Well into the Third Veientine War (c. 406-396 BCE), when the Roman Republic was in its final struggle against the city of Veii, a small garrison of Roman troops at Anxur (modern day Tarracina) made the mistake of letting down their guard. The warriors manning the post were evidently a lackluster bunch, and as they were a fair distance away from the front line of the war, they perceived themselves to be in no danger. Self-interest waxed and discipline waned in the garrison at Anxur, with the troops neglecting their duties in order to go carousing in the local communities. Those who were more oriented to business instead of partying similarly would disappear from the garrison, searching for money-making opportunities or worthwhile potential enterprises in the region. Rome’s commanding officer of the Anxur garrison was apparently one of the latter types of people, and he was said to have turned the garrison into something of a trading post.
Unfortunately for the troops at Anxur, despite their distance away from the front of the Veientine War, there were still other armed peoples in Italy who wanted to do harm to the Romans. The garrison would learn this lesson the hard way. A foe who had been battling the Romans for decades took notice of the undisciplined, unprepared garrison, and hatched plans to deal a blow to the vulnerable Romans at the location.
As the story goes, the officers of the Anxur garrison became very lax about who they let in and out of the Roman fortification. Anyone who appeared before the garrison on the pretense of a trade mission was seemingly let into the camp to do business. This policy, unsurprisingly, came back to hurt the garrison. As was inevitable, some of the supposed merchants within the camp eventually turned out to be hostile operatives. At an opportune moment, these infiltrators attacked the sentries and gatekeepers of the Roman garrison, then presumably opened up an accessway into the fort for a larger force that was waiting outside. It was reportedly the Volscians, one of Rome’s most persistent rivals in the 5th century BCE, that launched the attack. The historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), described what allegedly happened that day, writing, “The disaster was due to neglect: troops were away on leave, Volscians were being indiscriminately admitted for trading purposes, with the result that the sentries at the gate were suddenly and treacherously attacked” (History of Rome, 5.8). As a result of the battle, the Romans caught within the garrison were slaughtered, and Anxur was temporarily freed of Roman domination.
Ironically, the undisciplined nature of the garrison apparently saved Roman lives. As told by Livy, “Casualties were not heavy, simply because most of the men who were not on the sick list were scattered around the neighboring towns and villages, doing business like sutlers” (History of Rome, 5.8). Roman troops from the garrison who had been out carousing or trading at the time of the attack were able to escape from Anxur and live to fight another day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene From the Gallic Wars, painted by Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.