ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise
The Samnites - I Sanniti
The Molise is the heart of the land of the ancient pre-roman Samnites (i Sanniti, in Italian), the land known as the Sannio or Samnium, or in their own language, “Safinim.” See the index below for information and related stories about these "men of the javelin."  
Map of Ancient Samnium

Origins                                             Government
Religion                                            Military
Forts, Sanctuaries and Villages            Wars with Rome
Lifestyle                                           References

Samnite Stories:
Sons of Circe                                    Musei dei Sanniti Campobasso
Ver Sacrum, Holy Spring                     War Oath
The Samnite House at Herculaneum     The Caudine Forks
Les Mariages Samnites


The Samnites had the reputation as “hardy and formidable warriors,” renowned for their “brilliant” cavalry, prompt to attack and fly away. The first defeat of Hannibal on Italian soil was inflicted not by the Romans, but by the Samnites in 217 B.C.

Soldiering was an integral part of the Samnite lifestyle. Youth trained for military service by serving first as gate keepers. Holidays were often celebrated with war-games, a practice later incorporated by Rome. The Romans called one type of gladiator “samnite” based on fighting style, weaponry and armor rather than ethnicity.

A Samnite soldier usually carried a rectangular shield, tapered at the bottom and flared at the top.  The shield might be carved with a figure of Hercules.  He would wear a leather greave (shin armor) on the left leg to just below the knee, and a band on the right ankle.  His sword arm would be protected with a leather arm guard.  He sported short hair and a close beard, and wore a winged helmet with a crest, visor and plume.  His weaopns of choice would be a short sword or a javelin.

Roman Veles and Samnite gladiators



 A Samnite Story:  “War Oath”

As part of both religious and military duties, Samnite soldiers were required to swear a secret oath to follow their commander’s every order and to fight to the death. Legend tells that small groups of new, unarmed soldiers would be sent to the temple where they were asked to take the oath. Usually, some in the first group would refuse. These would be instantly slain by armed soldiers hiding within the temple, and their bloodied bodies left for the next group to see. There would be little resistance from the groups that followed. 

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The Samnites of the Molise derived from a fusion of Indo-Europeans (opens DNA article) with local peoples during the Iron Age. From these Osco-Umbran origins came various Sabine groups that populated most of southern and central Italy by 600 B.C. The Samnite (sometimes called Sabellian) branch moved into the Molise, Abruzzo, Lazio and Campania areas, conquering and coalescing with the Oscan inhabitants. Within a hundred years, the Samnium became home to the most important Oscan-speaking people. By 300 B.C., Romans used the term “Sabellines” to generically describe all Oscan speakers and “Samnites" for actual inhabitants of Samnium.

The Samnites are generally considered as four separate tribes: the Pentri in the heart of the Molise around Isernia and Bojano; the Irpini (Hirpini) around Benevento; the Carricini around Agnone; and the Caudini around Capua. Of these, the Caudini are considered the most culturally influenced by Magna Graecia. They coalesced easily with the Greek and Etruscans that occupied the area. This mixed people eventually became known as “Campanians,” and the Samnites who stayed in the mountains and hills of Molise (generally, the Pentri) known as “Old Samnites.” Scholars usually exclude the Frentani tribe of the Adriatic coastal area from the count of the Samnite tribes. Distantly related to the invading Samnites, the Frentani joined the Samnite federation (or "league") later than the other tribes. 

Circe and OdysseusA Samnite Story: 
 “Sons of Circe”

In Homer’s Odyssey, the sorceress Circe, daughter of the Sun god, detained Ulysses and his crew on her island off the coast of Italy for a year. According to legend, during that time Circe bore Ulysses two sons, named Latinos and Ayrios (the barbarian). From these two sons sprang two great Italian societies—the Oscans and the Etruscans. The Oscans eventually divided into two tribes—the Osci (laborers of the plain) and the Sabelli (shepherds of the mountains).

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The basic religious piety of the Samnites became a model for Rome, and some Samnite gods were adopted into Roman culture.  Bas Relief, AthenaThe chief god of the Samnites was Mamers (Mars, Ares), the god of war.  As shepherds, they also fittingly honored Sabus (Hercules), a deified man, and Athena.  The cult of Athena was particularly strong around Larino, Pietrabbondante and Sassinoro.  That all the Samnite tribes worshipped the same gods helped maintain unity. 


The Samnites superstitiously interpreted omens, especially the flights of birds or bowels of sacrificed animal, and some (particularly around Abruzzo) practiced a sort of snake-charming.  Mars (Ares), god of war

They invoked gods for special protection—of hearth, harvest, water springs and burial sites; practiced exorcism to purify diseases; and wore amulets for good luck. 


Most dramatically, they practiced the rite of ver sacrum, the holy spring.  During difficult years, the Sabellines vowed to sacrifice to Jupiter (god of sky and thunder, father of Mars) or to Mars himself, one-tenth of all born in the spring-- their children as well as animals.  It’s doubtful they actually ritually killed their children.  Instead, they abandoned “without guilt” or sent the children away from the tribe once they reached military age.  Legend tells that an animal sacred to the tribe would lead these exiles to a new homeland.  For example, the Piceni followed a woodpecker (picus); the Irpini, a wolf; and the Samnites, an ox. 

The myth of animal “guides” was widespread throughout prehistoric Italy, and some scholars link ver sacrum to pastoral life and transhumance (the seasonal transfer of herds). 


 A Samnite Story:  “Ver Sacrum, Holy Spring”

One year, the Sabellines reneged on their vow to sacrifice their children.  Other than sacrificing some animals, they did not send off any children born in the spring of their vow to the god Jupiter.  As a result, Jupiter sent a series of devastating storms and plagues.  To end the destruction and appease the god, they sent off not one-tenth, but all the children who had been born in the year of the vow.  The children were to follow an ox to a “foreign” land.


The ox did not stop until it reached the base of the Matese Mountains, where it finally rested.  The exiles took this as a sign to begin their settlement.  They named the place for the ox--Bovenium, modern Bojano.  This, then, became the center of the Pentri Samnites.


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Hill Forts

The oldest Samnites built a circuit of over 100 forts along the hills and mountains of the Molise. They chose highly defensible positions, some higher than 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) above sea level. They designed the forts to take advantage of natural defenses, with one, two or three walls formed by the hillside, and built remaining walls of huge blocks of hewn stone, stacked without mortar (called "polygonal"). Monte Vairano (14 km north of Bojano), already a large Samnite settlement by the fourth century B.C., was one of the largest hill-forts. Three kilometers (1.8 miles) of stone walls, spotted by three gates and a series of towers, enclosed the buildings and streets leading to the center.

Agnone panoramaMajor forts, such as those found at Monte Vairano, Frosolone, Terravecchia (Sepino), and Monte Saraceno at Cercemaggiore became a refuge for the surrounding population during times of crisis. Smaller forts (e.g., Castropignano, Campobasso, Guardalfiera, Gerione) may have been temporary refuges or seasonally occupied. Together, the network of forts protected the people and the transhumance routes so vital to these shepherd-warriors.


Samnites used temples and sanctuaries as places of worship and “comitium,” a sort of town hall for meetings. (The theater at Pietrabbondante is believed to have served as a comitium). Like the sites for the hill forts, the Samnites built temples and sanctuaries on high ground with panoramic views. They placed religious buildings higher than surrounding civic buildings, often using stone podiums to elevate the structures.


Pietrabbondante, on the slopes of Mount Caraceno, is considered the most elaborate cultural, religious and political sanctuary of the Pentri. At the bottom was the theater with entry corridors (parados) and arches, orchestra and semicircular, tiered seating (cavea). Relief carvings on the lowest cavea steps show griffin paws. At the top sat the massive temple with a flight of steps leading to the vestibule (pronaos). The temple visible today was built at the end of the second century b.c. However, there had stood an earlier temple, sacked by Hannibal (opens 2nd Punic War article) around 218 b.c. Excavation of a third earlier temple (the podium, some stone architectural detail and the great domus that housed the elite) is visible at the end of the sacred area.

In 2005, the remains of a Samnite temple (perhaps to the goddess of fertility) were discovered under the Roman temple of Venus near the Pompeii harbor. Within Molise, evidence of Samnite cult activity abounds:

 Campochiaro. At Civitella, along the main route between Boiano and Sepino on the slopes of the Matese above Campochiaro, sat a major fourth century b.c. sanctuary. In addition to the temple of Hercules, arcades, a stage on the mountainside and civic buildings were enclosed in stone walls of polygonal block. Archeological evidence shows the sanctuary was under construction when struck by the oldest know Molise earthquake (opens Earthquake article), 3rd century BC.

Sepino. At San Pietro di Cantoni near Sepino stood a Samnite temple that was later adapted as a Christian church. An engraved bronze statue found at the site indicates the temple was dedicated to a goddess of life and fruitfulness.

Porta Boiano, Sepino

San Giovanni in Galdo. The excavation at San Giovanni in Galdo exemplifies the smaller, country sanctuaries. It was a simple temple on a podium with side arcades. Unlike the major sanctuaries, only the sacred buildings were enclosed by polygon block wall. Fewer rural sanctuaries have been found in Frentani territory than in Pentri. However, Larino served as a major religious center.

Within 150 years of the Iron Age, village-type settlements dominated the Molise. Villages and farmstead were settled on open land, lower than the hill-forts and sanctuaries, with densest populations closer to the safety of the fortresses and sanctuaries that served as civic centers. Palisades likely enclosed the villages, offering a degree of protection. Although there were societal wealth classes, there were no big land-owners. Instead, everyone used pastoral land communally.

Samnite villas or farmsteads were found throughout the Molise, and recently around Castropignano and San Giuliano di Puglia.  An inscribed stone found in 1896 indicates the modern town of Casacalenda was the probable site of ancient “Kalene,” near Gerunium, where Hannibal garrisoned between 217 and 216 B.C. during the Second Punic War.

Old Samnite homes were not as decorative as their Campanian or early Roman counterparts', in part because Samnites were less influenced by the surrounding Greeks. Further, it is thought that wealthy, elite Old Samnites used their funds to build and decorate religious, rather than civic or private, buildings. Early (600 to 300 b.c.) Samnite homes excavated in Pompeii were built of volcanic stone and limestone, whereas the second Samnite period (200 to 80 b.c.) predominately used tufa (a type of travertine).

 A Samnite Story: “The Samnite House at Herculaneum”
Click the arrow below to watch a YouTube video (jumps to YouTube) of the excavated Samnite House at Herculaneum, built 300 years before the devastating volcanic eruption. Video presented by KSHSClassCiv, February 20, 2009

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Ancient Samnium saw a high density of free persons (Samnites did not keep slaves) with an emphasis on group identity. They were a patriarchal society who respected the customs and beliefs of other peoples. The Westminster Review in 1829 declared that “strictness of morals and cheerful contentedness were the peculiar glory of the Sabellian mountaineers.”

Economy and Trade
Since the Iron Age, the Old Samnites engaged in goat- and sheep-herding for meat, milk and wool. Seasonal herd migration (transhumance) was sacred, and their routes formed the network of tratturi that would be used for over 2,000 years. Ancient inscriptions, like sign-posts, have been found along the main routes, especially the tratturo to Pescasseroli at the Abruzzo-Molise border. Some scholars suggested that the semi-nomadic life of shepherds gave the Samnites a love of independence… and made them more prone to brigandage and conquest.

Pigs were raised for meat and cattle as working animals, although cattle would be eaten when too old to work. However, young cattle remains were found at Pietrabbondante, indicating substantial sacrifice at temple rites. (Other sacrifices found at Pietrabbondante include fish, fowl and oysters.) Barker suggests that, for Samnites, killing cattle was “almost as conspicuous a form of wealth consumption as the monuments themselves.”

Coin of Larino


Large settlements such as Isernia, Venafro, Larino, Bojano and Aquilonia (possibly located at Monte Vairano) minted coins. It is believed that even rural areas participated in a monetized economy.

Although Old Samnites were less affected by Greek influence than the rest of Italy (due to location and economic constraints), they were not totally cut off. Artifacts from mid-Atlantic Puglia and Magna Graecia were found deep in Frentani and Pentri territory. 

Crops included cereal, legumes, bread wheat, grapes, and olives where weather allowed (e.g., near Termoli). The Samnite diet, then, was primarily cereal-based (farro), high carbohydrate with low meat intake. Farro is the original grain from which all others derive, but cultivation was difficult with low yields. It has a nutty taste and chewy texture (like barley) when cooked. The Samnites likely ground farro into a paste and cooked it like polenta, or baked it into breads and foccacia. 

Bronze belt and clasp

In keeping with their simple lifestyle, Samnites wore jewelry of bronze rather than gold or silver, often incorporating snake motifs. Men’s jewelry, heavier than the spiral bracelets of the women, incorporated animal designs or geometric patterns.

The original Samnite language is thought to have been similar to (derived from) Oscan. Comparisons of core vocabulary indicate that Oscan, Sabine and Latin languages all derived from Sanskrit (indicating their shared Indo-European origins). When the Samnites invaded and settled the Molise, they easily adopted the native Oscan language--their version is considered the standard for Oscan. Business transactions were inscribed on animal hides, clay tablets and temple stones by 650 B.C., using an adapted Etruscan alphabet and reading right to left. The written language was standardized about the end of the fifth century B.C.

Marriage Rites
Samnites were monogamous, and marriages rites helped breed the best soldiers. Marriage-eligible young men and women were not allowed to express emotion or romantic feelings for each other. Instead, at an annual gathering, the men chose their brides—with approval of elders and priests. First choice of brides went to men who had distinguished themselves in battle.

Costume from Les mariages samnites A Samnite Story:
“Les Mariages Samnites”

André Grétry’s comic opera “Les Mariages Samnites,” first performed in Paris, 1776, immortalized the Samnite marriage rites. In the dramatically embellished plot, heroine Eliane breaks the Samnite law by declaring her love for Parmenon. Banished, Eliane disguises herself as a soldier and joins the army. During a battle with the Romans, Eliane saves the life of the Chief who had banished her. Her identity revealed, Eliane’s heroic deeds win over Parmenon, who in turn defies the law and declares his love for her. 

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The 1829 Westminster Review declared, “The Sabellians would have made themselves masters of all Italy, had they formed a united, or even a firmly-knit federal state… But, unlike the Romans, the enjoyment of the greatest [individual] freedom was what they valued the highest; more than greatness and power, more than the permanent preservation of the state. Hence they did not keep their transplanted tribes attached to the mother-country…”

With the exception of the Frentani, who remained aloof from the rest of the federation, Samnites were strongly united only among themselves and warred occasionally with other Sabelline tribes. However, at the start of the wars with Rome, the tribes elected a single “embractur,” or chief, to lead them in the war. Allied tribes included the Samnites, Vestini, Lucani, Equi, Marsi, Frentani and Peligni.

Map of Italian tribes circa 400 B.C.


Unlike much of the rest of Italy, the Samnium was not a series of municipal or city-state governments. Instead, they used a “touto” (like a corporate board of directors). The head of the touto, the “meddix tuticus,” was elected annually and acted as war leader and chief priest. Each touto maintained sacred places to conduct duties. For example, the Pentri touto operated out of Bovianum Vetus (Pietrabbondante) and the Irpini from Malventon (modern Benevento).

Below the touto was the “pagus,” which governed the districts for social, farming and religious matters. The pagus enlisted military members, voted on local laws and elected a delegation to the touto.

 A Samnite Story:  “Musei dei Sanniti a Campobasso”
Click the arrow below to watch a YouTube slideshow (no sound) of Samnite artifacts at the Museo Sannitico in Campobasso, presented by Moliseholidays, August 17, 2009.



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Graeme Barker called the Samnites “deadly and unforgiving enemies of Romans…” fighting three wars with Rome, and staving off Roman rule for almost 300 years.  The following is a (very) brief synopsis of the major wars.

For additional details, try Arch. Davide Monaco’s treatise (opens new window).  

The First Samnite War (343 to 341 b.c.) began when Old Samnites descended from their highlands toward the plains of Campania. They were incensed with their Caudini cousins’ decadent lifestyle, and Campanian threats to limit continued Old Samnite access to the grasslands and plains. Once threatened by the Old Samnites, the Campanians appealed to Rome for help, and war began. After two years of fighting, the Samnites sued for peace and Rome absorbed Capua and much of Campania. 

The Battle of the Caudine Forks

Second Samnite War.
By 327 B.C., the Second Samnite War had broken out for reasons similar to the First War. Early on, the Samnites defeated the Romans in numerous battles. After they defeated the Romans at the Caudine Forks, the war stalled for five years. During that time, the Romans strengthened their army, adapted to the Samnite war tactics and soon found themselves victorious. One Samnite tactic adopted by the Romans was the manipular system, which positioned troops in a checkerboard pattern, with empty space between groups of soldiers. This pattern allowed the troops room and flexibility to reposition and maneuver on rough terrain. Although the Samnites allied with the Etruscans against Rome in the last half of the war, it was not enough to prevent defeat. By 304 B.C., the Samnites again sued for peace.

Third Samnite War
About 298 B.C., the Samnites allied again with Etruscans, Gauls and Umbrians to invade Roman territory in the Third Samnite War. Within three years, Rome handed the allies a crushing defeat at Sentinum in Umbria. By 282 B.C., Rome ruled all of Samnium.

Punic and Social Wars
Despite being under Roman rule, the Samnites rebelled often. They periodically allied with Hannibal during the Second Punic War (218 to 201 b.c.), perhaps to ward off the type of destruction for which Hannibal was notorious. (The Pentri stood with Rome during the Punic Wars, and Hannibal vengefully destroyed their cities, including Bojano). During the  Social War (91 B.C.), the Samnites joined other Italic tribes to separate from Rome and form an independent state (to be called “Italica”). By 88 B.C., the Samnites continued to hold out against Rome while their Social War allies made peace in exchange for Roman concessions (such as limited rights to citizenship). However, by 80 B.C., the Samnites were generally absorbed into the Roman state.

 A Samnite Story:  “The Caudine Forks”

In 321 B.C., (Second Samnite War), the Samnite meddix (commander) Gaius Pontius tricked the Roman army into entering a narrow mountain pass called the Caudine Forks. Having barricaded the exit, Pontius managed to trap nearly 50,000 Roman troops. Pontius then asked his father, Herennius, for advice what to do next. His father’s first advice was to let the Romans go, as a sign of goodwill toward Rome. Pontius rejected this advice, saying the Romans had massacred Samnites and destroyed their cities—the Samnite people would want revenge. His father’s next advice was that any compromise would ultimately lead to the destruction of Samnium, so kill all the Roman soldiers and end the war. Pontius again rejected this advice, saying he would not have the blood of so many men on his hands. Instead, Pontius took a middle road—freeing the Romans, but only after inflicting a grave humiliation (worse because the Romans were defeated without a fight): the Roman commanders were to surrender and their soldiers to strip and “pass under the yoke.” Forcing an enemy to stoop under a yoke (as used to work oxen) made of the enemies' own spears, was considered an ultimate humiliation. In the end, Herennius’ warning proved true. Soon, the Roman army would return, unharmed but smarting over the humiliation, to inflict crushing blows against the Samnites. Gaius Pontius was himself captured and executed in Rome. 

As a side note: Some believe that Gaius Pontius may have been an ancestor of Pontius Pilate. 

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Barker, Graeme.  A Mediterranean Valley, 1995, London: Leicester  University Press.


Brion, Marcel.  Pompeii and Herculaneum: the Glory and the Grief, 1962, New York: Crown Publishers.


Classical Association. The Classical Review, “The Nationality of Horace,” Volume 12, 1898, London.


Colabella, Michele. Binifero, Una Storia Millenaria, 1999, Milano: Nuova Polistlegraf.


Ibid. L’Università della Terra di Venifro, Volume Primo, 1974, Campobasso: Tip. L’Economica.


Dench, Emma.  From Barbarians to New Men:  Greek, Roman, and Modern Perceptions of Peoples, 2002, Oxford: Clarendon Press.


DeVito, Giovannino.  Provvidenti: Note di Storia Antica e Contemporanea, n.d., Termoli:  Tipolitografica “Adriatica” Iovine.


DiNiro, Angela.  Storie Nuove di Storie Veccie nella Terra di Molise, 1999, Campobasso: Tipolitografia Foto Lamp SNC.

Encyclopedia Britannica
, Edition 9 Volume 21, 1890, New York:  Henry Allen Co.


 Hewerd, Robert. The Westminster Review, “Niebuhr’s History of Rome,” Volume II, July – October 1829, London.


Italia Turistaca. Il Molise Armonie e Ritmi, 2004, Padova.


Michelet, Jules and William Hazlitt.  History of the Roman Republic, 1847, London: David Bogue.


Rossi, Cesare, Flavio Russo and Ferrico Russo.  Ancient Engineers & Inventors, Volume 8, 2009, Netherlands:  Springer.

Rostovtzeff, Michael Ivanovitch.  The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, Edition 2 Volume 1, 1957, Chesire Connecticut: Bible and Tannen Publishers.


Various authors, Cambridge Ancient History, 1988, Cambridge University Press.

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