Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

The future flag of Europe? Albania Andorra Austria Belgium Bosnia
Bulgaria Croatia Czech Republic Denmark Finland France
Germany Greece Hungary Iceland Ireland Italy
Kosovo Liechtenstein Luxembourg Macedonia Malta Monaco
Montenegro Netherlands Norway Poland Portugal Romania
San Marino Serbia Slovakia Slovenia Spain Sweden
Switzerland United Kingdom Vatican City      

A History of Europe


753 to 27 B.C.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Etruscans
The Founding of Rome
The Roman Monarchy, 753-509 B.C.
The Roman Republic: The Early Years
Rome Becomes the Capital of Italy
The Samnite Wars
Go to Page Navigator

Part II

The First Punic War
Hannibal and the Second Punic War
Roman Intervention in the East
The Third Punic War

Part III

Growing Pains
The Reforms of the Gracchi
The Social War
Pompey's Campaigns and Spartacus
The Catiline Conspiracy
The Rise of Julius Caesar
The Gallic Wars
Caesar Rules Alone
The Second Triumvirate

The Etruscans

The Romans first appeared on the scene in the eighth century B.C. At that time, Italy was still the kind of place we saw in Chapter 1: a frontier on the edge of the civilized world, divided into a dozen tribes and about a hundred villages. The northernmost tribes, in the vicinity of modern Genoa, were a Celtic group, the Ligurians. Across the Arno River from them was Etruria, the land of the Etruscans, and below Etruria, along the lower part of the Tiber River, was Latium, the land of the Latins. A dozen Greek settlements occupied the southern coast of the peninsula; later the Romans thought this was the original Greek homeland and call it Magna Graecia ("Greater Greece"). The interior and part of the east coast went to a patchwork of Italic tribes like the Lucanians, Oscans, Umbrians, and Samnites, who spoke languages similar to Latin. So far historians have identified more than forty Italic languages and dialects, that were used in pre-Roman Italy. Finally, on the east coast were Illyrian tribes like the Veneti (from which Venice later got its name) and the Messapii; both of these were recent immigrants from the Balkans.

Among all of these groups, the Greeks and the Etruscans were the most advanced. We last looked at the Etruscans when they were in their formative stage, the Villanovan culture. Now that they had a fully developed civilization, the Etruscans followed the same political path as the Greeks; each city-state kept its independence, but all of them recognized that they were one people. Because of similarities in their art to that of the Greeks, archaeologists and historians give the following phases of Etruscan history the same names that they gave to the Greeks:

  • The Orientalizing Period (700-600 B.C.)
  • The Archaic Period (600-480 B.C.)
  • The Classical Period (480-300 B.C.)
  • The Hellenistic Period (300-89 B.C.)
During the seventh century B.C., twelve city-states arose in Etruria: Volaterrae, Arretium, Cortona, Perusia, Vetulonia, Rusellae, Clusium, Volsinii, Volci, Tarquinii, Caere and Veii. In the south, they settled the plain of Campania, another place with excellent farmland. As early as 650, Capua, a community near present-day Naples, served as a center for Etruscan bronze and tile production.

The leader of each city was called a Lauchum, and he appears to have been more like a priest than a king, while an oligarchy of nobles held political power. Indeed, the Lauchums didn't even reserve many luxuries for themselves, because their assistants dressed as elegantly as they did. The Roman historian Livy tells us how when Lars Porsenna, the Lauchum of Clusium, attacked Rome (more about that later), an assassin tried to kill him. The attacker found the leader and his secretary seated in the middle of the Etruscan camp, paying the soldiers; because the two men were dressed alike, he stabbed the secretary by mistake.

To defend against outsiders like the Celts and Greeks, the twelve city-states formed a league, which we sometimes call the Dodecapolis. It appears that Campania eventually became the location of a second Etruscan league, though we can't be sure who was in it besides Capua and Volturnum. At any rate, these leagues were loosely organized, with each Lauchum only having power over his own city. Every year at Volsinii, they held a festival to honor the god Voltumna, and elected a Lauchum to serve as head of the league for the next year. This appears to have been largely a ceremonial post; you could call that ruler the Etruscan pope.

The sixth century B.C. was the best of times for the Etruscans. Rome was under their control from 616 to 509, and they expanded north to the Po River valley, building new cities like Marzabotto, Felsina (modern Bologna), Fiesole (next to Florence), and Melpum (Milan). At the mouth of the Po they founded Spina, which became an important seaport, and the nearby settlement of Adria gave its name to the Adriatic Sea. Overseas they colonized Corsica, and an alliance with the Carthaginian Empire allowed them to have outposts in Spain, the Balearic Islands, and even the Canary Islands. In 535 the Carthaginians and Etruscans teamed up to attack Alalia, a Greek settlement on Corsica, and though the Greeks did better in the resulting naval battle, they lost so many ships and men that they had to abandon Corsica.

Italy, about 600 B.C.

Etruscan expansion slowed to a halt when they approached the Alps in the north, and Greek Massilia in the west, but their trade goods traveled all over western Europe. Etruscan-made objects have been found as far south as Carthage, as far north as Hassle, Sweden(1), and as far west as Huerva, Spain. Unfortunately we don't know how much of this merchandise was carried by Etruscans, and how much by other merchants. To promote commerce and manufacturing, they allowed a few skilled Carthaginians and Greeks to come to Etruria, but went to some effort to keep them segregated from the Etruscans; the Carthaginians were given a port named Pyrgi, near Caere, while the Greeks stayed in one of Tarquinia's ports.

There are two reasons why the Etruscans are so mysterious to us. The first reason is the continual habitation of Italy since their time, which has made their artifacts scarcer than those of the civilizations which followed. When the Romans took over they assimilated the Etruscans, and obliterated everything the Etruscans built above ground, leaving only their graves for us to study. The other reason is that the Etruscan language still has not been completely translated. Their alphabet was nearly the same as ours, so we can read Etruscan inscriptions, but we have never found an Etruscan "Rosetta Stone," matching one of their inscriptions with one from a known language. By working on it since the mid-eighteenth century, using the techniques of modern cryptography, scholars have managed to learn the meanings of approximately 300 Etruscan words. It also does not help that the existing inscriptions are so short; a typical tomb inscription was limited to the deceased's name, whatever titles he/she may have had, and a brief prayer.(2) Apparently they did most of their writing on sheets of linen, a material not likely to last until our time. The longest Etruscan text ever found (1,200 words) survived because somebody sent it to Egypt, where it was cut into strips and used for mummy wrappings!

golden book
Occasionally the Etruscans wrote on sheets of gold. Gold plates containing texts were buried under new temples at the time of their dedication. This exquisite example, discovered in southwest Bulgaria in 2003, has six gold plates tied together with gold wire to form a "golden book"; the picture on the cover shows two guys carrying an amphora (see footnote #16) on a pole. Only one golden book has been found so far; the other gold plates found were single pages.

The Etruscans were great technicians whose architectural skill is evident in their roads, bridges, canals, and temples. In art they specialized in luxury items, and in painted and sculpted works intended for religious and funerary purposes. Tombs carved out of rock were made to look like the interiors of houses; like the Egyptians, the Etruscans formed a necropolis, or "city of the dead," on the outskirts of each city. Wealthy families or clans had many-chambered tombs to hold several generations.

The interiors of Etruscan tombs provide rare examples of large-scale ancient painting. Among the best preserved is the series from Tarquinia, dating from the late 7th to the 1st centuries BC. Human forms figure prominently in the lively and naturalistic scenes, which depict daily activities and funeral celebrations. Pictures of recreation--such as banquets, the playing of music, and sports like chariot races--are common, and dancing is the most common of all, suggesting a happy, carefree people.(3) At funerals they might stage a fight to the death between two of the deceased's slaves, presumably to teach other slaves to take good care of their master while he's alive! From this the Romans later developed the sport of gladiatorial combat.

Where the Etruscans differed most from the other civilizations of their day was in their treatment of women. Greek and Roman women had few rights, lived at the will of their fathers or husbands, and were expected to stay out of sight, doing housework; by contrast, Etruscan society displayed a remarkable equality between the sexes. Women were just as likely to recieve fine tombs as men, and at parties, men and women mingled freely. The Greeks accused the Etruscans of having loose morals for this, because at Greek parties, prostitutes were the only women likely to attend.

Etruscan vase-painting imitated Greek models, while funerary portrait sculptures of men and women were produced not only in stone, but also in ceramics. They sculpted some funerary urns as a bust representing the deceased whose ashes they contained, while others were still shaped like miniature huts. Bronze sculpture was also an Etruscan speciality. Between 700 and 500 B.C., the potters of Caere used a ceramic style named bucchero, made from black clay and given a metallic sheen to imitate bronze.

Etruscan sarcophagus
Sarcophagus of an Etruscan couple, from the sixth century B.C. (Villa Giulia Museum, Rome). Later works of art looked more Greek.

We talked in previous chapters about how the Celts were governed by passion, and how the Greeks let reason determine their actions; the main motivator of the Etruscans was superstition. While the Greeks allowed a prominent place for people in their mythology, sometimes even having heroes challenge the gods, to the Etruscans the gods were the only performers on the stage. They felt they could not influence the gods, and all they could do was look for signs of what they were going to do next; thus, soothsayers were the most important kind of priests. The best places to look for signs was in lightning bolts, the way birds fly, and by studying the livers and entrails of sacrificed animals. Later on, the Romans classified Etruscan science (disciplina Etrusca) into the following categories, all having to do with divination:

  1. Libri haruspicini, the study of animal guts.
  2. Libri fulgurales, the interpretation of lightning.
  3. Libri rituales, the proper rituals to use when founding a city.
  4. Libri acherontici, the paths by which the dead followed to the afterlife.
  5. Libri fatales, the Etruscan understanding of how destiny works.
As one might expect from the name of the last discipline, the Etruscans were fatalists; they believed that the history of the entire universe had been decided upon at the beginning, and could not be changed. According to them, the universe was predestined to exist for 12 chiliads, or roughly 12,000 years, while Etruria was granted 10 saecula. Apparently the saecula were periods of different length, which began sometime between 1100 and 900 B.C. (the founding of the Villanovan culture?); each saeculum lasted for as long as the longest-lived person in it. The Libri rituales declared that a man stopped being useful when he reached the age of 84, because he could no longer hear messages from the gods, so this suggests that the Etruscans expected the end of their civilization around 160 B.C., give or take a century [-1000 + 840 = 160 B.C.]. They weren't far off the mark.

The Romans inherited this interest in omens and divination after they replaced the Etruscans. They thought the Sybil of Cumae was the most accurate female oracle in Italy, and there is a well-known story of an encounter between the Sybil and Tarquinius Superbus (see below), the last Etruscan king of Rome. One day a very old woman came to Tarquinius with nine scrolls to sell. She said the scrolls came from the Sybil of Cumae; they told what would happen in the future, and what the king must do to protect Rome from disaster. The price for the scrolls was three hundred pieces of gold; because Rome was not yet a rich city, this seemed like an awfully high amount. The king and his advisors refused to buy, so without hesitation the woman went to a brazier and threw three of the scrolls into the fire. Once done, she turned back to the king and offered to sell the six remaining scrolls, still for three hundred gold pieces. Again the king and his advisors said no, so she burned three more scrolls, and then offered the last three scrolls for the same price. At this point the king realized she must actually be the Sybil, and his nerve broke. Dare he refuse her, if these scrolls actually contained prophecy? This time he bought the scrolls, and they went into the temple of Jupiter, where they were henceforth known as the Syblline Books, the most valuable books in Rome.

In 83 B.C. the temple of Jupiter burned down, and the Syblline Books were lost. After the temple was rebuilt, the Senate sent agents all around the Roman state, to collect whatever information could be found on the contents of the books, along with any other oracular literature that might be relevant. This compilation became the new Syblline Books, and were used just like the originals. When Caesar Augustus transferred the title of Pontifex Maximus (high priest) to himself, protection of the books became the personal responsibility of the emperor. Finally in 405 A.D., the general Stilicho (see Chapter 5) had the books destroyed, because his enemies were using them to undermine his authority. The priests who guarded and studied the books never told us exactly what they contained, or if they were worth their cost. What we do know is that when a prediction made by the priests did not come true, they explained it by saying they did not have the missing books to guide them correctly.

Etruscan power went into a definite decline after they lost Rome. In 524 B.C. the Greeks defeated an Etruscan attack on Cumae; this gave the Greeks control of the Straits of Messina. In 474 B.C. the Sicilian Greeks won an even bigger victory, by defeating the Etruscan navy off the coast of Cumae. After that the strongest tribe in central Italy, the Samnites, took over the plain of Campania. The flourishing trade between Greece and north Italy dropped off, and in late Etruscan tombs we can see the resulting poverty because the dead received fewer grave goods. The tomb murals also show a grimmer mood; after 400 B.C., scenes from the afterlife became more common than joyous party scenes. Frightening demons like Charun (the Greek Charon), Vanth and Tuchulcha often appear, colored blue to symbolize decaying flesh. This reflects both the Etruscan attitude that their time was nearly up, and that life was getting tougher. The fourth century saw them withdraw to Etruria, where they came under attack, from the Gauls to the north and from the Romans to the south.

The late fourth and early third centuries B.C. saw the Etruscans become part of the Roman world. Their last bid for independence was a revolt at the town of Falerii, in 241 B.C. Rome received contributions from the still wealthy Etruscan cities during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.), and in 89 B.C. the remaining Etruscans became Roman citizens, along with most other Italians. Afterwards Etruscan culture virtually disappeared, although the language remained in use for certain religious and magic formulas until the fall of the Roman Empire. Romans also preferred Etruscan soothsayers to the homegrown kind, and sometimes sent their sons to Etruria so they could learn divination from the experts. It was an Etruscan soothsayer, Spurinna, who warned Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March, on a fateful day in 44 B.C. Besides a preoccupation with superstition, Rome derived several features of its culture from the Etruscans: the toga; the fasces (an axe in a bundle of rods, carried by ceremonial guards, from which we get the word fascism); the lituus (a curved staff that was a soothsayer's symbol of authority, which eventually became the crook carried by Christian bishops); words such as triumph, atrium, taberna (tavern), histrio (actor), and possibly even the name of Rome itself.

Top of the page

The Founding of Rome

According to ancient legend, Rome was founded in 753 B.C. by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. Their grandfather, Numitor, was the king of a nearby city, Alba Longa; a rival had ousted him, and killed off his sons and daughters. One of the daughters killed was the mother of the twin boys; the rival had them placed in a basket and thrown into the Tiber river, whereupon they were saved and nursed by a she-wolf.(4) A shepherd found the infants and raised them; when they grew up they discovered their identity, sneaked to the house of the royal usurper, and killed him in an ambush. Old Numitor got his throne back, and Romulus and Remus set off to build a city of their own, since Alba Longa was already overcrowded.(5)

Romulus & Remus
Famous bronze sculpture of Romulus and Remus. The she-wolf is an Etruscan work, made around 500 B.C.; the two infants were added by a Renaissance artist, 2,000 years later.

They decided to build it right on the spot where the shepherd found them. However, so many years had gone by that nobody knew where that was. Romulus and Remus went to separate hills with their followers, and waited for a favorable omen. Remus thought he had one when he saw six vultures fly over him.(6) Then twelve vultures flew over Romulus; thinking that was twice as good, he picked up a plow and started marking where he wanted the walls to be. Remus promptly jumped over the furrow made by the plow and declared that such walls would never protect a city. Romulus was so enraged that he shouted, "So perish all who cross these walls," and struck Remus dead. Afterwards, though, he regretted the murder, and when he became king, he put an empty throne next to his own with a scepter on it, letting everyone know that he felt he should have ruled with his dead brother.

Whether or not there is any truth to Roman legends, the overiding moral in all of them seems to be "might makes right." It did not matter if the heroes in these stories had a glorious or noble background; they became heroes because they were stronger than their opponents. Like the Etruscans, the Romans adopted most of the Greek gods as their own. We saw in Chapter 2 that Ares, the god of war, was not liked very much by the Greeks, but under the new name of Mars, the war-god became the most important god to the early Romans. It also explains how Romulus could be venerated by the Romans, though they also reported that he had killed his brother, and the story of how he populated Rome has him doing things that are questionable at best.

According to that story, the first Roman citizens were a motley crew. Besides Romulus and his friends, these included assorted criminals and ne'er-do-wells, fugitives from neighboring communities like Alba Longa who were looking for a place to start their lives over again. From those who had useful skills, Romulus picked 100 for positions in Rome's first government, mainly as priests and senators. But after this arrangement was made, Rome still must have looked like a big fraternity, because it did not have any women--not a good sign if you are trying to build a community that will last for ages. We are told that when Romulus was recruiting people to live in Rome, he invited women to come, but their fathers and brothers would not let them move to this new village full of ruffians.

To solve this problem, Romulus staged a big picnic-like festival, in honor of the god Neptune, and invited the nearest community of the Sabine tribe to attend, specifically telling them to bring their families. In the middle of the celebration, Romulus gave a signal; every Roman grabbed a woman and took her home. The Sabine men tried to negotiate the return of their women; the Romans refused and the Sabines armed themselves. Their first attack on Rome failed, so they called in help from other Sabine villages. In the meantime the women learned to accept their new husbands, and had babies. With the second attack the Sabines broke into the city, but before they could finish off the Romans the women intervened. They ran between the two forces with their babies, and called for a halt to the bloodshed because it was a no-win situation for them; if the Sabines won they would become widows, while if the Romans won they would be orphans. The result was peace, and the Sabines went home, now aware that they were the grandfathers of Rome's second generation.

One of the terms of the peace agreement was that Romulus would share rule with Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabine village. This worked for a few years, until Titus Tatius was killed in a street riot. Although Romulus was visibly relieved that he could rule alone again, no one, not even the Sabines, accused him of foul play. Afterwards Romulus devoted the rest of his reign to a series of raids and battles with neighboring tribes. One day in 716 B.C., while reviewing the troops, a thunderstorm broke, and he disappeared in the middle of it. The soldiers and government officials on the scene told everyone back in Rome that Mars had come in the lightning to take Romulus away, and that was that -- no one ever saw him again.

Turning from fable to fact, modern scholars believe that at some point between 900 and 700 B.C., the inhabitants of several small Latin settlements in the Tiber valley united and established a common meeting place, the Forum, around which the city of Rome grew. Conveniently close to the easiest place for fording the river, and protected from invaders by marshes and the famous seven hills, Rome was well-placed. By 600 B.C. the villages on the site had grown into a single city-state, full of traders and other workers as well as farmers, centered on the Forum and surrounded by an earthen wall. Even so, it took centuries to grow; as the popular saying goes, Rome was not built in a day.

Top of the page

The Roman Monarchy, 753-509 B.C.

Rome's political growth followed a line of development similar to that of the Greek city-states: limited monarchy followed by oligarchy, democracy, and, finally, the permanent dictatorship of the Roman emperors. Theoretically the king was an absolute monarch; he led the army in war, conducted important religious ceremonies as the chief priest, and passed sentences as the supreme judge. In practice, however, there were checks and balances. He had to listen to two advisory councils: the priesthood and the Senate. The Senate's members were appointed by the king, and served for life. Both king and senators were chosen from the members of a tribal assembly called the Comitia Curiata, which represented all citizens and was divided into thirty groups of related families called curiae. Each curia conducted its own worship services and contributed ten cavalrymen and a hundred foot soldiers to the Roman army. Incidentally, this tells us that during the monarchy period, the Roman army at its largest numbered 3,000 infantry and 300 cavalry.

From a start Roman society was sharply divided into two classes: the patricians, who were descended from the original 100 associates of Romulus, and the plebeians ("plebs"), who were everybody else. Only free men received citizenship; women and slaves were ignored completely. Sometimes a plebeian could become rich by pursuing trade or some other lucrative profession, but he was excluded from any job with power; the king, senators and leading priests were always patricians.

Unlike most of the monarchies we see elsewhere, the Roman monarchy was not hereditary. When a king died, the Senate chose one of its members, and proclaimed him the interrex (Latin for "man between the kings," also the source of interregnum, a word historians like myself have to use a lot). Besides serving as a caretaker ruler, the interrex would preside over the elections that would choose the next real king. There don't appear to be any qualifications for the crown, because the Senators voted for whoever looked like he would do a good job. Of the seven kings whose names have come down to us, only two of them, Romulus and Tullus, appear to have been of Latin ancestry; the other five were Sabines or Etruscans. While it is easy for today's historians to accept the idea that Rome's first government was a monarchy--because every Roman author, without exception, said so--seven kings over a 244-year-period seems unusual. That works out to an average reign of 34-35 years per king. Keep in mind that: (1) no other monarchy in ancient or medieval times had kings with an average reign-length that long, (2) the monarchs of ancient Rome could not prolong their lives with today's medicines, and (3) they were more likely than today's kings and queens to fall victim to assassins. You may want to compare this with a 244-year span in recent British history, from 1771 to 2015; England had nine rulers during that time, and they would have needed more if three of them (George III, Victoria and Elizabeth II) did not each rule for at least sixty years. Maybe there were more kings whose names were lost to us; an interrex, for instance, could have ruled for a few years instead of electing his successor right away. Or maybe the monarchy didn't last for 244 years, either beginning later or ending earlier than the Romans claimed. Anyway, the rest of this section will give the story as the Romans gave it, because that is the only account we have for this important early period.

Once Romulus was gone, the Sabine residents of Rome, who had kept quiet while he was alive, insisted that it was their turn to have a king on the throne. They were so loud about this that the Senate agreed and elected Numa Pompilius, a Sabine, as the next king. Temperamentally the opposite of Romulus, Numa devoted himself to peaceful pursuits. To keep the people, now accustomed to fighting and pillage, from making war on others, he built a temple to the god Janus, and invented all kinds of laws, ceremonies and festivals. For example, the office of Pontifex Maximus, high priest of Rome, was his creation. By the time Numa was done, Rome was the most pious city in Italy, and its citizens were docile farmers, too busy with their rituals to even think about bothering their neighbors.

The next two kings, Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Martius, were also elected. As one might expect from his name, Tullus brought back the aggressive ways of Romulus. Feeling that the Romans had gotten soft under Numa, Tullus toughened up his people by making war on all neighboring towns and tribes; he even destroyed Alba Longa, the mother city of Rome. Ancus, on the other hand, was the grandson of Numa, so he tried to bring another generation of peace. However, the non-Romans in the vicinity would not regard the Romans as peaceful again, and bad relations between the communities meant the wars of Tullus would continue through the reign of Ancus. Thus, Ancus was a (reluctant) military leader, though he introduced an elaborate ritual that had to be performed before they could start a new conflict; at least it caused the Romans to think twice before marching into battle, because the Roman obsession with law and order meant they didn't want to wage a war that looked "illegal." When he wasn't fighting, Ancus was a builder; he is credited with building the first bridge over the Tiber, and founding Ostia, a colony at the mouth of the Tiber that would grow to become Rome's chief port. Ostia meant that for the first time, Rome had access to the sea.

Then the Etruscans took over the city. According to Livy, this happened peacefully. One day an Etruscan couple, Lucumo and his wife Tanaquil, moved into town; they were rich and ambitious, but the people of their home city (Tarquinii) would not let Lucumo rise to a position worthy of his skills because his father, Demaratus of Corinth, was a Greek merchant. Rome, however, was friendly to immigrants, and growing by leaps and bounds, so at Tanaquil's urging, they loaded their belongings in a wagon and went to seek their fortunes in Rome. On the way an eagle snatched the hat of Lucumo, flew away with it, then returned and dropped the hat back on his head. Tanaquil was a prophetess, and to her there could be no better omen than this: her husband had been crowned by an eagle! They continued to Rome, prospered there, and when the throne became vacant in 616 B.C., Lucumo aggressively campaigned for it, arguing that the sons of Ancus were too young to rule, and he won. The Romans claimed that for the rest of his life he went by the name of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, but this now appears to have really been a title, meaning simply Tarquin the First.(7)

Tarquinius ruled wisely, both in administration and in wartime. To celebrate the battles he won, he hosted the first triumph, a victory parade that became a Roman tradition, and the greatest honor a successful general could receive. He is also said to have started construction on Rome's famous hippodrome, the Circus Maximus, because the city did not have a suitable place for the games and celebration he had in mind. Then in the middle of his reign many people, including the king and queen, saw something very unusual. An Etruscan servant boy in the palace named Servius Tullius was asleep, and his head glowed like it was on fire; then when he woke up, the glow disappeared and the boy was unharmed. Tanaquil took her husband aside, and said this must be a sign from the gods that he was to be the next king. They were so convinced by this "halo" that instead of promising the throne to one of their biological sons, they gave their daughter to Servius, and made him the royal heir.

Two men who didn't like this arrangement were the passed-over sons of Ancus Martius, who always resented how the throne had been given to Tarquinius instead of to one of them. They hired two armed shephereds to assassinate Tarquinius, and these hit men went to the entrance of the palace. Once there they started to fight, and yelled that the king should come out and settle their dispute. Tarquinius had the two men separated, but when he stepped between them to arbitrate, the man he had turned his back to hit him in the head with an axe; then the two men ran away. Taking control of the situation, Tanaquil had Tarquinius taken inside the palace and closed the doors; to the crowd gathering outside, she announced that the king's wound was not serious, and that Servius would serve as acting king until Tarquinius recovered. Thinking their plot had failed, the sons of Ancus high-tailed it out of town. The truth was that Tanaquil's doctors failed to save Tarquinius, but Tanaquil succeeded in maintaining an illusion that the king was still alive and giving advice to Servius until order was restored and Servius was firmly in control; only then did she break the news that the king had died. By nipping a revolt in the bud, Servius became the first king since Romulus to take charge without getting elected.

Like Tarquinius, Servius was reported as having a long and successful reign. The Romans called Servius the chief reformer among their kings; most of their earliest laws supposedly came from his decrees. Traditionally Rome has been called "the city of seven hills," and it became that during the reign of Servius, when the city limits were expanded to include the last three of those hills. Considerable building took place; you could probably claim that Rome went from being a city of huts to a city of brick at this time. Finally, Servius conducted the first census; supposedly it reported a population of 84,700, but it was more likely half that number.

Servius reportedly gave two daughters in marriage to the sons of Tarquinius, but the legends also claim that the combined reigns of Tarquinius and Servius lasted eighty-two years, so it is more likely that the daughters married grandsons of the previous king. One daughter, Tullia, was restless and headstrong; she became a kingmaker like her grandmother Tanaquil. Her husband had a gentle disposition, while her sister had married the prince's violent brother, a young man who was also named Lucius Tarquinius. Tullia saw that her husband didn't want to be king, but Tarquinius did, so she arranged for the murder of both her husband and her sister. Once those obstacles were out of the way, she married Tarquinius, declaring that "If you are he whom I thought I was marrying, I call you both man and king. If not, then I have so far changed for the worse, in that crime is added, in your case, to cowardice. Come, rouse yourself!"

Tarquinius acted by slandering the king, looking to find political support from those who also wanted a different ruler. Then while Servius was absent, Tarquinius convened a session of the Senate to declare that he would make a more suitable king than the ex-slave who wore the crown. The aged Servius returned and tried to interrupt the meeting, and Tarquinius killed him by throwing him down the steps outside the Senate building. Livy reported that Tullia rushed to the Senate to proclaim her husband king, and when she left, her carriage came to the body of her murdered father. Her terrified driver pulled up on the reins to stop, but Tullia, "crazed by the avenging spirits of her sister and former husband," ordered him to gallop right over the corpse, showering blood on them. Because of that gory scene, the Romans renamed that street the Street of Crime. Thus, Lucius Tarquinius became Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), Rome's worst and final king.

Tarquin constructed the Cloaca Maxima, Rome's great sewer system; it is still in use today. His other building achievement was a great temple to the gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on the Capitoline Hill. But he was also paranoid; he surrounded himself with yes-men, and exiled, killed, or confiscated the property of anyone he thought might give him trouble. Soon the Romans decided they didn't want anything more to do with Etruscan kings--or any other kings, for that matter.

If the legends can be trusted, the end of Etruscan rule came because of a friendly contest between some Roman and Etruscan army officers at a party. They decided to test the virtue of their wives by making some unannounced visits. Going to the Etruscan ladies first, they found them "at a luxurious banquet, whiling away the time with their young friends." By contrast, when they called on the home of a Roman wife named Lucretia, she and her industrious maidens were staying up late to get their spinning work done. After the contest, one of the Etruscan officers, a son of Tarquin, vowed to rape Lucretia. He went back to her house with a sword; Lucretia would have preferred death to dishonor, but he overcame her defenses by threatening to kill her and her slave, and placing their naked bodies together as evidence of her unfaithfulness. Afterwards Lucretia denounced the violation to her male relatives, and stabbed herself in shame. A nephew of the king, Lucius Junius Brutus, was a friend of Lucretia's family, and he took both the knife and Lucretia's body to the Forum, where he used them to enrage the people into rebellion. Tarquin was out of town, waging a war against an enemy of Rome, when this happened. He tried to return, only to find himself locked out, and the whole army turned against him. The only thing he could do was go into exile, so he departed for the Etruscan city of Clusium. On that note the Roman monarchy ended in 509 B.C., and in its place came the Roman Republic, with Brutus and the husband of Lucretia, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, as its first consuls.

Lucius Junius Brutus
The first Brutus, not the Brutus you've heard of.

Top of the page

The Roman Republic: The Early Years

The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, meaning "public affairs." At first it only meant a government with more than one person at the top, as opposed to a monarchy. Republics can be either democratic or aristocratic; the Roman Republic was definitely aristocratic at the beginning, since the patricians ran everything, but it became more democratic later. There are two stories involved in the nearly five hundred years of the Roman Republic's existence: (1) the growth of Rome from a village to the capital of the known world, (2) and the struggle of the plebeians, for a greater share in running the state.

The new government's most powerful body was the Senate, which remained a good old boy's club for patricians only. The chief executive was not a king but two consuls, who were elected from the Senate. Each consul served for a single year, and then had to wait at least a year before he could run again. The two consuls provided an effective check to keep one man from becoming too strong; both had to agree for any law to pass, for example.

The former kings had performed Rome's most important religious ceremonies, and to keep those duties from going neglected, Brutus assigned them to a priest called the rex sacrorum ("king of the sacred rites"). Thus, the rex sacrorum was like a king stripped of all secular powers, like the Etruscan Lauchums or today's popes.

In times of emergency, like in a war, quick decision making was needed, rather than careful deliberation. For this the Republic installed a temporary dictator, who was given unlimited powers for six months or until the crisis ended, whichever came first. The best example of a dictator was Cincinnatus, who was called in 458 B.C. to rescue an army that had been trapped, along with the consul leading it, by the Aequi, a nearby tribe. According to the story, Cincinnatus owned a small farm and was plowing his field when he heard the Senate had chosen him to be dictator; he put down his plow and went off to do his duty without hesitation. He raised a new army, won a quick victory, resigned the dictatorship, and came home to finish his spring plowing only sixteen days after they called him away.(8)

The Republic retained the Comitia Curiata from earlier days, and added a new body, the Comitia Centuriata, to organize and maintain the army. Every male citizen between the ages of seventeen and sixty was registered with this body, so they could call him to duty at a moment's notice. Membership in the Comitia Centuriata was determined not by family background, but by wealth, and it was divided into seven classes. Patricians and those plebeians who could afford weapons, armor and horses were placed in the class on the top; poor plebeians who could only bring slings and stones occupied the second class from the bottom; the class on the very bottom contained those who had no weapons at all, and served in noncombatant roles. Each class had to supply a certain number of centuries (100-man units) in wartime, and received votes according to how many centuries it could muster. The top two classes, which included all patricians and provided for 98 centuries, thus had a majority vote over the other five, which only had 95 centuries between them. At this stage it appears that Roman soldiers fought in Greek-style phalanxes; their famous military unit, the legion, had not been invented yet.

According to tradition, the first enemy of the Republic was somebody who did not want to see it get started--Tarquinius Superbus, of course. In the same year as the Republic's founding, he sent ambassadors to request the return of his family's personal belongings, which had been left behind in Rome. While the Senate debated this request, the ambassadors also persuaded a number of Romans to support the Tarquinian conspiracy, a plot to bring back Tarquinius and the monarchy. Those won over included two brothers of Brutus' wife, and two of Brutus' sons; the latter were led to believe that if Rome had a king again, one of them would be the best qualified candidate for the crown. However, the conspirators were caught before they could succeed, and Brutus ordered them executed. He watched the execution of his sons with much emotion, and gained more admirers for putting the state before his family.

At first the Senate agreed to return those items which belonged to Tarquinius' family--the Republic did not need them, after all--but once the conspiracy was discovered, they revoked their decision and the royal property was divided among the Roman citizens. Tarquinius immediately tried to retake his throne by force, leading armies from the cities of Tarquinii and Veii against Rome. They met in a forest (the battle of Silvia Arsia), and here Brutus led the Roman cavalry, while Aruns, the son of Tarquinius, led the Etruscan cavalry. As soon as the two cavalry commanders saw each other, they charged, and both were killed. Then the infantry engaged, until the Etruscans broke and fled. Score two for Rome.

Tarquinius came back for one more round in 506 B.C., this time with an army led by Lars Porsenna, the ruler of Clusium. The Etruscan army advanced to the Tiber River, where it was halted by the bravery of a single Roman, Horatius Cocles. Horatius fought alone on the west bank of the river, singlehandedly holding off the invaders while his comrades destroyed the bridge leading over the river to Rome (the bridge Ancus Martius built, remember). Once he knew he had saved the city, Horatius jumped into the river, becoming a martyr and the greatest Roman hero.(9) Tarquinius linged in the neighborhood for a few more years, and then gave up and moved to the Campanian city of Cumae, spending his last years there.

Back in Rome, plebians were beginning to resent the limitations put on them. As noted previously, wealthy plebs could not have the most important jobs, no matter how big their fortunes grew; even marriage between patricians and plebeians was forbidden. For poor plebeians, especially farmers, it was much worse. Falling into debt after a season or two of bad crops was commonplace, and while the plebeians were off at war (which was often), their families borrowed money to make ends meet. Since these loans came from patricians, the patricians saw it as state business to make sure that those loans were repaid. There were laws against plebeians selling their land to pay debts, so they had to offer their own persons as collateral; if they defaulted on payments, the creditor could sell them into slavery or even put them to death. This meant that if the typical soldier did not loot adequately, he risked losing his land, freedom, and maybe his life.

In 494 B.C., only fifteen years after the Republic's founding, the plebeians figured out that maybe the patricians could run Rome by themselves, but they could not defend it alone. In that year, when they were called out to fight a campaign, the plebeian soldiers staged a strike; they marched to a camp outside Rome, announced a list of demands, and set up a government of their own, run by a plebeian officer named Sicinius.(10) To protect Sicinius and his associates, the plebs swore an oath to kill anyone who even touched their officers with violent intentions.

The government respected this challenge, and allowed the plebeian assembly to join it, alongside the Senate, the obsolete Curiata and the powerful Centuriata. The new body, called the Comitia Tributa (Assembly of the People by Tribes) viewed the protection of plebeians' rights as its foremost concern. Two tribunes led it originally; later they increased them to ten. Like the consuls, the tribunes were elected annually, and they gained extraordinary powers. Not only was it illegal to lay hands on them, they could stop any action by a consul, senator, or the Centuriata, simply by calling out "Veto!," meaning "I forbid!"

Next the plebeians reformed Roman law. The laws up to this point were not written down but committed to memory by the patricians, who of course only enforced those laws which suited their interests. plebeians wanted laws they could see, so they would know when they were treated fairly. After some more strikes, they succeeded. Around 450 B.C. the government agreed to write down the laws on twelve bronze tablets, and put them on display in the Forum. Law codes were hardly a new idea, but this one started the great tradition of Roman law. It inspired the recording of legal cases, so that lawyers and judges could follow precedent instead of plucking vague customs from memory. The Twelve Tables proved so enduring that Roman schoolboys still memorized them four centuries later.(11)

The struggle between patricians and plebeians, sometimes called the Struggle of the Orders, continued for a long time to come. Only five years after the creation of the Twelve Tables, for example, the government agreed to do away with the law banning patrician-plebeian marriages. Fortunately, neither side let their disputes imperil the common good of the state. Together they promoted a patriotism that increased civic pride and encouraged expansion by conquest. At the time of the Republic's founding, Rome controlled no more than 350 square miles of land, and from the start it found itself in a fight to keep from losing what it had to larger neighbors.

Meanwhile, Rome faced trouble with the rest of Latium. The Latins had a common language and religion, and similar political institutions; now eight of the twelve Latin communities formed a new alliance, called the Latin League, because they thought Rome was becoming too overbearing. Rome fought a small war with the League and defeated it in the battle at Lake Regillus (493 B.C.), about fifteen miles southeast of Rome. Afterwards both sides signed a treaty and a defense pact, which called for perpetual peace between the Latins and Romans, mutual assistance in time of war, and an equal share of whatever booty might be gained; Rome also relinquished its claim to dominance over Latium. The alliance came in handy when two non-Latin tribes from the Apennines, the Aequi and the Volsci, invaded Latium a few years later. The final victory against these two, however, did not come from either the alliance or the aforementioned campaign of Cincinnatus. It came when Latium formed another alliance, this one bringing the Hernici, a people living between the Aequi and the Volsci, into the Roman-Latin League. This was an early application of what would become a favorite Roman policy--divide and conquer.

Late in the fifth century, the Romans felt ready to finish off the Etruscan city of Veii, which had long been an annoyance to them. Only a dozen miles north of Rome and on the opposite bank of the Tiber, Rome and Veii had quarreled since earliest times over who could mine the salt pans at the mouth of the river. The two cities had fought twice (483-474 and 438-426), with inconclusive results. For their third match the Roman army was vastly improved from the experience it had gained fighting other enemies, but Veii was almost as large as Rome, and located in an easily defended position, so the Veientines were up to the challenge. If we can believe Livy, the Romans tried to blockade Veii, and this siege lasted for a full decade (406-396); in other words, it was another Trojan War. Consequently Rome's first professional army came into existence; soldiers recruited for a single summer campaign were paid to stay in camps surrounding Veii all year round. Still, the soldiers suffered serious financial hardship; many of them had been farmers before the war and they couldn't tend their fields while on the front lines, and the pay the soldiers received was not enough to keep their families out of poverty. It looks like Rome was approaching bankruptcy after ten years of this, because one of the commanding generals, Marcus Furius Camillus, was appointed dictator in 396 B.C. for the purpose of ending the stalemate. Camillus did it by having the soldiers break into Veii through one of the city's sewers. Then, because this had been a fight to the finish, the Romans killed the men of Veii, sold the women and children into slavery, destroyed the city, and annexed the land it ruled, almost doubling the size of Rome's territory in one stroke. Most of this land promptly went to the plebeians to keep them happy.

Camillus did not get to enjoy his victory for long. The city of Rome celebrated with a party that lasted for four days, and for the victory parade, Camillus rode in a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four white horses. Then he went off to fight Falerii, a town which had been allied with Veii. Previously the honor of riding in a quadriga had been reserved for kings, and soon a rumor spread that Camillus accepted it because he really wanted to be a king. Because enough people believed the rumor, as soon as Camillus captured Falerii, he was impeached and exiled, another example of how quickly public opinion can turn against a hero (remember Miltiades in the previous chapter).

Before taking Veii, Camillus had made two vows. One was to build a temple in Rome to Juno, the goddess of Veii, so that she would transfer her blessings from Veii to Rome. The other was to give one tenth of the treasure looted from Veii to the god Apollo. But in the confusion that followed the fall of Veii, nobody remembered to set aside some of the loot for this purpose; it was all just hauled off to Rome. After Camillus went into exile, some soothsayers reminded the Senate of the vow Camillus had made to Apollo, and warned that the gods were not pleased. Because the loot had already been divided up, the Senate decreed that everyone who had received a share must give back a tenth of it, and that would be handed over to Apollo's temple. This caused much complaining (many soldiers' families were poor, remember), but the Romans feared the gods enough to obey this order.

Next came one of those military events which changed the course of history, and some Romans thought it happened because they were late in making the donation Camillus had promised. Several tribes of Celtic warriors, called Gauls by the Romans, migrated over the Alps from Switzerland and southern Germany; their women, children, servants and livestock followed behind, with their belongings piled high on wagons. In the same year as the Roman conquest of Veii, the Gauls captured the northernmost Etruscan settlement, Melpum, and destroyed it completely; now the Po River valley became theirs (the Romans henceforth called the Po valley Cisalpine Gaul). Then a horde of 30,000 screaming warriors, led by a chieftain named Brennus, surged down the peninsula. They attacked Clusium in 391, and some Roman ambassadors on the scene tried, without success, to persuade the Gauls to turn back. The following year a hastily enrolled Roman army met the Gauls on the Allia River, a tributary of the Tiber, and was utterly defeated. Camillus was called back from exile and made dictator again, but even he could not turn back the Gallic tide, which now poured into Rome and sacked it, capturing everything except the citadel and the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.(12) They remained for seven months, looting, burning and terrifying the inhabitants of the city. Finally the Celts ran low on food and an epidemic of dysentery set in, so they decided to return home. Before leaving, they heaped another humiliation on the Romans, forcing them to pay 1,000 pounds of gold for their freedom. When Camillus protested that the weights used by the Celts to measure the gold were too heavy, and thus dishonest, Brennus threw his iron sword on the scale and said "Vae victis!" ("Woe to the vanquished!"), a phrase that has haunted the discussions of ransoms ever since.

The Romans neither forgave nor forgot this incident. A proposal was made to move the capital to Veii, instead of rebuilding Rome, but obviously it was not accepted; if the Romans had done that, we could probably end this chapter right here. When Rome arose from its first set of ruins, its residents built the walls stronger than before, and worked constantly to improve their fighting capabilities. The next time Roman soldiers met Gauls, they would fare better.

Top of the page

Rome Becomes the Capital of Italy

All of Rome's written records went up in smoke with the Celtic occupation of their city; that is why we have only legends for the years before 390 B.C., and true history after that. The next 23 years were a generation of unrest, as the Roman army, still commanded by Camillus, battled the Gauls and other foes. The latter included three more Etruscan city-states that had helped Veii in the past. Two of them, the small towns of Sutrium and Nepi, fell in 387; Caere was taken in 384. Rome gave these lands to its allies, so they could have something to show for their efforts. Though it acted generous in victory, Rome had regained its status as the leading city of Latium.

At home, plebeians staged revolts and riots, and the tribunes used their veto so often that government activity stopped. By 367 B.C. it became necessary, in a time of peace, to appoint a dictator to get things done. The patricians picked one of their own, the old warhorse Camillus, expecting him to crush plebeian opposition. But Camillus, now dictator for the fifth time, was wiser than his supporters, and reached a compromise both sides could accept. In fact, the following year saw the election of the first plebeian consul. Before stepping down, Camillus built the Temple of Concord to celebrate the new harmony between the classes. All his accomplishments caused Camillus to be hailed as the second founder of Rome.

Then two tribunes, Licinius and Sextus, passed a sweeping set of reforms that softened the pitiless old laws on debtors(13), and opened all state offices to plebeians; they even required that one of the two consuls be a plebeian. In practice, though, what really happened was that the patricians made a deal with the well-to-do plebeians. Once a pleb joined the elite, he became as conservative as a blue-blooded old patrician.

The ancients never wondered why Rome became the capital of the known world; according to legend Romulus predicted it would be a great city. Whenever Rome needed it, the Senate and people acted with a courage and discipline that both deserved and ensured the favor of the gods. But history is crowded with brave people who failed (the Celts, for instance), so now historians look for a less glorious answer in social and economic statistics.

The strength of united Italy is obvious from the number of legions fielded in the Punic Wars and the course after 300 B.C. makes sense. The part with the question mark is the fourth century B.C., when Rome became mistress over the whole Italian peninsula. The city had no natural resources, no manufacturing industry, no trade; in a nutshell, its population never should have grown beyond 10,000. Yet it grew anyway and this growth seems to have started before the conquests that allowed it to feed all those people. Within a generation of its sacking by the Gauls, Rome was the largest city in both Latium and Etruria. Perhaps the Gauls, by displaying the vulnerability of small towns, taught the Romans that joining together would give them strength.

It may be that we won't fully understand why this happened until we understand the facet of human nature that prefers urban to rural poverty, why big cities attract people beyond their ability to employ them all, and why sponsored programs of emigration always fail to solve the problems of overcrowding and unemployment. In other words, the key to the mystery of Rome's rise to greatness may lie in the slums of South-Central Los Angeles.

The constant need for cheap grain was an important factor in Rome's overseas policy, just as today the need for cheap petroleum drives U.S. policy in the Middle East. In the fourth century B.C. the Romans got their grain by conquering the plain of Campania. This was followed by the conquest of Sicily & Sardinia, then the Carthaginian part of Africa, and finally Egypt; a bigger granary was needed in each century.(14) One reason why expansion nearly stopped in the first century A.D. (see the next chapter) may have been because there were no unconquered lands left in the known world, that produced as much grain as those places.

Another motivator for conquest was the desire for security. The Romans never put forth a plan for world conquest, but were always suspicious of whoever lived outside their growing domain. They seemed to have had the feeling that if they could just conquer the land beyond the next hill, Rome would be safe at last. Instead, each time they conquered a hostile neighbor, they found themselves with a new neighbor just a little bit farther away who also needed taming. As the territories filled with Roman citizens, they needed protection too, so Rome became occupied with defending its buffer zones as well. Ultimately this cycle went on until Rome no longer had the resources to expand any more.(15)

The growth of Rome made sure that the various Italian tribes would accept their new masters. Instead of continuing to revolt, the citizens of other towns migrated to the new capital and cultural center, thus confirming her status; whether they were Latins, Etruscans or something else, their ethnic identity disappeared as they became Romans. To paraphrase another famous saying, when in Rome they learned to do as the Romans do. Although the patricians opposed this influx and tried to reverse it by encouraging Romans to move out, they could not halt the growth--only slow it a bit. Again, there was an economic reason for this: the importation of cheap grain deprived the Italian farmer of his market and profit, so he abandoned his farm and moved to the city, where he completed the vicious circle by adding his voice to the demand for more cheap grain.

While Rome experienced her own rocketing expansion as a city, she did less than nothing for the urbanization of her provinces. True, we can scarcely call the Roman settlements in Spain and Gaul cities, but in the already civilized areas the legions brought disaster. They wasted Carthage and Corinth, and the treatment Syracuse got insured that she would never be a first-rate city again. With Athens and Sparta, the two most foremost cities of classical Greece, the Romans were sentimental. Rome gave Delos to Athens as a gift, and Roman tourists visited Sparta to get a glimpse of what life was like in the militarist days of Lykurgos and Leonidas--in that sense, Sparta became the first historical theme park, like Williamsburg in present-day Virginia! Still, like Syracuse, neither city regained its previous importance. Under the Roman Republic, the most successful cities besides Rome were the Campanian towns of Naples(16), Puteoli and Capua. Campanian wine, oil, pottery and metalwork supplied the Italian market, the colonists in the provinces and, as they gradually acquired Roman tastes, the Republic's non-Roman subjects.

In theory the Etruscans still should have been the strongest people in Italy. In practice their fleet could no longer compete when the Carthaginians and the Greeks ganged up against it (this happened after they supported the disastrous campaign of Athens against Sicily in 413 B.C.). Their twelve-city league never worked very well, either; we saw it had failed to stop the Romans from taking Veii, and that it couldn't keep the Gauls from wasting the whole country. In fact, between wars with outside enemies, the Etruscan city-states fought each other frequently. In 358 the city of Tarquinii started a war to recover the lands lost to the Latins, but it got nowhere and agreed to a truce seven years later.

Top of the page

The Samnite Wars

As the Etruscan threat receded, a new rival arose to the southeast of Latium: the hill confederacy of Samnium. The Samnites were organized into a league of four tribes, with their headquarters at Bovianum (modern Benevento, Beneventum in Latin). In terms of the size of the state and its abilities, Samnium was equal to Latium in the mid-fourth century B.C. The main difference between them was that the Samnites had absorbed less culture from the Etruscans and the Greeks, so the Romans regarded them as hillbillies; Livy, for instance, wrote that the Samnites were "as wild as the men of the mountains." Romans thought two Samnite customs were especially crude: the wearing of jewelry made of iron, and barbers shaving the pubic hair of both men and women in public.


Samnite warriors. The one on the left wears a horned helmet, the others have feathers in their helmets. This scene comes from a tomb fresco, 4th century B.C. Now at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

In 354 the Latins and Samnites formed an alliance, to defend against the Gauls and the two tribes between them, the Volsci and the Aurunci. However, the Samnites were aggressively expanding in all directions, and they conquered the Aurunci in 345. In southernmost Italy, the Greek city-states were raided by the Samnites and two minor tribes, the Lucanians and the Bruttians. The Greeks called on their fellow countrymen back in Greece for help, and Alexander, the king of Epirus (see Chapter 2) sent enough mercenaries to keep the raiders at a safe distance. This would inspire them to call on Epirus again, seventy years later.

On the west coast, the towns of Capua and Neapolis (modern Naples) were also threatened by the Samnites, and they chose to call on Rome, which was a lot closer than Greece; Capua offered to submit to the Latin League as a vassal, in return for protection. This was an offer Rome couldn't refuse, because it would give Rome access to the richest farmland in Italy (see above), but accepting it would end Rome's friendship with Samnium. Roman envoys went to the Samnites to discuss a peace agreement regarding Campania; the Samnites, feeling that the Romans were intruding on their territory, sent a raiding party against Capua, and Rome declared war.

The First Samnite War was also the shortest. Rome won a few victories, which were so hard fought that the Romans realized the Samnites were tougher than any other Italian opponent. After two years of this (343-341), Rome and Samnium agreed to a treaty which left Capua in Latin hands, while recognizing that much of the surrounding land belonged to the Samnites; the pre-war alliance was renewed as well. Meanwhile, the Roman garrison stationed just outside Capua resented how the Capuans were spending the winter of 342-341 quite comfortably, while they were "roughing it," so they mutinied and marched on Rome. Marcus Valerius Corvus, the most successful general in the war, was hastily made a dictator to stop the rebel force. He and the loyalist troops met the mutineers eight miles from Rome, and because Corvus was greatly admired by both sides, he persuaded the mutineers to give up their rebellion without a battle.

The outcome of the First Samnite War caused great resentment among Rome's allies. Because the threats which brought them together (the Etruscans & Celts) no longer worried them, and their combined effort against the Samnites had resulted in a draw, the Latin cities decided it was time to dissolve the Latin League. However, Rome had other ideas. Their arguing led to another two-year war (the Latin War, 340-338). To an outsider this must have looked like a civil war; the soldiers on both sides spoke the same language, fought with the same weapons and armor, and used the same tactics. The Samnites got involved on Rome's side (they didn't like the Latins either), while the Campanians, Sidicini, Volsci and Aurunci all joined the Latins. Rome won by conquering the Latin cities, and then it dissolved the League anyway, because all its members were now part of the Roman state. The Latin cities were given different rights and levels of citizenship, depending on whether or not they had actively fought the Romans. Then in 329 the Romans annexed the Volsci, adding another line of defense in case they had to fight the Samnites again.

Sure enough, a second confrontation between Rome and Samnium came in 327, when the Samnites put the squeeze on Naples. A pro-Samnite faction gained control of that city, rivals to that faction sent Rome a plea for assistance, Rome responded, and the Second Samnite War was on. The Romans won the initial battles, and laid siege to Naples until the Samnite garrison inside agreed to leave. Now that Naples and Campania were theirs, the Romans shifted the conflict to the hills of Samnium.

At this stage, the Samnites controlled twice as much territory as Rome, though most of it was too rugged for agriculture. Because the Samnites were now fighting on their home ground, everything favored them. Moreover, the Roman army at this stage was no more advanced than other Italian armies, meaning that other Italians could still beat it. Until now, all Italian warriors used two methods of fighting, either surging forward in a barbarian-style free-for-all, or moving together in a Greek-style phalanx formation (see Chapter 2). The Romans had learned the phalanx in the mid-sixth century B.C., when they were a monarchy, and for the next two hundred years, the charge of a phalanx was how they usually won battles. Unfortunately for them, a phalanx only works well on flat ground; we saw how the Greeks chose a flat place for their battles when both sides used phalanxes. In hilly terrain, a phalanx is at a disadvantage, for gaps will appear in the line as its men go around rocks and trees, and it cannot turn easily; a flanking attack on a phalanx under these conditions will probably demolish it.

For all these reasons, the Romans had great difficulty fighting their way into the Appenines, and after they did, they decided to send a peace proposal, which the confident Samnites rejected.(17) In the same year (321), the Roman invasion came to a sudden end with the battle of the Caudine Forks. Here the entire Roman army (which at this time consisted of 8,000 men, divided into two legions) was trapped in a valley where the Samnites blocked both entrances; the Romans were forced to surrender, and made to pass under a yoke made by tying three spears together--a great dishonor. The Samnites let the legions go in return for a favorable peace treaty, and the Romans were so discouraged that they kept the treaty for the next four years.

A compromise in their favor was all the Samnites wanted and expected; this was the usual way to end a tribal war. However, the Romans now had a dream of conquering the Samnites, so they trained themselves in the tactics needed for mountain warfare. What they needed was a formation that was more flexible than a phalanx, but still put its men together to hit the enemy hard. The solution they came up with was to divide each legion into smaller units of about 120 men each, called maniples. Once the soldiers were trained, a commander could detach a maniple from the rest of the legion on short notice, and send it on special missions, like engage an enemy trying to attack a legion on the side. In practice this worked superbly; a maniple legion could defeat a less disciplined force, even if it was much larger. This was the most important change made in the Roman army's organization for the next two hundred years, until Marius turned the soldiers into professional fighters.

When the Romans returned for a rematch in 316, they showed a determination that was new in Italian warfare. By this time they had learned that their willingness to wage long conflicts was a characteristic they had and their opponents lacked; if the Romans could not outwit their opponents, they could outlast them, meaning they often lost the first battle but went on to win the war.

It was part of Rome's policy to protect spots of the frontier that looked vulnerable, by planting fortified colonies on them. On average they founded one colony every ten years for most of the fourth century B.C. Now (between 315 and 290) they averaged a new colony every two years. Not all new settlements were established with defense in mind; some were put in locations that made them advance bases for attacks into Samnite territory, but indefensible should the tide turn against the Romans. The most remarkable of these was Luceria, built to the east of Samnium in 314. To get to it the Romans formed an alliance with the Oscans, a local tribe related to the Samnites.

The second half of the Second Samnite War lasted 12 years. The Roman army, now increased to four legions, lost the first battles where they tried the new maniples, and then slowly gained the upper hand. In 311 the Samnites persuaded the Etruscans to attack Rome from the north, but the Romans beat them at Lake Vadimo and imposed a separate peace treaty (308). Ringed in by the Roman colonies, the Samnites never managed an effective counterattack, and the Romans took their land bit by bit. In 305 Bovianum, the Samnite capital, was taken by storm. The next Roman-Samnite treaty made it clear that Samnium was now a client state of Rome.

The third and last Samnite war began in 298, when the Samnites formed an alliance with the Gauls, Etruscans, Sabines, Umbrians, and Lucanians to stop Roman expansion. Only once did these allies get together, and when they did, at the battle of Sentinum (295, near modern Ancona) the Romans broke the northern half of the coalition and added Umbria to their territory. Then the Romans annexed Rusellae, Perusia and Volsinii, and forced the remaining Etruscan cities to sign a 40-year truce and pay a heavy indemnity. One by one the other members of the coalition dropped out, until only the Samnites were left. When the Samnites sued for peace in 290, they were treated mercifully, since the Romans considered them valiant opponents, but now they were absorbed into the Roman state.

So, to their surprise, were the Oscans and the Etruscans. The treaties of alliance which the Oscans had signed, and the peace treaty that the Etruscans accepted, were now declared to bind them to Roman service; what they thought was a friendly handshake turned into a permanent grip. There were revolts, but these were uncoordinated and put down easily. To discourage further resistance Rome imposed harsher treaties. Land was confiscated, and more Roman colonists and road-builders went forth, cementing Roman rule over all of central Italy.

Roman expansion in the fourth and early third centuries B.C. The pink territory marked "Latium" was the Roman state in 338 B.C. It took the First and Second Samnite Wars to gain control over the other pink territory, Campania. Then Rome conquered the green areas in the Third Samnite War, and the orange in the Pyrrhic War.

Top of the page


Up to this point Rome had been ignored by the major powers, since it was just a small city against other small cities; a big fish in a small pond. That changed when Rome got involved in the affairs of Magna Graecia. The Greeks in southernmost Italy and Sicily, like the Greek homeland before the mid-fourth century B.C., were divided into city-states with no common direction or policy. They couldn't even unite now, when Rome threatened to annex them all. The only city in Magna Graecia with any military strength worth speaking of was Tarentum, because its Greeks were Spartans (see Chapter 2, footnote #8). When a local tribe, the Lucanians, attacked Thurii, a Greek settlement allied with Rome, a Roman army came to the rescue, and ten Roman ships entered the Tarentine Gulf. Twenty years earlier Rome had signed a treaty which allowed only Greek warships in the gulf, so Tarentum saw Rome's intervention as a violation of that treaty. The Tarentines sank those ships, expelled the Roman garrison from Thurii, and Rome declared war. Tarentum knew it could not beat the Romans by itself, so it called on its allies in the Greek homeland again, and the kingdom that responded was up to facing the Roman challenge.

That kingdom was Epirus, right on the other side of the Adriatic, in the northwest corner of Greece. To get a view of the "big picture," note that the Second Samnite War took place while Alexander the Great was fighting in Asia. Both Rome and Magna Graecia got a lucky break; if Alexander had chosen to march west instead of east, he would have conquered Italy easily, probably taking just one year to do it. In the two generations since Alexander's death, the Epirote royal family had been fighting for a share of Alexander's empire, their claim being that Alexander's mother, Olympias, was one of them. Now Pyrrhus, a second cousin of Alexander, was king of Epirus, and he realized that all the good parts of the empire had been taken, by the sons and grandsons of Alexander's generals. But while there weren't any more opportunities in the Balkans or to the east, Pyrrhus saw some in the west, which was virgin territory by comparison. Sicily was especially attractive with its subtropical climate, rich farmlands, and the wealthy port of Syracuse.


Pyrrhus crossed the Adriatic and landed at Tarentum in 281 with a large army (20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and twenty elephants) and even larger ambitions. In the first battle with the Romans, at Heraclea, the infantry of both sides clashed several times before Pyrrhus turned loose his elephants. The Romans had never seen elephants before, and fled in panic, but not before inflicting heavy casualties: Rome lost 7,000 men, while Pyrrhus lost 4,000. Pyrrhus won the next battle, at Ausculum, which was nearly as bloody: Rome lost 6,000, Pyrrhus lost 3,505. "Another such victory and I am lost," Pyrrhus reportedly said, leading to the term "Pyrrhic victory" to describe a struggle won at too great a cost. Then he marched on Rome, stopping only thirty miles from the city, but the Romans refused to talk peace.

At this point (278 B.C.) the Greeks of Sicily also called for help, since the Carthaginians were besieging Syracuse, so Pyrrhus withdrew from Italy; he preferred dramatic victories to the task of grinding down Rome's legions. His success on Sicily was rapid; by 277 he had captured all the Carthaginian bases except Lilybaeum, on the island's western tip, and imagined Sicily as his second kingdom. The Sicilian Greeks, however, were not willing to submit to him; they revolted and Pyrrhus, showing that he had a habit of not finishing what he had started, returned to Italy. At Maleventum in Campania, the Romans defeated his large and unruly army, so he abandoned his Italian allies to fight with Macedonia's King Antigonus II (275). Three years later he was killed in a street brawl in Argos, so the Romans didn't have to face him in any more rematches.

Rome and Carthage were allies at this stage, for Carthage could not afford to have a strong power established as close to her as Sicily. Rome seemed a lesser threat than a second Alexander the Great, so the Carthaginians sent a fleet, captained by an admiral named Mago, to defend the mouth of the Tiber. With the war's end, Rome and Carthage split the reward: Carthage got all of Sicily but Syracuse, and Rome annexed Magna Graecia, making herself master of southern as well as central Italy. Now Rome looked across the Straits of Messina, and imagined Carthage as a new, more dangerous rival. When Pyrrhus left Italy he predicted war between the two allies, by declaring, "What a battlefield I am leaving for Carthage and Rome!" That prophecy came true only eleven years later, in the first of three Punic Wars.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. It now appears that the oldest runic script, Futhark, was invented by some Teutons who copied the Etruscan alphabet for their own use. The main feature of ancient northern European alphabets is that all the runes (letters) use only straight lines, to make carving them on wood or stone easy.

2. Thanks to what we have translated, several Etruscan names are now available in the original language (as opposed to Latinized versions). Common male names were Larth, Vel, Arnza, and Aule; common females names were Thanchvil (Tanaquil?), Ramtha, Canatnei, and Larthi. They also were apparently the first culture to use family names after personal names, except that the women did not change their last names when they got married.

3. The June 1988 National Geographic suggested that the chaotic, "devil-may-care" attitude of today's Italians comes from the Etruscans, not the Romans.

4. Recently it was suggested that the she-wolf was really a prostitute, since the word for both is the same in Latin (lupa).

5. In the fourth century B.C., when trustworthy written records first appear, Italy had about four million inhabitants. Four million may not seem like a lot to us, but this was the densest population in Europe at the time. The Greeks, for example, probably numbered just three million people in the fourth century, and still they managed to make a lot of history.

6. Whenever the Romans did anything important, they consulted an augur, or fortuneteller. Like the Etruscans, they thought they could read the future from the behavior of birds. However, this didn't stop Roman chefs from inventing recipes for really exotic poultry, like peacock and flamingo. One could say that the birds were for the Romans, and vice-versa.
During the First Punic War, a Roman naval commander took a cage full of chickens on his ship. He expected to learn whether he would have good sailing by watching which dishes the chickens ate out of. When they refused to eat at all, he threw the cage overboard and shouted, "Let them drink if they will not eat!" That commander went on to lose his next battle, so the Romans thought he should have waited a day before sailing, and tried feeding the chickens again.

7. Lucumo is the Latin form of Lauchum, one of the few Etruscan words we understand; we saw earlier that it means "priest-king." Therefore Lucumo would not have been the birth-name of Tarquinius, but rather another title. This suggests to me that Tarquinius didn't come to Rome as an entrepreneur, but as the leader of a conquering army. Livy should have known better.
Today some historians think that the reigns of Numa and Ancus reflect periods when the Sabines ruled Latium, and that Servius Tullius, the next king after Tarquinius, may have been a usurper. If this is true, then none of the Roman monarchs gained the throne peacefully.

8. Cincinnatus inspired several officers under George Washington to call themselves the Society of the Cincinnati, because they were equally willing to put down the plow when America needed them, and then return to the ways of peace afterwards; Cincinnati, Ohio is named after this group.

9. As with our stories from the Roman monarchy, the truth may have been different. We're not even sure if Horatius died in the Tiber; one version of the story has him survive long enough to swim to the other side. A far less glorious version has the Etruscans take Rome anyway, as well as the surrounding countryside, until the Greeks sent soldiers from the south in 501 to throw them out again.

10. Barely remembered today, Sicinius is one of the few rebels in Roman history who mutinied and lived to tell about it.

11. By that time, though, many new laws had been tacked on to the originals. Gibbon tells us that in the beginning the authorities were so opposed to making laws that when a new one was proposed, they put a rope around the lawmaker's neck, and if the law was not passed they strung him up! Needless to say this custom went out of fashion, because in imperial days the law code got so big that it had to be overhauled several times. One might wish it was still practiced today, though, to put a limit on the "frivolous legislation" of our government.

12. Legend claims that when the Gauls tried to sneak up the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, they startled some sacred geese, who raised such a squawk that it alerted the Roman guards on the hill in time to defend it. The garrison was starving at this point, but the geese were kept alive because they belonged to the goddess Juno. Today some Italians who remember that story keep geese to guard their property, instead of watchdogs. One wonders how history might be different if the Romans gave in to their hunger and ate the geese!

13. In 326 B.C. the government abolished the practice of putting debtors into slavery. Now that Romans could not enslave other Romans, their slaves always came from elsewhere, usually from defeated enemies.

14. It is estimated that Sicily was able to export three million bushels a year, while North Africa exported ten million and Egypt twenty million.

15. H. G. Wells thought that Rome should have conquered Germany and Poland, to protect itself from the Germans that eventually brought it down. In response, I say that such a campaign would only delay the inevitable; had Imperial Rome pushed its frontier from the Rhine to the Baltic and Dnieper, some other enemy, like the Vikings, would have taken the place of the Germans.

16. A ship that sank near Massilia in the mid-second century B.C. illustrates the importance of Campania in Roman commerce. It carried six hundred Neapolitan pots and ten thousand gallons of wine; four fifths of the wine was Neapolitan, while the rest came from Rhodes and Sicily.
Incidentally, the main cargo container of classical times was the amphora, a large, graceful pot shaped like a vase. Amphorae were used to transport anything that would pour, and are a common find because they are so durable. We know some of them carried wine because they are occasionally found with their seals intact, preserving their 2,000-year-old contents. Divers who taste the wine from wrecks like the one mentioned above agree that aging can be carried too far!

17. The Second Samnite War showed the Romans that they needed to improve communications, so in 312 they began construction on the first of their famous roads, the Appian Way. Originally it just ran from Rome to Capua; later it was extended east to Brindisi, on the heel of the Italian "boot." The builder, Appius Claudius Caecus, generally followed a straight line from point A to point B, while later engineers did some surveying and earth moving, and followed the path of least resistance, making those roads easier on the feet of pedestrians.
Appius Claudius also built the first aqueduct, another engineering achievement the Romans would become famous for. Called the Aqua Appia, it ran just over ten miles, bringing water from its source to Rome. Together, the roads and aqueducts gave Roman cities the most advanced infrastructure in Italy.

Support this site!

© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A History of Europe


Other History Papers

Beyond History