The Samnites (or in Italian, Sanniti; Safineis to the Samnites themselves), were an ancient people living in central southern Italy from many hundreds of years BC until they vanished under Roman subjugation from around 80 BC.


All photos are my own.

I visited Molise in May and June this year and went to some of the sites where Samnite villages, objects and human remains have been uncovered. I also visited the Sanniti Museo in Campobasso. These places brought the Sanniti alive for me.

Guerriero_Sannita_04 Montreal bronze statue copy of an original made in 1922 by Giuseppe Guastalla (1867-1952) representing a Samnite warrior. Engraved is the words: “The Samnite warrior, symbol of the union of the world’s mercenaries, emblem of fraternity among peoples”. It was to honor the war dead in Pietrabbondante in Molise.  I did not get to Montreal to see this!

The Samnites were made up of 4 tribes which included the Hirpini, Caudini, Caraceni and Pentri.


Map of the Italian Peninsula around 400 BC. (File:Italy 400bC en.svg. Created: 7 February 2011. Decan derivative work: Richardprins (talk).)

Their territories covered from Campania in the south west with its Greek settlements, Puglia to the south east and the lands of the Sabines and Umbrians to the north. Of course the Romans were growing from a small city through this period and occupied the north west. The Samnite territory covered much of what is today Molise and part of Campania across the Apennine mountains of these regions.

I have gathered the tribal and war history below largely from various Wiki sites.

The Hirpini (Oscan for Wolf and said to have followed a sacred wolf to their lands) occupied the most southern mountainous portion of Samnium from Capua across and past Benevento and south to Avellino. Benevento was the most important city of this region and to the Hirpini. Once the Romans had come to occupy it Pliny makes reference to them as the only ‘Roman colony in Hirpini territory’, (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 3.11.16). The via Appia came to pass through this region.

Located to the north of the Hirpini over the Taburno Camposauro mountains were the Caudini. One of the Caudini tribe’s necropolis’ near Caudium, (or modern day Montesarchio) has relics dating back from the 8th to the 3rd century BC. This area was the site of the Caudine Forks victory where the Samnites defeated the Romans.


The Pentri (associated with the sacred Bull) occupied modern day Bojano in Molise(Bovianum to the Pentri), Isernia and Sapino since the 7th century BC and the surrounding region. Pentri territory would have been the location for many of the battles between the Romans and Samnites throughout the 3 Samnite wars and the social wars. The Roman general Sulla (Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix) sacked the city in the 80s BC.

The Caraceni (named for rock) occupied the northern extent of Samnite territory extending up into Chieti in Abruzzo. It is thought modern Castel di Sangro would have been the location of their main city. Pliny does make reference to them, describing a tribe of a similar name in a similar region.

(The Frentani occupied the east of these territories all the way to the Adriatic Sea and although they are of Samnite origin, by the time of the Samnite wars had separated themselves and made their own treaties with Rome. They were associated with the modern day locations of Larino and Termoli in Molise as well as extending down to northern Puglia and north to the Sangro river).

They all spoke an Oscan language along with the Sabines and Umbrians and seem to be closely related to them perhaps having migrated from the north at some stage. Oscan was an Indo-European language, related to Latin and Umbrian  that was spoken from roughly 500BC until 100 AD. It is now extinct.


The Samnites fought alongside the Romans against the Gauls in 354 BC and had a treaty with Rome however  only a decade later they were fighting against each other.


There were 3 Samnite wars. The first in 343-341 BC, the 2nd in 326-304 BC and the 3rd Samnite war was in 298-290 BC. It makes for sad reading. Apart from the glory of the victory at Caudine Forks, the Romans strength, power and tenacity slowly over 50 years beat the Samnites down. They were tired, out numbered in the end and finally subdued. There was a further war much later, the Social Wars 91-88 BC: or the battle of the allies. As Roman strength grew the general Italic peoples wanted to separate from Rome, form their own confederation and had even proposed cities that could be their main city. A coin was minted those involved:  Marsi, Picentines, Paeligni, Marrucini, Vestini, Frentani, Samnites and Hirpini to help fund the cause.

There were many battles but finally Rome made concessions to win over the allies. Wiki states that “By 88 BC, the war was largely over except for the Samnites, the old rivals of Rome, who still held out.” In 82 BC the Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla undertook a systematic ethnic cleansing, removing Samnites as a people.


The Sanniti Museo in Campobasso is able to give us a fuller picture of these people. The cultural information below is largely gleaned from the information boards in the Museum. 


These were a people that prayed at sanctuaries to the angels for their dead, for health and to relieve suffering. Incense and Myrrh was used for sacred ritual and to purify the air. They dedicated their sanctuaries to Mefite, Hercules and Ceres. They worshiped these to protect their water springs, crops, fertility and their transhumance routes which were the life blood of trade and animal survival.


They were farmers, traders, craft makers, and business people as well as horsemen. The women spinners, weavers and home makers.

The men wore short tunics with a wide bronze belt, and cloak. The women wore chiton gowns with cloak as the Greeks and goddesses did. Their clothes were made of wool and linen in colours of neutral, ochre and purple. They wore thick sandals.


They ate fruits, (both fresh and preserved), meats, dairy products, grains, legumes and seafood. They drank wine :).


They had metals and forged alloys such as bronze for weapons, helmets and cooking utensils, The made beautiful pottery for cooking and storing food. They had kilns to make tiles.

Their special buildings for the wealthy or for administration and ceremony were tiled and brightly coloured. Homes for the rest of the community were wattle and daub just as the Celts.

There were practices and protocols for marriage, funerals, and other activities of life. These were not an uncultured or uncivilized people. The were mobile, receptive, intelligent people. Coins, amber and other goods attest to how far they traveled and traded.

They were not much different from us.



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