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The Samnites - the ancient Italic people of Italy
In 1980, I visited my Italian relatives in Isernia, Italy for the first time. I spoke no Italian and they spoke no English, so it was an interesting three day visit. I was on tour of the European continent that summer and left the tour for three days to meet my relatives.
It was a visit of a lifetime. Despite the language difference, I got through the three days speaking Spanish and speaking English with my teenage cousin, Lia who knew English the best of everyone in the family. Between the two of us we made it through the three days.
What was so interesting, is that my Italian relatives took me back to the days before Christ and even before the Roman Empire in Italy. They introduced me to my Samnite heritage by taking me to the Samnite ruins of the town of Pietrabbondante in the Molise mountains in the heart of the province of Molise. Here was an entire Samnite town complete with houses, an ampitheater, and temple. The ruins were amazing to view and my young cousins ran around the mountain ruins and much to my imagination I could see the Samnite children doing the same so many centuries ago. For a moment, time stood still.
After that, we went for some refreshment. Deep in the woods was an old water well with water and a fresh spring of water coming down from the mountains. When they handed me the cup of water, I was expecting fresh spring water. To my surprise it was sulphur water and smelled and tasted like rotten eggs. Not wanting to hurt my relatives feelings I drank, smiled and said how wonderful it was. They all burst out laughing and said they hated the taste of the water, too, but to drink it was supposed to bring good health and good luck and was an original well of the Samnite Italic people from so long ago.
I was amazed by my Italian visit and I was curious. These Samnites were my people and I had descended from them. Just who were these Samnite people of Italy?
The Samnites were an Italic people living in Samnium in south-central Italy even before the founding of Rome. Today, this is the Abruzzi-Molise region of Italy. And, the Italic people are the Indo-European ethno-linguistic group identified by their use of the Italic language.
Interestingly, not all the various peoples of Italy are linguistically or ethnically closely related. Some of the Italians in this area spoke Italic languages and others belonged to another Indo-European branch (the Ligurians, Venetics, Leponis) or were non-Indo-European (the Etruscans, the Raetics)
The Samnites were an Oscan-speaking people and historians believe an off-shoot of the Sabines,(the Umbrians) an Italic tribe of people that lived in the central Apennines of ancient Italy before the founding of Rome. The Samnites lived in this Molise area from 500 BC to 100 AD and the city of Isernia was theirs, the home of my Italian relatives.
The Samnites formed a confederation consisting of four tribes of peoples:
It is the Pentri tribe of the Samnites that built and lived in Pietrabbondante, the city of Samnite ruins. By the time of the Romans and their empire in Italy and across Europe the these Samnite tribes were allied with Rome against the Gauls (Celtics) in northern Italy around 354 BC, but sadly, later became the enemies of the Romans.
Eventually the Samnites were be involved in three fierce wars against the Romans:
- The First Samnite War - 343-341 BC
- The Second Samnite War 327-304 BC
- The Third Samnite War 298-290 BC
And around 90 BC the Samnites also fought in the Social War against Rome, which was a war of negotiations, and eventually won and became full Roman citizens and assimilated into Roman rule, law and life.
But, during their lifetime, the Samnites were the original Italic people of Italy and the true Italians that inhabited Italy among other non-Italic tribes and the Celts.
Actually this confederation of people called themselves the Safineis and their region Safinim, as this was the Oscan name for themselves. This is attested by one inscription archaeologists have found and one coin legend. It was the Romans who gave them the name Samnites and their region Samnium. And, at some point in pre-history, a population speaking a common Oscan language extended over both Samnium and Umbria.
The earliest written record of the Samnites and Rome is a treaty recorded in 354 BC which set the border at the Lires River. This treaty was recorded by Roman historian, Titus Livius Patavinus, known simply as Livy. And, Diodorus Siculus of Sicily was a Greek historian who wrote the monumental, universal history, Bibliotheca historia between 60 and 30 BC and also included the Samnites in his history.
We know of the Samnites and their contentious wars with the Romans from the historical writings of these two men.
The Italian Language
The Samnites spoke their own language which was Oscan and it was spoken from approximately 500 BC to 100 BC. The language is known from inscriptions dating as far back as the fifth century BC. The most important Oscan inscriptions were found on the Tabula Bantina, the Oscan Tablet (or Tabula Osca) and the Ceppus Abellanus.
Oscan had much in common with Latin (a Romance language). In phonology, Oscan also showed differences from Latin, similar to the P-Celtic/Q-Celtic change in Celtic languages. But. Oscan was not a Celtic language at all.
The Oscan language is considered the most conservative of all the known Italic languages. And, Oscan was written using the Latin and Greek alphabets as well as in the Old Italic alphabet.
The Samnites derived from a fusion of Indo-Europeans with local peoples during the Iron Age. From these Osco-Umbrian origins came various Sabine groups that populated most of central and south Italy around 600 BC.
The Samnite branch of the Sabines inhabited the areas of Molise, Abruzzo, Lazio and Campania. Within one hundred years Samnium became the home to the most important Oscan speaking people, the Samnites.
The Romans, around 300 BC, described all Oscan speaking people as "Sabellines" and "Samnites" for the actual inhabitants of Samnium.
When comparisons of the original Samnite language Oscan's core vocabulary are made, they indicate that Oscan, Sabine, and the Latin languages all derive from Sanskrit meaning they all shared Indo-European origins.
However, once the Samnites had been defeated by the Romans and assimilated into the Roman life their Oscan language eventually evolved into Latin and they became Latin speakers.
The Latins were part of the ancient Indo-European people and settled in the Lazio region of Italy around the second millennium BC. They founded Rome and became known as Romans. (Lazio-Latium)
They also established themselves outside the Lazio region (the Roman Empire) and spread the Latin language to the peoples they conquered.
The Indo-European Language Family Tree:
- Romance - Italian
The Italian language derives from the Latin vernacular which was a Romance language. Romance meaning not in the romantic sense but romance meaning 'from Rome.'
- Northern Italy - Celtic influence
- Central Italy - Roman influence
- Southern Italy - Greek Influence
The Romance Languages are all Latin based:
- Catalan (in Spain)
- Latino (Latin America)
Of all the Romance languages, Italian retained the closest resemblance to Latin but fell into many different dialects and became known as 'vulgar' Italian or "of the vernacular."
The dialect that prevailed all over Italy was the Florentine dialect, and it gave origin to the Italian language for several reasons. This dialect had not strayed as far from the Latin and Tuscany's placement in Italy, at the center, made it easier for the language to be spread more effectively both north and south in the Italian Peninsula.
Also, during medieval times (12-13th centuries) the municipal cities, like Florence, flourished which gave them the impetus to trade and therefore gave them the necessity to overcome the language dialect differences.
The origin of Italian literature began in Florence with the writings of Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio who all wrote their works in the Florentine vernacular, therefore, this became the standard Italian throughout the country.
The original Latin language is more than 2000 years old and has influenced and is the base of all Romance languages spoken today.
A Samnite house
Samnite daily life
The Samnites gained a reputation as fierce and formidable warriors renowned for their brilliant cavalry and prompt attack and then they just as quickly disappeared. They were the first tribe to defeat Hannible in 217 BC.
Soldiering was a large part of the Samnite lifestyle. The warriors were only men and carried a rectangular shield tapered at the bottom and flared at the top. Warriors wore leather greave (skin armor) on the left leg to just below the knee and a band on the right ankle.
Their sword arm was protected with a leather armguard. Whey wore short hair and close beards and a winged helmet with crest, visor and plume on their heads. Their weapons were a short sword or javelin.
All Samnite warriors were required to swear a secret oath to follow their commander's every order and to fight to the death.
When not fighting, they lived in the mountainous areas of Molise. The Samnites were pantheistic believing in many gods. In fact, it was through the gods that the Samnites believed they arrived in the Molise area of Italy. The story is an interesting one.
Circe, a sorceress, and daughter of the Sun god, detained Ulysses and his crew for a year on her island off the coast of Italy. According to legend, Circe then bore Ulysses two sons named Latinos and Ayrios (the barbarian). From these two sons sprang two great Italian societies - the Oscans and the Etruscans.
The Oscans eventually divided into two tribes - the Osci (laborers of the plain) and the Sabelli (sheep herders of the mountains). The Samnites, an off-shoot of the Sabelli, became the sheep herders of the Molise mountains.
And, it was throughout these Molise hills and mountains that the Samnites built more than one hundred hill-forts for defense. They chose highly defensible positions, for example in Frosolone, with its jagged rock formations.
Pietrabbondante was considered their most elaborate, cultural, religious and political sanctuary of the Petri tribe of Samnites. It was built atop a mountain. and it contained a theater with entry corridors (parados) and arches, and an orchestra with semi-circular tiered seating called the cavea.
Above all that sat the massive temple with a flight of stairs leading to the vestibule or pronaos. Archaeologists date the temple from the end of the second century BC. Within 150 years of the Iron Age, these village type settlements dominated the Molise region of the Italian Peninsula.
The villages and farmsteads of the Samnites were settled on open land lower than the hill forts. Palisades likely enclosed the villages offering some protection. There were no big landowners among the Samnites as everyone used pastoral land communally.
The Samnites' business transactions were inscribed on animal hides, clay tablets and they read from right to left. Their written language was standardized about the end of the 5th century BC.
Ancient Samnium had a high number of free persons as the Samnites did not keep slaves. Their emphasis was on group identity. It was a patriarchal society who respected the customs and beliefs of other peoples.
From the time of the Iron Age, the Samnites were goat and sheep herders for the meat, milk and wool. The seasonal herd migration was sacred and their routes in the Molise mountains formed the network of tralluri (pathways) that would be used for more than two thousand years. Ancient inscriptions, like sign-posts, have been found along the main routes.
They lived the semi-nomadi life of shepherds which gave the Samnites a love of independence. Large settlements such as Isernia, Venafro, Larino, Bojano, and Aquilona minted their own coins and had a monetary system in place.
Young Samnite men and women were not allowed to express emotion or romantic feelings toward one another. At annual gatherings, men chose their brides with the approval of the elders. The first choice of brides went to warriors who had distinguished themselves in battle.
Read about Isernia, Italy
- Isernia, Italy - a Third Century B.C. City 65 km from Rome
See Isernia, Italy, a city built 300 years BC and the birthplace of my grandfather. It is only an hour car drive from Rome, Italy.
The Samnite Wars and lex Julia
Once the Romans emerged and founded Rome, the Samnites were allied with Rome against the Gauls, a Celtic tribe situated in northern Italy. Sadly, though, the Samnites ended up becoming the enemies of Rome. The Samnites and the Romans ended up fighting three wars for the control of Italy.
The Samnites ended up being one of Rome's most formidable rivals as the wars extended over a half century involving almost all the states of Italy and ended in Roman domination of the Samnites and the Molise area.
First Samnite War (343-341 BC)
According to the historian Livy, this war began because of outside events and not because of enmity between the Romans and Samnites. The Samnites, apparently without provocation, attacked the Sidicini, an Italic tribe living in Campania. Once they won the battle, the Samnites tried to take over all of Campania.
The Campani asked Rome for help against the Samnites and in doing so, Campania surrendered to Rome and became officially part of Rome. In turn, the Samnites ordered their armies to march out at once and ravage Campanian territory. With this Rome formally declared war against the Samnites.
Although formidable warrriors, the Samnites fell to the Romans and retreated back to their Molise mountains.
Second Samnite War (326-304 BC)
With Rome having recovered from the first Samnite War, they sought to instigate a new war against the Samnites. The Romans built colonies in Samnium which the Samnites could not stand so the Samnites declared war on the Romans.
The Romans then confronted the Samnites in the middle of the Liris Valley which began this second war which lasted twenty years with the Romans on the offensive.
During this war the Samnites were led by Gaius Pontius who commanded this war. He is best known for his victory over the Roman legions at the Battle of Caudine Forks in 321 BC. He won a series of early victories against the Romans but failed to take advantage of those victories and the Romans continued to press into Samnite territory.
The Battle of Caudine Forks began when Roman generals lead an invading force into Samnium and were trapped in a mountain pass (Caudine Forks). The Romans could neither advance nor retreat.
To avoid annihilation, the Romans surrendered and agreed to Samnite terms. This is where Gaius Pontius made his mistake. He humiliated the Romans with a subjugation by which the Roman soldiers had to bow and pass under a yoke made of Roman spears. This was the ultimate humiliation for a Roman soldier to lose his spear, bow and pass under them, and be taken hostage.
The war stalled for five years as Samnite terms went into effect and Rome had to wait for this hostage treaty to expire. During these five years Rome strengthened its army and bode its time.
From 320-319 BC, Rome had its revenge on the Samnites and defeated them in one of the greatest battles in Roman history, according to Livy. But, the Samnites lived to fight another day and answered the Romans with a crushing defeat of the Romans. Until 314 BC, success seemed to be on the side of the Samnites.
By 311 BC the tide turned and the Romans defeated the Samnites and extended their power into north Etruria and Umbria. The Samnites, not happy, laid low for a while.
Third Samnite War (298-290 BC)
The Roman Republic continued to expand its power into central Italy. The Samnites after some time could not stand the Roman encroachment and so joined forces with the Etruscans, the Umbrians and the Gauls to the north to fight for Italy. This was the first attempt by the Italics to unite against Rome.
At this time, the Samnites were led by Gellius Egnatius. The Samnites had clearly been defeated by the Romans in the Second War, however, Egnatius marched into Etruia and convinced the Etruscans to become his ally against Rome.
When this happened, the Roman legions withdrew from Samnium for a short period of time. At this juncture, Egnatius next appealed to the Gauls, and the Umbrians to become allies as he knew that Rome would return at some point to fight.
A crucial battle for control of Italy took place in 295 BC at Sentinum in Umbria, in central Italy, where more troops were engaged than in any previous battle. Eventually, the Etruscans and the Umbrians withdrew from the fighting which left only the Samnites and the Gauls against the Roman legions.
The Romans crushed the Samnites and the Gauls, however the Samnites continued to fight until around 291 BC. The Romans again defeated the Samnites and Rome emerged from this war dominating all of the Italian Peninsula with the exception of the Po Valley, which belonged to the Gauls and the extreme south of Italy which belonged to the Greeks.
Having been defeated by the Romans three times, the Samnites were assimilated into Roman rule and life. And, the Roman victory in the Samnite wars resulted in effective Roman dominance of the Italian Peninsula. Under their law, lex Julia, the Romans had the right to demand tribute money from conquered people, which Rome did. Under this law, Rome could also confiscate all conquered lands which they also did.
The Italic peoples were being forced into poverty and slavery to the Romans with no hope of remedy. This is when the Social War (90 BC) by the Italics began by revolt. The Samnites, in particular, would not be second class citizens to the Romans. They would not live the life of being conquered.
The Samnites entered into negotiations with the Romans and through lex Julia the Romans granted full Roman citizenship to the Samnites. The Samnites were then permitted all the rights any Roman citizen was permitted. The Samnites, therefore, were elevated to the upper class of the Romans and they then peacefully assimilated into Roman life and became known as Romans.
Thus, ended the Samnite history of one of the greatest Italic peoples of Italy. They became full Roman citizens and Rome continued their control of the Abruzzo-Molise region without further revolts, wars. or uprisings. Isernia and Pietrabbondate became Roman cities.
© 2014 Suzette Walker