The Osci (also called Opici, Opsci, Obsci, Opicans, Ancient Greek: Όπικοί, Όσκοί), were an Italic people of Campania and Latium adiectum during Roman times. They spoke the Oscan language, also spoken by the Samnites of Southern Italy. Although the language of the Samnites was called Oscan, the Samnites were never called Osci, or the Osci Samnites. The linguist, Carl Darling Buck, hypothesized that a population originally speaking the same language dissimilated in name only, and that the Romans, encountering the Osci first, gave their name to the entire language.
Traditions of the Opici fall into the legendary period of Italian history, approximately the first half of the first millennium BC, down to the foundation of the Roman Republic. No agreement can be reached concerning their location and language. At the end of that time the Oscan language appeared and was spoken by a number of sovereign tribal states. By far the most important in military prowess and wealth was the Samnites. They rivalled Rome for about 50 years in the 2nd half of the 4th century BC, sometimes siding with it, and sometimes being against it, until they were finally subdued with considerable difficulty by the unique Roman military system and were incorporated into the Roman state.
Between the Samnites and the Romans were the Oscans. Though often eager to go to war, they were never a power to be taken seriously militarily. They cost the Romans no more than a single battle to defeat on every trial of their prowess. Their final disposition more closely resembled the farces with which they regaled Roman audiences than a serious war. They kept their independence by playing off one state against another, especially the Romans and Samnites. That sovereignty fell victim at last to the Second Samnite War, when the Romans prior to invading Samnium found it necessary to secure the border tribes. After the war they assimilated shortly to Roman culture. Their memory survived only in place names and in literature.
According to Aristotle, the Opici lived in "the part of Italy towards Tyrrhenia" and were called also Ausones. Antiochus of Syracuse agreed that the Opici were Ausones and placed them in Campania. Strabo, however, the chief source for the fragments of Antiochus, himself distinguished between the Osci and the Ausones, remarking that the Osci had disappeared, but the Romans still used their dialect as a literary language, and that the "high sea" near Sicily was still named Ausonian even though the Ausonians never lived near it. Aurunci is the Roman name for Ausones by a commonplace change of an s to an r in Latin: *Ausuni> *Auruni> *Aurunici> Aurunci. They were perhaps the same people in the early Roman Republic. In the 4th century BC the names came to be applied to distinct tribes.
Oscans of the early republic
A people called the Aurunci by Livy appear the earliest in history. In 503 BC the Latin colonies of Cora and Pometia rebelled against Roman authority, obtaining the assistance of the Aurunci, seat unknown. Two consular armies sent against them won after a hard-fought battle in which "many more were killed than were taken prisoners; the prisoners were everywhere butchered, even the hostages ... fell a victim to the enemy's bloodthirsty rage." The enemy fell back on Pometia, to be sieged by the Romans. The Aurunci sallying out burned the siege towers, massacred the troops and grievously wounded one of the consuls. The Romans withdrew but returned later in greater force. Taking the town, they beheaded the Aurunci officers, sold the Pometians into slavery, levelled the buildings and put the land up for sale.
The Aurunci appear one more time in the early republic in a failed attempt to support the Volsci in their struggle against Rome. In 495 BC putting an army on the march for Rome they sent envoys ahead to demand the withdrawal of Romans from Volscian territory. The consul Publius Servilus Priscus Structus met them on the march at Arricia and "in one battle finished the war." No more is heard of the Oscans for almost a century.
Conflict and subjugation
In the last half of the 4th century BC the remaining Oscan populations (who were not Samnites) lived in three sovereign states: the Sidicini, the Aurunci and the Ausones. The Sidicini's capital city was Teanum, which minted its own coins bearing inscriptions in the Oscan language. The town of Cales was the capital of the Ausones.
The beginning of the end of Oscan sovereignty was their attempted exploitation of an opportunity to maraud against the Romans in the period of instability following a major victory against the Volsci, a tribe occupying the Volsci Mountains overlooking and including the Pontine Marshes. During the final revolt of the Volsci the Romans had sacked and leveled Satricum about 346 BC and had sold the remaining 4000 fighting men into slavery. For whatever reasons, the Aurunci chose this moment to send a marauding expedition against the Romans. Panic ensued in the city. The senators saw a wider conspiracy with the Latin League. They appointed Lucius Furius Camillus dictator, halted business, drafted an army on the spot and sent it into the field against the Aurunci, but "the war was finished in the very first battle." The Romans used the army to complete the conquest of the Volsci at Sora.
First Samnite War
The Samnites in 343 BC "made an unprovoked attack upon the Sidicini," who appealed to Campania for military assistance and received it. After losing two battles and being penned in Capua the Campanians offered themselves to Rome with tears and prostrations in the Senate House. The Senate accepted the offer and granted assistance on the grounds that Campania would be an ally in the rear of the Aequi and Volsci in case of further conflict with them. When Roman envoys presented the Samnite Senate with demands for withdrawal from Campania the answer was no; moreover, the envoys were allowed to hear staged orders of Samnite commanders to their troops to march on Campania immediately. So began the First Samnite War (343–341 BC).
The Roman Senate declared war, the people ratified the declaration, two consular armies were sent into Samnium and Campania respectively. For two years the Romans knew only victories until at last the Samnites sued for the restoration of their former alliance with one condition: they would be free to war on the Sidicini if they wished. The Romans had an agreement with Campania but none with the Sidicini. The Senate bought peace by ratifying the treaty and paying off their army.
The Samnites used their army to attack the Sidicini again. In desperation the latter offered themselved to Rome but were turned down on the grounds that they were too late. The Sidicini allied with a force being raised by the Latin league against the Samnites. They were joined by the Campanians. A multi-national army began to devastate Samnium. The Samnites now appealed to Rome under the terms of their treaty, asking if in fact Rome was sovereign over Campania. The Romans disavowed any agreement that would restrain the Campanians and Latins from making war on whomever else they pleased.
Encouraged by Roman refusal to assume leadership, the Latins made plans to turn their army against Rome once the Samnite threat had been neutralized. Word of the plans leaked to the Romans, who reacted by inviting ten Latin chiefs to Rome to receive orders under the terms of the treaty. As the price for submitting to Rome the Latins demanded a new common government, with one consul and half the Senate to be elected from the Latins. When Titus Manlius Torquatus, one of the consuls for 340 BC, heard these conditions, he swore by Jupiter's statue that if the Senate accepted them he would kill every Latin in the Senate House with drawn sword. Emotional posturing began around the statue, a Latin envoy, Lucius Annaeus, slipped on the stairs while railing against Jupiter and hit his head, becoming unconscious. At that moment a thunderstorm burst on the Senate House. Interpreting these events as a sign the Romans declared war on the Latins and their allies and allied themselves with the Samnites. The two years of conflict, 340–338, is known as the Latin War.
In a number of legendary battles the Romans defeated the Latin League, taking away the sovereignty of its tribal states, who subsequently assimilated to Rome. The consul, Lucius Furius Camillus, asked the Senate: "Do you wish to adopt ruthless measures against a people that have surrendered and been defeated? ... Or do you wish to follow the example of your ancestors and make Rome greater by conferring her citizenship on those whom she has defeated?" The Senate chose to offer different terms to different Latin cities. Colonists were placed throughout Latium.
Fall of Cales
The Aurunci and Sidicini, who had been perforce in the Latin camp, received separate treaties from Rome. In 337 the Sidicini attacked the Aurunci for no reason given by Livy. The Roman Senate decided that the terms of the latter's treaty warranted military intervention but meanwhile the Aurunci abandoned their towns in Campania in favor of a mountain stronghold, Suessa, which they renamed to Aurunca. Further events escalated the conflict: the Ausones of Cales joined the Sidicini. In 335 the Romans sent a consular army under Marcus Valerius Corvus to siege Cales. Informed by an escaped prisoner (who broke his chains and climbed the wall in plain sight without being observed) that the enemy were all drunk and sleeping, Corvus took the city in a nighttime rout and garrisoned it. The Senate voted to send 2500 colonists. Enemy land was distributed to them. The Ausoni were never again sovereign.
Peace with the Sidicini and Aurunci
After the fall of Cales both consular armies were sent against the Sidicini, who with a large army fortified themselves in Teanum. Livy does not reveal the outcome of this campaign. The Romans were struck by a plague (the most typical plague in the region was malaria, carried by the marsh mosquitos); both consuls were relieved for suspicion of impiety, but the Roman army remained among the Sidicini. Livy changes the topic to relations with the Samnites in preparation for his account of the Second Samnite War, 326–304 BC. The Sidicini do not appear in that war or ever again in history, but Teanum goes on as Teanum Sidicinum and its territory as Sidicinus ager. If the Romans had fought a great battle and had obliterated the Sidicini there would be some mention of it or some evidence of a discontinuity at Teano. Instead the city prospers. Smith accords with the general conclusion that between 335 and 326, most likely in 334, the Sidicini consented to lay down their arms and become part of the greater Roman municipality. Livy's omission remains unexplained.
The Aurunci similarly disappeared from tradition. They remained subject to Rome. After the Samnites were pacified, the region kept the peace and was prosperous. It was popular vacation spot, being on high ground away from the pestilential air, which today is recognized to be the malaria mosquito.
Vestiges of the Oscans at Rome
The Osci were known among their neighbors for their lascivious festivals, games and plays (compare: Atellan Farce). Their debauchery was adopted by the larger Roman society over time, and the term Osci loqui or Obsci loqui came to mean licentious or lewd language.
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