The Un-Roman Tactic That Roman Consul Furius Agrippa Used To Make His Troops Fight With Passion

According to the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), and the sources and tradition that he relied on, the Roman Republic went to war against a coalition of Volscians and Aequians in 446 BCE, when the consuls of Rome were Titus Quinctius Capitolinus and Furius Agrippa. The Volscians and Aequians caught the Romans off guard, or, at least, in a moment of unpreparedness. Consequently, the invaders ran rampant over Roman land, setting up a base at a place called Corbio, from which they launched raids into Roman territory. While the raiders were pillaging the countryside, the Romans were pulling together their military. Once Rome’s warriors were organized and equipped, the consuls Quinctius and Agrippa led the troops out for battle.

After a reported three days of marching, the Romans found their prey near Corbio and both sides readied for combat. Rome’s forces, according to Livy, lined up in a simple formation with three infantry divisions, as well as a fourth division consisting solely of cavalry. Consul Quinctius took command of the Roman right wing, while Agrippa led the left. Additional trusted officers were tasked with leading the center and the cavalry. Between the two commanding consuls, Quinctius was the better general, and therefore he also took up the responsibility of commander-in-chief of the whole formation.

Accounts of ancient battles, especially ones written well after the time of the events described, as Livy’s account was, can be frequently filled with folklore or spiced up by the historian’s imagination, as ancient historians often wanted to entertain as much as they wanted to inform. Therefore, the inspiring battle-speeches, the heroic infantry charges and the decisive cavalry hammer-and-anvil strikes that are described by the ancient sources may not have actually occurred in reality the way they were recorded by eloquent historians. Nevertheless, tales and folklore captivated the minds of the ancient writers and it is quite possible that many of the stories that they included in their accounts of events were based, some way or another, in truth or a grain thereof. Such may be the case of Consul Agrippa and the story of how he kept his troops motivated during the battle against the Volscians and Aequians.

According to Livy, the Roman right wing (led by Consul Quinctius), as well as the center infantry division and the cavalry, were all splendidly maneuvering their forces, pressing back the invaders, disrupting the enemy lines, and trampling and stabbing their foes into submission. It was only in Consul Agrippa’s left wing, so the story goes, that the Romans were struggling in the battle against the Volscians and Aequians. According to Livy, Agrippa was “a magnificent fighter and still in the prime of his life” (History of Rome, 3.70), as well as a man still wanting a prosperous political and military career. So as to not lose honor for himself or the state, the underperforming consul was desperate to inspire his troops to fight with more ferocity, and thereby regain momentum and prestige for his infantry division. In order to achieve his objective, the consul was willing to go to extreme lengths. What Agrippa would allegedly do next, for a Roman, was unthinkable and against everything that the Roman military stood for. Hoping to rile his troops into a frenzy, Consul Agrippa reportedly tossed the revered battle standards of his forces over to the enemy. For a Roman, not recovering these lost banners would be one of the worst shames imaginable. By throwing the standards behind enemy lines, Consul Agrippa ensured that the only way the Romans could recover the banners was by defeating the opposing forces.  Livy described the patently un-Roman move and the effect it had on the consul’s troops:

“Aware that things were going worse in his own sector than anywhere else, [Agrippa] snatched the standards from their bearers and pressed forward with them in his own hands—and even, to shame his men to greater efforts, flung some of them into the thick of the enemy ranks. The ruse succeeded; a furious onslaught followed, and victory along the whole front was won” (History of Rome, 3.70).

After bringing his personal command to victory through those unusual means, Agrippa marched his troops to join consul Quinctius in a final assault on the Volscian and Aequian camp at Corbio. By this point, the army of raiders had been killed or scattered, so the assault to take the camp required little effort. With the camp captured, there was little left to do but to plunder what was left behind and march back to Rome for a glorious reception.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


  • The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.

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