Mike Roberts, Rome’s Third Samnite War (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In Rome’s Third Samnite War, Mike Roberts reminds us that if you are going to build a great Empire, you need to beat your neighbours first. At least that was the case for Rome that became involved in a desperate struggle for survival and supremacy against the Samnites and their allies between 298 and 290 BCE. Rome emerged victorious, and the rest is, well, history.
Roberts begins with an honest assessment of the sometimes unreliable sources for the crucial decade in the 290s when Roman expansion could have been halted. Far from the opulent place where all roads would one day lead, he describes Rome in 300 as ‘shabby and labyrinthine’ with about sixty-thousand people living there. The Romans were, therefore, just one group among many in Italy but had fought their way to prominence, a rise Roberts describes well. But to expand, Rome had to defeat the Samnites and their allies, not an easy prospect as they soon found out. The First Samnite War was a small affair, but the Second was a major war, which the Romans lost in humiliating fashion.
It takes a while for Roberts to hack his way through the undergrowth of Rome’s ascendancy to get to the Third Samnite War. When he does, Roberts describes the causes and opening of the war, exercising caution with his sources along the way. Then the narrative of strategy, campaigning, and battles begins with Roberts analysing as he goes. Although mostly penned into their towns, the Samnites opened a new front with their allies in the north. The Romans met them at Sentinum in 295 BCE and crushed the Samnite coalition. This was the turning point of the war, according to Roberts. But the Samnites were not yet finished, and plague and attrition took their toll on the Romans. Thus, the final defeat of the Samnites took two more years until the Battle of Aquilonia destroyed their lingering hopes along with their much vaunted, elite Linen Legion. Mopping up followed, but the war was mostly over. Roberts concludes with the Samnites cowed until a final hurrah and another defeat in the 1st Century BCE saw them eradicated as a functioning people.
Rome’s Third Samnite War is a fascinating story and well told by Mike Roberts. He handles his sources respectfully but is not afraid to cut loose with his imagination when warranted. In particular, his exciting narratives of the battles are built on his knowledge of the terrain and his sources. Roberts also has a novelist’s eye for character when describing the main players in this drama and rarely becomes bogged down in their sometimes esoteric biographies. Above all, Roberts questions the evidence, allowing the reader to work with him through the events, and making his book a richer reading experience for it. Anyone interested in the Early Roman Republic will enjoy Roberts’ narrative and interpretation of a pivotal time in Roman history.