Ancient History & Civilisation


While Rome had co-operated with her allies on the eastern and southern fronts, she was left to face the northern menace by herself. This was centred in the city of her old rival, Etruscan Veii, some twelve miles away on the west bank of the Tiber. Veii was perched on a precipitous hill, surrounded by ravines on all sides but one; its territory was larger and more fertile, its position stronger and more healthy than that of Rome. Ancient writers tell of the wealth of this ‘urbs opulentissima Etrusci nominis’ (Livy, v, 22), traces of which have been found in its necropolis and in the beauty of its temples and their statues. But Rome stood in the path of its expansion and commanded its two routes down to the Tiber, one by the Cremera valley, the other by the old Via Veientana. There was a third approach to Veii, via Caere to the coast; but Caere, though Etruscan, was hostile to Veii and friendly to Rome. A conflict between Rome and Veii was thus probable and would involve Fidenae, which lay on the east of the Tiber commanding the Cremera valley leading to Veii. The nature of the struggle was dictated by the twofold attempt of the Veientanes to keep a foothold east of the Tiber by holding Fidenae (and Eretum, a little further north), and to preserve their authority west of the Tiber, where at times they pushed down to the Janiculum Hill and the sea.

The rivalry of the two cities was ancient, arising from the attempts of each to control the salt pans at the Tiber mouth, where a small body of Roman salt workers may have settled in very early times (p. 48). If the suggestion is correct that the Porsenna to whom Rome surrendered was a king of Veii (p. 68), we then have another incident in the contest. Border raids may have long continued, but a real war is first recorded in 483–474. Tradition tells that M. Fabius and Cn. Manlius avenged a previous defeat by a victory over the Veientanes in 480. The next year, however, the Veientanes occupied the Janiculum; as a counter-thrust the Fabian gens fortified a camp on the Cremera, which cut Veii’s communications with Fidenae. With a great variety of detail the story is told that the whole Fabian gens except one youth was annihilated on the Cremera in 479.10 Thereafter the Veientanes threatened Rome itself, but as the Etruscan power weakened, their pressure slackened and a Forty Years’ Peace was made with Rome in 474.

Much of the account is false, for instance the supposed siege of Rome may be a reduplication of Porsenna’s siege, but it is unreasonable to reject the whole incident of the disaster on the Cremera. The record of a defeat, its connection with a particular family and its definite localization are not likely to have been invented, especially as a keen appreciation of the underlying strategy is shown. The three hundred Fabii presumably represent a few Fabii together with a number of their clients. The connection with one clan may be explained by supposing that the Fabii either had property in the area or had come to an agreement with the state to extend their territory in that direction (Diodorus recounts an ordinary battle between Romans and Veientanes on the Cremera, where the losses fell most heavily upon the Fabii). In any case the one incident of these wars which in essence can be accepted with certainty is that the Romans tried to cut the communications of Veii and Fidenae and were defeated on the Cremera. Fidenae may have been captured by Rome soon after 500, but probably it was frequently taken and retaken during the century. A formal peace may not have been established, but this tradition represents the true condition of affairs: for the following forty years nothing is heard of Veii. The Etruscan power was waning. After their collapse in Latium the Etruscans were defeated off Cumae by Hiero of Syracuse whose fleet soon harassed the shores of Etruria. Veii was an outlying part of Etruria and received only feeble support from her neighbour Caere. Thus she was quite ready to lapse into a period of obscure peace with continued control of the right bank of the Tiber, especially as Rome had behind her the full weight of the Latin League.

Rome’s next step forward was to win permanent possession of Fidenae: confused accounts of this struggle have survived. With the help of Veii Fidenae revolted; four Roman ambassadors were murdered; Cornelius Cossus won the spolia opima by killing Tolumnius, prince of Veii; finally Q. Servilius Fidenas captured Fidenae by driving a tunnel beneath it in 435. Fidenae again revolted in 426 and was regained in 425; the incidents of this war are so closely parallel to those of the first, that one must be a ‘doublet’ of the other. Two actual memorials of the struggle survived in later times: the breastplate of Lars Tolumnius, which Cossus had dedicated to Jupiter, and of which the Emperor Augustus read the inscription; and statues of the murdered Roman envoys, which stood on the Rostra till Sulla’s time. Unless Augustus was guilty of a voluntary or involuntary mistake, the evidence conclusively attests the historicity of the second war and its dates as 428–425.11 Which side took the initiative is uncertain: whether Veii made one last attempt to recover her control of the left bank of the Tiber, or Rome determined to thrust her foes beyond the river. Probably their recent victory over the Aequi on the Algidus encouraged the Romans to break down Veii’s outposts. Thirty years later they carried the war to their enemy’s gates.

At the end of the fifth century Rome and Veii grappled in a mortal struggle and after a long siege Veii fell in 396. In this contest Veii received little help from Etruria. A federal council of the Etruscans is said to have met, but it did little and abandoned Veii to its fate; the excuse that the Gauls were becoming a pressing danger is sometimes put forward, but more probably lack of national sentiment explains Veii’s isolation. Even the neighbouring Caere refused help and maintained a benevolent neutrality towards Rome. Tarquinii indeed is said to have raided Roman territory in 397, but it was elsewhere that Veii found substantial support. Two cities, Capena near Mt Soracte, and Falerii further up the Tiber valley, which were racially Latin but politically Etruscan, anticipated Rome’s northern advance and rallied to Veii’s cause in 402; Falerii had also helped Fidenae earlier. Traditionally the Romans besieged Veii for ten years with varying fortunes until in 396 M. Furius Camillus was appointed dictator; with his appearance a series of strange portents and stratagems enliven the narrative. When it was reported by the Delphic oracle that Veii would not fall until the waters of the Alban Lake, which had risen abnormally high, had been drained, the Romans at once set about draining the Lake. Camillus then drove a tunnel under Veii and the Roman sappers heard the King of Veii, who was sacrificing to Juno in the temple above their heads, say that whoever should offer the sacrifice would have the victory; breaking through, the Romans offered the sacrifice and thus Veii fell. But Camillus, who was accused of keeping back part of the spoil, withdrew from Rome in exile. Much of the story is to be rejected, but the traditional date of Veii’s fall is probably roughly right. The ten years’ siege, though suspiciously like the ten years’ siege of Troy, may be correct. A very important innovation was made during the war in the introduction of pay for the yeoman soldiers; this marks the first stage in the transformation of a citizen militia into a professional army. Its connection with the siege of Veii lends probability to the length of the siege and suggests that this was the first time that the army, which was used to short summer campaigns, had to keep the field the whole year round. The critical tunnelling under Veii, a stratagem which is also attributed to the attack on Fidenae in 435, is improbable in view of the city’s precipitous position; it may have been suggested by local drainage systems or by the draining of the Alban Lake, if this was roughly contemporary. A memorial of the war survived into later times: Camillus had vowed a tithe of the booty to Delphi, so that a golden bowl was sent there and placed in the Treasury of the Massiliotes.12

The capture of Veii, which was facilitated by Rome’s possession of Fidenae as an operational base, marks an important stage in Rome’s external advance. The captured land was annexed and soon afterwards was formed into four new rustic tribes. This not only made Rome the largest city in Latium, but also increased her military strength since the Roman army was recruited from men who held property; further, it gave great impetus to the democratic movement, as much of the land was made available for the plebs. Rome quickly came to terms with Veii’s allies, Capena and Falerii (395 and 394). These towns were not taken over, since Capena was not at first included in one of the new tribes and Falerii survived to challenge Rome later.13 The Romans secured their northern frontier by advancing further and reaching some agreement with Sutrium and Nepete, which Livy describes as the very gateway of Etruria: ‘velut claustra inde portaeque’. Latin colonies were soon settled at these two towns, though the exact dates are uncertain; Sutrium was perhaps colonized after the fall of Veii and Nepete some ten years later. Rome thus shared her conquest with her allies to whom she allotted the northern towns; she herself kept the ager Veiens which marched with the ager Romanus. Her northern horizon now reached the Ciminian Hills, and Etruria lay open to attack.14

The century had been one of territorial conquest for both Rome and the Latins, but it also witnessed a gradual change in their relations. In the early decades conquered territory had been used for Latin colonies, such as Signia and Norba; these became full members of the Latin League and comprised citizens from any of the League cities or Rome. But the Romans and Hernici soon became discontented, since all the benefits fell to the League alone, and many of their citizens would hesitate to sacrifice rights at Rome or Anagnia merely to become members of a Latin colony. So they began to claim some of the conquered district for themselves; for instance, Rome earmarked some land near the Algidus, and the Hernici kept Ferentinum. But these acquisitions of Rome, even including the Veientane territory, were easily eclipsed by the later conquests of the League when it obtained Circeii, Velitrae, Antium, Satricum and Anxur, in addition to Sutrium and Nepete, which had been ceded to, if not colonized by, the Latins before the Gallic invasion. In extent the Latin League had won more than Rome, perhaps a third as much again; but it was at a grave disadvantage. Whereas the Roman territory was a compact mass, the Latin possessions were scattered and often separated by Roman property. In these circumstances the Latins found common action difficult, so that a profound change came over the League. Rome almost unconsciously assumed the leadership. A city in distress would turn more readily to the united and ready forces of Rome than to the disunited Latins; and the Romans would often call on the Latins to supply their contingents without waiting to summon a federal council. Gradually the arrangement for an alternating military command and the meetings at the Ferentine Spring fell into disuse. The initiative passed to Rome and the equal alliance collapsed. The Latin League was further weakened by some of the new colonies; in some a large proportion of the settlers might be Roman citizens, mindful of their origin, others included Volscian states which were forced into the League and would hardly live at peace with their neighbours. Rome, on the other hand, increased in strength when any Latins migrated thither and sought citizenship. In short, by a century of hard defensive fighting Rome had nearly doubled her own territory and had extended her horizon to the Ciminian Hills in the north and Anxur in the south; she dominated, if she did not yet lead, the Latin League; the moment was ripe for the Latins to make one last bid for independence. But suddenly the storm-cloudsswept down past the Ciminian Hills and there burst upon Rome the tempest of the Gallic invasion.15

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!