Around the year 360 BCE, the relatively weak city of Tibur infuriated Rome by allegedly harboring and accommodating Gallic warbands. In response, Rome declared war on Tibur, but this only caused the Tiburtines to work even more closely with the Gauls. According to Roman tradition, Gallic warbands or mercenaries thwarted Rome’s intentions to attack Tibur directly. Instead, it was Rome that was reportedly put on the defensive by the aggressive Gallic forces. As the story goes, Tibur’s Gallic allies reached the vicinity of Rome and camped near the Colline Gate. Rome’s military defeated these Gallic troops and chased the defeated army all the way back into Tiburtine territory. Tibur’s warriors reportedly did not get involved in the battle, opting to instead watch the actions of the Gauls and Romans from the safety of their fortifications. Despite not joining that battle, the Tiburtines were not shy about a fight—they were actually planning their own ambitious assault on Rome.
Tibur launched its plot around 359 BCE. Knowing that they did not have the manpower to overcome Rome in a fair fight, the Tiburtines decided to gamble on an attack at night. Gathering their modest army, the warriors of Tibur stealthily set off toward their foe, timing their march so that they were concealed by night as they neared the city of Rome. Their lightless march was a success, and the ambitious army of Tiburtines were not discovered until they had reached the walls of Rome. A Roman historian named Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) recorded the tale:
“When Marcus Popilius Laenas and Gnaeus Manlius were consuls, an army bent on attack set out from Tibur in the early hours of darkness and reached the City of Rome. The unexpectedness of the night alarm for people suddenly awoken from sleep was terrifying, and, besides, many had no idea who the enemy were or where they had come from. But the call to arms was quickly given, the gates were put under guard and the walls were manned” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.12).
Perhaps, Tibur’s army had wished to infiltrate the city before the Romans sounded the alarm and manned their walls. Maybe, the Tiburtines hoped that the earlier Gallic warband had damaged Rome’s garrison enough that the Romans would not be able to withstand a surprise assault or siege. Whatever Tibur’s reasoning might have been, they terribly miscalculated. Rome, despite being startled in the night, was able to put up a competent defense against Tibur’s bold, but inadequate, army. Although the Tiburtine warriors tested Rome’s defenses all night, no breach or weakness was found. As dawn rose for the Romans, doom descended on the Tibur.
When morning arrived, the Romans looked out from their walls and discovered that “the enemy outside the City were in no great number and consisted only in men from Tibur…” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.12). No longer fearful or intimidated, at all, the Romans mobilized their forces and came out from the city to fight. Tibur’s small army quickly crumbled under the Roman attack and the Tiburtines fled home. In the years that followed, Rome renewed their campaigns against Tibur. It was a war that, according to the aforementioned historian, Livy, “presented no difficulty” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.17). Tibur finally surrendered to Rome in 354 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Roman battle scene, by an unidentified 16th century artist, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.