Spoiler: There are two more of these wars (ugh).
The Samnites were the hill-dwelling tribe (well a group of 4 tribes) who lived in the mountains to the east of Campania in central Italy. (What is Campania? Nice of you to ask. Campania was the plain region between the coast and the Apennine Mountains that stretched from the River Liris down to the bays of Naples and Salerno.) I don’t think it is an overstatement to say the Samnites did not go down easily, they were the most powerful of the tribes in the region and liked to give their enemies a tough time. There were three Samnite Wars in which Rome very nearly lost (gasps) but ultimately won (sighs of relief) that lasted over a period of fifty years.
Background of Samnite War
All you need to know is they had a peace treaty that was ambivalent and it caused a war.
So when the Roman territories extended to the river Liris (now called Garigliano), that was the boundary between Latium (Land of the Latins) and Campania, the Samnites, who lived in the north of this region (along with the Sidicini a bunch of useless tribes), concluded a treaty in 354 BC that made River Liris the boundary between their respective bailiwicks. The one who formulated the treaty did a shoddy job because ABSOLUTELY NOTHING was specified. As you can guess, the treaty also did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to maintain peace. Peace was effectively concluded when the Romans intervened south of the Liris (Samnite sphere of influence) to rescue the Campanian city of Capua (just north of Naples) from an attack by the Samnites. The Romans who were technically the allies of the Samnites and well not as much of the Campanians changed alliances. And thus we got ourselves a war in 343 BC that lasted (it’s underwhelming so brace yourself) 2 years.
What Livy has to say about Samnites
The war started because the Samnites wanted to attack a tribe. What hapoened is that they attacked the Sidicini (a tribe in north Campania), defeated the Campanians who came to help the Sidicini , seized the Tifata Hills and defeated a major Campanian city Tifata. The Campanians asked the Romans for help and of course they obliged. The lure of Campanian wealth and alliance that would help them subdue the Volsci and defeating the Samnites was too much for the generally war-hungry Romans. The Senate thought that that made perfect sense (they would gain grain and gold, the two most important things in the ancient world) but since they also had to present an unsullied image of Rome, they could not form an alliance with the Campanians without betraying their existing alliance with the Samnites. So, they refused to accept the proposal of a treaty with Campanian city of Capua. The Campanian embassy, in accordance with their instructions, surrendered the people of Campania and the city of Capua unconditionally into the power of Rome. This meant that now, Rome was honor-bound to protect Capua and the Campanians who had become the de facto possessions of Rome.
Envoys were sent to the Samnites with requests to withdraw from the city and its people in name of their alliance and the friendship between the two peoples. Rome would be forced to defend its territory and subjects if the Samnites did not regard the message from the Romans. Which is exactly what they did. As soon as they got this message, they started planning their excursions into Campanian cities and ravaging them. When this news reached Rome, the fetials (who were the priests of Jupiter) were sent to demand compensation, and when this was refused Rome declared war against the Samnites.
(If you ask me, this whole business of total surrender of a city and its people indefinitely seems a little fishy but we don’t have a time machine to know for sure.)
Battle and Victory (not one, not two but three times!)
As always, I’ll throw around some names that you’ll neither remember nor hear anywhere else. The consuls in the year 343 BC were Marcus Valerius Corvus and Aulus Cornelius Cossus. Both of them marched with their armies against the Samnites with, Valerius in Campania and Cornelius in Samnium where he camped at Saticula. Rome wins three battles back-to-back (and I’m going to tell you about them so no, you don’t get a free pass here).
Valerius won the first battle for Rome but only nearly. It was fought at Mount Gaurus near Cumae (hence it is called the Battle of Mount Gaurus) and he won only by charging onto the tired Samnites as the daylight was fading away. The second battle or the Battle of Saticula is the most interesting of the three because it was catastrophically bad for the Romans even though they won in the end.
As Valerius was busy doing his own thang, the Samnites almost caught Cornelius and his army in a mountain pass and tried to trap them. Luckily for the Romans (and unfortunately for the Samnites) Publius Decius Mus, a military tribune, led a small detachment of soldiers and seized a hilltop. This was the diversion Cornelius needed to escape with his army, as the distracted Samnites were busy getting back that hilltop (must be pretty special). Decius and his men escaped too, in the cover of the night and the next morning, the poor Samnites were attacked and defeated.
But fear not, the Samnites were not going to give up so easily. They gathered their forces and laid siege to Suessula (an ancient city on the eastern edge of Campania). Now the Samnites were pretty desperate by this time, they had next to no supplies and they had no idea how many Romans were going to counter their siege and how they were going to defeat them. As the almost deplorable Samnites went foraging for food, the Roman army led by Marcus Valerius attacked the Samnite camp that was left pretty, pretty, PRETTY unguarded. Thus Rome got its third victory with the added bonuses of a permanent truce with the Falerii (they earlier had a truce for forty years but after the war, the Falerii extended the time span of the truce indefinitely) and the Latins giving up on a war on Rome.
(Funny enough Carthage who was still friends with Rome sent a congratulatory embassy to Rome with a twenty-five pound crown for the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. LOL they have no idea what is going to happen to them.)
The End of Samnite War
Apparently the war stumbled upon a hiatus in 342 BC because we don’t have much proof it didn’t. What we do know is that a mutiny occurred in the camps of the Roman Army (Oh no! weren’t the Romans good? Oh my heart.). After the Romans brought victories to Team Roma I mean Campania, the Campani asked Rome for winter garrisons to protect them (again). Here they got a taste of the Campani luxury and clearly seduced by it, the garrison soldiers decided the only right thing to do in this situation would be to seize control and declare themselves up as masters of Campania. Unluckily for these ambitious soldiers, the consuls found out and the soldiers fearing punishment or worse decided to do the only right thing in this situation (as you’ll find out they don’t really know what the right thing to do is). THEY DECIDED TO MARCH AGAINST ROME!!! (Amateurs pft.)
Marcus Valerius Corvus was nominated dictator to deal with the crisis; he convinced the mutineers surrender to prevent bloodshed and then they instituted series of economic, military and political reforms were passed to deal with their grievances (and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you create a trillion dollar empire… by addressing grievances and not avoiding them). It is quite possible though that this was all made up to justify the new reforms (because when have people done that). These reforms included the requirement of one of the plebeians to be plebeian and the Leges Genuciae that stated that no one could be reelected to the same office within less than ten years.
Livy wrote that in 341 BC, consul Lucius Aemilius Mamercus entered the Samnite territory of Samnium but found no army to oppose him. Then out of the blue, Samnite envoys appeared and sued for peace. Then there was this whole drama about the Samnites reminding the Senate that the peace treaty with Rome was soooooooo important to them and how they truly were BFFs and the Campani were just the new nobodies in their fairytale life. They also made clear that they were going to wage war with the Sidicini who weren’t really Rome’s friends and Rome was like yeah sure go ahead. The peace was ensured and the Roman army withdrew from Samnium. The End.
There comes a time in the life and journey of every state with potential to become an empire, where it must choose – choose to create loopholes that cause WAR. The First Samnite War seems to a product of this philosophy (to many historians and well, me). The war has similarities to events from the First Punic war and the Peloponnesian War, Livy is an unreliable source at times, and the Senate was just the convoluted body that would start a war to gain more territory (that will become a recurring thing).
The war existed of course (many thought otherwise) because what kind of Roman in their mind would write something so embarrassing about the most divine, glorious city in all of the ancient world. Even Livy was embarrassed of Rome. And the fact remains that the Romans and Samnites were both alphas, the way Roman territories in the Italian Peninsula were proliferating, there had to be some insecurity and resistance by the Samnites. So all in all, this was existed (shout out to all those who have to study about it) but the details may have been embellished and the wealth and ultimate doom of the Samnites been over-exaggerated.
As you will see, this is not the last time it happens to the Samnites…