In the year 418 BCE, the Roman Republic was in a bit of a slump. As told by the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), the Roman military had not won a victory since about 422 BCE, and in the meantime the republic was embroiled in escalating political strife and waves of unrest that verged on revolts. A nearby city called Labici, populated by people who were in no way friendly to the expanding republic, watched all of Rome’s recent troubles with interest. Although Labici had stayed out of decades of ongoing struggles between Rome and its rivals, such as the Volscians, Aequians, and the Etruscan city of Veii, all of the problems that were facing Rome in 418 BCE were enticing news for the leaders of Labici. In particular, reports of a near-successful slave revolt in Rome around that time might have enticed the hesitant city to become a more active participant in the wars against the Romans.
Once Labici had committed to the idea of going to war, they reached out to one of Rome’s aforementioned rivals, the Aequians, who eagerly accepted the alliance. The allied forces then raided the territory of Tusculum, an ally of Rome. When this aggression was reported to Rome, the republic declared war on Labici, and two Roman generals, Lucius Sergius Fidenas and Marcus Papirius Mugilanus, were selected to lead the campaign against Labici and the Aequians.
If the people of Labici had assumed the Roman military would be rusty and unprepared, their assumptions proved to be quite correct. This first army dispatched by Rome turned out to be a poorly led force that eventually bumbled their way into a trap. As the story goes, the Aequian-Labici army was able to lure the Romans into a steep gulley, where the forces of Sergius and Papirius were dealt an embarrassing defeat. After suffering this blow, the Roman generals rounded up what was left of their troops and retreated to the friendly city of Tusculum.
In Rome, news of their army’s defeat caused a sense of panic to take hold of the city. The republic, as it habitually did in times of trouble, was said to have appointed a dictator to do what needed to be done in order to win the war. The Roman Senate handed power to a certain Quintus Servilius Priscus, who, aided by his son, Gaius Servilius, was able to quickly mobilize another Roman army to resume the war in record time. According to the legends, folklore and records available to the aforementioned Roman historian, Livy, the revamped Roman military was able to bring the war against the Aequians and Labici to an incredibly quick conclusion. In mere days, Quintus Servilius Priscus allegedly defeated his foes in battle and swiftly pivoted to launch a direct assault on the city of Labici. Livy described the final phase of this war, writing, “the Dictator ordered an advance to Labici which was promptly surrounded, entered by scaling-ladders and sacked. Thus a week after his appointment the dictator brought his victorious army back to Rome, and resigned” (History of Rome, 4.47). In that way, the short and inglorious attempt by Labici to wage war against Rome ended. In their ill-fated hopes of weakening the Roman Republic during a time of trouble, the people of Labici only brought about their own destruction.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Battle Against the Inhabitants of Veii and Fidenae, produced in the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.