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Ancient Armies

Samnite or Umbrian - DBA 30c
(650-272 BC)

The Samnite/Umbrian DBA army list begins somewhat arbitrarily in 650 BC, during the reign of King Tullius Hostilius in Rome. These rugged warlike peoples both hailed from the Apennine highlands that bisect the Italian peninsula: Umbria to the north and east of Rome in the Tiber River basin and Samnium to the South bordering on the Campanian plain, Lucania and Apulia. The list ends in 272 BC, the year that Rome defeated Tarentum, the principal Greek city-state in southern Italy, with whom Samnium had allied. Thereafter Samnium was never again an organized military threat to the Empire. The Samnites, however, continued their warlike behavior for some time thereafter, aiding Hannibal in his campaigns against Rome and fighting against Sulla in the Social War (89-88 BC), who repaid the favor by decimating the Samnite population. Over time, the Samnites because heavily romanized, but continued their martial tendancies as auxiliaries in the Roman armies and as famous gladiators in the Roman arena.

The earliest history of Samnium is not well recorded. It is known that the Samnites were a federation of at least four tribes (Caraceni, Caudini, Hirpini, Pentri) that had expanded from the Apennine highlands into the rich plains of Campania, where they conquered Capua (438 BC) and Cuma (421 BC). As Rome also expanded southward, it eventually reached the borders of Samnium territory. In 354 BC, Rome and Samnium formed an alliance against the Gallic threat from the north. By 343 BC, however, continued Samnite expansion into Campania prompted the Greek City-States in the south to ask Rome to rein in their ally. When diplomatic entreaties failed, Rome declared war on Samnium (First Samnite War, 343-341 BC). That war ended as Rome became distracted by the rebellion of its other Latin allies (Latin Wars, 340-338 AD), who were protesting the denial of political representation in the Roman government.

With Roman victory over its Latin allies came peace. Then Rome grew so bold as to plant a colony at Fregellae in Samnite territory, which prompted the Second Samnite War (326-304). The Romans suffered a humilitating defeat when an entire consular army was encircled and forced to surrender at the Caudine Forks (321 BC). Rome restored its fortunes somewhat with a victory at Luceria (320 BC), but then saw Capua rise in revolt after a Samnite victory at Lutulae (315 BC). Finally, Roman victories at Vadimonian Lake (310 BC) and Bovianum Vetus (304 BC) brought the war to a simmering end, even as Rome was heavily engaged in the north, defeating the Etruscans (310 BC) and suppressing revolts by the Umbrians and Hernici (307 BC). The Second Samnite War saw significant reforms of the Roman military, including creation of the maniple and adoption of the scutum (shield) and pilum (heavy javelin), the later two of which may have been copied from the Samnites.

War flaired up again in 298 BC, when the Lucanians appealed to Rome for aid against the Samnites. Rome quickly captured the Samnite cities of Bovanium Vetus and Aufidena. Samnium responded with an incursion into Ager Falernus and by making a defensive alliance with the Etruscans, Gallic Senones and Umbrians. A great battle was fought by Rome against this alliance at Sentium (295 BC). The tide of battle had turned against the Romans, when the Roman consul Publius Decius Mus committed the act of "devotio," sacrificing himself in a futile personal charge against the Senones in order to win the favor of the Gods for Roman arms. This act both disconcerted the Gauls and prompted the Romans legionaries to fight with renewed fervor, resulting in a great Roman victory. The war continued, with Roman holding the upper hand against the Samnite-Etruscan alliance and inflicting heavy losses on the Samnites. At Aquilonia, 24,000 Samnites were killed or captured. At Cominim, 5000 were killed and 11,500 surrendered. Both Samnite cities were burned to the ground, and Rome continued to grab Samnite territory and seize plunder, including a meticulously recorded 2.5 million pounds of bronze and 1830 pounds of silver. After Rome took Venusia in 291 BC, the Samnites sought peace and in pecularly Roman fashion were granted civitas sine suffragio (i.e., Roman citizenship without political rights).

The dominant power in central Italy, Rome now found itself locked in a 10 year power struggle (282-272 BC) with Tarentum (a.k.a. Taranto, Tauranto), the largest of the Greek city-states in southern Italy. Rome sought to intervene in a conflict between Lucania and the Greek city-state of Thurii, a Roman ally. Tarentum put its foot down, destroying a Roman fleet and driving the Roman garrison out of Thurii. Anticipating the Roman response, Tarentum called upon the services of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who won several costly (i.e. "Pyrrhic") victories against the Romans with the help of Lucanian and Samnite allies. Declining Pyrrhus' peace entreaties, Rome made peace instead with the Etruscans and focused its military resources southward. Meanwhile Pyrrhus had left Tarentum for Syracuse on Sicily, where he became involved in local conflicts with the Carthaginians. In 275 BC, he returned only to suffer a heavy defeat to a Roman army at the Samnite capital of Beneventum. Pyrrhus returned to Greece in 272 BC, leaving Tarentum to its own devices. Tarentum sued for peace and was granted an alliance. The Romans then proceeded to consolidate their hold over Samnium and Lucania, thus marking the end of this DBA list.

Army Composition

A Samnite/Umbrian army is comprised of 2 x Cavalry, 8 x Auxilia and 2 x Psiloi.


The enemies of Samnites/Umbrians include the Early Romans (30a), Etruscans (30b), fellow Samnite/Umbrians (30c), Campanians/Apulians (30d), Gauls (35), and the later Camillan Romans (46a).


The best hope for the Samnites/Umbrians with their eight Auxilia is to find plenty of bad going and stick closely to it. Against the Spear and Blades found in the Early Roman, Etruscan, Campanian, and Camillan Roman lists, Samnite/Umbria Auxilia is clearly second rate infantry in good going. The only positive thing about Samnite/Umbrian Auxilia is that it shouldn't die quickly, since there are no Knights to quick-kill it. But eventually the dice will tell unless you have bad terrain in your favor, are extraordinarily skillful in exploiting flanks, and/or your opponent is careless. Two elements of Samnite/Umbrian Cavalry give the army some mobility, but no advantage in mounted forces over any of their opponents.

David Kuijt: Against Gallic (#35) they'll have the advantage; Wb are slow, poor in rough going, and impetuous. The Aux-heavy Samnite/Umbrians have the advantage here, although they need to be a bit careful about the cavalry advantage the Gauls have (4 vs 2).

Against Camillan Roman your comments are pertinent -- the Cv are even up, and the Roman Spear/Blade have the advantage over Samnite Aux. In rough terrain they have the advantage, but in the open the Samnites will have to try and use their speed advantage (their whole army moves 3" or better) to gain a tactical numerical superiority on one or both flanks, and try to avoid a linear frontal engagement with the Roman heavy foot.

Painting Tips

The following illustration by Richard Hook of typical Samnite warriors has been reproduced (hopefully with the appropriate permissions) from Osprey's Early Roman Army's guide.

Other Resources

The primary historical sources on the Samnite Wars are Livy's History of Rome, Herodotus' History, and Polybius' Histories.

Other on-line resources include:

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Last Updated: April 30, 1999