Lucius Tarquinius Priscus – An Etruscan On The Roman Throne Who Defeated The Etruscans
Lucius Tarquinius, called Priscus (“the Elder”), was the 5th oh the seven legendary kings of Rome. He was the first king of the so-called Tarquin dynasty, family of Etruscan origin connected to the strong Etruscan influence on early Rome. Nevertheless, the man himself was half Greek and ancient historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus saw him as the one behind a huge Roman victory against the Etruscans and the Latin and Sabine cities on top of that. Read on if you want to know more of his military campaigns.
I will write about the events as described by Dionysius in his Roman Antiquities. Please be advised that the historicity of the story is at best questionable, even other historians provide different accounts. For example, Livy writes about the events of the Sabine war but does not connect Tarquinius to any conflict with the Etruscans. On the other hand, in the Fasti Triumphales (a list of Roman triumph completed in the reign of Augustus) Tarquinius is mentioned with three triumphs – against the Latins, Etruscans and Sabines.
Who Is Who?
Italic tribe living in Latium, close to Rome (from the south). According to Roman foundation myths, the Latins were the Italians that mixed with the Trojans who had come from Troy under the leadership of Aeneas. The Romans, therefore, had a strong Latin origin. This, however, didn’t prevent them from waging war against the Latins. One of such wars was fought in the reign of Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius’ predecessor on the Roman throne.
Another neighbouring tribe, living mostly west of Rome. According to legend, they played a huge role in the city’s early history. Rome’s founder Romulus waged war against them after the Romans abducted some of their women (the Rape of the Sabines). As a result of the peace treaty following that conflict, the Sabine leader Titus Tatius became a co-ruler of Rome for five years and many Sabines moved to the new city. Another famous Roman king Numa Pompilius was also of Sabine origin.
The Etruscans were a powerful civilization, occupying the vast territories north of Rome (in the height of their expansion their influence was strong from the Po river to Campania.). Their origin is unclear and even in ancient times, different theories existed on this matter. Herodotus claimed they came from Asia Minor and some modern genetic research seems to support this, others claim they are “native” Italians. Without any doubts, at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, they were the superpower of the Italian peninsula.
They were closely present at the early stages of Roman history. The often posed a threat to the young city, siding with its enemies. The Etruscans never formed a centralized state but worked as an alliance of independent cities (“Etruscan League” of 12 Etruscan cities). The city that created most troubles for the Romans was called Veii.
Lucius Tarquinius was a mythical king of Rome, but not a Roman by birth. He came to the city from a mighty Etruscan city of Tarqunii, with his wife Tanaquil. However, he was not 100% Etruscan either. His father was a rich Greek merchant from Corinth. With the vast inheritance, the couple decided to leave Tarquinii and move to Rome in pursuit of a noteworthy political career. They had realized that while the Etruscans saw the man as an immigrant and therefore a second-rate citizen, Rome would be much more open. I must say their succeeded above expectations. The couple’s capabilities (and money) soon brought them the respect of the Roman king Ancus Marcius and the whole Roman nation. After Ancus’ death, Tarquinius won the election and became a new king of Rome.
Soon after Tarquinius assumed power, war broke out seemingly everywhere. Latins started a series of conflicts. One of the Latin cities provoked the Romans by claiming that the peace treaty they had signed with the old Roman king is terminated by his death. The Romans’ retribution was swift – taking one Latin city after another. The Latins soon realized they need more. They formed a large army of soldiers coming from all their cities and asked allies for help. Their allies were the Sabines who promised to invade the Roman territory close to their borders, thus opening a second frontline. Their other allies were the Etruscans.
Tarquinius saw the enemy strategy and realized that its aim is to have him divide his numbers to fight both the Latins and the Sabines. He refused to do this, left the Sabines without attention and attacked the Latin army with all his forces in hope of a quick victory. Indeed, the two armies soon met in battle, but the result was inconclusive. Both sides prepared for a rematch. In this second battle, Latins no longer stood alone, but troops from Etruscan cities increased their numbers. They had a reason to be confident, but the luck abandoned them soon. They started the fight against the Romans well, almost breaking their formation on the Roman left wing. However, at that moment Tarquinius himself rushed there from the right wing, flanked the enemy forces and massacred the Etruscans fighting there.
Moreover, the Roman cavalry rushed to the enemy camp immediately and took it without much resistance. The guards, having heard nothing yet about the events on the battlefield, mistook them for the Latin troops and let them enter the camp unchallenged.
This effectively ended any threat from Latins and Tarquinius was free to turn to the remaining enemies – Sabines and Etruscans. The Sabines encamped at the confluence of two rivers, with two camps on the opposite sites of the united river connected by a wooden bridge. This gave them the flexibility to move their troops quickly wherever they were needed most. Tarquinius, however, outwitted them. He had his camp near one of the rivers before the confluence. His army built small boats and rafts. Do you think he attacked from the river? Yes and no. The soldiers filled the boats with dry wood, set them on fire and left them down the stream. The boats soon got stuck by the wooden bridge in the enemy camp, the bridge burst into flames and was destroyed (and with it also the morale of the enemy). While the Sabine soldiers were busy extinguishing the fire, Romans attacked the camp and gained a clear victory. Truce with the Sabines was then reached quickly.
The Etruscans were also approached, but they refused to stop the fighting. After the defeats of the Latin and Sabine armies, both heavily supported by Etruscan troops, many Etruscan soldiers ended up being imprisoned by the victorious Romans. The Etruscan diplomat asked Tarquinius to release those men, but the Roman king decided to keep them in Rome as hostages. This reply angered the Etruscans and provoked them to increase their war efforts. Up to that point the Etruscan cities only provided auxiliary troops for the allied armies, now they decided to form a huge army under the Etruscan command. A decision was passed, that each of the cities in the Etruscan League must participate or be excluded from the league.
Etruscans, with the forces they had at disposal, conquered a town of Fidenae, strategically a great base for future attacks on Rome. It wasn’t a hard thing to do – the local leaders changed sides and gave up the town. Etruscans didn’t pursue any further conquest but started to assemble an army from all the cities in their League.
King Tarquinius didn’t just wait for the enemy attack. He still had an army at his hand with some time left until the end of the fighting season. He divided his forces and sent his nephew Egerius and allied troops to take Fidenae, while he personally led the Roman forces and attacked Veii. Egerius failed in his efforts and only narrowly escaped destruction, but the king had more luck. He plundered the lads around Veii for years and despite not being able to conquer the city, he took much booty.
After he took what he could, he turned to another Etruscan city, Caere, with similar success. He defeated the enemy army and plundered their land but didn’t make an effort to take the city itself. The city he wanted to take was still Fidenae where his kinsman had failed. Tarquinius attacked Fidenae aggressively and soon celebrated a victory. He made sure to execute or banish the traitors responsible for the cooperation with the enemy.
The decisive battle was unavoidable now. The Etruscans tried to attract their old allies, the Sabines, but with little success. Only a handful of unorganized Sabine mercenaries joined their ranks. The final clash happened near the city of Eretum in the Sabine territory. Dionysius describes the battle as “the greatest of any that had yet taken place between the two nations”, but he doesn’t provide much detail on top of that. With a notable exception of the fact, the Tarquinius celebrated a victory and the result was very decisive.
In the aftermath, the Etruscans surrendered to Tarquinius. He decided to leave them with their lives and possessions untouched, but they had to cease their sovereignty - which they did. In fact, they soon delivered the insignia of their sovereignty to the Roman king – a purple toga, a golden crown, ivory throne, and scepter. All those items became Roman insignia. Another addition to the king’s appearance came in a form of 12 lictors, king’s bodyguards with fasces, a bound bundle of wooden rods with axes.
The Sabines (again)
Defeating the Etruscans wasn’t enough for the Roman king. The truce with the Sabines expired and Tarquinius was eager to conquer their lands. He asked the Sabines to deliver the men who cooperated with the Etruscans and when this request was denied, he declared a new war. The Sabines started moving and crossed the border into Roman territory.
In the first battle, the Sabines fought valiantly. The battle remained undecided up until the moment when some Roman troops appeared in their rear having outmaneuvered the poor Sabines. At this point, the Sabines fled. They started to assemble a new army, but Tarquinius, just like he did with the Etruscans, acted quickly and without hesitation. He entered the Sabine lands ready to cause as much damage as possible. A Sabine general made a halt to the Roman progress when he blocked the Roman movement further into Sabine territory. Unable to find another solution, Tarquinius decided to encircle the enemy camp and let them starve. This strategy worked – the desperate Sabines suffered and the hastily abandoned the camp when an opportunity came (a stormy night) leaving their belongings and their wounded there for the Romans to take.
The war went on for another five years. After them, a decisive battle was fought. If you compare the situation with the one from the beginning of this whole series of conflicts, you can spot a major difference. While then Roman stood on one side and an alliance of Latins, Sabines and Etruscans on the other, now the Sabines were all alone. Latins and Etruscans, having been previously defeated, provided auxiliary troops for the Roman army.
Tarquinius led his forces into the battle with his two generals – his nephew and a guy named Servius Tullius, who later became his successor. Tarquinius personally commanded the Roman soldiers on the left wing, the nephew the right wing consisting of the Etruscan forces and young Servius Tullius was left in command of the Latins in the middle. The Sabines didn’t stand a chance. Their defeat was crushing. When Tarquinius subsequently moved to lay siege to their cities, the Sabines surrendered.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus - The Roman Antiquities