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.

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.