Around 428 BCE, the Etruscan city of Veii escalated its long-running rivalry with Rome by raiding Roman territories. Rome’s response to the attack was delayed, as the city was reportedly in the midst of a terrible drought that year. Despite still being weakened, the Romans were said to have attempted to mount a military campaign in 427 BCE, only to be embarrassingly defeated in battle. As the story goes, Rome’s stumble inspired the city of Fidenae (recently conquered in 435 BCE) to rebel against the Romans and join Veii’s war effort. As Veieintine troops moved to coordinate with the rebel city, Rome began to panic. According to the Roman historian, Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), this situation caused such anxiety that the Romans decided to give extraordinary power to two men—the former dictator, Mamercus Aemilius, and a war hero named Aulus Cornelius Cossus. In 426 BCE, these two men led a much-improved Roman army toward Fidenae. Before they reached the rebellious city, however, they were said to have run into a force sent to the region by Veii, igniting a battle not far from Fidenae.
As the armies of Rome and Veii clashed in the hills, the rebels of Fidenae became aware of the ongoing battle. Perhaps still lacking in weaponry as a result of their previous defeat in 435 BCE, the people of Fidenae apparently had little in the way of spears, swords and shields. Sticks, however, they evidently still had aplenty. Therefore, the masses of Fidenae armed themselves with burning branches and charged into battle with nothing except these blazing torches. The aforementioned Livy colorfully described the peculiar scene:
“The Etruscans were already reeling under the weight of the Roman attack, when suddenly through the open gates of Fidenae came pouring a stream of men armed with fire. It was like an army from another world—something never seen or imagined before that moment. There were thousands of them, all lit by the glare of their blazing torches, and like madmen, or devils, they came rushing into the fray” (The History of Rome, 4.33).
This heated charge greatly shocked the Romans and caused some wavering among the frightened ranks. Yet, Mamercus Aemilius, Aulus Cornelius Cossus and their officers were able to maintain discipline in the Roman army until the passing of time diluted the psychological effect of the fiery visuals. Unfortunately for the people of Fidenae, their torches proved useless after the shock value dissipated. Rome’s forces renewed their attack, quickly pulling the sway of battle back into their favor. As the Romans pressed forward, they began disarming the rebels of their torches, sometimes using the firebrands against their former owners. Livy, once again, recorded the scene, writing, “Throughout the army there was immediate response; men sprang forward to tear the burning brands from their adversaries, or to snatch them up from where they smouldered on the ground. Soon both armies were armed with fire” (The History of Rome, 4.33). With the opposing armies waving around their torches, and setting ground and people ablaze, the battlefield soon filled with smoke. Such an environment could be turned to the advantage of a quick-thinking general and, unfortunately for the people of Fidenae, it was the Roman army that had the initiative to take advantage of the situation.
Covered by the smoke, the Roman officers reportedly began maneuvering their forces with the goal of enveloping their enemies. Through such means, the Roman army won a decisive victory and followed up the battle by assaulting the city of Fidenae. Whoever had been left behind to defend the rebel stronghold proved unable to hold back the Roman forces, and the city quickly fell once more. As punishment for rebellion, the city was sacked by Rome and many were enslaved.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image from The Treasure Chest of My Bookhouse, by Olive Beaupre Miller (dated 1920), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons.jpg).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.