The Legendary Slippery First Step Of The Roman-Latin War

Rome faced great trials and tribulations in the 4th century BCE. The awkward and embarrassing Gallic sack of Rome occurred that century, happening sometime between 390-386 BCE. Although it was a traumatic event for the Romans, the Gallic attack seemed to do more damage to Rome’s pride and wealth than to its military might and manpower. Nevertheless, Rome’s allies, colonies, subjects, and enemies evidently thought that the Gallic Sack of Rome was a sign of Roman decline or vulnerability. Reacting to this perception, Rome’s foes began ramping up their attacks on Roman territory, and during that time of uncertainty, Rome’s fair-weather friends in ancient Italian diplomacy began to reevaluate their relationships with the Romans. Such was the case of the Latin League, which began to increasingly resist and challenge Roman ambitions in Italy after the sack of Rome.

The Roman-Latin conflict spanned decades, with Rome first finding itself at odds with Latin cities, here and there, in minor isolated instances. Yet, the Roman-Latin divide was aggravated by the increased activity of a new people in this story—the Samnites. As of 354 BCE, Rome and the Samnites were allies, or at least had a non-aggression agreement concerning each other’s territories. However, when the Samnites marched against the region of Campania in 343 BCE, the Romans joined the defenders against the Samnite invasion (but Rome also occupied some of the Campanian cities in the process). Warfare aside, the Samnites and the Romans reconciled in 341 BCE, and besides brokering peace between themselves, they also entered into a new military alliance. This revived Roman-Samnite partnership caused the Latin League no small worry, so the Latins began welcoming or recruiting other threatened peoples into their defense network. Campanian cities joined the Latin League’s coalition, as did Volscian strongholds (another anti-Roman people), and some disgruntled Roman colonies also joined the group.

Although the Latin League was gathering allies for a potential showdown with Rome, the Latins were reportedly still trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to their issues with Rome. According to Roman tradition, the Latins felt that they were looked down upon by Rome as lesser partners or subjects, and for the two sides to realign peacefully, the cities of Latium wanted more respect from the Romans. According to the ancient Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), the Latin League decided to plead its case before the Roman Senate, and two men named Lucius Annius of Setia and Lucius Numisius of Circeii were tasked with leading this delegation.

Lucius Annius and Lucius Numisius reached Rome without issue and successfully obtained an audience with the Roman Senate. Annius took the lead, giving a speech on behalf of the Latins. As the story goes, he enticingly offered that the Latin League was willing to join Rome militarily and politically. Nevertheless, the union would have to be bought at a steep price for the Roman senatorial class. Annius’ proposal was a marriage between Rome and Latium. The Latin League would submit its people and land to Rome’s Senate and Consuls only if half of the Senate was chosen from Latium and only if one of the consuls was a Latin.

Rome’s Senate did not take the speech well. Of course, Rome wanted the Latin League’s lands, but the Roman Senate was more interested in conquest than union. Rome’s irritated politicians became quite vocal in response to Lucius Annius’ speech, with Consul Titus Manlius Torquatus giving the most combative counter-speech. In the end, Lucius Annius was said to have been heckled out of the Senate chambers. The diplomat’s poor experience in Rome, unfortunately, was not yet over. According to legend, as soon as Lucius Annius sped out of his audience with the Senate, he suffered a terrible fall and was gravely injured. Livy described the Roman accounts of the odd incident, writing, “It seems certain that when he rushed at top speed out of the temple entrance, beside himself with rage, he slipped on the steps and hit his head so hard on the bottom stone that he lost consciousness; but as the authorities do not all say that he was killed, I too may leave the question open…” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.6). Adding insult to injury, Lucius Annius’ unconscious body was allegedly found by Consul Titus Manlius Torquatus, who took the awkward opportunity to land a few more verbal jabs against the injured foe.

Latium’s diplomatic mission, like Lucius Annius, crashed in Rome. With the absence of a peace or truce, the Romans (with help from the Samnites) unleashed their military might against the Latin League and its allies. In 340 BCE, Consul Titus Manlius Torquatus was involved in two major victories in battle over the Latins. These successes were followed up with an impressive divide-and-conquer campaign in 338 BCE that led to the Roman occupation of the Latin cities and the dismantling of the Latin League.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (cropped section of The Fall of Simon Magus, produced by the studio of Pompeo Batoni (c. 1708-1787), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Cleveland Museum of Art).



  • The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.

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