Gracchus on Sardinia: The Year 177 BCE


  • Marcus Claudius Marcellus, son of the hero of the Second Punic War, dies;
  • A Roman colony is founded at Luna;
  • The consul Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus defeats the Ilienses and the Balari on Sardinia;
  • A Lex Claudia aims to force Latins that have moved to Rome to return to their own communities;
  • The proconsuls Marcus Junius Brutus and Aulus Manlius Vulso continue the war against the Histri;
  • The consul Gaius Claudius Pulcher hurries to Histria to take command of the army, but is forced to return to Rome to take the required vows;
  • Upon returning to Histria, Pulcher captures the Histrian stronghold of Nesactium and several other towns;
  • Pulcher inflicts a heavy defeat on the Ligurians at the river Scultenna; he is allowed to celebrate a triumph for his victories over two different peoples.

This year Marcus Claudius Marcellus died. He was the son of the famous consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who had been killed in an ambush during the Second Punic War. The younger Marcellus had been consul himself in 196 BCE and then censor in 189 BCE. Also this year, the Romans founded a colony of Roman citizens at Luna (modern Luni) in the border region between Etruria and Liguria. This was a coastal colony near the mouth of the Macra river (now the Magra). There had certainly been a settlement here before, and we have already seen that Cato the Elder boarded his troops here before embarking on his Spanish campaign of 195 BCE. Livius claims that the land was taken from the Ligurians and that it had previously belonged to the Etruscans. This may very well be correct. Luni would be used as a staging point for further operations against the Ligurians.


The new consuls of this year were Gaius Claudius Pulcher and Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. The latter was sent to Sardinia with a fresh army to take command of the war against the Ilienses and the Balari. He managed to defeat the two tribes in a pitched battle before retiring to his winter quarters. There would be more fighting on Sardinia the next year.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

The consul Pulcher had to deal with domestic problems before he could set out for his province of Histria. Delegates from several Latin communities complained to the Senate that their cities were quickly becoming depopulated because many of their citizens had settled in Rome and had been registered as Roman citizens in the census. This was not a new problem: a similar problem had arisen ten years ago. Roman law stipulated that Latins could become Roman citizens provided that they left male offspring back in their original communities. Otherwise these communities would quickly become ghost towns and would no longer be able to fulfil their military obligations. Unfortunately, the law was abused on a massive scale. It seems that many Latins sold their own children as slaves to Roman families, who then manumitted the children so that they became freedmen (and their children received full Roman citizenship). At the same time, some Latins without children adopted slaves and left these behind as their own children. The situation clearly demonstrates that Roman citizenship was widely coveted.

And the problem was even larger than that, because delegations from the Samnites and Paeligni, who were among Rome’s non-Latin Italian allies, complained that some 4.000 families had moved from their own communities to the flourishing Latin colony of Fregellae in Southern Latium. Again there was a threat that these allies would not be able to provide the Romans with the required number of troops for the army. The situation was serious enough to warrant new and stricter legislation. The consul Pulcher therefore tabled a proposal for a Lex Claudia, which stipulated that anyone registered as a Latin during or after the censorship of the aforementioned Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Titus Quinctius Flamininus (i.e. 189188 BCE) had to return to his original community. Enforcement of the new law was entrusted to a praetor. The Senate furthermore decreed that people manumitting slaves were required to swear an oath that they were not acting with the purpose of changing a person’s citizenship.

The wars against the Histri and the Ligurians

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The proconsuls Marcus Junius Brutus and Aulus Manlius Vulso continued the war against the Histri and defeated a rag-tag army that tried to stop them. The province of Histria had been granted to the consul Gaius Claudius Pulcher (see above), but he had been kept in Rome because of the problems with the Latins. The consul was afraid that, upon arriving in his province, he would find that the war had already been won. Livius now tells us the strange story of how Pulcher hurried to Histria in the middle of the night without having taken the required vows on the Capitoline. Upon arriving in Histria, he arrogantly ordered the proconsuls to leave, but these refused to acknowledge him as a consul and told him to come back after he had followed correct procedure. The consul was furious, but realised he was quickly becoming the laughing stock of the camp, with many of the soldiers hurling insults at the bogus commander. He therefore hastened back to Rome, made his vows in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, gathered his lictors, donned his paludamentum (the cloak worn by a military commander) and galloped back to Aquileia, where a fresh army had already been assembled. Pulcher would not fight a war with troops that had dared to jeer at him.

In the meantime, the proconsuls had already started to besiege the Histrian stronghold of Nesactium. This was located in the far south of the Istrian peninsula, near modern Pula. This is a good indication of how far the Romans had penetrated into enemy territory, for Pula is about 140 kilometres from Aquileia by land and at least 100 by sea. In Nesactium, the Histri and their most important chieftain Aepulo (or Epulon) had entrenched themselves. When the consul Pulcher arrived, he immediately sent his colleagues and their armies away and took command of the siege. The consul may have been a scion of a Roman family known for its arrogance, but he was definitely an able commander. He managed to cut off the stronghold’s water supply by diverting the river and prepared for a direct assault on the town’s defences. The Histri, realising that they were lost, began killing the women and children. Aepulo committed suicide as well when the Romans managed to break into the town. After taking Nesactium, Pulcher proceeded to Mutila and Faveria, taking and destroying these towns as well. There was rich booty, with Livius claiming that 5.632 people were sold as slaves, a number so precise that it may actually be correct. More importantly, Histria had now been pacified.

Map of Northern Italy (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

Equipment of a warrior from Picenum. The Piceni were Roman allies and served in the Roman armies.

This was not the case with Liguria. Several Ligurian tribes still resisted Rome rule. The Romans had just one legion in the region, which was stationed at Pisa. Reinforcements were urgently needed, but the consul Gracchus was stuck in the war on Sardinia. Therefore his colleague Pulcher, fresh from his victory in Histria, was ordered to march into Liguria. Advancing to the river Scultenna (now the Panaro), he managed to get the Ligurians to fight a pitched battle and inflicted a crushing defeat on them. For his victories against two different enemies – a rare feat according to Livius – the consul was awarded a triumph. This triumph was, however, slightly marred by two events. First of all, the allied soldiers in his army decided to follow the consul’s chariot in silence during the procession. They were angry that they had received a bonus that was only half that granted to Roman soldiers. A second stain was the fact that the Ligurians proved to be far from defeated. In fact, they managed to attack and capture the Roman colony of Mutina on the Via Aemilia later this year or early the next year.

The Greek world

Roman envoys arrived on Rhodos this year to announce the decision taken by the Senate regarding the Lycians (see 178 BCE). When the Romans told the Rhodians that their claim on Lycia was not supported by the Treaty of Apameia, and that the Lycians had merely been designated as friends and allies, there was great consternation on the island. The Rhodians believed that the Lycians had succeeded in tricking the Romans, and immediately sent a delegation to the Senate to complain. The Lycians, on the other hand, were overjoyed by the Senate decision and now tried to get rid of the Rhodian yoke.


Primary sources


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