Early Rome and the Conquest of Italy

These two bone plaques from Praeneste are decorated with pictures of Italian hoplites. Each man wears a crested helmet, muscled cuirass (probably in bronze), greaves, tunic and cloak. They each hold a spear and have a round shield, the heavy hoplon, resting against their legs. None of this equipment would have been out of place in the phalanxes of Classical Greece.

The Romans’ own myths concerning their origins were dominated by tales of war tinged with a good deal of pure savagery. Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the war god Mars, were suckled by a she-wolf and as adults gathered a warrior band which supported itself by raiding. The foundation of the city was stained by fratricide when Romulus killed his brother in a fit of rage. Throughout his life Romulus remained the heroic war leader, justifying his right to rule by his conspicuous courage and prowess in battle. The majority of the tales of Rome’s early years recounted heroism in war. It is impossible now to know just how much, if any, truth is contained in these stories. The Romans themselves did not begin to write history until the end of the third century вс and preserved very little reliable information concerning earlier events. By that time Rome was already firmly established as the dominant power in Italy and had begun to enter the world stage. The warfare which formed a major part of her rise to this position is the subject of this chapter, but it is important to remember how poor the sources for this period are.

Traditionally Rome was founded in 753 вс, although archaeology has revealed traces of settlements near what would become the site of the future city from the beginning of the last millennium вс. The merging of several of these villages into a single settlement that could be called a city did not occur until the sixth century вс. The site is a good one, with easily defensible hills next to a natural crossing place of the River Tiber, and commanding traditional trade routes into central Italy, including the Via Salaria, the Salt Road running from the coast. Rome was just one of several Latin communities occupying an area of the coastal plain west of the Apennines, the line of hills which forms the spine of Italy. Sixth-century Rome may well have been the largest of all the Latin cities, but it is unclear whether it was also the most powerful.

The wars fought by early Rome consisted of small-scale raids and cattle rustling, with perhaps the occasional ritualized battle. The ‘armies’ were warrior bands formed by an aristocrat, his kin and dependants. The leaders were not commanders with formal powers but heroes who led by personal example, fighting as conspicuously as possible in advance of their followers. The leader fought for personal glory, the followers out of loyalty to the leader who provided for them. The successful leader was the man who could protect his dependants from the depredations of other warrior bands and provide enough booty to satisfy his followers. This type of warfare has much in common with that described in Homer’s poems and was probably prevalent in most of the ‘barbarian’ societies of western Europe at this period.

When the Romans began to record their own history in the later third century вс, they had only the haziest knowledge of their city’s origins. By this time the story of Romulus founding Rome after the murder of his twin brother Remus was the most common, but not the only, version of these events.

The seventh-century вс Chigi vase was one of very few attempts by Greek artists to represent hoplite phalanxes in battle. Men are shown advancing to the accompaniment of a flute player towards a similarly equipped enemy phalanx coming towards them. Like the later makers of the Bayeux tapestry, the vase painters encountered the problem of depicting a formation which was both wide and deep in a twodimensional medium. Their solution was the same, to show the figures one behind the other, closely overlapping.

A major development came with the adoption of the hoplite phalanx, probably some time in the sixth century. Hoplite warfare developed in early seventh-century Greece and may well have spread to Italy via the Greek colonies of the southern peninsula. A hoplite was a spearman, heavily protected by a bronze helmet, cuirass, greaves, and a circular, bronze-covered shield, 90 centimetres (3 feet) in diameter. Hoplites fought as a group, not as individuals. Advancing in a densely packed phalanx, normally at least eight ranks deep, hoplites could expect to drive back most opposition. Individual weapon skills were less important for a hoplite than maintaining the cohesion of the phalanx. Hoplite warfare required little formal training or discipline, but it demanded a new military ethos. It was no longer possible for aristocratic warriors to range around a battlefield, entering and leaving combat as the mood took them, singling out only those opponents they considered worthy of their attentions, and with their main concern the acquisition of personal honour. Hoplites depended on the men on either side of them staying in position, in particular on the man to their right offering some protection to their vulnerable unshielded side.

The rise of the hoplite was associated with social change and the rise of the city state, broadening participation in combat beyond the aristocracy and their followers. Hoplites were drawn from those able to afford the necessary equipment, and as cities developed and prospered this came to include a much higher proportion of the population, consisting primarily of farmers. Such men were expected to fight harder for the state, since as men of property they had an interest in its preservation. They gained increased political power within the city, earning these rights through their obligation to fight to protect the community. This was the ideal of the citizen soldier, the man who fought not for pay, booty or glory, but out of civic duty. The domination of the hoplite class by small farmers gave hoplite warfare, at least in Greece, a peculiar rhythm of its own, fitting in with the agricultural year. Prolonged campaigning kept a farmer away from his fields when they most needed his attention, so wars tended to consist of a single day of battle between two phalanxes. Battles were usually provoked by a symbolic devastation of the enemy’s fields which inflicted little actual damage. The rituals of hoplite warfare in Greece were those of the state, not of the aristocratic war leader and his warrior band. The community formed by the hoplite class was the dominant force in politics as it was the basis of the army in war.

This sandstone stele, found at Novilara in Italy and dating to the sixth century вс, depicts warriors fighting. The simple figures provide few details of equipment, hut one appears to be wielding an axe whilst others have spears.

Two of our main sources for this period, Livy and Dionysius, attributed a major reform of Rome’s political, social and military organization to Servius Tullius (traditionally 579—534 вс). The reform was linked to hoplite warfare and as the archaeological record suggests that hoplite equipment was adopted in the sixth century, the tradition may be broadly accurate. The Servian constitution divided the population into classes based on an assessment of their property, each class providing itself with a specified set of equipment — a full hoplite panoply for Class I, to just a sling for Class V. This system provided the basis of the Comitia Centuriata, the voting assembly at which the people elected consuls and declared wars until the end of the Republic, so our sources may have been attempting to reconstruct the original reform from their knowledge of the later political system. The Comitia Centuriata met on the Campus Martius, the Plain of Mars, outside the boundary of the city, where the army had always mustered, since citizens were barred from carrying weapons inside the city. Its structure exemplified the ideal of a citizen militia, men voting and fighting together in the same units. By the late Republic the centuries in the assembly were not of a standard size, but it seems logical that originally they had consisted of about a hundred men. The presence of three distinct types of heavy infantry was probably influenced by the knowledge that the later manipular legion fought in three lines. It is unlikely that this degree of tactical sophistication was present at such an early stage in the army’s development. More probably the original Servian reform was much simpler and the main distinction was between those able to equip themselves as hoplites and the more numerous remainder who took the field only as light infantry or servants. The former were known as the classis, the remainder infra classem. The original classis probably consisted of Class I, possibly in forty centuries of around a hundred men, which might suggest that sixth-century Rome could potentially muster a phalanx of four thousand men, a not impossible figure given the size of the city suggested by the archaeological evidence. At some later date as the city grew in size, Classes II and III were able to afford heavier equipment and were admitted to the phalanx, their twenty centuries increasing the number of hoplites to six thousand. This reconstruction remains conjectural.

The Republic

The expulsion of the kings from Rome may well have been part of a wider series of political and social upheavals that occurred throughout late sixth-century Latium and Etruria. At the battle of Lake Regillus (496 вс), the army of the young Republic faced a Latin army, traditionally including the supporters of the expelled Tarquins. Livy and Dionysius both considered this to have been a battle between phalanxes, although their accounts have a distinctly heroic quality. The Roman Republic possessed a hoplite phalanx and did fight pitched battles, but not all its wars conformed to the rigid pattern of hoplite warfare in contemporary Greece. The Roman cavalry seems to have played a greater role than was the case with most Greek armies, although on at least some occasions horsemen may have dismounted and joined the phalanx. Our sources depict most of the campaigns between Rome and her neighbours as little more than raids, yet such frequent raiding was anathema to the hoplite mentality. In 479 вс Rome was faced by small-scale raiding from neighbouring Veii. The clan of the Fabii, led by one of their number who was the consul in that year, approached the Senate and offered to wage the war against Veii as a private struggle, prosecuted solely by themselves, their retainers and dependants. Stationing themselves on the borders, the 306 Fabii patrolled against Etruscan raids and in turn raided the enemy. They were ambushed and wiped out while on a cattle raid, only one Fabius surviving to carry on the family name. If the episode is genuine, and it is possible that it was invented by later Roman writers to provide a heroic incident mirroring the last stand of the three hundred Spartans of Leonidas in 480 вс, then it appears to have more in common with the behaviour of the aristocratic warrior bands which it is thought the hoplite phalanx had superseded. However, the lands of the Fabii do appear to have been situated on the border with Veii, and it may be significant that the Fabii disappear from the Fasti, the official lists of magistrates, for the following twelve years.

Many of the heroic tales of Rome's early history recorded in Livy may have their origins in the ballads composed to celebrate the deeds of the old aristocratic families. These stories are often highly dramatic and unsurprisingly offered rich material for Renaissance art. This sixteenth-century painting depicts the duel fought between champions of Rome and Alba Longa. Each side fielded three brothers, hut things initially went badly for the Romans when two of the three Horiatii brothers were killed by the Alban Curiatii. However, the survivor Horatius retreated until his three wounded opponents had split up and then slew each in turn. Returning to Rome in triumph, the Roman champion fell into a rage when his own sister, who was betrothed to one of the Curiatii, refused to celebrate his triumph. Horatius horrified his fellow citizens by angrily killing the girl.

This fifth-century вс. Italian bronze depicts a warrior holding a round hoplite shield. He wears a crested helmet, may have greaves, and carries two spears, one apparently with a larger head than the other. Greek hoplites in the Classical period only carried a single spear and used it for thrusting rather than throwing. The carrying of more than one spear implies that at least one was intended to be thrown. There is much evidence from Italy to suggest that warfare did not solely consist of phalanx battles fought at close quarters, even after the introduction of hoplite equipment.

This statuette of a naked warrior is wearing a pattern of helmet associated with the Villlanovan culture of northern and central Italy in the ninth to seventh centuries вс. The tall central plate was probably intended to add to the wearer’s apparent height and make him more intimidating to opponents. Extant examples of such helmets are heavily decorated with many rows of small bosses.

A striking feature of this incident and many other campaigns was the central importance of the acquisition of booty. This seems to have been a major motivation for Roman soldiers and disputes over the distribution of the spoils were a common cause of dissent in the army. Many of the earliest recorded treaties between Rome and other states included clauses precisely detailing the entitlement to spoils in any conflict.

The Gallic sack of Rome in 390 вс had little long-term effect on the city’s growth, hut left a deep scar on the Roman psyche. Later tradition claimed that a band of defenders had held out on the Capitol, managing to repulse a Gallic night attack when they were woken by the cackling of the geese kept in Juno’s Temple. However, even in this version of events, the Romans were still forced to pay a heavy ransom in gold to make the Gauls go away and the tale of the geese was most likely an invention to add some heroic element to an otherwise humiliating episode.

Rome possessed a phalanx in the sixth and fifth centuries вс, but most of her military activity consisted of raiding or reacting to enemy raids, types of fighting for which a phalanx was completely unsuited. Conflict between Rome and her neighbours varied in scale from minor theft or destruction of property to a full- scale pitched battle when two phalanxes confronted each other. Warfare might be waged by the whole populace under arms led by the elected magistrates of the state or just by individual clans or families following their allegiance to the aristocracy. Rome possessed a college of priests known as the fetiales who oversaw the justice of disputes with groups outside the community. When these had decided that a neighbour had committed such great offences against Rome that war was necessary, a representative of the college would enter enemy territory and present a list of grievances which, if redress was not made within thirty days, would result in the declaration of war. If the enemy failed to make satisfactory recompense then war was formally declared by the ritual of a fetial hurling a spear into enemy territory. This process has been taken to signify that the Romans had a very clear idea of the distinction between a state of war and peace with their neighbours, but it may have more to do with different types of hostility. The fetials, and the other similar priestly colleges in Latin and Etruscan cities, seem to have regulated the scale and limits of war between their communities, deciding when provocation required a response and what the size of that response should be, and controlling the escalation of conflict from private to state level. Anthropologists studying the warfare of primitive peoples in more recent times have discovered similar patterns where distinct levels of fighting, from ritualized duelling, through raiding to full-scale battles, occur depending on the situation. It is important to remember how small scale all of Rome’s military activity was in this period. Her own territories and population were not large and the neighbours, which she raided and was in turn raided by on such a regular basis, were often less than a day’s journey away. It is sobering to remember that the city of Veii, with which Rome fought a series of wars spanning a century, was situated not much more than 15 kilometres away.


Veii was captured in 396 вс after a long siege, the first time that the Romans ever paid their citizen soldiers. Veii’s territory was annexed and much of the land settled by Roman citizens. The warfare of the late fifth and fourth centuries вс became increasingly bitter and the consequences for the losers much more serious. The peoples of the coastal plain were under great pressure from the expanding population of the Sabellian tribes of the Apennines. In the 420s вс: these invaders swept through the fertile Campanian Plain taking Capua and Cumae.

A bronze figurine of a Samnile warrior who for over a century fought Rome, winning several victories, notably at the Caudine Forks. Though the spear and shield are missing, both the warrior's helmet and disc cuirass are matched by almost identical examples from Cumae.

Further south another Sabellian people, the Lucanians, drove into the territories of the Greek coastal cities, while the Samnites established themselves in central Italy. Gallic tribes pushed down from the north, putting particular pressure on the northern Etruscan cities. In 390 вс a raiding band of Gauls, perhaps on their way to seek mercenary service in southern Italy or Sicily, routed a Roman army on the banks of the River Allia outside Rome. The Gauls sacked Rome, forcing the few defenders of the Capitol to buy their safety with a colossal bribe of gold. When the Romans complained that the Gauls were using crooked weighing scales to enlarge the agreed sum, the Gallic leader threw his sword on to the scales with the stern words, 'Vae Victis!’, 'Woe to the defeated!’ This is just one of the myths that grew up surrounding the Gallic sack. Others tales did more to salve Rome’s pride, such as the story of the sacred geese of Juno Sospita whose cackling warned the defenders of the Capitol of a Gallic attack and allowed them to defeat it, or the exiled general Camillus, who returned at the eleventh hour to crush the raiders just as they were receiving their gold. In practical terms the damage inflicted by the Gauls was relatively small and soon repaired, since they do not seem to have stayed in the city for any length of time or carried out any systematic destruction. However, the trauma of the Gallic sack left a legacy of fear and hatred of the northern barbarians, and may in the short term have increased the Romans’ sense of vulnerability.

The story of Rome’s early history is one of steady, if often slow, growth in power and size. The earliest myths of Rome’s history show a willingness to absorb outsiders into the community, an attitude quite unlike that of most Greek city states who were highly jealous of the privileges of citizenship. Slaves, most of whom at this period were war captives, received full citizen rights when they gained their freedom. Some entire Latin communities were absorbed into the citizen body, while others received more limited rights of commerce with Roman citizens without gaining the full franchise. This produced a steady increase in the available citizen manpower and fostered military success. Defeated enemy communities were turned into allies who provided troops to serve Rome in future campaigns. In some cases conquered territory was settled with colonies composed of both Romans and Latins, establishing cities which not only helped to defend the gains, but also provided an additional source of military manpower for the future. In this way, and also

through receiving a portion of the spoils, Rome’s allies shared in her successes. They were not equal partners, but nor were they entirely unwilling. Latin rebellions against Rome became less and less common and seldom united more than a few communities. The last serious revolt occurred in the 340s вс, but only a proportion of the Latin cities took part and by this time Rome had become so strong that her eventual success was never in doubt.

The steady growth in Rome’s military manpower gave her great advantages over other peoples, so that a sizeable field army needed to consist of only a proportion of the available citizen manpower. Such an army could afford to stay in the field for a longer period without this causing catastrophic damage to the community’s economy and bringing on famine. This, and the ability to accept higher losses than they had previously, permitted Roman warfare to become both more determined and more decisive. It also began to change the army into something more sophisticated than a simple citizen militia. The word legio, or legion, literally meant ‘levy’ and seems at first to have been a name for the entire army of the Roman people. At some stage the single levy of six thousand heavy infantry was divided into two separate legions, presumably of half this size. This change may have been associated with the fall of the monarchy, providing each of the two annually elected consuls of the Republic with an army. It is doubtful that the full levy was called out for most of the small raids which still formed the greatest part of warfare.

The Republic also experimented with other colleges of senior magistrates. In several years between three and six tribunes with consular powers were elected instead of the consuls. This reform was primarily caused by the political disputes between the patrician aristocracy and the increasingly wealthy plebeians who formed the rest of the citizen body, but may also have reflected a military requirement to field a number of smaller forces instead of two large armies. In years of particularly fierce political dissension or military crisis a dictator was appointed, exercising supreme authority for the six-month duration of his office. This was a more effective method of fielding a single, combined army than expecting two consuls with equal authority to work together. One of Rome’s most cherished stories was that of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the senator called from the plough to become dictator and save the city when the army had been surrounded and trapped by the Aequi. Cincinnatus raised another levy, defeated the Aequi and rescued the army, returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph and resigned the dictatorship after fifteen days to return to working his fields. It was the classic example of selfless devotion to the state. It is a striking indication of the importance of the heavy infantry hoplites that a dictator was not allowed to lead his army on horseback. His subordinate, the magister equitum, or Master of Horse, led the cavalry, while the dictator stayed with the main phalanx.

The organization of the legions started to become more formal in the second half of the fourth century вс, as wars tended to consist less often of raiding and increasingly frequently of larger operations. Each legion was commanded by six military tribunes, elected by the people after 311 вс. From at least this date there were normally four legions raised in each year, so that the standard consular army consisted of twojegions. Its internal organization became more important and the crude tactics of the phalanx were replaced by the more flexible manipular system, the legion deploying in three lines instead of one, each line consisting of small, independent units, maniples of two centuries. The manipular legion will be discussed in detail in the next chapter. Its introduction may well have been learned through experience, fighting in the rough terrain of the Apennines during the three great Samnite wars (343-290 вс).

The Roman conquest of Italy

Rome bad gradually grown in size from its earliest history, absorbing other peoples into the population, but it was only in the second half of the fourth century that her expansion began in earnest. Then, in less than a hundred years, the Romans defeated the Samnites, Etruscans, the Gallic tribes south of the Po and, finally, the peoples of southern Italy. Defeats were suffered in all of these conflicts, but the Romans always persevered and renewed the struggle until they achieved victory. Some land was confiscated from the defeated peoples and used to establish colonies of Roman and Latin citizens, which acted as garrisons in each area. However, in most cases the conquered states were absorbed into Rome’s network of allies and in their turn provided soldiers to fight in Rome’s next round of conquests.

The conflict with the Samnite confederation was Rome’s last great struggle against an Italian opponent. In 321 вс the Samnites inflicted a disaster on the Romans to rank alongside the Allia rout, when a Roman army surrendered at the Caudine Forks. The Romans suffered the humiliation of being forced to walk underneath a yoke of spears, an act symbolizing their loss of warrior status. This defeat was to be the last in which Rome accepted unfavourable peace terms and acknowledged the loss of a war. It was five years before she renewed the struggle. In 295 вс the Romans achieved a great victory when both consuls took the field with a combined force of four legions. During the battle one of the consuls, Publius Decius Mus, made a formal devotio, pledging to sacrifice both himself and the enemy armies to Mother Earth and the gods of the Underworld in return for victory, before plunging to his death in the thick of the fray. It was an action his father is said to have performed in battle against the Latin rebels at Veseris in 340 вс. The behaviour of the Roman aristocracy still showed some traces of primitive heroic culture.

By the beginning of the third century вс Rome was without doubt the strongest power in Italy. As Rome had developed from small settlements to a great city possessing a large citizen population and controlling a large territory, so its warfare had changed from the ritual battles and minor depredations of aristocratic warrior bands into the larger scale, more concerted campaigns of an army organized, paid and controlled by the state. These armies were capable of forcing states to become permanent subordinate allies of Rome or, alternatively, of destroying them.

Roman warfare was capable of inflicting far more permanent damage on an enemy, but while it had become more destructive we should never ignore the constructive nature of Roman war making. Rome’s allies were tied to her by very strong bonds and if her rule was not entirely benevolent, nor was it entirely repressive, the allies also benefiting from future successful wars. Each was tied more to Rome than to each other. The cohesiveness of the network of allies constructed by Rome around herself was to be demonstrated by the succession of major conflicts fought against foreign powers in the third century вс. Despite the many heavy losses suffered by Rome, very few of her allies responded to her opponents’ blandishments and defected.

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