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Death of a Kingdom II: The Roman-Clusium War

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

Tarquin the Proud turned to Lars Porsena for assistance in retaking Rome.

Tarquin the Proud turned to Lars Porsena for assistance in retaking Rome.

Retaking the Throne

Tarquin the Proud was the last king of Rome, but his ambitions overshadowed his capability and he was overthrown. Tarquin was cast out, and his first attempt to retake his throne was met with defeat at Silvia Arsia. Tarquin's many victories and constant building took their toll on the plebs of Rome. But it was his final failure in sacking the cities of the Rutelli that outweighed his prior success and caused the Roman elders to rise against him.

Rome raised an army while Tarquin was away and, by the time of his return, they had prepared enough men to meet Tarquin at Silvia Arsia. A fierce battle was fought between the armies. After losing his son, Tarquin was forced to withdraw. At Silvia Arsia, Tarquin lost his own army. But he was an Etruscan king, and his name would acquire more allies.

Lars Porsena

Lars Porsena

Lars Porsena and Clusium

To the north of Rome and her Latin allies, lay the land of the Etruscans. Possibly Sea People, the Etruscans lived in what would become Tuscany and Etruria, dominating trade on the Italian peninsula and trading with the Greeks. During their time of trading, the Etruscans adopted many Greek ideals, cultural adaptions, and military strategies. Clusium was one of the Etruscan cities, and its leader at the time that Tarquin was deposed was Lars Porsena.

Many theories abound as to how Clusium came to be. The simplest and most effective was that it was the central trade location of its region and, upon constructing walls, became the most prominent city in the area. Greek settlers and Etruscans mixed with the Umbrians and formed a unique culture that only survived to today in the cities' underground tombs.

Funerary art and urns depict the Etruscan soldiers as hoplites, soldiers armed with spear and shield. Contemporary historians describe them as fighting in a phalanx, but archeological and military science have shown that this should not be confused with the later Macedonian or successor states' phalanx formation. Hoplites were heavy infantry, but they were citizen-soldiers. Their level of training would not have allowed them to maintain the drill necessary to maintain a tight phalanx. But it would have allowed for a more open formation where soldiers would have been able to fight man to man.

Furthermore, the walls of the day were not fully enclosed. Cities would build walls only where natural defenses were lacking, and rarely were these walls designed to fight off a large-scale invasion. Walls in the early period of Roman expansion were therefore designed to ward off raiding parties by providing a place to protect goods for short amounts of time.

What we know of Lars Porsena and of the Clusium of the 6th century is all provided by Roman and Greek historians. Etruscan language did not survive the Roman conquest of Etruria, and like many of the other civilizations that Rome conquered the Romans ensured that their side of the story was the only story that survived. In the records we have Lars Porsena is shown to be a shrewd diplomat and trusted commander of his men.

The Siege of Rome

The Siege of Rome

Siege of Rome

After his defeat at the Battle of Silvia Arsia, Tarquin the Proud returned to his fellow Etruscans and requested aid from Lars Porsena at Clusium. Lars Porsena agreed to return Rome to Tarquin the Proud and raised his armies before marching off to lay siege to Rome. Fearing the armies of Lars Porsena, the Romans shut themselves into their city and prepared to wait out a siege.

Rome at this time was a growing city, but most of its space was given over to open areas meant for holding animals for market. An open area in the center of the city was the Forum, and it was the heart of political and mercantile life in the Latin world. Rome itself had some walls, mostly designed to funnel raiders, which connected the natural terrain together to form a defensive ring. At this time, there was one major bridge that crossed the Tiber and was the focal point of the Etruscan assault.

Roman forces attempted to slow the invasion of Porsena outside of Rome proper, but the Consuls were wounded and the army routed soundly. Here the annalists record the tale of Horatius At The Bridge. This tale tells of a single soldier, Horatius Cocles, who held off the advancing army at the foot of the bridge over the Tiber, while the rest of the army fled and then destroyed the bridge behind him. Horatius turns to hold off the enemy as the army flees past him. As the fight goes on, three soldiers join him in his efforts, but he alone stays on the west side of the bridge when the bridge is collapsed behind him.

This tale was considered by the annalists to be true but by later historians to be a falsification. We cannot know the truth for certain, but it probably lies somewhere in the middle. With his city threatened and its need great, Horatius may have been compelled to hold the bridge, even if he might die doing so. With the size of the bridge unknown, a few men might have been able to hold out against a larger force. If the enemy formation was broken up during pursuit as they often would, they would have reached the bridge in small groups and been faced with a stalwart defense. We should consider that at its core, the story was true even if it had been embellished over the ages.

The End of the Siege and Banishment of Tarquin

With the bridge destroyed, the Lars Porsena chose to lay siege to Rome, hoping to force their surrender. The Romans did not surrender. And after a possibly mythical assassination attempt, Lars Porsena raised the siege and moved to attack the Latin towns. Lars took hostages from the Romans and some of their conquered territory to end the siege, but it was not the total victory that Tarquin the Proud had sought.

Lars Porsena failed in his attack on the Latins, losing a son in the process. He then sought to provide Tarquin diplomatic support to regain his throne, probably as a means to save face—until Rome sent Legates requesting that he stop asking about the issue. Porsena agreed and made peace with the Romans, returning hostages and the conquered land. Porsena expelled Tarquin from Clusium, and the former king was forced to seek assistance elsewhere.

Further Reading

  • Armstrong, J. (2016). Early Roman warfare: From the regal period to the First Punic War. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military.
  • DeVries, Kelly. Battles That Changed Warfare, 1457 B.C - 1991 A.D.: from Chariot Warfare to Stealth Bombers. New York: Metro Books, 2011.
  • Lendon, J. E. Soldiers & Ghosts: a History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Livy, and Betty Radice. Rome and Italy: Books I-V. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982.
  • Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: a Military and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Penrose, Jane. Rome and Her Enemies: an Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.