Rome – the Fourth Century
One Step Forward, One Step Back
In the 5th century BC, when Greece was at its height, Rome was mostly down in the dumps: its wars were not very successful and its economic activity was in decline. In the 4th century, Rome woke up: it continued to fight wars, but these were mostly successful, and its economy too began to flourish — helped by the success of its wars. But it began with one step forward and then one big step back: it began by capturing Veii in 396, but this was followed six years later by the terrible disgrace of the capture of Rome by the Gauls in 390.
The capture of Veii was Rome’s first really big success since the expulsion of the kings more than a century before. Veii was an Etruscan town, one of the twelve towns which made up the Etruscan league, but it was the southern most of these Etruscan towns, only 12 miles north of Rome on the opposite bank of the River Tiber.
Rome was in many ways a border town between two very different types of society. To the north were the Etruscans who lived in towns, formally twelve of them but all centralised bodies. They were in a way an alien society speaking a very different language and being socially rather superior, rather more civilised than Rome. To the south of Rome however were the Latins who were very different from the Etruscans. They did not live in towns but were tribal organisations centred round villages. But they spoke more-or-less the same language as the Romans – Latin – and were more-or-less the same family, with Rome being the big brother. Rome was very definitely a town and was bigger and more sophisticated than the rest of the Latins. But the Latins did not always get on with big brother – and tribal societies are fluid, and are very difficult to keep in order.
But if Rome was constantly bickering with the Latins, the Etruscans in Veii were a more formidable proposition. They were twelve miles upstream from Rome and sat on the trade route with the prosperous Etruscan cities to the north. Conversely, to the people of Veii, Rome was a damn nuisance because it cut off their access to the sea, so Rome and Veii were destined to be enemies. Twice in the 4th century they had been at war when Veii had got the best of it, but in 396 Rome won decisively and destroyed Veii.
The destruction of Veii was very unusual. Most wars in the ancient world were short lived affairs. The fighting force were the farmers, and after the crops were sown the chief would call them out to do battle with their neighbours — but they had to be back on their farms in time for harvest. If you won the battle, you could do some pillaging and raping and come home with your booty feeling rich. But little permanent harm was done.
The war with Veii was different. It lasted for some time and involved a siege. Rome was led by the controversial figure of Camillus, a brilliant general but a reactionary politician, who was five times dictator and was awarded four triumphs — according to Livy: other historians tend to ignore him. Livy says that he performed the grand ceremony of evocatio standing outside the walls of the town and calling on the town’s gods to abandon the town. It was successful. The Romans eventually entered by crawling through the sewers — the Etruscans were good at building drains and sewers. The town was destroyed and turned over to farm land. Some of the inhabitants were enslaved and their land was allocated to the Roman poor. Some, perhaps most of the inhabitants were enrolled as Roman citizens — four new tribes were created in the Roman assembly at around this time.
The economic effects were enormous. The territory of Rome was increased by 60% by the addition of the Veiian territory, while the booty carried off from Veii enriched Rome and the Romans. Rome now became the second largest city in Italy after the Greek city of Tarentum to the south.
The Gauls capture Rome
However, half a dozen years later Rome suffered one of its greatest disasters and disgrace: it was captured by the Gauls. The Gauls, the later inhabitants of France, were Celts, and in the 4th century the Celts were expanding as evidenced by the La Tène art style spreading across North West Europe, even to Ireland. Some spread down to the Balkans and formed the Galatians to whom St Paul preached an epistle, while other Celts spread down into North Western Italy into the Po Valley where they settled.
However a group of the Gauls decided to see if they could find some rich booty further south. Perhaps they had been invited in by the Etruscans, one city hoping to use them to beat up their neighbours, but they broke loose and came down to the rich city of Rome. They reached within a dozen miles of Rome before the Romans woke up; an ill-prepared army was sent to stop them, but at the battle of Allia, a dozen miles north of Rome, the Roman army was thrashed. The main part of the defeated army fell back to newly conquered Veii and Rome itself was left undefended and the Gauls marched in. The few fighting forces left at Rome took refuge in the Capitol, which was in effect the citadel of Rome,
Livy tells a wonderful story of how the elders, deciding that resistance was useless, dressed up in their finest robes and sat in their ceremonial seats outside their houses. The Gauls thought they were statues until stroking the beard of one of them they discovered that they were real, and slaughtered the lot. More prosaically Polybius, – a better historian than Livy – says that the Capitol held out for a ten month siege, after which the Gauls were bought off and retreated with their loot.
Rome itself was wrecked, or so the historians tell us. Archaeologists however have looked in vain for evidence of the destruction of Rome, so perhaps it was not so bad after all. The Gauls no doubt took away all the portable booty they could find, but they lacked both the desire and probably the engineering ability to cause any serious damage to the monuments.
The one visible monument that remains is that the Romans decided that they should defend their city properly and built a magnificent circuit of walls which became known as the Servian Walls after Servius Tullius, the third of the Roman kings. But they can be more reliably dated because they were built with a distinctive form of granite that comes from quarries at Veii. A fine length is preserved in front of the main railway station at Termini to remind modern Romans of the glories of ancient Rome.
The fourth century was a time of steady expansion for the Romans. Much of the expansion was to the south among the Latin tribes. Beyond the Latins were the Samnites, who soon became Rome’s number one enemy. They were the tribesmen who occupied the Apennine Mountains that form the backbone of Italy. There were a number of individual groupings who all spoke the Oscan language though in different dialects. In the 7th and 6th centuries BC the Greek colonies around the coast had eaten into their territory, but in 4th and 3rd centuries they woke up and fought back.
The Greek city of Poseidonia, modern Paestum with its three magnificent Greek temples was captured by the Lucainians, the most powerful of the Oscan peoples and a fine selection of Lucainian painted tombs are to be seen in the Paestum museum. Pompeii too was captured by the Lucainians, and Oscan inscriptions are found there right down to the capture by the Romans in 91 BC. The Samnites are little known archaeologically, but their hill forts and villages are gradually being recognised, and the ritual sites at which they came together. But for the Romans they were a big nuisance and the Samnite wars lasted down to the 2nd Century BC.
But Rome was not just incorporating rustic tribesmen: an interesting example of Rome’s expansion is the case of the wealthy town of Capua. Capua lay a hundred miles to the south, just a dozen miles north of the Greek town of Naples, but it formed part of an Etruscan enclave. They were under attack from the Samnites, so they called on Rome for help, but the Romans said that they had just made a peace treaty with the Samnites, and therefore could not help. Capua therefore decided on extreme measures and carried out a formal procedure known as a deditio, which might perhaps be translated as unconditional surrender — in effect they gave themselves entirely into the care of the Romans. This meant that the Romans had reciprocal duties and had to come to the support of Capua, which they did and successfully drove off the Samnites. But in this way the city of Capua became part of the Roman Empire and Rome sent out officials to govern Capua: Capua flourished.
Livy tells this story with great gusto, but modern scholars mostly think there is something fishy about it. Anyhow Capua became a civitas sine suffragio – a city without the vote — and became part of the growing Roman Empire. Thirty years later in 312 BC Capua was further linked to Rome by the building of the Via Appia. This was the first of the great networks of the Roman roads, and was later extended to Beneventum in the heel of Italy which was the base port for the ferry to Greece and civilisation – the M1 of Roman roads.
This is an interesting example of how Rome managed to expand into the manufacturing and commercial centres: for merchants and traders, anything would be welcomed that would curb piracy and brigandry, guarantee contract and facilitate movement. Capua flourished and held its own with its powerful neighbour Naples. The Roman Empire was growing and we need to consider the major changes that enabled a thrusting and aggressive city to turn itself into a great empire.
(Header: The Servian Wall preserved in the car park of the Termini Railway Station, with the modern facade of the Railway station in the background).