In the year 340 BCE, the Roman Republic allied with the Samnites to attack the Latin League. That year, the experienced war hero and accomplished statesman, Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus (or Titus Manlius Sr., as we will call him), was one of two Roman heads of state leading Rome’s government and military. By that time, Titus Manlius Sr. was serving his third term as a Roman consul, and he had been elected dictator twice in the past—such was his prestige. He was also a famous warrior who had allegedly won great renown by defeating a formidable Gallic fighter in a one-on-one duel to the death during a war dated to around 361 BCE. Nevertheless, Titus Manlius Sr.’s third consulship in 340 BCE was more than two decades after his famous duel, and by then much of his spontaneous and rash behavior had mellowed out and was replaced by an incredibly strict obsession with discipline and order.
When the Roman military marched against the Latin League in 340 BCE, Titus Manlius Sr. compelled his co-consul, Publius Decius Mus, and the Roman army to follow a severe code of obedience. No one in the Roman army could do anything without the act being a direct order from the chain of command. In particular, any engagement in unplanned skirmishes or ambushes was strictly prohibited. In short, Titus Manlius Sr. wanted the Roman army to go where it was supposed to go, and to stay where it was supposed to stay, with no unplanned detours or surprises happening along the way that might put the army, as a whole, in a disadvantage during the campaign.
According to legend, out of the whole Roman army, only a single cavalry squadron seemed to not get the memo that the troops were forbidden to act without authorization. In command of this uninformed or unheeding squadron was Consul Titus Manlius Sr.’s son. The son’s name was also Titus Manlius Torquatus, but for the sake of clarity, we will call him Titus Manlius Jr.
Titus Manlius Jr. was said to have been very much like his father. Yet, Jr. was still in his youthful, rash-action-inclined stage. The young warrior was reportedly at that time only being employed as a scout, but he was also keeping an eye out for opportunities to display feats of bravery, strength and skill. To put it bluntly, he seemed to want to emulate his war-hero and duelist father. Yet, Titus Manlius Sr.’s strict orders forbid lone, unauthorized heroics.
Titus Manlius Jr. and his loyal band of cavalrymen might have completed their patrol without controversy had they not encountered a rival group of horsemen. As the legend tells, the Roman scouts ran into a man named Geminus Maecius, a cavalry officer in the Latin League who was leading a force of Tusculans. Neither of the parties were particularly subtle, so the two sides recognized each other. At that moment, with startled foe pointing at foe, Geminus Maecius allegedly challenged the Romans to a duel. According to Roman tradition, Titus Manlius Jr. ignored his father’s prohibition of unauthorized engagements and instead eagerly accepted the offer.
Titus Manlius Jr. and Geminus Maecius were said to have dueled in a fashion somewhat resembling a joust, with each warrior fighting from horseback and jabbing at each other with spears. According to the folkloric and likely embellished accounts of the duel, the two fought to no advantage for a time, but Titus Manlius Jr. eventually proved himself to be the more skilled horseman. He reportedly unhorsed Geminus Maecius by stabbing the Tusculan’s mount. Titus Manlius Jr. then galloped back and fatally skewered Maecius as he was struggling back to his feet, ending the fight. Like father, like son, Titus Manlius Jr. defeated a rival champion in a duel to the death. Perhaps after looting some trophies, Jr. returned to the Roman camp, hoping to bask in cheers and glory over his feat of strength. Nevertheless, the mood in the camp was about to be anything but celebratory.
Regrettably for Titus Manlius Jr., the legend being told here is not famous because of Jr.’s duel. Instead, the tale gained fame because of Consul Titus Manlius Sr.’s shocking response to his son’s actions. As was mentioned earlier, the senior Manlius’ youthful admiration for individual heroics had in time been transformed into an incredibly strict obsession with discipline and order. Therefore, instead of feeling joy and pride over his son’s feat of strength, the consul only felt rage and anger over the insubordination that led to it. Titus Manlius Sr. deemed his son’s duel to have been a severe breach of discipline and order—according to legend, the consul decided that his son had to face severe punishment for disobeying commands. To the horror of the camp, Titus Manlius Sr. condemned Titus Manlius Jr. to death and ordered a prompt execution. The Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), described the scene:
“All were transfixed with horror by this dreadful command; every man saw the axe as if raised against himself, and it was fear, not obedience, which held them in check. So they stood rooted to the spot in silence, as if lost in amazement; then, when the blood gushed from the severed neck, suddenly their voices broke out in agonized complaint so unrestrained that they spared neither laments nor curses. They covered the young man’s body with his spoils, built a pyre outside the earthworks, and burnt it with all the honours that can attend any military funeral” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.7).
Consul Titus Manlius Sr. would go on to win his campaign against the Latin League in 340 BCE, but he was never able to clear away the stigma he gained from executing his own son. In fact, his family name became a byword for severity in the Roman public consciousness. Livy attested the “existence of the phrase ‘Manlian discipline’…a phrase expressive of extreme severity…” (History of Rome, 4.29). The execution took its toll on Titus Manlius Sr. politically. After the campaign of 340 BCE was completed, his heyday as a statesman was over.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of Consul Titus Manlius Torquatus Orders the Execution of his Son, by Ferdinand Bol (c. 1616 – 1680), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The (Early) History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.