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Samnite People

Last modified: 2021-08-24 by rob raeside
Keywords: italy | samnite people | paestrum |
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image contributed by Thomas Robinson, 29 May 2000

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Samnite People

A banner was used by the Samnite people, who lived in the south of Italy at the time of Rome's ascension. They fought a number of wars with the City of Rome, between 343 BC and 290 BC before the Romans finally conquered them. They actually had a chance to destroy Rome when they defeated the Roman forces in 321 BC, but the Romans outmaneuvered them and built up their strength until they defeated the last Samnite city in 290 BC. Small-scale attacks by Samnite peoples in the hills continued until about 80 BC.
As regards the item in question: I don't know whether it should be counted a flag or not. Flags, as such, were not really around at that time, but this is definitely a piece of (more or less) rectangular fabric hung from an upright staff and would be called a flag by most people. It has a distinctive pattern on it, in three colours, and was commonly used by one or more Samnite cities. It does not actually connect with the pole for its whole length; there is a semi-circle missing in the centre.
Above is a small scanned picture of it, taken from a photo of a Roman fresco in a warriors tomb in Paestrum. It is being carried on a pole slung over the shoulder of a Samnite soldier.
Thomas Robinson, 29 May 2000

There are two images of Samnite flags in Znamierowski's 'Encyclopedia of flags'. He does name them flags but seeing the form I wouldn't know what else to call them
Jarig Bakker, 29 May 2000

Jostein Nygård asked: Is this the actual shape of the flag, or is it just depiction of a heavy cloth that would form a 'natural' bulge?
I believe that the actual shape of the flag is roughly rectangular, and that the distortion is just the artist's attempt to make it seem more natural, yes.
Thomas Robinson, 29 May 2000

This flag is precisely the one shown on page 11 of Znamierowski's "World Encyclopedia of Flags". It is indeed a fresco, which kind of surprised me, for two reasons: (1) I had thought fresco was a late Medieval or Renaissance technique and (2) the flag suggests a cross, such symbolism being jolly unlikely in 330 BC
Al Kirsch, 29 May 2000

I suspect it's not a cross, just the same pattern repeated four times
Roy Stilling, 29 May 2000

I think it's the actual shape. I seem to recall that these are supposed to have been made from leather, and they were fixed to the pole only at the top and the bottom. The extremities of the animal hide? The edges around each quarter aren't squares or rectangles, but rather follow the outline of the cloth. In this case, it's not a cross, but the combination of the edges of each of the four "quarters".
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 3 June 2000

It appears to most scholars that have studied this fresco that what is shown is no flag at all but simply a tunic of a defeated foe hanged on a pole as a trophy.
- Peter Connolly : Hannibal against Rome
- John Warry : Greece and Rome at War
- Duncan Head : Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars, WRG Publication.

Sorry, it would have been a nice ancestor to modern flags, but I'm positive that this piece of cloth matches really well with what we know of male warriors dress style in central Italy of that time...
Philippe Bondurand, 25 May 2001

The image of the fresco clearly illustrates *one* side of the "tunic/flag" (either back or front) and *not* a side view. If the illustrated item was a tunic the wearer's left shoulder would be at least 20cm higher than their right! Furthermore Roman artists knew how to accurately illustrate the fold of fabrics in a naturalistic manner; the item in question does not hang
naturalistically, which indicates either that it is not in fact a tunic - or else it was more important for the design on the "tunic/flag" to be recognised by viewers of the fresco than to represent the item itself naturalistically.
George Cruickshank, 25 May 2001

Yes but....
1) The author of the drawing is not a Roman, the fresco is taken from a Samnite burial.
2) The fresco is much larger then the part depicted on the site and shows many other un-naturalistic details.
3) AFAIK, vexilloids of the time were tied to cross-bars. If someone knows about a piece of fabric attached to un upright pole at that time, I would be delighted to hear of. I'd love to be wrong on that topic, really.
4) The holder of the so-called "flag" is walking in front of another soldier holding what seems to be the belt of the tunic on a similar pole.
5) You are right to stress the point that to be recognised by the viewer is more important then accuracy. The fact that another soldier follows closely the tunic-bearer explains that the artist have bent the tunic in such unrealistic way from the pole. To let room enough for the next soldier.
Philippe Bondurand, 25 May 2001

I believe that the fresco is depicting a banner. It was common to Italics to have banners and vexilloids at the time and Sanniti were well organized troops that gave a lot of troubles to Romans. It would be surprising to see one of them depicted in a Roman fresco with a tunic taken from a foe (i.e. a Roman) as a symbol of (Roman) defeat. Much more probable that the painter wished to show Sanniti with one of their symbols. That is not an ancestor of modern national flags, but for sure our army colours descend from those times (and earlier).
Pier Paolo Lugli, 25 May 2001

Well, it looks like this is probably the case, then. I was the one who first submitted the image, based upon what I read, but my references only mentioned the subject in passing, not with any detail. It could well be that it was a defeated enemy's tunic. I am hardly an expert on that sort of thing (my interest in the Romans and their neighbours is based more in the late Republic and early Imperial periods). I don't have immediate access to any of the sources mentioned, but I see no reason to doubt this new explanation.
Thomas Robinson, 25 May 2001

If it is a tunic, it appears to be a peculiarly (deliberately?) lop-sided one.  
George Cruickshank, 25 May 2001

image located by Philippe Bondurand, 25 May 2001

Belts are clearly visible, both on the same pole and on the javelin carried by the cavalryman. Reviewing my sources I must admitted that Peter Connolly, in Hannibal and The Enemies of Rome believes that it's a standard. But: 1) he is alone in his opinion. 2) his book has many errors regarding interpretation of archaeological evidences, including Carthaginian phalangists with sarissae (12 feet pikes Macedonian style) which is grossly wrong, Carthaginian phalanx is attested with much smaller spears 5 to 6 feet tall.3) The other sources are more recent and better documented in all topics related.
Philippe Bondurand, 25 May 2001

The semi-circular "hole" where the fabric is attached to the pole is simply the collar, the two parts that are attached are the shoulders. The sides of the tunic were higher then the front and back to allow easier movement, for the same reasons modern close-fitting shirts are often cut-open down the sides. This explains the rounded "fly" of the makeshift "flag". Looking once more to my sources, I found the one of the main reasons to think its a tunic. Looking carefully to the main size illustration at :
<> you'll see tassels at the shoulders of the tunic of the second warrior. The same kind of tassels are present on the shoulder of the tunic hanged on the pole. Now look at all the 3 tunics, they are all rounded in front, the same way that the tunic hanged. Then look at the belts, they are the same color as the belt hanged. Once again, I would really love this to be a flag. But it is not. Maybe the first banner once was born like this? That is all we can say.
Philippe Bondurand, 25 May 2001

I'm an archaeologist at the institute of archaeology, university college London. My research is on the military and cultural significance of the south Italic warriors panoply. The illustration you have posted on your site is from a tomb fresco from Nola dated to 330-320 BC and is currently exhibited at the Museo Campana in Capua Vetere. I have had the opportunity to examine this painting firsthand and I'm afraid it is not a flag at all. The illustration shows a trophy taken from a defeated enemy, in this case it is a tunic and a bronze belt (not visible in your picture) They are suspended by two javelins which the warrior carries over his shoulder. There is another warrior on horseback in this fresco who carries a trophy of only a belt. The warrior with a tunic over his shoulder as a trophy is a popular iconographic image among the south Italic peoples (Samnites, Campanians, Lucanians) and is often misinterpreted as a flag or standard as it appears similar both visually and contextually to our modern concept. The practice of stripping enemy warriors of their tunics, belts and other items of equipment is a custom related to single combat and the strong heroic ethos this perpetuated. The closest the south Italic peoples would have to a flag at this period would probably be something along the lines of the Roman aquila or eagle standard. A metal, usually bronze image of an animal on a pole. In fact, at the same museum in Capua Vetere there is a bronze cockerel from the sanctuary of Pietrabbondante which is believed to be from a standard.
I have a recently published article on this subject which discusses the confusion of these trophies with flags. It is 'Visible proofs of valour: The trophy in south Italic iconography of the 4th century BC' in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 14 (2003): 42-56. London.
Note: An abstract of the paper can be found at
Mike Burns, 15 January 2004