Skip to main content

The Samnite Wars: The Battle of Saticula

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

Samnite Soldiers on a frieze

Samnite Soldiers on a frieze

The Samnite Wars

The First Samnite War was a series of battles fought between the armies of the Roman Republic and the people of Samnium. Samnites were tribesmen from central Italy who had their own kingdoms from approximately 600BC to 290BC. Originally allies of the Romans, they later came into conflict by attacking Campania. To avoid being conquered and possibly enslaved, the Campanians surrendered their land to the Romans.

Two armies were dispatched to defend Campania and drive the Samnites back to their homeland. The army that went to Samnium first met the Samnites at the Battle of Saticula. Saticula was a region that was heavily wooded and mountainous, a serious issue for armies that fought in ranks. To account for this the Roman war machine changed drastically.

Hastati, the first ranks of the Roman armies

Hastati, the first ranks of the Roman armies

The Battle of Saticula

The historian Livy records that the Roman army under Aulus Cornelius Cossus marched his army south from Rome towards Samnium when he was ambushed in a ravine after passing the town of Saticula. Samnium was mountainous and wooded, so the Samnites fought in the manipular formation. At this time the Roman armies still fought as phalanxes.

When the Roman army had entered the ravine the Samnite forces attacked, trapping the Romans in the ravine. Unable to safely withdraw or attack Cossus was faced with annihilation. Publius Decius, a middle-ranking officer known as a tribune, saw an unguarded hill nearby that would allow the Roman forces to threaten the Samnites' flanks with missiles or capture the enemy camp. He took a force of Hastati(light line infantry) and Princeps(medium line infantry) to capture the hill.

When the Samnites turned to face this unexpected threat the main Roman army was able to withdraw. Decius was now surrounded by the enemy army, but night fell before the Samnites could mount a full-scale assault. During the night Decius scouted the enemy position and finding a weak point led his troops through the enemy camp. Before they could escape the Roman forces were detected, but because it was the middle of the night the enemy forces were unable to mount an effective defense and the Romans broke through the enemy lines.

By morning the force under Decius had reached the Roman camp, and the entire Roman army came out to celebrate their saviors, but Decius had a different plan. Decius met with Cossus and the two decided to launch a full attack on the Samnite army. The Samnite forces had scattered in an attempt to capture Decius and his men, so the Roman army caught them unprepared when they attacked.

Livy states that there were thirty-thousand casualties among the Samnites when their camp was captured by the Roman army. This is surely an exaggeration, but clearly, the Samnites suffered a heavy loss. While Cossus was engaged near Saticula, Valerius, the other Roman commander, won a battle at Campua. After the Battle of Saticula, the Samnites mustered another force to face Valerius who defeated them and ended the First Samnite War in favor of the Roman Republic.


Many historians argue that one of the main legacies of the Samnite Wars was the adoption of the manipular formation by the Roman legion. Rome had learned to fight as phalanxes from the Etruscans, but the manipular formation came from the Samnites. Phalanxes were the supreme fighting force on open plains, but Samnium was wooded and hilly.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Some of the historicity of the Samnite Wars is questioned by historians. This is due to several similarities between the events of the Samnite Wars and the First Punic War. Clearly, the speeches of the Roman forces, the casualties of the battles, and the ferocity of the Roman warriors have been exaggerated by Livy. There is no way he could have known what a Roman general said at a given battle or during the discussions of the military councils.

Roman historians used a technique called Inventio, in which they would invent speeches and sometimes exaggerate events based on what they actually knew of the battle and what they wanted the participants to appear as. This could be why the Battle at Saticula looks like a battle during the First Punic War. Nonetheless, we can accept that there is some truth to the history of Livy based on what we do know of the results of the Samnium.

The question of historicity regarding Livy throws the development of the manipular system into question. Livy lived in the 1st century AD and was working off secondary sources that are now lost, but that had seen the primary sources before they were lost in the sack of Rome. Livy lived in the world of the Macedonian Phalanx, a formation that was as dissimilar to the hoplite phalanx as it was to the manipular legion. It may be that the Roman phalanx was more like the hoplite phalanx of Homeric tradition, and while the Greek phalanx developed tactics that moved away from the bow and javelin, the Roman phalanx may have been closer to the traditional Homeric soldier and therefore never abandoned the javelin at all.


Decius was raised to the rank of nobility and made a consul in his later years. This would mean that he had to have done something remarkable for the Roman Republic. The Samnites ended their attacks against Campania after the Roman campaign against them. This shows that the war clearly went against them. If Livy did not tell the whole truth, he embellished speeches and casualty numbers, but this doesn’t take away from the historical accuracy of the events that occurred.

The First Samnite War was over, but the conflict between the Latins under Rome and the Oscan people of Samnium had just begun. Samnium would continue to be an adversary to the Romans in further wars, insurrections, and outright rebellions until the Social Wars saw their people decimated and then integrated into the Roman whole.


Armstrong, Jeremy. Early Roman Warfare: From the Regal Period to the First Punic War. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen Et Sword Military, 2016.
Armstrong, Jeremy. War and Society in Early Rome: From Warlords to Generals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.


Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on August 24, 2015:

Love learning about old Roman Culture. Well done!

A Anders (author) from Buffalo, New York. on October 23, 2012:

Thanks for the comment. The Samnites ended up being one of Rome's greatest allies by providing large numbers of troops for the armies after becoming Roman citizens along with the other Latin tribes.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 22, 2012:

Fascinating article. I am a descendant of the Samites of central Italy. I have read about them. They were eventually conquered by the Romans and made slaves. But, they successfully negotiated with the Romans and won Roman citizenship and became free Roman citizens. The Sambnites. are well known for their negotiating and justice skills. They come from the area of Italy that is now known as Isernia and Campobasso were my Italian relatives live today. This is such an informative and interesting hub!

Related Articles