Key to Umbria

Samnite League ?

Home   Cities    History    Art    Hagiography    Contact

Roman ConquestMain page   Pre-Roman Umbrian League ?   

Samnite League      Battle of Sentunum      Literary Sources

(Note that the page “Literary Sources” expands on all the classical references in the account below)

Second Samnite War (326-304 BC BC)

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

The series of conflicts that is generally referred to as the Second Samnite War was probably triggered by the foundation of the Latin colony at Fregellae in 328 BC, on a site on the left bank of the Liris river that the Samnites regarded as within their sphere of influence.  The details of this war need not concern us here, since the Etruscans, for whatever reason, seem to have remained neutral for almost all of it.  The key points for this discussion are that:

  1. The Samnites won two major victories:

  2. the first was at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC, after which they drove the Roman colonists from Fregellae (in 320 BC);

  3. the second was at Lautulae in 315 BC, after which they ravaged the coast of Latium.  The people of the border town of Sora, on the right bank of the Liris, defected to the Samnites after killing the Roman soldiers that were garrisoned there.  

  4. The Romans recovered from the second of these setbacks quite quickly, and were able to: regain control of Sora (in 314 BC); re-establish the colony at Fregellae (in 313 BC); and found five new colonies on the borders of Samnium, including Interamna Lirenas, on the left bank of the Liris, (in 312 BC).

As Timothy Cornell (referenced below, 1995, at pp. 354-5) observed:

  1. “The result was that, by 312 BC, Samnium was surrounded by military allies of Rome and confronted in the sensitive Liris - Volturnus region by strings of Latin colonies on strategic sites ...  [This was] the turning point of the war ... [The Romans] were no longer in any serious danger of defeat. ... [Thereafter,] Roman campaigns were conducted in Samnium, with varying success, in every year down to 304 BC ... , [when] the Samnites sued for peace.”

It was at this time that the Etruscans (after some 40 years of peace with Rome) apparently opened hostilities: as Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2005, at p. 344) suggested:

  1. “... perhaps they chose 312 or 311 BC to make their move because they wished to preserve the balance of power in central Italy ...”

310/9 BC: Dictatorship of L. Papirius Cursor

Dating Convention

This year began with the election as consuls of Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus (for the second time) and Caius Marcius Rutilus.  According to Livy, when Marcius was wounded while campaigning in Samnium at this time, his functions were assumed by a dictator, Lucius Papirius Cursor. 

Livy clearly assumed that Papirius’ dictatorship ended before the start of the next consular year, when:

  1. “In recognition of his remarkable conquest of Etruria, Fabius was continued in the consulship, and was given [Publius Decius Mus] for his colleague.” (‘History of Rome’, 9: 41: 1).

Diodorus (who made no mention of Papirius’ dictatorship) also placed Fabius’ second and third consulship in consecutive years, as we can see from his designations of the contemporary eponymous archons of Athens (search on ‘Charinus’):

  1. “When Demetrius of Phalerum was archon in Athens [309-8 BC], in Rome Quintus Fabius received the consulship for the second time and Gaius Marcius for the  first”, (‘Library of History’, 20: 27: 1).

  2. “When Charinus was archon at Athens [308-7 BC], the Romans gave the consulship to Publius Decius and  Quintus Fabius”, (‘Library of History’, 20: 37: 1).

However, in the fasti Capitolini:

  1. Fabius’ second year as consul, with Marcius as his colleague, was 444 years ‘Ab Urbe Condita’ (after the foundation of Rome);

  2. Papirius served as dictator (without consuls) in 445; and

  3. Fabius’ third year as consul, with Decius as his colleague, was in the year 446.

They also recorded three other years in which a dictator ruled without consuls for what would normally have been an entire consular year: the other three of these ‘dictator years’ were 421; 430, when Papirius was again the dictator in question; and 453 AUC (333 BC; 324 BC; and 301 BC).  The earliest of our surviving sources make no reference to this constitutional phenomenon: according to Andrew Drummond (referenced below, at p. 562):

  1. “... the first reasonably certain appearance of the [so-called] dictator years is in Atticus' ‘liber annalis’ of 47 BC.”

As Dexter Hoyos (in Yardley and Hoyos, referenced below, at pp. xi-xii), pointed out, modern scholars agree that, in reality:

  1. “Such magistrate-free years ... cannot have existed: [thus, for example, the consular] year that we call [310 BC was almost certainly] followed by the [consular] year that we call [308 BC].  [However.] rather than disrupt long-standing conventions, [they] generally us the traditional dates ... and employ a double numeral to designate the actual year before each fictitious year ...”

In other words, assuming that Papirius actually did take over Marcius’ consular responsibilities at this time, then:

  1. the end of his term as dictator would have ended during Fabius’ second year as consul (conventionally 310 BC); and

  2. the ‘dictator year’ recorded in the fasti (309 BC) never existed. 

Thus, in the sections below, I have designated the period of Papirius’ dictatorship as 310/9 BC.

Papirius’ Appointment as Dictator 

Livy is our only surviving source for Papirius’ dictatorship, except for the record in the fasti Triumphales (above).  In his account of the events of this year, the consuls Fabius and Marcius campaigned, exclusively and respectively, in Etruria and Samnium.  When Marcius engaged the Samnites at an unspecified location:

  1. “... the battle was fiercely contested on both sides, but without a decision being reached.  Yet, although it was doubtful which side had suffered most, the report gained ground that the Romans had been worsted ... and, most conspicuous of their misfortunes, that [Marcius] himself was wounded.  These reverses were, as usual, further exaggerated in the telling, and the Senate, in great dismay, determined on the appointment of a  dictator”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 38: 8-10).

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2005, at pp. 460-1) pointed out that Marcius probably did suffer a reverse at this time, since:

  1. “... the annalistic tradition is unlikely to have invented a Roman defeat; ... [Furthermore, since ] the appointment of a dictator was a regular Roman response to military difficulty in this period, ... there is  no compelling reason to doubt the dictatorship of Papirius, even if Livy’s account of panic at Rome after the defeat of Marcius derives only from his own imagination or that of his sources.”

However, Oakley acknowledged (at note 1) that some scholars have doubted that a dictator was appointed in 310 BC: this cannot be ruled out, particularly since Livy said no more about Marcius’ fate.

Livy now turned to the process by which Papirius was appointed as dictator:

  1. “Nobody could doubt that Papirius Cursor, who was regarded as the foremost soldier of his time, would be designated.  ...  Since the other consul, Fabius, had a private grudge against Papirius, ... the Senate decided to send a deputation of former consuls to him [presumably at his camp in Etruria ... in order to] induce him to forget those quarrels in the national interest.  The ambassadors [duly] went to Fabius and delivered the resolution of the Senate ...  [Fabius], his eyes fixed on the ground, retired without a word ... Then, in the silence of the night, as custom dictates, he appointed Lucius Papirius dictator.  When the envoys thanked him ... , he continued obstinately silent, ... so that it was clearly seen what agony his great heart was suppressing”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 38: 10-5).

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2005, at p. 452) pointed out that Livy had devoted considerable space to the quarrel that had erupted between the two men during Papirius’ previous term as dictator in 325/4 BC, when Fabius, who had then been his Master of Horse, had allegedly disobeyed his orders.  In this earlier account, Livy observed that he had:

  1. “... [found] it stated by certain writers that Quintus Fabius twice fought the enemy while the dictator was absent, and twice gained a brilliant victory.  [However], the oldest historians give [only one such] battle; and the story is omitted altogether in certain annals”, (‘History of Rome’, 8: 30: 7).

We might therefore reasonably wonder whether the putative animosity between the two men in both 325/4 and 310/9 BC was largely a product of the partisan inventions of later annalists (as discussed further below).

Papirius’ First Engagement with the Samnites at Longula

Livy recorded that, immediately upon his appointment, Papirius:

  1. “ ... took command of the legions that had been raised [at Rome] during the scare connected with [Fabius. earlier campaign in Etruria], and led them to Longula [an unknown location, presumably in Samnium.  There, having also taken] over Marcius’ troops, he marched out and offered battle, which the enemy on their part seemed willing to accept.   But, while the two armies stood armed and ready for the conflict, ... night overtook them.  Their standing camps were within a short distance of each other and they remained quiet for some days, not through any distrust of their own strength or any feeling of contempt for the enemy”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 39: 1-4). 

At this point, Livy’s narrative of events in Samnium comes to an abrupt end (at least in the surviving manuscripts).  However, Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2005, at p. 499) pointed out that:

  1. “It is quite likely that [9: 39: 4] was not originally the end of Livy’s description of this part of Papirius’ campaign, but were [instead] leading up to an account of a battle that was about to take place.”

If so, then this part of the narrative has been lost. 

Papirius’ Samnite Victory and Triumph

After leaving Papirius at Longula, Livy described a major Roman victory in Etruria.  He then returned to Samnium, where:

  1. “... the war ... was attended with equal danger and an equally glorious conclusion”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 1).    

However, he does not say where this ‘glorious conclusion’ took place: Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2005, at p. 461) observed that the putative lacuna at 39: 4 (above):

  1. “... does not allow us to determine whether [it] ... should also be placed at Longula.”

Livy began his account of this battle by recording that the Samnites:

  1. “... besides their other warlike preparations, had made their battle lines glitter with new and splendid armour.  There were two corps:

  2. the shields of one were inlaid with gold, ... and their tunics were of many colours;

  3. the shields of other were inlaid with silver, ... and their tunics were made of dazzling white linen ...

  4. The [Samnite] right wing was assigned to the latter: the others took up position on the left”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 2-5).

He observed that, by contrast:

  1. “The Roman ... generals had taught [their men] that a soldier should be rough to look on, not adorned with gold and silver but rather putting his trust in iron and in courage”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 5).

With observations of this kind ringing in the ears of his men:

  1. “Papirius led [them] into battle.  He took up his own post on the [Roman] right, and committed the left to his master of the horse [Caius Junius Bubulcus Brutus].  From the first moment, there was a mighty struggle with the enemy, and a struggle no less sharp between the dictator and his master of the horse, to decide which wing would inaugurate the victory”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 2-9).

Livy now provided an important detail of the Samnite corps that confronted Junius:

  1. “It so happened that Junius was the first to make an impression on the Samnites ... He ...  faced the [Samnite] right, where [the men] had consecrated themselves, as was their custom, and for that reason were resplendent in white clothing and equally white armour”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 9).

These were the men  whom Livy had already described as wearing dazzling white linen tunics and carrying shields inlaid with silver.  Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 397) pointed out that this was probably the origin of the title ‘Linen Legion’ (see below): in the act of ‘consecrating themselves’, the men in white linen tunics had almost certainly sworn: to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender; and to kill any of their colleagues who attempted to flee from the battle.  For this reason, as Junius led the charge against them, he declared: 

  1. “... that he offered [them] in sacrifice to Orcus [a god of the underworld] ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 10).

Oakley observed that, in this passage:

  1. “Junius, in a grim jest, pronounces that he will do the sacrificing [of the consecrated men], but on behalf of Rome” (my italics).

When Junius’ charge broke the enemy right, the internal tensions that Livy had already flagged became manifest: when Papirius saw Junius’ charge:

  1. “... he cried:

  2. ‘Shall ... the dictator's division follow the attack of others  [rather than] carry off the honours of the victory ?’ 

  3. This fired the [rest of the Roman] soldiers with new energy; nor did ... the lieutenants [display] less enthusiasm than the generals: Marcus Valerius on the right and Publius Decius on the left, both men of consular rank, ... charged obliquely against the enemy's flanks.  [The Samnites took flight and] the fields were soon heaped with both dead soldiers and glittering [enemy] armour”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 10-4).

Following this victory:

  1. “... as decreed by the Senate, [Papirius] celebrated a triumph, in which by far the finest show was afforded by the captured armour.  So magnificent was its appearance that the shields inlaid with gold were divided up amongst the owners of the money-changers' booths, to be used in decking out the Forum”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 15-6).  

The ‘fasti Triumphales’ record that, in the 444th year after the foundation of Rome (309 BC):

  1. Papirius, as dictator, was awarded a triumph over the Samnites on the ides of October; and

  2. Fabius, as proconsul, was awarded a triumph over the Etruscans on the ides of November.

In fact, as explained above, the likelihood is that, if these triumphs were actually awarded at all, they belong to the later part of the consular year 310 BC: there is certainly no other evidence that Fabius served as proconsul in a period between his second and third consulships.


Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2005, at p. 461) observed that:

  1. “Even though Diodorus ignores Papirius’ campaign against the Samnites, it would probably be an excess of scepticism to reject it out of hand; ...  although it is possible that [it] is an annalistic or Livian invention, no certain arguments for rejecting it have yet been adduced.  Nevertheless, the details of the fighting offered by Livy are unlikely to be sound: many recur in a very similar guise in his account of the victory of [Papirius’ eponymous] son at Aquilonia in 293 BC, and it is therefore possible that those [recorded for 310/9 BC] are all unauthentic ...”

Edward Salmon (referenced below, at pp. 245-6 and note 1) similarly considered that:

  1. “The crushing victory that the dictator L. Papirius Cursor is said to have scored in [310/9 BC)] ... is recognised, even by Livy [see below], to contain features borrowed from his son’s victory ... in the Third Samnite War.  ... The victory [of the elder Papirius], if not entirely fictitious, was, at most, merely a local success that helped maintain Roman diversionary pressure on the western borders of Samnium.”

End Game (310/9 - 304 BC)

Timothy Cornell (referenced below, at pp. 354-5) provided a good summary of the final years of this war:

  1. “[The surviving] sources do not give a very clear picture of the last years of the Second Samnite War: instead, they provide a shapeless catalogue of annual campaigns, the details of which are uncertain. ... A major victory is attributed to L. Papirius Cursor in 310/9 BC, but the Samnites [rallied] in 307 BC ...; although apparently defeated  [at this point], they returned to the attack in 306 BC and invaded northern Campania.  The Romans retaliated with a full-scale invasion of Samnium and captured the stronghold of Bovianum,  The Samnites were then destroyed in a pitched battle in which their leader, Statius Gellius, was killed.  ... In 304 BC, the Samnites sued for peace: the ‘old treaty’ ... was renewed, and the 20 years war was at an end. “

Livy’s description of this humiliation of the Samnites is oddly low-key:

  1. “[In 304 BC], the Samnites, whether seeking to end or simply to postpone hostilities, sent envoys to Rome to sue for peace.  The Romans’ answer to their humble supplications was  that, if they had not frequently sought peace [in the past] while preparing for war, a treaty could have been arranged by mutual discussion: as it was, since [their] words had hitherto proved worthless, the Romans would have to take their stand on facts.  Publius Sempronius, the consul, who was someone whom they would be unable to deceive as to whether [they really wanted] peace or war, would shortly be in Samnium with an army.  After a thorough investigation, he would report his findings to the Senate and, on his leaving Samnium, their envoys might attend him.  The Roman army [duly] marched all over Samnium; the people were peaceable and furnished the army liberally with supplies.  Accordingly, in that year, the ancient treaty was restored again to the Samnites”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 45: 1-4).

Third Samnite War (298-90 BC)

Initial Phase (298-6 BC)

Rome’s third war against the Samnites broke out in 298 BC, only six years after their ‘ancient treaty’ with Rome had been renewed.  Livy describes how the Etruscans and Umbrians entered into the conflict in 296 BC:

  1. “While things went on thus in Samnium, ... [a] powerful alliance, composed of many states, was formed in Etruria against the Romans, the chief promoter of which was Gellius Egnatius, a Samnite.  Almost all the Etruscans had united in this war.  The neighbouring states of Umbria were drawn in ... and auxiliaries were procured from the Gauls for hire: all their several numbers assembled at the camp of the Samnites”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 18: 1-3). 

Appius Claudius Caecus, one of the consuls of 296 BC, led an army into Etruria, but was initially unsuccessful.  However, his colleague Lucius Volumnius travelled from Samnium to support him (apparently uninvited and unwelcome).  As battle approached:

  1. “Volumnius began to engage before Appius ... and by some accidental interchange of their usual opponents, the Etrurians fought against Volumnius and the Samnites ... against Appius.  We are told that Appius, during the heat of the fight, raising his hands toward Heaven ... prayed thus:

  2. ‘Bellona, if you grant us the victory this day, I vow to you a temple.’ 

  3. ... after this vow, as if inspirited by the goddess, he displayed a degree of courage equal to that of his colleague and of the troops.  ... [Appius and Volumnius] therefore routed and put to flight the enemy ... [and] drove them into their camp.  There, by the interposition of Gellius and his Samnite cohorts, the fight was renewed for a little time.  But ... the camp was now stormed by the conquerors; and whilst Volumnius, in person, led his troops against one of the gates, Appius, frequently invoking Bellona Victrix, inflamed the courage of his men, who broke in through the rampart and trenches.  The [Samnite] camp was taken and plundered, and an abundance of spoil was ... given up to the soldiers.  Of the enemy, 7,300 were slain and 2,120 taken [prisoner]” (10:19).

The theatre of war now moved to Campania, where the Samnites were enjoying success.  The position of the Romans deteriorated further when:

  1. “...intelligence was brought [to Rome] from Etruria that, after the departure of Volumnius' army, all that country had risen up in arms, and that Gellius Egnatius, the leader of the Samnites, was causing the Umbrians to join in the insurrection and also tempting the Gauls with high offers.  Terrified at this news, the Senate ordered the courts of justice to be shut, and a levy to be made of men of every description.  ... Plans were formed for the defence of [Rome], and the praetor, Publius Sempronius, was invested with the chief command.  However, the Senate was relieved of one half of their anxiety by a letter from the consul, Lucius Volumnius informing them that the [Samnite] army that had ravaged Campania had been defeated and dispersed; whereupon, they decreed a public thanksgiving for this success, in the name of the consul.  The courts were opened, after having been shut for 18 days, and the thanksgiving was performed with much joy.” (10:21). 

Livy made a laconic reference to a series of worrying portents that occurred in Rome during 296 BC:

  1. “During that year many prodigies happened.  For the purpose of averting them, the Senate decreed a supplication for two days: the wine and frankincense for the sacrifices were furnished at the expense of the public; and numerous crowds of men and women attended the performance” (10:23).

Zonaras (drawing on Cassius Dio) elaborated on the nature of these portents:

  1. “The Romans, when they learned of [the imminent threat to Rome], were in a state of alarm, particularly since many portents were causing them anxiety:

  2. -On the Capitol, blood is reported to have issued for three days from the altar of Jupiter, also honey on one day and milk on another (if anybody can believe it); and

  3. -in the Forum, a bronze statue of Victory set upon a stone pedestal was found standing on the ground below, without any one having moved it; and, as it happened, it was facing in that direction from which the Gauls were already approaching. 

  4. This of itself was enough to terrify the populace, [but they] were even more dismayed by ill-omened interpretations of [the majority of] the seers.  However, a certain Manius, by birth an Etruscan, encouraged them by declaring that Victory, even if she had descended [from her pedestal], had at any rate gone forward and, being now established more firmly on the ground, indicated to them mastery in the war.   Accordingly, many sacrifices, too, would be offered to the gods; for their altars, particularly those on the Capitol, where they sacrifice thank-offerings for victory, were regularly stained with blood on the occasion of Roman successes and not in times of disaster.  [Thus, the blood on the altar of Jupiter there foreshadowed victory.] From these circumstances, then, [Manius] persuaded them to expect some fortunate outcome, [albeit that]:

  5. -from the honey [they could] expect disease, since invalids crave it; and

  6. -from the milk, [they could expect] famine; for they should encounter so great a scarcity of provisions that they would seek for food of natural and spontaneous origin.

  7. Manius, then, interpreted the omens in this way, and as his prophecy turned out to be in accordance with subsequent events, he gained a reputation for skill and foreknowledge” (‘Epitome ton istorio’, 8:1: 2-4).

A fragment of this account from Cassius Dio himself survives:

  1. “In regard to the prophecy [of Manius], the multitude was not capable for the time being of either believing or disbelieving him: 

  2. -it neither wished to hope for everything, inasmuch as it did not desire to see everything fulfilled;

  3. -nor did it dare to refuse belief in all points, inasmuch as it wished to be victorious;

  4. [and so, the multitude] was placed in an extremely painful position, distracted as it was between hope and fear.  As each single event occurred, the people applied the interpretation to it according to the actual result [i.e. Rome was victorious (see below) but then suffered from the predicted disease and famine], and [Manius] himself undertook to assume some reputation for skill with regard to foreknowledge of the unseen” (‘Roman History’, 8:28).

Battle of Sentinum (295 BC)

Major Roman victory at Sentinum - insert link.

Battles at Aquilonia and Cominium (293 BC)

Edward Salmon (referenced below, at p. 270) observed that, two years after the major setback that the Samnites had suffered at Sentinum:

  1. “Realising that the supreme test was at hand, [they] prepared for it by mobilising every man capable of bearing arms ...”

Thus, according to Livy:

  1. “The whole of the [Samnite] army was summoned to Aquilonia, and some 40,000 men, the full strength of Samnium, were mustered there”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 5).

Consequently, the consuls elected for that year, Lucius Papirius Cursor (the son of the dictator of 310/9 BC) and Spurius Carvilius Maximus, were both assigned to Samnium.  According to Livy,the consuls advanced into Samnium from different directions:

  1. “Carvilius, having ravaged the  country around Atina, reached Cominium, [while] Papirius reached Aquilonia, where the main army of the Samnites was posted. .... [These Roman camps] were separated by a distance of 20 miles,  ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 39: 4-7).

It is likely that they were in northern Samnium, but the precise geography is unclear: Atina can be securely located on the northwestern border of Samnium but, as Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 390) concluded:

  1. “... without new discoveries, the location of neither Aquilonia nor Cominium can be established beyond reasonable doubt.”

The details of the following military engagements (which Oakley summarised at p. 380) need not concern us here: briefly, in co-ordinated engagements:

  1. Papirius drove the Samnites from Aquilonia;

  2. Carvilius first besieged Cominius in order to prevent potential enemy reinforcements from heading to Aquilonia and thereafter took the city.

For Livy, this was the point at which the Samnites were finally defeated:

  1. “Subsequently, [Papirius and Carvilius] held a council of war ... to settle whether the time had come for the withdrawal [of one or both Roman] armies from Samnium.  [However], they decided that it was best to continue the war, and [indeed] to carry it on more  ruthlessly as the Samnites became weaker, in order that they might hand over to the consuls who succeeded them a thoroughly subdued nation.  As the enemy no longer had an army in any condition to fight in the open field, the war could only be carried on by attacking their cities: the sack of those that they captured would enrich the soldiers, while the enemy, compelled to fight for their hearths and homes, would gradually become exhausted”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 44: 6-8).

The fasti Triumphales record that, towards the end of the consular year, both consuls were awarded triumphs over the Samnites. 

In the following section, I concentrate on Livy’s account of the muster of the ‘full strength of Samnium’ at Aquilonia.  However, it is useful first to note the similar but much shorter account in a surviving fragment by Cassius Dio:

  1. “The Samnites, enraged at what had occurred [at Sentinum in 295 BC] and feeling it disgraceful to be continually defeated, resorted to extreme daring and recklessness, with the intention of either conquering or being utterly destroyed.  They:

  2. assembled all their men that were of military age, threatening with death any one of their number who should remain at home; and

  3. they bound themselves with frightful oaths, each man swearing not to flee from the contest himself, and to slay anyone else who should attempt to do so”, (‘Roman History’, 36: 29).

Army Raised Under a Lex Sacrata ?

Livy’ set out the means by which the Samnites, having recently lost so many men, managed to raise this substantial new army:

  1. “A levy was conducted throughout Samnium under a new rule: if any man of military age:

  2. had not assembled [at Aquilonia] on the General's proclamation; or

  3. had departed without permission;

  4. his life would be Iovi sacraretur (forfeited to Jupiter)”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 3-5).

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 394) pointed out that Livy does not:

  1. “... explicitly state that the Samnites recruited by means of a lex sacrata [on this occasion].  However, there are [a number of] reasons for thinking that this was the impression that he intended to give.”

One of these reasons was the fact that, according to Pliny the Elder, Carvilius:

  1. “... erected the statue of Jupiter that is seen in the Capitol after he had conquered the Samnites, who fought in obedience to a lex sacrata: [this statue was] ... made from their breast-plates, greaves, and helmets ...”, (‘Natural History’, 34: 18).

As Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 391) observed, this passage:

  1. “... can hardly refer to any other year but [293 BC] ...”.

The defeat of the army conscripted at Aquilonia in that year had been a joint operation, as evidenced , for example, by the fact that, according to Livy, after both Aquilonia and Cominium had fallen:

  1. “The rejoicings in [the armies of Papirius and Carvilius] were all the greater because of the success achieved by the other.  The consuls, by mutual agreement, gave up the captured cities to be sacked by the soldiery. ... Amidst their own mutual congratulations and those of their soldiers, [they] united their camps.  ... the consuls sent despatches to Rome giving an account of their operations ... the contents of these despatches were received with every manifestation of delight ... and four days' thanksgiving was declared as an expression of the public joy ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 44:1 - 45:2).

In other words, the armour that was used for Carvilius’ statue had probably been taken from men who had been conscripted at Aquilonia and, if so, then we learn from Pliny they had been conscripted under a lex sacrata

According to Festus:

  1. Sacratae leges sunt, quibus sanctum est, qui[c]quid ad'versus eas fecerit sacer alicui deorum sicut familia pecuniaque’, (‘De verborum signifcatione’, 422 Lindsay)”

  2. “Sacred laws are laws that have the sanction that anyone who breaks them becomes ‘accursed’ to one of the gods”, (translation by Timothy Cornell, referenced below, 1995, at p. 449, note 68).

The earliest occasion on which Livy mentioned recruitment under such a law was in 431 BC, when the Aequi and the Volsci prepared to invade Rome:

  1. “After a levy had been held under a lex sacrata, which was the most powerful means that [the Aequi and the Volsci] possessed of compelling men to serve, the armies of both nations advanced and concentrated on Algidus [a mountain in Latium], where they established separate camps”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 26: 5-6).

The next occasion was in 310/9 BC, when an unnamed Roman commander faced the Etruscans, who:

  1. “... employing a lex sacrata, had raised an army in which vir virum legisset (each man had chosen another).  [For this reason, this army] joined battle [with the Romans] with greater forces and ... greater valour than ever before ...  [However], on that day, for the first time, the Romans broke the might of  the Etruscans ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 39: 5-11).

Then, shortly afterwards, we have the Samnite army that confronted the younger Papirius in 293 BC, when any Samnite men of fighting age who tried to evade conscription faced death.  We hear nothing more about forced conscription under a lex sacrata until 191 BC, when, according to Livy:

  1. “... the Ligurians had assembled an army under a lex sacrata and made a sudden attack upon the camp where the proconsul Q. Minucius was in command”, (‘Roman History’, 36: 38: 1).

It seems odd that the Ligurians made use of a practice that it otherwise known only among the tribes of peninsular Italy: John Patterson (referenced below, at p. 20) suggested that it arose because :

  1. “... the Romans in general, and Livy in particular, saw some similarities between the Samnites and the Ligurians, two fierce opponents of Rome.”

Samnite Oath

According to Livy, when the muster at Aquilonia was complete, the Samnites:

  1. “... invoked the aid of the gods by ... initiating the soldiers with an oath administered in an ancient [and thus, presumably, well-proven] ritual”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 2).

However, it is only later in Livy’s account that we learn more about this oath and the ancient ritual that attended it. 

Thus, Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 393) observed that this introductory passage, which he labelled as passage (a):

  1. “... must look forward at least to [the passage at 10: 38: 5-11, which he labelled as passage (c)].”

This later passage had two elements:

  1. First:

  2. “A space of about [200 x 200] feet, almost in the centre of their camp, was boarded off and covered with linen cloth.  A sacrifice was conducted in this enclosure, following the words from an old linen book.  The aged priest, Ovius Paccius, who officiated, announced that he was taking this rite from an old Samnite ritual, which their ancestors had used when they had formed their clandestine plan to take Capua from the Etruscans”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 5-7). 

  3. Thus, this ritual went back at least to 423 BC, when the Samnite army that had taken ‘Volturnus, now called Capua’ from the Etruscans (‘History of Rome’, 4: 37: 1-2), as discussed further below.

  4. Then, the most distinguished of the conscripted soldiers were required to swear a terrible oath:

  5. “When the sacrifice was completed, the General sent a messenger to summon all those who were of noble birth or who were distinguished for their military achievements.  They were admitted into the [sacred] enclosure one by one.  As each was admitted, he was led up to the altar, more like a victim than like one who was taking part in the service, and he was bound on oath not to divulge what he saw and heard in that place.  Then, he was compelled to swear [another] oath, which was couched in the most terrible language, in which he called a curse on himself, his family, and his race if he:

  6. did not go into battle where the commanders should lead him;

  7. ... fled from battle; or

  8. did not immediately slay anyone whom he saw fleeing.

  9. At first, there were some who refused to take this [second] oath; they were massacred beside the altar and their dead bodies lying amongst the scattered remains of the [animal victims of earlier sacrifices] were a plain hint to the rest not to refuse”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 7-12).

As Oakley suggested, this seems to be a more detailed description of the “oath administered in an ancient ritual” in his passage (a), albeit that:

  1. the oath mentioned in passage (a) initiated ‘the soldiers” (which suggests all of the conscripts); while 

  2. the oath in passage (c) was administered only to the most distinguished of these men.

Timothy Cornell (referenced below, 1995, at p. 259) asserted that the practice of:

  1. forcibly conscripting men; and then

  2. compelling them to swear such terrible oaths;

was not unprecedented among non-Latin tribes:

  1. “In times of crisis, [peoples such as the Volsci and the Samnites would use leges sacratae to] raise armies by means of a compulsory levy, and the soldiers so-enrolled would be sworn to follow their leaders to the death.”

It is certainly true that, in Livy’s account of the Samnite levy of 293 BC:

  1. the men who were ordered to Aquilonia were conscripted on pain of death; and

  2. the most distinguished among them were forced, on pain of death, to swear an oath of obedience to their commanders under the sanction of a dreadful curse. 

However, it seems to me that the surviving sources are neither sufficiently plentiful nor sufficiently detailed to support the second part of this hypothesis: that men conscripted under leges sacratae were always forced to swear that they would fight, if need be, to the death.  Indeed, some of the men who were forcibly conscripted at Aquilonia were not subsequently compelled to swear the terrible oath.

Linen Legion

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 393) suggested that the passage at 10: 38: 2:

  1. “... may [also] look forward to [10: 38:12, his passage (d)], which follows closely on [10: 38: 5-12, his passage (c)] and could perhaps be regarded as part of the same ceremony.”

In this passage, the General selected ten of the élite soldiers who had taken the terrible oath to provide the nucleus of a special cohort:

  1. “After the foremost men among the Samnites had been bound by this dread formula, ten were selected by the General, who then asked vir virum legerent (each man choose another)  [and so on] until they had made up the number of 16,ooo.  These were called the ‘Linen Legion’ from the material with which the place where they had been sworn was covered.  They were provided with resplendent armour and plumed helmets to distinguish them from the others”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 12-3). 

Livy referred again to the Linen Legion in his account of the following battle; as it reached its climax:

  1. “At last the dread of gods and men had yielded to a greater terror, the ‘linen cohorts’ were routed;  iurati iniuratique (the sworn and the unsworn) fled; the only thing that they feared now was the enemy”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 41: 9-10). 

As Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 428 explained:

  1. “Only a portion of the Samnite army had sworn the oath [see 38:12-13 above.  However], the  men of the Linen Legion had sworn to kill any Samnites whom they saw fleeing.”

In other words, once this legion had been routed, the dreadful oath had been forgotten, so that sworn and unsworn alike now feared only the Romans.

Livy’s Concluding Passage

Livy concluded by recording that:

  1. “The rest of the army consisted of a little over 20,000 men, but they were not inferior to the Linen Legion in their personal appearance, their soldierly qualities, or the excellence of their equipment.  This [i.e., the 16, ooo men who had been selected for the Linen Legion plus the 20,000 or so who had not] was the number of those in the camp at Aquilonia: [they represented] the total [military] strength of Samnium”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 13).

Thus, it seem that this corps had not been selected in any particular way: it was simply made up of all the conscripted men who had not been selected for the Linen Legion. 


Linen Legion

According to Festus:

  1. Legio Samnitium linteata appellata est quod Samnites intrantes singuli ad aram velis linteis circumdatam non cessuros se Romano militi iuraverant’, (‘De verborum signifcatione’, 102 Lindsay”

  2. “The Samnite Linen Legion is so-called because [its members], arriving one by one before an altar surrounded by linen veils, had vowed not to retreat before the Roman army” (my translation).

This is consistent with Livy’s assertion that the 16,ooo men who had been selected by the procedure of vir virum legere: 

  1. “... were called the ‘Linen Legion’ from the material with which the place where they had been sworn was covered”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 12). 

The odd thing is that there is nothing in the earlier part of Livy’s account to indicate that all 16,000 of these men had been sworn, either in the linen-covered enclosure or anywhere else (as discussed further below).

Timothy Cornell (reference below, 1974, at p. 201) asserted that Livy’s account of the derivation of the name of this legion:

  1. “... is not only absurd but superfluous, since the real reason for the name was perfectly obvious and well known to the annalists, as Livy shows in 9: 40: 9.”

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 397) was of the same opinion: he suggested that Livy’s description of the clothing of the consecrated ‘silver legion’ in 9: 40: 3:

  1. “... suggests a more natural derivation: the legion was named for the linen tunics that its members wore.”

These two passages from Book IX belong to Livy’s account of the Samnite army that had confronted Papirius’ father, as dictator, in 310/9 BC.  We know nothing about the way that this Samnite Army had been conscripted.  However, we learn from them that:

  1. “The [Samnites] ... had made their battle lines glitter with new and splendid armour.  There were two corps:

  2. the shields of one were inlaid with gold, ... and their tunics were of many colours;

  3. the shields of other were inlaid with silver, ... and their tunics were made of dazzling white linen ...

  4. The [Samnite] right wing was assigned to the latter [corp]: the other took up position on the left”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 2-5).

  5. “[Junius, the dictator’s Master of Horse] faced the [Samnite] right, where [the men] had consecrated themselves, as was their custom, and, for that reason, were resplendent in white clothing and equally white armour”, (‘History of Rome’, 9: 40: 9).

It is entirely possible that:

  1. this corps was also known as the Linen Legion, albeit that Livy does not

  2. say so; and

  3. the linen tunics that its men wore marked them out as having ‘consecrated themselves’.

We might now usefully return to Livy’s assertion that the 16,ooo men who had been selected by the procedure of vir virum legere at Aquilonia: 

  1. “... were called the ‘Linen Legion’ from the material with which the place where they had been sworn was covered”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 12). 

Timothy Cornell (reference below, 1974, at p. 201) pointed out that, in fact, in the earlier part of Livy’s account:

  1. “The oath of allegiance had been taken only by the aristocrats, and not by [all of] the 16,000 men of the Linen Legion, [some of whom] were selected later and by a different method (vir virum legere).  One would have expected the oath to be administered to all 16,000, and to have formed an essential part of the process of selection.”

Note also that, according to Livy 9: 40: 9 (above), in 310/9 BC, the men in linen tunics who fought on the Samnite right had all  “consecrated themselves”.  I think that this had also been the case in the Linen Legion that was selected at Aquilonia, because  there was more to procedure by which they had been selected than Livy’s ‘matter of fact’ description of it might suggest.  Specifically, I think that each of the selected men became the comrade-in-arms (or metaphorical blood-brother) of the man to whom he owed this honour, and that he was thus honour-bound to share this man’s fate in the battle ahead.  Since the first ten men selected for the legion had all sworn the dreadful oath in the linen-covered sanctuary, then so too had all of the other 15,990 (albeit that some of them, perhaps the majority, had sworn it indirectly). 

If this is correct, then we might reasonably expand Livy’s definition: the name of the ‘Linen Legion’  of 293 BC derived from the linen of the tunics worn by its 16,000 men, which marked them as having been sworn (either directly or indirectly) in the linen-covered sanctuary at the centre of their camp at Aquilonia.  If this is correct, then the army mustered at Aquilonia, probably under a lex sacrata, contained:

  1. 16,ooo men who had been selected for the Linen Legion, al of whom had had either directly or indirectly sworn the dreadful oath; and

  2. some 24,000 men, some of whom (perhaps the majority) who had not.

Ritual Used at Capua in 423 BC

As noted above, Livy asserted that part of the ritual used at Aquilonia in 293 BC had also been used in 423 BC by the Samnites who had captured Volturnus (later renamed Capua) from the Etruscans.  According to Livy (who is our only surviving source for the circumstances in which this capture had been effected): 

  1. “An incident is recorded under [423 BC] that, although it took place in a foreign country, is still important enough to be mentioned [in a history of Rome]: namely, the capture by the Samnites of Volturnus (an Etruscan city that is now called Capua) ... after the Etruscans (who had been weakened by a long war) had granted them joint occupancy of the city and its territory: during a festival, after the original inhabitants had been overcome by wine and sleep, the new settlers had attacked them in the night and massacred them”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 37: 1-3).

Livy did not describe any ritual that attended the Samnites’ actions in this account.  However, as we have seen, he did so in his account of the ritual used at Aquilonia in 293 BC: when Ovius Paccius had performed sacrifices in the linen-covered enclosure there, he pronounced that he was using the words from an old linen book that described: 

  1. “... the old ritual of the Samnite religion that [our] ancestors used after they had formed their clandestine plan to take Capua from the Etruscans”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 6-7). 

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 397) discussed what he considered to be the most satisfactory of the hypotheses that have been postulated in order to account for some of the oddities contained in Livy’s account of this ancient ritual:

  1. it took place in a linen tent;

  2. great secrecy surrounded it; and

  3. the terrible oath that was administered in this tent was sworn (at least initially) by only the most distinguished of the men who had been conscripted under the lex sacrata.

According to this hypothesis, these oddities had arisen because Livy or his source(s) had enlivened a relatively sober:

  1. “... account of a Samnite levy conducted by means  of a lex sacrata by [incorporating into it] details derived from the clandestine oaths sworn (or imagined by later historians to have been sworn) at the time of the Samnite capture of Capua, an operation for which secrecy was appropriate; and in which comparatively small numbers will have been involved.”

Livy himself had put a reference to the ritual that had been used on this occasion into the mouth of Ovius Paccius, which suggests that he had found at least this much information in his source(s).   Having considered what sources of this kind might have existed in Livy’s time, Timothy Cornell (referenced below, 1974, at p. 205) concluded that:

  1. “... there is nothing unlikely in the suggestion that Cato's 'Origines' [for example] contained an account of the Samnite occupation of Capua ... , including details of the [conspiracy there] that are reflected in Livy's narrative of the [muster at] Aquilonia.”

If such sources did indeed exist, and if their incorporation into Livy’s narrative explains the oddities listed above, then they would have recorded that:

  1. the Samnite settlers at Capua had held some sort of assembly in 423 BC, at which they hatched their conspiracy to capture the city;

  2. those attending this assembly had been sworn to secrecy;

  3. a sacrificial ritual had inaugurated the proceedings; and

  4. this assembly (or, at least, the rituals attending it) had taken place in a linen tent. 

It seems to me that these putative sources might well have also recorded that the conspirators (or perhaps their leaders) had been chosen by the procedure of vir virum legere and/or wore linen tunics, which would have provided Livy further material that could be incorporated into his account of the muster  at Aquilonia. 

Etruscan Army Confronting the Romans in 310/9 BC

While the elder Papirius was defeating the Samnites in 310/9 BC, an unnamed Roman commander was confronting the Etruscans (as mentioned above).  According to Livy (‘History of Rome’, 9: 39: 5), our the only surviving source:

  1. this army had been raised under a lex sacrata; and

  2. the men who were serving in it had been selected in a process in which each man had chosen another until the required number of men had been reached.

It seems to me that the implication of this was that this description falls into two distinct parts:

  1. As with the Samnite army raised in 293 BC, this army had been recruited under a lex sacrata that involved a meaningful penalty (perhaps execution) for eligible men who evaded conscription.

  2. This lex sacrata might or might not have defined the process of selection, under which the Etruscan general presumably selected one of the assembled men as his comrade in arms, after which, this man chose another and so on until the desired complement was reached.

In either case, the result would have been an army of men who were bound to follow their general (who was also, indirectly, their comrade in arms) to the death.  If this is correct, then presumably the men who had been conscripted under the lex sacrata but not selected for the army that confronted the Romans were either held in reserve or sent home.

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 2007, at p. 394) asserted that the similarity between this selection procedure and that used for the Samnite Linen Legion (certainly in 293 BC and probably in 310/9 BC):

  1. “... leaves no doubt that the selection and binding of one man by another was an ancient and fundamental part of recruiting lege sacrata.”

However, I am not sure that this was necessarily the case: after all, there is no indication that this selection procedure was used for the either armies of the Aequi and the Volsci in 431 BC or by that of the Ligurians in 191 BC, all of which had been recruited under leges sacratae.

Triumphs of Papirius and Carvilius


According to Livy:

  1. “On [Papirius’] approach to Rome, a triumph was granted to him by universal consent.  This triumph, which he celebrated while still in office, was a very brilliant one for those days.  ... The spoils of the Samnites attracted much attention; their splendour and beauty were compared with those that [Papirius’] father had won, which were familiar to all through their being used as decorations of public places.  ... All the silver and bronze [realised by the younger Papirius from the sale of prisoners] was stored in the treasury, while none of it was given to the soldiers.  This created resentment among the plebs, because a tax was gathered to provide for the soldiers' pay: whereas, if Papirius had not been so anxious to get the credit of paying the price of the prisoners into the treasury, then there would have been enough to make a gift to the soldiers and also to furnish their pay.  Papirius also dedicated the temple of Quirinus.  I do not find in any ancient author that it was he who vowed this temple in the crisis of a battle, and certainly he could not have completed it in so short a time; it was vowed by his father when dictator, and the son dedicated it when consul, and adorned it with the spoils of the enemy.  There was such a vast quantity of these that, not only were the temple and the Forum adorned with them, but they were [also] distributed amongst the allied peoples and the nearest colonies to decorate their public spaces and temples”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 46: 2-8)


According to Livy, Carvilius had campaigned relatively successfully in Etruria after he had left Samnium:

  1. “After these successes, he went home to enjoy his triumph, a triumph less illustrious than [that of papirius] in regard of the Samnite campaign, but fully equal to it considering his series of successes in Etruria.  He brought into the treasury  [part] of the proceeds of the war, and disposed of the rest partly in contracting for the building of a temple to Fors Fortuna, near the temple of this goddess that  King Servius Tullius had dedicated, and partly as a donative to the soldiers ... . This gift was all the more acceptable to the men after the niggardliness of his colleague.”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 46: 13-15)

Splendid Enemy Armour Becomes Spoils for Rome

Livy observed that, in 293 BC, the Samnites; 

  1. “... had taken  care ...  to adorn their soldiers with as much ... splendour as they had done on the occasion of the elder Papirius' victory [in 310/9 BC”], (‘History of Rome’, 10: 38: 1-2).

He also had the younger Papirius himself urging his men not to be intimidated by the magnificence of the enemy armour: 

  1. “My father ... annihilated a Samnite army all in gold and silver [in 310/9 BC], and those [enemy] trappings brought more glory to the victors as spoils than ... to the wearers.   It might, perhaps, be a special privilege granted to my name and family that the greatest efforts that the Samnites ever made should be frustrated and defeated under our  generalship, and that the spoils that we brought back should be sufficiently splendid to serve as decorations for the public places of Rome”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 39: 9-13).

Livy made a direct reference to the fact that: 

  1. ‘The triumph that [the younger Papirius] celebrated while still in office was a brilliant one for those days.  ... The spoils of the Samnites attracted much attention; their splendour and beauty were compared with that of the spoils that his father had won [in 310/9 BC], which were familiar to all through their being used as decorations of public places”, (‘History of Rome, 10: 46: 2-4).  

Finally, he noted that the younger Papirius dedicated the temple of Quirinus, presumably at the time of his triumph, and added:

  1. “I do not find in any ancient author that it was he who had vowed this temple in the crisis of a battle, and certainly he could not have completed it in so short a time; it [must have been] vowed by his father when dictator [in 310/9 BC]: the son dedicated [the completed temple] when consul, and adorned it with the spoils of the enemy.  There was such a vast quantity of these spoils that, not only were the temple and the Forum adorned with them, but they were distributed amongst the allied peoples and the nearest colonies to decorate their public spaces and temples”, (‘History of Rome, 10: 46: 7-8).

As we saw above, the magnificent enemy spoils displayed by the elder Papirius during his triumph of 310/9 BC had similarly adorned the Forum.

Read more:

J. C. Yardley and D. Hoyos, “Livy: Rome's Italian Wars: Books 6-10”, (2013), Oxford World's Classics

J. Patterson, “Samnites, Ligurians and Romans Revisited”, (2013), online at

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

S. Oakley, “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume III: Book IX”, 2005 (Oxford)

T. Cornell, “The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (ca. 1000-264 BC)”, (1995) London and New York

T. Cornell, “Notes on the Sources for Campanian History in the 5th Century BC”, Museum Helveticum, 31:4 (1974) 193-208

E. T. Salmon, “Samnium and the Samnites’, (1967) Cambridge

Roman Conquest: Main page   Pre-Roman Umbrian League ?     Samnite League     

Battle of Sentunum      Literary Sources 

Return to the History Index