Italic peoples: Cato, Livy, and Florus on Sabines, Samnites, and others (early second century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Italic peoples: Cato, Livy, and Florus on Sabines, Samnites, and others (early second century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 10, 2024,

Ancient authors: Zenodotos of Troizen, FGrHist 19 (though this citation was missed there and in BNJ), as discussed in Cato, Origins 2.21-22 (link), as cited by Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Servius, and Velleius Paterculus; Livy, History of Rome 7.29; 9.13.7; 9.40; 10.38 (link); Florus, Epitome 1.11 (link).

Comments: Cato Porcius, also known as Cato the Elder, was a Roman senator and, importantly here, the earliest surviving writer of history in Latin. According to Cornelius Nepos (On Latin Historians 3), Cato’s work on Origins (Origenes) consisted of seven books on Italy, especially covering the origins of the peoples and numerous wars. We only possess citations of this lost work, but these nonetheless indicate that Cato was especially concerned with local ethnographic matters about Italic peoples and relations among them. Particularly important here are his comments on the Sabines and the Etruscans.

Also included here are some ethnographic comments by Livy (late first century BCE) and Florus (early second century CE), who is dependent on Livy to some degree. Livy’s sketches of particular peoples are, unfortunately for us, scattered here and there in a sentence or two among his very detailed account of the Samnite wars  (in books 7-10). He does not follow the Greek ethnographic penchant for offering an extensive ethnographic outline before delving into historical details. So it is difficult to provide a post that captures his characterization of the Samnites. Nonetheless, the excerpts here give a taste and show that Livy tended to describe peoples in terms of the environments they inhabited, as we see with his talk of rough Samnites in a rough mountainous environment.  This is a picture of an uncivilized people, despite the fact that Livy happens to reveal that their gold and silver armour suggested great wealth, which stands in tension with his picture of an uncivilized mountain-people. Florus follows suit in this focus on environmental determinism in some respects.

Florus’ is more direct and substantial in outlining the character of peoples in the excerpt about Campanians and Samnites. The two peoples are juxtaposed. The Campanians are pictured living in a wonderful environment, implying a superior lifestyle and people. The Samnites are characterized as engaging in bandit-like ambushes in their rough environment and they are even off-handedly accused of human sacrifice. This reference to human sacrifice is likely based on an interpretation of Livy’s account of Samnites dedicating to “Jupiter” as a “sacrifice” any of their own soldiers who did not demonstrate full allegiance through an oath ceremony, a passage I have also included here.

Works consulted: E. Dench, From Barbarians to New Men: Greek, Roman and Modern Perceptions of Peoples from the Central Apennines (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

This post is part of the Italic peoples series:

  • Thucydides on Sikelians (Sicilians) and Sikanians (link)
  • Antiochos on migrations of peoples to and in Italy (link)
  • Theopompos on Tyrrhenians (Etruscans) (link)
  • Klearchos on Iapygians (link)
  • Cato, Livy, and Florus on Samnites and Sabines (link)
  • Diodoros on Tyrrhenians (link), on Ligurians (link), and on Sikelians and Sikanians (link)
  • Strabo on Latins, Sabines, Samnites, and Lucanians (link) and on Ligurians (link)
  • Dionysios on Latins, Sikelians, Umbrians, and others (link)
  • Plutarch on Tyrrhenians (link)
  • Dio Cassius (link coming soon)


Cato the Elder (early second century BCE)


(2.21, as discussed by Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities 2.49) But Zenodotos of Troizen, a . . . historian, relates that the Umbrians, a native people (ethnos authigenes), first lived in the Reatine territory, as it is called. Being driven from there by the Pelasgians, they came into the country which they now inhabit and, changing their name with their place of habitation, they went from being called Umbrians to being called Sabines (Sabines).

However, Porcius Cato says that the Sabine people received its name from Sabus, the son of Sancus, a divinity of that country, and that this Sancus was by some called Jupiter Fidius. Cato also says that: their first place of abode was a certain village called Testruna, situated near the city of Amiternum; the Sabines made an incursion at that time from Testruna into the Reatine territory, which was inhabited by the Aborigines together with the Pelasgians; they took their most famous city, Cutiliae, by force of arms and occupied it; and, sending colonies out of the Reatine territory, they built many cities, in which they lived without fortifying them, among others the city called Cures. Cato further states that the country they occupied was about two hundred and eighty stadium-lengths away from the Adriatic sea and a little less than a thousand stadium-lengths from the Tyrrhenian sea.

There is also another account given of the Sabines in the native histories, to the effect that a colony of Lakedaimonians [Spartans] settled among them at the time when Lykourgos, being guardian to his nephew Eunomos, gave his laws to Sparta. For the story goes that some of the Spartans, disliking the severity of his laws and separating from the rest, left the city entirely, and after being carried through a vast stretch of sea, made a vow to the gods to settle in the first land they should reach, because a longing came over them for any land whatsoever. Finally, they reached that part of Italy which lies near the Pomentine plains and they called the place where they first landed Foronia, in memory of their being carried through the sea. They built a temple owing to the goddess Foronia, to whom they had addressed their vows. This goddess, by the alteration of one letter, they now call Feronia. And some of them, setting out from there, settled among the Sabines. It is for this reason, they say, that many of the habits of the Sabines are Spartan, particularly their fondness for war and their frugality and a severity in all the actions of their lives. But this is enough about the Sabine people.

(2.22, as discussed by Servius, Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid 8.638) . . . But Cato and Gellius refer to the Sabines’ origin as deriving from Sabus in Lakedaimon [Sparta]. In addition, every source reports that the Lakedaimonians were the most severe. Cato also says that the manners of the Sabines were followed by the Roman people.

[Etruscans and Capuans]

(3.1, as discussed by Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History 1.7.2) While focussing on the history of foreign countries, I now come to an event pertaining to our own history, one in which there has been much error and about which the views of authorities involve large discrepancies. For some maintain that about this time, eight hundred and thirty years ago, Capua and Nola were founded by the Etruscans. With these I myself am inclined to agree. However, the opinion of Marcus Cato is very different. He admits that Capua, and afterwards Nola, were founded by the Etruscans, but maintains that Capua had been in existence for only about two hundred and sixty years before its capture by the Romans. If this is so, as it is but two hundred and forty years since Capua was taken, it is but five hundred years since it was founded. For my own part, with all due regard for Cato’s accuracy, I can scarcely believe that the city could have had such growth, such prosperity, or could have fallen and risen again, in so short a space of time.


Livy (late first century BCE)

[Introduction to Rome’s “great” wars and the two wars with the Samnites]

(7.29) The history will now be occupied with wars greater than any previously recorded. These wars are greater whether we consider the forces engaged in them or the length of time they lasted, or the extent of country over which they were waged. For it was in this year [ca. 343 BCE] that hostilities commenced with the Samnites, a people strong in material resources and military power. Our war with the Samnites, with its varying fortunes, was followed by the war with Pyrrhus, and that again by the war with Carthage. What a chapter of great events! How often did we have to pass through very extreme danger in order that our dominion might be exalted to its present greatness, a greatness which is with difficulty maintained. . . [omitted sections]. [Valerius, the Roman general asked the soldiers:] What could two successful wars on the part of the Samnites through all those centuries weigh against the many brilliant achievements of the Roman people, who reckoned up almost more triumphs than years since the foundation of their city, who had subdued by the might of their weapons all the surrounding peoples – Sabines, Etruscans, Latins, Hernicians, Aequians, Volscians, and Auruncans – who had slain the Gauls in so many battles and driven them at last to their ships?. . . [omitted detailed accounts of the two wars (placed in the latter half of the fourth century BCE by Livy), the first with Romans coming to the aid of the Sidicians and Campanians and the second sparked by the founding of the Roman colony Fregellae on Samnite territory].

[Samnites’ supposed rough lifestyle shaped by the rough environment]

(9.13.7) . . . The whole of the country through which Papirius [Lucius Papirius Cursor, the Roman general, placed ca. 320 BCE at this point] passed was peaceably disposed, an attitude which was due more to the injuries inflicted by the Samnites [in the second Samnite war] than to any services which the Romans had rendered. For the Samnites used to live at that day in villages among the mountains, and they were in the habit of raiding into the low country and the coastal districts. Living the free open-air life of mountaineers themselves, they despised the less hardy cultivators of the plains who, as often happens, had developed a character in harmony with their surroundings.

[Samnites’ valuable military equipment]

(9.40) Equally hard fighting and an equally brilliant success characterised the campaign which immediately followed against the Samnites. In addition to their usual preparations for war, they had new glittering armour made in which their troops were quite resplendent. There were two divisions; one had their shields plated with gold, the other with silver. The shield was made straight and broad at the top to cover the chest and shoulders, then became narrower towards the bottom to allow of it being more easily moved about. To protect the front of the body they wore coats of chain armour; the left leg was covered with a greave, and their helmets were plumed to give them the appearance of being taller than they really were. The tunics of the men with gold plated shields were in variegated colours, those with the silver shields had tunics of white linen. The latter were assigned to the right wing, the former were posted on the left.

The Romans knew that all this splendid armour had been provided, and they had been taught by their generals that a soldier inspire dread not by being decked out in gold and silver but by trusting to his courage and his sword. They looked upon those things as a spoil for the enemy rather than a defence for the wearer, resplendent enough before a battle but soon stained and fouled by wounds and bloodshed. They knew that the one ornament of the soldier was courage, and all that finery would belong to whichever side won the victory; an enemy however rich was the prize of the victor, however poor the victor might be.

[Expensive armour and deadly rituals regarding an oath of loyalty]

(10.38) The year following was marked by the consulship of L. Papirius Cursor [ca. 293 BCE], who had not only inherited his father’s glory but enhanced it by his management of a great war and a victory over the Samnites [i.e. during the third Samnite war], second only to the one which his father had won [in the second Samnite war]. It happened that this people had taken the same care and pains to adorn their soldiers with all the wealth of splendour as they had done on the occasion of the elder Papirius’ victory. They had also called in the help of the gods by submitting the soldiers to a kind of initiation into an ancient form of oath. A levy was conducted throughout Samnium under a novel regulation: Any man within the military age who had not assembled on the general’s proclamation, or any one who had departed without permission, was dedicated to Jupiter and his life was forfeited. The entire army was summoned to Aquilonia, and forty thousand men, the full strength of Samnium, were concentrated there.

A space, about two hundred feet square, almost in the centre of their camp, was boarded off and covered all over with linen cloth. In this enclosure a sacrificial service was conducted. The words were read from an old linen book by an old priest, Ovius Paccius, who announced that he was taking that sacred practice from the ancient Samnite ritual obligation. It was the form which their ancestors used when they formed their secret design of seizing Capua from the Etruscans. When the sacrifice (sacrificium) was completed the general sent a messenger to summon all those who were of noble birth or who were distinguished for their military achievements. They were admitted into the enclosure one by one. As each was admitted he was led up to the altar, more like a victim than like one who was taking part in the service, and he was bound on oath not to divulge what he saw and heard in that place. Then they compelled him to take an oath couched in the most terrible language, imprecating a curse on himself, his family, and his people if he did not go into battle where the commanders should lead him or if he either himself fled from battle or did not at once slay any one whom he saw fleeing. At first there were some who refused to take this oath. Those men were massacred beside the altar, and their dead bodies lying amongst the scattered remains of the victims were a plain hint to the rest not to refuse. After the foremost men among the Samnites had been bound by this dreadful formula, ten were especially named by the general and told each to choose a fellow-soldier, and these again to choose others until they had made up the number of sixteen thousand. These were called the ‘linen legion,’ from the material with which the place where they had been sworn was covered. They were provided with resplendent armour and plumed helmets to distinguish them from the others. The rest of the army consisted of something under twenty thousand men, but they were not inferior to the linen legion either in their personal appearance or military qualities or in the excellence of their equipment. This was the number of those in camp at Aquilonia, forming the total strength of Samnium.


Florus (early second century CE)

[Introduction to the Samnite war]

(1.11) Next [after the war against the Sabines], moved by the requests of the Campanians, the Romans attacked the Samnites, not on their own behalf but, what is more honourable, on that of their allies. A treaty had been made with both groups, but that made with the Campanians was more formal and older. It had been accompanied by the surrender of all their possessions. So the Romans entered the war with the Samnites as though they were fighting for themselves.

[Superiority of Campanian environment]

The district of Campania is the fairest of all regions not only in Italy but in the whole world. Nothing can be softer than its climate. In fact, it has spring and its flowers twice a year. Nowhere is the soil more fertile, because of which it is said to have been an object of contention between Liber [god of the vine] and Ceres [goddess of grain]. Nowhere is the coast more hospitable, which contains the famous harbours of Caieta, Misenus, Baiae with its hot springs, and the Lucrine and Avernian lakes where the sea seems to enjoy perpetual calmness. Here are the vine-clad mountains of Gaurus, Falernus and Massicus, and Vesuvius, the fairest of them all, which rivals the fires of Etna [on Sicily]. Towards the sea-coast are situated the cities of Formiae, Cumae, Puteoli, Naples, Herculaneum and Pompeii, as well as Capua, queen among cities, formerly accounted among the three greatest in the world.

[Characteristics of the Samnites, including extreme wealth, ambushes, and human sacrifices]

It was on behalf of this city and these regions that the Roman people attacked the Samnites, a people (gens) which, if you knew its wealth, was clad, even to the point of ostentation, in gold and silver armour and many-coloured garments; if you learned its techniques, it usually attacked its foes from its valleys and the ambushes of its mountains; if you knew its rage and fury, it was hounded on by its sacred laws and human sacrifices to destroy our city; if you knew its obstinacy, it had been exasperated by a treaty six times broken and by its very disasters.

[Roman triumph after some set backs]

In fifty years, however, under the leader­ship of two generations of the Fabius and Papirius families, the Romans so thoroughly subdued and conquered this people and so demolished the very ruins of their cities that today one looks around to see where Samnium is on Samnite territory, and it is difficult to imagine how there can have been material for twenty-four triumphs over them. Yet a most notable and signal defeat was sustained at the hands of this people at the Caudine Forks in the consul­ship of Veturius and Postumius. . . [omitted remainder of details of specific incidents].​


Source of translations: Cato fragment 2.21 from E. Cary, The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 7 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937-50), public domain (copyright not renewed); Cato fragment 2.22 translation by Harland; Cato fragment 3.1 from F.W. Shipley, Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History. Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1924), public domain (passed away in 1945); W.M. Roberts, Livy: The History of Rome (London: Dent and Sons, 1912), public domain, adapted by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *