Ancient History & Civilisation

2. THE SABINES, AEQUI AND VOLSCI

The Sabines caused much of this general unrest among the hill tribes, but it is uncertain how far they came into direct contact with Rome. A modern theory suggests that their influence was catastrophic: not only did they, rather than the Latins, drive the Etruscans from Latium, but they actually captured Rome in the first half of the fifth century and were not checked until a Roman victory in 449. The evidence for this view rests on the undoubtedly great influence which the Sabines exercised over Rome and on Livy’s account of how Appius Herdonius with a Sabine army suddenly occupied the Capitol in 460. This story is rather improbable and the whole theory scarcely squares with the facts;5 these point to gradual Sabine infiltration rather than to a definite conquest, which is indicated neither by the general tradition nor by the Fasti. The Sabines had mingled with the Romans from the days when the inhuming Sabines of the Quirinal and Esquiline joined with the cremating peoples of the Palatine, and Titus Tatius was a Sabine. In 504 Attius Clausus had migrated with all his clan to Rome, where he was admitted to the patriciate; his people received Roman citizenship and settled beyond the Anio; his Roman name was Claudius and from him sprang the famous Claudian gens.6 It is more probable that other Sabines settled in and were absorbed by Rome in a similar manner, than that the Sabines conquered Rome, which did not become a Sabine, any more than an Etruscan, city; the Latin-speaking people were not unduly influenced by contact with the Sabine dialect. Further, tradition relates that Rome fought on the Sabine front for the first half of the fifth century, and it has even been suggested that she annexed Sabine territory. During the fifth century Rome occupied some of the territory between the Anio and Tiber and created the tribe of Clustumina; no doubt many skirmishes occurred, but the details of the wars recorded are mainly late inventions. After 449 nothing is said of the relations of Rome and the Sabines for the next hundred and fifty years; perhaps they were friendly, as the need to transfer sheep from summer to winter pasturage and the trade in salt would link the mountain tribes with the Roman Campagna. It was rather on the southern and northern fronts that Rome had to face serious dangers.

The Volsci, who belonged to the Osco-Sabellian group of people, dwelt during the regal period in the upper Liris valley to the west of the Fucine Lake. But the pressure of the tribes of central Italy forced them westwards to the hills between the Trerus and the coast, while the collapse of the Etruscan power in Latium tempted them still further towards the rich farms and cities of the plains below. They captured Pometia and Ardea, to judge from the legend of the maiden of Ardea; their power reached southwards to Antium and perhaps to Anxur. The most north-westerly point of their advance was Velitrae, which they either founded or captured. The origin of some of the cities in this district is uncertain; Signia, which commanded the Trerus valley, and Velitrae and Norba, which guarded the fertile plain below the Alban hills, are said to be Roman colonies founded in 495, 494 and 492. More probably they were Latin colonies, composed of men from Latin cities and Rome and established as outposts by the League, themselves full members of the League.7 Some of them succumbed to the Volscian advance, but such hill towns as Cora, Norba and Signia towered up like rocks above the tide of the warfare which surged to and fro for long years. The traditional details of these wars are scarcely trustworthy. One episode is the story of Coriolanus. It contains three acts: the hero captures Corioli; he opposes the distribution of corn to the starving plebs and withdraws from Rome to Volscian Antium; at the head of the Volscian army he storms up to the gates of Rome in 491 and is only turned aside by his mother’s prayers. Whether he was the eponymous founder of Corioli or its captor, a Roman or a Volscian, is uncertain. Possibly the story was designed to explain away a Volscian raid across the Campagna as the work of an exiled Roman; if so, the incident may be historical. Though the Volscian conquests under Coriolanus were more limited than tradition records, the Volsci may really have seized Labici and Pedum in a northern assault from Velitrae along the eastern frontiers of Tusculum; the object of this brilliant stroke will have been to cut off the Hernici from the Latins and to open up their own communications with the Aequi.8

Meanwhile the Aequi were battering on the eastern front of the Latins. These highlanders, whose ethnic connections are uncertain, descended from their poor and inaccessible country which stretched north-west from the Fucine Lake. Crossing the Anio one branch came down to the district around Tibur, another pressed on the Hernici, while between them a third reached the heart of Latium through the Algidus gap. Praeneste, which lay on their route, must have succumbed or allowed them free passage, while at Pedum and Labici they joined hands with their Volscian allies; it was perhaps as a result of this co-operation that Tusculum fell. The Latins, however, with the aid of the Hernici, soon snatched Tusculum out of the Aequian-Volscian pincers (484). For the next twenty years frontier struggles continued and the Aequi maintained their ground though the Latins and Hernici successfully barred the gate to the Campagna. It was on these two members of the Triple Alliance that the brunt of the fighting fell, but in 458 a Roman consul, L. Minucius, was trapped in the valley below the Mons Algidus and only five horsemen broke through to bring the news to Rome. This disaster is the prelude to the appearance of Cincinnatus, the heroic counterpart of Coriolanus in the Volscian wars. Called from the plough to assume the dictatorship, Cincinnatus soon turned the tables on the Aequi, defeated them in the same valley and then, laying aside his office, gladly returned to his farming. Many stories which were told about this pattern of early Roman manhood are naturally to be rejected, particularly those relating to such political actions as his clash with the tribunate; but it is not necessary to consign him to the realm of legend since folk-memory may have preserved some record of him. His campaign, though idealized, was typical of the long years of border warfare.

Thus for many years Rome held her own against the Aequi and Volsci with difficulty, while a large part of the burden fell on her Latin allies. But in the second half of the fifth century her army became stronger and she moved gradually to the offensive. In 444 a treaty was made with Ardea where possibly a Latin colony was sent, as a base from which to win back the Latin coast (442).9 The decisive battle was fought against the Aequi in 431 when A. Postumius Tubertus defeated them on the Algidus. This victory, though resembling that of Cincinnatus, can scarcely be questioned. The unusual fact that it is attributed to a definite day, 19 June, speaks in its favour, while the success of the subsequent Roman offensive can only be explained by postulating such a victory. The scales were turning, Latium was freed and the Romans began to recover the lost Latin cities. In 418 Labici, which commanded the Algidus gap, received a Roman garrison. In 393 the northern thrust of the Aequi was thwarted by their ejection from the district of Tibur. The Volsci fared similarly. They were turned from Ferentinum by the Hernici in 431, and notwithstanding certain reverses, the Romans advanced steadily. Anxur was reduced in 406; Velitrae received a garrison in 404; a colony was sent to Circeii, the Gibraltar of the Latin coast, in 393; and Satricum submitted at least for the moment. Though the peace which the Volscians obtained in 396 may be an annalistic fiction, it represents correctly their exhausted condition. A century of warfare by the Triple Alliance had won back the ground lost at the beginning of the century. Though the Aequi and Volsci are called ‘the implacable and daily foes of the Romans’, these wars were not large-scale operations. Often in the spring each side sallied forth to burn his opponent’s crops and perhaps to catch him unawares; the campaigning season was passed in raid and counter-raid and then operations were suspended till the next year. But it was in these somewhat petty struggles that Rome learnt the art of war and disciplined her sons to fight. The success which attended this gradual advance is shown by the fact that when the Gauls attacked Rome the Aequi and Volsci were not in a position to profit by Rome’s weakness, but remained quiet among their hills.

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