Unfortunately, history for the period of the Third Veientine War between Rome and Veii is incredibly vague. It was such a pivotal and prideful victory in the minds of the ancient Romans that they chose to embellish it with an elaborate legend, modeled on Homer’s famous Iliad. Although mythologizing the war honored the conflict and made it easier to remember in oral storytelling, it also obscured the historical facts about the conflict. Roman tradition claimed that the Third Veientine War, like the Trojan War, was a ten-year endeavor (reportedly from 406-396 BCE). Storytellers of Rome also told that Veii, like the Trojans, had divine protection and favor, which was slowly whittled away by Roman ingenuity, piety and trickery during the alleged decade-long siege of the city. Finally, the Veientine people, like the Trojans long before them, were said to have been defeated because of an unnoticed threat from within their walls. Yet, instead of a Trojan Horse being the method of conquest, the Romans supposedly tunneled their way into the palace of Veii. Nevertheless, even when the Roman diggers had reportedly punched a hole into the palace of the Veientine king without being discovered, victory for Rome was still not certain. No, as the bizarre story goes, the fate of the battle for Veii rested on one peculiar organic item in the palace—fresh entrails.
A Roman historian named Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) reported the odd tale of the fateful entrails in the palace. He wrote, “There is an old story that while the king of Veii was offering sacrifice, a priest declared that he who carved up the victim’s entrails would be victorious in the war; the priest’s words were overheard by some of the Roman soldiers in the tunnel, who thereupon opened it, snatched the entrails, and took them to [their leader] Camillus” (The History of Rome, 5.21). When Marcus Furius Camillus made the final cuts to these sacrificed entrails, he added Veii’s own prophecy to a growing list of omens and religious assurances that Rome would win the battle. As the story goes, it was after this incident that Camillus launched his final assault on Veii in 396 BCE, which resulted in the conquest of the city, the enslavement of its population, and the plunder of its wealth.
Even for a folklore-inclined ancient historian like Livy, the tale of the entrails was too bizarre for him to believe. He wrote, “this tale, which is too much like a romantic stage-play to be taken seriously, I feel is hardly worth attention either for affirmation or denial” (The History of Rome, 5.21). So, like most ancient tales of vague historical accuracy, take the story with a proverbial grain of salt, and enjoy the tale if only for the sake of entertainment.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Odysseus in the Underworld, painted by Alessandro Allori (1535–1607), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.