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Rise of the Republic II: The Conquest of Veii

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

Read on to learn all about the Roman siege of Veii and the societal changes that allowed the Romans to rise to an empire.

Read on to learn all about the Roman siege of Veii and the societal changes that allowed the Romans to rise to an empire.

The Third Veientine War

At the turn of the 5th century BC, Rome was at war with the city of Veii. Veii, a leading Etruscan city, fought against Rome for the control of the vital trade routes running through Latium. Throughout the years, the Veiians had allied with Latin cities opposing Rome and with Oscan-speaking hill tribes. This war started in 405 BC and was the last of a series of wars fought between Rome and Veii.

Rome began this war in the wake of passing a law allowing for the state to pay the legions for time served in the field when they did not get plunder to supplement their income. From the time that Rome was founded until the 5th century, Rome had grown at an extraordinary rate. By accepting exiles, outlaws and slaves from other cities and granting them citizenship, Rome was able to outgrow its neighbors and came to be able to challenge the older, better-developed Etruscan city-states.

For several years, the siege of Veii was a stalemate. Wars in the axial age rarely saw an army storm a city. Storming a city was extremely dangerous for the attacker, and even a much smaller force could often defeat a large, besieging army. Veii was no different. Well stocked and garrisoned, the city held out for eight years of siege before Rome decided to change its tactics.

Marcus Furius Camillus

Marcus Furius Camillus

The Capture of Veii

Before the advent of the powerful siege machines of the late empire and those in the medieval period, sieges were often conducted by encircling the enemy city and compelling them to surrender by starving them out. This had been the initial strategy of the Roman Republic for dealing with Veii.

Throughout the first few years of the war, the siege was very disorganized, and ongoing skirmishes kept the lines engaged but focused more on pillaging than laying siege. The loose siege came to a halt in 396 BC. In light of a series of defeats at the hands of Veii's allies, Rome appointed a dictator to lead her armies.

Marcus Furius Camillus had risen to prominence through his career as a soldier and had been a rising star at the outbreak of the war. After serving as a consular tribune (a high-level post created in part to deal with the growth of the Roman war machine), Camillus was declared dictator and tasked with completing the war against Veii. Camillus first took the bulk of the army and attacked Veii's Etruscan allies.

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Camillus was able to drive the Etruscans from the field in quick order and then set about properly laying siege to Veii. The city was enclosed by siege camps, and the soldiers were ordered to not engage except on the dictators' orders. While diggers were attempting to tunnel under the walls to try to cause a collapse, they found the sewers of Veii by chance. Camillus took this as an opportunity. He ordered a general assault from all directions to occupy the defenders while a force of picked men went through the sewers and emerged inside the city walls.

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The Birth of an Empire

With soldiers emerging from inside the city walls and legions storming the walls Veii's defenders were thrown into panic and the city was taken. The victorious army put the men to the sword and took the women and children as slaves. The Romans stole the gods of Veii and dragged them back to Rome. The wealth of Veii was distributed to the army, and they went home rich.

Veii itself was repopulated with Romans. For the first time in Roman history, Rome conquered the land of its enemies and became more than just a city-state. Prior to the Battle of Veii Rome had pillaged cities, but never occupied them. The Plebeians wanted to take half the population of Rome to Veii to repopulate the city. This would have made it a sort of independent state of its own, and the Patricians were vociferously against it.

Camillus vetoed the measure and went into exile to avoid retribution from the plebs. The ruins of Veii would instead be occupied by smaller numbers of citizens, and the Senators would build estates in the lands formerly owned by Veii.

The capture of Veii changed Rome's outlook on the outside world. They had become the most powerful state in central Italy with no true regional competitor. The repopulation efforts and the immense wealth gained from conquest would shape the political climate of Rome throughout the 4th century as Rome grappled with the ideas of colonies, Municipium, and Foederati. But before Rome could go on the warpath, it would have to face the Gallic threat to northern Italy. And at the Battle of the Allia, Rome's ambition would be tempered in the flames of war.

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.

© 2022 A Anders

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