Siege of Veii
In the fifth century BCE, Veii was an important Italian city. Located in central Etruria and situated on high ground about two and a half hours’ march from Rome, this rich and powerful republic was well protected with high walls. Veii’s territory reached the Tiber River, blocking Roman expansion to the north. The Romans regarded Veii as the most important threat to their expanding power. Both Veii and Rome claimed the town of Fidenae (Castel Giubileo) on the south (Latin) bank of the Tiber. The hill on which Fidenae stood controlled the lowest river ford above Rome and apparently changed hands a number of times. Apparently Veii broke a truce with Rome to seize Fidenae.
Believing conflict inevitable and desiring the Veii lands for farming, Rome carried out governmental reforms to prepare for war and then captured Fidenae. The inhabitants of Veii meanwhile worked to strengthen their city’s defenses against an anticipated Roman attack. Where possible, the cliffs on which the city stood were cut back to make them steeper and, around other portions of the periphery of the 480 acres of the city, the inhabitants built earthen ramparts with a stone breastwork.
Renewed warfare began between the two cities in 404 BCE on Roman initiative. Veii appealed in vain for assistance to the Etruscan confederation, which blamed it for the renewal of fighting. The war marked a number of firsts for Rome. It was the first conflict for Rome beyond the area occupied by the original Latin people, the first time the Romans campaigned year-round without interruptions for the harvest, and the first occasion on which Roman soldiers received regular pay. It was also perhaps the most important war in Roman history, as the city’s survival depended on a successful outcome.
The Romans soon placed Veii under siege. The fighting went on for eight years, from 404 to 396. At one point a Veientine force sortied from the city at night and destroyed siege works that had taken the Romans months to build. This only strengthened Roman resolve.
The Romans succeeded, over the course of the siege, in occupying the northern neck of land that provided the only level access to Veii. This contained one of the large tunnels used for irrigation purposes. The tunnel went under the city walls and opened into Veii itself. Marcus Furius Camillus set a large number of sappers to work, in shifts of six hours at a time, to enlarge the tunnel. Camillus, who was made dictator of Rome and directed the latter stages of the operation, was so confident of victory that he requested a decision by the Senate on how to divide the spoils. The Senate decided to allow the troops to take what they could. This brought out a large portion of the population of Rome to participate in the final assault in 396.
While the vast majority of his forces loudly assaulted Veii’s walls, Camillus sent a force of handpicked shock troops through the tunnel into the city center. This smaller force did its work well and managed to open the gates. Not until the city was entirely in Roman hands did Camillus issue orders to spare the defenseless and begin the pillage. Once the city was sacked, the Romans partially destroyed it, razing its defenses and forcing many of the inhabitants to leave. Rome’s elimination of the independent existence of another city-state was both a radical departure and an ominous precedent, an indication of the importance of the conflict. The Romans also took over the city’s deity of Juno, the symbol of vitality and youthfulness, as one of their own. Now she watched not over Veii but instead over Rome.
Grant, Michael. History of Rome. New York: Scribner, 1978.
Melegari, Vezio. The Great Military Sieges. New York: Crowell, 1972.