Lars Tolumnius, the tyrant or king of Veii, caused the so-called Second Veientine War when he ordered the executions of four Roman envoys around the year 437 BCE. Rome, in response to the murders of their ambassadors, declared war on Veii. It was Tolumnius, however, who was confident at the outbreak of the conflict, presumably because he had several allied cities that were willing to join his side in the fight against Rome. Of the coalition that would send troops to support Veii’s cause, the cities of Fidenae and Falerii were the most eager. With reinforcements from these allies, Lars Tolumnius pulled together a formidable army and went on the offensive against Rome, quickly defeating an unprepared Roman force near the Anio River. His coalition army posed such a dire threat that the leaders of Rome decided that a dictator was needed to see them through the war. A certain Mamercus Aemilius was reportedly given the great dictatorial power, and grave responsibility, of mobilizing and deploying Rome’s forces against Lars Tolumnius’ invasion.
As told by Roman tradition and history, Mamercus moved his army to the confluence of the Tiber and Anio rivers, where he set up a defensive earthwork fortification. Lars Tolumnius and his coalition army had already been lurking in that region and they set up their own camp nearby to challenge the Roman earthen fort. As the Veii coalition was said to have had the numerical advantage on their side, Tolumnius believed he could win the war by drawing the encamped army into a pitched battle out in the open—additionally, his numbers gave him the flexibility to split his forces into two groups to attack the Roman camp from different angles. The first of Tolumnius’ divisions was sent out to directly and visibly attack the Romans front-on, the second division, however, was reportedly advised by their commander to be much more stealthy, so as to surprise the Romans when the second angle of attack commenced.
Mamercus and the Roman army would prove more than a match for Lars Tolumnius’ plan. As the battle commenced, a large portion of Rome’s army came out of their fortification to challenge Veii’s coalition forces, as Tolumnius had wanted, but fate did not choose to favor the invaders. Rome’s army quickly launched a cavalry charge against Tolumnius’ main force, and the attack hit the coalition troops much harder than the leader of Veii expected. The disarrayed coalition forces were then crashed into by an additional wave of Roman infantry. Meanwhile, Veii’s more stealthy division launched their ambush on the Roman camp, only to find that enough Roman reserves had been left behind to adequately man the defenses, bringing the second angle of attack to a standstill.
With both coalition divisions faltering, the leader of Veii would need to manage the wavering morale of his army and rethink his tactics and strategies. Perhaps he could have turned the battle around with sheer charisma and impromptu decisions. Yet, a certain Roman cavalryman named Aulus Cornelius Cossus did not give Lars Tolumnius a chance to regain control of the battlefield. As the story goes, Cossus caught sight of the leader of Veii, and, upon having the enemy leader in his sight, he made it his personal mission to kill the man at all costs. Charging through the fighting masses on the battlefield, the Roman cavalryman reached his target and engaged his opponent in brutal fashion. The fateful encounter was recounted by the Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE):
“Putting his spurs to his horse he [Cossus] rode at his enemy with levelled spear. The blow struck home and Tolumnius fell; instantly Cossus dismounted and as Tolumnius struggled to rise struck him down again with the boss of his shield and with repeated thrusts of his spear finally pinned him to the ground. Then he stripped the lifeless body of its armour, cut off its head and, sticking it on the point of a lance, returned to the fight with his spoils. At the sight of their dead king the enemy broke and fled. That ended the resistance of the Etruscan cavalry, which had been the only arm to keep the issue in doubt” (The Roman History, 4.19).
After Tolumnius’ death, the division that he had been personally leading quickly crumbled. On the other side of the Roman camp, however, the second portion of the coalition army continued on with their ineffective assault, oblivious to the fact that their leader had been slain and that the other division was fleeing from the battlefield. Unfortunately for this last contingent of the coalition forces, the Romans could now focus all of their might on the remaining threat. Roman troops from the camp and the already-won section of the battlefield flanked the surviving portion of the Veii coalition army in a surprise attack, shattering them and definitively winning the battle for Rome.
In Rome, huge celebrations were held in honor of the victorious battle. Mamercus Aemilius, the appointed dictator, was given the much-coveted ceremonial Triumph parade, yet it was the Roman cavalryman, Aulus Cornelius Cossus, who truly stole the show. For his deed of killing Lars Tolumnius, he was awarded the spolia opima, which prior to that time had only been given to Rome’s mythical founder, Romulus. Cossus, it was said, donated the looted arms and armor of Tolumnius to Rome’s temple of Jupiter, where they were proudly hung on display.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (LaCavalleria Romana by Pietro Santi Bartoli (1635-1700), [Public Domain] via the New York Public Library and Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.