Roman Republic

Rome in the Early Republic (509 - 241 BC)

A. Cornelius Cossa and the Spolia Opima

(437, 428 or 426 BC)

Linked Pages: Spolia Opima;

Romulus and the Spolia OpimaA. Cornelius Cossa and the Spolia Opima (437, 428 or 426 BC);

M. Claudius Marcellus and the Spolia Opima (220 BC)

Opening lines of the fasti Triumphales (Musei Capitolini), which records

Romulus’ triumph over the Caeninenses

From ‘Mr Jennings’ on Flickr

Other sources for Cossus (RE 112), see

Dion. Hal. 12.5,

Festus 204L,

Val. Max. 3.2.4,

Manilius (ca. 10 AD), ‘Astronomica’, 1: 788

Front. Strat. 2.8.9,

Serv. A. 6.841

Serv. A. 6. 855,

Flor. 1.6.9,

Priscian 5.13.

The Case for 428 BC

Livy acknowledged the claim that Cossus had won the spolia opima as military tribune was:

  1. “... contradicted by the actual inscription on [these] spoils, which states that Cossus took them when he was consul”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 6).

His source for this information was none other than Augustus Caesar (which indicates that this passage was written after 16 January 27  BC, when the erstwhile triumvir Octavian (who had been posthumously adopted by Julius Caesar in 44 BC) was given the name Augustus.  Livy recorded that Augustus had:

  1. “... rebuilt the temple of Jupiter Feretrius (which had fallen to ruin through age), and I once heard him say that, after entering it, he read with his own eyes the inscription on the linen corslet[that Cossus had allegedly dedicated some 400 years earlier]”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 7).

He reiterated that all the surviving ancient annals placed Cossus’ consulship in 428 BC, during a period in which no significant battles were recorded, but acknowledged that:

  1. “The fact remains that:

  2. the man who fought the battle [in which Tolumnius was killed] placed the newly-won spoils in the sacred shrine:

  3. near [the image of] Jupiter himself, to whom they were consecrated; and

  4. with Romulus in full view;

  5. two witnesses to be dreaded by any forger; and

  6. he described himself in the inscription as: ‘A. Cornelius Cossus: Consul’”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 11).

We first hear of Augustus’s restoration of the temple of Jupiter Feretrius in a surviving fragment of Cornelius Nepos’ biography of the antiquarian T. Pomponius Atticus, which Nepos wrote shortly after Atticus’ death in 32 BC.  In it, he recorded that Augustus (who was by this time the undisputed ruler of Rome, Italy and the western provinces and preparing for war with his erstwhiile colleague Mark Antony) had been on excellent terms with Atticus, to the extent that, when Augustus was in Rome:

  1. “... scarcely a  day passed in which he did not write to Atticus, sometimes asking him something relating to antiquity ... Thus it was that, when the aedes of Jupiter Feretrius, which Romulus had built on the Capitol, was unroofed and falling down through age and neglect, Augustus, on the suggestion of Atticus, took care that it should be repaired”, (‘Lives of Eminent Commanders: T. Pomponius Atticus’, 20).

Nepos also recorded that:

  1. “Atticus had a granddaughter, the daughter of Agrippa [and his own daughter, Pomponia]; and, when she was scarcely a year old i.e. in ca. 35 BC, Augustus] betrothed her to his own stepson, Tiberius Claudius Nero, son of Drusilla; [this alliance] which established their friendship, and rendered their intercourse more frequent”, (‘Lives of Eminent Commanders: T. Pomponius Atticus’, 19: 4).

Thus, as John Rich (referenced below, 1996, at p. 127) pointed out:

  1. “It is a reasonable conjecture that it was Atticus who aroused Augustus' interest in the problem of Cossus and the spolia opima [that were reputedly preserved inside the ruined temple].”

Livy acknowledged a second potential problem with the scenario in which Cossus had won the spolia opima as military tribune: spoils of war, even if taken in single combat from an enemy commander:

  1. “... can  be designated as spolia opima only if dux duci detraxit (they have been stripped from a commander by a commander), and we [Romans] know of no commander other than the one under whose auspices the war is conducted”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 6).

As military tribune in 437 BC, Cossus fought under Mamercinus’ auspices, so the application of this principle would have disqualified him.  Livy did not provide the source of this principle but, as John Rich (referenced below, 1996, at p. 88 and note 7) pointed out, it is:

  1. “... either explicitly stated or clearly implied in a number of other passages of Augustan or later date.”

However, it was not universally accepted: according to the Augustan grammarian M. Verrius Flaccus, as epitomised by Festus, the influential polymath M. Terentius Varro (who died in ca. 35 BC):

  1. “... says that spolia opima can be such, even if a common soldier has taken them, provided [they are taken] from an enemy commander”, (‘De verborum significatu’, 204 L, translated by John Rich, as above).

John Rich (referenced below, 1996, at p. 115) pointed out that Varro’s contradictory view cannot have been current at the time that Livy asserted so definitively (in ca. 27 BC) that the spolia opima had to have been won by a man who held an independent command.   He also pointed out (at pp. 115-6) that Atticus must have included Cossus’ dedication of the spolia opima in his most important literary work, the ‘Liber annalis’ (47 BC), and thus to have been aware of the problems surrounding it:

  1. “It is, indeed, possible that it was a discussion of [these problems] that gave rise to Atticus' suggestion that Augustus should undertake the restoration of the temple of Jupiter Feretrius].  If this suggestion is correct, it is not surprising that Augustus was able to discern the significance of what he saw (or thought he saw) on the corslet.”

Alternatively (as John Rich pointed out at note 112), it is  possible the corslet and its inscription were noticed and drawn to Augustus' attention by Atticus himself.

Reason for Augustus’ Interest in Cossus and the Spolia Opima

Some scholars have hypothesised that Augustus’ concern with Cossus’ status at the time that he won the spolia opima was triggered when M. Licinius Crassus, who had served as governor of Macedonia in 29-8 BC, won a triumph that is recorded the Augustan fasti Triumphales:

  1. “M. Licinius Crassus, proconsul [in 27 BC], triumphed over theThracians and the Getae on 4th July”.

According to Cassius Dio, Crassus had driven the Bastarnae from the borders of his  province in 29 BC, in a campaign in which:

  1. “Crassus himself killed their king, Deldo, and would have dedicated [Deldo’s] armour to Jupiter Feretrius as spolia opima had he been the general in supreme command”, (‘Roman History’, 51: 24: 4).

As John Rich (referenced below, 1996, at p. 85) observed, supporters of the hypothesis mentioned argued that:

  1. Crassus had applied to the Senate for permission to dedicate spolia opima, but Augustus had ensured that this was rejected;

  2. Augustus' claim to have seen an inscription that showed that Cossus was consul when he dedicated spolia opima was made because it  helped Augustus to justify the rejection of Crassus’ request.

However, as Rich pointed out (at p. 93) Augustus’ claim in relation to Cossus would not have been of any use the Augustus, since Crassus (like many other proconsuls of western provinces in 31-28 BC):

  1. “... was granted supplicationes and a triumph, rights traditionally reserved to commanders holding independent imperium who had been victorious in a war fought under their own auspices.”

In other words, since there is no reason to think that Crassus differed from his fellow-proconsuls in the matter of his imperium and his right to triumph, his right to dedicate spolia opima in 27 BC could not be disputed. 

Cossus and the Spolia Opima in the Augustan Fasti

Denarius (RIC I² 359) issued by L. Vinicius in 16 BC

Obverse: head of Augustus

Reverse: Arch of Augustus: S P Q R/ IMP CAE above the central arch; L VINICIVS below

As we have seen, Livy recorded that all of the annalistic sources of which he was aware agreed that:

  1. “... Cossus carried the second spolia opima to the temple of Jupiter Feretrius as a military tribune ...  [However:

  2. the inscription seen by Augustus in this temple indicated that he did so as consul, but:

  3. both]:

  4. the ancient annals; and

  5. the linen books of magistrates, which are preserved in the temple of [Juno] Moneta and which  [C.] Licinius Macer [died 66 BC] frequently cites as his authority;

  6. record that [he] was consul (with T. Quinctius Poenus) nine years [after his military tribuneship, in a period when there is no record of any significant battles]”,  (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 5-8).

As Lily Ross Taylor (referenced below, 1946, at p. 8) pointed out:

  1. “... it is ... incomprehensible that, to resolve his difficulties, Livy should not have appealed to the fasti [Capitolini]  if this official record of Republican magistrates was already available on a conspicuous monument in the Forum.”

This was one of the reasons that, at p. 11,  she dated the inscription of the fasti Capitolini to the period 21-17 BC: she argued that Livy (whom she argued, at p. 8, was writing this passage in 27-5 BC, could not have consulted them because they had not yet been inscribed.  However, even if we accept Ross Taylor’s dates, there are problems with this assertion:

  1. the dating system used in the fasti Capitolini or something very like it had already been proposed by scholars such as Atticus and Varro during the mid 40s BC, and Livy had chosen to ignore it; and

  2. Livy’s passage reflecting the ‘new’ evidence from Augustus could have been inserted in a later edition of the early part of his work.

The key point is that this conclusion is undermined by Ross Taylor’s own argument (at p. 9) that:

  1. “... there can be no doubt that Dionysius [of Halicarnassus, who was writing in ca. 7 BC], is closer to the [fasti Capitolini] than Livy is.  From internal evidence in the [work of the] two writers, it would be fair to conclude that Livy is earlier than the fasti and Dionysius later.”

However, despite his access to the fasti and his propensity to use either the fasti themselves or the sources that underly them, Dionysius recorded (in a surviving fragment from his now-lost Book 12) that:

  1. When the Etruscans, Fidenates and Veientes were making war upon the Romans, and Lars Tolumnius, the king of the Etrusans, was doing them terrible damage, a Roman military tribune, Aulus Cornelius ...  Cossus, spurred his horse against Tolumnius ... [and]  ran his sword through his groin. After killing [Tolumnius] and stripping off his spoils, he  ... reduced to discouragement and fear those who still held out on the two [enemy] wings”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 12: fragment 5, my bold italics).

Detail of  the inscribed fasti Triumphales, from the webpage by Digital Resource Commons, Ohio

The interesting question is whether the fasti Capitolini would have added anything to this debate, had the relevant entries been consulted by our surviving narrative sources or had they survived for our inspection.  We can certainly assume that the consular list from the fasti Capitolini would have recorded:

  1. Cossus’ consulship in 324 AUC (Ab Urbe Conditae  = [years]  after the the foundation of Rome,which equates to  year that we call 428 BC; and

  2. his offices of military tribune with consular powers and master of horse two years later. 

However, if the office that he had held nine years before his consulship had been as a military tribune without imperium (which Livy certainly thought had been the case), this post would not have been recorded.  Furthermore the entry in this list for M. Claudius Marcellus, who won the third spolia opima as consul in the year that we call 222 BC, simply recorded the names of Claudius himself and his consular colleague, Cn. Cornelius Scipio Calvus, without any reference to the spolia opima.

It is less clear that Cossus would have appeared in the accompanying list of triumphators (known as the fasti triumphales), although both Romulus and Marcellus each appeared in the year in which he won the spolia opmia:

  1. the entry for Romulus (illustrated at the top of the page) simply recorded that Romulus, as king, triumphed over the Caeninenses on 1st March in the year that we call 752 BC;

  2. but the entry for M. Claudius Marcellus (illustrated above) recorded that:

  3. “M. Claudius Marcellus, proconsul [in the year that we call 222 BC], triumphed over the Insubrian Gauls and the Germans on 1st March: he brought back the spolia opima after killing the enemy leader, Virdumarus, at Clastidium”.

The problem is that:

  1. in Livy’s main account, he had recorded that Cossus, as military tribune, had dedicated the spolia opima during the triumph of the dictator, Mamercinus; and

  2. he implicitly assumed that he could not have triumphed as consul since he was unaware of any significant battles at that time.

However, a passage by Plutarch (who visited Rome in ca. 70 AD) suggests that his fellow-Greek, Dionysius had recorded that Cossus had triumphed when he won the spolia opima: (although this part of Dionysius’ account is now lost and, in the  part of his account that survives, Cossus had won the spolia opima as a military tribune):

  1. Dionysius had recorded that, after his victory over Caenina, the triumphant Romulus had:

  2. “... led his army home, carrying with him he spoils of those whom had been slain in battle  ... [So] that he might maintain the royal dignity, he rode in a chariot drawn by four horses”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 2: 34: 2); but

  3. Plutarch asserted that:

  4. “Cossus and Marcellus did indeed use a four-horse chariot for their entrances into the city, carrying the trophies themselves, [as Dionysius says].  However, [he] is incorrect in saying that Romulus [also] used a chariot ...”, (‘Life of Romulus’, 16: 8).

John Rich (referenced below, 2014, at p. 201, note 19) observed that Plutarch:

  1. ...  supposed that, like Marcellus in 222 BC, [Cossus dedicated the spolia opima] in the course of a chariot triumph, but whether this view was followed by the compilers of the [fasti Triumphales] is quite uncertain ... ”

He did include a triumph by Cossus over the Veientines in 428 BC in his reconstruction of the complete fasti Triumphales (see entry 41 in the table at p. 246), presumably because Augustus was probably of this opinion.  However, we cannot necessarily assume that the putative entry in the original fasti would have included a reference to the spolia opima: as we have seen, the spolia opima did not appear in the entry for Romulus’ triumph over the Caeninenses, but they did appear in the entry for Marcellus’ triumph over over the Insubrian Gauls and the Germans at Clastidium.

were inscribed on the triple Arch of Augustus.  John Rich (referenced below, 2014, at p. 198) argued that this arch:

  1. was originally built in honour of Augustus’ victory over Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BC; and

  2. subsequently remodelled so that it also commemorated Augustus’ diplomatic success in 20 BC, when he recovered the Roman standards that had been seized by the Parthians. 

Amy Russell (referenced below, at p. 162) observed that the main part of these fasti (which purported to record the consuls who had served in each year from the start of the Republic to ca. 14 BC) was originally inscribed on four identical tablets in aediculae on the inside walls of  the arches.  More specifically, she noted (at p. 169, citing Elisabeth Nedergaard, referenced below) that the middle two tablets (which covered the period between ca. 390 and 54 BC) were on the inside walls of the central arch, where they flanked by the four ‘triumphal’ pilasters, which were inscribed with what was purported to be a record of all the Roman triumphators from Romulus (see the illustration at the top of the page) to  L. Cornelius Balbus (who triumphed in 19 BC).  Russell observed (at p. 179) that, unlike the consular lists:

  1. “... the triumphal lists have a firm end point: the four pilasters, when [completed], were [already] full: there [was] no room on the stone for more triumphs after that of Balbus ...”

If this is correct, then the arch was completed in its final form at some time before 19 BC, and the  fasti Triumphales were inscribed in the pilasters in that year or shortly thereafter.

The surviving evidence, which includes the reverse inscription of the denarius illustrated above , indicates that the Senate had commissioned the arch.  However, Amy Russell (referenced below, pp. 157-8) argued that there:

  1. “... could be no denying that Augustus himself had ultimate control over all Rome’s state monuments, and his version of history was always going to be the most widely disseminated.  His statue stood resplendent on top of the arch on which the fasti were inscribed, and the entire monument was erected in his honour.”

She also argued (at p. 169) that:

  1. “The compilers of the fasti could take advantage of the recent boom in antiquarian scholarship: the new lists depended on the same process of research which also produced,  such works as Atticus’ chronology chronology, or the investigations of historians like Licinius Macer in the libri lintei.”

We can therefore reasonably assume that the first tablet of the fasti Capitolini recorded Cossus’  consulship of 428 BC (as Augustus believed), albeit that the part of the inscription that would have contained this record no longer survives.  However, as John Rich (referenced below, at p. 201, note 19) pointed out, it is uncertain whether the triumphal list originally recorded that he triumphed during this consulship.

were inscribed on four tablets on the Arch of Augustus in the forum Romanum (probably in honour of Augustus’ victory over Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BC) would have certainly recorded the fact that Cossus served served as one of the consuls as consul in 428 BC, albeit that the relevant part of the inscription no longer survives.  Given Augustus’ view that he killed Tolumnius in single combat in this year, it would be surprising if the fasti Triumpales (which were inscribed on four pilasters to the sides of these tablets) did record that a triumph awarded to Cossus in this year, although again the relevant part of the inscription no longer survives. 

If, as now seems likely, Crassus' right to dedicate spolia opima was not in dispute,

Augustus cannot have had a political motivation for his claim that Cossus

was consul when he dedicated his spolia opima. In that case, what lies behind the

claim is not a political intrigue, but something no less significant: Augustus' participation

in the cultural life of his class and time. Although he reached a mistaken

conclusion, Augustus' involvement in the question arose, in my view, from a genuine

interest in the antiquities of Rome. Nepos tells us of Augustus' scholarly

friendship with Atticus, which led to the restoration of the temple of Jupiter Feretrius.

It is a reasonable conjecture that it was Atticus who aroused Augustus' interest

in the problem of Cossus and the spolia opima.


Sources for 426 BC

Livy suggested another possibility:

  1. “The second year after Cossus’ consulship finds him:

  2. as a military tribune with consular power; and

  3. as master of the horse, in which capacity he fought a second famous cavalry battle”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 10).

What is more, according to Livy’s sources:

  1. he had again fought under the overall command of Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus (now dictator for the third time);

  2. the battle was again fought at Fidenae against the Veientines and Fidenates; and

  3. Mamercinus was again awarded a triumph.

However, on this occasion:

  1. Fidenae had been definitively defeated; and

  2. Cossus had consular power, and would thus have been able to claim Tolumnius’ armour as dux duci detraxit.

It is difficult to say whether Livy actually preferred this scenario to the one that he had apparently found in ‘all the existing authorities’.

There is, however, evidence that the sources that were available to Livy were more varied than he suggested.  For example, Diodorus Siculus, whose work was broadly contemporary with that of Livy:

  1. recorded nothing about events at Rome in 437 BC, the year that he covered at ‘Library of History’, 12: 80: 6-8; but

  2. described events that Livy had placed in 438-7 BC  in the year that Cossus was master of horse (i.e., 426 BC):

  3. “... when ambassadors came to [Fidenae] from Rome, the Fidenates, put them to death for trifling reasons.  Incensed at such an act, the Romans voted to go to war and ... appointed Anius (sic) Aemilius as dictator, with ...  Aulus Cornelius as master of horse.  Aemilius, ... marched with his army against the Fidenates ... heavy losses were incurred on both sides and the conflict was indecisive”,  (Library of History’, 12: 80: 6-8).

  4. The battle that Diodorus described here sounds like the holding operation that Livy had recorded in 437 BC, when the consul L. Sergius Fidenas held up the advance of the Veientine and Fidenate armies ahead of the appointment of the dictator Mamercinus.

A number of other sources insisted that spolia opima had to be won by a Roman under his own auspices; for example, Propertius (ca. 19 BC):

  1. “Now, three [sets of spolia opima] are preserved in the temple, [which is] why it is called Feretrius:

  2. because dux ‘ferit’ ense ducem (commander struck commander with a sword) ...; or

  3. perhaps because [the three victorious Roman commanders] carried (ferebant) the captured arms on their shoulders ...”, (‘Elegies’ 4: 10: 49-52).

This, of course, throws no light on whether, in Propertius’ opinion, Cossus killed Tolumnius in 428 or 426 BC.

The Virgilian commentaries are similarly confusing: John Rich (referenced below, 1996, at p. 87 and note 3) observed that, in his commentary on ‘Aeneid’, 6: 841, which mentioned Cossus among a number of Roman heroes:

  1. Servius recorded that Cossus won the spolia opima as ‘tribunus militum’; but

  2. ‘Servius Auctus’ added the words ‘consulari potestate’.

An anonymous work that probably dates to the 4th century AD has Cossus win the spolia opima as master of horse, but names the dictator as Quinctius Cincinnatus:

  1. “The Fidenates, old enemies of the Romans, killed the legati who had been sent to them in order to fight with more courage, without hope of forgiveness; the dictator Quinctius Cincinnatus, sent against them, Cornelius Cossus as master of horse, who killed Lars Tolumnius with his own hand. He was the second after Romulus to dedicate spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius”, (‘De Viris Illustribus Urbis Romae” 25, my translation)

However, one surviving source, Valerius Maximus (early 1st century AD), explicitly stated that Cossus won the spolia opima as master of horse [and hence as consular tribune]: in a section on examples of Roman bravery, he commented:

  1. “I now come back to Romulus.  Challenged to mortal combat by Acro, king of Caenina, and although ... it would have been safer to go into battle with his whole army than on his own, he preferred to seize the omen of victory with his own right hand.  Nor did Fortune fail his undertaking.  With Acro killed and the enemy put to flight, Romulus brought spolia opima from his foe to Jupiter Feretrius.  So much for that; valour consecrated by public religion needs no private encomium:

  2. Next to Romulus, Cornelius Cossus consecrated spoils to the same god when, as master of horse [in 426 BC], he met in battle and killed the leader of the Fidenates.  Great was Romulus, for he began this kind of glory at its inception.  Cossus too acquired much, in that he was capable of imitating Romulus.

  3. Nor must we separate from these examples the memory of M. Marcellus.  Such vigour of courage was in him that, by the Po [in 222 BC], he, with a few horsemen, attacked the king of the Gauls, who was surrounded by an enormous host, and straightway slew him, stripped him of his arms, and dedicated them to Jupiter Feretrius”, (‘Memorable Deeds and Sayings’, 3: 2: 3-5, translated by David Shackleton Bailey, referenced below, at. p 239).

Analysis of Livy’s Chronology

Stephen Oakley (referenced below, at p. 24) observed that, for the period from ca. 450 BC:

  1. “When literary embellishments have been swept away from [the work of Livy] and other [late annalists], we are left with a series of magistrates, treaties, triumphs, battles, laws and elections.”

He observed that oral tradition is unlikely to have played a major role in the transmission of this body of information, and pointed instead in the analysis that followed to pontifical and other ‘official’ records, family traditions, inscriptions, statues, monuments, and the work of antiquarians (often based on etymologies).  Gary Forsythe (referenced below, at p. 243) argued that, in the context of the present discussion:

  1. “Three monuments that survived in Rome into later historical times ... must have been the only solid data upon which the later historical tradition was based:

  2. the statues [on the Rostra] of the four Roman [legati] whose deaths at the hands of the Fidenates sparked off the war;

  3. the spolia opima won by Cossus from Lars Tolumnius, [which had been dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius at his temple on the Capitol]; and

  4. a gold crown dedicated in the Capitoline temple by the dictator Mam. Aemilius to commemorate his victory over Fidenae.

  5. In Livy’s narrative, the second and third items are linked together, and date to ... [437 BC], thus coming immediately after the murder of the [legates].  Yet, when the various tales associated with the Fidenate War are carefully examined, it appears likely that later Roman historians, eager to portray the Romans as having exacted swift revenge for the deaths of the [legates], transposed events from the close of the war to its very beginning.”

He also argued (at p. 425) that:

  1. “Tolumnius’s death in [426 BC would make] excellent historical sense, for the king’s death would have abruptly ended Veientine support of Fidenae, and this in turn would have caused the immediate collapse of Fidenate resistance to Rome and the town’s capture or surrender.”

In that case, Cossus would have killed Tolumnius as consular tribune in 426 BC, and would have claimed Tolumnius’ armour as dux duci detraxit and thus as spolia opima.  In the section below, I analyse Livy’s chronology with this argument in mind.

Murder of the Four Legates (438 BC)

In a speech that Cicero claimed to have delivered in the Senate in 43 BC, he observed that:

  1. “Lar Tolumnius, the king of Veii, murdered four legati of the Roman people at Fidenae, and their statues were still standing on the Rostra within my own recollection.   The honour [payed to them by the erection of these statues] was well deserved: our ancestors gave those men who had encountered death in the cause of the Republic an imperishable memory in exchange for this transitory life” (‘Philippics’: 9:4).

This is the earliest surviving evidence for the tradition that Tolumnius was culpable in the murder of the legates at Fidenae, and provides the additional information that the original statues erected in their honour apparently survived in situ into the late Republic.  More than a century later, Pliny the Elder (‘Natural History’, 34: 11) knew the names of the murdered legates who had been represented among the very old statues that had been erected on the Rostra.  Thus, this long-remembered event was almost certainly historical, and there is no particular reason to doubt Livy’s testimony dating it to 438 BC.

Mamercinus’ Putative Triumph of 437 BC

Detail of ‘the inscribed fasti Triumphales, from the webpage by Digital Resource Commons, Ohio

John Lydus (‘De Magistratibus’, 1: 38), is the only surviving source apart from Livy for Mamercinus’ dictatorship and triumph of 437 BC.  However, Mark Wilson,(referenced below, at p. 207, note 88), for example, warned that:

  1. “... this is a late [ca. 550 AD] and sloppily unreliable source, especially in [the] section on dictators ... [at] 1: 36-8, in which names and actions of dictators were often garbled and conflated.”

He also suggested (at p. 524) that:

  1. “Lydus’s reference [to first dictatorship of Mamercinus in 437 BC] might be conflated with the more well-known troubles of his third listed dictatorship, [in 426 BC].”

The entry for 437 BC in the fasti Capitolini is now lost.  However, a fragment in the fasti Triumphales (made up of the two lines at lower right in the illustration above) records a triumph in this year:

  1. .... [?]US AN CCCXVI (437/6 BC)/ .... US ID. SE[XT]

The fragment would have started with the name of a triumphant Roman commander:

  1. In early editions of the inscription, the  commander’s name was given as ‘...NUS’, and completed as [Mam. Aemilus Mamerci]nus. 

  2. However, it is now usually given as ‘...MUS’, in which case the cognomen should almost certainly be completed as Maximus.  Interestingly, the ‘Chronography of 354 AD’ named the consuls of this year  (317 AUC) as:

  3. Maximo;  and

  4. Fidenato [L. Sergius Fidenas].

  5. Some scholars suggest that there was an otherwis unrecorded suffect consul in this year with the cognomen Maxiumus, but John Rich (referenced below, 2014, at p. 199, note 10) argued against this, since suffects are otherwise unattested  before 305 BC.  Robert Ogilvie (referenced below, at p. 562) suggested instead that:

  6. “... the Chronographer’s  ‘Maximo’ is a simple corruption of ‘Macerino’;

  7. and argued that:

  8. “If ‘...MUS’ [rather than ‘...NUS’] is correct, then the restoration [Mam. Aemelius Mamercus Maxi]mus at least raises fewer objections [than an otherwise unrecorded suffect consul].”

  9. John Rich (as above) supported Ogilvie’s conclusion:

  10. “Earlier editors’ restoration of the dictator Mam. Aemilius Mamercinus, attested as triumphing in that year against the Veientines and Fidenates by [Livy and John Lydus], seems more plausible [than a mysterious suffect consul].”

In fact, none of these suggestions is convincing, particularly since the fragmentary inscription does not allow us to identify the defeated enemy.  It is certainly reasonable to argue that:

  1. the Augustan fasti recorded a triumph in this year; and

  2. the reading of the commander’s name as ‘...MUS’ must be discarded because none of the surviving sources identifies a ‘...MUS’ with imperium in this year. 

However, there were at least two candidates for a triumphant commander named ‘...NUS’:

  1. the putative dictator Mam. Aemilius Mamercinus; and

  2. the consul M. Geganius Macerinus (who was awarded a triumph in over the Volsci in 443 BC, as recorded in the fragmentary record ‘... RINUS ANN CCCX‘ immediately above the one under discussion here).

Furthermore, if Livy was correct in believing that the other consul, L. Sergius, adopted the cognomen ‘Fidenas‘ in recognition of his part in the war of this year, he might have been known previously as L. Sergius Esquilinus, assuming that he initially used the cognomen previously used by his ancestor, (L ?) Sergius Esquilinus, who served as decemvir in 450 and 449 BC.  In short, Livy is our only surviving source of any importance for Mamercinus’ putative triumph of 437 BC.

Narrative of the War of 437-5 BC

If we modify Livy’s narrative for this war against Fidenae on the assumption that Cossus killed Lars Tolumnius in either 428 or 426 BC, then it would seem that Mamercinus achieved very little in 437 BC (even assuming that his dictatorship in this year is authentic): in Livy’s narrative:

  1. In 437 BC

  2. L. Sergius, one of the serving consuls, checked the advance of the Veientines and Fidenates on Rome, albeit at great cost in Roman lives; and

  3. Mamercinus then pushed them back across the Anio and

  4. “... hotly pursued the flying [enemy] legions and drove them to their camp with great slaughter, [although] most of the Fidenates, who were familiar with the country, escaped to the hills”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 19: 6).

  5. In 436 BC, hostilities were suspended because of internal problems at Rome.

  6. In 435 BC, the Veientines and Fidenates recrossed the Anio and advanced again on Rome.  While the consuls defended the city, the dictator Q. Servilius:

  7. “... followed them with an army eager for battle, and engaged them not far from Nomentum. The Etruscan legions were routed and driven into Fidenae”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 22: 2).

  8. Servilius then gained access to the city (apparently by secretly tunnelling under its walls).  Livy’s concluding sentence in this account is something of an anti-climax:

  9. “ Whilst the attention of the [enemy] was being diverted from their real danger by feigned attacks, the shouts of the [Romans] above their heads showed them that the city was captured”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 22: 6).

  10. In 434 BC, when the Veientines and the Faliscans requested aid against Rome from the national council of the Etruscans, Mamercinus was appointed to his second dictatorship.  However, the other Etruscans refused to intervene and Mamercinus therefore resigned his office.


  1. “The pestilence [of 433 BC] kept everything quiet”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 25: 3).

Livy did not record a formal end to hostilities after the Romans’s capture of Fidenae in 435 BC, but it is clear from subsequent events that its ‘capture’ did not lead to its permanent submission to Rome.  Furthermore, Livy subsequently recorded that, in 427 BC, when the Romans decided to declare war on Veii, it was first necessary to send fetial priests there to request reparations [as an alternative] because:

  1. “There had been recent battles with the Veientines at Nomentum and Fidenae, and a truce had been made, not a lasting peace, but they had renewed hostilities shortly before its expiration”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 30: 14-16).  

In other words, the Romans felt obliged to seek reparations for alleged Veientine violations of the truce before declaring war on them.  It is thus likely that Veientines had agreed a truce with Rome in or shortly after 435 BC, in return for the Romans’ withdrawal from Fidenae.

If we now look again at the facts that the cognomen Fidenas is only ever associated in the surviving sources with the Sergii and the Servilii and that the first member of these clans to use it were:

  1. L. Sergius, the consul of 437 BC and

  2. Q. Servilius, the dictator of 435 BC;

we might reasonably wonder whether there was a Roman tradition in which one or both of them (rather than Mamercinus) was/were responsible for the capture of Fidenae, albeit that subsequent problems at Rome prevented the Romans from securing the Fidenates’ definitive submission.

Q. Servilius Fidenas and the Capture of Fidenae (435 BC)

Even in Livy’s account, it was not Mamercinus but Servilius, as dictator in 435 BC, who actually captured Fidenae.  However, his account of Servilius’ achievement is oddly matter-of-fact:

  1. Before Servilius’ appointment:

  2. “As the Faliscans could not be induced to renew the war, either by the representations of their [erstwhile Fidentate] allies or by the fact that Rome was prostrated by the epidemic, the Fidenates sent to invite [the aid of] the Veientine army, and the two states crossed the Anio and displayed their standards not far from the Colline gate”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 21: 8). 

  3. Louise Adams Holland (referenced below, at p. ) observed that Veientine:

  4. “... attacks on Rome from the neighbourhood of the Porta Collina on the Quirinal clearly point to an approach from the direction of Fidenae.”

  5. Immediately after his appointment, Servilius:

  6. “... issued an order for all [Romans of military age] to muster outside the Colline gate by daybreak.  Every man strong enough to bear arms was present.  The standards were quickly brought to him  from the treasury.  While these arrangements were being made, the [Veientine and Fidenate armies] withdrew to the foot of the hills.  [Servilius] followed them with an army eager for battle and engaged them not far from Nomentum.  The [enemy] legions were routed and driven into Fidenae.  [Servilius] surrounded the place with lines of circumvallation, ... [However], owing to its elevated position and strong fortifications, ... [but with little hope of] either storming the place or starving it into surrender ... [Instead, he ordered that a tunnel should be dug] ...  At last, the tunnel was complete from [the Roman] camp to the citadel.  Whilst the enemy’s attention was still diverted from the real danger by feigned attacks [from outside the walls], the shouts of the [Romans] above their heads showed them that the city was captured”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 22: 1-6).

Livy said nothing about:

  1. the fate of the men captured at Fidenae;

  2. any particular repercussions for those Fidenates who were deemed to have been responsible for the murder of the four Roman legates in 438 BC;

  3. any repercussions at all for Veii; or

  4. any arrangements for the administration of Fidenae under Roman control.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, he did not describe Servilius’ return to Rome at the head of the army that had avenged the murder of the four Roman legates three years before.

What is in a Name ?

This low-key description of Servilius’ achievements is surprising since, at least by 418 BC, the dictator of 435 BC was apparently known as Q. Servilius Fidenas.  I say ‘apparently’ because the prosopography of the Servilii at this time was as confusing for Livy and his sources as it is for us.  Thus, it is important to look at this potential evidence more carefully:

  1. In his record of Servilius’ appointment as dictator in 435 BC, Livy named him as :

  2. “... Quintus Servilius, whose cognomen some give as Priscus, others as Structus ...” , (‘History of Rome’, 4: 21: 10).

  3. Elsewhere, whenever Livy used a cognomen for a Q. Servilius before 398 BC, it was always ‘Priscus’.  For example, in his record of the appointment of a Q. Servilius as dictator in 418 BC, Livy recorded that:

  4. “... what raised men’s courage most [was that] Quintus Servilius Priscus was ... named dictator”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 46: 11).

  5. However, the entry in the fasti Capitolini for the dictator of 418 BC names him as:

  6. ‘Q. Servilius P.f. Sp.n. Priscus Fidenas II’.

We can fortunately link these two dictatorships together in Livy’s tangled account of the Servilii who served as magistrates in 418 BC:

  1. One of the three consular tribunes of that year was, according to Livy:

  2. “... C. Servilius, the son of the Priscus, in whose dictatorship Fidenae had been taken”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 45:5).

  3. Livy thus identified the consular tribune C. Servilius as the son of Q. Servilius, the dictator of 435 BC.

  4. After a military debacle in 418 BC caused by discord among the three consular tribunes:

  5. “What did most to restore confidence was the nomination, by a senatorial decree, of Q. Servilius Priscus as dictator. ... He appointed as his master of the horse [either]:

  6. the tribune by whom he had been nominated, namely his own son, [according to] some authorities; [or]

  7. [as] others say, ... Ahala Servilius ... ”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 46: 10-2).

  8. Thus, Livy also identified the consular tribune C Servilius as the son of Q. Servilius, the dictator of of 418 BC.

In fact, Livy was almost certainly mistaken in his assertion that the consular tribune of 418 BC was the son of the dictator who then appointed his as his master of horse: the fasti Capitolini are surely correct in identifying:

  1. the dictator of 418 BC as Q. Servilius P.f. Sp.n. Priscus Fidenas II;

  2. one of his sons (presumably the eldest) as Q. Servilius Fidenas Q.f. P.n., the consular tribune of 402, 398, 395, 390, 388 and 386 BC; and

  3. the consular tribune of 418 BC as C. Servilius Q.f. C.n. Ahala (the son of another Quintus, whose grandfather was called Caius, not Publius.

However, what is important here is that Livy acknowledged that the dictators of 435 and 418 BC were one and the same man: Stephen Oakley (referenced below, at p. 428 and p. 453) arrived at the same conclusion by analysing the nomenclature of the consular tribune of 402-386 BC.

In short, Q. Servilius Priscus, the dictator of 435 BC, almost certainly acquired the cognomen Fidenas in recognition of his capture of Fidenae in that year, and his son continued to use it throughout his illustrious career.  This surely indicates a tradition in which Servilius’ capture of Fidenae in 435 BC was represented as a major event in Roman history.

Servilius’ Second Dictatorship (418 BC)

This digression into Livy’s account of Servilius’ second dictatorship provides some additional information for the discussion here.  According to Livy, when war broke out with the Aequi and the Latins of Labici (between Praeneste and Tusculum) in 418 BC, it was agreed that two of the three consular tribunes, L. Sergius Fidenas and M. Papirius Mugilanus, would be given military command and, since they would not co-operate with each other, that they would hold command on alternate days.  Soon after, Sergius led the army into an ambush contrived by the Aequi.  His army fled in disarray into their camp but:

  1. “... after the enemy had surrounded a considerable part of it, [the Romans] evacuated it in a disgraceful flight through the rear gate.  The commanders and military legates, together with as much of the army as remained with the standards, made for [nearby] Tusculum, while the others ... fled to Rome and spread the news of a more serious defeat than the one that had actually occurred. ... [The third consular tribune, C. Servilius, calmed the panic in Rome and nominated] Q. Servilius Priscus as dictator, and he appointed the tribune  who had nominated him [i.e., C. Servilius], as his master of horse”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 46: 6-10).

Immediately after his appointment, Q. Servilius set out from Rome with a fresh army and, having established his camp near that of the Aequi, ordered the Roman troops still at Tusculum to report for duty.  Thereafter:

  1. “After shaking the enemies' forward ranks with a cavalry charge, [Servilius] ordered the standards of the legions to be rapidly advanced and, as one of his standard-bearers hesitated, he killed him.  [After this], so eager were the Romans to engage that the Aequi crumpled.  Driven from the field, ... the Aequi made for their camp,... [which was swiftly taken.  Intelligence arrived that] the defeated Labicans and a large proportion of the Aequi had fled to Labici.  On the following morning, the army marched to Labici ..., [which] was captured and plundered.  After leading his victorious army home, [Servilius] laid down his office just eight days after he had been appointed.  ... the Senate ... decreed that a body of colonists should be settled at Labici. 1,500 colonists were sent from Rome, and each received 2 iugera of land”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 47: 2-6).

Livy’s account is broadly supported by:

  1. the record in the Augustan fasti Capitolini that:

  2. the consular  tribunes of this year were

  3. -[M. Papirius L.f. . .] Mugillanus

  4. -C. Servilius Q.f. C.n. Ahala II

  5. -L. Sergius C.f. C.n. Fidenas III;  and

  6. there was also a dictator, Q. Servilius P.f. Sp.n. Priscus Fidenas II, who appointed [C. Servilius] Q.f. C.n. Ahala as his master of horse; and

  7. Diodorus Siculus, who record  that, in this year:

  8. “... the Romans went to war with the Aequi and reduced Labici by siege”, (Library of History’, 13: 6: 8).

The account is further supported by the fact that Livy’s account of the colonisation of Labici in this year is likely to be based on authentic records: as Monica Chiabà (referenced below, at pp. 93-4) observed, this is the first time in the context of federal colonisation in the 5th century BC that Livy recorded the precise number of colonists sent out and the precise amount of land that was allotted to each of them.  Indeed, Robert Ogilvie (referenced below, at p. 605) argued that, apart from an obscure detail relating to the way in which the army of the consular tribunes had been levied:

  1. “... the capture of Labici and its colonisation are the only genuine events of the whole year.”

This might be slightly over-stated, since a successful Roman response to raids around Tusculum by the Aequi and the Labici might well have been a precursor to the foundation of this colony.  Furthermore, as Lily Ross Taylor (referenced below, 1960, at p. 43) observed, since  the people of Tusculum were assigned to the Papiria tribe after their incorporation into the Roman state in 381 BC, it is possible that this tribal territory had already been extended outwards from Rome to encompass land confiscated at nearby Labici in 418 BC.  Nevertheless, Ogilvie was right to remind us that Livy is our only surviving source for Rome’s putative war with the Aequi and the Labici in 418 BC.

That leaves open the question of whether Livy’s account of Servilius’ military exploits in his second dictatorship, supported in the surviving sources only by the by entry in the fasti Capitolini, is of any value.  For example, Mark Wilson (referenced below at pp. 273-5) observed that this was one of only two occasions in the surviving record of the Republican dictatorship in which a dictator was needed because the serving consular tribunes failed in their exercise of military commands: the other occasion had arisen in 426 BC, when (as we have seen) an army led by three of the four consular tribunes had suffered a disgraceful defeat at the hands of the Veientines, following which:

  1. “The [Roman] people, unused to being defeated, were despondent; despising the tribunes, they begged for a dictator, in whom rested the hope of the state. ... [The fourth consular tribune], Aulus Cornelius [Cossus], named as dictator Mamercus Aemilius [Mamercinus] and was himself appointed by Mamercus master of the horse”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 31: 4).

For completeness, Wilson also noted (at p. 399, note 70) a third occasion on which  a consular tribune nominated a dictator who then appointed his nominator as his master of horse: according to Livy, in 408 BC, when two of the three consular tribunes  would not agree to the appointment of a dictator in the face of a threat from Antium (or possibly Antinum), supported by the Volsci and the Aequi, the third of them, C. Servilius Ahala, unilaterally nominated P. Cornelius Rutilus Cossus, who returned the compliment by appointing him as master of horse.  On this occasion:

  1. “The war was far from being a memorable one.  The enemy were defeated with great slaughter at Antium in a single easily-won battle. The victorious army devastated the Volscian territory. The fort at Lake Fucinus was stormed, and the garrison of 3,000 men taken prisoners, whilst the rest of the Volscians were driven into their walled towns, leaving their fields at the mercy of the enemy. ... the dictator [Cossus] returned home with more success than glory and  laid down his office”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 57: 6-8).

These three dictatorships have a number of common characteristics:

  1. each was needed because of the failure of the serving consular tribunes to deal with a military threat:

  2. in each case, a ‘good’ consular tribune who was untainted by the events leading up to the failure nominated a dictator who then appointed him as master of horse; and

  3. the dictator dealt quickly and successfully with the military threat:

  4. in 418 and 408 BC, the actual threat was minor; and

  5. although the threat in 426 BC was more substantial, the dictator was able to deal with it in only 16 days.

We can be reasonably certain that Mamercinus was appointed as dictator in 426 BC specifically in order to deal with the Veientine threat.  Furthermore, it is at least possible that his intervention was needed because of failures on the part of three of the four consular tribunes.  However, even if the dictatorships of 418 and 408 BC were authentic, it seems that Livy had very little secure information: he or his sources might simply have assumed that these two dictators were needed for military reasons and elaborated the respective narratives by drawing, in part, on the events of 426 BC.

With this possibility in mind, we might look again at Ogilvie’s suggestion (above) that Livy’s account of Servilius’ achievements as dictator in 418 BC had been largely invented to explain the foundation of the colony at Labici in that year.  One has to agree that the narrative is very thin:

  1. “After shaking the enemies' forward ranks with a cavalry charge, [Servilius] ordered the standards of the legions to be rapidly advanced and, as one of his standard-bearers hesitated, he killed him.  [After this], so eager were the Romans to engage that the Aequi crumpled”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 47: 2-6).

This execution was the key to what followed: Servilius’ army became so eager to obey that, within eight days, the Aequi and their allies were routed, and Labici was captured and removed from the sphere of influence of the Aequi, to the extent that its territory could be assigned to viritane settlers from Rome.  Furthermore, it is possible that the anecdote of the execution of the hesitant standard-bearer did not really belong to a tradition relating to a war with the Aequi: in a list of examples of the strategies that had been used to restore the morale of Roman armies in the Republic, the military strategist Frontinus (1st century AD) recorded that:

  1. “The dictator Servilius Priscus, having given the command to carry the standards of the legions against the hostile Faliscans, ordered the standard-bearer to be executed for hesitating to obey.  The rest [of the army], cowed by this example, advanced against the foe”, (‘Stratagems’, 2: 8:8).

To adjudicate between these two conflicting traditions, we must look again at Livy’s account of Servilius’ dictatorship of 435 BC.  Military standards certainly featured in it:

  1. the Fidenates and Veientines planted theirs not far from the Colline gate; and

  2. the Roman quickly brought theirs from the treasury as Servilius mustered his army in front of the gate. 

However, Livy did not record that any of the Roman standard-bearers were hesitant to follow his order to advance: all he said here was that, as the enemy withdrew:

  1. “[Servilius] followed [the withdrawing enemy army] with [his own] army eager for battle”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 22: 2).

Furthermore, although he recorded that the Faliscans had fought in the war in 437 BC, and that the Romans had raided their territory in the following year, he explicitly stated that they had declined to take part in the advance on Rome in 435 BC.   It seems to me that:

  1. Livy and Frontinus almost certainly relied on a single tradition in which Servilius executed a standard-bearer who hesitated to advance on a hostile Faliscan army; but

  2. Livy:

  3. decided against incorporating this anecdote into his account of Servilius’ first dictatorship because he had other sources that insisted that the Faliscans had not participated in the hostilities of that year; and

  4. used it instead to pad out his apparently scant information on the events of Servilius’ second dictatorship.

Q. Servilius Fidenas and the Capture of Fidenae (435 BC): Conclusions

As Stephen Oakley (referenced below, at p. 453) pointed out, Livy frequently pointed to Servilius’ renown as a statesman: for example, in his record of the events that led up to his appointment as dictator for the second time in 418 BC, Livy stressed the respect with which his opinions were apparently received.  Having said that, Livy seems to have been quite selective in his use of the traditions that related to Servilius’ first dictatorship, in which he defeated Veientine and Fidenate armies and captured Fidenae: for example, he seems to have:

  1. privileged sources that excluded the Faliscans from these hostilities; and

  2. consequently omitted the anecdote relating to Servilius’ execution of the hesitant standard-bearer from his account of this year, instead adapting it for use in his otherwise thin account of Servilius’ achievements as dictator in 418 BC.

It seems that Livy regarded Servilius’ capture of Fidenae comes as something of an anti-climax following:

  1. Cossus’ putative killing of King Tolumnius of Veii in 437 BC; and

  2. Mamercinus’ putative triumph over the Veientines and Fidenates after this battle, which was accompanied by Cossus’ putative dedication of Tolumnius’ armour as spolia opima.

If, however, Cossus killed Tolumnius while serving as Mamercinus’ master of horse in 426 BC (as, for example, Garry Forsythe suggested), then Servilius’ capture of Fidenae in 435 BC would have been an important event in Roman history, coming as it did only four years after the murder of four Roman legates at Fidenae.  I think that this was arguably the case, as reflected in the facts that

  1. Servilius himself was subsequently given the cognomen Fidenas; and

  2. his son continued to use this cognomen throughout his illustrious career.

Consulship of Aulus Cornelius Cossus (428 BC) 

According to Livy:

  1. “The Veientines launched raids into Roman territory [in this year], and it was rumoured that some of the Fidenates had taken part in them”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 30: 5-7).

The Romans sent three commissioners to Fidenae, apparently in order to investigate the participation of some Fidenates.  However,  as discussed above, Robert Ogilvie (referenced below, at p. 583) reasonably suggested that:

  1. “... the iiiviri, [L. Sergius Fidenas, Q. Servilius Fidenas and Mam. Aemilius Mamercinus might have been] ... iiiviri coloniae deducendae, [particularly since] they included one consular in L. Sergius.  It would be a typical misinterpretation of the Annales.”

In other words, it is likely that the Romans attempted to found a colony at Fidenae in this year, perhaps on land that they already controlled but more probably on land that they had seized from the Fidenates in 435 BC: if so, this would explains why the truce that was apparently still in force between Rome and Veii  came under strain.  Nevertheless, in Livy’s account, Rome itself suffered from a serious drought and:

  1. “Hostilities with the Veientines were postponed till the following year ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 30: 12).

However, as discussed above, the Augustan fasti Trumphales (ca. 19 BC) almost certainly reflected Augustus. testimony that Cossus killed Tolumnius in battle in this year and duly celebrated a triumph: thus, John Rich (at p. 246, Table 6, entry 41) suggested two entries that would have been included in a now-lost part of the inscription, recording that:

  1. Cossus triumphed de Veientibus as consul in 428 BC; and

  2. Mamercinus triumphed de Veientibus as dictator in 426 BC.

However, in addition to his assertion above, Livy had earlier recorded that, around the time of Cossus’ consulship:

  1. “... there were three years that were almost devoid of war because of plague and a shortage of corn, to the extent that some annals list nothing but the names of consuls, as if in mourning”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 9).

It seems to me that Livy’s observation has to be decisive: while the Roman annalists almost certainly recorded some fabricated Roman victories over Veii in the 5th century BC, they surely would not have been ignorant of an actual battle in which a serving consul killed King Lars Tolumnius of Veii with his own hands.

Fall of Fidenae (427-6 BC) 

Events of 427 BC

Livy recorded that, at the start of the next consular year:

  1. “... the formal declaration of war [on Veii] and the despatch of troops were delayed on religious grounds; it was considered necessary that the fetials should first be sent to demand satisfaction.  [This problem arose because] there had been recent battles with the Veientines at Nomentum and Fidenae, and a truce had been made, not a lasting peace, but before the days of truce had expired, [the Veientines] had renewed hostilities.  Nevertheless, fetials were sent, but, when they presented their demands in accordance with ancient usage, they were refused a hearing”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 30: 13-15).  

Thus, it seems that Veientines had agreed a truce with Rome in or shortly after 435 BC, presumably in return for the Romans’ withdrawal from Fidenae.  Livy seems to claim here that the Veientines had now given cause for a just war because they had:

  1. broken the truce by raiding Roman territory in 428 BC; and

  2. ignored the fetials’ demands for restitution.

However, this could well be special pleading, since the Romans might well have violated the truce by preparing to found (or re-found) a colony at Fidenae in 428 BC.

Livy suggested that the rest of this consular year was taken up with internal politics:

  1. “A question then arose as to whether war should be declared by:

  2. the mandate of the people; or

  3. [simply] a resolution passed by the Senate

  4. The tribunes [of the plebs] threatened to stop the levying of troops and succeeded in forcing the consul Quinctius [sic] to refer the question to the people.  The [plebeian] centuries decided unanimously for war.  The plebs gained a further advantage in preventing the election of consuls for the next year”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 30: 15-16).

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 citadel], 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.”

Events of 426 BC


(‘History of Rome’, 4: 31-34) recorded that, because of pressure from the plebs, four consular tribunes were elected for 426 BC: war was duly declared, following which:

  1. three of the consular tribunes marched against Veii; while

  2. the fourth, Aulus Cornelius Cossus, was designated as urban prefect, charged with administering and defending Rome.

The conduct of the war was disastrous, and the people:

  1. “...  demanded a dictator ...  Here too, a religious impediment arose, since only a consul could nominate a dictator.  The augurs were consulted and removed the difficulty: [Cossus] nominated Mamercus Aemilius as dictator [for the third time] and he appointed Cossus as his master of horse”, (4: 31: 4-5).

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”, (4: 32: 4-5).

Meanwhile, the Fidenates had decided to take part in the war.  However, before joining the Veinentines:

  1. “... 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 ... ”,  (4: 31: 8-9).

Fidenae now became the headquarters of the enemy army.  Mamercinus duly marched on Fidenae with two of the consular tribunes in support:

  1. Cossus (who was also master of horse) led the cavalry; and

  2. T. Quinctius Poenus, who commanded a reserve army that was stationed in the hills above the city.

All three men played a significant role in the ensuing Roman victory:

  1. “The slaughter in the city was not less than there had been in the battle, until, throwing down their arms, the [enemy survivors] surrendered to Mamercinus and begged that at least their lives might be spared.  The city and camp were plundered.  The following day the cavalry and centurions each received one prisoner... as this slave, those who had shown conspicuous gallantry, two; the rest were sold sub corona (by auction).  Mamercinus led his victorious army, laden with spoil, back in triumph to Rome. After ordering Cossus to resign his office as master of horse, he resigned the dictatorship on the 16th day after his nomination, surrendering amidst peace the sovereign power that he had assumed at a time of war and danger (4: 34: 3-6).

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.”

Livy (‘History of Rome’, 4: 35: 2) recorded that, at the start of the following year, the Veientines were granted a truce of 20 years.


In Livy’s narrative, the only substantial engagement in this war took place in 356 BC:

  1. “The ... consul [Marcus Fabius Ambustus], who was operating against the Faliscans and Tarquinians, met with a defeat in the first battle.  The main reason was the extraordinary spectacle presented by the Etruscan  priests, who brandished lighted torches and had what looked like snakes entwined in their hair like so many Furies.  This produced a real terror amongst the Romans, ... who rushed in a panic-stricken mass into their entrenchments.  The consul and his staff ... mocked and scolded them for being terrified by conjuring tricks like a lot of boys.  Stung by a feeling of shame, they ... rushed like blind men against [the priests] from whom had just fled.  After scattering the [priests], they engaged with the armed men behind them and routed the entire army.  The same day, they gained possession of the enemy camp and, after securing an immense amount of booty, returned home flushed with victory,  ... deriding [both] the enemy's contrivance and their own [initial] panic”, (‘History of Rome’, 7: 17: 2-6).

“The Faliscans and Tarquinians disguised a number of men as priests, and had them hold torches and snakes in front of them, like Furies. Thus they threw the army of the Romans into panic.  On one occasion the men of Veii and Fidenae snatched up torches and did the same thing”, (Stratagems’, 2: 4: 18-9) 356/ 426 BC

Cornelius Cossus, master of the horse, did the same in an engagement with the people of Fidenae.  Tarquinius, when his cavalry showed hesitation in the battle against the Sabines, ordered them to fling away their bridles, put spurs to their horses, and break through the enemy's line”, (‘Stratagems’, 2: 8: 8-10)

431 BC: (‘History of Rome’, 4: 26-29)

  1. The only major war in the period was fought against the Aequi and the Volsci, who had both raised armies under leges sacratae.  I include it here because one aspect of Livy’s account may be relevant to the present discussion:

  2. “As the war was such a serious one, the dictator [A. Postumius Tubertus] vowed, in the form of words prescribed by the pontifex maximus, A. Cornelius [possibly A. Cornelius Cossus - see below], to celebrate victory games if he were victorious“, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 27: 2).

  3. These games were not celebrated regularly thereafter, but Ovid, some 450 years later, recorded that the anniversary of the battle fell on the night of the 17th/18th June, a date on which:

  4. “That constellation [Delphin] once indeed beheld the Volscians and the Aequians put to flight upon thy plains, O land of Algidus; whence you, Tubertus, won a famous triumph over [these two tribes] ... (‘Fasti’, 6: 720-4, translated by James Frazer, referenced below, at p. 375).

  5. Gary Forsythe (referenced below, at p. 242) argued that:

  6. “The basic historicity [and considerable significance] of Tubertus’s great victory receives support from Ovid’s ... [record of the anniversary of this ancient battle, which] is the earliest one for which such an anniversary is recorded ... In addition, it is worth noting that Ovid’s information must derive ultimately from pontifical records.”

  7. The parallel I want to draw here is with a note attributed to the Augustan grammarian M. Verrius Flaccus in the fasti Praenestini, which recorded that the festival of the Carmentalia on January 15th was established by a now-unidentified commander:

  8. ... si Fidenas eo die cepiss[e]t”, (... if he should take Fidenae on that day, my translation).

  9. As discussed below, it is likely that these games were vowed by the dictator Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus when he left Rome, probably by the porta Carmentalis, near the grove of Carmenta, in 426 BC in the triumphant campaign that finally led to the fall of Fidenae, and that this information also ultimately derived from pontifical records.  

Mamercus Aemilius Mamercinus

In 478 BC, when a member of his family, L. Aemilius Mamercus, was consul for the second time, he marched out of Rome at the head of the army to confront a Veientine  attack on the Roman garrison on the Cremera.  He forced the Veientines:

“... back upon Saxa Rubra, where they had their camp, and [they] sued for peace. It was granted, but their instinctive fickleness caused them to weary of the pact before the Roman garrison was withdrawn from the Cremera”, (‘History of Rome’, 2: 49: 12).

Robert Ogilvie (referenced below, at p. 364) argued that:

  1. “The fact that the Veientines had their camp [at Saxa Rubra] is a strong indication that they were operating from [nearby] Fidenae, and not from Veii itself.”


According to Livy, when Cossus had spotted Lars Tolumnius in the heat of the battle, he had cried out:

  1. “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”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 19: 2-3).

  1. In the battle that followed, Aulus Cornelius Cossus, a military tribune, spotted Tolumnius causing mayhem and cried:

  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”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 19: 2-3).

  3. John Rich (referenced below, 2011, at p. 219) observed that this was:

  4. “... the first of what becomes a series of notices [in Livy’s narrative] in which the despatch of [fetial priests] to seek restitution is followed by a war vote in the Senate and assembly, adding on this occasion that the fetials presented their demand ‘having sworn an oath in the ancestral fashion’ ...”

  5. I discuss the possible significance of this testimony below.   The only other information that Livy had for this year is that it was taken up by a political dispute as to whether the Senate could or could not declare war with out consulting the Senate.

Gary Forsythe (referenced below, at pp. 245-6) argued that:

  1. “... it seems likely that Mam. Aemilius’s [putative] first dictatorship of 437 BC is fictitious and the doublet [with his putative third dictatorship of 426 BC] was produced by Roman authors when they transferred the death of Lars Tolumnius and Cossus’s winning of the spolia opima from the last to the first year of the Fidenate War.”

In fact, I think that it is unlikely that the Augustan fasti recorded that Mamercinus triumphed in 437 BC: this information would have been recorded only in those sources in which Cossus won the spolia opima in this year (since, at least in the surviving narratives, Mamercinus achieved nothing of significance in this year other than commanding at the battle in which Tolumnius was killed).  However, they might well have recorded a triumph in this year won by L. Sergius [Esquilinus ?] over the Fidenates, either in the fragmentary line above or in the one that followed it.

However, it seems to me that all we can really take from this fragment is that the fasti Triumphales originally recorded that either the dictator or one of the consuls celebrated a triumph in 437 BC, and not necessarily against the Veientines and/or the Fidenates.  Furthermore, this entry in the fasti Triumphales does not guarantee that a triumph was actually awarded in this year: John Rich (referenced below, 2014, at p. 204) argued that:

  1. “With a few exceptions, the information in the [so-called fasti Triumphales] is in agreement with Livy and Dionysius for the period from the foundation of the Republic down to the long lacuna [after the fragmentary entry for 437 BC].  However, although a good deal of authentic tradition will certainly have survived, much of what our sources tell us about the Republic’s wars down to the early 4th century cannot be historical.  The detailed campaign narratives are mostly stereotyped literary confections, and in my view successive historians’ expansion of the past is likely to have extended also to the invention or duplication of wars and campaigns to fill out the annual record.  The triumphal notices themselves are likely to have been included in this process.  Thus, although some of the triumphs reported for the early Republic are likely to be authentic, many are probably fabrications ... .”

John Rich(referenced below, 2014, at p. 19) observed that Augustus held that Cossus had won the spolia opima in 428 BC and Plutarch (‘Life of Romulus’, 16:7) assumed that the dedication of these spoils formed part of a triumphal procession.  While Rich himself observed that it is quite uncertain whether the so-called fasti Triumphales included a line like that given to Marcellus in 222 BC, he did assume that

Sources for 437 BC

Livy claimed that, in the main part of his account:

  1. I have followed all the existing authorities in stating that Cossus placed the spolia opima secunda [i.e., the first such spoils won since those won by Romulus] in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius when he was a military tribune”, (‘History of Rome, 4: 20: 5).

His contemporary, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, seems also to have relied on these sources: he recorded that:

  1. “When the Etruscan Fidenates and Veientes were making war upon the Romans, and when Lars Tolumnius, ... was doing them terrible damage, a Roman military tribune, Aulus Cornelius Cossus ... 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 ... but also reduced to discouragement and fear those who still held out on the two wings [of the enemy army]”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 12: 5: 1-3).

Dionysius had previously recorded that Romulus had killed the king of Caenina and dedicated his armour as a trophy of war in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius (‘Roman Antiquities’, 2: 33: 1-4), although he did not describe this trophy as spolia opima.  We cannot, therefore, be certain that he had originally recorded that Cossus had dedicated Tolumnius’ armour to Jupiter Feretrius.

  1. Livy recorded that:

  2. “Having heard from the lips of Augustus, ... [who] had himself read [the inscription on the putative] linen corslet [of Cossus] as he entered the temple of Jupiter Feretrius,  ... I have thought it would be almost sacrilege to rob Cossus of such a witness to his spoils as [Augustus], the restorer of that very temple”, (‘History of Rome’, 4: 20: 7).

  3. Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 1997, at p. 110) argued that a revised edition of books 1-5 of his ‘History of Rome’ was published between 28 and 26 BC, in which case, he wrote the account below while Octavian’s restoration of the shrine was either in progress or recently completed.

Read more:

Russell, A., “The Augustan Senate and the Reconfiguration of Time on the Fasti Capitolini”, in:

  1. Gildenhard I. (editor), “Augustus and the Destruction of History : the Politics of the Past in Early Imperial Rome”, (2019) Cambridge, at pp. 157-186.

Wilson M., "The Needed Man: Evolution, Abandonment and Resurrection of the Roman Dictatorship", (2017) thesis of City University of New York

Rich J., “The Triumph in the Roman Republic: Frequency, Fluctuation and Policy”, in:

  1. Lange C. J. and Vervaet F. (editors),, “The Roman Republican Triumph: Beyond the Spectacle”, (2014 ) Rome, at pp. 197-258

Chiabà M., “Roma e le Priscae Latinae Coloniae: Ricerche sulla Colonizzazione del Lazio dalla Costituzione della Repubblica alla Guerra Latina”, (2011) Trieste

Rich J., “The Fetiales and Roman International Relations”, in:

  1. Richardson J. H., and Santangelo  F. (editors), “Priests and State in the Roman World”, (2011 ) Stuttgart, at pp. 187-242

Weaire G., “Plutarch versus Dionysius on the First Triumph”, Ploutarchos, 7 (2009/10) 107-24

Shackleton Bailey D. R. (translator), “Valerius Maximus. Memorable Doings and Sayings, Volume I: Books 1-5.”, (2000) Cambridge MA

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

Rich J., “Augustus and the Spolia Opima”, Chiron, 26 (1996) 85-127

Forsythe G., “Critical History of Early Rome”, (2005)  Berkelely, Los Angeles and London

Nedergaard E., “La Collocazione Originaria dei "Fasti Capitolini" e gli Archi di Augusto nel Foro Romano”,  Bullettino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma, 96 (1994/5) 33-70

Ogilvie R. M., “A Commentary on Livy, Books 1-5”, (1965) Oxford

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

Adams Holland L., “Forerunners and Rivals of the Primitive Roman Bridge”, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 80 (1949) 281-319

Ross Taylor L., “The Date of the Capitoline Fasti”, Classical Philology , 41:1 (1946) 1-11 

Frazer J. (translator), “Ovid: Fasti”, (1931) Cambridge MA

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