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Rise of the Republic I: The Siege of Veii

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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 Ten Year War

At the turn of the 4th century, Latium was home to the Latins, various Italic tribal peoples and Veii, an Etruscan city. Veii and Rome sat only a few leagues apart and vied for control of the trade routes of Latium. The two cities were mythical enemies, having fought wars since the founding of Rome according to the later Roman writers. While the details are sparse, the constant conflict created an enmity between the two states that lasted well into the 4th century and erupted into a ten-year war starting in 405BC.

The Etruscans were a distinct cultural group in ancient Italy with their own language, culture and religious practices. Cultural diffusion with the Latins brought them closer together over time, but the two groups were embroiled in conflict over the trade routes to the Greek cities to the south. As time drew on and the trade value fluctuated, the Etruscans grew weaker, and the Latins grew stronger.

In 407BC, Rome's truce with Veii ended. Both states began to prepare for war, and in 405BC, Rome and Veii declared war once more, for the last time. While the beginning of the war started quietly, it would end with the utter annihilation of Veii as an independent state. This was possible because of a small but radical change in Roman policy.

The Third Veientine War was the culmination of a series of wars between the city of Veii and the Republic of Rome.

The Third Veientine War was the culmination of a series of wars between the city of Veii and the Republic of Rome.

The Third Veientine War

The outbreak of the Third Veientine War was the culmination of a series of wars between the city of Veii and the Republic of Rome. Etruscan kings had ruled Rome in its mythological age and brought the city founded by Romulus and Remus law, order, and religion, connecting them to the Etruscan sphere of influence. The Etruscan city of Veii was a leading city in the Etruscan world, whose culture and development surpassed Rome for many years.

Veii was part of the Etruscan League and able to call on its sister cities to come to its aid during the war. Throughout the First and Second Veientine wars, these sister cities helped Veii fight the war to a stalemate. Neither Veii nor Rome was able to achieve complete domination during the 5th century BC, but two things would change the stalemate as time went on. The first was the Gallic migrations into Cisalpine Gaul. There they clashed with the Etruscans and weakened their ability to resist the Latins. The second was the development of subsidies for the legions of Rome.

Early Republican Rome was a disorganized, predatory state.

Early Republican Rome was a disorganized, predatory state.

Paying the Legions

Early Republican Rome was a disorganized, predatory state. Its army was little more than a rabble that swept across the countryside, stealing whatever wasn't nailed down, taking slaves, and razing farmsteads. This was the norm in Latium at the time. The Latins faced with incursions from the hill tribes were constantly at war, and the early city-states were protected by little more than natural terrain defenses supplemented with the occasional tower or gate.

Assimilation of defeated peoples changed Rome from a backwater of bandits and outlaws to a local political powerhouse. After hundreds of years of conflict, they were able to fight a protracted war against their neighbors in the Greek style. This meant keeping men on the battlefield year-round. For the plebeians, this would have been intolerable as they could not have toiled in their shops and fields. Acting to preempt another civil disaster, the Senate issued a decree ensuring that the soldiers would be paid by the state, creating the first prototype of a professional legionary force in Latium.

Paying the plebeians to stay in the field was a radical departure from the wars of the past. Payment removed a great deal of economic risk from the Roman soldier. If a war went poorly before, the plebeian lost everything and could have been thrown into severe debt. In Roman society, this would have caused a twofold problem. Debts could see a man thrown into slavery, and this was both upsetting for the debtor and removed a free citizen from participation in the army. Ensuring that failed or that long campaigns were not destructive to the plebeians was necessary for the expansion of the state.

Marcus Furius Camillus

Marcus Furius Camillus

The Long Siege

The decree to pay the army saw immediate benefits. It allowed Rome to fight on three fronts against Veii and her allies and keep up a siege that would otherwise have fallen apart every year. It saw Rome united on an aggressive military campaign for the first time since the Conflict of Orders began to rage. Despite the length of the war, Rome was able to keep up the fight even as the years dragged on with no definitive battles. The siege of Veii was unlike any in the history of Rome.

While the siege could not have successfully closed up the entire city, the presence of fortified camps on Veiian territory meant that they would have lost more land and more profit and strangled the cities' wholesale supplies every year. Clashing skirmishes would have drained the morale of the city, and Rome was even forced to contend with the hill tribes who took any opportunity to attack undefended territory.

For the first eight years of the war, the stalemate remained. Skirmishes and forts dotted the Veiian territory as the two forces tried to force the other to quit the war. While the siege at Veii would continue, battles continued to be fought around Latium against the allies of Veii. An up-and-coming soldier named Marcus Furius Camillus would use these battles to make his name known across Rome. When the rotating command of the consular tribunes could not break the deadlock, Camillus would become dictator and change the Roman world changed forever.

Sources 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.

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