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This lesson covers the unification of Italy under Roman control. In the course of this lesson, we explore the causes and repercussions of the Samnite Wars, the Latin War, and the Pyrrhic War.

Rome’s Neighbors

In 509 BCE, the Romans chased their last king out of town, and the Roman Republic was formed. Rome was not yet the seat of a mighty empire.

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It was just one of many cities seeking control over Italy. To the north were the Etruscans, to the east were the Samnites, to the far south were the Greeks, and right at Rome’s doorsteps were the cities of the other Latins, united by a common language, yet not by common leadership.

Location of Rome in Italy
The Samnites took control of Neapolis and sparked the Second Samnite War.
Second Samnite War Map

Yet, this newfound friendship between Rome and Samnium would not last long.

The Romans were eager to spread eastward into the mountains. The Samnites wanted to establish a foothold on the western coast of Italy. As the Romans began establishing colonies in, technically, Samnite land, the Samnites seized control of the city of Neapolis, modern day Naples.

The people of Neapolis appealed to Rome for help, and the Second or Great Samnite War began. This war stretched for the better part of two decades with neither side able to pull off a decisive victory.Though Rome suffered some serious setbacks, they quickly learned from their mistakes. To defend their coastal interests, the Romans built their first navy. To move troops around quickly and keep them supplied, the Romans began building an impressive network of roads.

To keep up with the constant drain on manpower, Roman conscription reached new levels. To help hold their gains, the Romans established colonies in conquered territory. These decisions not only helped the Romans defeat their rivals, but would also prove instrumental in the future expansion of the empire.

By 304 BCE, the Samnites, who had fought so hard to gain access to the western coast, found themselves landlocked. Their coastal territory in eastern Italy fell into Roman hands, and the Samnites were forced to take refuge in their mountain strongholds.

The Romans created their first navy during the Second Samnite War.
Roman Navy

The Third Samnite War (298-290 BCE)

Frustrated by Rome in central Italy, the Samnites attempted to expand southward, in the vain hope of regaining some sort of coastal territory. They attacked the Lucanians, who, in turn, appealed to Rome for help.

Alarmed by this Samnite aggression, Rome once again declared war, beginning the Third (and final) Samnite War.Seeing this as perhaps their last chance to halt the progress of Rome, a wide variety of northern Italians joined forces with the Samnites. Etruscans, Umbrians, even the barbaric Gauls joined forces with Samnium against Rome. Though the Romans were hard pressed to face this unified front, their superior discipline and leadership led them to defeat the combined forces.

By 290 BCE, the Samnites had been conquered completely. Rome now controlled central Italy from coast to coast.

The Pyrrhic War (280-275 BCE)

Having proceeded as far east as they could go, the Romans now turned their eyes south to the lands controlled by Greek colonies. They found an excuse to start a war when the city of Tarentum sunk some Roman ships off their coast. Rome declared war on Tarentum. Tarentum appealed to the Greek mainland for assistance. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, answered their call.

In 280 BCE, Pyrrhus landed in Italy with a significant army. Though King Pyrrhus was nominally victorious, he suffered heavy casualties in his battles with the Romans. The result was a war of attrition. The Romans were simply able to replace soldiers faster than Pyrrhus could.After less than five years of war, King Pyrrhus was soundly defeated, and the Romans added southern Italy to their territory. A decade later, to the north, the last Etruscan stronghold fell. In two and a half centuries, the Romans had effectively conquered the whole of Italy, from the Arnus river to the tip of the peninsula.

King Pyrrhus attacked the Romans in 280 BCE.
Pyrrhus of Epirus

Lesson Summary

To review, Rome faced several obstacles in its fight for dominion over Italy: Etruscans to the north, Samnites to the east, Greeks to the south, and the Latins underfoot. Through a series of wars and alliances, Rome brought these peoples into the Roman fold.They first allied with the Latins to fight the Samnites in the First Samnite War. Next, they allied with the Samnites against the Latins in the Latin War.

With the Latins under control, the Romans continued their assault on Samnium in a series of two wars that spanned the better part of a century until, in 290 BCE, the Samnites were utterly defeated.Rome then turned to the Greek colonies of southern Italy. Though these colonies received help from King Pyrrhus on the Greek mainland, they too fell under Roman control during the Pyrrhic War. During all of these conflicts, the Etruscans struggled to maintain their independence from Roman control.

Yet, this last Etruscan resistance collapsed in 264 BCE, leaving Rome the master of all Italy.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Recollect the wars that led to Rome’s ultimate control of Italy
  • Paraphrase the causes, allies and outcome of the Latin War
  • Tell how the Samnites’ attempts to control Neapolis led to the Second Samnite War
  • Identify those who fought against Rome in the Third Samnite War
  • Recount the way in which King Pyrrhus was defeated in the Pyrrhic War

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