1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Samnites

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SAMNITES, the name given by the Romans to the warlike tribes inhabiting the mountainous centre of the S. half of Italy. The word Samnites was not the name, so far as we know, used by the Samnites themselves, which would seem rather to have been (the Oscan form of) the word which in Latin appears as Sabini (see below). The ending of Samnites seems to be connected with the name by which they were known to the Greeks' of the Carnpanian coast, which by the time of Polybius had become ; and it is in connexion with the Greeks of Cumae and Naples that we first hear of the collision between Rome and the Samnites.[1] We know both from tradition and from surviving inscriptions (see Osca Lingua and R. S. Conway, The Italic Dialects, pp. 169 to 206) that they spoke Oscan; and tradition records that the Samnites were an offshoot of the Sabines (see e.g. Festus, p. 326 Mueller). On two inscriptions, of which one is unfortunately incomplete, and the other is the legend on a coin of the Social War, we have the form Safinim, which would be in Latin *Sabinium, and is best regarded as the nominative or accusative singular, neuter or masculine, agreeing with some substantive understood, such as nummum (see R. S. Conway, ibid. pp. 188 and 216).

The abundance of the ethnica ending in the suffix -no- in all the Samnite districts classes them unmistakably with the great Safine stock, so that linguistic evidence confirms tradition (see further Sabini). The Samnites are thus shown to be intimately related to the patrician class at Rome (see Rome: history, ad init.), so that it was against their own stock that the Romans had to fight their hardest struggle for the lordship of Italy, a struggle which might never have arisen but for the geographical accident by which the Etruscan and Greek settlements of Campania divided into two halves the Safine settlements in central Italy.

The longest and most important monument of the Oscan language, as it was spoken by the Samnites (in, probably, the 3rd century B.C.) is the small bronze tablet, engraved on both sides, known as the Tabula Agnonensis, found in 1848 at the modern village Agnone, in the heart of the Samnite district, not very far from the site of Bovianum, which was the centre of the N. group of Samnites called Pentri (see below). This inscription, now preserved in the British Museum, is carefully engraved in full Oscan alphabet, and perfectly legible (facsimile given by Mommsen, Unteritalische Dialekte, Taf. 7, and by I. Zvetaieff, Sylloge inscriptionum Oscarum). The text and commentary will be found in Conway, op. cit. p. 191: it contains a list of deities to whom statues were erected in the precinct sacred to Ceres, or some allied divinity, and on the back a list of deities to whom altars were erected in the same place. Among those whose names are immediately intelligible may be mentioned those of “Jove the Ruler” and of “Hercules Cerealis.” The other names are full of interest for the student of both the languages and the religious of ancient Italy. The latest attempts at interpretation will be found in R. S. Conway, Dialectorum Italicarum exempla selecta (s.v.) and C. D. Buck, Oscan and Umbrian Grammar, p. 254.

The Samnite towns in or near the upper valley of the Volturnus, namely, Telesia, Allifae, Aesernia, and the problematic Phistelia, learnt the art of striking coins from their neighbours in Campania, on the other side of the valley, Compulteria and Venafrum, in the 4th century B.C. (see Conway, op. cit. p. 196).

The Samnite alliance when it first appears in history, in the 4th century B.C., included those tribes which lay between the Paeligni to the N., the Lucani to the S., the Campani to the W., the Frentani and Apuli to the E.: that is to say, the Hirpini, Pentri and Caraceni, and perhaps also the Caudini (J. Beloch, Italischer Bund, p. 167, and R. S. Conway, The Italic Dialects, pp. 169 and 183); but with these are sometimes classed other friendly and kindred communities in neighbouring territory, like the Frentani and Atina (Liv. x. 39). But after the war with Pyrrhus the Romans for ever weakened the power of the Italic tribes by dividing this central mountainous tract into two halves. The territories of the Latin colony Beneventum (268 B.C.) and the Ager Taurasinus (Livy xl. 38, C.I.L., 1st ed., i. 30) united that of Saticula on the W. (313 B.C.) to that of Luceria on the E., and cut off the Hirpini from their kinsmen by a broad belt of land under Latin occupation (Velleius Pat. i. 14; Liv. lx. 26). At the same time Allifae and Venafrum became praefectures (Fest. p. 233 M), and the Latin colony of Aesernia was founded in 263 B.C. in purely Samnite territory to command the upper Volturnus valley. We hear of no further resistance in the N. of Samnium till the general rising of Italy in 90 B.C.; but the more southerly Hirpini (q.v.) henceforth acted independently. (R. S. C.)


  1. For the difficult questions involved in the obscure and fragmentary accounts of the so-called First Samnite War, which ended in 341 B.C., the reader is referred to J. Beloch, Campanien, 2nd ed., pp. 442 ff., and to the commentators on Livy vii. 29 ff.