United at home, the Romans were now prepared to carry on their foreign wars with more vigor; and their conquests of the Samnites and Latins made them the virtual masters of Italy. But the years which immediately followed the Licinian laws were times of great suffering. A pestilence raged in Rome, which carried off many of the most distinguished men, and among others the aged Camillus (B.C. 362). The Tiber overflowed its banks, the city was shaken by earthquakes, and a yawning chasm opened in the forum. The soothsayers declared that the gulf could never be filled up except by throwing into it that which Rome held most valuable. The tale runs that, when every one was doubting what the gods could mean, a noble youth named M. Curtius came forward, and, declaring that Rome possessed nothing so valuable as her brave citizens, mounted his steed and leaped into the abyss in full armor, whereupon the earth closed over him. This event is assigned to the year 362 B.C.
During the next few years the Gauls renewed their inroads, of which we have already spoken, and in the course of which Manlius Torquatus and Valerius Corvus gained such glory. The Romans steadily extended their dominion over the southern part of Etruria and the country of the Volscians, and the alliance with the Latins was renewed. Fifty years had elapsed since the capture of the city by the Gauls, and Rome was now strong enough to enter into a contest with the most formidable enemy which her arms had yet encountered. The SAMNITES were at the height of their power, and the contest between them and the Romans was virtually for the supremacy of Italy. The Samnites, as we have already seen, were a people of Sabine origin, and had emigrated to the country which they inhabited at a comparatively late period. They consisted of four different tribes or cantons, the Pentri, Hirpini, Caraceni, and Caudini, of whom the two former were the most important. They inhabited that part of the Apennines which lies between Campania and Lucania, but they were not contented with their mountain-homes, and overran the rich plains which lay at their feet. They became the masters of Campania and Lucania, and spread themselves almost to the southern extremity of Italy. But the Samnites of Campania and Lucania had in course of time broken off all connection with the parent nation, and sometimes were engaged in hostilities with the latter. It was a contest of this kind that led to the war between the Romans and the Samnites of the Apennines. On the borders of Campania and Samnium dwelt a people, called the Sidicini, who had hitherto preserved their independence. Being attacked by the Samnites, this people implored the assistance of the Campanians, which was readily granted. Thereupon the Samnites turned their arms against the Campanians, and, after occupying Mount Tifata, which overlooks the city of Capua, they descended into the plain, and defeated the Campanians in a pitched battle at the very gates of Capua. The Campanians, being shut up within the city, now applied for assistance to Rome, and offered to place Capua in their hands. The Romans had only a few years previously concluded an alliance with the Samnites; but the bait of the richest city and the most fertile soil in Italy was irresistible, and they resolved to comply with the request. Thus began the Samnite Wars, which, with a few intervals of peace, lasted 53 years.
FIRST SAMNITE WAR, B.C. 343-341. - The Romans commenced the war by sending two consular armies against the Samnites; and the first battle between the rival nations was fought at the foot of Mount Gaurus, which lies about three miles from Cumæ. The Samnites were defeated with great loss; and it has been justly remarked that this battle may be regarded as one of the most memorable in history, since it was a kind of omen of the ultimate issue of the great contest which had now begun between the Samnites and Romans for the sovereignty of Italy. The Romans gained two other decisive victories, and both consuls entered the city in triumph. But two causes prevented the Romans from prosecuting their success. In the first place, the Roman army, which had been wintering in Capua, rose in open mutiny; and the poorer Plebeians in the city, who were oppressed by debt, left Rome and joined the mutineers. In the second place, the increasing disaffection of the Latins warned the Romans to husband their resources for another and more terrible struggle. The Romans, therefore, abandoning the Sidicini and Campanians, concluded a treaty of peace and alliance with the Samnites in B.C. 341, so that in the great Latin war, which broke out in the following year, the Samnites fought on the side of the Romans.
THE LATIN WAR, B.C. 340-338. - The Latins had, as already stated, renewed their league with Rome in B.C. 356, and consequently their troops had fought along with the Romans in the war against the Samnites. But the increasing power of Rome excited their alarm; and it became evident to them that, though nominally on a footing of equality, they were, in reality, becoming subject to Rome. This feeling was confirmed by the treaty of alliance which the Romans had formed with the Samnites. The Latins, therefore, determined to bring matters to a crisis, and sent two Prætors, who were their chief magistrates, to propose to the Romans that the two nations should henceforth form one state; that half of the state should consist of Latins, and that one of the two Consuls should be chosen from Latium. These requests excited the greatest indignation at Rome, and were rejected with the utmost scorn. The Senate met in the Temple of Jupiter, in the Capitol, to receive the Latin deputation, and, after hearing their proposals, the Consul, T. Manlius Torquatus, the same who had slain the Gaul in single combat, declared that, if the Republic should cowardly yield to these demands, he would come into the senate-house sword in hand and cut down the first Latin he saw there. The tale goes on to say that in the discussion which followed, when both parties were excited by anger, the Latin Prætor defied the Roman Jupiter; that thereupon an awful peal of thunder shook the building; and that, as the impious man hurried down the steps from the temple, he fell from top to bottom, and lay there a corpse.
War was now declared, and the most vigorous efforts were made on both sides. The contest was to decide whether Rome should become a Latin town, or the Latins be subject to Rome. The Romans had elected to the consulship two of their most distinguished men. The Patrician Consul was, as already mentioned, T. Manlius Torquatus; his Plebeian colleague was P. Decius Mus, who had gained great renown in the recent war against the Samnites. The two Consuls marched through Samnium into Campania, and threatened Capua, thus leaving Rome exposed to the attacks of the Latins. But the Consuls foresaw that the Latins would not abandon Capua, their great acquisition; and the event proved their wisdom. The contest was thus withdrawn from the territory of Rome and transferred to Campania, where the Romans could receive assistance from the neighboring country of their Samnite allies. It was at the foot of Mount Vesuvius that the two armies met, and here the battle was fought which decided the contest. It was like a civil war. The soldiers of the two armies spoke the same language, had fought by each others' sides, and were well known to one another. Under these circumstances, the Consuls published a proclamation that no Roman should engage in single combat with a Latin on pain of death. But the son of Torquatus, provoked by the insults of a Tusculan officer, accepted his challenge, slew his adversary, and carried the bloody spoils in triumph to his father. The Consul had within him the heart of Brutus; he would not pardon this breach of discipline, and ordered the unhappy youth to be beheaded by the lictor in the presence of the assembled army.
In the night before the battle a vision appeared to each Consul, announcing that the general of one side and the army of the other were doomed to destruction. Both agreed that the one whose wing first began to waver should devote himself and the army of the enemy to the gods of the lower world. Decius commanded the left wing; and when it began to give way, he resolved to fulfill his vow. Calling the Pontifex Maximus, he repeated after him the form of words by which he devoted himself and the army of the enemy to the gods of the dead and the mother earth; then leaping upon his horse, he rushed into the thickest of the fight, and was slain. The Romans gained a signal victory. Scarcely a fourth part of the Latins escaped (B.C. 340).
This victory made the Romans masters of Campania, and the Latins did not dare to meet them again in the field. The war continued two years longer, each city confining itself to the defense of its own walls, and hoping to receive help from others in case of an attack. But upon the capture of Pedum in B.C. 338 all the Latins laid down their arms, and garrisons were placed in their towns. The Romans were now absolute masters of Latium, and their great object was to prevent the Latin cities from forming any union again. For this purpose not only were all general assemblies forbidden, but, in order to keep the cities completely isolated, the citizens of one town could not marry or make a legal contract of bargain or sale with another. Tibur and Præneste, the two most powerful cities of the League, which had taken the most active part in the war, were deprived of a portion of their land, but were allowed to retain a nominal independence, preserving their own laws, and renewing from time to time their treaties with Rome. The inhabitants of several other towns, such as Tusculum and Lanuvium, received the Roman franchise; their territory was incorporated in that of the Republic; and two new tribes were created to carry these arrangements into effect. Many of the most distinguished Romans sprung from these Latin towns.
Twelve years elapsed between the subjugation of Latium and the commencement of the Second Samnite War. During this time the Roman arms continued to make steady progress. One of their most important conquests was that of the Volscian town of Privernum in B.C. 329, from which time the Volscians, so long the formidable enemies of Rome, disappear as an independent nation. The extension of the Roman power naturally awakened the jealousy of the Samnites; and the assistance rendered by them to the Greek cities of Palæopolis and Neapolis was the immediate occasion of the Second Samnite War. These two cities were colonies of the neighboring Cumæ, and were situated only five miles from each other. The position of Palæopolis, or the "Old City," is uncertain; but Neapolis, or the "New City," stands on the site of a part of the modern Naples. The Romans declared war against the two cities in B.C. 327, and sent the Consul Q. Publilius Philo to reduce them to subjection. The Greek colonists had previously formed an alliance with the Samnites, and now received powerful Samnite garrisons. Publilius encamped between the cities; and as he did not succeed in taking them before his year of office expired, he was continued in the command with the title of Proconsul, the first time that this office was created. At the beginning of the following year Palæopolis was taken; and Neapolis only escaped the same fate by concluding an alliance with the Romans. Meanwhile the Romans had declared war against the Samnites.
SECOND OR GREAT SAMNITE WAR, B.C. 326-304. - The Second Samnite War lasted 22 years, and was by far the most important of the three wars which this people waged with Rome. During the first five years (B.C. 326-322) the Roman arms were generally successful. The Samnites became so disheartened that they sued for peace, but obtained only a truce for a year. It was during this period that the well-known quarrel took place between L. Papirius Cursor and Q. Fabius Maximus, the two most celebrated Roman generals of the time, who constantly led the armies of the Republic to victory. In B.C. 325 L. Papirius was Dictator, and Q. Fabius his Master of the Horse. Recalled to Rome by some defect in the auspices, the Dictator left the army in charge of Fabius, but with strict orders not to venture upon an engagement. Compelled or provoked by the growing boldness of the enemy, Fabius attacked and defeated them with great loss. But this victory was no extenuation for his offense in the eyes of the Dictator. Papirius hastened back to the camp, burning with indignation that his commands had been disobeyed, and ordered his lictors to seize Fabius and put him to death. The soldiers, whom Fabius had led to victory, rose in his defense; and in the night he escaped to Rome, to implore the protection of the Senate. He was stating the case to the Fathers, when Papirius entered the senate-house, followed by his lictors, and demanded that the offender should be given up for execution. But the Senate, the people, and the aged father of Maximus interceded so strongly for his life, that the Dictator was obliged to give way and to grant an ungracious pardon.
The year's truce had not expired when the Samnites again took up arms, and for the next seven years (B.C. 321-315) the balance of success inclined to their side. This appears to have been mainly owing to the military abilities of their general C. Pontius, who deserves to be ranked among the chief men of antiquity. In the first year of his command he inflicted upon the Romans one of the severest blows they ever sustained in the whole course of their history.
In B.C. 321 the two Consuls, T. Veturius and Sp. Postumius, marched into Samnium by the road from Capua to Beneventum. Near the town of Caudium they entered the celebrated pass called the CAUDINE FORKS (Furculæ Caudinæ). It consisted of two narrow defiles or gorges, between which was a tolerably spacious plain, but shut in on each side by mountains. The Romans, thinking the Samnites to be far distant, had marched through the first pass and the plain; but when they came to the second they found it blocked up by works and trunks of trees, so as to be quite impassable. Retracing their steps to the pass by which they had entered, they found that the enemy had meantime taken possession of this also. They were thus blocked up at either end, and, after making vain attempts to force their way through, were obliged to surrender at discretion. Thus both Consuls and four legions fell into the hands of the Samnites. C. Pontius made a merciful use of his victory. He agreed to dismiss them in safety upon their promising to restore the ancient alliance on equal terms between the two nations, and to give up all the places which they had conquered during the war. The Consuls and the other superior officers swore to these terms in the name of the Republic, and six hundred Roman knights were given as hostages. The whole Roman army was now allowed to depart, and each Roman soldier marched out singly under the yoke.
When the news of this disaster reached Rome the Senate refused to ratify the peace, and resolved that the two Consuls and all the officers who had sworn to the peace should be delivered up to the Samnites as persons who had deceived them. They were conducted to Caudium by a Fetialis; and when they appeared before the tribunal of C. Pontius, Postumius, with superstitious folly, struck the Fetialis with his foot, saying that he was now a Samnite citizen, and that war might be renewed with justice by the Romans, since a Samnite had insulted the sacred envoy of the Roman people. But Pontius refused to accept the persons who were thus offered, and told them, if they wished to nullify the treaty, to send back the army to the Caudine Forks. Thus Postumius and his companions returned to Rome, and the 600 knights were alone left in the hands of the Samnites.
The disaster of Caudium shook the fate of many of the Roman allies, and the fortune of war was for some years in favor of the Samnites. But in B.C. 314 the tide of success again turned, and the decisive victory of the Consuls in that year opened the way into the heart of Samnium. From this time the Romans were uniformly successful; and it seemed probable that the war was drawing to a close, when the Etruscans created a powerful diversion by declaring war against Rome in B.C. 311. But the energy and ability of Q. Fabius Maximus averted this new danger. He boldly carried the war into the very heart of Etruria, and gained a decisive victory over the forces of the League. The Samnites also were repeatedly defeated; and after the capture of Bovianum, the chief city of the Pentri, they were compelled to sue for peace. It was granted them in B.C. 304, on condition of their acknowledging the supremacy of Rome.
At the conclusion of the Second Samnite War the Æquians and Hernicans were reduced to subjection after a brief struggle. A part of the Æquian territory was incorporated in that of Rome by the addition of two new tribes, and two colonies were planted in the other portion. The Marsi, Marrucini, Peligni, and other nations of Central Italy, entered into a league with the Romans on equal terms. Thus, in B.C. 300, the power of Rome seemed firmly established in Central Italy. But this very power awakened the jealousy of the surrounding nations, and the Samnites exerted themselves to form a new and formidable coalition. The Etruscans and Umbrians agreed to make war against Rome, and called in the assistance of the Senonian Gauls.
THIRD SAMNITE WAR, B.C. 298-290. - As soon as the Etruscans and Umbrians were engaged with Rome, the Samnites invaded Lucania. The Lucanians invoked the assistance of the Romans, who forthwith declared war against the Samnites. The Republic had now to contend at one and the same time against the Etruscans, Umbrians, Gauls, and Samnites; but she carried on the struggle with the utmost energy, attacking the Etruscans, Umbrians, and Gauls in the north, and the Samnites in the south. At length, in B.C. 295, the Samnites joined their confederates in Umbria. In this country, near the town of Sentinum, a desperate battle was fought, which decided the fortune of the war. The two Roman Consuls were the aged Q. Fabius Maximus and P. Decius Mus. The victory was long doubtful. The wing commanded by Decius was giving way before the terrible onset of the Gauls, when he determined to imitate the example of his father, and to devote himself and the enemy to destruction. His death gave fresh courage to his men, and Fabius gained a complete and decisive victory. Gellius Egnatius, the Samnite general, who had taken the most active part in forming the coalition, was slain. But, though the League was thus broken up, the Samnites continued the struggle for five years longer. During this period C. Pontius, who had defeated the Romans at the Caudine Forks, again appeared, after twenty-seven years, as the leader of the Samnites, but was defeated by Q. Fabius Maximus with great loss and taken prisoner. Being carried to Rome, he was put to death as the triumphal car of the victor ascended the Capitol (B.C. 292). This shameful act has been justly branded as one of the greatest stains on the Roman annals. Two years afterward the Samnites were unable to continue any longer the hopeless struggle, and became the subjects of Rome. The third and last Samnite war was brought to a close in B.C. 290.