The Early Republic: the conquest of Veii and the sack of Rome (ca. 400-386 BCE)

Etruscan Gorgon from Veii (Villa Giulia, Rome).

The Etruscan city of Veii (Veia) was Rome’s arch-rival for many decades. The city was situated on the other side of the Tiber on a highly defensible plateau and may have had between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants. In the fifth century BCE Rome and Veii had fought several wars over control of the salt pans at the mouth of the river. Rome had ultimately triumphed in these conflicts, and around 426 BCE a twenty-year armistice had been agreed. The armistice expired in about 406 BCE, so war was renewed. It was a war that would lead to the conquest and destruction of Veii, an event that later historians such as Livius and Plutarchus described in terms that are highly reminiscent of the conquest of Troy by the Greeks or the later conquest of Carthage by the Romans. It is advisable to take these stories with a pinch of salt, but there can be no doubt that the Romans themselves saw the conquest of Veii as an important turning point. For much of the fifth century BCE, the Romans had mostly fought defensive wars. Now, with their main rival out of the game, they could finally think about expansion again. Unfortunately they were woefully unprepared for a new enemy that had entered the stage: the Celts or ‘Gauls’ that had settled in the Po valley and were marching south from there.

The war against Veii

In the renewed conflict with Veii, one Marcus Furius Camillus took centre stage. He was a scion of the patrician gens Furia that had provided the Republic with many consuls and consular tribunes. Marcus Furius was first to bear the nickname Camillus, which means both ‘boy’ and ‘servant of a priest’, but we do not know how he acquired this cognomen. His biographer Plutarchus claims that Camillus as a young man fought under the dictator Aulus Postumius Tubertus, who in 431 BCE defeated the Aequi and Volsci at the Algidus. If this claim is correct, then Camillus must have been born around 447 BCE and have been about sixteen years old when the battle was fought. Fighting at the Algidus was particularly bloody. The dictator was wounded in the shoulder and one of the consuls lost an arm. Young Camillus was reportedly also wounded, but he pulled the javelin that had hit him from his thigh, continued the fight and routed the enemy.[1]

Bronze statuette of a camillus, the servant of a priest (first century CE, Capitoline Museums, Rome).

At the start of the war against Veii Camillus did not have an official function yet. In either 403 BCE or 401 BCE he was elected consular tribune for the first time; at the time the Roman people could elect either consuls or consular tribunes (see this post). The year 403 BCE is uncertain, as Camillus also served as censor then.[2] However, it is not unthinkable that Camillus held both offices at the same time, as the simultaneous holding of two offices was not prohibited until the Lex Genucia was passed in 342 BCE. According to Livius the war against Veii saw several novelties. Roman soldiers were reportedly paid for the first time in history, from the loot taken from the Volscian city of Anxur (Tarracinae). The Romans were furthermore said to have used the tactic of circumvallatio and contravallatio during the siege of Veii, which involved building walls and moats facing both the city and the surrounding area. Supposedly the Romans also build winter quarters for the first time, so we may conclude that they had previously abandoned a siege when the war season ended in October.[3] The story about payment for the soldiers is not inherently implausible: the men may have been paid lumps of bronze or even the first bronze coins. However, it is rather unlikely that at this point in their history the Romans were already capable of a continuous siege of a city. The story of the war as told by Livius gives us the impression that there was not a single siege, but rather a series of several shorter sieges, combined with raids.

Veii did not receive any help from other Etruscan cities. According to Livius representatives of these cities had in fact held an assembly at the sanctuary of the Etruscan League, dedicated to the Etruscan supreme deity Voltumna, to discuss the option of sending aid. The cities had, however, decided to let Veii fend for herself. The reason to refuse help was supposedly that Veii had elected a certain person as king, a decision that was said to have been unacceptable for the other Etruscan cities.[4] A more convincing explanation for the lack of Etruscan aid to Veii is perhaps that the city was not just a rival of Rome, but of the other Etruscan city states as well. In this respect Italy was no different from Ancient Greece, where the poleis were frequently at each other’s throats. Furthermore, the Etruscan League was not a military alliance, unlike its Latin counterpart. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that some Etruscan cities eventually did send aid, as for the year 397 BCE we read about a raid into Roman territory by troops from Tarquinii (Tarchna). The Romans managed to intercept and defeat the raiders in the territory of Caere (Caisra). Caere was also an Etruscan city, but during the entire conflict with Veii it served as a loyal Roman ally.[5] It is furthermore possible that several Etruscan cities sent volunteers to Veii, but on the other hand they needed every able-bodied man to keep an eye on the Celts in the Po valley.[6]

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

Uni, the Etruscan Juno (Villa Giulia, Rome).

Although the Etruscans were reluctant to come to Veii’s aid, the city did have allies. Falerii and Capena, two cities of the non-Etruscan Falisci, had chosen her side in the conflict. Sometimes the Romans won victories over Veii and the Falisci, but they also frequently suffered defeats. At some point the defenders of Veii even managed to burn the Roman siege works, while in the struggle against Falerii and Capena the consular tribune Gnaeus Genucius was killed in an ambush.[7] Genucius’ death led to a great panic in Rome and the appointment of Camillus as dictator. Camillus then first defeated Falerii and Capena near Nepete and subsequently marched on Veii. According to legend this city could only be taken if the Alban Lake (Lacus Albanus) in Latium had been drained and the water from the lake had been used to irrigate the fields. It happens to be that the Alban Lake was in fact drained in the fourth century BCE by digging a tunnel. This tunnel may have been the reason why the Romans later connected the draining of the lake to the siege of Veii, for the simple reason that Camillus had his men dig an underground tunnel to the citadel of the city. This was fairly easy, given the softness of the tuff of the plateau on which Veii was situated. The Romans called such a mineshaft a cuniculus, the Latin word for ‘rabbit’. The tunnel ended in the temple of Juno (Uni in Etruscan), and when Roman soldiers crept out and then attacked from the temple, the fate of Veii was quickly sealed.[8]

Veii in Roman hands

The year of the conquest of Veii is usually given as 396 BCE, but it is also possible that the city was taken in 393 BCE or 392 BCE.[9] There can be little doubt that the conquest was a violent and bloody affair. Women and slaves were said to have pelted the advancing Romans from the roofs with rocks and tiles, but no matter how brave their resistance was, it could not prevent the capture of the city. By order of Camillus the prisoners were sold as slaves and the statue of Juno was taken from her temple to be transported to Rome. The Romans built a temple for this Juno Regina – ‘queen Juno’ – on the Aventine Hill. It stood close to where we now find the church of Santa Sabina.[10] Before starting the siege of Veii, Camillus had promised to restore the ancient temple of Mater Matuta which dated back to the Age of Kings. After the city was captured, he made good on his promise. One can find the remains of this temple in the Area Sacra di Sant’Omobono, just south of the Capitoline Hill. It was in fact a double temple, dedicated to both Mater Matuta and Fortuna. The church of Sant’Omobono was built over the sanctuary of the former.[11] The Romans celebrated their victory over their nemesis with four days of public thanksgiving (supplicatio) and Camillus was granted a splendid triumph. The general was now at the height of his power, but his fame and success had also won him many enemies.

View of the Aventine from the Janiculan Hill.

Remains of the double temple of Mater Matuta and Fortuna in the Area Sacra di Sant’Omobono.

During the war with Veii the Romans had fought on other fronts as well. These other wars were continued after the conquest of Veii. The Aequi had attacked the Roman colonies of Labici and Vitellia, but these attacks had ultimately been repelled. The Volsci for their part had tried to retake Anxur, which they had lost to Rome in 406 BCE, but they had been defeated by the Romans.[12] As Falerii and Capena had aided Veii, these two cities of the Falisci now became Rome’s next target. Just a year after the capture of Veii, so in either 395 BCE or 392-391 BCE, Capena was brought to her knees.[13] Falerii proved to be a tougher nut to crack, so the Romans decided to send Camillus to take on this city. Camillus was now no longer dictator: he had in the meantime been elected consular tribune. It was said that during the siege of Falerii a schoolmaster had tried to betray his city by handing over his pupils, the sons of the foremost Falisci, to Camillus. However, the Roman commander simply refused to profit from such a perfidious act. According to tradition the schoolmaster was sent back to Falerii, naked and in chains, while being whipped by the schoolboys.[14] The story of the schoolmaster of Falerii is a wonderfully moralistic tale that was no doubt made up to highlight Camillus’ good faith. It is, however, a historical fact that Falerii surrendered to the Romans in 394 BCE or 391-390 BCE.

A few years later there was a conflict with the Etruscan city of Volsinii (Velzna), which can probably be equated with modern Orvieto. The cause of the conflict is unknown, but Volsinii may have been alarmed by Roman expansion west of the river Tiber. The city had a lot of prestige in Etruria, as the aforementioned sanctuary of Voltumna, where the Etruscan League held its meetings, was located in its territory. Together with their allies from Sappinum, a rather obscure town[15], troops from Volsinii invaded Roman territory. The Romans were initially unable to raise an army because of a famine and a plague, but the next year – in 391 BCE or 388-387 BCE – they struck back hard. The Etruscans were surrounded and thousands were forced to surrender. Rome then granted Volsinii and Sappinum a twenty-year armistice.[16]

Etruscan fresco from Orvieto.

Rome’s fairly easy victory may be explained by the fact that the Etruscan cities were at the time facing a much greater threat from the north. At the beginning of the fourth century BCE several Celtic peoples had settled in the Po valley, where they had captured the cities of the local Etruscans. The Insubres had stayed in the north and had founded the city of Mediolanum close to Etruscan Melpum. We now know Mediolanum as Milan. The Cenomani settled east of the Insubres and their principal settlement was Brixia, which is present-day Brescia. In their turn, the Boii and Lingones had crossed the river Po, where the former captured the important Etruscan city of Felsina or Velzna, now Bologna.[17] Of all the Celtic peoples the Senones advanced furthest south. They crossed the Apennines and invaded Etruria. When they threatened the city of Clusium (Clevsin, present-day Chiusi), the inhabitants called for Roman aid. The Roman response led to a conflict between Rome and the ‘Gauls’, which was the name the Romans had given to these Celts. It was a conflict that Rome would barely survive.

Rome vs. the Gauls

Some Celtic war gear.

The years after the conquest of Veii had seen much internal unrest in Rome. There had not just been a famine and a plague, but also a hot debate about whether or not to found a colony near the defeated former arch-enemy. Although Veii had been looted, the city had fallen into Roman hands largely intact. A plan was devised to house a significant number of plebeians and even senators there. The way historians such as Livius describe the discussion about the planned migration to Veii is highly reminiscent of a similar discussion about the founding in 122 BCE of Gaius Gracchus’ Colonia Junonia, an unsuccessful colony near the defeated and destroyed city of Carthage. It is quite plausible that Livius took certain events closer to his own age and projected them onto a more distant past, but the fact remains that the Romans never founded a colony at Veii. Our historian tells us that a colonisation bill was defeated by the tribus by just a single vote and there is no reason to assume that he fabricated this story.[18]

Meanwhile, Camillus had got himself in trouble. His triumph had been condemned as extravagant, which had caused his popularity to plummet. In the end it was a conflict about the loot taken from Veii that spelled the end of the former dictator and consular tribune. Camillus was accused of having embezzled part of the booty and a people’s tribune called Lucius Apuleius brought him to trial for it. The great general was humiliated by the charges and decided to go into exile in Ardea, not far from Rome. In his absence he was reportedly sentenced to pay a fine of 15,000 bronze asses.[19] As an exile, Camillus was obviously unable to come to Clusium’s aid, so the Romans decided to send three brothers from the gens Fabia. According to tradition, Quintus, Kaeso and Numerius Fabius travelled to the Senones as envoys (legati) and later violated the law of nations (ius gentium) by fighting alongside the Etruscans on the battlefield. Quintus reportedly killed a Gallic chieftain and captured his armour. The Senones were said to have taken the subsequent election of the three brothers as consular tribunes as an insult. An insult that provoked a march on Rome.[20]

Decorative Celtic horse trappings.

Maybe this is how things went. But then again, maybe not. It is also possible that Quintus, Kaeso and Numerius Fabius fought against the Senones at Clusium as consular tribunes, so in a military capacity. Rome was the largest city of Latium and obviously a very attractive target for the Gauls. It is not implausible that the Romans simply launched a pre-emptive strike near Clusium to protect their own interests. If they did, their intervention probably met with little success. However this may be, at some point the Senones under their commander Brennus decided to march on Rome. ‘Brennus’ may have been a title rather than a name, as the leader of the Celts that invaded Greece in 279 BCE was also called Brennus. If we follow Livius’ chronology, the Celtic advance towards Rome took place in 390 BCE, but modern historians usually assume it took place in 387-386 BCE.[21] On 18 July of one of these years an important battle was fought at the river Allia, some 18 kilometres north of Rome. Livius claims the Roman army had been hastily assembled[22], which may indicate that the army of the three Fabii was still near Clusium or had in fact been defeated there. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, however, states that the Roman army comprised four highly trained legions, while Plutarchus mentions 40,000 largely untrained Roman legionaries.[23]

Rome is captured

The three aforementioned historians may have disagreed about the size and battle-readiness of the Roman army, but they all mention the same outcome of the battle at the Allia: the Romans were annihilated by the Senones. Many of the survivors of the carnage managed to cross the Tiber and fled to Veii instead of Rome. The fact that they fled the wrong way, combined with a possible earlier defeat at Clusium, may help explain why there were virtually no defenders left in Rome. When Brennus arrived at the walls of the city three days after his victory, so on 21 July, he quickly discovered that all the gates were open.[24] According to tradition, the Etruscan-Roman king Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE) had built the first city walls of Rome. We have enough archaeological evidence to conclude that these walls are historical and that they were made of grey tuff.[25] However, there were apparently no soldiers in the city to defend these walls. The few armed men still in Rome had withdrawn to the citadel on the Capitoline Hill, a large part of the population had fled and the priests had managed to take many of the sacred objects to the Etruscan city of Caere, Rome’s loyal ally. Among the sacred objects must have been the Palladium, the wooden statue of Pallas Athena that the Trojans had taken with them to Italy.

View of the Forum Romanum. The Capitoline Hill can be seen in the background.

Foundations of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.

Brennus and his troops entered the city through a northern gate, which may have already been called the Porta Collina. House were pillaged and set ablaze, and elderly Romans that had stayed behind, including former consuls, were reportedly massacred.[26] However, an attack on the citadel failed. The Senones excelled at raids and pitched battles, but they were badly equipped for sieges. Their army obviously needed provisions, and so the Celts were forced to scour the area surrounding Rome. It is not inconceivable that in doing so, they were frequently ambushed and suffered losses. In any case the Gauls soon had to tighten their belts because of a shortage of food and then they were also struck by a contagious disease. This plague was no doubt the result of rotting corpses in the city and bad air quality because of the many fires. The siege of the Capitoline Hill took place at the height of summer and the scorching August heat only made matters worse. The Senones that succumbed to the disease were cremated at a place that Livius calls the Gallic Pyres (busti Gallici).[27] But conditions in the citadel were just as bad, and a night attack by the Senones was only discovered at the last moment when the sacred geese of Juno woke up the defenders with their chattering. Led by the former consul Marcus Manlius the Romans managed to repel the assault, but their situation nevertheless remained hopeless.

It is difficult to say how long the siege of Rome, or rather her citadel, lasted. According to the sixth-century historian John the Lydian the Romans used to honour the geese on 3 August. On the same day the dogs were crucified because they had failed to alarm the defenders when the Senones attacked. If the night attack on the Capitoline Hill did indeed take place on 3 August, the siege can never have lasted more than a couple of weeks, as shortly after the failed assault the Gauls were bribed off. Plutarchus, however, claims the whole siege lasted seven months, from July to February of the next year.[28] If there really was a seven-month siege, one would have expected a large Roman counterattack, so I find it much more likely that Rome was occupied for just a couple of weeks in the summer of 390 BCE or 387 BCE. Ultimately negotiations were held and the Senones declared that they were willing to depart if a sum of 1,000 pounds of gold was paid.[29] According to Polybius their position was influenced by an invasion of the Veneti into their own territories.[30]


Camillus prevents the transfer of the gold. Fresco by Francesco Salviati (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence).

According to tradition, the Gauls had tampered with the weights used to measure the gold. When the Romans complained, Brennus was said to have thrown his sword onto the scales so that the Romans had to pay even more. He reportedly furthermore uttered the words Vae Victis, ‘woe to the vanquished’.[31] There can be little doubt that this story was concocted later to somewhat soften the shame of the Roman defeat and to put their Celtic adversaries in a bad light. The story that Camillus suddenly appeared and saved the city in the nick of time is definitely a fabrication. According to this story the defenders of the citadel took the decision to recall the great general from his exile. Camillus then marched from Ardea to Rome where he was just in time to prevent the transfer of the gold and have his soldiers chase the Senones out of the city. A little later Camillus supposedly inflicted a sharp defeat on the Gauls some 12 kilometres outside Rome, in a battle near the Via Gabinia. After his victory the general was hailed as the second founder of Rome. The gold was said to have been recovered and subsequently stored in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.[32]

Of course Camillus’ heroics are just too good to be true. The only credible element is the general’s eventual return from exile, for we know Camillus later again served as consular tribune and dictator. It is also correct that gold was kept in the temple of Jupiter because of the metus Gallicus, the fear of the Gauls. Julius Caesar confiscated this gold in 49 BCE after having conquered all of Gaul.[33] However, this was definitely not the gold the Romans had paid to Brennus, which was lost forever. The success of the Senones would lead to new Celtic incursions into Latium in later years. The conquest and sack of a large part of Rome was a severe blow for the Romans. Their reputation, which had recently risen to great heights because of the subjugation of Veii, Capena and Falerii, was now in tatters.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome;
  • Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 66-69;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 56-59.


[1] Plutarchus, Camillus 2.

[2] Livius 5.1 mentions him among the consular tribunes for 403 BCE. It was not unusual for Roman politicians such as Camillus to serve as censors first and then as consular tribunes. The order in which the offices of the cursus honorum were to be held was not fixed until the second century BCE. See for instance the Lex Villia Annalis of 180 BCE for a codification of the minimum ages.

[3] See Livius 4.59-4.60 (payment for the soldiers) and 5.1-5.2 (double siege works and winter quarters, also mentioned in Plutarchus, Camillus 2).

[4] The man had reportedly disrupted sacred games (Livius 5.1 and 5.5). The other Etruscan cities raised objections against him as an individual, not against the monarchy as an institution. Several decades previously, Veii had had a king too. In 437 BCE this Lars Tolumnius had been killed in battle against Rome.

[5] Livius 5.16.

[6] Livius 5.17.

[7] See Livius 5.7 (siege works destroyed) and 5.18 (death of Genucius).

[8] Livius 5.19-5.21; Plutarchus, Camillus 5.

[9] See Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 57.

[10] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 395-396, part 2, tab. 159-160. For the inauguration of the temple, see Livius 5.31 and Dionysius of Halicarnassus 13.3.

[11] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 157 and 160, part 2, tab. 9 and 13. For Camillus’ promise, see Livius 5.19 and 5.23, and Plutarchus, Camillus 5.

[12] See Livius 5.16 (Anxur and Labici), 5.23 (peace with the Aequi and Volsci), 5.28 (victory over the Aequi), 5.29 (battle for Vitellia) and 5.31 (Aequi defeated at the Algidus).

[13] Livius 5.24.

[14] Livius 5.26-5.27; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 13.1-13.2; Plutarchus, Camillus 10.

[15] Sappinum has not been located, but it must have been close to Volsinii.

[16] Livius 5.31-5.32.

[17] Velzna/Felsina must not be confused with Velzna/Volsinii, which can be equated with Orvieto.

[18] See Livius 5.24 and 5.30. Although no colony was founded, the city and surrounding area were apparently later repopulated and according to Livius 6.4 the inhabitants became Roman citizens.

[19] Livius 5.32; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 13.5 (who mentions a fine of 100.000 asses); Plutarchus, Camillus 12-13.

[20] Livius 5.32-5.36; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 13.10-13.12; Plutarchus, Camillus 17.

[21] Venning, p. 58-59.

[22] Livius 5.37.

[23] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 13.12; Plutarchus, Camillus 18.

[24] The earliest source for the three days is probably Polybius 2.18.

[25] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 81-83.

[26] Livius 5.41; Plutarchus, Camillus 22.

[27] Livius 5.48.

[28] Plutarchus, Camillus 28 and 30.

[29] 25 talents of gold in Dionysius of Halicarnassus 13.9.

[30] Polybius 2.18.

[31] Livius 5.48; Plutarchus, Camillus 28.

[32] Livius 5.50.

[33] Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar, p. 481.


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