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Birth of the Republic: The Fabian-Veii War

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

About the Roman Entruscan war

About the Roman Entruscan war

Birth of a Republic

Rome wasn't built in a day. And being Roman didn't happen overnight. In its earliest years, Rome was a collection of homes along the Tiber bringing together outlaws, slaves, and local Latins. The Etruscans brought the Romans Greek knowledge, philosophy, law and a king.

The Etruscan kings civilized Rome, giving it religion, public buildings and an efficient army, but they never assimilated into the Roman fabric of life. They were until the end of the days known as the Etruscan kings. They worked the people into the ground building their monuments and temples, eventually turning even the aristocracy against them.

When Tarquin the Proud was cast out of Rome the Romans decided to never again have a single king and distributed the royal powers among several offices. Though deposed, Tarquin survived and made three attempts to restore his crown, but each failed and a Republic was born from the death of a kingdom.

Roman society was dominated by the Gens.

Roman society was dominated by the Gens.

Rome and the Gens

The kingdom was destroyed and with it Rome's alliances with other Etruscan city-states. Tarquin had left Rome in a precarious state with many enemies, few friends, and little to show for it. Like the Greeks across the Adriatic, the Etruscans were consummate raiders who fought not to conquer land but also to steal anything not nailed down and take it back to their own city. Rome would adopt this methodology and integrate it into the Roman social fabric.

Roman society was dominated by the Gens, members of society who claimed a shared descent from an ancestral line. Gens existed for both the Patricians and Plebeians and served as a way of organizing the family into an ordered society that could provide a social safety net and mete out familial justice. While the gens was passed from father to son, it also included freed slaves or other freedmen, and it was possible to be adopted into a gens. Patrician gens were members of the Senate and some grew incredibly powerful.

Alongside the Gens Roman society was ruled by a system of patronage called "Clientela." Richer, more powerful members of society known as "patrons" would protect and assist their poorer clients. In return for this social assistance, clients were expected to serve the patron as needed, but it was the clients' presence in the forum that served to display a patron's power and dignity. However many clients a man could take of was a visceral display of their wealth. Clients were entitled to be buried with their patrons Gens and to partake in the Gens' unique cults and rites.

One such gens who grew powerful through the growth of Clientela, good breeding, and management was the Fabia. A powerful family whose lands bordered the Etruscans to the north, the Fabia grew in strength and power until 479BC. Numbering over three hundred members of the gens with thousands of clients they, with the support of the Roman Senate, engaged in a war with their neighboring city of Veii.

Many wars with Rome were attributed to the Roman Kingdom.

Many wars with Rome were attributed to the Roman Kingdom.

War With Veii

Veii was an Etruscan city north of Rome but located in Latium. Veii was an ancient city that had been settled by Etruscans in the 10th century BC. By the time of the birth of the Roman Republic, it had become a wealthy trading city whose rich families were buried with many grave goods. Veii was not idle and many wars with Rome were attributed to the Roman Kingdom.

With the fall of the monarchy, Veii sided with Tarquin the Proud and fought to help restore his throne. When this failed, and Tarquins other ventures likewise failed, Rome sought to redress the insult of Veii helping Tarquin. After a series of inconclusive battles that resulted in the loss of a Fabian consul, the Fabia took the helm of this war and swore to defeat the Veii as an oath before the Senate and departed with their clients to wage war in Veientine territory.

This type of warfare during the sixth century was not the same as the later line battles fought by Alexander and his large phalanxes or even Rome's wars against Epirus and Carthage. Warfare at this period was raiding and skirmishing. Sieges involved surrounding a city and waiting for them to run out of food. They were often not complex battles with military strategy, but a series of running skirmishes.

Roman soldiers fought as hoplites, but unlike the later Greek phalanx they never abandoned the javelin, in this case called a "pilum" and with a distinctly triangular head. They maintained the Homeric values of personal honor and individual competition even as the Greek city-states adopted a more communal approach to honor. The men of Veii would have been armed and equipped in a similar manner.

The Veii were supplemented by auxiliaries from among the Etruscan city-states. The ancient Latin states had a certain mobility of armed forces akin to mercenaries. In Rome, we see this in the Gens who sometimes appear to bring large forces to bear to support the Roman war efforts, and sometimes they're not there. This mobility allowed the more militaristic gens, like the Fabia, to always have enemies to attack, whether they fought for Rome or for other Latin states.

War with Veii lasted for seven years, with long lulls of large battles. This time would have been filled with raids and counter-raids, just the taking of goods from one side and the other. During one of these raids, the Veii lured the Fabians into a trap and slaughtered the greater part of their army, including most of the gens. Following up on their victory the Veientines marched into Roman territory and ravaged the countryside. After another series of indecisive battles, the Veii were forced to withdraw and a peace was concluded.

The war itself proves to be inconclusive.

The war itself proves to be inconclusive.


Other than the slaughter of the Fabia, most of the battles appear to have been indecisive, and the course of the war supports this. Not only were there several large pitched battles in a short time, but hostilities also resumed not more than a year after peace was achieved. Veii and Rome would continue to battle for another hundred years, with insignificant gains pilling onto their mutual hatred.

While most of the Fabia died at the Battle of Cremera, some of the younger members survived who were too young to go to war, and they would continue their family's prestigious line, securing consulships and other senatorial positions well into the Imperial period.

The war itself proves to be inconclusive, but the records that it leaves behind about the conduct of the war and its participants give historians a lens with which to view warfare in this early period.

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.

© 2021 A Anders