In the year 460 BCE, a man named Appius Herdonius reportedly led a campaign against Rome and successfully seized the Capitoline Hill. Although no known history of Rome was written by a Roman until around 200 BCE, the tale of Appius Herdonius had survived in ancient Rome’s consciousness to be documented and preserved by historians such as Cato the Elder (c. 234-148 BCE), Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (flourished c. 20 BCE).
As the story goes, Appius Herdonius was a Sabine of wealth and power who lived in the 5th century BCE. He was something of a migratory warlord, traveling the land with a large following in tow. As a rich and powerful individual, Herdonius apparently was able to come and go from Rome, allowing him to meet its population, and to get an understanding of the city’s layout and defensive features. Unfortunately for the Romans, Herdonius’ familiarity with Rome gave the opportunistic warlord access to a dangerous pool of manpower—exiles, dissidents, and, most frightening for the Romans, slaves.
Appius Herdonius made his move in 460 BCE, leading an army against the city of Rome under the cover of night. In Livy’s account, Herdonius commanded 2,500 Roman “slaves and exiles” (History of Rome, 3.15), whereas the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed that the warlord’s force was 4,000 strong and that it was solely made up of “his clients and the most daring of his servants” (Roman Antiquities, 10.14). Herdonius, with his thousands of followers, be it Roman dissidents or his horde of loyal servants, successfully infiltrated Rome and sneaked up to the Capitoline Hill. In a surprise attack, the infiltrators stormed the Capitol’s defenses and made short work of the surprised defenders. By morning, Appius Herdonius’ troops had firmly occupied the Capitoline Hill and were using the Hill’s defensive features against the rest of Rome.
After suffering this random attack, it took the Romans some time to recover from their confusion. According to Livy, Rome did not know who had attacked them, or how large the army was, and also feared the possibility of a simultaneous attack from another army outside the city. As the Romans gathered more intel on their opponents, they sent out messengers to request help from allies. The Romans, however, were not the only ones calling for aid—after Appius Herdonius seized the Capitoline Hill, he called for the rest of the city’s slaves to rise up in rebellion, and beckoned for all of the oppressed to join his cause. Although there was indeed friction between the oligarchs of the fledgling Roman Republic and the common people, Herdonius misjudged the power of communal identity. Instead of inspiring the commoners to defect, his attack prompted the common people to make a truce with the oligarchs and fight back against the threat to their city.
By the time the Roman population had readied itself to fight against the occupiers on the Capitoline Hill, they saw a completely different foreign army quickly approaching their walls. According to Livy, the sight of this force struck fear into Rome, as their first impression was that it had to be an army from one of their various enemies at the time, hoping to take advantage of Rome in its time of weakness. Yet, to Rome’s relief, the force was actually an allied army sent from Tusculum to aid Rome. Together, the Romans and the Tusculans attacked Appius Herdonius’ army on the Capitoline Hill. As the occupiers were firmly entrenched in the Capitol’s defenses, the battle was hard fought and many died in combat. The Roman consul, Valerius, was killed during the assault and the warlord Appius Herdonius, too, was slain in the heat of battle. Rome, with its Tusculan allies, eventually killed or captured all of the occupiers of the Capitoline Hill. In the aftermath of the battle, the Romans made a declaration of thanks for Tusculum’s aid, and then set about the grim task of cleaning and ritually purifying the blood-splattered temples on the Capitol.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Gustave Housez, La mort de Vitellius, c. 1847, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.