1902 Encyclopedia > Samnites


SAMNITES, a people of ancient Italy, whose name figures conspicuously in the early history of Rome. They occupied an extensive tract in the centre of the peninsula, which derived from them the name of Samnium. The territory thus designated was a wholly inland district, bounded on the north by the Marsi, Peligni, and Fren-tani, who separated them from the Adriatic, on the east by Apulia, on the south by Lucania, and on the west by Campania and Latium. But the Samnites were from an early period a numerous and powerful nation, and formed rather a confederacy of tribes than a single people. Hence the name is sometimes used in a wider sometimes in a more limited sense,—the Hirpini, espe-cially, who occupied the southernmost portion of their territory, being sometimes included amongst them, some-times distinguished from them. But according to the usual acceptation of the term—excluding the Frentani, who, though unquestionably of Samnite origin, were not usually regarded as belonging to the Samnite nation— they consisted of three principal tribes :—the Caraceni in the north, the Pentri, who may be termed the Samnites proper, in the centre, and the Hirpini in the south. Almost the whole of Samnium, as thus defined, was a rugged, mountainous country, and, though the Apennines do not in this part of their range attain to so great an elevation as farther north, they form irregular masses and groups, filling up almost the whole territory, and in great part covered with extensive forests. On the side of Campania alone the valley of the Vulturnus was richer and more fertile, and opened a natural access from the south into the northern regions of Samnium, while the Calor, a tributary of the same river, which flows from the east past Benevento, afforded in all ages a similar route into the upland districts of the Hirpini. Between the two, occupying the centre of the Pentrian territory and the very heart of Samnium, was the great mountain mass now known as the Monte Matese, of which the highest summit attains to an elevation of 6600 feet, and which must in all ages have been a region presenting peculiar difficulties of access.

All ancient writers agree in representing the Samnites as a people of Sabine origin, who migrated at an early period to the region of which we find them in the occupation when they first appear in history. The period of this emigration is wholly unknown, but, if we can trust the tradition reported by Strabo, that it was the result of a vow to send forth the produce of a "sacred spring" (see SABINES), it could hardly have been in the first instance very numerous, and it is probable that the invaders estab-lished themselves in the midst of an Oscan population, with whom they gradually coalesced. It is certain that no very long interval elapsed before the Samnites in their turn found themselves exceeding the resources of their barren and rugged territory, and extending their dominion over the more fertile and accessible regions by which they were surrounded. The first of these movements was pro-bably that by which they occupied the land of the Frentani, a fertile district along the shores of the Adriatic, between the northern part of Samnium and the sea. The Hirpini also were in the first instance almost certainly a later offshoot of the central Samnite people, though they continued always in such close connexion with them that they were generally reckoned as forming part of the Samnite confederacy, and almost uniformly took part with the more central tribes in their wars against Rome. The Frentani, on the contrary, generally either stood aloof from the contest or secured their own safety by an alliance with Rome.

To a later period belong the emigrations that gave rise to the two powerful nations of the Lucanians and Campanians. At the time when the Greek colonies were established in southern Italy the native tribes that occu-pied the regions to the south of Samnium were the CEnotrians and other Pelasgic races, and it was not till after the middle of the 5th century B.C. that the pressure of the Lucanians from the interior began to make itself felt in this quarter. From this time they gradually extended their power throughout the whole country to the Gulf of Tarentum and the Sicilian Straits. It was probably at a somewhat earlier period (about 440 to 420 B.C.) that they effected the conquest of the fertile country to the west, intervening between the mountain regions of Samnium and the sea. Here they found an Oscan popula-tion, with whom they seem to have speedily coalesced, and thus gave rise to the people known thenceforth as Campanians, or " inhabitants of the plain." But in this case also the new nationality thus constituted had no political connexion with the parent state, and retained its independent action both for peace and war. The first mention of the Samnites themselves in Roman history occurs in 354, when they concluded a treaty of alliance with the rising republic.

But it was not long before the course of events brought the two rival powers into collision. The Samnites, who appear to have been still actuated by aggressive tenden-cies, had attacked the Sidicini, a petty tribe to the north of Campania, and the latter, feeling unable to cope with so powerful an adversary, invoked the assistance of the Campanians. These, however, were in their turn attacked by the Samnites, and sustained so crushing a defeat, under the very walls of Capua, that they were compelled to implore the aid of Rome. Their request was granted, though not without hesitation, and thus began (in 343) the first of the long series of the Samnite Wars, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Roman domination over the whole of southern Italy. The events of these wars, which are related in all histories of Rome, can only be very briefly noticed here. The first contest was of short duration; and after two campaigns the Romans were willing not only to conclude peace with Samnium but to renew the previously existing alliance, to which the Samnites continued faithful throughout the great struggle which ensued between the Romans and the allied Campanians and Latins. The Second Samnite War was of a very different character. Both nations felt that it was a struggle for supremacy, and, instead of being brought to a close within three years, it lasted for more than twenty years (326-304), and was marked with considerable vicissitudes of fortune, among which the celebrated disaster of the Caudine Forks (321) stands most conspicuous. Nor was the struggle confined to the two leading powers, many of the neighbouring nations espousing the cause of the one side or the other, and often with fluctuating faith, in accordance with the varying fortunes of the war. The result, however, was on the whole favourable to the Roman arms, notwithstanding which they were willing to conclude peace in 304, on con-dition of the renewal of the previously existing alliance. This interval of tranquillity was of short duration, and little more than five years elapsed between the end of the Second Samnite War and the commencement of the Third (298). In this fresh contest they received a formidable auxiliary in a large body of Gauls, who had recently crossed the Alps, and, together with their countrymen the Senones, espoused the cause of the Samnites against Rome. Their combined forces were, however, defeated in the great battle of Sentinum (294), and after several successive campaigns the consul M'. Curius Dentatus was able to boast of having put an end to the Samnite Wars (290), after they had lasted more than fifty years. It is true that a few years later the Samnites again appear in arms, though rather as auxiliaries than principals, and the name of Fourth Samnite War is given by some historians to the memorable contest which, commenced in 282 by the Lucanians, assumed a wholly different aspect when Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, appeared in Italy as their auxiliary. But the power of the Samnites was evidently broken, and after the final defeat of Pyrrhus they appear to have offered little resistance. Their final submission was made in 272, and according to the usual Eoman policy was secured by the establishment in their territory of the two important colonies of Aesernia and Beneventum.

During the Second Punic War, Samnium became the frequent theatre of hostilities. The Hirpini were among the first of the Italian tribes to declare in favour of Hannibal after the battle of Cannae (216); but their example was not followed by the more powerful tribe of the Pentri, and when Hannibal was finally driven out of Central Italy the Samnites were speedily reduced to submission. From this time we hear no more of them till the great outbreak of the Italian nations, commonly known as the Social War (90), in which they bore a prominent part. Two of the most distinguished of the Italian leaders, C. Papius Mutilus and C. Pontius Telesinus, were of Samnite birth, and after the fall of Corfinium the Samnite town of Bovianum became the temporary capital of the confederates. Their submission had not indeed been completed when the civil war between Marius and Sulla gave a fresh character to the contest. The Samnites warmly espoused the cause of the former, and it was the defeat of their leader C. Pontius Telesinus at the Colline Gate of Borne that secured the victory of Sulla and sealed the fate of the Samnite nation (82). Not content with putting all his Samnite prisoners to the sword, the ruthless conqueror organized a systematic devas-tation of the whole country, with the avowed object of extirpating the very name of the Samnites, as the eternal enemies of Rome. To such an extent was this cruel purpose carried into effect that more than a hundred years afterwards, in the time of Strabo, the whole country is described as being in a state of utter desolation, flourishing towns being reduced to mere villages, while others had altogether ceased to exist. Nor does it appear probable that it ever recovered this severe blow; and, though some attempt was made to revive its prosperity by the establishment of Roman colonies within its limits, none of these attained to any importance. The name of Samnium was indeed retained as that of a distinct province throughout the greater part of the Roman empire, and is still found in Cassiodorus. But under the Lombard rule the whole of this part of Italy was included in the duchy of Benevento, which continued to subsist as an independent state long after the fall of the Lombard kingdom in the north of Italy. During the revolutions of the Middle Ages all trace of the name is lost; and, though it was revived in the last century as the official designation of a part of the region comprised within the ancient limits, previously known as the Contado di Molise, this was a mere piece of official pedantry, and the name has again disappeared from the modern maps of Italy.

Very few towns of importance existed at any period within the limits of Samnium, and many of those mentioned in history had disappeared in the continual wars with which the country was ravaged. The only names that are worthy of special notice are— Aufidena, in the north, the capital of the Caraceni, the ruins of which still exist a few miles from Castel di Sangro ; Bovianum (still called Bojano), the ancient capital of the Pentri, in the heart of Monte Matese ; Ssepinum (Sepino), in the same neighbourhood ; Aesernia, in the valley of the Vulturnus, still known as Isernia; Aquilonia (Lacedogna), in the land of the Hirpini, near the frontier of Apulia; and Compsa (Conza), on the borders of Lucania, near the sources of the Aufidus. Beneventum alone has retained its ancient consideration as well as name, an advantage which it derives from its position on the Via Appia, commanding the entrance to the mountain district of the Hirpini.

The language of the Samnites, like that of their parents the Sabines, must clearly have been closely related to that of the Oscans, and the two nationalities appear to have amalgamated so readily that before the historical period there was probably little difference in this respect. Several of the most important of the inscriptions that remain to us have been found within the limits of the Samnite territory, and may be considered as Sabello-Oscan in their character, rather than purely Oscan. See for these the articles ITALY and LATIN LANGUAGE. (E. H. B.)

The above article was written by: E. H. Bunbury.

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