Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.40

Lukas Grossmann, Roms Samnitenkriege: historische und historiographische Untersuchungen zu den Jahren 327-290 v. Chr. Reihe Geschichte Bd. 1.   Düsseldorf:  Wellem Verlag, 2009.  Pp. x, 201.  ISBN 9783941820005.  €39.00.  

Reviewed by Everett L. Wheeler (


Wars with the Samnites (343-290 B.C.) marked a pivotal period in Rome’s conquest of the Italian peninsula: real "flesh-and-blood" Romans first emerge from the mists of legends. The Late Annalists in particular exploited this period to increase Rome's glory and to push contemporary political agendas, but the extent to which the Late Annalists recast the Samnite wars to reflect the Social War (90-88 B.C.) remains problematic. Even Livy (8.40.4-5; cf. Cic. Brut. 62) grew frustrated with the sources’ exaggerations and falsifications.

Into this historiographical quagmire now wades Lukas Grossmann’s revised 2007 Düsseldorf dissertation directed by Bruno Bleckmann. "[H]istorische" in the title is misleading, as the work is chiefly historiographical, reflecting the close analysis and comparison of sources characteristic of the Doktorvater's dissertation.1 Seekers of a new detailed narrative of the Samnite wars or correctives to S.P. Oakley's multi-volume commentary on Livy, Bks 6-10 will be disappointed. Grossmann usually agrees with Oakley and reserves most of his sniping for E.T. Salmon and T.J. Cornell.2 Grossmann's work in the tradition of Quellenforschung, although avoiding its often excessive speculation, shuns historiography’s current equation with literary analysis and theory.

An introductory chapter briefly surveys the theater of the wars (e.g., the significance of the Liris and Volturnus River valleys), Roman politics, and the level of Samnite development and political organization. Grossmann rightly stresses the volatile character of the Senate’s relationship with the consuls and protests assuming Late Republican practices. In particular, the undated (but late 4th c. B.C.) lex Ovinia, which rendered the Senate a stable body rather than an annually changing advisory board, began to have effects by the 290s. As argued (pp.162-70), L. Postumius Megellus (cos. II, 294; III, 291) represented traditional consular authority in his conflicts with the newly empowered Senate, at this time an agent of change -- the opposite of the sources' Late Republican view of the Senate. Following recent work, Grossmann pictures more hellenized and wealthier Samnites, but their political unity is essentially denied, until possible joint Samnite efforts in the 290s. Issues like the legio linteata and a Samnite League are soon abandoned as "open questions." For Grossmann, Roman sources later contrived the Samnite wars as a contest for control of Italy. Hence (in Grossmann's view) politically and militarily unsophisticated Samnites stymied Roman aggression and often defeated major Roman armies for a half-century. Grossmann shuns as a modern invention traditional designation of a First (343-341), Second (327/6-304), and Third War (298-290), thus rendering the conflicts an amorphous series of campaigns. Readers should come prepared from previous study of these wars, as they will not find an overview of the totality of Roman operations in the conflicts of 327/6-304 and 298-290. Coverage, for example, jumps from the treaty of 304 to events of 296-295 with only brief reference to the war's reopening in 298; the end of the war in 290 is not treated.

The chapters that follow are historiographical case studies of a particular source or theme. Ch. 2 on the beginning of the war of 327/6-304 argues for the superiority of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant.Rom. 15.5-10) to Livy on the political disputes in Neapolis, contributing to Roman-Samnite confrontation. Dionysius, as argued, had access to a Greek source geographically and chronologically close to the events, whereas Livy reproduced annalistic falsifications. Treatment of the Claudine Forks debacle (ch. 3) disappoints in its omissions and lack of novelty. The ritual of missio sub iugum is not discussed; Grossmann seems unaware of the practice of (and the phrase) deditio noxae; the problem of a sponsio or foedus in 321 is not so easily resolved as Grossmann thinks; and the argument for a pitched battle rather than a blockade within a pass is not new. Most agree that the Roman revenge campaign of 320 is annalistic invention, but Grossmann ignores the "Chronicle of P.Oxy 12" (FGrH 255), which has hostilities resume in 318 (not 316), when Diodorus also records Roman operations. Has scholarship on the Caudine Forks actually progressed since Nissen's classic article?3

Chs. 4-5 address the years 316-314, 311, 306, and 304. For 318-303 Diodorus, supplementing Livy with an unidentifiable Late Annalistic source, is argued to be relatively reliable except for geographical and chronological errors. Here Grossmann must actually discuss operations. Rome’s 319 conquest of the Frentani (possibly a Samnite people: pp.23-24) and Roman activity in Apulia 318-317 are conceded despite Grossmann's support for a pax Caudina 320-316. Fabius Rullianus' 315 defeat (not victory) at Lautulae, the pass controlling the coastal route between Latium and Campania, cut Roman connections with Campania and prompted Rome's first naval ventures to secure a sea route (313-310), as well as construction of the via Appia (312). Iunius Bubulcus' defeat (not victory) in 311 is better read in Zonaras (8.1.1), using an Early Annalistic source, than Livy; Bubulcus' triumph is a fiction and his vow of a temple to Salus, dedicated in 302, should be related to his second consulship of 313 during a plague rather than his "victory" of 311.

The "battle of the nations" at Sentinum in 295, where Fabius Rullianus and Decius Mus defeated the Samnites, Etruscans, Gauls, and Umbrians is the focus of Ch. 6. Appius Claudius' defeat in Samnium the previous year is exposed as invention, as is the propraetor Scipio Barbatus' responsibility for the loss at Camerinum in 295, the prelude to Sentinum. Propraetors did not yet exist in 295 and Barbatus has been inserted to disguise Fabius Rullianus' defeat. For Grossmann, Umbrian and Etruscan participation at Sentinum is annalistic invention reflecting the Social War and the Samnites had no role in instigating the Etruscan war of 311-308. Thus Grossmann would have the Romans fight a major battle with the Gauls and Samnites in Umbria without the locals' participation. Although Grossmann accepts the historicity of Decius Mus' devotio at Sentinum, his act differs from his father's in 340: Livy's details (10.28.12-18) represent a new version of the ritual. Ch. 7 on Postumius Megellus' conflicts with Fabius Gurges (292) and the Senate (291) seems almost an afterthought to the chapter on Sentinum.

Most objectionable, however, is Grossmann's foray into the Roman strategy question. Grossmann follows the "Rome the aggressor" school,4 but adds that the lack of a stable Senate before the lex Ovinia precluded long-term strategic aims despite the sources' implications to the contrary. Accordingly, Roman foreign policy reflected individual consuls' whims and their gentes's interests. Even Roman colonization is denied a strategic function, although Grossmann concedes that personal and public interests could coincide to Rome's long-term advantage (pp.7, 13 with n.49, 14 with n.50; 34 n.47, 177).5 Yet these assertions are not argued in detail and certainly not proved. Such "mindless" Roman war-making without strategic direction reduces the Samnite wars to meaningless triumph-hunting, which somehow produced wins in three wars, two of them lengthy, through the superiority of Roman manpower and social structures, as if such were something like Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Even the Battle of Sentinum, minimized with great effort, is denied status as a "decisive battle" (pp.153-54, 178). Grossmann thinks that Roman social structures guaranteed ultimate success, although (as well-known) the gods are not always on the side of the biggest battalions. Nevertheless, Grossmann acknowledges (in contradiction to his "no strategy" views) the historicity of the 319 campaign against the Frentani and Roman efforts in Apulia 318-317, which were clearly Roman efforts to open a second front against the Samnites on the Adriatic coast far behind the obvious theaters in the Liris River valley and the Volturnus River dividing Samnium from Campania. Similarly, Grossmann asserts (p.117) coordinated Roman attacks on multiple fronts against the Samnites 311-304, but somehow these are divorced from any concept of Roman strategy.

From the Samnite perspective, Grossmann's minimal Samnite political organization (Samnite military capability is not discussed) prompts the question of how the Samnites could have fought the Romans for a half-century and repeatedly defeated Roman armies. A view of a strictly defensive Samnite mentality and denial of Samnite involvement in the Etruscan war of 311-308 (precisely when Rome opened multiple fronts against Samnium) is likewise curious. It was not by chance that Gauls were Samnite allies at Camerinum and Sentinum in 295. Indeed Grossmann resorts (pp.177-78) to an argument common among deniers of Roman strategic thinking:6 here, the Samnites' failure to wage the war according to Grossmann's own understanding of strategic principles supposedly proves an absence of strategy. Such conjectures have no value as scholarly arguments. Grossmann believes that the Samnites should have aggressively exploited Roman defeats, as if the Samnite raid on Ardea in Latium (Strab. 5.4.11), which Grossmann dates (p.95) to 315 after the Roman defeat at Lautulae, does not refute his own argument and, as Grossmann concedes (p.54), the Samnites made a serious effort (315-314) to gain control of Campania. A major Samnite army in Etruria and Umbria in 295 surely indicates that Samnites had a sense of the offensive. Grossmann's exaggerated conclusions (pp.177-78) that his study has proved a lack of Roman strategy in the Samnite wars and that Roman campaigns pursued only a Roman commander's immediate personal advantages do not match his presentation of the evidence. His alleged proofs for such questions have not been clearly and consistently argued in detail. A reader completes the work with the sense that the cursory discussions of the Einleitung have erected a straw man. These flawed historical conclusions compromise the fine, diligent efforts of Grossmann the historiographer.

Grossmann's vague goals (p.2), reconstructing the sequence of events and general insights into the character of the Samnite wars and their sources, rest upon his four methodological options for resolving conflicts in the sources: (1) combination of the two (e.g., p.108 n.27); (2) recognition of the same tradition in two sources, accurate in one, falsified in another; (3) identifying the same tradition falsified in different ways in distinct sources; and (4) irreconcilable traditions. Discerning the truth, for example, about Scipio Barbatus' 298 B.C. campaign, recounted in three variants (including his elogium, ILLRP 309), has no solution (p.2).7 Pace Grossmann, a Roman victory must be acknowledged, if reported as a victory in one source but as a defeat in another, since only the Roman tradition, unlikely to remember defeats, survives. But one source's modest victory is more plausible than another's spectacular win. Further, if Livy (or another source) apparently does not understand the information reported (e.g., unknown toponyms), the material is unlikely to be invented. In contrast, unrealistic numbers of enemy slain, topoi, intrusion of Late Republican themes, and geographically nonsensical campaigns signal inventions.

Grossmann's painstaking and commendable study of the sources offers much to ponder, even if definitive solutions are elusive. A reader, once lost in the minutiae of comparing individual sources, often cannot easily see Grossmann’s novel contributions, which are not always clearly emphasized. Indeed scholars may find Grossmann's footnotes more valuable than his text. The book is by no means a "quick read."


1.   Die Reichskrise des III. Jahrhunderts in der spätantiken und byzantinischen Geschichtsschreibung. Untersuchungen zu den nachdionischen Quellen der Chronik des Johannes Zonaras (Munich 1992).
2.   S.P. Oakley, A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X (Oxford 1997-2005) 4 vols.; E.T. Salmon, Samnium and the Samnites (Cambridge 1967); T.J. Cornell, e.g., "The Conquest of Italy," CAH2 VII.2 (1989) 351-419, and The Beginnings of Rome (London 1995).
3.   H. Nissen, "Der caudinische Frieden," RhM 25 (1870) 1-65.
4.   E.g., W.V. Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327-70 B.C. (Oxford 1979).
5.   Cf. R. Rowland, "Rome's Earliest Imperialism," Latomus 42 (1983) 749-62: unknown to Grossmann.
6.   Cf. B. Isaac, "The Army in the Late Roman East: The Persian Wars and the Defense of the Byzantine Provinces," in A. Cameron, ed., The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, III: States, Resources and Armies (Princeton 1995) 132-37.
7.   Oakley (supra n.2: IV 170-75) also cannot solve the riddle; the reviewer's discussion of Barbatus, "Sapiens and Stratagems: The Neglected Meaning of a Cognomen,” Historia 37 (1988) 166–95, is unknown to both Grossmann and Oakley.

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