Privernum, an Italian city-state, waged war against the Roman Republic between 330-329 BCE. Fighting in conjunction with their ally, Fundi, the Privernum-Fundi alliance began the war with a promising start. Vitruvius Vaccus, the commander of the alliance forces, launched attacks into the Setia, Norba and Cora regions of Rome’s territory in early 330 BCE. Nevertheless, the Roman military mobilized and finally pushed the Privernum-Fundi alliance into a defensive posture by the end of the year. Come 229 BCE, Fundi had surrendered and Privernum was under siege. That year, Privernum was finally overpowered or surrendered, and envoys from the defeated city were sent to Rome to negotiate the post-war relationship between Rome and Privernum.
With Privernum’s military defeated, its city under occupation, and its leader in Roman custody, Privernum could not bring much to the bargaining table. Nevertheless, even though Rome could have technically imposed something like an unconditional surrender, Privernum’s envoys arrived in Rome to negotiate on behalf of their city, and one particular envoy from the group was notable for his defiant spirit. The envoy in question, unfortunately left unnamed by the ancient sources, must not have been too involved in Privernum’s former wartime leadership or military command, as Vitruvius Vaccus and many of his officers would likely have already been imprisoned and executed by the Romans. Nevertheless, the envoy showed up at the hearing before the Roman senate with a forceful and uncompromising defense of the people of Privernum.
By the time the envoy spoke, there was actually not much left to negotiate. After all, Roman troops were already occupying the city and Rome had also by now condemned Privernum’s walls to be torn down. With Privernum’s independence off the table, the envoy was instead negotiating about the kinds of punishment that Privernum would receive and how the relationship between the city and its conqueror would play out in the future. As told by the Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), the envoy was quite the cheeky fellow, surprising the Romans audience with his bold and unintimidated responses to their questions. When asked by the Roman about what punishments the people of Privernum thought they deserved, the envoy allegedly responded, according to Livy, with the line, “’The punishment deserved by those who think themselves worthy of freedom’” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.21). After recovering from their surprise, the Romans next asked the envoy if the people of Privernum would faithfully keep the terms and agreements that were made in the ongoing negotiations. To this question about the terms of surrender, the envoy from Privernum supposedly responded, as told by Livy, with the answer, “It you grant us a good one,…it will be loyally kept and permanent. If a bad one, it will not last long” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.21). This answer, like the last, caused shock and some anger, but a majority of the senators supposedly appreciated the envoy’s honesty.
Whether or not speeches or responses from envoys such as the one above played any role in Rome’s decision-making after the conquest of Privernum, the Romans did ultimately grant the people of Privernum with an honor that they did not always bestow on their conquests, especially with such speed. According to Livy, the Romans, after hearing from the envoys of Privernum, decided to grant the people of the city the honor of having Roman citizenship. While becoming a citizen of Rome was no small matter, it still would have been a bittersweet turn of events for the people of Privernum. After all, being violently absorbed into the Roman Republic, having your leaders executed, and watching your walls being torn down, were traumas that new citizenship could not quickly heal.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration titled Humiliation of captive enemies by the yoke, from the Münchener Bilderbogen series (Braun und Schneider, 1852-1898), [Public Domain No Rights statement] via Creative Commons and the NYPL Collections).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.