Roman Conquest of Italy

Roman Expansion in Italy:

From the Conquest of Veii (437 - 396 BC) to the

to the Sack of Rome (390 BC)

War with in Etruria (437 - 426 BC)

From at least the 6th century BC, Veii, the most southerly of the major Etruscan city-states, seems to have been among the most prosperous of them, with an extensive and well-developed territory that extended southwards towards the Tiber.  Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 1997, at p. 347) observed that, by this time, Rome was:

  1. “... dominated by Etruscan influence and culture, and her relationship with Veii must have been particularly close.  However, because both cities wished to control the trade route up the Tiber, they clashed often in the 5th century BC.” 

Alexandre Grandazzi (referenced below, at p. 76) argued that it is:

  1. “... very tempting to explain the incessant wars that Rome waged against Veii [throughout the 5th century BC] ... as at least in part a struggle for control of the Ostian salt fields, which were, for the most part, located on the [Etruscan] side of the river ...”

The key point that arises from this argument is that it accounts to the importance of two sites at which salt from these fields could be easily taken across the Tiber and transported on to the central highlands:

  1. Rome; and

  2. Fidenae.

Roman Expansion Northwards in the 5th Century BC

Seventeen Oldest Roman Tribes (G. C. Susini, 1959)

From Lily Ross Taylor (referenced below, after p. 354)

The earliest Roman expansion northwards along the Tiber is best hypothesised on the basis of the evidence (such as it is) for the establishment of voting tribes here.  The key date is 495 BC, when, according to Livy:

  1. “... Appius Claudius and Publius Servilius were chosen consuls.  ... At Rome, 21 tribes were formed”, (‘History of Rome’, 2: 21: 5-7).

This is usually taken to mean that Livy had a source for the formation of at least one new rural voting tribe in that year, taking the total number (including the original four urban tribes) to 21: the total was to remain there until 387 BC, when four new rural tribes were established for Roman citizens who were given land that had bee confiscated from Veii after its final defeat.

We can reasonably assume that the last of the new rural tribes founded in the 5th century BC was the Clustumina (the farthest from Rome).  The circumstances of its foundation are indicated by two surviving records::

  1. in the summary by Paul the Deacon of an entry in the lexicon of the Augustan grammarian M. Verrius Flaccus,

  2. Crustumina tribus a Tuscorum urbe Crustumeria dicta est”, (“The [Clustumina] tribe is named for the Etruscan town Crustumeria”), (‘De verborum significatu’, 48 L, my translation); and 

  3. according to Livy:

  4. “In the consulship of  ... Titus Aebutius and Gaius Vetusius [499 BC], ... Fidenae was besieged [and] Crustumeria taken ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 2: 19:1-2).

Thus, it seems that the Clustumina was established for Romans settled on land confiscated from Crustumeria, in the area north of Fidenae that was subsequently known as the Roman ager Crustiminus.  The Clustumina was the first of the rural tribes that was named for its location rather than for the name of a patrician gens: the earlier rural tribes established on the northern stretch of the Tiber were:

  1. the Pollia, named for a now-unknown gens;

  2. the Fabia, named for the Fabii, who traditionally fought against Veii on the Cremera in 479 BC (‘History of Rome’, 2: 48);

  3. the Sergia (see below); and

  4. the Claudia, named for the gens traditionally founded by Titus Claudius, when he moved to Rome from Sabine territory and was given land between Fidenae and ‘Picetia’ (probably Ficulae, ‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 40: 5): Appius Claudius Sabinus, the consul of 495 BC was the first securely recorded member of this gens.

Thus, it seems that Roman citizens were settled in relatively large numbers along the left bank of the Tiber by the end of the 5th century BC, and that the Romans were in a good position to disrupt the export of salt from the Ostian salt fields via Veii and Fidenae.

Fidenae in the 5th Century BC

Roman tradition connects the donation of land between Fidenae and ‘Picetia’ to ‘Titus Claudius’ (above)in 505 BC to the subsequent siege of Fidenae, after which, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the Romans caught and executed the leading men of the town but allowed the rest of the community:

  1. “... to live in the city as before, though they left a garrison ... to live in their midst; and, taking away part of their land, they gave it to this garrison”, ( ‘Roman Antiquities’, 5: 43: 2).

This might well have been a traditional explanation of the fact that a swathe of land near Fidenae had been settled by Romans assigned to the Claudia tribe by 495 BC.  An inscription (CIL I2 1709) records a ‘dictator Fidenis’ who belonged to the Claudia, which suggests that Fidenae was assigned to the Claudia after its incorporation into the Roman state in ca. 60 BC: this date has been established by Edward Bispham (referenced below, at pp. 380-1), who observed that, before this time:

  1. “... enjoyed no corporate existence [within the Roman state] since the 4th century BC.”

In fact, as we shall see, the Romans almost certainly destroyed Fidenae in 426 BC.  Varro noted its existence at the time of the Gallic sack of Rome (traditionally 389 BC):

  1. “The [festival known as the] Poplifugia seems to have been named from the fact that, on this day, the people suddenly fled in noisy confusion: for this day is not much after the departure of the Gauls from the City and the peoples who were then near the City, such as the Ficuleans and Fidenians and other neighbours, united against us”, (‘On the Latin Language’, 6: 18, translated by, at p. 191).  It certainly seems to have descended into obscurity thereafter.

Lily Ross Taylor (referenced below, at p. 40) argued that:

“... the clue to the location [probably lies] in the cognomen Fidenas, given to L. Sergius, consul 437 BC, ... [probably because he was a member of] a senatorial commission sent to investigate the participation of the Fidenates in raids on Roman territory [in 428 BC - see below]. ... Another member of this three-man commission, Q. Servilius, also acquired the cognomen Fidenas ... [It is likely that the commission explains the two men's cognomina, ... [and] that Sergius (and perhaps Servilius too) was placed on the commission because his property and that of his clients had been  molested by the raids.  If this suggestion is right, the Sergia was bordered on the north both by the territory of Fidenae and by the Claudia tribe,; and

According to Livy, this putative truce was violated in 437 BC, when:

  1. “... Fidenae, where a body of Romans were settled, revolted to [the cause of] Lars Tolumnius, king of Veii.  The revolt was made worse by a crime: [the Roman envoys] C. Fulcinius, Cloelius Tullus, Sp. Antius, and L. Roscius, who were sent ... to ascertain the reasons for this change of policy, were murdered by order of Tolumnius. ... The statues of the murdered envoys were set up in the Rostra”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 17: 1-6).

We know from a speech by Cicero that these statues remained in situ into the late Republic: he asserted that:

  1. “Lar Tolumnius, the king of Veii, killed four ambassadors of the Roman people, at Fidenae, whose statues were still standing in the rostra within my recollection”, (‘Philippics’: 9:4).

Pliny the Elder also referred back to these statues:

  1. “Among the very old statues are also those on the rostra of Tullus Cloelius, Lucius Roscius, Spurius Nautius and Gaius Fulcinius, all assassinated by the people of Fidenae when on an embassy to them. It was the custom for the state to confer this honour on those who had been wrongfully put to death .... It would seem not to be proper to omit the fact noted by the annals, that the statues of these persons, erected in the forum, were three feet in height, showing that this was the scale of these marks of honour in those days”, (‘Natural History’, 34: 11).

Livy recorded that Marcus Geganius Macerinus and Lucius Sergius Fidenae had been elected as consuls, but:

  1. “Owing to the critical aspect of affairs, the Senate ordered Mamercus Aemilius [Mamercinus] to be proclaimed dictator, and he chose Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus as his master of the horse ...  [He also] ordered Quinctius Capitolinus and Marcus Fabius Vibulanus to accompany him as seconds-in-command”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 17: 6-10).

The armies of Veii and Fidenae had apparently crossed the Anio, but Mamercinus drove them back.  Tolumnius then:

  1. “... occupied the line of hills between Fidenae and the Anio, where he entrenched himself, and did not go down into the plains until the legions of [the Faliscan city of] Falerii had come to his support.  Then the camp of the Etruscans was formed in front of the walls of Fidenae.   [Mamercinus] chose a position not far from them at the junction of the Anio and the Tiber, and extended his lines as far as possible from the one river to the other. The next day he led his men out to battle”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 17: 11-12).

Aulus Cornelius Cossus and the Spolia Opima

According to Livy, the hero of this battle was:

  1. “... a military tribune named Aulus Cornelius Cossus ... When he saw that the Roman squadrons [were being] shaken by the repeated charges of [Lars] Tolumnius, ... he exclaimed:

  2. ‘Is this the breaker of treaties between men, the violator of the law of nations?  If it is the will of Heaven that anything holy should exist on earth, I will slay this man and offer him as a sacrifice to the [souls] of the murdered envoys.’

  3. Spurring his horse, he charged with levelled spear against this single foe and, having struck and unhorsed him, leaped ...  to the ground.  ... He then despoiled the lifeless body, cut off the head and stuck it on his spear.  Carrying it in triumph, he routed the enemy, who were struck by panic at the death of the king”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 19: 1-5).

A surviving fragment from Dionysius of Halicarnassus indicates that he had one or more similar sources for this information:

  1. “When the Etruscans Fidenae and Veii were making war upon the Romans and Lars Tolumnius, the [king of Veii], was doing them terrible damage, a Roman military tribune, Aulus Cornelius Cossus  ... drove his spear through the breast of his foe's horse, which reared and threw his rider; and Cornelius, driving the point of his spear through the shield and breastplate of Tolumnius into his side knocked him from his horse, and while he was still attempting to raise himself, ran his sword through his groin.  After slaying him and stripping off his spoils, he not only repulsed those who came to close quarters with him, both horse and foot, but also reduced to discouragement and fear those who still held out on the two wings”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 12: 5: 1-3).

Cossus’ intervention was the decisive factor in the Romans’ subsequent victory.  Livy noted that Mamercinus:

  1. “... returned home to enjoy the honour of a triumph granted to him by decree of the Senate and resolution of the people”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 1).

However, he observed that:

  1. “By far the finest sight in the procession was Cossus bearing the spolia opima [i.e. the arms and armour of Lars Tolumnius, which he had taken in single combat - see below]  ... The soldiers sang rude songs in his honour and placed him on a level with Romulus.  He solemnly dedicated the spoils to Jupiter Feretrius and hung them in his temple near those of Romulus, which were the only ones which at that time were called spolia opima prima.  All eyes were turned to him from the chariot of [the triumphant Mamercinus] ... By order of the people, a crown of gold, a pound in weight, was made at the public expense and placed by the dictator in the Capitol as an offering to Jupiter”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 2-4). 

As Catherine McPherson (referenced below, at p. 21) observed:

  1. “Dedicating the spolia opima was the highest honour a Roman commander could achieve, outstripping even the most lavish triumph.  Such a dedication occurred when a Roman commander personally killed the enemy’s king or general in battle, stripping the body of its armour, which was then brought back to Rome and dedicated at the temple of Jupiter Feretrius on the Capitol.  The extreme rarity of such an occurrence, as well as its semi-mythical history, ensured that the spolia opima remained a particularly exalted honour, more ingrained in legend than in reality.”

She also noted (again at p. 21) that the tradition of the dedication of spolia opima at the temple of Jupiter Feretrius:

  1. “...  allegedly began under Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, after he killed King Acron of the Caeninenses following the abduction of the Sabine women.  [Thereafter], Romulus returned in triumph to Rome with the armour of the slain king, vowing to build a temple to Jupiter Feretrius at which future generals would dedicate [similar spolia opima]”.

In fact, according to Roman tradition, Cossus was one of only two Roman commanders who subsequently won this honour.

As we shall see below, Fidenae finally fell to the Romans in 426 BC, when Mamercinus was dictator for the second time and Cossus was once more his master of horse.  Some of the surviving sources place the death of Lars Tolumnius and the award of spolia opima to Cossus in that year rather than in 437 BC.  I discuss the arguments for each of these hypotheses in my page on Temple of Jupiter Feretrius and the Spolia Opima.

End of the War (435 BC)

According to Livy, when the Romans were preoccupied with an epidemic in 435 BC:

  1. “The Fidenates, ... who, [until that time], had confined themselves to their mountains and walled villages, came down into the Roman territory and ravaged it.  As the Faliscans could not be induced to renew the war, ... the Fidenates sent for the Veientine army.  [Their combined forces] crossed the Anio and displayed their standards not far from the Colline gate.  The alarm was as great in Rome as in the country districts.   [One of the consuls, Caius Iullius Iullus] disposed his troops on the rampart and the walls, while [the other, Lucius Verginius Tricostus] convened the Senate in the temple of Quirinus.  They decreed that Quintus Servilius [Priscus] should be nominated dictator”, (History of Rome’, 4: 21: 7-10).  

Priscus engaged with the Etruscans near Nomentum, drove them back to Fidenae and besieged them there:

  1. “At last, the hill was tunnelled through, and the way lay open from the Roman camp up to the citadel.  ... feigned attacks diverted the Etruscans from their real danger [until] the shouts of the [Romans] above their heads showed them that the city was taken”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 22: 6-7).

Apathy of the Putative Etruscan League  

The Romans’ capture of Fidenae had brought an end to the war.  However, it seems that this was not immediately obvious: Livy recorded that the fall of Fidenae had:

  1. “... created alarm in Etruria.  Not only were the Veientines apprehensive of a similar fate, but the Faliscans [also feared reprisals for previous hostile actions].  The two states [i.e. Veii and Falerii] sent envoys to the twelve [Etruscan] cantons and, at their request, a meeting was proclaimed of the national council of Etruria, to be held at the at the fanum Voltumnae”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 23: 3-5).

This is the first time that Livy identified the national shrine of the Etruscans as the fanum Voltumnae (shrine of Voltumna).

News of this prospective meeting of the Etruscans raised concerns at Rome:

  1. “Since a great struggle seemed imminent, the Senate ordered that Mamercus Aemilius should be again nominated dictator.  Aulus Postumius Tubertus was appointed master of the horse.  Preparations for war were made with greater energy now than before since the potential danger  from the whole of Etruria was greater than from only two of its towns”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 23: 5-6).  

However, this proved to be a false alarm:

  1. “The meeting [at the fanum Voltumnae] passed off more quietly than anybody expected.  Information was brought by traders that help had been refused to the Veientines; they were told to prosecute with their own resources a war that they had begun on their own initiative, and not, now that they were in difficulties, to look for allies amongst those whom, in their prosperity, they refused to take into their confidence”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 24: 1-2).  

The Romans had clearly won the war, albeit that (as we shall see) both Veii and Fidenae survived to fight another day.

The Veientines apparently tried to incite pan-Etruscan action against Rome in 432 BC, again without success:

  1. “Projects of war were discussed ...  in Etruria at the fanum Voltumnae”.  There, the question was adjourned for a year and a decree was passed that no [subsequent] council should be held until the year had elapsed, in spite of the protests of the Veientines, who declared that the same fate which had overtaken Fidenae was threatening them”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 25: 6-9).  

Fall of Fidenae (428-6 BC)

Livy recorded that the consuls of 428 BC were:

  1. “... Aulus Cornelius Cossus, [the military tribune of 437 BC], and Titus Quinctius Poenus for the second time.  [In this year], the Veientines made incursions into the Roman territory and it was rumoured that some of the Fidenates had taken part in them.  Lucius Sergius, Quintus Servilius and Mamercus Aemilius [Mamercinus, the dictator of 437 BC], were commissioned to investigate the affair. ... [When they found evidence against Fidenae], the number of colonists [there] was increased, and the lands of those who had perished in the war were assigned to them”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 30: 5-6).  

However, the Romans now faced two years of drought and disease.  In 426 BC:

  1. “Four consular tribunes were elected: Titus Quinctius Poenus, [consul of 428 BC], Caius Furius, Marcus Postumius and Aulus Cornelius Cossus [the other consul of 428 BC, who had also been appointed as Pontifex Maximus in 427 BC].  Cossus was designated warden of Rome, while the other three  ... advanced against Veii ... [While the three commanders argued among themselves], the Veientines seized the opportunity for an attack.  Breaking into a disorderly flight, the Romans sought refuge in their camp which was close by; they incurred more disgrace than loss”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 31: 1-4).  

After a period of political wrangling, Cossus nominated Mamercinus as dictator, and Mamercinus then appointed Cossus as his master of horse.

According to Livy, the Veientines, who were:

  1. “... elated by their success, ... sent envoys round to the peoples of Etruria, boasting that they had defeated three Roman generals in a single battle.  Although they could not induce the national council to join them, they attracted volunteers from all quarters by [holding out] the prospect of booty”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 31: 6-7). 


  1. “The Fidenates alone [among the Etruscans] decided to take part in the war and, as though they thought it impious to begin war otherwise than with a crime, they stained their weapons with the blood of the new colonists, as they had previously with the blood of the Roman ambassadors before joining  the Veientines.  The leaders of the two peoples discussed whether they should make Veii or Fidenae the base of operations.  [When they concluded that] Fidenae was the more suitable, the army of Veii crossed the Tiber and transferred the war to Fidenae”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 31: 8-9).  

Meanwhile, at Rome, Mamercinus restored morale by reminding the Romans that he was:

  1. “... the same Mamercus Aemilius who had defeated the combined forces of Veii and Fidenae, supported by the Faliscans, at Nomentum: his master of the horse ... [was] the same Aulus Cornelius who, as military tribune, had killed Lars Tolumnius, king of Veii, in full sight of both armies, and had carried the spolia opima to the temple of Jupiter Feretrius”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 32: 4-5).

As mentioned above, some of the surviving sources place the death of Lars Tolumnius and the award of spolia opima to Cossus in that year rather than in 437 BC. For example, according to Valerius Maximus, Cossus had:

  1. “... consecrated spoils to [Jupiter Feretrius] when, as master of horse, he met in battle and killed the leader of the Fidenates ..”, (‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings’, 3: 2: 4, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, at p. 239).

I discuss the arguments for each of these hypotheses in my page on Temple of Jupiter Feretrius and the Spolia Opima.

In the engagement that followed, Mamercinus once again emerged victorious, taking first the Etruscan camp and then the city and citadel of Fidenae:

  1. “The slaughter in the city was not less than there had been in the battle, until, throwing down their arms, the Fidenates surrendered ... The city and camp were plundered. ... [Mamercinus] led back his victorious army in triumph to Rome, laden with spoil. After ordering [Cossus] to resign his office [as master of horse], he resigned [as dictator] 16 days after his nomination, surrendering amidst peace the sovereign power which he had assumed at a time of war and danger”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 34: 3-6).

Livy then recorded that Veii was  granted a 20-year truce.  Robert Ogilvie (referenced below, at pp. 584-5) observed that the year 426 BC had been:

  1. “... decisive for the history of Rome's expansion north and east and of her mastery of the Tiber. After an unsuccessful attempt to exercise control over Fidenae by a colony ... , Roman strategy [had] turned  to a blunt offensive against [the city], with the intention of destroying it for ever.  Half-measures were not enough.  Its dominating position sealed its fate.  Only Romans could be trusted to guard the gateway to central Italy.”

Read more:

E. Bispham, “From Asculum to Actium: The Municipalisation of Italy from the Social War to Augustus”, (2008) Oxford

A. Grandazzi, “Foundation of Rome: Myth and History”, (1997: English edition) Ithaca and London

S. Oakley, “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume I: Book VI”, (1997) Oxford

L. Ross Taylor, “The Voting Districts of the Roman Republic: The 35 Urban and Rural Tribes”, (1960) Rome

R. Kent (translator), “Varro: On the Latin Language, Volume I (Books 1-7) and Volume II (Books 8-10 and  Fragments”, (1938) Harvard MA

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