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The Latin, Samnite & Pyrrhic Wars

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  • 1:08 First Samnite War
  • 1:59 The Latin War
  • 3:31 Second Samnite War
  • 4:55 Third Samnite War
  • 5:45 The Pyrrhic War
  • 6:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the unification of Italy under Roman control. In the course of this lesson, we explore the causes and repercussions of the Samnite Wars, the Latin War, and the Pyrrhic War.

Rome's Neighbors

In 509 BCE, the Romans chased their last king out of town, and the Roman Republic was formed. Rome was not yet the seat of a mighty empire. It was just one of many cities seeking control over Italy. To the north were the Etruscans, to the east were the Samnites, to the far south were the Greeks, and right at Rome's doorsteps were the cities of the other Latins, united by a common language, yet not by common leadership.

Location of Rome in Italy
Rome Map

Rome quickly rose to the forefront of its fellow Latin city-states and sought to lead them all. Though some of the Latin states resisted, following the battle of Lake Regillus in 493 BCE, Rome took leadership of the former Latin League as part of a mutual defense pact called the Treaty of Cassius. Though the other Latin cities grumbled, Rome's leadership was essential. The Latins were a tiny minority compared to the more powerful neighbors like Etruscans, Samnites, and the Volsci. The Latin cities needed Rome to protect them from their neighbors.

The First Samnite War (343-341 BCE)

Latins were not the only people who sought Rome's protection from powerful neighbors. In 343 BCE, the Campani people of Capua, under attack from their Samnite neighbors, surrendered their city and territory to Rome rather than have it fall into the hands of invaders. This put Rome into something of a pickle, since they had already negotiated a peace treaty with the Samnites. They sent emissaries informing the Samnites that Campania was under Roman protection. When the Samnites attacked anyway, Rome declared war, and this began the First Samnite War.

Rome sent two armies - one to defend Campania and the other to attack the Samnites at home in Samnium. The Romans enjoyed several victories, and after two years of fighting, the Samnites were soundly defeated and signed a peace treaty with Rome. Rome's territory now included the lands of the Campania.

The Latin War (340-338 BCE)

Between the Romans and their new lands around Capua lay a number of Latin city-states. As Rome looked for ways to unify its territory, the Latins must have felt rather threatened. As the power of Rome grew, the Latins became less and less afraid of their neighbors, and more and more afraid of Rome. Indeed, the Latins were in the middle of plotting a rebellion against Rome until news of the Roman victory over the Samnites reached them.

The Latins instead turned their armies against the recently-beaten Samnites, conducting raids and nibbling away at their territory. They were joined in these forays by the recently-liberated Campani, seeking revenge against the Samnite invaders.

The Samnites complained to Rome, asking them to honor the peace treaty they had just signed and control their subject cities. But, when Rome tried to rein in the Latins and Campani, they turned against Rome in a full-scale revolt, known today as the Latin War. This war was the last bid of the smaller states of central Italy for independence. The Latins and Campani were joined by the Volsci, the Sidicini, and the Aurunci.

Meanwhile, the Romans found unlikely allies in the recently-defeated Samnites, and these two states, representing the toughest powers in central Italy, effectively crushed the resisting states between them. The big guys teamed up against the little guys, and the little guys fell in line. Samnium's territory was secured, and Rome now controlled the entire western coast of central Italy.

The Second Samnite War (326-304 BCE)

The Samnites took control of Neapolis and sparked the Second Samnite War.
Second Samnite War Map

Yet, this newfound friendship between Rome and Samnium would not last long.

The Romans were eager to spread eastward into the mountains. The Samnites wanted to establish a foothold on the western coast of Italy. As the Romans began establishing colonies in, technically, Samnite land, the Samnites seized control of the city of Neapolis, modern day Naples. The people of Neapolis appealed to Rome for help, and the Second or Great Samnite War began. This war stretched for the better part of two decades with neither side able to pull off a decisive victory.

Though Rome suffered some serious setbacks, they quickly learned from their mistakes. To defend their coastal interests, the Romans built their first navy. To move troops around quickly and keep them supplied, the Romans began building an impressive network of roads. To keep up with the constant drain on manpower, Roman conscription reached new levels. To help hold their gains, the Romans established colonies in conquered territory. These decisions not only helped the Romans defeat their rivals, but would also prove instrumental in the future expansion of the empire.

By 304 BCE, the Samnites, who had fought so hard to gain access to the western coast, found themselves landlocked. Their coastal territory in eastern Italy fell into Roman hands, and the Samnites were forced to take refuge in their mountain strongholds.

The Romans created their first navy during the Second Samnite War.
Roman Navy

The Third Samnite War (298-290 BCE)

Frustrated by Rome in central Italy, the Samnites attempted to expand southward, in the vain hope of regaining some sort of coastal territory. They attacked the Lucanians, who, in turn, appealed to Rome for help. Alarmed by this Samnite aggression, Rome once again declared war, beginning the Third (and final) Samnite War.

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