How did the Roman Republic conquer Italy?

Roman legionaries with commander

In the centuries following the founding of Rome in 753 BC, the small republic would come to dominate the western Mediterranean.


The first step in their expansion though, was to control the lands immediately adjacent to them.


Through a combination of military prowess, political savvy, and strategic alliances, Rome would conquer Italy and establish itself as a major power in Europe and the Mediterranean. 


This is a remarkable story of expansion and conquest that is worth exploring in more detail.

Roman motivations for expansion

The reasons that the early Romans went to war are not always clear. In some cases, Rome was responding to real or perceived external threats; in others it was seeking to take advantage of opportunities presented by weak or unstable neighbours. 


The annually elected position of consul may have actually encouraged individuals to pursue military expansion every year.


After all, a successful military campaign could be used to boost one's own political career.

The early Romans may have also been motivated by a desire for glory and power. This is understandable, given that they were a small republic competing with larger and more powerful neighbors like the Etruscans and the Samnites.


In order to survive and thrive, they had to be willing to fight for what they wanted. 


Romans living on the edges of their territories may have strongly supported military action against restless neighbors such as Gauls and Samnites.


Shepherds from these tribes may have used seasonal migrations between summer highlands and winter lowlands to feed their crops, which led to conflict with Roman farmers who had set up their farms on these lands.

The Romans were also keen to control strategic resources such as the metal-rich areas of Etruria and the ports along the Tyrrhenian Sea.


In this way, they could gain an advantage over their rivals in trade and warfare. 


Despite the fact that the Romans did not engage in conflict for solely for religious reasons, they frequently employed religious justifications to support their military efforts.


The fetial priests (fetiales) were engaged in making a formal announcement of war according to fetial law.


Rome could expect divine blessing only if it fought just wars—that is, defensive wars.

The early years of Roman expansion

Between the founding of Rome in 753 BC and the start of the Samnite Wars in 343 BC, Rome would slowly but surely expand its control over central Italy.


This was a period of small-scale warfare against neighboring tribes such as the Latins and the Aequi. 


The first major conflict was with Rome's immediate neighbours in the region of Latium, where Rome was located.


Several of the Latin cities had formed an alliance, called the Latin League, against Rome.


The war between Rome and the Latin cities was known as the First Latin War.

In around 496 BC, Rome won a close victory over the League at the Battle of Lake Regillus, a few kilometres south-east of Rome. 


Following their victory, the Latins agreed to the Treaty of Cassius in 493 BC, which stated that the Latin League and Rome were independent but equal political powers.


As a result, the Latin cities would contribute forces for the Roman army in return for half of the wealth earned from war.


This treaty would become the model for other future alliances Rome would create with other Italian cities.


The Romans then fought a series of wars with the Aequi, who were located to the east of Rome.


A series of battles were fought in which Rome came close to defeat on a number of occasions.


The most famous event took place in 458 BC, when the Aequi besieged the city of Rome.

The Romans, realising their dire situation, gave a man called Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the position of dictator.


This allowed him to wield full powers over Rome for a short time to solve an emergency.


It is said that Cincinnatus was found quietly working on his farm when he was told of his new position.


Regardless, he immediately took charge, raised an army, fought off the attackers at the Battle of Mount Algidus, and saved Rome.


At that moment, the people of Rome feared that Cincinnatus might have used his supreme power to make himself king over them.


Instead, he simply handed back his power to the Senate and returned to his farm. As a result, the ancient Romans always looked back on Cincinnatus as the perfect example of what someone should do when given the powers of a dictator.

Etruscan Wars

The next major conflict that Rome was involved in was the Roman-Etruscan Wars. The Etruscans were a major power in central Italy and had been steadily expanding their influence.


In order to keep them from becoming too powerful, the Romans decided to intervene. 


One of Rome's most significant early conquests was the Etruscan city of Veii, which was located about twenty kilometres north-west of Rome, on the Tiber River.


Veii was one of the largest, wealthiest, and well-defended Etruscan cities. The Romans laid siege to the city in 406 BC, but it took ten years for it to fall.


In 396 BC the Romans finally captured Veii, apparently as a result of some Roman soldiers who secretly entered the city through a tunnel located under the Temple of Juno.

The fall of Veii demonstrated Roman military prowess and determination, two qualities that would serve the republic well in the years to come.


After the city fell, the goddess Juno of Veii was taken to Rome, and the region of Etruria (modern Tuscany) was added to Roman control.


The Etruscans still survived, as many other cities in Etruria would continue to fight back against Roman expansion for over a century.


Eventually though, the last of the Etruscan cities would be absorbed into the Roman lands in 265–264 BC.

During this time, the Roman Republic periodically increased the number of military tribunes with consular power from three to four and then to six during its wars against Fidenae and Veii.


Also, a form of military pay for soldiers was introduced in 406 BC. The long duration of the siege of Veii meant that soldiers had to be away from their farms for extended periods, so the custom of paying citizen soldiers meant that they could continue to fight without worrying about the work back home.


This practice helped establish the concept of a professional army for Rome, although it would take several more centuries for this to develop fully. 

Gallic sack of Rome

Around 390 BC, Rome received a request for help from the Etruscan city of Clusium.


Rome sent three ambassadors to the city, where they found that an army of Gauls had marched down from northern Italy and were attacking Clusium.


Understanding the risk to Rome itself if Clusium fell to the Gauls, the Romans sent an army of around 10,000 men north to fight them. When they arrived, they faced a force of around 30,000 Gauls.


At the Battle of the Allia, fought near Fidenae, the Romans suffered a heavy defeat.


Following their victory, the Gauls marched south towards Rome, where many Roman citizens had already begun fleeing after word of the defeat reached them.

The Gauls entered the city of Rome and proceeded to sack the city and they occupied it for around seven months.


Roman historians claim that a small band of Roman defenders remained on the Capitol hill during this time and refused to surrender.  


Eventually, the Gauls agreed to withdraw from the city in return for 1000 pounds of gold.


Once paid, the Romans were finally able to return to their city. The capture and occupation of Rome was a deeply traumatic event that remained for a long time in the collective memory of the Romans.

Rebellion of the Hernici

The catastrophe of the Gallic sack of Rome severely damaged Rome’s reputation with the territories they had captured over the previous three centuries. 


As a result, a number of regions attempted to rebel against Rome at its moment of perceived weakness.


During the first half of the fourth century BC, the Etruscans, Volsci and the Aequi marched against Rome, but were defeated.


Then, one of Rome's long-term allies, the Hernici, attempted to free themselves from Roman control.


When Rome received word of their defection, they declared war on the Hernici in 362 BC.


After a series of decisive victories by Roman forces, the Hernici surrendered in 358 BC and re-entered into union with Rome, but with much less freedom than they had before.

Second Latin War

Then, in 341 BCE, the Latin League attempted to reassert its independence and demanded legal equality with Rome.


The Romans outright refused, and a second Latin War began in 340 BC.


After two years of fighting, Rome dominated on the battlefield with continuous victories. As a result, the Latin League accepted defeat in 338 BC.


As punishment for their defection, the Romans officially dissolved the Latin League, and the various Latin cities lost their independent status and were permanently absorbed into Rome. 


As part of this process, the five Latin cities of Aricia, Antium, Lanuvium, Nomentum and Pedum were granted the full Roman citizenship, which meant that their citizens were officially part of the Roman political system.


The victory over the Latin League cemented Roman control over central Italy and established them as the dominant power in the region.

Samnite Wars

From 343 to 290 BC, Rome was engaged in three wars with the Samnites, a powerful confederacy of Oscan-speaking peoples.


Rome and the Samnites had signed an alliance agreement in 354 BC, but conflicting interests eventually led them to war.


The Samnite Wars were some of the most difficult and brutal wars that Rome fought up to that point in time.


They resulted in the complete conquest of the Samnite people and the incorporation of their territory into the Roman Republic.

The First Samnite War began in 343 BC when the Samnites attacked the city of Capua in Campania, south of Rome.


The Capuans requested Roman help, which was provided. Roman forces pushed the Samnites back and the region of Campania, with its capital Capua, was absorbed by the Roman state.


The war came to an end in 341 BC when the Samnites became allies of Rome in the war against the Latin League.


The Second Samnite War, also known as the 'Great' Samnite War, began in 326 BC and lasted for twenty-two years.


It was a much larger conflict than the first, with both sides suffering heavy casualties.


The most famous event of the war was the Battle of Caudine Forks in 321 BC, at which an entire Roman army was surrounded, leaving them without access to drinking water, and were forced to surrender to the Samnites. 


Despite this defeat, the Romans were victorious at the end of the war in 304 BC and expanded their control into the central area of the Italian peninsula. 

It was during the Second Samnite War that the rugged terrain of the Samnite region forced Roman military strategies to change.


As a result, the Romans gave up the traditional phalanx formation in favor of the maniple system.


The maniple system divided the army into small units that were more maneuverable and could fight in any terrain.


The Third Samnite War began in 298 BC and lasted for nine years. This was the most devastating war of the three, with both sides taking heavy losses.


The most famous battle of this war was the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC. The Romans won a decisive victory against a large, combined force of Samnites, Etruscans, and Gauls.


Yet, it would still be a number of years before the Romans were ultimately victorious.


However, when the war came to an end, the Samnites were absorbed into the Roman sphere of influence.

As a result of these three wars, Rome now held control over 13,000 square kilometres in central Italy.


Due to increased land area, it was also during this time that Rome began constructing a network of roads, which would become a central feature of Roman territorial expansion.


Rome's adoption of the flexible military techniques of the Samnites lay the foundation for the later imperial legions. 

Rome's treaties with Carthage

When Rome became a republic in 509 BC, it signed a treaty with the city of Carthage in north Africa.


This treaty stated that Rome and Carthage would not interfere with each other's territory. 


However, by the time the First Samnite War ended, Rome had control of much of southern Italy.


This put them in conflict with Carthage, who also had colonies in southern Italy. In 348 BC, they signed a new treaty to show Rome's sphere of influence extended over Latium as well.


Rome's final victory in the Third Samnite War prompted a third treaty with Carthage in 306 BC.


This time, Carthage acknowledged all of Italy as Rome's territory.

The Pyrrhic War

In 280 BC, Rome became embroiled in a conflict with the northern Greek kingdom of Epirus.


King Pyrrhus responded to a call for help from the Italian city of Tarentum, which was under Roman siege. 


Pyrrhus won two initial battles against the Romans, but at a great cost. For every Roman soldier killed, he lost three of his own.


This made him realize that he could not win the war and so he withdrew his forces back to Epirus. 


Although Rome had technically won the Pyrrhic War, it was a hollow victory. The high number of casualties on both sides demonstrated that neither side could afford to continue fighting.


As a result, Rome and Epirus agreed to a peace treaty in 275 BC.


By the 3rd century BC, Rome had established itself as a major power in Italy. They had accomplished this through a combination of alliances, treaties, and military conquest.


This period laid the foundation for Rome's future empire. 


They obtained more resources and manpower that allowed them to keep growing. The process of becoming an empire was gradual but steady, and by the mid-third century BC, Rome was well on its way to becoming a regional power.

Further reading