Aquileia: The Year 181 BCE


  • A serious epidemic hits Rome and the rest of Italy;
  • The Romans once again elect duumviri navales to protect their coast and allies against Illyrian and Ligurian pirates;
  • The praetor Marcus Pinarius defeats the rebellious Corsi on Corsica and the Ilienses on Sardinia;
  • The Ligurian Ingauni besiege the proconsul Lucius Aemilius Paullus in his camp; Paullus sallies and inflicts a heavy defeat on his opponents; he is awarded a triumph for his victory;
  • The Lex Baebia becomes the first law against electoral corruption;
  • The Latin colony of Aquileia is formally founded, and so is the Roman colony of Graviscae;
  • A serious drought affects the harvest;
  • The alleged sarcophagus and books of King Numa Pompilius are found at the foot of the Janiculum; the books are burned because they are considered a threat to the Roman state religion;
  • A large war breaks out in Hispania Citerior; the propraetor Quintus Fulvius Flaccus wins a bloody, but brilliant victory over the Celtiberians; he then wins a string of other victories over his opponents;
  • Flaccus’ colleague in Hispania Ulterior, Publius Manlius, wins a series of victories over the Lusitani;
  • In Macedonia, prince Demetrios is murdered, presumably by his father King Philippos;
  • King Eumenes of Pergamum sends his brothers Attalos, Philetairos and Athenaios to Rome, where they are given a grand welcome;
  • The Senate sends envoys to Asia Minor to investigate the conflict between Pergamum and Pontos;
  • King Ptolemaios V Epiphanes of Egypt dies; he is succeeded by his son Ptolemaios VI Philometor, a mere boy.

This year, Rome and the surrounding countryside were struck by a serious epidemic. There had been an epidemic before in 187 BCE, but this one was much worse. Livius claims that the plague was so severe that the sacred grove of Libitina – the Roman goddess of funerals – could hardly provide the material necessary for all the funerals.[1] The plague seems to have also struck the Latin communities and rest of Italy, as the consuls Publius Cornelius Cethegus and Marcus Baebius Tamphilus were unable to recruit enough Latin and Italian soldiers to quell rebellions on Corsica and Sardinia. This province – the two islands had been joined in a single province since about 227 BCE – had been given to the praetor Marcus Pinarius, who was told to go to Pisa to borrow soldiers from the army of the proconsul Gnaeus Baebius Tamphilus, who happened to be this year’s consul’s brother. The consuls themselves were sent to Liguria, the main theatre of Roman military campaigns in Italy.


The praetor Lucius Duronius was given Apulia as his province, to which the Illyrians on the other side of the Adriatic Sea were added.[2] Citizens from Tarentum and Brundisium had complained that, after many years of peace, Illyrian pirates were once again raiding the coastal areas of Southern Italy. The reason was probably that the pro-Roman Illyrian leader Pleuratos had died and had been succeeded by his son Genthios, who adopted an anti-Roman attitude. Rome’s ally in Southern Gaul, the important city of Massilia, also complained about raids by Ligurian pirate ships. Not wanting to equip a large fleet commanded by a consul or a praetor, the Romans decided to elect two officials known as the duumviri navales. These had not been elected for over eighty years and it looked as if the office had been abolished altogether. Apparently they were seen as the ideal commanders for two small squadrons of ten ships each. Gaius Matienus and Gaius Lucretius were elected. The former was charged with patrolling the coastal waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea up to the Gulf of Genua, while the latter was sent to the Adriatic.

Some of the equipment of a triarius.

After collecting reinforcements in Pisa, the praetor Marcus Pinarius sailed to Corsica and managed to subjugate the Corsi again. They were required to send hostages to Rome and provide the Romans with 100.000 pounds of wax, a valuable material that was used for candles and writing tablets. Pinarius then proceeded to Sardinia and defeated the Ilienses, who were also up in arms against Roman rule. Even though the praetor’s actions were successful, the historian Livius (ca. 59 BCE-17 CE) admits that the Ilienses were not fully subjugated, describing them as “a tribe which to this day is not thoroughly pacified”.[3]

There was heavy fighting in Liguria this year. At the beginning of spring, the proconsul Lucius Aemilius Paullus had invaded the territories of the Ingauni. After granting them an armistice of ten days to consider their surrender, the proconsul suddenly found his camp surrounded by a huge Ligurian army. The Ligurians attacked from all sides, but the Romans defended the gates with everything they had. At sunset, the Ligurians retreated, having been unable to fight their way into the Roman camp. But the situation was desperate for the Romans nonetheless. Paullus sent out two horsemen to Pisa to ask the proconsul Gnaeus Baebius Tamphilus for reinforcements. Unfortunately, Baebius had none to spare, as he had turned over most of his troops to the praetor Marcus Pinarius for his campaigns on Corsica and Sardinia. The only other troops in the vicinity were in Gallia Cisalpina. These were commanded by the praetor Quintus Fabius Buteo, but he would not be able to come to the aid of Paullus. Buteo was simply too far away and was furthermore fighting the Histrians, who were trying to prevent the founding of the Latin colony of Aquileia, which they saw as a threat and a provocation.

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.

The Senate decided to send both consuls north, even though these had not finished levying fresh troops yet because of the plague. But it was clear that Publius Cornelius Cethegus and Marcus Baebius Tamphilus would never arrive on time. Fortunately for the Romans, Paullus was not just any commander. He now adopted a daring strategy: instead of defending the camp against Ligurian charges, he decided to sally from all four gates. The elite allied troops, the extraordinarii, were ordered to charge from the porta praetoria, the main gate, while the hastati, principes and the rest of the Latin and Italian troops charged from the other three gates. The triarii and a few other units were kept in reserve to guard the camp. Paullus’ strategy was a resounding success, as it took the Ligurians completely by surprise. There was only brief fighting before the tribes fled in all directions, chased by the Roman cavalry. Livius claims that 15.000 Ingauni were killed and 2.500 captured. These numbers need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the Roman victory was total. The Ingauni surrendered and sent hostages to Rome. Paullus was awarded a triumph for his victory.

Among the other events this year we need to mention the first law against electoral corruption (ambitus in Latin), which was passed by the popular assembly. This Lex Baebia was the work of the consul Marcus Baebius Tamphilus, and it would be followed by many more anti-corruption laws in the following decades. A new Roman colony was founded at Graviscae in Etruria and the praetor Quintus Fabius Buteo successfully kept the Histrians away from the new Latin colony of Aquileia, which could now be formally founded. 3.000 infantrymen and an unknown number of horsemen, presumably with their families, were settled here.

Relief showing the founding of Aquileia. A plough drawn by oxen is used to mark out the borders of the new colony (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia).

Apart from the plague, there was also a serious drought this year. It did not rain for six months, and this obviously affected the harvest. In a curious incident, workers digging on land at the foot of the Janiculum belonging to a scribe found two stone coffins. One had an inscription in Latin and Greek claiming that it was the sarcophagus of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king. The other allegedly contained his books on subjects such as religious law and Pythagorean doctrine. The books were probably recent forgeries and the discovery was definitely suspect. Nevertheless, the urban praetor Quintus Petilius judged that they undermined the state religion and needed to be destroyed. After a brief discussion in the Senate, the books were burned in the comitium.[4]

Coin with the image of Masinissa or his son Micipsa (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

The Senate decided to release 100 Carthaginian hostages this year, repeating a gesture the Romans had made in 199 BCE. The decision was probably related to a dispute between Carthage and King Masinissa over a piece of land the latter had occupied (see 182 BCE).The release of the hostages seems to have been Rome’s way of settling the dispute: it pleased the Carthaginians, who were happy about the return of their citizens, and it also pleased King Masinissa, as he was not ordered to evacuate the disputed territory.


A large war broke out in Hispania Citerior in the summer of this year. Livius claims that the Celtiberians had gathered an army that numbered 35.000 men. This may be an exaggeration, but the Celtiberian army certainly outnumbered that of the propraetor Quintus Fulvius Flaccus. The propraetor nevertheless decided to go on the offensive and marched his troops into Carpetania, making his camp near the town of Aebura (which has been identified as Talavera de la Reina in the province of Toledo). Relying on their superior numbers, the Celtiberians challenged Flaccus to fight them, forming up their army close to the Roman camp for four consecutive days. But the propraetor kept his men under tight control and refused to leave the camp. Now that the Celtiberians were under the assumption that the Romans had no taste for battle, Flaccus ordered one of his subordinate commanders to take the left ala of Latin and Italian troops and 6.000 Spanish allies, to march out during the night and to try and get behind the Celtiberian position. This worked splendidly, as the enemy did not notice anything.

Replica of a falcata (image: Dorieo, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

The next day, Flaccus sent a prefect of the allies (praefectus sociorum) with the elite allied cavalry (the equites extraordinarii) to the enemy camp. The Celtiberians took the bait, poured out of their camp and started pursuing the horsemen back to the Roman camp. When the enemy was no more than half a mile from the Roman walls, Flaccus ordered his soldiers to deploy and sally from three gates. The Romans were told to make as much noise as they could, so that it could be heard by their comrades who had taken up positions behind the enemy camp. This was the agreed signal, and the Latins, Italians and Spanish auxiliaries surged forward, taking the Celtiberian camp by surprise. Their commander, one Lucius Acilius, immediately gave the order to set fire to it. Seeing their camp burning, the Celtiberians on the battlefield at first panicked, but then continued the fight with more determination than ever. But although they managed to inflict heavy casualties on the weak Roman left wing, they were soon surrounded when Lucius Acilius’ troops advanced behind them and more troops arrived from Aebura.

In the end, the Celtiberians were cut to pieces. Those that fled were hunted down by the Roman cavalry. Spanish casualties numbered in the thousands, but if we are to trust the numbers given by Livius, the Romans themselves suffered too and lost over 3.000 men, most of them Spanish auxiliaries. After taking the wounded to Aebura, Flaccus marched to a town called Contrebia and started to besiege it. When no help from their allies showed up, the citizens of this town were forced to surrender. Because of bad weather, Flaccus decided to move his entire army into the town. This turned out to be a good move: the Celtiberians had in fact sent a relief army, which – as they saw no Roman camp – mistakenly assumed that the Romans had left the area. When small groups of soldiers approached the town, Flaccus ordered his soldiers to charge from two gates. The Celtiberians were taken completely by surprise and suffered another sharp defeat. Flaccus then thoroughly pillaged the region, taking many of the fortified towns and forcing the Celtiberian tribes to surrender. This was a good year for the Romans in Spain, as Flaccus’ colleague in Hispania Ulterior, Publius Manlius, won a series of victories over the Lusitani. Unfortunately, no details of his campaigns have survived.

The Greek world

King Philippos V of Macedonia as the Greek hero Perseus. The king named his son after this hero (source: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.).

For once, the situation in the Greek world was fairly clear. The Achaean League treated the defeated Messenians leniently, but took a harsh line against a group of Spartan exiles. Now that Sparta had rejoined the League, the last thing the Achaeans wanted was these exiles stirring up trouble again. The island of Crete was still in a permanent state of anarchy, and in Macedonia, prince Demetrios was murdered. Demetrios, sensing that his life was in danger because of the jealousy of his half-brother Perseus, had presumably made plans to flee to the Romans. He had confessed these plans to a man he thought he could trust, but who turned out to be one of Perseus’ agents. A forged letter by ‘Titus Flamininus’ contained incriminating information that Demetrios was after the throne of Macedonia. This sealed the prince’s fate. Although it is not entirely clear whether Philippos gave the order, Demetrios was either poisoned or choked to death, and Perseus was now the sole candidate for the throne.

In Asia Minor, the Kingdoms of Pergamum and Pontos reached an agreement about an armistice. King Eumenes decided to send his brothers Attalos, Philetairos and Athenaios to Rome. Their mission was to address the Senate and seek support to put a definitive end to the war with King Pharnakes of Pontos. But the goal of the mission was also to introduce the brothers to his personal friends and relations in Rome, and to strengthen the ties with Pergamum’s most powerful ally, the Roman Republic. Attalos, Philetairos and Athenaios were given a grand welcome by the Senate. They were presented with various gifts and housed in splendid apartments. After hearing the brothers’ complaints against King Pharnakes, the Senate once again decided to send envoys to the East.

Ptolemaic Egypt had been a friend of the Roman Republic since 273 BCE. At the height of the Second Punic War, King Ptolemaios IV Philopator had sent grain to the grateful Romans, who never forgot this gesture. In 204 or 203 BCE, Ptolemaios IV had been succeeded by his son Ptolemaios V Epiphanes (see this post), who was just a boy at the time. The fifth Ptolemaios had a troubled reign. There was a serious rebellion by native Egyptians, which was put down using brute force. The leaders of the rebellion were stripped naked and dragged behind chariots before they were tortured and executed. This year, the king died, not even thirty years old. His most lasting contribution to history was probably the famous Stone of Rosetta, which was made during his reign. His successor was his son Ptolemaios VI Philometor, who was also just a boy when he ascended the throne. The once proud Ptolemaic Empire was now weak and vulnerable, and would soon be in need of Roman help.


Primary sources


[1] Livius 40.19. This grove, the lucus Libitinae, was located on the Esquiline Hill.

[2] The praetor was also charged with rooting out the Bacchanalia in this part of Italy. See 186 BCE for more details.

[3] Livius 40.34.

[4] The following events belong in a footnote: also this year, a temple to Venus Erycina was consecrated. It stood outside the Colline Gate, to the north of Rome. A temple to Pietas was consecrated in the Forum Holitorium, near where we now find the Theatre of Marcellus. A gilded statue of Manius Acilius Glabrio, the victor of Thermopylae, was placed in the temple. It was the first gilded statue of a mortal man ever in Italy.


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