The Early Republic: crisis, reconstruction and new expansion (part 2; ca. 386-342 BCE)

Mosaic from Tusculum (Dionysus in India, fourth century CE).

After the defeat of Praeneste and Velitrae peace returned among the Latin allies, at least for the moment. But Rome still had plenty of other problems to deal with. The war with the Volsci was a never-ending story and these old enemies proved to be exceptionally tough. In the years discussed here several more enemies entered the stage, both old and new ones.

Foreign conflicts: the years 370-350 BCE

The Romans had by now created a new outpost in Volscian territory: the Latin colony of Setia.[1] It was, however, the colony that had previously been founded at Satricum that found itself under attack the most. In 377 BCE a battle was fought here between the Romans on the one hand and the Volsci and their Latin allies on the other. We do not know who these Latins were, but after their defeat at Satricum they reportedly quarrelled with the Volsci and left. A pleasant consequence for the Romans was that they were able to retake Antium. A siege of the city would have been too much of a challenge for them, but after the loss of their allies, the Volsci decided to surrender Antium to Rome. Unfortunately the Roman success proved to be short-lived. Apparently the Romans had left the colony at Satricum largely unguarded, and now it became the victim of the marauding Latins. Satricum was put to the torch, but fortunately the famous temple of Mater Matuta was spared. These Latins subsequently also launched an attack on Tusculum, which they partly managed to capture. A Roman army then arrived just in time to relieve the defenders.[2]

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

It is not impossible that the Latins that wreaked havoc in Latium were simply mercenaries who were no longer paid after their argument with the Volsci and were therefore eager for loot. Livius claims that they had political motives and that they blamed the citizens of Tusculum for their loyalty to Rome, but that claim is hardly credible given the fact that they did not attack this city until after their dismissal from Volscian service. In any case, peace now returned to Latium for a couple of years, although Velitrae continued to give the Romans trouble. In 370 BCE the colony again seceded and subsequently attacked Tusculum. The attack was repulsed with Roman support, and then Velitrae itself was put under siege. This was apparently a very difficult siege, as in 367 BCE the city was still in rebel hands. Not much later the Romans seem to have recaptured their extremely recalcitrant colony.[3] According to Plutarchus it was Marcus Furius Camillus, one of Rome’s most famous generals, who was responsible for this success.[4]

The Celts return

Greek hoplites on a vase (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

According to tradition Camillus had been appointed dictator for the fifth and final time in 367 BCE. He must have been almost eighty years old at the time, and that is one of the reasons why modern historians sometimes doubt the historicity of the story. However, it is clear the Romans themselves strongly believed that their greatest general once again took centre stage. There was every reason to appoint a man like Camillus dictator, as Latium was faced with a new incursion by Celts or Gauls from the Po valley. We do not know which Celtic peoples were involved, but it seems likely the Senones participated again. The invaders marched through Alban territory (the ager Albanus), which is probably a reference to the Alban hills.[5] This time the Romans won a resounding victory. At the river Anio, just a few miles north of Rome, they killed thousands of Celts, with some of the survivors fleeing all the way to Apulia. Camillus was awarded a triumph for his victory, which is indeed mentioned in the Fasti Triumphales. Two years later the second founder of Rome breathed his last breath. He was one of many victims of a plague in Rome, and certainly the most famous.[6]

Plutarchus claims that, prior to the battle with the Celts, Camillus gave his soldiers new types of helmets and shields and that he had them fight in a new and different way.[7] Remarkably, Dionysius of Halicarnassus also has a special eye for the way the Romans fought the Celts and managed to neutralise their ferocious charges.[8] From this, historians have concluded that it was the Celtic invasions – and the later struggle against the Samnites in Campania – that led to Roman army reforms. They have a point. The phalanx of heavily armed and armoured hoplites, which according to tradition had been introduced in the sixth century BCE by king Servius Tullius, had great staying power but was rather inflexible and did not work well in battles against highly mobile enemies. The single battle line of hoplites supported by light troops was therefore eventually replaced with a ‘manipular’ system with three lines (acies triplex), which allowed the reserves to be deployed where they were most needed. The hoplite, primarily a spear fighter, was slowly phased out in favour of soldiers who wore less armour and mostly fought with javelins and swords. It is fairly certain that the manipular system dates from the fourth century BCE.[9] However, it would not be correct to attribute all these army reforms to Camillus. They were no doubt part of a gradual process.

Some Celtic war gear.

After Camillus’ victory of 367 BCE the Romans had to do battle with invading Celts on three more occasions. In 361 BCE Celtic troops again reached the river Anio, and the Romans responded by appointing a dictator. This Titus Quinctius Poenus then confronted the invaders. According to the Fasti Triumphales the subsequent Roman victory won the dictator a triumph. Moreover, a Roman named Titus Manlius was said to have acquired the cognomen Torquatus by defeating a Gallic champion in single combat and stripping him of his torc (torques). The defeated Celts marched towards Tibur, which entered into an alliance with the invaders on opportunistic grounds. The Celts then invaded Campania, but the next year (so in 360 BCE) they were back in Latium and pillaged the Alban territory and the territories of Tusculum and Labici. The Romans appointed Quintus Servilius Ahala dictator and attacked the Celts not far from the Colline Gate. After a bloody fight the latter were driven back towards Tibur, where they were intercepted and destroyed by the consul Gaius Poetelius.[10] As Poetelius had also defeated the Tiburtines, he was honoured with a double triumph. The dictator Ahala, on the other hand, was so modest that he refused any kind of tribute.

In 358 BCE there were new Celtic incursions and the invaders now laid waste to the territories of Praeneste and Pedum. Again the Romans responded by appointing a dictator, this time Gaius Sulpicius. Sulpicius marched towards the enemy and operated very cautiously. He also devised a clever trick to make his army seem far larger than it actually was. The dictator armed the mule drivers, had them mount their animals and mixed them with about a hundred real horsemen so that the Roman army appeared to have much more cavalry than was really the case. When the battle was raging, the drivers, who had taken up positions on a hill, made an awful lot of noise and also threatened the enemy camp. This caused great confusion among the Celts, who were eventually annihilated. The dictator was allowed to celebrate a triumph and a large amount of gold taken from the Celts was placed in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline. “Not since the time of Marcus Furius has anyone celebrated a Gallic triumph that was better deserved than that of Gaius Sulpicius”, or so Livius thought.[11]

Decorative Celtic horse trappings.

Unfortunately the great Roman victory near Pedum did not end the Celtic invasions. A war with this people in 350-349 BCE did, at least momentarily. After an army of Celts had made its camp in Latium in 350 BCE, the consul Marcus Popillius Laenas mobilised four legions, some 18-20,000 men. The ensuing confrontation was a bloody affair and the consul was wounded in the shoulder by a javelin. In spite of this setback, the Romans were victorious and Laenas was awarded a triumph.[12] The Celts that had survived the fighting retreated into the Alban hills. Their numbers must have still been significant, as the Romans mobilised ten legions for the years 349 BCE, at least 45-50,000 men. The raising of so many legions was probably related to the fact that the Latin cities refused to provide the Romans with troops. Then the consul Appius Claudius died and no replacement was elected, so the other consul Lucius Furius Camillus[13] took on the invaders as consul sine college. Camillus took command of four legions and gave the praetor Lucius Pinarius command of another four.[14]

A military tribune named Marcus Valerius had a prominent part in the subsequent battle against the Gauls. He fought a duel with a Gaul and in doing so earned the cognomen Corvus (later changed to Corvinus). According to tradition a raven (corvus) had perched on the Roman’s helmet and had helped him kill his opponent.[15] The story sounds less plausible than that of Titus Manlius Torquatus (see above), but no doubt it was told and retold over and over again within the gens Valeria and embellished in the process. Equally implausible is the story that Corvus was just 23 years old when he was elected consul for the year 348 BCE. In the meantime the consul Lucius Furius won an easy victory over the Celts, so easy that he was apparently not awarded a triumph. For now the Celtic threat was ended; the next war would not be fought until some 50 years later. The rest of his term the consul did have to deal with Greek pirates that were roaming the coast of Latium. Livius thought their activities were connected to those of the tyrants of Syracuse, and he was probably right.[16] We for instance know about a pirate raid on the Etruscan city of Caere that had been launched some decades previously. Rome had an excellent relationship with Caere (see below), and that may have made Latium a legitimate target for the Syracusans. At the time the Romans did not have a fleet yet, so there was little they could do against the pirates.

Foreign conflicts: the years 350-340 BCE

Statues of Castor and Pollux on the Capitoline Hill.

Rebellious Tibur continued its struggle against the Romans without its Celtic allies. In 359 BCE the Tiburtine army advanced on Rome, but a sortie from two gates by the consuls Marcus Popillius Laenas and Gnaeus Manlius Capitolinus put the invaders to flight.[17] Although Livius claims that the old treaty with the Latins – the Foedus Cassianum of 493 BCE – was reaffirmed shortly after[18], it appears that Tibur continued its rebellion and was not defeated until 354 BCE. For that victory the consul Marcus Fabius Ambustus was awarded a triumph.[19] Above I already mentioned that five years later the Latins suddenly began questioning the Latin treaty again. Their stance may have been a prelude to the Latin war of 340-338 BCE. More about that war later.

In a previous post I already mentioned that the war with the Hernici started in 362 BCE.[20] For more than a century this people had served as a Roman ally. Troops from the Hernici had fought side by side with the Romans during important battles and sieges, such as the battle at the Algidus in 431 BCE and the siege of Veii, which ended in 396 BCE with the conquest of the city. We do not really know the cause of the war that erupted in 362 BCE. It is possible that the Romans were eager for revenge because the Hernici had fought alongside the Volsci, but then again maybe the war was just part of the Roman policy of expansion. In any case, the war did not start well for the Romans, as the plebeian consul Lucius Genucius walked into in ambush and was killed. It was said that his death caused the patricians to openly question whether it had really been such a smart move to open the consulship to plebeians. The Romans nevertheless managed to bounce back from this awful start. They owed their victory especially to the slain consul’s second-in-command Gaius Sulpicius, the man who would defeat the Celts four years later (see above). He successfully defended the Roman camp until the dictator Appius Claudius, who had in the meantime been appointed, arrived on the scene. Claudius then defeated the Hernici in a bloody fight which also saw serious Roman losses.

In 361 BCE both consuls were sent to confront the Hernici. The new consuls were eminent men: Gaius Sulpicius, already mentioned, and Gaius Licinius Stolo, the former people’s tribune who had served the plebeian cause so well. The consuls took the town of Ferentinum, a town that the Romans rather ironically had ceded to the Hernici in the past. Sulpicius apparently did most of the work, for in the Fasti Triumphales only his triumph is mentioned. In 360 BCE the consul Marcus Fabius Ambustus had to content himself with just an ovatio. Apparently his achievements were considered not that impressive (he would, however, be awarded a triumph for his victory over Tibur in 354 BCE; see above). The year 358 BCE saw the final campaigns against the Hernici. The Romans were led by the consul Gaius Plautius, who with his resounding victory also won himself a triumph. The Hernici now kept the peace for decades. The next armed conflict was in fact in 306 BCE.[21]

Terracotta statue of Latona with baby Apollo (Aplu in Etruscan). Late sixth century BCE (Villa Giulia, Rome).

Wars with the Etruscans

The war against the Etruscan city of Tarquinii was of an entirely different order. Tarquinii had already been defeated once in the 380s BCE, and it is possible that on that occasion an armistice was granted which expired around 358 BCE. Livius claims the Etruscans had pillaged Roman territory, but the Etruscans themselves no doubt cited Roman aggression. In any case, it was Tarquinii that managed to deal the first blow when it inflicted a heavy defeat on the consul Gaius Fabius Ambustus. After the battle 307 Roman prisoners of war were reportedly executed on the forum of Tarquinii.[22] Gaius’ relative Marcus Fabius Ambustus – already mentioned above as the consul of 360 BCE and 354 BCE – served as consul in 356 BCE and was assigned the war with Tarquinii. The Etruscans had in the meantime received help from Falerii and the consul suffered a second defeat. Livius blamed the defeat on the actions of Etruscan priests, who had charged the Roman lines carrying burning torches and snakes. This is a strange story, which may have been invented to explain yet another defeat. According to Livius the humiliating defeat was followed by a Roman victory, but it is not inconceivable that that victory was made up later as well.[23]

Still in 356 BCE, the combined armies of Tarquinii and Falerii managed to advance as far as the salt pans at the mouth of the Tiber. The Romans responded by appointing Gaius Marcius Rutilus dictator, the first plebeian to hold that office. Although the enemies even managed to cross the Tiber, Rutilus quickly established that the Romans were just up against small raiding parties. Many of the raiders were killed and some 8,000 Etruscans and their allies were said to have been captured. We do not know whether that number was inflated, but the dictator was certainly allowed to celebrate a triumph. In 354 BCE the Romans finally got to enjoy the sweet taste of revenge. They defeated Tarquinii in battle and took hundreds of enemy soldiers prisoner. Most of these were butchered on the spot, but 358 nobles were sent to Rome to be flogged and beheaded on the Forum.[24]

Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, previously Caere.

Not much later the Romans discovered, to their utter astonishment, that the city of Caere had joined Tarquinii. Caere was also an Etruscan city, but it had always been a loyal Roman ally. During the siege of Veii in 396 BCE it supported the Romans and when Rome was occupied by the Senones several years later the most sacred objects in the city were transferred to Caere. Roman outrage about Caere’s defection was immense, and this led to a very brief war in 353 BCE. The Caerites quickly repented, so there was no need to resort to violence. The Romans quickly forgave their former allies and granted them a 100-year armistice, which was engraved on a bronze plaque.[25] The experienced consul Gaius Sulpicius, who now held the office for the fifth time, ultimately managed to bring Tarquinii to its knees in 351 BCE. His colleague Titus Quinctius Poenus, also a veteran, then dealt with Falerii. Both cities were granted 40-year armistices.[26]

Volsci and Aurunci

In 346 BCE a new conflict broke out with the Volsci. There was unrest in Antium and the Volsci had founded a new colony at Satricum, which had previously been destroyed by the Latins (see above). The consul sent to take them on was Marcus Valerius Corvus, the man who was said to have been aided by a raven in his duel with a Gaul. Corvus had already been consul in 348 BCE, and according to tradition he had been just 23 years old at the time. It is, however, much more likely that he was in his late thirties.[27] During the war with the Volsci in 346 BCE the consul won a fairly simple victory and captured Satricum. The town was again destroyed, but just like in 377 BCE the temple of Mater Matuta was spared. Corvus was awarded a triumph for his victory.[28] Later a new colony of Roman citizens – probably Volsci that had been granted Roman citizenship – must have been founded at Satricum, as the town is mentioned again during the Second Samnite war (326-304 BCE).[29]

Antefix from the temple of Mater Matuta in Satricum.

Finally, I must mention a war with the Aurunci, which was fought in 345 BCE. The Aurunci (or Ausones) lived in the border region of Latium and Campania, so east of the Volsci. Not long after the founding of the Republic the Romans had already waged war against the Aurunci. These wars were in 503-503 BCE and 495 BCE respectively.[30] During the first war the Aurunci had reached Cora and Pometia (which was possibly near Satricum), at the time rebellious Latin cities, and during the second they had advanced as far as Aricia. In both cases the Romans had managed to repulse the attacks, and after their defeat the Aurunci disappear from our sources for 150 years. The new conflict in 345 BCE was closely related to Roman eastward expansion. The Volscian town of Privernum had been subjugated in 357 BCE[31] and this conquest had brought the Romans very close to the territories of the Aurunci. The Aurunci obviously felt threatened and provoked, and that must have been a reason for them to launch raids into Roman territory. The Romans appointed Lucius Furius – probably the consul of 349 BCE – as dictator and won an easy victory. As a bonus, Furius also took the town of Sora from the Volsci. Later, at an unspecified moment, a Latin colony was founded here.[32]

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

Much more interesting than his victories was the temple for Juno Moneta that Furius had promised during the battle with the Aurunci. The temple was built on the Capitoline Hill, on the spot where the house of Marcus Manlius, who had been executed for high treason, had once stood. The goddess Juno had presumably been worshipped on the Capitoline Hill since the Age of Kings, as Juno Covella. The temple inaugurated in 344 BCE was therefore not the first sanctuary dedicated to her on that hill.[33] “Moneta” is from Latin monere, which means “to warn”. A later tradition connects the name to the siege of Rome by the Celts, when Juno’s geese warned the aforementioned Marcus Manlius of enemy troops climbing the hill. But there is a better explanation. As of the start of the third century BCE the original mint of the city was attached to the temple, and the goddess warned the mint workers not to forge the coins or clip off bits of the silver. The modern English words “money” and “mint” derive from the word moneta, as does the Dutch word “munt” which means “coin”.

View of the Capitoline Hill, with the monument for Victor Emmanuel and the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Concluding observations

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage.

Towards the end of the Roman Age of Kings, Rome had become the most powerful city in all of Latium. Her dominant position allowed her to conclude a treaty with Carthage in present-day Tunisia in the first year of the Republic, so in 509 BCE. But during the fifth century BCE the Romans were under severe pressure, especially from the Aequi and Volsci. By the start of the fourth century BCE they had recovered and were able to destroy their Etruscan rival Veii. Rome now seemed to have regained her former position of power, but then the Celts spoiled the party. The sack of Rome by the Senones in 390 BCE or 387-386 BCE was a severe, but not a fatal blow. In half a century the Romans fought themselves back into the game and in the 340s BCE they were at least as powerful again as they had been in the late Age of Kings or early years of the Republic.

The restoration of Roman dominance had of course been noticed by others. In 354 BCE the Samnites, a powerful mountain people from southern Central Italy, addressed the Senate with a request for friendship. The Romans and Samnites subsequently concluded an alliance.[34] This alliance was followed by a second treaty with Carthage in 348 BCE. Thanks to Polybius we know the text, and we also know that, apart from Rome and Carthage, Utica and an African city named Tyrus (not Tyrus in Phoenicia) were parties to the treaty.[35] The document includes references to Latium, Sardinia, Sicily and even Spain (the city of Mastia Tarseion). Unfortunately the friendly relations with both the Samnites and the Carthaginians were just a temporary affair. Just a few years later the Romans would come to blows with the former, while in the third and second century BCE they fought three famous wars with the latter.


Primary sources

  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Book 14-15;
  • Livius, Ab urbe condita, Books 2 and 6-9;
  • Plutarchus, Camillus;
  • Polybius, Book 3.

Secondary sources

  • Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 75;
  • Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 152, 157 and 160;
  • Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 66-70;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 61-66.


[1] Livius 6.31.

[2] Livius 6.32-6.33.

[3] Livius 6.36 and 6.42.

[4] Plutarchus, Camillus 42.

[5] Livius 6.42.

[6] Livius 7.2; Plutarchus, Camillus 42.

[7] Plutarchus, Camillus 40-41.

[8] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 14.8-14.10.

[9] See the description in Livius 8.8, a passage that is set in 340 BCE.

[10] Livius 7.11.

[11] Livius 7.12-7.15.

[12] Livius 7.23-7.24.

[13] Not a son of the famous Camillus, but undoubtedly a relative.

[14] Livius 7.25.

[15] Livius 7.26; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 15.1.

[16] Livius 7.26.

[17] Livius 7.12.

[18] Livius 7.12.

[19] Livius 7.19.

[20] For an account of the war, see Livius 7.6-7.9, 7.12 and 7.15.

[21] Livius 9.43.

[22] Livius 7.13 and 7.15; Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 75.

[23] Livius 7.17.

[24] Livius 7.19.

[25] Livius 7.20.

[26] Livius 7.22.

[27] Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 69-70 gives his years of birth and death as 386 BCE and 285 BCE. It follows that Marcus Valerius Corvus was at least 100 years old when he died.

[28] Livius 7.27.

[29] Livius 9.12 and 9.16. Although inhabited by Romans, the town defected to the Samnites.

[30] Livius 2.16-2.17 and 2.26-2.27.

[31] Livius 7.16.

[32] Livius 7.28.

[33] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 152, 157 and 160. Juno Covella was the counterpart of Jupiter Feretrius, who also had a sanctuary on the Capitoline Hill. She was closely connected to the Roman calendar.

[34] Livius 7.19.

[35] Polybius 3.24; Livius 7.27.


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