The Early Republic: the wars of the fifth century BCE (part 2)

The equipment of an Etruscan warrior (left) and of a hoplite (right).

There were several peoples that made life difficult for the Romans during the fifth century BCE, but there can be no doubt that the Volsci and Aequi were their most lethal enemies. Both peoples originally lived in the highlands of the Apennines, but in the sixth century BCE they migrated to the fertile plains of Latium and tried to settle there. This led to prolonged conflicts with the Romans and Latins. According to our sources there were already wars with the Volsci during the reign of the last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus (ca. 534-509 BCE).[1] Initially the Romans were up against a third mountain people as well, the Hernici. However, after a couple of defeats[2] the Hernici gave up the struggle and became allies of the Romans. As of 474 BCE we find them serving as auxiliaries in the Romans armies. Moreover, they often warned the Romans whenever the Volsci and Aequi were planning new offensives.[3] The territories of the Hernici were hemmed in between those of the Volsci and Aequi, so it is quite possible that they felt threatened by these two peoples and considered an alliance with Rome to be the best option.

The threat of the Volsci and Aequi

The words ‘small-scale’ and ‘frequent’ sum up the wars against these two mountain peoples quite well. The Roman historian Livius described the attacks of the Volsci and Aequi as “almost a regular and stated custom of annual recurrence” and dismissively wrote of the Aequi that they were better at pillaging and raiding than at fighting pitched battles.[4] The wars of this era are indeed likely to have been little more than raids that involved burning fields and stealing cattle. Nevertheless, the two peoples were also capable of threatening cities. The Aequi for instance proved to be a constant threat to Praeneste, Gabii and Tusculum, while the Volsci were engaged in a long and hard fight for control of Antium and later Tarracinae, also known as Anxur. It was probably the Volscian threat that led to the founding of several Roman and Latin colonies at the start of the fifth century BCE: Signia in 495 BCE, Velitrae in 494 BCE and Norba in 492 BCE.[5]

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

In spite of these precautionary measures by the Romans, the Volsci not much later completely overran the eastern plain of Latium. According to tradition they were led by a Roman exile named Gnaeus (or Gaius) Marcius Coriolanus. Coriolanus was a patrician who had previously distinguished himself in the struggle against the Volsci and who had earned his nickname by taking the town of Corioli. After a conflict with the people’s tribunes in 491 BCE he had gone into exile with the Volsci, where he was warmly welcomed by their leader, one Attius Tullius.[6] The Volsci readily recognised Coriolanus’ military talent and appointed him their general. The Roman exile then led the Volsci to many victories and took many cities and towns. Tradition dictates that Coriolanus even marched on Rome, where his mother Veturia and wife Volumnia brought him back to his senses. Although it is not inconceivable that a Roman did defect to the Volsci and later commanded their troops, it does seem likely that much of Coriolanus’ story was made up later. It may have been intended to somewhat mask the shame of the Roman defeats against this people in the early fifth century BCE. The heroic deeds of Veturia and Volumnia were perhaps invented to explain the construction and inauguration of a temple of Fortuna Muliebris along the Via Latina.

Rome fights back

Although we may doubt the historicity of Coriolanus himself, the Volscian conquests of ca. 491-488 BCE are definitely historical. Antium became the base of the Volsci on the plains of Latium[7] and several other settlements were captured as well, with Livius mentioning Circei, Satricum, Longula, Polusca, Corioli, Mugilla, Lavinium, Corbio, Vetelia, Trebium, Labici and Pedum.[8] This list is in any case incomplete, for we know that at some unspecified moment Tarracinae/Anxur was also taken by the Volsci. The fact that ‘Anxur’ is a Volscian name should suffice as evidence of the conquest. Although many of the cities and towns mentioned were quickly lost again, there is not a shred of doubt that the Volsci posed a serious threat to the Romans. By 469 BCE Rome had managed to push her enemies back to Antium. The next year the city was captured and the Volsci lost their most important base.[9]In 467 BCE a Roman colony was founded at Antium[10], but this did not lead to a cessation of hostilities. On the contrary, in 459 BCE the consul Quintus Fabius Vibulanus only arrived in the nick of time to prevent the young colony from falling into enemy hands.[11]

Typhon from Gabii.

Around the same time the Aequi had their most important successes. In 462 BCE they destroyed the fields of Praeneste and Gabii, and together with the Volsci they threatened Tusculum and even Rome.[12] The two consuls of 462 BCE succeeded in expelling them again and then defeated them so thoroughly that, according to the Fasti Triumphales, they were allowed to celebrate a triumph and ovatio respectively. In spite of the Roman victory, the Aequi managed to capture the citadel of Tusculum three years later in a surprise attack. The ties between Tusculum and Rome were very strong in these days: the previous year the Tusculan dictator Lucius Mamilius had helped the Romans storm the Capitoline Hill, which had been occupied by slaves and exiles. Now it was the Romans’ turn to send aid. They surrounded the camp of the Aequi outside Tusculum and laid siege to the citadel. In the end the Aequi were starved into submission and sent under the yoke, an archaic ritual which involved the loss of warrior status.[13] More fighting then took place at the Algidus, a mountain pass not far from the Mons Albanus (see the map above). In 458 BCE the consul Lucius Minucius found himself surrounded here by the Aequi. His army would no doubt have been destroyed here if he had not been saved by the famous Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the man who had been dragged away from his plough and appointed dictator.

Fighting in the hills and on the plains

The Algidus subsequently became a stage for more confrontations between the Romans and their allies on the one hand, and the Aequi on the other. In 455 BCE the Romans won a new victory here, but five years later they suffered an ignominious defeat. On that occasion their camp and all their possessions were lost, and the survivors had to flee to Tusculum.[14] What made the defeat all the more painful was the fact that a Roman army had been defeated by the Sabines at Eretum the same year (see part 1). In 449 BCE the Romans had their revenge when the consul Lucius Valerius Potitus managed to crush the Aequi and the Volsci that had joined them at the Algidus. As the Sabines were defeated as well, both Potitus and his colleague Marcus Horatius Barbatus were allowed to celebrate a triumph.[15] But in the end the Roman victories did not achieve much. In 447-446 BCE new wars broke out, which saw the united armies of the Aequi and Volsci reach the gates of Rome. However, the enemy offensive mainly consisted of pillaging and burning. It seems rather unlikely that the two peoples were really capable of besieging a city such as Rome, with tens of thousands of inhabitants. After a while they withdrew to Corbio, where they were defeated by the consuls Titus Quinctius Capitolinus (possibly the brother of Cincinnatus) and Agrippa Furius.[16]

Bronze spear tip and Bronze Etruscan helmet.

In 443 BCE a civil war erupted in the town of Ardea, south of Rome. The Romans supported the town’s elite and the Aequi and Volsci the Ardean plebs. The subsequent Roman victory ensured that the consul Marcus Geganius Macerinus was granted a triumph. The captured general of the Aequi, a certain Cluilius, was said to have been paraded through the city during the victory celebrations. A Latin colony was founded at Ardea in 442 BCE; most of the inhabitants were apparently non-Romans.[17] After a decade of relative peace there was an extremely bloody confrontation at the Algidus in 431 BCE. At the time Rome was still reeling from a plague that had claimed many lives and had led to the construction of a temple for Apollo, who was worshipped as a god of healing. The Romans made Aulus Postumius Tubertus dictator and, supported by the Latins and Hernici, engaged the Aequi and Volsci in the by now well-known mountain pass. The ensuing battle was without precedent in terms of ferocity. The dictator was wounded in the shoulder and the consul Titus Quinctius Capitolinus, already mentioned above, was said to have lost an arm. Nevertheless, this battle of the Algidus was a Roman victory. At the request of the Aequi an armistice of several years was agreed.[18]

The wars discussed above paint a picture of Romans slowly but surely pushing their adversaries back into the hills and trying to secure the recaptured plains by founding Roman and Latin colonies, such as the ones at Antium and Ardea. This process was continued in the last quarter of the fifth century BCE. The consul Gaius Sempronius Atratinus suffered a defeat against the Volsci in 423 BCE and was fined 15.000 bronze asses a couple of years later.[19] Numerius Fabius Vibulanus, the consul of 421 BCE, fared much better. For a victory over the Aequi he was awarded an ovatio. The following years mostly saw fighting in the hills, for instance around small settlements such as Bola, Ferentinum (which was granted to the Hernici), Carventum, Verrugo, Artena and Ecetra. The fortunes of war often changed, and a remarkable incident was the stoning of the consular tribune Postumius by his own men in 414 BCE.[20]

Modern Terracina (photo: tittimi, CC BY 2.0).

After the loss of Antium the city of Tarracinae had become the most important stronghold of the Volsci on the plains of Latium. As was already mentioned, the city was known as Anxur in the language of the Volsci. In 406 BCE, in order to capture the city, the Romans sent three out of four consular tribunes to attack the Volsci. It was Numerius Fabius Ambustus who managed to take Anxur, and after its capture the city was pillaged by the three armies together. According to tradition the amount of loot was so large that it was possible for the first time in history to pay the soldiers in the Roman army.[21] And so, in a way, the fall of Anxur paved the way financially for the upcoming war against Etruscan Veii, Rome’s arch-rival. But Anxur did not remain in Roman hands for long. In 402 BCE the Volsci recaptured the city, reportedly because the Romans had neglected the local garrison. Two years later the Volsci were expelled again, and now Anxur was firmly under Roman control.[22]


Primary sources

  • Livius, Ab urbe condita, Books 1-5.

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 1.53.

[2] For the year 486 BCE the Fasti Triumphales mention a triumph for a victory over the Hernici. At the time these were still allies of the Volsci.

[3] For examples, see Livius 2.22, 2.53, 2.64, 3.5, 3.10 and 4.26.

[4] Livius 3.15 and 3.2.

[5] Livius 2.21, 2.31 and 2.34. Signia was in fact re-founded, having already been founded during the Age of Kings.

[6] Livius 2.35.

[7] Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 45.

[8] Livius 2.39.

[9] Livius 2.63 and 2.65.

[10] Livius 3.1.

[11] Livius 3.22.

[12] Livius 3.8.

[13] Livius 3.23.

[14] Livius 3.31, 3.38 and 3.42.

[15] Livius 3.60v.

[16] Livius 3.66-3.70.

[17] Livius 4.9-4.11.

[18] Livius 4.26-4.30 and 4.35.

[19] Livius 4.37v. and 4.44. The bronze asses were possibly lumps or discs of bronze. Bronze coins were probably introduced later, and around 268 BCE the Romans started minting silver coins. The end of the third century BCE saw the introduction of the silver denarius. However, the true wealth of a Roman was determined by how much land and cattle he possessed (E.Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 158). And that is why the Latin word for cattle, pecus, is related to the word for money, pecunia.

[20] Livius 4.50.

[21] Livius 4.59.

[22] Livius 5.8 and 5.12-5.13.

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