The Early Republic: the Second Samnite war and the wars against the Etruscans (part 2; 311-304 BCE)

Etruscan-Roman city gate of Perugia (Perusia).

Between 358 BCE and 351 BCE Rome had already fought a war against the Etruscan city of Tarquinii (Tarchna). In spite of serious setbacks that war had ended in a Roman victory, after which a forty-year armistice had been concluded. That armistice expired in 311 BCE, and it looks like Tarquinii was out for revenge. The city must have been genuinely worried about Roman expansion. At the same time, the fact that the Romans were locked in a war against the Samnites presented an ideal opportunity to attack Rome. Tarquinii did not enter the struggle with Rome alone. Although Etruscan cities hardly had a tradition of coming to each other’s aid, the city had succeeded in finding several allies. It is not easy to establish which other cities participated. According to Livius all the peoples of Etruria were involved, except for the Arretines.[1] However, in another passage the Roman historian mentions Arretium (Aritim, modern Arezzo) among the warring parties, along with Perusia (Perusna , modern Perugia) and Cortona (Curtun).[2] It is therefore quite possible that Rome was up against a grand coalition of Etruscan cities and was entering her toughest war against the Etruscan people so far. It should, however, be noted that the coalition was a temporary affair, and that the Romans skillfully managed to drive the Etruscans apart again.[3]

The war against the Samnites and Etruscans (311-308 BCE)

While there was much uproar in Rome about the actions of the censor Appius Claudius, the new consul of 311 BCE Gaius Junius Bubulcus Brutus sped to the town of Cluviae in the north of Samnium. The local Roman garrison had been starved into submission by a Samnite force, and after their surrender the men had been butchered by their foes. Bubulcus Brutus was now consul for the third time and moreover a veteran of the Second Samnite war. He easily retook Cluviae and had his soldiers slaughter all the adult males. The consul then advanced on Bovianum, a city the Romans had failed to take two years previously. This time the siege was a walk in the park. Bovianum was captured without much effort and there was rich booty for the Romans. Using herds of cattle, the Samnites then tried to lure the Roman army into a mountain pass where it could be ambushed. The consul indeed let his troops march into the pass to capture the animals, but the Romans had learnt much since their disgraceful defeat at the Caudine Forks ten years previously. When the Samnites attacked, the Roman soldiers managed to fight their way uphill and rout the enemy. The story that almost 20,000 Samnites were killed was probably fabricated later, but the Roman victory can be considered a historical fact.[4]

Theatre of the Second Samnite war (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

In the meantime, the Etruscan coalition had gone on the offensive. The Etruscans laid siege to the Latin colony of Sutrium in the south of Etruria, but a Roman army led by the consul Quintus Aemilius Barbula arrived just in time to save the city. The Etruscan army was probably larger than the Roman force, for the next day they offered battle on the plains surrounding the colony. There was fierce fighting, and casualties on both sides were very high. At the end of the day both parties withdrew to their respective camps. Both the Romans and the Etruscans had suffered such losses that for the rest of the year neither side was able to mount any offensive action anymore.[5] The fighting was therefore resumed in 310 BCE, and the new consul Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus served with distinction. He now held the office for the second time and was very experienced. Fabius too had less troops under his command than the Etruscans, but he made clever use of the rough and hilly terrain near the colony. The Etruscans tried to climb the hills, but they were greeted by a hail of javelins and rocks, and ultimately forced back. The Roman cavalry then galloped in to finish the job.[6]

Etruria and Umbria (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Fabius was now faced with a dilemma: he could either let the fleeing enemies go free or pursue them through the Ciminian forest (silva Ciminia). This was a dense forest that formed both a real and a psychological border between Roman and Etruscan territories.[7] The consul had a brother who had been raised in Caere and spoke the Etruscan language fluently. This man was now sent into the forest – likely with a company and not, as Livius claims, with just a single slave[8] – and reportedly got as far Camerinum in Umbria[9], where he concluded an alliance with the locals. Fabius himself then also marched his army through the woods and devastated the area at the foot of Mons Ciminius. A force of Etruscan peasants that tried to stop the looting was easily crushed, but meanwhile a fresh Etruscan army of regular soldiers had arrived in the vicinity of Sutrium. Fabius managed to destroy this army during a daring night attack. The claim that 60,000 Etruscans were killed or captured was no doubt exaggerated, but the result of the Roman victory was definitely a thirty-year armistice with Perusia, Cortona and Arretium. These cities had initially asked for peace and an alliance, so they cannot have been completed satisfied with the results.[10] Hostilities were resumed not much later, perhaps even the same year.

Modern Cortona.

In the meantime, the struggle against the Samnites continued. The other consul, Gaius Marcius Rutilus, retook the town of Alifae and for the first time in history the Romans made use of their fleet. In 338 BCE they had confiscated ships from Antium and in 313 BCE they had founded a Latin colony on an island (Pontiae), so clearly they were getting ever more interested in the sea. Two fleet commanders, the so-called duumviri navales, were elected for the first time in 311 BCE. The Romans now used their fleet for a raid in the territories of Nuceria in Campania, but unfortunately for them the action was a failure.[11] Much worse was the fact that Gaius Marcius Rutilus had meanwhile marched into an ambush and was faced with a disaster potentially greater than that at the Caudine Forks. Rutilus did manage to get away with his army, but he was wounded in the process. For a while it was even unclear whether he was still alive, so the Senate decided to appoint a dictator. The looming alliance between the Samnites and the Etruscans was a contributing factor in the decision. The shoe-in for dictator was the great Lucius Papirius Cursor, who had previously held the office in 325 BCE. Back then he had quarrelled with his master of horse Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus. And that was a problem, as that very same Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus was now serving as the consul who had to appoint Cursor! Ultimately Fabius decided to set aside his personal feelings. After all, the interests of the state were at stake here.

The area surrounding Perugia (Perusia).

The dictator took command of Rutilus’ army at Longula and subsequently confronted the Samnites at an unspecified site. Almost simultaneously the consul Fabius fought the Etruscans, who were up in arms again, at Lake Vadimo, not far from modern Orte in Lazio. It is not entirely clear whether these two battles took place in 310 BCE or 309 BCE, and the confusion is partly caused by the fact that no consuls are known for the latter year (it is a so-called ‘dictator year’). However, there can be no doubt about the outcome of the battles. The Romans won two resounding victories. Papirius routed the Samnites and captured many splendid suits of armour. The fighting at Lake Vadimo was undecided for a long time, but in the end a charge on foot by the dismounted Roman horsemen won the day for Rome.[12] Fabius – now probably a proconsul – and his army then marched all the way to Perusia. In 309 BCE he defeated an Etruscan army outside the walls of the city, which then decided to cease all hostilities and surrender. Both the dictator and the proconsul, who had once served as colleagues, were allowed to celebrate triumphs for their important victories. According to the Fasti Triumphales Papirius celebrated his triumph first and was then followed by Fabius.

The end of the Second Samnite war (308-304 BCE)

With the capture of Perusia and the stationing of a garrison there the Romans had extended their influence far to the north. Because of this success Fabius was again elected consul in 308 BCE. His colleague was Publius Decius Mus, son of the consul who had sacrificed himself in 340 BCE against the Latins. Fabius was now sent to Samnium, but his first actions took place at Nuceria, which had repulsed a Roman fleet attack two years ago (see above). This time the city was less fortunate, for Fabius forced it to surrender. He then fought against the Samnites, who had this time received help from the Marsi and Paeligni. These two peoples lived west of Samnium, in the area around Lake Fucino (Lacus Fucinus). Unfortunately for the Samnites, the arrival of their new allies failed to make an impression on the Romans, as it was Fabius who won the day.

Etruscan Gorgon from Veii (Villa Giulia, Rome).

Decius Mus had meanwhile launched a punitive expedition in Etruria. Tarquinii was threatened into submission and was granted a new forty-year armistice. The consul also campaigned successfully against Volsinii (Velzna, modern Orvieto). The cities that still resisted asked for peace, but only got a one-year armistice. When the Romans received word that the neighbouring Umbrians were about to send aid to the Etruscans, the consul Fabius force-marched his army from Samnium to their territories. Apparently he still had plenty of energy left. At Mevania (modern Bevagna) the Umbrians attacked him while he was making camp. However, the Umbrian attack was badly coordinated and could easily be repulsed. More Umbrians were captured than killed, and after the battle the Umbrian cities surrendered. The Romans already had an alliance with the city of Camerinum and now added a treaty of friendship with Ocriculum (Ucrisla, modern Otricoli).[13]

The Second Samnite war was now entering its final phase. In 307 BCE the consul Lucius Volumnius penetrated so deep into enemy territory that he reached the land of the Sallentini, while Fabius – now proconsul again – defeated the Samnites at Alifae and sent the survivors under the yoke. A significant number of Hernici had fought alongside the Samnites. While Romans and Hernici had lived in peace for over fifty years, it was the treatment of Hernician prisoners that led to a brief revolt. This revolt wat led by Anagnia (modern Anagni), but not all of the cities of the Hernici participated. One of the consuls of 306 BCE, Quintus Marcius Tremulus had little trouble getting the rebels back into the fold, and the triumph that he earned with his victories was perhaps not entirely deserved. Truly extravagant was the fact that he also got an equestrian statue, which was set up in front of the temple of Castor and Pollux. The rebels were granted Roman citizenship without the right to vote (civitas sine suffragio). This may seem like a generous gesture, but in practice it meant that Anagnia and the other cities of the Hernici lost their independence.[14]

The Temple of Castor and Pollux on the Forum Romanum.

The other consul of 306 BCE, Publius Cornelius Arvina, faced far greater challenges. After Fabius had left, the Samnites had captured the town of Calatia and the Latin colony of Sora and massacred the local garrisons. Aided by Marcius Tremulus, who had by now dealt with the Hernici, Arvina succeeded in twice inflicting a heavy blow on the Samnites. That very same year Rome made a treaty with Carthage for the third time[15] and commenced construction of the temple of Salus on the Quirinal Hill, Salus being the personification of the well-being of the Roman state and Roman people. The contract for the construction of this temple was let by the censor Gaius Junius Bubulcus Brutus, who had reportedly promised the temple while fighting as consul in the Second Samnite war. Bubulcus Brutus would inaugurate the temple in 302 BCE as dictator.[16] The new sanctuary may have replaced an altar that dated back to the Age of Kings. What is special is that the cella of the building was painted by Gaius Fabius Pictor, one of the very first Roman painters (and also the grandfather of one of the first Roman historians, Quintus Fabius Pictor.[17]

Although the Roman victory in the war against the Samnites was imminent, the Romans still had to fight. Both the consuls of 305 BCE, Lucius Postumius Megellus and Tiberius Minucius, were sent to Samnium. The Samnites had attacked the fertile campus Stellatis and that attack had to be avenged. A fierce battle ensued near Bovianum, in which the Romans came out on top and the enemy commander Statius Gellius was taken prisoner. The Roman victory came at a high cost, however, as the consul Minucius was killed. Not much later Bovianum fell into Roman hands, which given the importance of the city was a decisive event in the war.[18] The Romans then went on to wrest Sora, Arpinum and Cesennia from the Samnites. Although the Romans did not realise it at that moment, the capture of Arpinum proved to be most important. Arpinum – which as a city of the Volsci had once been a mortal enemy of Rome – was the birthplace of two preeminent Romans, i.e. Gaius Marius and Marcus Tullius Cicero.[19]

Samnite armour.

In 304 BCE the Samnites were tired of war. They sent envoys to Rome and opened peace negotiations. Apparently the Romans now felt that enough blood had been spilt and again welcomed the Samnites as allies. The treaty that had been concluded exactly fifty years previously was renewed and so the Second Samnite war came to an end. Now that Romans and Samnites lived in peace and harmony again, it was time for the former to settle the score with the not so powerful allies of the latter. First the Aequi were subjugated again, then peace treaties and alliances were made with the Marrucini, Marsi, Paeligni and Frentani.[20] We subsequently often find these peoples among the Italian allies of the Romans, for instance during the struggle against king Pyrrhos of Epirus, during the Second Punic War and during the battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. The Marsi would ultimately play a leading role during the so-called Social War (91-88 BCE), a war that led to most of the allies being granted full Roman citizenship.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 13 and p. 82;
  • Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 450 and p. 452;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 72-74.


[1] Livius 9.32.

[2] Livius 9.37.

[3] Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 82.

[4] Livius 9.31.

[5] Livius 9.32.

[6] Livius 9.35.

[7] Briquel, p. 13.

[8] Livius 9.36.

[9] Now Camerino in the Marche.

[10] Livius 9.37.

[11] Livius 9.38.

[12] Livius 9.39-9.40.

[13] Livius 9.40-9.41.

[14] Livius 9.42-9.43. Aletrium, Verulae and Ferentinum, cities that had remained loyal to the Romans, did not lose their independence.

[15] After previous treaties in 509 BCE and 348 BCE.

[16] Livius 10.1.

[17] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 450 and p. 452.

[18] Livius 9.44.

[19] The inhabitants of Arpinum were granted Roman citizenship without voting rights in 303 BCE and full citizenship in 188 BCE.

[20] Livius 9.46.


  1. Pingback:De Vroege Republiek: de Tweede Samnitische oorlog en de strijd tegen de Etrusken (deel 2; 311-304 BCE) – – Corvinus –

  2. Pingback:Umbria: Bevagna – – Corvinus –

  3. Pingback:The Early Republic: crisis, reconstruction and new expansion (part 2; ca. 386-342 BCE) – – Corvinus –

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