while at the same time the defenders sallied. But Mamercinus was a veteran and kept his nerve. Both attacks were repulsed, which led the Samnites to try and draw the Romans away from Saticula by attacking nearby Plistica, a Roman ally. However, their attack failed.
In 315 BCE a new dictator took over the siege of Saticula. His name was Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus, the former master of horse and consul of 322 BCE. A new Samnite attempt to break the siege led to fierce fighting at the Roman fortifications, in which first the Samnite commander and then Fabius’ lieutenant, the master of horse Quintus Aulius Cerretanus, were killed. In the end the Romans were victorious and not much later they were able to capture Saticula. The Samnites for their part initially had to content themselves with the conquest of tiny Plistica, but a little later they hit the jackpot with the capture of the city of Sora. Sora had previously been Volscian and after the conquest by the Romans in 345 BCE a Latin colony had been founded here. Now the local Volsci had killed the colonists and joined the Samnites. Obviously the Romans were obliged to recapture Sora, but a first attempt by the dictator Fabius ended in failure. There was a violent clash at Lautulae, a pass near the coast, and although the outcome of the battle is uncertain, it was definitely not a Roman victory. The arrival of a new master of horse, Gaius Fabius Ambustus, who also happened to be the dictator’s brother, ensured that the Romans did win a second confrontation.
The Romans could now lay siege to Sora and retake the city in 314 BCE. A direct assault was difficult because of the city’s strategic location in the hills, but the Romans were aided by a defector who gave them the citadel of Sora on a silver platter. It was said that a mere ten Roman soldiers had then occupied this citadel, but the citizens of Sora were terrified and feared a massive Roman attack. They tried to flee and opened the gates, giving the Romans a brilliant opportunity to break into the city. Not much later the colony was back in their hands. 225 Sorani were arrested for the murder of the Roman colonists and sent to Rome to be executed. The consuls of this year subsequently also captured the cities of Ausona, Minturnae and Vescia in the land of the Aurunci. Their campaign was extremely violent and the Aurunci were almost massacred to the last man. A big setback, however, was the loss of Luceria in Apulia, although the Romans almost immediately managed to retake the city. The Senate was then faced with a choice between razing it to the ground or founding a Latin colony there. After due deliberation the senators chose the latter option.
314 BCE was an eventful year. A conspiracy in Capua, which aimed to get the Campanians to defect to the Samnites, was a failure, but it did lead to a Samnite force threatening Campania. Both consuls, Marcus Poetelius and Gaius Sulpicius, confronted their adversaries near Caudium. The Romans won a large victory and 30,000 Samnites were either killed or taken prisoner, although these numbers are no doubt inflated. The survivors fled to Maleventum further inland. The consuls’ next target was Bovianum, one of the most important cities in Samnium and the capital of the Pentri. The precise location of the city is unknown. It was previously assumed that Bovianum once stood where we now find the town of Pietrabbondante, but this theory has long been discredited by archaeologists. The Romans were not able to take the city, for in 313 BCE the Samnites had again attacked the Latin colony of Fregellae. In 320 BCE they had briefly occupied the city (see above), but it had been retaken by the Romans not much later. Now they managed to capture the citadel, which led the recently appointed dictator Gaius Poetelius to break off the siege of Bovianum and rush to the aid of the colony.
The Samnites were quickly chased away from Fregellae, and then Nola, Atina and Calatia also fell into Roman hands. A further two new Latin colonies were founded in 313 BCE: Suessa Aurunca in the territories of the Aurunci and Pontiae on an island off the coast of Latium (modern Ponza) that had previously belonged to the Volsci. In 312 BCE a Latin colony was founded at Interamna. The founding of so many new colonies and the strengthening of existing colonies such as Fregellae and Cales was a clear sign that the Romans were getting the upper hand in the Second Samnite war. They were now consolidating their gains. Nevertheless, the Second Samnite war would continue for another eight years, and this was chiefly due to the fact that a new war broke out with several Etruscan cities. The new conflict forced the Romans to divide their forces and attention, and this gave the Samnites fresh courage.
Appius Claudius the censor
In 312 BCE Appius Claudius Pulcher and Gaius Plautius served as censors. The two men got into a heated argument, and this ultimately led to Plautius, disgruntled about his colleague’s actions, resigning and Claudius continuing as sole censor. Under normal circumstances the second censor would also have laid down his office and new elections would have been held. Now, however, Claudius not only continued to exercise his censorial powers, but also held the censorship longer than the eighteen months allowed under Roman law. Two of the measures taken by the censor were certainly not controversial: the construction of the Via Appia and the construction of an aqueduct, the Aqua Appia. The construction of the Via Appia first and foremost served military purposes. The road made it possible for the Romans to quickly move troops to Campania, allowing them to complete the annexation of this region. The construction of the aqueduct ensured that the citizens of the ever-growing city of Rome were provided with fresh drinking water.
But Claudius was also responsible for measures that others considered to be populist. The Claudii were patricians and were not known for their love of the plebs, but there were exceptions (as is demonstrated by a famous example from the first century BCE). Apparently Appius Claudius saw himself as a man of the people. As censor he was responsible for drawing up the roll of the senators and deciding which men were to be struck off. Although his powers were somewhat limited by the 318 BCE Lex Ovinia, the censor still enjoyed a large degree of freedom to nominate whoever he wanted. Claudius now appointed several sons of freedmen to serve as senators and many among the elite found this completely unacceptable. The censor also enrolled members of the lower classes (probably again including many freedmen) in all of the tribus, the 31 voting districts that Rome had at the time. Poorer Romans had previously presumably been enrolled in the four larger urban tribus, which diminished their political influence. Claudius’ reform of the voting districts would be annulled by the next pair of censors.
A last controversial measure by the censor was about religion. Ever since the days of the Roman kings, priests from the gens Potitia had administered the Ara Maxima of Hercules, of which the remains are located beneath the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Claudius reportedly ended this tradition by ordering that the ceremonies at the altar were from now on to be conducted by state-owned slaves. Not much later the male line of the Potitii was said to have become extinct. The gods then supposedly punished Claudius by striking him with blindness, after which he became known as Caecus (‘the blind’). Not much of this story makes any sense. It is in fact much more likely that the main reason to have slaves take over the ceremonies at the Ara Maxima was the simple fact that the gens Potitia – a very obscure patrician clan – had become extinct. And while it is correct that Claudius did at some point lose his vision, this did not happen until much later in his life.
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Book 16;
- Livius, Ab urbe condita, Book 8-9.
- Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 28 and 164;
- Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 70-72;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 69-72.
 Livius 8.23.
 Taras had been founded in 706 BCE by colonists from Sparta. Dionysius of Halicarnassus 19.1 discusses the legends surrounding the founding.
 Livius 8.25-8.26. In Livius 3.4 a proconsul is already mentioned for the year 464 BCE, but this is likely an anachronism. The Fasti Triumphales explicitly call Quintus Publilius Philo the first proconsul.
 Livius 7.25, 8.8 and 10.26; Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse leger, p. 30-31.
 Livius 7.25 and 9.19. The author mentions a census in which 250,000 Roman citizens were counted, but it seems unlikely that these were all potential soldiers.
 The interrex, who was always a patrician, held his office for a maximum of five days. He was responsible for transferring imperium and the auspicia to a duly elected magistrate. See Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 28 and 164.
 Dionysius of Halicarnassus 16.5; Livius 8.28. Judging by Livius’ account, the other consul, Lucius Papirius Cursor, was involved in the legislative process as well, but apparently the bill was not co-named after him.
 Livius 8.25 and 8.27.
 Livius 8.29.
 Livius 9.16. Livius believed Cursor could have beaten Alexander the Great.
 See the detailed discussion in Livius 8.30-8.35.
 Livius 8.30 mentions 20,000 killed in action.
 Consul in 360, 356 and 354 BCE, dictator in 351 BCE.
 According to the Fasti Triumphales. Livius 8.38-8.40 mentions an alternative tradition, according to which the Romans were led by the dictator Aulus Cornelius Cossus Arvina, a man who had served as consul during the First Samnite war (343 BCE). However, it seems more likely that Cossus had been appointed because the praetor responsible for the Roman Games (Ludi Romani) was indisposed.
 Dionysius of Halicarnassus 16.1.
 Livius 9.1-9.11; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 16.1.
 Roman history offers many examples of generals with ironic nicknames. After a defeat against the Carthaginians in 260 BCE the consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio was for instance nicknamed ‘Asina’, the ass. Marcus Antonius, father of the more famous Mark Antony, suffered a defeat against Cretan pirates in 72 BCE and was nicknamed ‘Creticus’, which means both ‘conqueror of Crete’ and ‘man of chalk’. Finally, after his assassination in 222 the emperor Elagabalus was said to have been thrown into the Tiber, which resulted in the nickname ‘Tiberinus’.
 Livius 9.12.
 Livius 9.14.
 Livius 9.15.
 Livius 9.16.
 For the events in 318-315 BCE see Livius 9.20-9.22.
 Livius 9.23 claims the battle either ended in a draw or in a Roman defeat. He also writes that the Romans reached Sora first and then came to Lautulae, but geographically it makes much more sense that it was in fact the other way round. Lastly, Livius mentions the possibility that the master of horse Quintus Aulius Cerretanus was killed in this battle, so not at Saticula.
 Livius 9.24-9.26.
 Livius 9.27.
 Livius 9.28. Interamna Sucasina or Lirenas in modern Lazio must not be confused with Interamna Nahars (Terni) in Umbria.
 We do not know when he finally did lay down his office. Usually the year 309 BCE is mentioned (Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 72; Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 72).
 Livius 9.29-9.30, 9.33-9.34 and 9.46.
 Livius 1.7.
 Livius 9.29; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 16.3.