By the end of the 330s BCE, the Roman Republic was on a roll—Rome had dominated the Latin League in the Latin War (c. 340-338 BCE), and also dispatched armies to make war upon the territories of the Ausones and the Sidicini in the following years. Around the year 334 BCE, Rome was evidently still campaigning against the Sidicini, but Roman attention also was being drawn toward the heel of Italy. Roman informants and scouts noticed great agitation and mobilization among their powerful Samnite neighbors, and seeing this caused the Roman government a great deal of concern and anxiety. Worried that they might be attacked, Rome decided to appoint a dictator, but the political process turned out to be more messy and complicated than they had hoped. The defensive appointment of the dictator, and the problems that occurred after it, were commented upon by the Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), who wrote:
“It was also reported that the Samnites were mustering their forces for war. That was the moment for the Senate to authorize the consuls to appoint a dictator. Publius Cornelius Rufinus was chosen, with Marcus Antonius as master of Horse. Then religious doubts were raised about a possible flaw in their election, they resigned office, and when this was followed by an outbreak of plague it was supposed that all the auspices were affected by the irregularity, and the State reverted to an interregnum.” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.17).
Faced with their political turmoil and plague, the Romans were relieved to discover that the Samnite mobilization was not focused on Rome. Instead, the Samnite Federation was rallying their forces to resist against an invasion by King Alexander of Epirus, who had arrived in Italy around 334 BCE to aid the Greek colonial city of Tarentum. Fighting on behalf of the Tarentines, King Alexander campaigned on multiple fronts, battling the Samnites, as well as other enemies of Tarentum, such as the Lucanians and Bruttians. Such was the cause of the disturbance among Rome’s neighbors to the southwest, and, with this knowledge, concerns over Samnite mobilization were dispelled for the time being. Romans, especially, breathed a sigh of relief when King Alexander of Epirus negotiated terms of friendship and peace with Rome.
Around the 333-332 BCE timeframe, Roman worries were transferred from south to north. This time, Rome was abuzz with rumor and gossip about an army of Gallic warriors mobilizing to invade Rome. Such fears resonated among the Romans, as Rome had been pillaged by a Gallic army sometime between 390-386 BCE, and wandering Gallic warbands continued to clash with Roman armies many times in the tense decades that followed the Sack of Rome. Yet, Gallic incursions eventually became increasingly rare. At the time when the new rumors of a potential Gallic invasion worried Rome around 333 BCE, it had actually been about a decade and a half since Gallic troops had last made a show of force in Roman territory, with the previous clash being around 348 BCE. Nevertheless, the Roman government took the latest rumors seriously and they decided to resort to their frequent tactic of proactively appointing a dictator. On this, Livy wrote, “The general situation was peaceful when a rumour of a Gallic war had the effect of a rebellion in deciding the Senate to choose a dictator. Marcus Papirius Crassus was elected, with Publius Valerius Publicola as master of Horse. While they were holding a levy, more stringently than they would have done for a war against neighboring peoples, scouts were sent out and returned to report that all was quiet amongst the Gauls” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.17). As the gossip of the Gallic invasion was proved to be unfounded, the dictators stepped down and Rome continued to operate with business as usual.
Meanwhile, King Alexander of Epirus’ adventure in Italy, which had begun in 334 BCE, ultimately met a sudden end around 331 BCE. Although the wars had been, for the most part, going the king’s way, Alexander let himself fall into an ambush in 331 BCE. He escaped the dangerous situation, but the incident shook the confidence and resolve of King Alexander’s allies. Not long after breaking free of the ambush, King Alexander of Epirus was murdered or assassinated, ending the prolonged Epirote incursion of Italy. King Alexander’s downfall once again pulled Rome’s attention toward the Samnites, but around 330 BCE, Rome curiously experienced another bout of suspicion and fear over suspected Gallic mobilization. As told by Livy, “a gloomy report reached Rome of a Gallic rising, news which the Senate scarcely ever ignored” (History of Rome, 8.20). This time, however, the Romans restrained their urge to declare a dictator. They still mobilized a considerable army, but this was done under the oversight of normally-elected Roman consuls. When the Gallic scare of 330 BCE proved itself to be just as unfounded as the one that happened a couple years earlier, the consuls simply diverted the freshly mobilized army to attack Privernum, one of the various city-states that Rome was warring against at that time.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Figures from a sarcophagus with scenes from the lives of Saint Peter and Christ, dated early 300s, with modern restoration, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.