The land occupied by the Samnites, in the center-south of the italian peninsula, was called from his inhabitants Safinium as they were calling themselves Safineis. In latin it became by assimilation Samnium so called by the Romans, and Samnites their people. The Greeks instead were calling them Saunitai and their territory Saunitis.
The ancient tradition wants that atavistics folk had migrated in the land once occupied by the Opici or Osci and from them, they assimilated the customs and the oscan language. It is believed that they came to the Samnium from the nearby land of the Sabinis from whom they descented. With this suggestion one may conclude that the Samnites got their greek origin from the Spartans as asserted by the historians Strabone, Plutarc and Dionysious of Alicarnassus.

 Land of Samnites
This hypothesis seems more like a tale originated by the analogy to the Spartans and their simple and body minded lifestyle. The Osco-Umbro people, including the Samnites as well as the Sabins, had derived from the fusion of local people with indo-european infiltrations during the iron age. By now in the 600 b.C. they became the well defined Osco-Umbro tribes and in the 500 b.C. if not before, the people, now historically known as the Samnites, were clearly identified as having the indisputable control of this Samnium region.


The flat and vast lowlands with limited outlines and molded from the slopes of the Samnium inaccessible mountains, promoted the settling of these people due maybe to the Holy Springtime, this being a prophetic cult inherited from their ancestors and based upon forced migrations. It might be true that at very beginning there was a sacred definition about these rites. But this accepted practice may be construed eventually as a good measure to thinning out the overpopulation from some parts of the peninsula favouring, thence, colonization of other nearby areas. It is, then, possible while analizing the performance of these rites involving italic gods, to figure out the way these single samnites tribes were being formed.

 Bronze statuette of bull

Bronze statuette of bull.
Zittola place - V century b.C.
Civic Museum of Castel di Sangro.

Thanks also to the ancient writers of the Holy Springtime being able to influence the oscan people to move more and more towards the Appennini and every so often descending upon both sides of those mountains. According to these traditions, the archaic rite took place at time when sickness, plagues or negatives psycologic happenings induced certain tribes to sacrify to God Mamerte the firstborns, born during the months of Spring. While respecting the main idea of the sacrifices, this cult truly identified with the tribes' welfare by keeping check the demands of their growth. In this way certain numbers of people lived until adulthood like special pre-destined people.

As they were reaching this lifestage, it was their duty to leave the enclave in the search of new territories while guided by an animal sacred to the god.
An animal, like a bull, wolf or deer, that serving as a sort of guide, this group would follow. Indeed they would stop to a place believed pleasing to the sacred animal. Only typical shepard-warriors from their mediterranen etnicity would attend to this type of migration. Even the animal-guide would find his equivalency when the same existence is known among other indo-european communities.
The ancient origin of this practice maybe can be construed by the rituals connected with the seasonal transfers of the herds. Probable also, with the times going by, that these tribes would not longer recurr to "real" animal, rather the sacrati or pre-destined would march under the banner symbolizing their sacred animal.


The Samnites proper, consisted of the union of four tribes namely the: Pentri, Carricini, Caudini, and Irpini. It could very well be that other tribes from central Italy later joined in and among these the Frentani. The tribe in the very heart of the Samnites region was called Pentri, centrally located between the north mountain range of the Mainarde mountains and to the south, the massive Matese.
The Pentri tribe, tough and dangerous, constituted the spinal cord of the nation. Most important among their cities: Aesernia, Aufidena, Bovianum, Fagifulae, Saepinum, Terventum and Venafrum.

 Terracotta bowl - Termoli - VI century b.C.
Terracotta bowl
Termoli - VI century b.C.

The Carricini tribe was the most northerly and believed the less populated. Their cities included Cluviae and Juvanum. The Caudini, located in the west, and hence more exposed to the Campania's greek influence, lived among the mountains circumscribed by the Campania's lowland, Mount Taburno and the Trebulani within and along the Isclero and the central tracts of the Volturno rivers. Caudini cities were: Caudinium, Caiatia, Cubulteria, Telesia, Trebula and Saticula. The Irpini tribes occupied the southern Samnium, between the valleys of the Ofanto, Calore and Sabbato rivers. The Irpini were called "uomini-lupo" or wolf-men and from them it comes the word "hirpus" which properly means wolf in the oscan language. Their main cities were: Abellinum, Aeclanum, Compsa, Maleventum (later called Beneventum by the Romans) and Trevicum.


The Samnites have not left any literary proof of their political-economic status. Only through classical sources together with archeological reperts one can summarily tract their everyday life. The Samnium, like other regions, underwent a slow growth until wartimes against Rome. And being in touch with the Romans, they assimilated their political influence thus being able to achieve a political rebirth of their social organizations. The same we can say about the closeness to the Campania's region which resulted in business and cultural endeavors as well as getting from the Greeks their religious influence. The samnitic society in the beginning did not have overlords ruling the people rather this happened after the wars against Rome.

Samnite warrior - bronze - V Century b.C.
Samnite warrior
Bronze - V Century b.C.

As a matter of the fact, big land owners were pratically non-existent since everybody used the land for animals' pasture and farming. They had no slavery and everybody had freedom of expression. For, this being the reason, the Samnites had an healthy social evolution in respect of other people of the peninsula, evolution that led these people to such a political knowledge that advanced by thousand of years the new ideas of today's Europe.
The climate and the sheep-farming community dictated the usage of warm woolen clothes, wool being manufactured by the women using the spindle and eventually tinting and selling the by-products. Most of their jewels were made of bronze, seldom of gold or silver. The women were wearing rings and bracelets some of which shaped in the form of spirals and adorned at the end with a snake-like head.

Men instead wore heavy bracelets of various designs representing animals or having geometrical patterns. And since they liked to show off their physical fitness would wear loose tunics held at the waistline by metallic clasps allowing free movements. They were sporting short hairdos and close shaven beards. They were great warriors and used to celebrate certain holiday with war-like games. Usually the game would end by flooring the opponent. At times these games were also a good way to showcase the best healthy young men to attractive girls to choose from, in order to minimize and avoid disputes usually ending tragically. The Samnites were monogamous and their women attended to the education of the children and the welfare of the household. This was a patriarchal-type society.


The roman presence changed the war-like games and the showing of strenght performed in peaceful times into something rather different. Happy with these agonistic shows, the roman society accepted them even tough at times its scopes became ferocious and really sadistic. With the annexation to Rome, the arena fights became the national sport, hence the birth of the "Gladiators".
In the beginning, around the 2nd century b.C. the gladiators' fights were associated with the Samnites and only after, more gladiators were introduced like the Traci imported by the dictator Silla and by the Gauls, thanks to Julius Caesar. Up until the 1st century b.C. the term "Gladiator and Samnites" was synonymous. Among the most famous gladiators one can remenber Lucilius Ist of Aesernia, very nimble and handsome that preferred to fight only using sword and shield.

 The Gladiator


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History of Samnites and Samnium, the ancient people of Italy - Davide Monaco - Isernia 2001
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