Tribes of Italy: The Samnites

Tribes of Italy: The Samnites

The legacy of the Samnites is that of the loser in the story of Rome’s rise. They were destroyed, they were enveloped, and they were replaced by a more audacious opponent. In the story of Rome, they are a placeholder for an obstacle that needed to be overcome in order to advance the story put down by Livy. They were known as fierce warriors who really taught the Romans how to fight. Occasionally allies when the time suited this, they were more often fierce rivals. They were traitors who fought with the Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca when he spilled south into Italy promising freedom from the yoke under which they once made the Romans surrender, disarmed and naked. When the Romans fought the invasion of General Pyrrhus, the Samnites were right there alongside the Epirotes. The Samnites are often presented in history as a foil to Rome.

Map of the relative borders of the ancient Samnite tribes. The visible tribal territories shown are the Pentri (center), Frentani (north), Hirpini (south), 

The Samnites were herdsmen who lived in the hilly and mountainous region of the Italian Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Coast. They consisted of four separate Oscan-speaking tribes including the Caudini, Caraceni, Pentri, and Hirpini. The Samnites referred to their homeland of Samnium as Safinim and as people they were known to themselves as the Safineis. This name came from the fact that they were descended from the Sabine (Sabini) people who were early neighbors, and rivals, of Rome. They migrated into Oscan territory and adopted their language and some of their customs.

A likely reason for their migration is the process in which Italian tribes, and by extension other Indo-European peoples, would break off and create colonies in a ritualistic process exemplified by the Sabine/Samnite rite of Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring). Early on, this ritual involved human sacrifice in an attempt to satisfy the gods during hard times; this horrified the Latins. Later on, it seems that rather than sacrificing their children, they would lead them to the border of their lands and they were instructed to follow an animal deemed sacred to them until they reached a land suitable for habitation. Following a spirit animal sounds like a pretty neat idea in theory but must have made people feel miserably stupid at the time as they watched a suspicious deer eat and poop for several days. Imagining such an undertaking as ritualized exile is thrilling in an extremely primeval way when thinking about how alien lands once lied just beyond the horizon full of strange people and dangerous animals. After repeating this process over time, several regional tribes developed stronger than the others through a process of consolidation and, from what we know of Italian tribes, warfare.

Because many of the Samnites lived primarily in the rough terrain of the Apennine Mountain range, their method of warfare reflected their environment; something that is incredibly noticeable in the tactics employed by hardy mountain men worldwide. Their method of fighting was in stark contrast to the infantry phalanx of the Greeks to the south in Magna Graecia, the Etruscans to the north, and the Latins to their west. The Samnites utilized what is known as a maniple formation which is the positioning of units into a checkerboard pattern. This means that when an army is marching forward and hits an obstacle like a thicket or a boulder, the whole army doesn’t get jumbled as men march into each other. It’s extremely difficult trying to maneuver thousands of men around things creating a perfect opportunity for the enemy to charge in and take them out while their formation is in disarray. For those familiar with the board game Rush Hour, this can kind of help you to visualize how they saw their ability to shift units in all directions in order to keep unit cohesion while on the move in formation.

Maniple formation as devised by the Roman Republic after coming in contact with similar methods employed by the Samnites.

The checkerboard pattern with space between each unit allows units to shift sideways rather than just forward where they have only to run into their enemies or backwards into their own lines. This flexibility is extremely important because ancient battles hinged almost entirely on an army’s ability to maintain formation in the face of the enemy. The organization of men into centuries (units of 80 infantry and 20 skirmishers), rather than lines, also makes fighting easier to conduct because you can call a century to peel off and redeploy elsewhere along the line of battle where they're most needed. Disrupting a formation and causing a rout will far more often than not cause the entire army to fold in a cascading failure throughout their lines and then the battle is over. This was used to such devastating effect against the Romans that it became a signature Roman formation afterwards when they adopted it soon afterwards. The Samnites must have been angry when they met in battle again only to discover that they’d been ripped off wholesale by their enemy’s tacticians. This is a terrific example of how the Romans were able to adapt to most situations during times that would have caused other civilizations to double down on what had already failed.   

When the Samnites came up against militaries that were accustomed to organizing and fighting pitched battles on open fields, the Samnites were able to outmaneuver and eviscerate foreign invaders in uneven terrain. A long line of heavy infantry or spearmen was unable to turn to meet an enemy who could turn on a dime and redeploy faster in any direction. They also made great use of the terrain to create deadly ambuscades reminiscent of the methods used in the middle ages by the Eastern Roman Anatolian legions against the much larger and better armed raiding parties sent by the Islamic caliphate or in the 20th century by the Afghan mujahedeen when spilling out of the mountains to envelope and destroy Soviet and Afghan government convoys during the Soviet-Afghan War. These tactics ripple throughout history and are one of the many things that connect each major civilization to the next. In other words, at one point or another, an empire will be met by a force using unconventional tactics to devastating effect and it’s up to their commanders to acknowledge that their period of history is never unique in this regard in order to triumph.

The Samnites defeated the Romans embarrassing them greatly during the Second Samnite War at the Battle of the Caudine Forks by employing a combination of information warfare and mountain warfare. Using soldiers disguised as shepherds, the Samnite army fooled the consular Roman legion into believing that an attack on the allied city of Lucera (owned by the Illyrian settlers of Apulia, the Apuli) was imminent. The most probable route to the city was taken and it is because of this that the Samnites were able to block off the mountain pass (The Caudine Forks) in front of the advancing Roman army and then block them in at the rear with another barricade.

The practice of passing under the yoke (passum sub iugum) was a way to humiliate captured enemy soldiers in ancient Italy. "Under the yoke" is still used as a phrase when describing subjugation and defeat. 

Ultimately, the Romans had no choice but to surrender and the Samnite commander allowed the Romans to return home only after “passing under the yoke” which was a total humiliation in Italic warrior culture. This defeat of the Romans was glorious for the returning Samnite army but in Rome, the seeds of revenge were planted as the senate there demanded recompense for this disgrace of Roman honor. The Samnites didn’t know this at the time but their destruction was imminent because they were at odds with an enemy that would never give up. There was no greater enemy to have in the ancient world than Rome.

About 20 years later, the Samnites found themselves in an alliance with the Etruscans, the Celts, the Umbrians, and other smaller entities in a conflict now known as the Third Samnite War. They had allied in order to end Rome’s regional dominance once and for all and they lost miserably in what we now call the Third Samnite War. Instead of enjoying independence, they were now under the control of Rome itself. This was the end of the Samnites as a country or confederation but not the end of the Samnite people.

The Romans had few enemies in their history as formidable as the Samnites and for good reason. However, the extreme stubbornness in defeat they shared with the Romans was outpaced by Rome’s audaciousness and imperial dreams which have a self-fulfilling effect on the trajectory of a people towards greatness. Whenever a powerful challenge to Rome’s regional hegemony emerged, the Samnites would be there to mobilize in an effort to win back freedom from their overlords. They joined Hannibal, Pyrrhus, and the various Italian nations during the Social Wars against Rome. These fiercely independent people were such a thorn in Rome’s side that the dictator Sulla would eventually ethnically cleanse the region in order to break up their national cohesion in 82 BC by destroying their towns and scattering their people to the wind. This is traditionally seen as the end of the Samnites as a people. The remnants were absorbed into the Latin culture of the Romans which came to dominate all of Italy and eventually much of the known world.

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