Rome Battled Through A Terrible Epidemic During The Second Veientine War

Lars Tolumnius, tyrant or king of Veii, brought about the Second Veientine War in 437 BCE, when he executed four Roman envoys, prompting Rome to declare war. Tolumnius pulled several allies into the war, including the cities of Fidenae and Falerii, which formed with him a coalition army. The leader of Veii brought this combined force into Roman territory in 437 BCE, only to be himself defeated and slain in battle. With Lars Tolumnius dead and his coalition army scattered, it was now Rome’s turn to go on the offensive.

In 436 BCE, the Roman military was said to have campaigned against the territories of Veii and Falerii, yet it became an eerie experience for the troops—the enemy did not organize to do battle, and daily life and activity in the region seemed to be incredibly suppressed. During that year’s bizarre campaign, the unnerved Romans sent home a steady supply of stolen cattle from raided fields and prisoners captured from the peripheries of lethargic enemy towns. Unfortunately for the Romans, they soon discovered the likely cause of the odd behavior in Veii and Falerii—disease. The captives that the Roman army had taken during the campaign were possibly carrying the illness, for an outbreak of a terrible disease soon erupted in Rome, forcing the army to end its campaign earlier than expected. Public prayers in Rome were held in hopes of ending the outbreak, yet these supplications did not provide any protection to the Romans.

By 435 BCE, the disease had become a horrific epidemic. Now it was Rome’s turn for its territory to become a lethargic ghost-town. The Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), described the effect of the illness on his ancient ancestors, writing “the epidemic was worse still. Fears of its ultimate effects in both town and country destroyed all enterprise: no raids were undertaken, no thought of aggressive operations entered anyone’s mind in any class of society” (The History of Rome, 4.21). Rome’s enemies at Fidenae, witnessing the rare sight of Romans hesitating to engage in war and commerce, decided it was the perfect time to go on raids into Roman territory. Fidenae encouraged its allies to join the raids, but one such allied city, Falerii, refused or was unable to offer help. Livy stated that “as for Falerii, neither the distress of Rome nor the entreaties of her friends could induce her to resume hostilities” (History of Rome, 4.21), which might suggest that Falerii, too, was experiencing the full force of the disease.

Epidemic or no epidemic, the Romans could only put up with Fidenae’s raids for so long before they felt a response was necessary. Eventually, the Roman government appointed a dictator to fight off the raiders and to exact revenge against Fidenae. A man named Aulus Servilius was given dictatorial powers, and he mobilized the men of Rome who were capable of fighting, leading them off to get revenge on the marauders in the countryside. This impromptu army caught the raiders by surprise, and Aulus Servilius chased the enemy all the way back to their city. He besieged Fidenae and, according to Livy, eventually captured the city by tunneling past their defenses, seizing the city’s citadel before the defenders finally took notice of their breach in security. It was a great victory for Rome, but such organization and mobilization during an epidemic had serious consequences.

Once Aulus Servilius and his army returned to Rome, the city’s epidemic became much worse, and the disease persisted in waves until well into 433 BCE. Livy commented on this reinvigorated second wave of the epidemic:

“During the year more sickness distracted men’s minds from political agitations. On behalf of the public health a temple was vowed to Apollo; by direction of the Sibylline Books, the officials in charge of those documents did much to attempt to placate the wrath of the gods and avert the curse of the epidemic, but in spite of all both men and cattle died and there were terrible losses in town and country. The farmers, too, were falling sick, and in fear of famine delegations were sent to buy grain in Etruria and the Pomptine, and finally as far as Sicily. No mention was made of consular elections…Then at last the virulence of the epidemic began to abate, and that year there was no fear of famine, steps having been taken to lay in supplies” (History of Rome, 4.25).

Only in 432 BCE did Rome seem to finally shake off their persistent pestilence. That year, the Roman Republic’s characteristic political intrigues between plebeians and patricians resumed and Rome’s unquenchable urge to wage war against its neighbors began to rekindle.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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