Two kinsmen named Publius and Gaius Manlius were elected as military tribunes of Rome around 379 BCE. They took office at a precarious time for the Romans. The city was still trying to recover from the physical and reputational damage caused by the Gallic Sack of Rome, which occurred sometime between 390 and 386 BCE. Although the pillaging of their city did not stop the Romans from remaining a great regional power, it did encourage Rome’s allies and subject states to question the status quo. Along with disgruntled allies and ambitious vassal cities, the Romans also had to deal with their persistent foe, the Volscians, who, after the Gallic Sack of Rome, renewed their periodic incursions into Roman territory. A curious partnership emerged between the Volscians and Latin cities, who started making more of an effort to push back against, and sabotage, Roman expansion in Italy. This would ultimately culminate in the Latin War (340-338 BCE), but that was well after the term in office of the two Manlii military tribunes mentioned above.
Publius and Gaius Manlius were reportedly tasked with overseeing the Roman response to threats posed by the Volscians in 379 BCE. For most of their term, there was little action to be seen. Publius and Gaius did reportedly set up a military camp in the frontier to guard against possible Volscian invasions, but the troops stationed there spent most of their time foraging, without ever seeing a Volscian warrior.
Despite there being no official Volscian invasion planned for that year, the Roman military camp was indeed being eyed with hostile intent. One day, while Publius and Gaius Manlius were personally overseeing the military camp, a messenger rushed in with an urgent letter that warned of an impending attack. Volscians, according to the message, were about to massacre Roman troops that were out a good ways from the camp on foraging duty. Receiving this missive, Publius and Gaius Manlius gathered a band of troops (leaving behind enough to guard the camp) and set off to support the vulnerable foragers. As the story goes, there was, truthfully, danger lurking around the vicinity of the military camp. Yet, according to Roman tradition and folklore, it was not really the Volscians who were the threat that year.
As it turned out, Rome’s unprotected scavengers were not the target. Instead, the mysterious assailants were reportedly really after the military camp’s leadership, as well as the outpost itself. It was all a plot—evidently, the message brought into the camp was fake intelligence, and the military tribunes reacted to the bogus information exactly as the plotters wanted them to. Therefore, when Publius and Gaius Manlius departed from the military compound with their reinforcements, they found themselves trapped in an ambush. Around the same time, the hostile forces also launched an attack on the leaderless and undermanned military camp. Unfortunately, the specific identity of the attackers, and exactly what happened next is vague. A Roman historian, Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), wrote the following unclear account of the odd two-part battle:
“[Publius and Gaius Manlius] sent out troops to forage, and when they supposed these to be surrounded, on receipt of a false report, they hurried to support them. They did not even detain the author of the story, a Latin enemy, who had deceived them in the guise of a Roman soldier. They fell into an ambush, and while holding out in an awkward position through the sheer courage of the troops, fighting back as they were cut down, the Roman camp which lay in the plain was attacked by the enemy on the opposite side. In both places foolhardiness and ignorance on the part of the generals proved their undoing; what survived of the good fortune of the Roman people was saved by the soldiers’ courage, which did not waiver even when there was no leader to direct it. When news reached Rome, the first thought was to appoint a dictator, but later, after it was reported that all was quiet among the Volscians and it was obvious that they had no idea how to make use of their victory and opportunity, even the army and generals there were recalled” (Livy, History of Rome, VI.30).
Taking it one piece at a time, this passage reveals that the Romans performed poorly in both the ambush and in defending the camp against assault. It is possible that both military tribunes died in the battle. Gaius Manlius’ name did not appear again after the ambush, yet another Publius Manlius did emmerge in records just over a decade later in 368 BCE. It is unclear, however, if they are one and the same, or if they just shared the same name. As for the outcome of the battle, the Romans deemed themselves to have lost it (bad enough for them to contemplate a dictatorship). They first believed it was the Volscians that had carried out the attack. Yet, after intelligence reports indicated that the Volscians had no war preparations to press their advantage after the battle, the Romans then began to suspect that it was a Latin city that orchestrated the attack. Ironically, the Volscians did reportedly invade Roman lands a year later, in 378.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Battle of Vercellae, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696–1770), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.