It’s hard to keep one’s bearings in the unrelenting string of alarms, battles, campaigns, etc. that make up Rome’s military history, but fortunately Livy tells us exactly when Rome went from being one belligerent city-state among many to an empire in the making: 343 BC, when the First Samnite War started:
From now on the wars described will be of greater importance. Our enemies were more powerful, and campaigns lasted longer and were mounted in more remote areas.
I’m over-dramatizing this, but only a little. Of course there are indications of Rome’s gathering strength prior to this war, and it lasted for many inconclusive years, but it seems to me that Livy has a good case for the importance of the decision in 343 and he presents it in style. The more I think about this, the more convinced I am that Livy has not only historic vision but consideration for his readers.
From the expulsion of the Tarquins in 509 to the aftermath of the Gallic invasion of 390 the Romans seem to have engaged in fighting only their nearest neighbors, namely certain of the Etruscans, the Volsci, Aequi, Sabines, and even the Latins, who were more closely tied to them by treaty and presumably kinship. In these campaigns it was normal to encounter the enemy a day after leaving Rome. Dictators resigned mere days after being named. For widely different dates Livy gives a figure of ten legions as the utmost of Rome’s strength, and while this could mean different things at different times (a very rough estimate would be 5,000 men), it seems to suggest that Roman power was not growing by orders of magnitude. On the other hand, shortly before the Gallic disaster, Roman soldiers did begin to be paid. This was devised during the prolonged siege of Veii, a rich city, but again not far from Rome. They traded up and down the coast of Italy and had contact with Greeks to the south, but a diplomatic mission to Athens in 451 was a very big deal.
Compared with what the Romans had done before 343, the campaigns against the Samnites were certainly more distant and prolonged. The Samnites lived in the mountains above the bay of Naples and were friendly with the Romans until an attack sent the rich Capuans of the lowland running for help to Rome. As the war dragged on, others seem to have realized the danger they were in, and Rome faced a coalition of Samnites, Etruscans, and others like the Umbrians who had scarcely figured in the story before. Rome also changed the way things were done. Consuls remained in the field for longer than their usual terms and reduced so many cities that they had to make the soldiers sell their spoils so as not to be encumbered. The famous Appian Way was constructed during these wars.
Livy remarks that we who read about the wars should not tire of them if those who fought them did not. I don’t think that’s a great rule to follow, but it shows sympathy. He also indulges in a long recreated speech about the beginning of the war that had me looking both back to Thucydides and forward to Machiavelli.
(Penultimate installment: Class struggle or black magic? I can’t decide…)