Text #9650

"Roman-Etruscan Wars", in Wikipedia.–Etrus...

In 390 BC a Gaulish warband first defeated the Roman army at the Battle of the Allia and then sacked Rome. The ancient writers report that in 389 the Etruscans, the Volsci and the Aequi all raised armies in hope of exploiting this blow to Roman power. According to Livy the leading men of all of Etruria gathered at the sanctuary of Voltumna to form a hostile alliance against Rome. Beset by dangers on all side, the Romans appointed Marcus Furius Camillus dictator. Camillus chose to march against the Volsci first, leaving, according to Livy, a force commanded by consular tribune L. Aemilius Mamercinus in the Veientine territory to guard against the Etruscans. In the course of two campaigns Camillus inflicted crushing victories against the Volsci and the Aequi and was now ready to take on the Etruscans.

Livy and Plutarch, and more summarily Diodorus Siculus, narrates the fighting between Romans and Etruscans in very similar terms. While Camillus was away campaigning against the Volsci, the Etruscans laid siege to Sutrium, a Roman ally. The Sutrines sent for Rome for aid and Camillus, now victorious against the Volsci and Aequi, marched to their relief, but before any help could arrive they were forced into a conditional surrender, being allowed to leave without weapons and only one garment apiece. Meeting the exiled Sutrines that same day, Camillus ordered the baggage left behind and marched his now unencumbered army to Sutrium where he found the enemy still dispersed and busy plundering the city. Camillus ordered all the gates closed and attacked before the Etruscans could concentrate their forces. The now trapped Etruscans at first intended to fight to the end, but when hearing that their lives would be spared, they surrendered in great number. Sutrium was thus captured twice in the same day. Livy provides a description of the amount of spoils taken. Having won three simultaneous wars, Camillus returned to Rome in triumph. The Etruscan prisoners were publicly sold; after the gold owed to Rome’s matrons had been repaid (they had contributed their gold to ransom Rome from the Gauls), enough was left for three golden bowls inscribed with the name of Camillus and placed in the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus before the feet of the statue of Juno.

Livy is our only written source for the subsequent years. He writes that in 388 a Roman army invaded the territory of Tarquinii where the towns of Cortuosa and Contenebra were captured. The former was taken by surprise and fell at the first assault. At Contenebra a small garrison attempted to resist, but after a few days succumbed to superior Roman numbers.

In 387 there were rumours in Rome that Etruria was in arms and the Romans once again turned to Camillus who was one of six elected consular tribune for 386. However Camillus was diverted by news that the Volscians had invaded the Pomptine territory. With Camillus occupied, the Etruscans attacked the border strongholds of Nepete and Sutrium. However Camillus soon defeated the Volscians and meanwhile a second army was raised at Rome. Camillus and his colleague P. Valerius Potitus Poplicola received command of this second army and the war against the Etruscans. By the time Camillus and Valeirus arrived at Sutrium, the Etruscans had taken half the city, the Sutrines desperately defending the rest behind street barricades. Camillus divided his army into two and ordered his colleague to attack the walls on the side the enemy was holding. Attacked from both within and without the city, the Etruscans fled in panic and were killed in great numbers. Having recaptured Sutrium, the Roman army marched to Nepete, which by that time had surrendered to the Etruscans after treachery from some of the townsmen. Camillus first attempted to convince the Nepesines to throw out the Etruscans. When they refused, he captured the city by storm. All the Etruscans and those who had sided with them were killed and a Roman garrison put in place. After this victory no further conflict is reported between Romans and Etruscans until 358 when Rome again clashed with Tarquinii.

Modern interpretations

The many similarities between accounts of the campaigns of 389 and 386 – in both Camillus is placed in command, defeats the Volsci and comes to the aid of Sutrium – has caused several modern authors to consider these to be doublets of each other. This was the view taken by Beloch who held that the Gallic sack had a severe and long-lasting effect on Rome’s fortunes. Accordingly, Camillus’ stunning victories against the Etruscans and Volsci so soon after must be inventions designed to minimize the scale of the Roman defeat. Different later writers then treated these invented victories in different ways, assigning them to different years with different incidental detail, until in Livy’s writings they emerge as separate, but ultimately both unhistorical, events.

Cornell (1995) believes the Gallic sack of Rome to have been a setback from which she rapidly recovered, and sees the Roman victories that followed as continuation of an aggressive expansionist policy begun in the 420s. The accounts of these victories have been exaggerated and elaborated, and some events duplicated, but essentially describe historical events that fit into this broader picture of Roman expansion. While the role of Camillus has been exaggerated, the frequency in which he is recorded to have held office attest to his political importance in Rome during this era.

Oakley (1997) considers the accounts of a Roman victory against Etruscans in 389 to be historical, although all the details beyond the bare fact that Sutrium was successfully relieved have likely been invented. Except for the repayment of the gold to the matrons, Livy’s description of Camillus’ 389 triumph could be based on authentic information, if so this would help confirm the fighting in 389. He also believes the campaign of 386 could be historical as well, although with some of the detail transplanted from 389. A major victory by Camillus in this year would explain why no further fighting is recorded on Rome’s Etruscan frontier until 358.

Forsythe (2005) takes a more sceptical view. He believes only the existence of three golden bowls dedicated by Camillus to Juno to be historical. From these ancient writers have invented a series of lightning victories against the traditional enemies of Rome at the time of Camillus, the Etruscans, the Aequi and the Volsci, and dated them to the year after the Gallic sack when Rome was supposed to beset by enemies on all sides.

Livy’s report of the capture of Cortuosa and Contenebra in 388 has received much less skepticism than the campaigns of 389 and 386. No further records of Cortuosa and Contenebra have been preserved and their sites are today unknown. As there would have been little incentive for ancient writers to invent the capture of obscure villages, modern historians tend to consider mention of otherwise unknown sites to be based on genuine records. Excavations at modern San Giovenale near Tarquinii have revealed a settlement founded about 650 and destroyed in the early 4th century. While San Giovenale’s identity as ancient Cortuosa or Contenebra cannot be confirmed, it is still reasonable to attribute its destruction to the campaign described by Livy under 388.


Cornell, T. J. (1995). The Beginnings of Rome – Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000–264 BC). New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-01596-7.

Forsythe, Gary (2005). A Critical History of Early Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24991-7.

Oakley, S. P. (1997). A Commentary on Livy Books VI–X. I: Introduction and Book VI. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-815277-9.

Oakley, S. P. (1998), A Commentary on Livy Books VI–X, II: Books VII–VIII, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-815226-2**

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