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Death of a Kingdom I: Rome in the Battle of Silva Arsia

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

Little is known about the battle of Silva Arsia except for who won.

Little is known about the battle of Silva Arsia except for who won.

Rome as a Monarchy

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, known to history as Tarquin the Proud, was the seventh and final king of the city of Rome. Prior to the rise of the Republic, Rome was ruled by kings, whose power over the citizens was confirmed by the granting of Imperium by the Senate. These kings were powerful warlords, whose right to rule was maintained by their ability to lead armies and take plunder for the Roman people. Monarchy in Rome was very distinct from the later monarchies that ruled Europe.

Rome was formed by a coalition of Latins, slaves, and outcasts who built a city on the banks of the Tiber, using the river as a natural defense. In its early days, Rome was a convenient stop on the north-south trade route in Italy, which brought wealth into the city, but also the greedy eyes of the mountain tribes that surrounded them. Rome was constantly at war with not only its Latin neighbors, but the Sabines, Samnites, and Etruscans of central and northern Italy.

Surrounded by warlike people, the Romans had to adapt. Early interest in adaptions came, oddly enough, from the Etruscan kings. Rome employed a fluid system in which regional clans were able to hold military command in Rome, and in turn they brought riches and protection to Rome. This system evolved into the later tribus, the Roman tribal system. The Etruscan kings used the Roman system of electing outsiders to gain power and implemented a series of wars that enriched Rome and themselves.


Etruscan Warfare

The Etruscans brought Greek-style warfare to the Romans, instituting new policies that ensured Rome's best men would fight for new booty. Early warfare in archaic period was based around loose formations fighting individually. While the primary sources are limited, due to many being lost during the Gaul's sack of Rome in 390 BC, archeological finds have shed some light on how the early Romans fought.

Most men fought as infantry, with only about one in ten being mounted. Swords, spears and shields along with body armor have been discovered, and the existence of body armor, particularly chest armor, would lead to the conclusion that the army was not formed into tight phalanxes in this period. In a tight phalanx, the shield and even the spear of the next man help to protect you. The shields are held together like scales and protect the abdomen and upper legs, while the spears are designed to push enemy formations. In a phalanx, one regiment tries to push the other backwards, breaking their formation and causing the men to flee. Those that fall to the ground during this scuffle are trampled or stabbed with the butt end of the spear, which was specifically designed for that. Any amount of extra armor would be a detriment to the one wearing it rather than a benefit.

At this period, large walls were not yet implemented throughout Italy. City defenses were built to maximize the potential of the natural terrain. In Rome, we see that they built bridges over the Tiber and fortified places where enemies could easily pass over—but these defenses were designed to slow raiders down. Attacks on cities were either violent and dangerous storming, or a siege meant to starve the people into surrendering.

Together these two things, what we would call Homeric warfare and a lack of state defensiveness, paints a picture of warfare that was fought not for the conquest of land or building of empires, but of opportunistic raiders seizing goods, supplies, and slaves. The Etruscan kings were so good at this that they led Rome into a period of unending warfare supplemented by constant construction of new temples and buildings to celebrate their victories.

The Fasti Triumphale, where Rome recorded the victories of its great leaders

The Fasti Triumphale, where Rome recorded the victories of its great leaders

Rise of a Republic

We started with Tarquin the Proud as he was, as evinced by his constructions, a master of raiding warfare. He began the construction of the Temple of Jupiter Maximus and improved the circus and sewers, while simultaneously engaging in warfare with the neighboring Latin cities. Tarquin needed to reward his citizens. But when he made war on the Rutuli, he failed to capture their city in a quick manner. While his army sat in siege, trouble stirred in Rome.

The spark that turned the monarchy to ash would be found in the actions of Tarquin's son, who forced another nobleman's wife to have sex with him. Unable to live with the shame, she committed suicide and Rome rose against the family of Tarquin. Tarquin the Proud was still away from the city when the Romans seized his crown, so he gathered allies and marched back on Rome. At Silvia Arsia, a forest near to Rome, Tarquin and his allies met the Roman levy in a battle that would decide the monarchy.

We know little about the battle other than Rome was victorious and Tarquin driven from the field. Brutus, the consul elected to co-rule Rome, died fighting in single combat with Tarquin's son, Arruns Tarquinus, who also died on the field of battle. Silva Arsia was the closest Tarquins would ever come to reclaiming his throne, though not his last attempt to do so.

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.