The Ancient Samnites – HeritageDaily


The Samnites were an Italic civilization that lived in Samnium, a region in southern Italy that includes present-day Abruzzo, Molise, and Campania.

They were an Oscan-speaking people, an extinct Indo-European language from southern Italy spoken by several tribes, including the Aurunci and the Sidicini. The longest and most important inscription in the Samnite dialect is the small bronze Tabula Agnonensis, which is engraved in the full Oscan alphabet.

Scholars such as Strabo suggest that the Samnites were an offshoot of the Sabines from the central Apennine mountains, while another origin myth links them to the Spartans. The latter probably originated in ancient Greek legends to form a link with Italic peoples for alliances, although archaeological evidence suggests that the Samnites developed from a pre-existing Italian culture.

Most of their territory was rugged and mountainous terrain, with a mixed economy focused on highly developed forms of subsistence farming, mixed farming, animal husbandry, sheep farming, pastoralism and smallholdings. .

From the Iron Age the territory was ruled by chieftains and an elite group, but by the 3rd and 4th centuries BC the Samnite political system developed into a hierarchy centered on rural settlements ruled by magistrates.

At the bottom of the hierarchy were the vici grouped into cantons called Pagi, organized into tribal groups called touto. Each touto was headed by an elected official known as the meddis, who governed through a system known as the meddíss túvtiks.

This developed into Kombennio, an early form of assembly or senate which was responsible for enforcing laws and electing officials, although society was still dominated by an elite group of families such as the Papii, Statii, Egnatii and Staii.

Image credit: Cattette – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Samnite religion worshiped both spirits called numina and gods and goddesses. The Samnites honored their gods by sacrificing live animals and using votive offerings. Few of the Samnite gods and goddesses are known, although there is evidence that they worshiped Vulcan, Diana, Mars, and Mefitis (goddess of the earth’s foul gases).

Strabo states that the Samnites would take ten virgin women and ten young men, who were considered the best representation of their sex, and mate them. Following this, the best females would be given to the best male, then the second best females to the second best male until all were mated.

Samnite soldiers were typically armed with projectiles such as spears and javelins, while swords were highly valued in Samnite society, often depicted on pottery, figurines, and Samnite art which shows soldiers receiving swords during ritual ceremonies.

The Samnites and Romans first came into contact after the Roman conquest of the Volsci in the 4th century BC. Four cantons, made up of the Hirpini, Caudini, Caraceni and Pentri tribes, formed a Samnite confederation similar to the Latin League, coming into conflict with the Romans following Rome’s intervention to save the Campanian city of Capua from a Samnite attack.

This led to the Samnite Wars, a period of three major wars over half a century, resulting in a Samnite defeat at the Battle of Aquilonia and the assimilation of all Samnite territories and peoples into the Roman Republic.

Roman historians dubbed the Samnite army the Belliger Samnis, loosely translated as “Samnite warriors”, while the Roman historian, Titus Livius (59 BC – 17 AD), described an elite group of soldiers samnites known as the legio linteata, meaning “lin legion”, who used flamboyant gear and took an oath never to flee from battle.

Such accounts are probably a romanticized portrayal, however, Livy describes the Samnite army forming closed formations as closely linked phalanxes and including cohorts divided into maniples which the Romans later adopted for their own army.

The heritage of the Samnites can be found in the archaeological record, where coins, pottery, architectural remains and Samnite art have been excavated from ancient Samnite centers such as Saepinum and Caiatia.

Header image credit: public domain


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