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Roman Conquest:

Conquest of the Sabine Lands (290 BC)

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Latin colonies: Alba Fucens (303 BC); Carseoli (303 or 298  BC);Narnia (299 BC); Hadria (ca. 290 BC)

Citizen colonies: Castrum Novum (ca. 290 BC); Sena Gallica (ca. 290 BC or 283 BC)

Roman treaties: Camerinum (310/9 BC; Ocriculumm (308 BC);

Marrucini, Marsi, Paeligni, Frentani and Vestini (304-2 BC); Picenti (299 BC); Samnites (290 BC)

Roman victory at Sentinum over the Samnintes Gauls (incl. Senones) Etruscans and Umbrians (295 BC)

Lands of the Sabines

The ancient heartland of the Sabines was in the Tiber valley, centred on the ancient town of Cures.  The people of this territory  had a long history of links with Rome [rape of the Sabine women; two kings of Rome, Numa Pompilius (traditionally 716-674 BC) and Ancus Marcius (traditionally 641-167 BC)].  This region, the so-called Sabina tiberina, is geographically distinct from the upland area to the east, sometimes referred to as the alta Sabina.  According to Strabo, who was writing at the end of the 1st century BC:

  1. “Although the territory of the Sabines is narrow, taken lengthwise, it measures 1,000 stadia, extending from the Tiber and the little town of Nomentum to the country of the Vestini.  They have but few cities, and even these have been brought low on account of the continual wars; they are Amiternum, and Reate  ... As for Cures, it is now only a small village, but it was once a city of significance, since it was the original home of two kings of Rome, Titius Tatius and Numa Pompilius ... Trebula, Eretum, and other such settlements might be ranked as villages rather than cities.   ... The Sabines are not only a very ancient race, but are also the indigenous inhabitants [of much of central Italy].   Furthermore, their old-fashioned ways  might be taken as evidence of bravery, and of those other excellent qualities which have enabled them to hold out to the present time. Fabius [Pictor], the historian, says that the Romans realised for the first time how wealthy they were when they became the masters of this tribe [in 290 BC].  As for the roads that have been constructed through their country, there is:

  2. the Via Salaria (though it does not run far); and

  3. the Via Nomentana which enters  it at Eretum(a village of the Sabine country, situated beyond the Tiber), though it leaves Rome] at the same gate (Porta Collina) [as Via Salaria]”, (‘The Geography’, 5: 3: 1). 

Gary Farney and Giulia Masci (referenced below, at p. 432) observed that, at the present time:

  1. “Six Sabine settlements that could be considered large:

  2. Cures, Eretum and Trebula Mutuesca in the Tiber valley; and

  3. Reate, Amiternum and Nursia in the Apennines;

  4. can be traced [archeologically] to the period before the Roman conquest.

Evidence for the Conquest of 290 BC

The alta Sabina possibly entered recorded history towards the end of the Third Samnite War: according Livy:

  1. “[In 293 BC, the consul], Sp. Carvilius Maximus, to whom had been decreed the veteran legions [that his predecessor] had left in the territory of Interamna, marched at their head into Samnium  and ... took by storm the Samnite town of Amiternum.  Here were slain about 2,800 men, and 4,270 were made prisoners”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 39: 2).

Since we know of no ‘Samnite town of Amiternum’, Stephen Oakley (referenced below, at pp. 390-1) accepted that this was probably Amiternum in the alta Sabina.  (However, he rejected the suggestion that the ‘Interamna’ in this passage was Umbrian Interamna Nahars rather than Samnite Interamna Lirenas.)

Unfortunately, neither Livy’s account of the Roman conquest of the Sabines in 290 BC nor the relevant entries in the fasti Capitolini and in fasti Triumphales survive.  However, the so-called Chronographer of 354 AD names the consuls of this year (= 464 AUC) as ‘Dentato’ and ‘Rufino’.  We can identify these two consuls from an undated passage of Eutropius, who recorded that, after the Roman victories over the Samnites in 292/1 BC:

  1. “P. Cornelius Rufinus and Manius (M’.) Curius Dentatus, the two consuls, being sent against the Samnites, reduced their strength in some considerable battles.  Thus, they brought the war with the Samnites to an end; a war which had lasted for 49 years.  Nor was there any enemy in Italy that put the valour of the Romans more to the test [than the Samnites had done in these 49 years]”, (‘Epitome of Roman History’, 2: 9: 3).

Two other sources associate the consul Dentatus with the conquest of the Sabines:

  1. an entry in the summary of Livy’s now-lost Book 11 recorded that:

  2. “When the Samnites sued for peace, the treaty was renewed for the fourth time.  The consul M’. Curius Dentatus celebrated two triumphs in one year, because he had defeated the Samnites and had also subdued the rebellious Sabines and accepted their surrender”, (‘Periochae’, 11: 5-6); and

  3. an author usually identified as Aurelius Victor recorded that:

  4. “Marcus [sic] Curius Dentatus first celebrated a triumph over the Samnites, whom he completely pacified as far as the Adriatic.  ... He celebrated a second triumph over the Sabines”, (‘De viris illustribus urbis Romae’, 33: 1-3, my translation).

In short, despite the fragmentary nature of the surviving sources, it is clear that M’. Curius Dentatus celebrated two triumphs during his first term as consul in 290 BC:

  1. one that marked the end of the Third Samnite War; and

  2. a second that apparently marked the complete conquest of the Sabines in what can only have been a matter of months.

However, Julius Beloch  (referenced below) argued  that the Sabines would not first have stood aside from the Third Samnite War and then capitulated to the Romans in the course of a single campaign.  Stephen Oakley (referenced below, at pp. 31-3) reprised the elements of Beloch’s hypothesis: while he did not accept all of Beloch’s rewriting of the history of the 290s BC, he agreed (at p. 33) that:

  1. “It would [indeed] be surprising if the Sabines had capitulated in just one year, [and] it is [more] likely that the capture of Nequinum [Roman Narni, in 299 BC] provoked hostilities [between Rome and] the Sabines.”

Oakley pointed out that, if hostilities between the Romans and the Sabines had indeed spanned the whole of the 290s, this would account for:

  1. the entry in the ‘Fasti Triumphales’ for 299/8  BC, which records that the consul Marcus Fulvius Paetinus was awarded a triumph over both the Samnites (sic) and the Nequinates: since this triumph was awarded in the lull between the Second and Third Samnite Wars, ‘Samnites’ here should perhaps read ‘Sabines’;

  2. the content of the so-called ‘Elogium’ of Appius Claudius Caecus (CIL VI 40943), according to which, he had routed the army of the Sabines and Etruscans (probably when he was consul in 296 BC);  and

  3. Livy’s record (10: 39: 2) of the capture of Samnite (sic) Amiternum in 293 BC (see above).

If this is correct, then the Sabines had been involved (perhaps intermittently) throughout the Third Samnite War, and we cannot rule out the possibility that some of them had been included among the Samnite-led army that the Romans defeated in spectacular fashion in the decisive Battle of Sentinum (295 BC).   At the least, since the Picenti had agreed a treaty with the Romans in 299 BC, it seems likely that the Sabines had allowed the Samnites to cross their territory in order to communicate with the Senones.

Curius’ Conquest of the Sabine Lands

Fortunately, a number of a the surviving sources record aspects of Curius’ campaign in 290 BC:

  1. According to Florus:

  2. “... [the Romans] attacked the race of the Sabines who, forgetful of the relationship [that they had] formed [with the early Romans] under Titus Tatius, had become ... infected by the [rebellious] spirit of the Latins (sic) and had joined in their wars.  During the [first] consulship of M’. Curius Dentatus, the Romans destroyed with fire and sword all the  country that is enclosed by the Nar, the Anio, the sources of the Velinus and ... the Adriatic Sea.  By this conquest, so large a population and so vast a territory was reduced that even [Curius] could not tell which was of greater importance”, (‘Epitome of Roman History’, 1: 10).

  3. Frontinus, in a list of examples of strategies by which Roman generals had distracted their opponents, recorded that:

  4. “When the Sabines levied a large army, left their own territory and invaded ours, M’. Curius, sent ... a force by secret routes that ravaged their lands and villages, setting fire to them in various places.  The Sabines  withdrew [from Roman territory] in order to prevent further destruction of their country.  But Curius [had already] succeeded in devastating their country while it was unguarded [and] repelled their army without an engagement, ... slaughtering it piecemeal”, (‘Stratagems’, 1: 8: 4).

  5. Orosius:

  6. “[In 290 BC], the consul Curius waged a war against the Sabines.  In this war, the consul himself tells us how many thousand men were killed and captured.  When in the Senate, he wished to report the amount of the land acquired from the Sabines and the number of their inhabitants captured, he was not able to give exact figures”, (‘History, against the Pagans’, 3: 22: 1).

  7. Cassius Dio:

  8. “Curius, in defending his conduct before the people, declared that: he had acquired so much land that any smaller number of [Roman settlers] could not have tilled it, and he had [settled so many men there ?] that any smaller territory would have been insufficient for them”, (‘Roman History’, 8: 37: 1).

Other surviving records relate to the subsequent distribution of the land that was confiscated from the Sabines and their neighbours at this time :

  1. Columella:

  2. “... after his conquest of the Sabines, [Curius was often found] tilling the captured land that [he] had received in the distribution of 7 iugera per man”, (‘De Re Rustica’, 1: 14).

  3. Pliny the Elder:

  4. “The words ... of M’. Curius after his triumphs [over the Samnites and Sabines] and the [resulting] addition of an immense extent of territory to the Roman sway, are well known:

  5. ‘The man for whom 7 iugera of land are not enough must be looked upon ... as a dangerous citizen, since that was the amount of land that was allotted to the people [of Rome] after the expulsion of the kings’”, (‘Natural History’, 18: 4: 18).

  6. Frontinus:

  7. “When, in honour of his defeat of the Sabines, the Senate offered M’. Curius a larger amount of land than they allotted to the discharged troops, he was [instead] content with the allotment of ordinary soldiers, declaring that man who was not satisfied with what others received was a bad citizen”, (‘Stratagems’, 4: 3: 12).

  8. Plutarch:

  9. “When some blamed Curius for distributing only a small part of the land that he had taken from the enemy [presumably the Sabines in 290 BC] while preserving the greater part for the commonwealth, he prayed that there might be no Roman who would [regard an] estate that was enough to maintain him as insufficient”, (‘Sayings of Kings and Commanders’, search on ‘Curius’).

Timothy Cornell, (referenced below, at p. 362) summarised as follows:

  1. “In 290 BC, the consul M'. Curius Dentatus conquered the Sabines and Praetuttii [whose lands were between those of the Sabines and the Adriatic.  They were incorporated into the Roman state] as citizens sine suffragio [see below]; some of their land was seized and distributed to Roman settlers.  As a result of this poorly documented episode, Roman territory was extended right across the peninsula to the Adriatic coast.”

Whatever the circumstances that had prompted Curius’ invasion, the surviving accounts record that large numbers of the original inhabitants were killed or captured in this campaign, and that their territory was effectively confiscated in its entirety.

According to Velleius Paterculus:

  1. “... the citizenship without the right of suffrage was given to the Sabines in the consulship of M’. Curius and Rufinus Cornelius [i.e. in 290 BC. ... In 268 BC,] the right of suffrage was granted to the Sabines”, (‘History of Rome’, 1: 14: 6-7).

This seems to conflict with the evidence presented above for the savage treatment that was meted out to the conquered people.  However, Lily Ross Taylor (referenced below, at pp. 60-2) suggested that:

  1. “In Roman eyes, the Sabines proper were the Curienses [people of Cures in Sabina tiberina] ... [They] were the ‘Sabines’ of Velleius, who got partial citizenship in 290 BC and the vote in 268 BC ...”, (word order amended).

She accepted (at pp. 63-4) Beloch’s suggestion that the Romans had:

  1. “... probably acquired [the territory of Cures in Sabina tiberina] before the conquests of [290 BC].  It would have been needed to protect the approaches to Nequinum ... , captured in 299 BC and the site of the Latin colony of Narnia.  The award of partial [voting] rights to Cures in 290 BC might have been designed to secure the quiescence of the local population during Curius’ [campaign in the alta Sabina].”

Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2013, at p. 10) agreed that:

  1. “... it is very likely that the ‘Sabines’ to whom Velleius alluded are  ... effectively those of Sabina tiberina ...” (my translation);

and suggested that this was because they represented:

  1. ... the only part of the local population that survived (fiscally and legally) the massacre and enslavement ... [of] 290 BC” (my translation). 

In other words, in Sisani’s view, there were probably very few native Sabines to be found in the alta Sabina after the conquest.

  1. Read more: 

G. Farney and G. Masci, “The Sabines”, in:

  1. G. Farney and G. Bradley (Eds), “The Peoples of Ancient Italy”, (2018) Boston/ Berlin, at pp. 543-58

S. Sisani (Ed.), “Nursia e l'Ager Nursinus: un Distretto Sabino dalla Praefectura al Municipium”, (2013) Rome, includes:

  1. S. Sisani, “Da Curio Dentato a Vespasio Pollione: Conquista e Romanizzazione del Distretto Nursino”, at pp. 9-16

  2. S. Sisani and P. Camerieri, “Nursia: Topografia del Centro Urbano”, at pp.103-11

  3. S. Sisani, “Le Strutture Istiuzionale dalla Praefectura al Municipium”, at pp. 113-5

S. Oakley, “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume IV: Book X”, (2007) Oxford

E. Salmon, “Roman Colonisation under the Republic”, (1970) New York

L. Ross Taylor, “The Voting Districts of the Roman Republic: The 35 Urban and Rural Tribes”, (1960) Rome

K. J. Beloch, “La Conquista Romana della Regione Sabina”, Rivista di Storia Antka e Science Affini, 9 (1904) 269-77

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