The Early Republic: crisis, reconstruction and new expansion (part 1; ca. 386-342 BCE)

The Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus (Capitoline museums, Rome).

After the brief occupation of Rome by Brennus’ Senones in 390 BCE or 387/386 BCE[1] a large part of the city lay in ruins. It is now no longer possible to establish the scale of the destruction, but there is no need to doubt that the damage was significant. The sum of 1,000 pounds of gold that the Romans had paid to the Celts was a huge financial blow and the psychological trauma of the occupation and sack may have been even greater. According to tradition a plan was hatched to abandon the city and move to Veii, the Etruscan city the Romans had conquered some six years before the capture of Rome. Veii had fallen into Roman hands relatively unscathed.[2] This story may remind modern readers of the Roman noblemen who, after suffering an ignominious defeat against Hannibal at Cannae, considered leaving Italy and abandoning the Republic. It was Publius Cornelius Scipio who brought them back to their senses on that occasion. After the Celtic sack of Rome it was supposedly the dictator Marcus Furius Camillus who prevented the migration, but the historicity of the story may very well be doubted.

Domestic troubles: the story of Marcus Manlius Capitolinus

Reconstruction of the city was said to have taken a heavy toll on the Romans. Even the richer among the Roman citizens ran the risk of getting into debt and then ending up in debt bondage if they found themselves unable to pay. All of this led to trouble in the 380s BCE, during which Marcus Manlius Capitolinus played an important role. Manlius was a former consul who had defended the Capitoline Hill when it was besieged by the Senones. Although Livius suggests that it was that brave defence that earned him the nickname (cognomen) Capitolinus[3], the name had actually appeared in the gens Manlia several decades previously. It was almost certainly a reference to the fact that this family lived on the Capitoline Hill.[4] Marcus Manlius in fact owned a house on that hill. The former consul became a champion of ordinary citizens who had got into serious trouble because of their debts. He for instance bought the freedom of a centurion who was about to be led away in bondage. Because of these activities Manlius, himself a patrician, became very popular among the plebeians. His opponents, however, saw him as a dangerous revolutionary.[5]

View of the Tarpeian Rock.

The unrest in the city had led to the appointment of a dictator, a magistrate who wielded almost unlimited powers. This Aulus Cornelius Cossus had Manlius arrested, but not much later he was released again through the intercession of the Senate. As he continued his activities, which were considered subversive, he was brought to trial the next year. The charge was now that the immensely popular Manlius was seeking a regnum (i.e. the kingship) from the people and was thus a threat to the Republic. This may or may not have constituted the criminal offense of perduellio or high treason, as Livius mentions a tradition according to which Manlius was convicted by a body of two men (duumviri). The historian also mentions an appeal to the comitia centuriata, the popular assembly of the 193 centuriae.[6] This matches well with the charge of perduellio.

The former consul was sentenced to death and thrown from the Tarpeian Rock. This rock was ironically part of the same Capitoline Hill that Manlius had only recently defended so bravely. His house on that hill was demolished and the first name (praenomen) Marcus was never used again in the gens Manlia. As a consequence, the name is no longer to be found in the Fasti Capitolini. After Manlius’ death patricians were supposedly banned from living on the Capitoline Hill, but this ban may simply have been invented to make the story even more dramatic. After all, Manlius had in fact been an opponent of the patricians and it is hard to fathom why an entire class had to be punished for the actions of an individual.[7]


Remains of the Servian Walls.

Obviously Manlius’ death did not end the debt crisis. On the contrary, Livius claims the crisis was only made worse when in 378 BCE the censors introduced taxes to finance the construction of new city walls.[8] According to tradition, the Etruscan-Roman king Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE) had built the first set of walls. There is plenty of archaeological evidence that these walls were historical and that they were made of grey tuff.[9] Apparently the Romans doubted whether these walls could withstand a new Celtic attack and it is quite possible that the walls had suffered from decades of neglect. We do not know exactly how long it took the Romans to construct their new walls, but as late as 353 BCE they were still working on the walls and towers.[10] The new walls were made of yellow tuff; they were four metres thick and had a height of between eight and ten metres. With a total length of about 11 kilometres they closed off an area of about 426 hectares.[11] The walls were called the Walls of Servius Tullius or Servian Walls, after the king, but they had nothing to do with him. The name may be explained by the fact that the new walls probably followed the outline of the original walls from the sixth century BCE and were built on the foundations of these older walls.

Legislation initiated by the people’s tribunes Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius in 367 BCE fortunately somewhat alleviated the debt misery. The new law furthermore stipulated that no citizen was allowed to possess more than 500 iugera of public land (ager publicus), that the consulship was henceforth open to plebeians and that a religious college of ten men (decemviri sacris faciundis) was to be created, half of whom had to be patrician and half plebeian.[12] Poor plebeians profited most from the first two measures, while rich plebeians must have been delighted about the last two (for a more detailed discussion, see this post). Marcus Furius Camillus, nominated dictator once more, was said to have built a temple for Concordia, the goddess of harmony, now that harmony between the members of both orders had been restored. It is a claim that is only made in later sources[13], but the authoritative Atlas of Ancient Rome assumes Camillus did in fact built the temple, although apparently not much of it has been found.[14] In 121 BCE the consul Lucius Opimius had this temple restored, and probably largely rebuilt, after having slaughtered the supporters of Gaius Gracchus.

Remains of the Temple of Concordia on the Forum.

The Lex Licinia Sextia ended the practice of electing consular tribunes instead of consuls. In 366 BCE Lucius Sextius became the first plebeian consul and in 361 BCE his former colleague Gaius Licinius Stolo held the office. Rather ironically it was Stolo who, in 357 BCE, was sentenced by the popular assembly to pay a fine of 10,000 bronze asses for possessing more public land than was allowed under his own law. After hearing his sentence, he reportedly declared “that there is no wild beast more bloodthirsty than the populace, which does not spare even those who feed it”.[15] Usury was meanwhile curbed somewhat by new legislation. A Lex Diullia Menenia of 357 BCE set the maximum interest rate at one twelfth (8.3%) of the loan, while a nameless law passed ten year later changed that to one twenty-fourth (4.2%) and relaxed the rules on paying debts. A Lex Genucia of 342 BCE supposedly prohibited interest altogether, but there can be little doubt that this law was hardly ever enforced.[16]

Foreign conflicts: the 380s BCE

Livius gives us a rather dramatic account of the situation after the sack of Rome by the Senones. He paints a picture of a city under attack by enemies from all sides: the Volsci were eager to destroy the Roman people, all the Etruscan cities wanted to go to war with Rome and of the Roman allies the Latins and Hernici defected.[17] However, if we read the rest of the account, we must conclude that our historian was grossly exaggerating. The war against the Volsci was simply the continuation of a struggle that predated the sack of Rome and went back as far as the late Age of Kings. The claim that all the Etruscan cities met at the sanctuary of Voltumna and decided to go to war with Rome is completely unsubstantiated. In fact, in the decades after the Celtic invasion Rome would only wage war with Tarquinii. What is true is that several Latin cities and even a couple of Roman and Latin colonies defected, but these did not do so all at the same time and some of them even fought each other. Finally, the Hernici did defect, but not until 362 BCE. Five years later they had been subjugated again.

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

The Romans fought three mountain peoples in the first half of the fourth century BCE, i.e. the Volsci, Hernici and Aequi. The struggle against the Volsci was by far the toughest and most protracted. Just a year after the capture of Rome Marcus Furius Camillus was appointed dictator for the third time and confronted the Volsci in the vicinity of Lanuvium. He defeated them and took their camp, but there is every reason to doubt Livius’ claim that he managed to subjugate them completely after destroying their territories.[18] In fact, in the years after their defeat they would only cause the Romans more trouble. The Aequi were a different case. They were defeated by Camillus at Bolae. After the Romans had laid waste to their territories the next year, they kept a low profile for decades. It was not until 304 BCE that they became troublesome again.[19] Camillus was also said to have won a third victory in the year after the sack of Rome. He reportedly defeated the Etruscans who were besieging the city of Sutrium in Etruria. Sutrium was a Roman ally. The Romans arrived on the scene too late to prevent the fall of the city, but they did manage to immediately recapture it.[20]

Camillus’ triumph after the conquest of Veii – Francesco Salviati (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence).

For his triple victory, Camillus was allowed to celebrate a triumph. Etruscan prisoners of war were sold for much gold, which the dictator used to have three golden kraters made, each one inscribed with his name. These were placed in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, where they must have stood to be admired until the temple went up in flames in 83 BCE. It is not entirely clear who the Etruscans were that Camillus defeated, but as a war against Tarquinii is mentioned for the next year, we may assume that this city was involved in the conflict, and was perhaps the only Etruscan participant.[21] The Romans took two smaller settlements from Tarquinii and, still in the 380s BCE, founded Latin colonies at Sutrium and neighbouring Nepete to consolidate their control of the region.[22]

In the meantime, the Romans had suffered a severe blow in the war against the Volsci. At some point in the 380s the Volsci managed to regain control of the important city of Antium. Until 468 BCE this city had been the primary base of this people on the plains of Latium. The Romans had conquered the city in the aforementioned year and had founded a colony there the next year. It is reasonable to assume that there were still many ethnic Volsci living in the city and the surrounding area, and perhaps these played a role in Antium’s defection to the mountain people. Led by Camillus, now serving as consular tribune, the Romans won a victory over the Volsci at Satricum. That city was taken, but Antium remained in Volscian hands for the moment. Livius even calls the city their ‘capital’ (caput).[23] A Latin colony was now founded at Satricum to keep an eye on Antium.[24] At the battle of Satricum the Volsci had reportedly received help from rebellious Latins and Hernici. We do not know the identity of these Latins, but after a new victory over the Volsci the Romans discovered citizens from Circei and Velitrae among the prisoners of war.[25] The news that these cities had aided the Volsci was very grave, for both Circei and Velitrae were colonies that had originally been founded from Rome. When Velitrae also began stirring up the inhabitants of Lanuvium, previously quite loyal to Rome, the Romans decided that a line had been crossed. They subsequently declared war on Velitrae.[26]

Two warriors from Praeneste carrying a fallen comrade (National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina).

And there was more bad news for the Romans. In about 383 BCE the important Latin city of Praeneste defected. This was an immense setback, as Praeneste (present-day Palestrina) had been a loyal Roman ally for over a century. The city had defected to the Romans even before the battle of Lake Regillus of about 496 BCE and had because of this decision acquired a prominent position among the Latin allies. But now Praeneste invaded the territories of Tusculum, Gabii and Labici and sent an army to the rebellious colony of Velitrae. In 382 BCE the consuls Spurius and Lucius Papirius clashed with them there. Livius claims that in the ensuing battle more troops from Praeneste stood on the battlefield than colonists from Velitrae itself.[27] The consular tribunes nevertheless won a fairly easy victory. They then decided not to besiege Velitrae, perhaps because the city was too well defended. After their initial defeat the Praenestini struck back hard. They joined forces with their former enemies the Volsci and attacked the aforementioned colony of Satricum. Livius states that they took the city and subsequently massacred all the prisoners.[28]

Marcus Furius Camillus, Rome’s most famous general, was now again elected consular tribune, for the sixth time. By now he must have been well into his sixties, but he was still full of energy. In 381 BCE he won a great victory over the Volsci at Satricum.[29] A great many enemy warriors were taken prisoners. No soldiers from Praeneste were found among them, but the Romans did discover soldiers from Tusculum. This was remarkable indeed, if only because Tusculum had an excellent relationship with Rome and was hostile to Praeneste. It is not inconceivable that there were several factions in Tusculum. We know that the Mamilii in this city were pro-Roman, but perhaps other families were anti-Roman. In any case, the Romans now declared war on Tusculum. The conflict was fortunately solved without any bloodshed. Tusculum almost immediately asked for peace, which Rome speedily granted. Later the citizens of Tusculum were even granted Roman citizenship.[30]

Helmet from Lanuvium, ca. 475 BCE (Museo Nazionale Romano).

Meanwhile, the conflict with Praeneste was quickly escalating. In 380 BCE an army of Praenestini advanced on Rome, but was intercepted at the river Allia by a Roman army under the dictator Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus. The location is a bit odd, as the Allia flows some 18 kilometres north of Rome, while Praeneste is situated east of Rome. If the ensuing battle did in fact take place at this river, the Romans must have been exceptionally nervous. After all, this was the spot where the Senones had just recently crushed a Roman army before taking Rome. The dictator nevertheless won a resounding victory over the Praenestini and drove them all the way back to their own city. The Romans then marched on Praeneste and captured several smaller towns on the way. Around the same time they finally managed to recapture Velitrae as well; the defeat of its most important ally had apparently convinced the Roman colony to give up the fight. Praeneste commanded a favourable position in the hills and could probably have withstood a siege for some time, but the city decided to surrender anyway. The Romans accepted the capitulation and confiscated a statue of Jupiter Imperator, which they paraded through the city during Cincinnatus’ triumph in Rome. It was said that only twenty days had passed between the appointment of the dictator and the final Roman victory.[31]


Primary sources

  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Book 14;
  • Livius, Ab urbe condita, Book 5-7;
  • Ovidius, Fasti 1.641-644;
  • Plutarchus, Camillus;

Secondary sources

  • Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 81-83 and p. 158-159;
  • Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 66-70;
  • Jonathan P. Roth, Roman warfare, p. 17;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 59-61.


[1] For problems with chronology see Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 58-59.

[2] Livius 5.51-5.55.

[3] Livius 5.31 and 6.17.

[4] Another Marcus Manlius Capitolinus was consul in 434 BCE and Lucius Manlius Capitolinus served as consular tribune in 422 BCE. Then there was one Publius Manlius Capitolinus, consular tribune in 379 and 367 BCE, as well as an Aulus Manlius Capitolinus, consular tribune in 370 BCE. Gnaeus Manlius Capitolinus, consul in 359 BCE and 357 BCE, was the last to bear the nickname. The cognomen Capitolinus was equally popular in the gens Quinctia by the way.

[5] For the story of Marcus Manlius, see Livius 6.11-6.20 and Dionysius of Halicarnassus 14.4.

[6] Livius 6.20.

[7] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 159 believes the ban was historical, but was part of an urban planning project. If so, then it seems likely that the law did not specifically target patricians, but was about living on the hill as such. The alleged ban is also mentioned in Plutarchus, Camillus 36.

[8] Livius 6.32.

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

[10] Livius 7.20.

[11] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 83; Jonathan P. Roth, Roman warfare, p. 17.

[12] Livius 6.35-6.42. The ten men consulted the Sibylline Books in times of crisis.

[13] Plutarchus, Camillus 42; Ovidius, Fasti 1.641-644.

[14] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 158.

[15] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 14.12 (from whose work the quote is taken); Livius 7.16; Plutarchus, Camillus 39.

[16] Livius 7.16, 7.27 and 7.42.

[17] Livius 6.2.

[18] Livius 6.2.

[19] Livius 9.45.

[20] Livius 6.3; Plutarchus, Camillus 33-35.

[21] Livius 6.4.

[22] Livius 6.9-6.10 and 6.21; A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 60-61.

[23] Livius 6.6-6.9.

[24] Livius 6.16.

[25] Livius 6.12-6.13.

[26] Livius 6.21.

[27] Livius 6.22.

[28] Livius 6.22.

[29] Livius 6.24.

[30] Livius 6.25-6.26; Plutarchus, Camillus 37-38.

[31] Livius 6.28-6.29.

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