Of all the enemies whom Rome had to encounter as she widened her borders, especially in her expansions eastward and southward, the strongest and most obstinate were the Samnites. Of one tribe belonging to this great stock, the Sabines, we have already heard. But the Sabines were incorporated with Rome in quite early days; their more distant kinsmen remained independent far down into the third century of Roman history.
For a while it might have seemed an open question which of the two powers would be supreme in the Italian peninsula. The Samnites were not unworthy of the place. They had some, at least, of the virtues which fit a nation for empire: they were brave, frugal, of simple life, and blameless manners. The Roman poets were never wearied of holding up to their countrymen the virtues of the Samnite peasant and his frugal wife as examples to be imitated. And for a time it seemed as if this valiant and vigorous race would hold, and more than hold, its own.
Towards the end of the fifth century b.c. they had descended from their hills and conquered the fertile plains of Campania. Thus they possessed themselves of a territory which stretched nearly across Italy. They never, strictly speaking, touched the Adriatic or Upper Sea, but they held the shores of the Tyrrhenian or Lower from the borders of Latium almost down to the southern extremity of the peninsula. The quality in which they seemed to have been deficient was the power of holding together. In great emergencies they would appoint a commander-in-chief, under whom all the tribes were, more or less, willing to act; but, for the most part, the different sections of the race preferred to hold aloof from each other.
We know, it is true, but little of Samnite history. What has come down to us we learn from the Roman historians. Still, this fact of the strong local feeling with its discriminating effect seems to come out.
It is peculiarly interesting to us in these days, because race feeling has again become a very powerful element in politics. The causes are, indeed, entirely different. Influences of which these Samnite tribesmen, a wholly uncultured people, with no history and no literature, knew nothing, are developing the same passion of separation. It is the people which can look back to a history of its own, and possesses a language and a literature of which it is reasonably proud, that resents the union in which its own nationality seems to be lost. It is impossible not to feel some sympathy with the sentiment, but it does not tend to the making of a strong and stable State.
It is impossible to tell in detail the story of the long struggle between Rome and Samnium. It lasted for more than half a century, the first Samnite war beginning in 343 b.c. , the third being brought to a conclusion in 290 b.c. This does not mean, it is true, that the Samnites were never afterwards seen in arms against Rome, but they never again played the part of a principal antagonist.
Still, warriors of the race long continued to seize every opportunity of measuring swords with their old enemy, and thus, in the armies of Pyrrhus and of Hannibal they never failed to keep up its old reputation for valour. In the Social War, the last struggle against Rome, in which the Italian tribes sought to destroy the union which was called alliance, but was felt to be bondage, it was in the ancient Samnium that the rebellion found its most sturdy supporters.
The first Samnite war lasted two years only, but it brought a great accession of power to Rome, for it made her the dominant power in the rich plains and wealthy cities of Campania. It was brought to an end, too, most opportunely, for a new difficulty was about to present itself. The Latins said in effect to Rome, "Let us go our own way, or give us full rights of citizenship with you." Neither demand could be granted, and the question had to be settled on the battlefield.
Of this Latin war two stories are told which illustrate the spirit in which the Romans did their duty as soldiers. The first shows the unbending severity of their discipline. The two armies were confronting each other, when a noble youth from the Latin town of Tusculum rode into the space between the two and challenged any one of the warriors of Rome to single combat. Manlius Torquatus, the Consul in command, had strictly forbidden the acceptance of any such challenge, but his son, provoked beyond endurance by the taunts of the Latin champion, rode out from the ranks, engaged and vanquished his antagonist, and then returning to his own line laid the spoils at his father's feet. The stern old man made no reply save to declare that his son had incurred the penalty of death by his disobedience, and the sentence was actually carried out.
The other incident is the self-sacrifice of Decius Mus at the battle of Veseris in 340 b.c. He devoted himself to the Gods of the Dead, set spur to his horse, and rode into the lines of the enemy, where he perished. Armies led by such men, ready as they were to surrender life, and what was dearer than life, to serve their country, could hardly fail to conquer.
In 338 b.c. the Latin war came to an end, and the Latin cities became one with the Roman State. But all were not received on the same terms. Some obtained full citizenship; to others citizenship without political power was given. A few were severely punished by confiscation and the banishment of their chief citizens. The Roman policy was wanting in far-sightedness, and trouble came, as it was bound to come, in after years from this cause.
Three years after the battle of Veseris the second Samnite war began, and lasted with one interval, when truce was made for a year, from 327 down to 304 b.c. At one time it seemed possible that Rome might lose what she had been painfully acquiring for more than two hundred years.
In 321 b.c. her army suffered a disaster which ranked with the rout of Allia and with the frightful slaughter of Cannæ, of which I shall have to speak hereafter. The Roman army had entered the Samnite territory, and was awaiting the movements of the enemy. Intelligence reached the consuls that the principal town in the friendly region of Lucania was threatened by the Samnite forces. They immediately broke up their camp and marched southwards.
The shortest way lay through a narrow valley, known as the Forks, or, as we should say, the Gorge of Caudium. Not dreaming of danger, for they believed the enemy to be many miles to the southward, the army entered the valley, without any precaution being taken. When they reached the further end they found the passage barred. They hastily retraced their steps, to find the entrance similarly secured. The intelligence had been false. The Samnite army was present in full force, and the Romans were caught in a trap from which they could not possibly get free.
The Samnite general, Caius Pontius, did not know what to do with the splendid booty which he had captured. He sent to ask the advice of his father. The old man was brought to the camp in a wagon. His counsel was to this effect: "You must either let them go without conditions, or you must destroy them all. By the first course you will win the friendship of Rome; by the second you will cripple her power so effectually that for a generation at least Samnium will be able to remain in peace."
Caius Pontius was not prepared to adopt either plan. He chose a middle course which was neither generous nor safe. He made the consuls and the chief officers of the legions swear to a treaty of which the terms were that the Romans should retire from the territory of Samnium, that they should give up two colonies which protected Latium, and that Rome should recognise the ancient alliance between the two nations. These provisions put an effectual bar to all schemes of Roman expansion. The army was allowed to depart unharmed, but every man had to pass under the yoke (two spears crossed), without arms and wearing each a single garment.
The Public Assembly at Rome refused to accept a treaty so ruinous and so humiliating. Had Pontius expected any other result he must have been very much wanting in sagacity. His proper course was to keep the army in his power till the treaty was ratified. As it was, he had no hold upon anyone but the generals and officers who had taken the oath. These were surrendered to him. He refused to accept them, demanding that the whole treaty should be considered void, and that the Roman army should be replaced in the position from which he had released them. This was, of course, refused, and the Samnites reaped practically no advantage from the affair.
It is not easy to say which of the two parties has the best claim to our sympathy. On the one hand the conduct of Rome was not honourable. She could not get quit of a heavy obligation by a surrender which cost her so little. On the other hand the Samnite commander could not fairly ask that the army should be put back in its place of imprisonment. The disgrace to which he had subjected it would have to count for something. It was the price which it had had to pay for liberty, and it was a price which could not be repaid.
The struggle between the two nations was as fierce as it was long, but it ended in the complete victory of Rome. One of the last Samnite victims was the Pontius who had won, or, we may say, lost at Caudium. He was taken prisoner in a campaign almost thirty years after the affair of the "Caudine Forks," carried to Rome, compelled to walk in the triumphal procession behind the Consul's chariot, and then put to death. It was an ungenerous act, but it serves to show that the disgrace had not been forgotten.