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The Roman conquest of Italy was the result of a series of conflicts in which the city-state of Rome grew from being the dominant state in Latium to become the ruler of all of Italy. The first major Roman conquest in historical times came with the final defeat of her neighbour Veii in 396 BC. In the second half of the 4th century BC Rome clashed repeatedly with the Samnites, a powerful tribal coalition. By the end of these wars Rome had become the most powerful state in Italy. The last threat to Roman hegemony came when Tarentum enlisted the aid of Pyrrhus of Epirus during the Pyrrhic War (282 - 272 BC). By 218 BC Roman conquest of Italy had been completed. Conquered territories were incorporated into the growing Roman state in a number of ways: land confiscations, establishment of coloniae, granting of full or partial Roman citizenship and military alliances with nominally independent states. The successful conquest of Italy gave Rome access to a manpower pool unrivalled by any contemporary state and led the way to the eventual Roman domination of the entire Mediterranean world.
The single most important source on early Roman history is the Roman historian Titus Livius (59 BC - 17 AD), usually spelled Livy in English literature, who wrote a history known as Ab Urbe Condita (From the Foundation of the City) covering the entirety of Rome's history from her mythical origins up to his own times in 142 books. Of these only books 1-10 and 21-45 have survived down to our times, covering the years from the foundation up to 293 and 220 - 167 BC. However summaries of the lost books have been preserved, and later historians such as Florus, Eutropius and Orosius used Livy as their source, so that we do have some knowledge of the contents of the lost books.
Independently of Livy the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 BC–after 7 BC) wrote Roman Antiquities in 20 books covering from Rome's origins to 264 BC, with emphasis on the earlier period. Of these the 11 first books have survived, covering the period down to 443. For the latter nine books only fragments exist.
Slightly earlier than Livy and Dionysius, the Sicilian Diodorus Siculus (flourished between 60 and 30 BC) wrote Bibliotheca historica a universal history of the Mediterranean world in 46 books. From the historical section of this work books 11 - 20 survive intact, covering the years 480 - 302 BC. In these books Diodorus' chiefly focusses on events on Sicily and in the Eastern Mediterranean, but occasionally also refers to Roman history.
During the Roman Empire Livy became the standard account on early Roman history, most later histories are therefore ultimately derived from him and of little independent value. Cassius Dio (c. 150 - 235 AD) appears to have been an exception, frequently providing details not found in Livy or Dionysius. His books covering early Roman history survive only in fragments, but his work was summarized by the 12th century monk Zonaras.
Finally the Greek philosopher Plutarch (c. 46 - 120 AD) wrote a series of biographies on famous Greeks and Romans, the Parallel Lives, several of which deal with early Roman history. Of particular importance is his biography of king Pyrrhus of Epirus (319/318 – 272 BC) since for the years 292 - 264 BC no other substantial narrative has survived.
Reliability of the sources
Livy and Dionysius were born 200 years after the completion of Rome's conquest of Italy and had to rely on earlier, now lost, historians as their sources. The Roman Republic of their times was in many ways fundamentally different from the one that conquered Italy. In antiquity history was primarily a literary genre where strict historical accuracy could be sacrificed in return for a more entertaining or stylistically impressive account. While modern historians generally agree that the sources contain a core of historical information, it is also clear that much of the material surviving to our time suffer from misinterpretations or the outright inventions of the ancient writers. Just how much, and which parts, date back to authentic records remains a matter of some dispute.
Another problem is that, except for the Pyrrhic War, all the sources are written from a predominantly Roman point of view. We therefore possess little knowledge of the motivations and internal politics of Rome's many enemies.
Rather than assigning an increasing number to each year, like the modern Gregorian calendar, the ancient Romans usually used an eponymous dating system where events were dated by the names of Rome's chief magistrates (typically two consuls). Roman magistrates were elected for one year; as long as the sequence of magistrates (called a fasti) and its synchronization with the modern calendar are known, dates can be converted from one dating system to the other. Thus the year when Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida were consuls becomes 63 BC. During the late 1st Century BC Roman scholars worked out a complete chronology of Roman history, dating the foundation of Rome to 753 BC and the beginning of the Roman Republic to 509 BC. Today known as the Varronian Chronology (from one of its early adopters, the famous antiquarian Marcus Terentius Varro), this chronology was made official by the early Roman Empire and has remained the standard ever since. However for the years prior to 300 BC the Varronian Chronology is no longer considered correct. According to the respected Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200–118 BC) the sack of Rome by a Gaulish warband took place in the same year as the Peace of Antalcidas which was concluded in 387/386 BC. But according to the Varronian Chronology the Gaulish Sack happened three or four years earlier, in 390 BC. The Varronian Chronology also claims that for five years, 375-371, civil unrest and anarchy in Rome prevented any magistrates from being elected, and in four years, 333, 324, 309 and 301 BC, a dictator, rather than two consuls, was elected to govern Rome for an entire year (the normal maximum term for a dictator was six months). Historians now believe both the lengthy anarchy and the dictator years to be unhistorical. Likely Roman scholars who knew that the Gallic Sack and the Peace of Antalicidas were supposed to be synchronous discovered that their list of magistrates, due to errors in transmission, fell short. They then invented an extended anarchy and dictator years to pad out their chronologies to the desired length. By adopting both the anarchy and dictator years the Varronian Chronology therefore has corrected for the same problem twice and ended up too long. Despite these acknowledged errors, academic literature continues, by old convention, to number years according to the Varronian Chronology; this is therefore also the convention adopted in this article.
Early Roman wars
According to traditional accounts Rome was first ruled by seven kings, Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, all of which, except Numa, are recorded as fighting successful wars against Rome's neighbours. The historicity of these accounts is extremely doubtful. However, Rome must at some point in the regal period have extended her territory to include the Alban hills (traditionally attributed to Tullus Hostilius) and down to the coast (traditionally attributed to Ancus Marcius). These expansions made Rome by far the largest city-state in Latium. Roman territory c. 500 has been estimated to about 822 km2 (317 sq mi), more than twice as large as the second largest Latin city, Tibur, at 351 km2 (136 sq mi).
The last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, is portrayed by the sources as a powerful, but tyrannical, king. He is said to have taken Pometia by storm and Gabii by ruse, colonized Signia and Circeii, and to have organized the Latin states into an alliance under his own leadership. However Tarquinius was deposed by a conspiracy led by two of his relatives, Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. These two then founded the Roman Republic with themselves as its first two consuls; traditionally the overthrow of the monarchy has been dated to 509 BC. Tarquinius is supposed to have sought refuge with king Lars Porsenna of Clusium, who marched against Rome to reinstate the king. After various heroic acts by brave defenders of Rome, Porsenna gave up and instead attacked Aricia, but was defeated by an alliance of Latin cities and the Greek colony of Cumae. Modern historians have had difficulties accepting this tale and have instead proposed that Porsenna actually captured Rome and deposed Tarquinius and replaced him with two leading aristocrats. With leadership of the city divided, Rome would have been easier for Porsenna to control.
With the departure of Porsenna, war broke out between Rome and the other Latin states leading to the Battle of Lake Regillus in either 499 or 496. In 493 a treaty, the Foedus Cassianum, was concluded, establishing a mutual military alliance between the Latin cities with Rome as the leading partner. A second people, the Hernici, joined the alliance sometime later. While the precise workings of the Latin League remains uncertain, its overall purpose seems clear. During the 5th century the Latins were threatened by invasion from the Aequi and the Volsci, as part of a larger pattern of Sabellian-speaking peoples migrating out of the Apennines and into the plains. Several peripheral Latin communities appear to have been overrun, and the ancient sources record fighting against either the Aequi, the Volsci, or both almost every year during the first half of the 5th century. This annual warfare would have been dominated by raids and counter-raids rather than the pitched battles described by the ancient sources.
The beginnings of Roman expansion
During the second half the 5th century the Romans and the Latins appears to have stemmed the tide. The sources records the founding of several Roman colonies during this era, while mention of wars against the Aequi and Volsci become less frequent. At about the same time Rome brought her ancient rivalry with the Etruscan city-state of Veii to a decisive end. In 426 Rome captured Fidenae, Veii's foothold on the southern side of the Tiber and in 396 Veii fell to Roman arms, supposedly after a ten year siege. Rome annexed Veii's territory and enrolled her citizens as Roman citizens, significantly increasing Roman territory and manpower.
In 390 a Gaulish warband first defeated the Roman army at the Battle of Allia and then sacked Rome. Despite ancient sources' emphasis on the severity of the destruction, this appear to have been only a temporary setback for Rome. The records for the first half of the 4th century are confused, but Rome appear to have embarked on a deliberate policy of aggression against the Volsci. Fear of Roman expansionism increasingly brought the Latin cities into alliance with the Volsci in a complete reversal of the situation during the 5th century.
The Samnite wars
The years 343 - 290 were dominated by a series of conflicts between Rome and the Samnites, a powerful coalition of Oscan-speaking peoples. Rome and the Samnites had concluded a treaty of alliance in 354, but overlapping spheres of interest eventually brought them to war.
The chief result of the First Samnite War, 343 - 341, was the expansion of Roman influence into Campania with an alliance with the important city-state of Capua. This war was closely followed by the Latin War, 340 - 338, where the Latins and the Volsci made a final bid to shake off Roman dominion. Once again Rome was victorious. In the peace settlement that followed, Rome annexed some states outright, other remained autonomous Latin states, but the Latin League was dissolved. Instead the surviving Latin states were bound to Rome by separate bilateral treaties. The Campanians, who had sided with the Latins, were organized as civitas sine suffragio - citizenship without a vote - which gave them all the rights and duties of a Roman citizen, including that of military service, except the right to vote in the Roman assemblies. This peace settlement was to become a template for how Rome later dealt with other defeated states.
Rome spent the next years consolidating her latest conquests. In 328 war broke between Rome and Neapolis, originally a Greek city state which by this date also had a significant Oscan population. This war ended when a pro-Roman faction among the Neapolitans took control of the city and concluded a treaty on favourable terms with Rome. Neapolis would remain a faithful Roman ally to the end of the Republic. This war is also notable for the first securely attested case of prorogation when one of the consuls of 327 had his command extended into the next year.
Roman alliance with Neapolis and colonization of Fregellae appear to have provoked the Samnites enough to cause the outbreak of the Second Samnite War in 326. In 321 Rome suffered a severe defeat when a Roman army had to surrender at the Caudine Forks and forced to accept a truce with the Samnites. According to traditional accounts the Roman people at once repudiated the truce (concluded by the defeated consuls in the field) and in the next two years completely reversed the Caudine disaster by a series of impressive victories, followed by a two year truce 318 - 317. Modern historians have put little credence in this, instead believing Roman victories of 320 and 319 were later inventions and that Rome and the Samnites were at peace from 320 to 317.
Hostilities broke out again in 316. After another reversal at the Battle of Lautulae (an indecisive battle according to Livy, a Roman defeat according to modern historians), the Romans gradually gained the upper hand. After the Roman capture of Bovianum, one of the Samnites' principal towns, the Samnites were forced to sue for peace in 304.
Towards the end Second Samnite War, Roman military superiority was great enough that Rome could afford to at the same time launch campaigns into Etruria and Umbria in 311 - 309. In 304 Rome also won crushing victories against the Hernici and Aequi and in the following years concluding treaties with the tribes of the Paeligni, Marrucini, Frentani and Vestini. and extended her reach to the Adriatic.
The Third Samnite War broke out in 298, apparently after the Samnites had attempted to ally with the Lucanians. When this failed, the Samnite commander Gellius Egnatius led his army north to form a coalition with the Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls. 295 turned out to be the turning point of the war. The Romans managed to detach the Etruscan and Umbrian contingents by invading their homelands and then defeated the combined Samnite-Gaulish army at the battle of Sentinum. After suffering from a series of defeats and invasions the Samnites were in 290 forced to accept an alliance on terms imposed by Rome.
The loss of Livy's Books XI - XV means that much less information is available for the years 292 - 264 than the preceding decades. It is however clear that Roman expansion continued at increasing pace, leading to the Roman Republic growing from being the dominant state of central Italy to becoming the hegemon of the entire peninsula. In 290 the Roman consul Manius Curius Dentatus conquered the Sabines, who were annexed into the Roman state as citizens without a vote. During 284 - 280 the Romans fought a war against the Etruscans and Gauls in northern Italy. After first being defeated at the battle of Arretium, Rome won a decisive victory against the Gauls at the battle of Lake Vadimo leading to the Roman annexation of the ager Gallicus.
Simultaneous with these wars Rome's influence in the south was growing. In 285 or 284 the Greek city of Thurii appealed to Rome for aid against the Lucanians and Bruttians. In 284, after defeating the Lucanians and Bruttians in battle, Rome installed a garrison in Thurii, supported by a small Roman fleet. This provoked the city of Tarentum, who had long considered herself the dominant Greek city in Magna Graecia. The Tarentines sunk the Roman fleet and captured Thurii, but having drawn the wrath of Rome, realized they needed allies to have any hopes of standing against Rome. Their choice fell on Pyrrhus, king of Epirus and a famous general. Pyrrhus crossed the sea to Italy with his army in 280 and that same year defeated the Romans at the battle of Heraclea and again the next year at the battle of Ausculum. These victories however proved to be strategically indecisive when they failed to convince Rome to accept peace on Pyrrhus' terms. With no end in sight Pyrrhus in 278 departed for Sicily to aid the Greek cities there against Carthage. He returned to Italy in 275, but this time was defeated by the Romans at the battle of Beneventum. Pyrrhus then left Italy for Greece and after his death in 272 the Epirote garrison at Tarentum surrendered the city to the Rome, bringing the Pyrrhic war to an end. While details on these campaigns are scarce, there must also in these years have been extensive fighting between Rome and the Samnites, Lucanians and Bruttians. Roman victories against various combinations of these three peoples are recorded for every single year from 282 to 272.
In the years following the Pyrrhic War, Rome completed the conquest of Italy by subduing the Umbrians and Picentes in the north and the Sallentini and Messapii in the south-east. In 264 the consul Marcus Fulvius Flaccus put down a social uprising in the Etruscan city of Volsinii and reinstalled the old ruling families in power. That same year his colleague Appius Claudius Caudex led a Roman army across to Sicily, starting the First Punic War and a new phase in the history of the Roman Republic.
- Cornell, T. J. (1995). The Beginnings of Rome- Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC). New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-01596-7.
- Forsythe, Gary (2005). A Critical History of Early Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24991-7.
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