The Early Republic: the wars of the fifth century BCE (part 1)

Statues of Castor and Pollux on the Capitoline Hill.

During the late Age of Kings, Rome had become the dominant power in Latium. Shortly after the expulsion of her last king, in 509 BCE, Rome was even able to conclude a treaty with the city of Carthage in Northern Africa. But at the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth century the power of Rome began to wane rapidly. Internal unrest was perhaps a contributing factor, but external threats were much more important. The previously subjugated Latins tried to regain their independence while Rome fought her eternal rival, the Etruscan city of Veii, for control of the salt pans at the mouth of the river Tiber. There were also conflicts with the Sabines and Rome had to cope with invasions by the Volsci and Aequi as well, two tribes that migrated from the hills of Latium to the plains and did not shun violence as they tried to settle there. As a result of these conflicts, the Romans were forced to fight defensive wars for much of the fifth century BCE. Expansion was not an option at the time.

The Latins and the Foedus Cassianum

According to tradition the Roman king Tarquinius Superbus (ca. 534-509 BCE) had united all the Latin peoples under his rule in the forest of Ferentina. To achieve this unity, the king had used coercion and intimidation, and it was widely that rumoured that he had even ordered the murder of an opponent of the unification process.[1] Modern historians usually call the cooperation of the Latin cities the ‘Latin League’, but in Antiquity itself it was referred to as the ‘thirty Latin cities’.[2] It is difficult to say whether there were really thirty cities, but one of the most important among them was Tusculum (not far from modern Frascati). Politics in Tusculum were dominated by the Mamilius family. Around 501 BCE the Mamilii incited the other Latin cities to rebel against Rome. It is very likely that these cities were motivated by the desire to win back some of their independence, which had been largely lost under the Tarquinii. The Romans responded by appointing their very first dictator, Titus Larcius. Judging by his family name Larcius was presumably a man of Etruscan stock (from the Etruscan name Lars or Larth).

The remains of the temple of Castor and Pollux on the Forum Romanum.

The Romans were fortunate that the important Latin city of Praeneste (modern Palestrina) quickly left the Latin League and joined Rome. The decisive battle between the Romans and their adversaries took at Lake Regillus, somewhere between 499 and 496 BCE. Here the Roman dictator Aulus Postumius defeated the army of Tusculum and its allies. The dictator was awarded a triumph for his victory and after returning to Rome began construction of the temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux that he had promised during the battle. It was said that the twins Castor and Pollux had aided the Romans during the fighting and had, moreover, afterwards announced the news of the Roman victory in Rome. In 484 BCE the temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum was completed. The building was reportedly inaugurated by Postumius’ son on the 15th of July of that year.[3]

The Roman victory at Lake Regillus had important consequences. Around 493 BCE the consul Spurius Cassius concluded a treaty with the defeated Latins, the so-called Foedus Cassianum. The treaty restored the Roman-Latin alliance and compelled both Romans and Latins to come to each other’s aid in the event of war. The text of the treaty was engraved in a bronze column and it is possible that later historians were still able to consult it; the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus in any case seems to quote from the treaty.[4] The Foedus Cassianum ensured that the Latin cities loyally supported the Romans with troops for the remainder of the fifth century BCE. The relations with the previously disloyal Mamilii of Tusculum seem to have been excellent. When in 460 BCE the Capitoline Hill was occupied by a Sabine named Appius Herdonius and his army of exiles and slaves, Tusculum did not hesitate to assist the Romans. The Tusculan dictator Lucius Mamilius was granted Roman citizenship as a reward, and as a consequence we find several Mamilii among the Roman consuls of the third century BCE.[5]

Latium in the fifth century BCE (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

The only stain on the Roman-Latin relationship of the fifth century BCE was the defection of the town of Labici (or Labicum). The town was situated not far from Tusculum and its name lives on in the Via Labicana. In 419 BCE, Labici left the Latin League, joined the Aequi and participated in an attack on Tusculum. The Romans attempted to repel the Labicans and Aequi, but initially suffered a defeat. Fortunately for them the appointment of the dictator Quintus Servilius Priscus turned the tide. Priscus routed the enemies, successfully stormed Labici and subsequently had it sacked. Not much later a Roman colony was founded close to the town.[6]

The wars with Veii

The so-called ‘Apollo of Veii’. The statue of the god (Aplu in Etruscan) is attributed to Vulca and dates from the end of the sixth century BCE (Villa Giulia, Rome).

Relations between the Romans and the various Etruscan cities were generally peaceful for most of the fifth century BCE. When Rome was struck by severe famines in 492 BCE and 411 BCE, the Etruscans sent the Romans large quantities of grain.[7] We do not know which Etruscan cities were involved in these aid programmes, but it is incredibly unlikely that Veii (Veia in Etruscan) was one of them. Veii was located a mere 15 kilometres northwest of Rome and had been built on a plateau that was easily defensible. Like Rome, the city claimed the salt pans at the mouth of the Tiber. Salt was a valuable commodity, and there is a reason that our word ‘salary’ derives from the Latin word sal. The desire to control the salt pans was most likely the main casus belli in the conflict between Rome and Veii.

The wars with Veii in the fifth century BCE can briefly be summarised as follows. Around 481 BCE the Veientes invaded Roman territory and subsequently reached the walls of Rome itself. They did not lay siege to the city, and after a brief fight the invaders were expelled by the consul Kaeso Fabius Vibulanus. His clan, the gens Fabia, then took the initiative for a series of reprisals. The Fabii were said to have armed and equipped 306 family members at their own expense. This small army marched into the territory of Veii. Given its size – it was in fact no larger than a band of brigands – all the army could do was burn fields and steal cattle. And that was exactly was the 306 Fabii did. In the end, according to tradition on 13 February 477 BCE, they were annihilated in a battle at the river Cremera. Only one Fabius was said to have survived the massacre, which allowed him to continue the bloodline of the family.[8] The story bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae around the same time, but it is certainly possible that the fifth century BCE did see small-scale private wars such as the one discussed here. It is furthermore worthy of note that between 485 BCE and 479 BCE there was always a Fabius serving as consul, while the next Fabius (the alleged sole survivor) enters the annals as late as 467 BCE. Given their public record, one would have expected more Fabii in the years in between.

After their victory at the Cremera, the Veientes reportedly again marched on Rome and occupied the Janiculan Hill. They were expelled from their positions there, and in 475 BCE the consul Publius Valerius Poplicola launched a counteroffensive and defeated the Veientes and their Sabine allies. For his victory he was awarded a triumph. During the consulate of his successor Gaius or Gnaeus Manlius Vulso, the warring parties agreed to an armistice of forty years and Vulso was rewarded for this achievement with an ovatio or small triumph.[9] Although there was in incident in 445 BCE[10] which involved pillaging by the Veientes, the armistice seems to have held well.

View of Rome from the Janiculan Hill.

This changed in 438 BCE, when the town of Fidenae, just north of Rome, cut all ties with the Romans and joined forces with Veii. According to tradition Fidenae had been founded as a Roman colony during the reign of king Tullus Hostilius (ca. 672-640 BCE). When the town defected, Veii acquired a bridgehead on the other side of the river Tiber, which made it easier to attack Roman territory. The Romans sent envoys to Fidenae to complain about the defection, but these were reportedly murdered by order of Lars Tolumnius, the king of Veii. It is not impossible that these murders were later made up to justify the Roman intervention, but Livius explicitly states that statues of the victims were erected on the Rostra. Moreover, the secession of Fidenae was sufficient as a casus belli. The consul of 437 BCE, Lucius Sergius Fidenas, defeated Lars Tolumnius at the river Anio, but lost a lot of men himself. As the consul had won no more than a Pyrrhic victory, the Romans decided to appoint Mamercus Aemilius as dictator. Meanwhile, Veii had received help from Falerii, a non-Etruscan city in Etruria. Another battle was fought, during which a Roman military tribune (tribunus militum) managed to kill the Etruscan king and capture his armour. This Aulus Cornelius Cossus was then allowed to dedicate these spoils as spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius. He was said to have been the first Roman since the legendary king Romulus to have been granted this honour. Mamercus Aemilius was awarded a triumph.[11]

Bronze spear tip and Bronze Etruscan helmet.

Cossus was just a military tribune in 437 BCE and then served as consul and consular tribune (tribunus militum consulari potestate) in 428 BCE and 426 BCE respectively, so it is not impossible that the story of the spolia opima must be set in one of the latter years. The events as described by Livius are, in any case, rife with repetition. In 435 BCE the Romans took Fidenae by digging a tunnel to its citadel. New colonists were sent to the town, but these were supposedly murdered by the Fidenates in 426 BCE, which is a remarkable parallel with the murder of the Roman envoys twelve years previously. It is equally remarkable that Mamercus Aemilius was again nominated dictator and that Aulus Cornelius Cossus served as his master of horse, so there is a possibility that it was in that capacity that he took Lars Tolumnius’ armour. However this may be, the dictator defeated the combined troops of Veii and Fidenae and destroyed the latter town. The destruction was followed by a twenty-year armistice with Veii.[12] It proved to be an armistice that held. When it had expired, the final battle for Veii commenced, which ancient historians described in terms that are reminiscent of the siege of Troy. I will discuss the siege of Veii in a later post.

The war against the Sabines

The Sabines, a mountain people living north of Rome in the Apennines, had been part of the history of the city since the early Age of Kings. A Sabine named Titus Tatius was said to have shared the throne with Romulus, and the second and fourth king of Rome, Numa Pompilius and Ancus Marcius, were both Sabines. Several early Roman gods and goddesses seem to have been of Sabine stock, such as Quirinus, Laverna, Semo Sancus and Strenia. Livius furthermore claimed that Roman citizens were called Quirites after the Sabine town of Cures. And then there was the famous gens Claudia, which would later spawn Roman emperors. This gens was originally a Sabine family. Its progenitor was Attius Clausus, a man who had migrated to Rome with his family and clients in 504 BCE. In Rome he had been granted Roman citizenship and had taken the name Appius Claudius. At some point he also became a member of the patrician class.

Remains of the Servian Walls.

But relations with the Sabines were not always peaceful. The Sabines that had stayed behind in the mountainous areas fought many wars against the Romans during the Early Republic, and the – incomplete – Fasti Triumphales record Roman triumphs and ovationes in 505 BCE, 504 BCE, 503 BCE, 502 BCE, 494 BCE and 475 BCE. In 469-468 BCE there was a Sabine attack on Roman territory, and a Sabine army reportedly advanced all the way to the walls of Rome before it was expelled again.[13] In 458 BCE the Sabines again appeared before the walls, which was a contributing factor to the decision to drag Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus away from his plough and appoint him dictator.[14] A final large-scale attack was in 450 BCE, when the Romans suffered an ignominious defeat at Eretum. A year later they were able to save face by crushing the Sabines at the second attempt. The consul Marcus Horatius Barbatus was awarded a triumph for this victory.[15] The Sabines seem to have kept quiet for the remainder of the fifth century BCE, but they were not decisively defeated until 290 BCE, when the consul Manius Curius Dentatus finally subjugated them.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 46-65;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 34-56.


[1] Livius 1.50-1.52.

[2] Livius 2.18.

[3] Livius 2.42.

[4] For the Foedus Cassianum, see Livius 2.22 and 2.33, and for the quote, see Dionysius of Halicarnassus 6.95.

[5] In 265 BCE, 262 BCE and 239 BCE. In 209 BCE one Gaius Mamilius Atellus served as the first plebeian curio maximus. For the occupation of the Capitoline Hill by Herdonius see Livius 3.15-3.18 and 3.29. This occupation was a serious affair: when the Romans and their allies stormed the hill, the consul Publius Valerius Poplicola was killed.

[6] Livius 4.45-4.47.

[7] Livius 2.34 and 4.52.

[8] For the war see Livius 2.43-2.50.

[9] See the fasti triumphales. For the war and armistice see Livius 2.51-2.54.

[10] Livius 4.1.

[11] Livius 4.17-4.20.

[12] Livius 4.21-4.35.

[13] Livius 2.63-2.64.

[14] Livius 3.26.

[15] Livius 3.38, 3.42 and 3.63.


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