The so-called Samnites were an ancient federation of Oscan-speaking tribes that controlled a large territory around the Apennine Mountain range in Central Italy. At least four known major tribes were involved in the Samnite federation—the Hirpini, Caudini, Carricini and Pentri. Populous, warlike, and known to band together under a commander-in-chief in times of crisis, the tribes of the Samnite federation were a formidable force in battle. The Roman Republic would experience Samnite strength firsthand, as three bloody wars were fought between the Romans and the Samnites between 343 and 290 BCE.
Interestingly, the Samnite tribes never called themselves Samnites. Instead, the label allegedly has its origins in Greek and Roman descriptions about the gear that the mountain people wielded. Perhaps the most famous feature of Samnite warriors were their oblong shields—this iconic piece of equipment was curiously remembered by the Romans through the creation of a shield-wielding ‘Samnite’ class of gladiator. Yet, despite the fame of the oblong shield, it was a different piece of equipment that supposedly inspired the Samnite name. This mysterious item of gear was hinted at in a curious fragment of text left behind by an unknown Roman historian. The fragment is called the Ineditum Vaticanum, and in it a character named Kaiso states, “When we found ourselves at war with the Samnites we armed ourselves with their oblong shields and javelins” (Ineditum Vaticanum, ed. H. von Arnim, in T.J. Cornell (pg. 170)). It was the javelin mentioned in the quote that allegedly inspired the Samnite name.
A medieval Lombard historian named Paul the Deacon (lived approximately 720-799) recorded the tale about how a javelin or spear inspired the name that came be attached to the Samnites. He claimed that the Greeks coined the name and that the Romans followed suit. As told by Paul the Deacon, “the Samnites received their name formerly from the spears which they were wont to carry and which the Greeks called ‘saynia’ [Σávvιa]” (History of the Lombards, II.20). Of course, folktales and vague etymologies should always be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Marble Cinerary Urn, dated to the 1st half of 1st century A.D., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.