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Conquest of Italy by Rome

(5th century - 264 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Samnite attack on Roman troops
Samnite attack on Roman troops

Process of conquering the Apennine Peninsula by the expanding city-state of Rome. The Romans finished their conquest of Italy in 264 BCE, after the conquest of Volsini.

Background of events

In the 5th century BCE Italy meant only its southern part, in the 3rd century BCE all areas under Rome. In the time of Julius Caesar, the area stretched from the Strait of Messina to the Rubicon River. At that time, Pre-Alpine Gaul in the Po river valley and Liguria were not considered part of it. About 27 BCE during the reign of Augustus, Italy had already reached the foothills of the Alps. Italy throughout antiquity did not include Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.
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The rivalry of the Greeks and Etruscans led to the weakening of both rivals, which created conditions for expansion for the Italian peoples within the peninsula. The growing Italian population, especially of the tribes inhabiting the poor, waterless Apennine range, looked for new life opportunities and fled the mountains in large numbers in order to conquer the fertile coastal plains. This migration continued with varying degrees of intensity throughout the fifth and fourth centuries BCE and took on a particularly great size among the Samnites, a valiant tribe inhabiting the middle Apennines. Strong and young Samnites descended from the mountains and gradually conquered much of southern Italy. They fell prey to both the Etruscan Capua and the Greek Kyme at the end of the 5th century BCE.

After the liquidation of the kingdom and the Etruscan rule, the situation of Rome was not so bright and beautiful. Rome’s position in Latium was not the strongest, and there were many other cities in the region that did not recognize the sovereignty of Rome. It was also exposed to the onslaught of the still strong Etruscans who, even temporarily in 500 BCE, were to take over Rome for a short time. Only the support of the Latins and their alliance with them changed the face of the conflict. Although initially the Latins did not want to recognize the presidency of Rome in the Latin Union, existing since royal times, but were threatened by the Volscii, and then beaten by the Romans at Lake Regillus, a fact that is being questioned, they concluded an agreement with Rome in 493 BCE, the so-called foedus Cassianum. It regulated the mutual relationship of both partners on an equal basis (the so-called foedus aequum). The command over the army was probably supposed to change: once it was to be in the hands of the Romans, once in the hands of the Latins. With time, however, Rome gained such an advantage that it secured the exclusivity of the command. Thanks to this alliance to the south, Rome could devote itself to defending its northern border.

From the beginning of the 5th century BCE, battles were fought with numerous enemies: the city of Veii, and highlander tribes (Sabines, Aequi and Volsci). According to tradition, in 450 BCE the Sabines, led by Appius Herdonius, captured Rome for a short time. Gradually, however, Rome, thanks to its urban organization and the permanent leadership provided by the Senate, managed not only to repel the attacks of the mountain tribes, but with the support of the Latins, to launch a victorious offensive, the result of which was the expansion of Roman territory at the expense of the Aequi and Volsci.

The proof of the growing power of Rome, whose supremacy extended to a large area of ​​the Tyrrhenian Sea coast in central Italy at the end of the 5th century BCE, was the settlement in its favour of a long-lasting conflict with the Etruscan city of Veye, the main commercial competitor of the city on the Tyrrhenian coast. Only after long years of fighting and a siege lasting from 406 to 396 BCE, did the Roman army under the command of the dictator Camillus captured and destroyed the city, and incorporated its territory into the Roman state.

Unexpectedly, a great danger has arisen north of the borders of Rome, Celts. Initially, they fought mainly against the Etruscans, who took control of the Po Plain. Various Celtic peoples also settled there, among which the strongest was the tribe of Boii. The Celts harassed almost all of Italy with their booty expeditions, even reaching the area of ​​the Sicilian Strait. During one of such expeditions, they appeared near Rome. There they defeated the Roman army on the river Alia, about 15 km from Rome, and seized without a fight the city abandoned by the inhabitants, which they partially burned down in 386 BCE (390 BCE is also given). Only the castle on the Capitol was defended, but the famine forced the Romans to enter into negotiations with the Celts. Having obtained a significant ransom in gold, the Celts withdrew from the city.

The Celtic raids influenced not only the ethnic and political situation of Italy, evoking a sense of the general Italian community. For Rome, the mere conquest of Rome was a big blow, after which the city could not recover quickly. Further attacks by the Etruscans, Aequi and Volsci fell on the territory of Rome. Rome’s contacts with the Latins and Herniki were loosened. Only the possibility of another attack by the Celts in 360 BCE prompted the peoples of Italy to tighten the Union. In addition, Rome secured itself against repeating the defeat of the beginning of the 4th century BCE by erecting huge city fortifications, traditionally related to the royal period (the so-called Servian Wall).

Samnite Wars

Fragment of a sculpture showing the head of an Etruscan warrior.
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Unexpectedly, another threat appeared at the borders of the Roman state. In the middle of the Apennines, a union of Samnite tribes was developing: Hirpini, Caudini, Caraceni, and Pentri. This union, despite its low integrity, was a strong rival for Rome and its allies. Initially, Rome entered into an alliance with the Samnites during the Celtic invasion in 354 BCE. However, after the successful cooperation, the first misunderstandings appeared. The competition for the Campaign territory turned out to be a flashpoint.

When Rome joined Capua, an important Campanian city, the Samnites, seeing this fact as a threat to their sphere of influence, began a war with Rome, the so-called First Samnite War lasting from 343 to 341 BCE. The historicity of this conflict is now subject to great doubt, and it is certain that if the war did take place in history, it did not end with any arrangement.

Unexpectedly, the close allies of Rome, the Latins, also began to speak out, who rightly believed that the entire burden of Rome’s struggles was on their shoulders. As a result, the Latins left the Union, which was not accepted by the dominant Rome. After a two-year war (340 – 338 BCE), the Latins succumbed to Rome, which dissolved the Union as a political organization, leaving it as a cult institution under the authority of Rome. From then on, the defeated Latin cities could not form alliances with each other and were dependent in various forms on Rome. Some of them were incorporated into the Roman state, others related to the covenant. From then on, the name Latynów was to exist only as a legal and not an ethnic concept. They were now referred to as colonies under Latin law (ius Latii), and the settlements inhabited by Roman citizens were associated with a special alliance with Rome.

Rome’s victory in the fight against the Latins greatly strengthened its position in Italy, and in the eyes of many Italian cities and tribes, threatened by the expansion of the Samnites, Rome seemed to be a power that could stop the extremely aggressive highlanders. One of the Greek colonies, Naples, was in a difficult situation and asked for help from the Romans. In constant conflict with the Samnites, they also allied with the Lucans to increase their strength. In 334 BCE, Rome also entered into an alliance with Taranto, and the Samnites were surrounded by their allies. Thus, there was the so-called Second Samnite War lasting from 326 to 304 BCE Confident in their forces, the Samnites seized Naples, which in 326 BCE recaptured Rome. In 325 BCE, the Romans began a great outflanking manoeuvre, and after the Apennines had passed, they reached the Adriatic Sea. It was then that the leg of a Roman legionary was decided there for the first time.

From that moment on, Rome and the Lucan tribe suffered heavy defeats. This was mainly due to the fact that the Samnites knew the mountainous terrain very well and did not use the phalanx, unlike the Romans, which completely did not work under such conditions. The biggest defeat took place in Caudium in Samnium (furculae Caudinae), where Samnite forces forced the Romans to surrender and go under the yoke (sub iugum). As a result of this defeat, Rome lost several important settlements that closed access to Samnium, and under the impression of the Samnite victories, it lost many allies, led by Capua. Rome had to accept peace, the so-called pax Caudina.

At this point, the Romans’ new strategic plan was born, encircling the Samnite forces. For this purpose, the support of the Apules tribe, living in the eastern hinterland of Samnium, was obtained and a fortified colony, Luceria, was established there. From that moment on, Rome began to win victories and regain lost settlements. Rome broke the shameful peace in 316 BCE. Rome already had an army of 35,000-40,000 at its disposal. Despite great forces, in 315 BCE dictator, Quintus Fabius Rullianus was defeated at Lautulae, near Terracina. A year later, Rome, exerting its strength to the limit, took Tarracina from the Samnites, they set up their base in Apulia and conquer the Samnite fortress of Luceria.

Many small tribes of central Italy dragged to its side, creating a barrier between the Samnites and the Etruscans, allies of the Samnites (In 311 BCE the Samnites managed to persuade the Etruscans to revolt against Rome). In addition, the Samnites made an alliance with Rome’s existing allies: Mars, Pelign, Hernik. Rome now had to focus on waging a double war with both the Samnites and the Etruscans and the rest of their opponents. To this end, the combat strength of the Roman army was significantly increased, creating an additional two legions to the two already existing, and by putting up a fleet for the first time. Using a well-developed road network, Rome was able to quickly move its forces into threatened regions, which was successful in the long run. The Romans first defeated the Etruscans in 310 BCE, forcing them to sign a separate peace treaty so that they could attack the Samnites using all their available forces. In 308 BCE, Rome succeeded in capturing Nuceria in southern Campania, and thus cut off the Samnites from the sea. At the same time, there were campaigns against the Aequi, Mars and Peligns. The main centre of the highlanders, Bovianum, was captured and their lands ravaged. In addition, all of Campania and central Italy was captured.

Defeating the Samnites and finally cracking down on the Etruscans secured Rome’s supremacy in Italy. Eventually, peace was signed in 304 BCE. The Samnites retained full independence, and the Romans became Italy’s first power. At that time, the territory of the Roman state was about 8,000 km2, but thanks to the allies they controlled 28,000. The hero of this war was Lucius Papirius Cursor, who held the consulate five times and the dictatorship twice. He also made two triumphs in 325 and 309 BCE. The second hero of this war was Quintus Marcius Termulus, consul of 306 BCE, who in that year smashed the Hernic army and triumphed.

The peace signed with the Samnites in 304 BCE was treated by both sides rather than as an armistice. Rome mainly planned to further consolidate its rule in central Italy, and the Samnites to break free from the “encirclement” and forge an alliance in the north with the Celts, Umbrians and Etruscans. To this end, they wanted to break the system of Roman fortresses. There was another, already III Samnite War in the years 298 – 290 BCE. Thanks to skilful subversion, the Romans led to the withdrawal of the Etruscans, who rushed to save their country, attacked by the Romans. Having thus weakened their enemies, the Romans at the Battle of Sentinum in Umbria in 295 BCE dealt a heavy defeat to the Samnites and Celts, which decided the fate of the Samnites. Deprived of allies, they made peace with Rome, pledging to provide Rome with military reinforcements.
Secured from the south, Rome decided to launch a strong attack on the Celts, who were driven out of the Adriatic Sea, south of the Po.

It is worth mentioning here that at the end of the 4th century BCE Rome could mobilize about half a million soldiers; thus he was a powerful force to be reckoned with beyond the Apennine Peninsula.

The war of the Romans against Tarentum and Pyrrhus

Rome’s war against Pyrrhus
One of the fiercest enemies of the Republic was Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. The war with Epirus cost Rome a lot of effort and suffering, it took many thousands of lives.

When Rome was already occupying the territories of northern and central Italy, its interest began to arouse the southern part, mostly occupied by Greek cities. There, too, soon there was a chance to expand the borders, because the Greeks, threatened by the Lucan tribe, turned to Rome for help. The settlement of the Romans in the Greek colonies of southern Italy felt threatened by Taranto, a leading Greek colony, which, feeling its weakness, turned for help to the king of Moloss and the hegemon of the Union of Epirus, Pyrrhus. To call Pyrrhus the king of Epirus is a factual error. He accepted the offer and received military and financial aid from various Hellenistic rulers for the planned expedition. Pyrrhus came to Italy at the head of his Epirots and the armies he received from other Greek rulers (including 20 elephants). The expeditionary corps consisted of 30,000 soldiers.

Pyrrhus was expelled from the country in 303 BCE, but with the support of his father-in-law, Ptolemy I Soter, returned to the throne in 297 BCE. He tried to free his country from Macedonian influence and turn it into a Hellenistic-type monarchy. He intervened in dynastic disputes in Macedonia. Then he tried to oppose Rome.
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Rome, in order to increase its forces, decided to enter into an alliance with Carthage. Greek troops were victorious in the Battles of Heraclea (280 BCE) and Ausculum (279 BCE). About the Battle of Heraclea, scant sources have survived, Roman historians of different periods, unfavourable to Pyrrhus. They also contain mentions of lost Greek records. He estimates that both sides had an equal number of around 30,000 armed men. King Pyrrhus stood at the head of the army of Greek cities, while the Romans were commanded by one of the consuls, Publius Valerius Levinus. Sources and historians generally rate the battle as victorious for Pyrrhus, who chose a plain battlefield, ideal for the actions of his phalanx, and used war elephants that the Romans encountered for the first time.

Battle of Asculum lasted two days in 279 BCE. The first day of fighting did not bring any resolution. On the second day of the clash of the Greek army of the king of Epirus with the Roman legions, Pyrrhus emerged victoriously. The victory of the king of Epirus was to be determined by the charge of almost 20 war elephants, which caused panic in the Roman troops. According to ancient historians, Pyrrhus was to say after the battle to the officers congratulating him on his victory: “One more such victory and I will be lost”. This was related to the fact that the victory cost Pyrrhus about 3-4 thousand killed (including many officers) and a large number of wounded (a total of several percent of the army’s manpower), which losses in the conditions of a war waged in a foreign territory were irreparable. On the other hand, the Romans, although their losses were greater (about 6,000), operating on their own land could easily form new legions. Thus, the losses of the legions after the battles are estimated at about 10,000 soldiers, and the Epirots and Greeks by half as much.

March of Pyrrhus during the campaign in Italy.
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However, Pyrrhus’s initial victories came at a cost with huge losses. Hence the phrase Pyrrhic victory, which is meant to mean a win which, due to its own losses, becomes a defeat. The Romans did not agree, despite their defeats for peace, and demanded the withdrawal of Pyrrhus’s troops. After the breakdown of peace negotiations, he went to Sicily, where Greek cities were threatened by Carthage. There there was a sea battle in 277 BCE at Messina.

The most important battles during the war with Pyrrhus.
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Soon, however, he returned to Italy, where he commanded the third battle of this war, which took place in 275 BCE under Beneventum. Both sides suffered great losses in it, and the battle most likely remained unresolved. Roman historians later portrayed this battle as a victory for their armies, but their retreat to Rome prompts some historians to question this claim. The Romans retreated to Rome, and Pyrrhus, not having enough strength to continue fighting them, retired to Greece, where he gathered new forces. By the way, he got involved in the internal struggles in Greece and died in Argos.

After rebuilding their forces, the Romans captured in 272 BCE, fighting alone Taranto(issued by Epirus to Rome), and in the following year other Greek cities in southern Italy (Croton and Rhegion) and subjugated all the South-Italian tribes. However, it should be remembered that they did not do so until the king died. When he was alive, they did not dare to attack his allies.

The final conquest of Italy was completed by the Romans in 264 BCE when they captured the last Etruscan free city – Volsini. Rome now ruled over lands ranging from Arno and Rubicon to the Strait of Sicily. It should be noted, however, that recreating a detailed and, at the same time, credible course of this war is not easy and historians have different versions of the events.

The most important battles of the war with Pyrrhus

282 BCEBattle of the Tarentum Port

  • Tarentum defeated the Romans – losses of 5 ships

280 BCEBattle of Heraclea

  • Greek troops (Macedonians, Epirots, Tessalonians and Tarents) – 32,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 20 elephants defeated 45,000 Romans Levinus under the command of Pyrrhus – 7,000 killed and wounded, 2,000 prisoners

279 BCEBattle of Asculum

  • probably pending battle between the Greek and Samnite forces led by Pyrrhus – 23,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 19 elephants, and the Romans and their allies – 40,000

277 BCENaval Battle of Messina

275 BCEBattle of Benevento

  • the tactical victory of the Romans over Pyrrhus
  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2016
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski

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