The Battle of Saticula : The First Samnite War
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.The Samnites were originally allies of the Romans, but they came into conflict when the Samnites attacked 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.
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 annhilation. 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 to 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.
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.
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 has been exaggerated by Livy. There is no way he could have known what a Roman general said at a given battle, or 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 battle during the First Punic War. Nonetheless we can accept that there is some truth to the histories of Livy based on what we do know of the results of the Samnium
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.
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.