Rome’s Dismal Start To Its War Against Tarquinii

Tarquinii was one of the many cities that expansionist Rome clashed against during the 4th century BCE. In that century, hostility between the two cities began around the time of the Third Veientine War between Rome and Veii, a conflict traditionally dated to between 406 and 396 BCE, ending with the fall of the city to the Romans. Veii and Tarquinii were both important Etruscan cities, and although the various independent city-states of Etruria gave very little help to Veii during the Third Veientine War, Tarquinii was apparently one of the Etruscan cities that sympathized with Veii’s plight. According to Roman sources, warriors from Tarquinii raided Roman land around 397 BCE, while the Third Veientine War was still ongoing. The incident did little to change the outcome of the war, but it caught Rome’s wrathful attention, and the relationship between the Romans and the Tarquinienses began to deteriorate from then on. For decades, the bad blood was contained to raids and small clashes, but as years of anger began to accumulate, an escalation in the conflict between Rome and Tarquinii was inevitable.

A breaking point was reached in 358 BCE. It was a stressful time for Rome—aggressive Gallic warbands were roaming through Italy (causing Rome to appoint a dictator), and the Romans were also at war with the Hernici and the city of Tibur that year. While Rome was juggling these multiple threats, Tarquinii decided it was an opportune time to launch another one of their raids. The marauding reportedly did little damage, but it was one provocation too many for the Roman people. The Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), wrote of this incident, stating, “the people of Tarquinii sent out a raiding force which penetrated into Roman territory, especially the part bordering on Etruria. The new consuls, Gaius Fabius and Gaius Plautius, demanded reparation, but to no effect, and so declared war on them, at the people’s bidding” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.12).

Perhaps it is telling that Rome’s leaders first offered Tarquinii the option of paying reparations for the damage caused during the raid. With the troops already deployed against Gallic armies, the Hernici and the Tiburtines, maybe Rome believed it was spreading its military resources thin. Nevertheless, when Tarquinii rejected the offer to make reparations, Rome responded with a formal declaration of war and dispatched an army to confront Tarquinii. That same year, however, there were already at least two major campaigns under way. For one, a hastily-appointed Roman dictator named Gaius Sulpicius marched off with an army to confront a large Gallic warband. In addition to that, the Roman consul, Plautius, was simultaneously leading Roman troops against the Hernici. Therefore, the third consul, Fabius, was tasked with overseeing the Tarquinii campaign with whatever available manpower was left of the Roman military.

Unfortunately, what Fabius had at his disposal at the time was apparently not enough. Although Fabius had previously proved himself to be capable of winning decisive victories in the war against the Hernici, he could not bring about the same results in the Tarquinii campaign. Quite the opposite, Fabius’ unprepared and ill-conceived encounters with the forces of Tarquinii would go down in infamy. While the dictator’s army dispersed the Gallic threat, and while the other consul’s army forced the Hernici to submit to Rome, Fabius’ own campaign would become a scandal. The Roman historian, Livy, wrote of what allegedly happened next:

“Fabius engaged the men of Tarquinii in battle without proper caution or preparation. Nor were the heavy losses on the battlefield the worst result; 307 Roman soldiers were taken prisoner and massacred as an act of sacrifice by the Tarquinienses—a hideous penalty which made the humiliation of the Roman people even more marked” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.15).

Unfortunately for the Tarquinii, Rome would have its revenge. The Romans kept up the pressure on their enemy, and, according to legend, Rome avenged its humiliation in 354 BCE. That year, according to the aforementioned historian, Livy, “many [Tarquinii] men were killed in battle, and of the huge number of captives, 358 were chosen, all from the noblest families to be sent to Rome…they were all publicly flogged in the middle of the Forum and then beheaded. Such was the vengeance taken on the enemy for the Romans sacrificed in the forum of the Tarquinii” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.19). A truce between Rome and Tarquinii finally was negotiated in 351 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (cropped print illustration of a Triumph of a Roman Emperor, by Antonio Tempesta (c. 1555–1630), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).



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