Gaius Marcius Rutulus masterminded a decisive battle in the war between Rome and Tarquinii, two cities that had become openly hostile by the start of the 4th century BCE. Tarquinii was a prominent Etruscan city in ancient Italy, and its growing disharmony with Rome was presumably due to a Roman siege of another Etruscan city—Veii. This particular war between Rome and Veii is known as the Third Veientine War, traditionally dated to between 406 and 396 BCE. Although the various independent city-states of Etruria gave very little help to Veii during the conflict, Tarquinii was one of the Etruscan cities that evidently did sympathize with Veii’s plight, and, according to Roman sources, warriors from Tarquinii went so far as to raid Roman land around 397 BCE, while the Third Veientine War was still ongoing. Tarquinii’s marauders were not able to help the distressed Veientines (who were conquered in 396 BCE), but the raids attracted Rome’s wrathful attention, and the relationship between the Romans and the Tarquinienses began to deteriorate from then on. An escalation in the conflict between Rome and Tarquinii was inevitable, but the accumulating bad blood was contained to raids and small clashes for decades.
After the Gallic sack of Rome, dated between 390-386 BCE, Rome’s shaken power began to be tested by its neighbors. These regional power struggles between the various peoples and cities in ancient Italy continued for many years, and by the 350s BCE, the Romans were still at war with such enemies as Tibur, the Hernici, Privernum, Velitrae, the Falisci, and rogue Gallic warbands. It was during this same war-torn decade, too, that the war between Rome and Tarquinii escalated.
A breaking point reportedly occurred in 358 BCE, when, according to the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), “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). Rome’s first years of open war against Tarquinii went incredibly poorly. In fact, Tarquinii’s military defeated the first Roman army that was sent out against them, and 307 Romans from this vanquished force were allegedly captured and later executed or sacrificed. This made Rome all the more eager to have revenge, but it was Tarquinii that had the momentum in the early years of the war.
According to Roman sources, the Tarquinienses worked closely with the Falisci, going so far as to build a coalition army in which warriors from Tarquinii and the Falisci marched together against Rome. By around 356 BCE, this coalition force was said to have pushed all the way to a place called Salinae, which was located just across the Tiber River from the main urban center of the city of Rome. It was at this precarious moment that the aforementioned Gaius Marcius Rutulus would enter the spotlight of history.
Faced by a hostile army at its doorstep, the city of Rome decided to fall back on its usual defensive mechanism—dictatorship. Gaius Marcius Rutulus was chosen as the man for the job, and quickly began gathering men and supplies for the defense of the city. While training his troops for impending battle, the dictator also made efforts to gather or manufacture a fleet of rafts that could be used on the Tiber. When these preparations were complete, Gaius Marcius Rutulus stealthily marched his army out of Rome and embarked on an impressive campaign against the Tarquinii and Falisci invaders. On the skirmishes and battles that ensued, the Roman historian Livy wrote:
“He marched out of the City and, putting his army across the Tiber on rafts, wherever he was led by reports of the enemy, he fell on a good many stragglers roaming about on both banks of the river who were raiding the countryside. He also captured the enemy’s camp in a surprise attack and took 8000 prisoners, and after killing or driving out of Roman territory all the rest, he was granted a triumph by the people, though without the Senate’s authorization” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.17).
After destroying the hostile camp at Salinae, capturing the alleged 8,000 prisoners, and forcing the remaining invaders out of Roman territory, Gaius Marcius Rutulus relinquished his dictatorial powers without issue. His brief campaign seemed to have been a major turning point in the war, for after Rutulus’ victory over the Tarquinii-Falisci camp, the Romans once again took the offensive against their enemies. Rome won another significant battle against Tarquinii around 354 BCE, after which the Romans reportedly executed 358 prisoners (as revenge against Tarquinii’s earlier execution/sacrifice of Roman captives). A truce between Tarquinii and Rome was finally reached in the year 351 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Roman Soldiers Fighting the Dacians, by Nicolas Beatrizet (c. 1515-1565), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Gallery of Art.jpg).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.