How Did the Romans Conquer the Etruscans?

Map Detailing Etruscan Expansion in Ancient Italy.

Ancient Rome was a city-state with many cultural influences. The original settlers were Indo-European Latins who were closely related to other people in the region, namely the Sabines, Oscans, and Umbrians. The Romans believed that they were descended from the ancient Trojans and although that is a difficult claim to prove, there is no doubt that they were influenced by the Greeks in terms of writing, philosophy, government, and many other cultural aspects. The Greeks also inhabited the coastal areas of southern Italy and Sicily. To the north of Rome was another ethnic group known as the Etruscans who also had a profound influence on Roman culture and history.

The Etruscans were a non-Indo-European people who ruled northern Italy from about 1000 BC until about the time of the birth of the Roman Republic in 509 BC. The Etruscans contributed in many ways to Roman culture and in fact Rome’s last kings were Etruscans. There was also never any tangible ethnic hostility between Etruscans and Latins, as both lived in Rome as citizens, but the Etruscan cities, which were organized into the “Etruscan League,” were in the way of Roman expansion. The wars between Rome and the Etruscan League began toward the end of the Roman Kingdom as piecemeal attacks by the Romans to take small bits of Etruscan land. The conflict reached its apex when Rome defeated the leading city of the Etruscan League, Veii, in 396 BC, which all but ended Etruscan resistance. The Roman-Etruscan conflict finally ended when all Etruscans were granted Roman citizenship in 90 BC.

The First Conflicts

Etruscan Statue of the God Apollo from Veii.

The Etruscan homeland was the region of northern Italy known as Etruria in ancient times. During the late eight century BC the Etruscans began expanding southward and by 600 BC they were probably in control of Campania, which is the region just south of Latium and Rome. Most scholars believe that Etruscan expansion primarily took place through relatively peaceful migration instead of military campaigns. [1] The lack of widespread destruction from this period certainly points toward that thesis, as does how an Etruscan dynasty came to rule Rome.

Rome began as a monarchy in the eighth century BC, but much of that early history is clouded in mystery. The first king and founder of Rome was Romulus, who established many Roman laws as well as its often bellicose attitude toward its neighbors. Conflicts with the nearby Etruscan city of Veii over territory ensued, with the Etruscan city of Fidenae often being the primary target due to its position on the Tiber River: since it was on both sides, it was technically in both Etruria and Latium. [2] The first century BC Greek historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, noted that the conflict between Veii and Rome continued even after the ethnically Etruscan Tarquin Dynasty came to power in Rome in 616 BC. In fact, Tarquinius Priscus (ruled 616-579 BC) seemed to want to prove that he was a Roman first and foremost, because not long after he came to power he embarked on a major military campaign against Etruria (called Tyrrhenia by the Greeks).

“The army of Romans, commanded by Tarquinius, laid waste and ravaged the country of the Veientes and carried off much booty, and when numerous reinforcements assembled from all the Tyrrhenian cities to aid the Veientes, the Romans engaged them in battle and gained an incontestable victory.” [3]

The Roman Republic Versus the Etruscan League

Modern Reenactment of Roman Legionaries in Attack Formation.

After the Romans overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic in 509 BC, they actually became more expansionistic. They reasserted their authority over other Latins, such as the Sabines, and expanded into the territories of other Italic Indo-Europeans, including the Samnites and Umbrians. [4] Rome’s newfound martial vigor also brought it into direct conflict with Veii and the Etruscan League.

The Roman consul Valerius led Rome in war against Veii in 476-475, which resulted in a complete Roman victory that would last nearly forty years. [5] During the peace, the Romans expanded their territory much to the chagrin of Veii, but the leaders of the Etruscan League bided their time for an opportune opening. The opportunity came when the often disputed Etruscan city of Fidenae rebelled against Roman rule in 438 BC. Believing that the Etruscan King Tolumnius instigated the rebellion, the Romans once more declared war on Veii. The war came to a dramatic conclusion in 437 BC.

“Cossus dismounted and as Tolumnius struggled to rise struck him down again with the boss of his shield and with repeated thrusts of his spear finally pinned him to the ground. Then he stripped the lifeless body of its armour, cut off its head and, sticking it on the point of a lance, returned to the fight with his spoils. At the sight of their dead king the enemy broke and fled. That ended the resistance of the Etruscan cavalry, which had been the only arm to keep the issue in doubt.” [6]

The death of Tolumnius gave the Romans a clear path to retake Fidenae in either 435 or 425. [7] Veii could do little more than watch as the Romans expanded their influence into Etruria, but the city was safe for the time being.

The End of Etruscan Veii

By the late fifth century Rome’s influence and power in Italy had grown considerably, making another war with the Etruscan League inevitable. The Romans went straight to the source in 406 by attacking Veii, but its walls and defenses allowed the Etruscans of Veii to hold out for ten years. The situation was static until the Romans appointed Marcus Camillus as dictator. A keen military mind as well as a brave fighter, Camillus devised the idea of using sappers to dig under Veii’s walls.

“The men who had been employing themselves in this way were turned on to digging. Of the digging operations, by far the most important and laborious was the construction of a tunnel to lead up into the central fortress of the town; this work was now begun, and to keep it going without intermission the men engaged upon it were divided into six parties, working six hours each in rotation. . . From every direction and with overwhelming numbers Roman troops moved forward to the assault, to distract attention from the more imminent danger from the tunnel. . . In readiness for the decisive stroke the tunnel had been filled with picked men, and now, without warning, it discharged them into the temple of Juno on the citadel. The enemy, who were manning the walls against the threat from outside, were attacked from behind; bolts were wrenched off the gates; buildings were set on fire as women and slaves on the roof flung stones and tiles at the assailants. A fearful din arose: yells of triumph, shrieks of terror, wailing of women, and the pitiful crying of children; in an instant of time the defenders were flung from the walls and the town gates opened; Roman troops came pouring through, or climbed the now defenceless walls; everything was overrun, in every street the battle raged. After terrible slaughter resistance began to slacken, and Camillus gave the order to spare all who were not carrying arms.” [8]

With Veii’s destruction complete, there was no other city capable of effectively leading the Etruscan League. The smaller Etruscan cities put up little resistance when the Romans made their final thrust into Etruria in 310 BC. [9] Veii was rebuilt and became part of the Roman Republic with a more Roman character, leaving the Etruscan people to linger in a sort of political limbo for nearly two centuries: their league was gone and they were under Roman rule, yet they had no status as Roman citizens. Finally, in 90 BC the people of Etruria were granted Roman citizenship, which officially ended the Etruscan-Roman conflict. [10]

Conclusion

The ancient Romans were influenced by several different peoples, including the Etruscans. The Etruscans influence aspects of Roman art and religion and were among some of its kings, but they were also among early Rome’s most formidable enemies. Rome and the Etruscans, especially the city of Veii, fought a conflict for control of central Italy that lasted for several hundred years. Through a combination of tenacity, fortune, and some good leaders, the Romans were finally able to incorporate Etruria into the Roman Republic.

References

  1. Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC). (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 155
  2. Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 2002), Book I, 15
  3. Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The Roman Antiquities. Translated by Earnest Cary. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950), Book IIII, 57
  4. Crawford, Michael. “Early Rome and Italy.” In The Oxford History of the Roman World. Edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 26
  5. Livy, Book II, 53
  6. Livy, Book IV, 18-20
  7. Grant, Michael. The Etruscans. (New York: Charles Scribener’s Sons, 1980), p. 232
  8. Livy, Book V, 20-21
  9. Crawford, p. 482
  10. Lorenzi, Rossella. “Unraveling the Etruscan Enigma.” Archaeology 63 (2010) p. 39