In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Samnites

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Greek and Roman Views
  • Iron Age Communities (c. 1000–500 bce)
  • The Samnite “Conquest” of Campania
  • The Samnite Wars (c. 343–290 bce)
  • Ethnicity
  • Political Organization
  • Settlements and Urbanization
  • Cult and Sanctuaries
  • Economy
  • Colonization, Cultural Change, and the Romanization Debate
  • The Social War and Its Aftermath
  • The Samnites in Imperial Times

Classics Samnites
Rafael Scopacasa
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0369


According to most of our historical sources, namely the Greek and Roman writers, the Samnites were a tough and warlike people who lived in the mountains of central Italy (known today as the Apennine mountains) and who challenged Rome for many decades during the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. Ancient authors describe the Samnites as having a common origin (as descendants of the Sabines, according to one version), and their own distinctive cultural traits, such as language, religious traditions, and the habit of living scattered in villages and farms instead of in cities. They were said to rely on pastoralism instead of agriculture, and they were considered on the whole to be less wealthy and sophisticated than their neighbours who lived in the rich coastal plains of Italy. Modern interest in the Samnites can be traced back to 19th-century southern Italy: the so-called Agnone table, an Oscan-language inscription with a series of cult instructions, was discovered in 1848 near Pietrabbondante, where soon afterwards the impressive Samnite-period sanctuary was brought to light with its limestone temple and theater. These discoveries were followed by archaeological excavations and surveys that became increasingly systematic over the 20th century, resulting in the exponential growth of material and epigraphic data. The key challenge, however, is to determine how the communities that inhabited the central Italian mountains match up with the people who are described in ancient accounts as the Samnites. It has proven very difficult to locate the Samnites as a stable and geographically cohesive group in antiquity. As is the case with other ancient Italic peoples, the Samnites were not so much a cultural or political unit, but rather a fluid and changing collective whose boundaries shifted depending on the context. In ancient texts, the name “Samnite” is given to different communities and regions of central and southern Italy, albeit with a tendency to focus on the portion of the central Apennine mountains which roughly corresponds to the modern provinces of Campobasso, Avellino, Chieti, and Isernia. Roughly speaking, this is the area that runs from the Apennine mountains to the Adriatic sea, from the south of the modern region of Abruzzo to the area just north of Naples. The ancient inhabitants of this region saw themselves, and were seen by others, as part of networks that extended throughout Italy. But they also seem to have subscribed to more local identities associated with specific towns or districts. All of this has led to complexities in how the Samnites are defined in modern scholarship. Some scholars favor a broader outlook and use the term “Samnite” to mean the ancient inhabitants of large portions of central and southern Italy on the periphery of Etruria and Latium, most of whom spoke dialects of the Oscan language. Other scholars work with a narrower definition that normally encompasses the central Apennine communities only—and even then there is some additional fuzziness as to where the Samnites end and neighboring mountain “peoples” begin, such as the Vestini, Marsi, Marrucini and Paeligni. If we also take into account the earlier period before the 4th century BCE, the issue becomes even more complex, as it is not entirely clear at what point it makes sense to start speaking of Samnites. There are many equally difficult questions around which modern scholars have been working, such as: what did the Samnites call themselves and did they see themselves as a people at any point? To what extent did cultural stereotypes and prejudices shape the way in which Greek and Roman authors portrayed the so-called Samnites? What kind of socio-political organization did these communities develop and is it comparable to anything we find in Greek or Roman Republican history? Does it make sense to regard the Samnites as a nonurban society? How were they affected by the rise of Roman supremacy and to what extent did their experience of Roman power differ from that of other Italian and Mediterranean communities? And at what point does it become impossible to speak of Samnites in any meaningful sense? The following discussion offers a general assessment of these and other key issues in the field. Given the complexities noted above, this article will focus mainly on the communities and areas of central Italy more frequently associated with Samnites in the historical record as described above, while also considering studies that adopt a broader outlook. In terms of chronology, not just the last four centuries BCE are considered, when references to Samnites appear in our sources, but also the earlier period, to provide a long-term context.


Most overviews about the Samnites cover the period from the Iron Age (c. 1000–500 BCE) to the Social War (91–87 BCE). In geographical terms, they tend to focus on the regions that ancient authors associate with the Samnites in the context of the 4th to 1st centuries BCE, namely the central Apennine mountains (see also Introduction). These overviews tend to address a standard set of topics: funerary practice; settlement forms; cult and sanctuaries; the wars with Rome; ethnic identity; political institutions; Roman encroachment and colonization; and the Social War. Salmon 1967 remains key despite the lack of archaeological data, which was limited at the time. La Regina 1989 and Bispham 2007 highlight longstanding debates on Samnite (lack of) urbanization (see also Settlements and Urbanization) and on political institutions (see also Political Organization). Bourdin 2014 focuses on ethnic boundaries in view of the written evidence, while Tagliamonte 1996 and Tagliamonte 2017 search for a distinctive Samnite ethnic identity in the archaeological record (see also Ethnicity).

  • Bispham, E. 2007. The Samnites. In Ancient Italy: Regions without boundaries. Edited by G. J. Bradley, E. Isayev, and C. Riva, 179–223. Exeter, UK: Univ. of Exeter Press.

    A very accessible overview which sees the 5th century BCE as a time of transition in Samnite history: wealth ceased to be invested in private funerary ostentation and was channeled toward the construction of public buildings and spaces, mainly monumental sanctuaries.

  • Bourdin, S. 2014. Les Samnites: perspective historique. In Entre archéologie et histoire: dialogues sur divers peuples de l’Italie préromaine. Edited by M. Abeson, M. C. Biella, M. Di Fazio, and M. Wullschleger, 205–220. Bern, Switzerland, and Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

    Draws on literary and epigraphic evidence to reconstruct Samnite ethnic and political boundaries in the Hellenistic period (4th to 1st centuries BCE). Discusses the so-called Samnite “tribes” (e.g., Frentani and Hirpini) and the extent to which they may have been early formations prior to the 4th century BCE.

  • Ceccarelli, A., and G. Fratianni. 2017. Archeologia delle Regioni d’Italia: Molise. Rome: BraDypUS.

    A wide-ranging overview of the region of Molise, which ancient authors associated strongly with the Samnites. The timeframe includes prehistory down to the later first millennium BCE (as regards the archaeology) delving even further into the medieval period (as regards the historical synthesis).

  • Jones, H., ed. 2004. Samnium: Settlement and cultural change. Providence, RI: Center for Old World Archaeology and Art, Brown Univ.

    Contributors address a wide range of topics, from deconstructions of Greco-Roman historical narratives (see also The Samnite Wars (c. 343–290 BCE)), to archaeological evidence of settlement nucleation potentially challenging earlier models of Samnite non-urbanism or dispersed settlement (see also Settlements and Urbanization).

  • La Regina, A. 1989. I Sanniti. In Italia omnium terrarum parens. Edited by C. Ampolo, 301–432. Milan: Scheiwiller.

    An early effort to link ancient historical accounts about the Samnites with archaeological evidence. Includes an interesting (if controversial) discussion of possible links between archaeological sites and Samnite settlements (urbes and oppida) named in the ancient literary sources.

  • Salmon, E. T. 1967. Samnium and the Samnites. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Salmon’s pioneering study was the first to provide a comprehensive modern account of the Samnites. It was published when archaeological evidence on the Samnites was still relatively lacking. This explains the author’s reliance on ancient literary descriptions, some of which were later deconstructed (see Greek and Roman Views).

  • Tagliamonte, G. 1996. I Sanniti. Caudini, Irpini, Pentri, Carricini, Frentani. Milan: Longanesi.

    Brings together an impressive amount of written and material data. Offers a compelling discussion of local archaeological cultures (facies) in the Samnite uplands c. 1000–500 BCE. For Tagliamonte, the archaeological evidence reveals growing cultural cohesiveness toward the late 5th and 4th centuries BCE, indicating the formation of Samnite ethnicity (see also Ethnicity).

  • Tagliamonte, G. 2017. The Samnites. In The peoples of ancient Italy. Edited by G. Farney and G. Bradley, 419–446. Berlin: Gruyter.

    Argues that Samnite ethnicity developed in the 4th century BCE as a response to Roman aggression, and that this process is reflected in a growing standardization of material culture and ritual practice, chiefly as regards the funerary sphere.

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