Samnium

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Samnite Bronze Helmet and Neckguard, C. 450 BC

This imposing helmet is a unique hybrid of the Samnite-Chalcidian type.

The Samnites were an Italic people living in Samnium (map) in south-central Italy who fought several wars with the Roman Republic. They formed a confederation, consisting of four tribes: the Hirpini, Caudini, Caraceni, and Pentri. They were allied with Rome against the Gauls in 354 BC, but later became enemies of the Romans and were soon involved in a series of three wars (343–341, 327–304, and 298–290 BC) against the Romans. Despite a spectacular victory over the Romans at the Battle of the Caudine Forks (321 BC), the Samnites were eventually subjugated.

What was known as a ‘Samnite Gladiator’ appeared in Rome shortly after the defeat of Samnium in the 4th century BC, apparently adopted from the victory celebrations of Rome’s allies in Campania. By arming low-status gladiators in the manner of a defeated foe, Romans mocked the Samnites and appropriated martial elements of their culture.

Ancient peoples of Italy

The future of the southern Italian peninsula was shaped by the different peoples who inhabited it between the years 800 and 200 BC. These include the Etruscans, Greeks and the many  Italian tribes such as the Latins, Campanians, Samnites, Sabines, etc.  Such tribes had spread out much earlier into Europe from the east and southeast both as invaders and, more gradually, as farmers, giving up  hunting and gathering for the more efficient process of tilling the soil. In the process they developed  towns, government and written language. This slow process started before 6,000 BC.

By 1000 BC early Italic peoples were in place on the peninsula; these are the peoples who would become the Latini, Sabines, Oscans, etc. etc. They were in place as a result of the Indo-European population diffusion, Indo-European being a term that declares common origin (3,000-4,000 years ago) of peoples as different as Swedes and Iranians or Punjabis and Spaniards. These pre-Italic Indo-Europeans can plausibly be figured to have started trickling onto the peninsula around 2500-2000 BC. There were, obviously, already some non-Indo-European inhabitants of Italy, just as there were elsewhere in Europe.

We wil talk about Etruscans later. Let’s see now some other smaller peoples.

  • Many peoples lived along the Tiber river; among these were, of course, the Latini. There is confusing historical overlap of Latini and Romans. Traditionally, Rome is said to have been founded in 753 by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War. Archeology places Latini culture as early as 1100 BC. True imperial expansion of Rome starts in 295 BC when the Romans, at the Battle of Sentium (near modern Ancona), put an end to the competition in Italy by defeating a combined force of Samnites and Etruscans.
  • Along the Tiber, too, were the Sabines. The proximity of the Sabines to Rome has made it difficult to identify their ruins with certainty, although there are some from as early as the 9th century BC. The Sabines were related to the Samnites to the south, and they adopted writing from the Etruscans.
  • Other neighbors of the Romans in central Italy were the Volscians and the Equians. Most knowledge of them comes from later Roman historians complaining about these piddling little peoples getting in the way of real empire! They were Indo-European and spoke languages closely related to Latin.
  • The Samnites were an important sister tribe of the Latins. Their capital was modern Benevento in the  rugged terrain east of Naples. At the time of the first contacts between Roman and Samnite (around 350 BC), Samnium was larger than any other contemporary state in Italy. For almost two centuries, the Romans and Samnites fought for control of South/Central Italy. As warriors, the Samnites were ferocious, and some say they were the ones who gave the Romans the idea for those gruesome gladiator fights to the death.

Samno-Attic Bronze Helmet, 4th Century BC

Decorated with unusual bronze wings or ears. Similar helmets have been found in south Italic tombs. This type of helmet was influenced by Attic Greek types. The Samnites were an Italic people living in Samnium in south-central Italy who fought several wars with the Roman Republic.

Keep reading

A Samnite warrior on horseback, depicted on a funerary painting c. 330 BCE, at the time of the Samnite Wars. The Samnites inhabited southern Italy, and were originally conquered by the Romans with the end of the Samnite Wars in 290 BCE. They supplied auxiliary forces to the Roman army at times, but also rebelled at times, allying with Pyrrhus and later coming to the aid of Hannibal when he swept through Italy. Although they were again contributing troops to Rome by the time of the 3rd Punic War, they remained a thorn in Rome’s side, and were eventually eradicated in the Social Wars of the early 1st Century BCE.