Siege of Veii, 405-396 B.C.

The ten year long siege of Veii (405-396 B.C.) was the main event of the Third Veientine War and saw the Romans finally conquer their nearest rival, the Etruscan city of Veii. The two cities were only a few miles apart - Rome on the eastern bank of the Tiber and Veii about ten miles away to the west of the river. The rivals had already fought two wars in the fifth century B.C., and in 407 B.C. the truce agreed after the Second Veientine War expired. After some internal wrangling in Rome war was declared in 405 B.C., and the long siege began. Our knowledge of the events of the siege comes from histories written centuries later, the most important of which was that of Livy. The accuracy of Livy's work is at best uncertain - even in the text Livy himself admits that there are many uncertainties. Here we will give a summary of Livy's account of the siege.

The exact nature of the siege is unclear. Given its length it can not have been a close blockade, and in some years Livy reports that nothing significant happened around Veii. The Roman Republic was ruled by annually elected magistrates (three or more consular tribunes during the siege of Veii), and so each year a different set of individuals, with different ideas, were in charge of the war. The Romans were also fighting a number of other enemies at the same time, and so in some years their attention was elsewhere. For much of the time the 'siege' must have been no more than a loose blockade, with fortified Roman camps close to Veii.

War was declared just after the Senate had decided to pay soldiers for the first time. Service in the Roman army was a duty owed by every Roman citizen, and until this point they had served at their own cost. As a result of this change the Consular Tribunes for 405 were able to lead a large army to Veii, where they conducted a vigorous but unsuccessful siege. At the end of the campaigning season this siege ended, and the Romans returned home. The same was true in 404 B.C., when the siege was conducted less vigorously because of events elsewhere.

A key change came in 403 B.C. Eight consular tribunes had been elected, more than in any previous year. As the summer came towards an end they decided to build winter quarters at Veii and conduct a continuous siege. This caused a political crisis at Rome that was only ended by a disaster in the siege works. The Romans had built a great ramp that had reached the city walls, and their vineae were about to be placed in contact in with the walls, in preparation for an assault. One night the defenders of Veii sortied from the city, took advantage of lax Roman precautions, and burnt down the siege engines and the ramp. The Romans united in the face of this defeat, and renewed the siege.

In 402 B.C. the arguments spread to the Roman army. M. Sergius Fidenas and L. Verginius Tricostus Esquilinus, two of the six consular tribunes for the year, detested each other. This might not have mattered if the Veientines had not found allies. The Capenates and Faliscans, two Latin speaking peoples who lived to the north of Veii and were part of the Etruscan world, feared that if Veii fell then the Romans would turn on them next, and decided to come to the aid of their neighbours. Their combined army attacked the part of the Roman trenches commanded by Sergius. At the same time the defenders of the city attacked the trenches from the opposite side. The main Roman camp was commanded by Verginius, who refused to help unless Sergius asked for help. Sergius was too proud to do that, and was eventually forced to retreat back to Rome.

In the aftermath of this disaster both men were dismissed from their posts. A series of temporary appointments filled the gap until the election of the next set of consular tribunes, who concentrated on recapturing the lost siege works (401 B.C.). According to Livy nothing of importance happened in the next year at Veii, but in 399 B.C. the Capenates and Faliscans made a second relief attempt. This time the Romans cooperated, and while the allies were attacking the Roman trenches they were in turn attacked from the rear and forced to flee. Those of the defenders of the Veii who had sortied were trapped outside the city walls when the gates were closed to prevent the Romans from breaking in, while the Capenates and Faliscans suffered a second defeat when they ran into a Roman raiding party while returning home.

398 and 397 were quiet years around Veii, but 396 was to be the final year of the siege. After two of the consular tribunes for the year suffered a defeat at the hands of the Capenates and Faliscans M. Furius Camillus was appointed as dictator. He raised a new army, which for the first time included Latin and Hernican elements. After vowing to restore the temple of Matuta the Mother if Veii fell he left the city. His new army won a victory over the Capenates and Faliscans in the territory of Nepete (some way to the north of Veii), and then returned south to conduct the siege.

Camillus conducted a more organised siege than his predecessors. The siege works were improved, and more forts were built in the lines around Veii, suggesting that the previous siege had been a fairly loose blockade. He stopped the random skirmishes that had been going on between the two lines, and made sure that no fighting took place unless he ordered it.

According to Livy Camillus also ordered the construction of a tunnel into the citadel at Veii. This is normally dismissed as being a erroneous repetition of a similar incident during the siege of Fidenae (435 or 426 B.C.), but could just as easily reflect the truth - Camillus might have been inspired by the success of that very attack.

With the tunnel close to completion (or the city about to fall for some other unknown reason) Camillus was faced with the problem of how to divide the booty - how much was to go to the army and how much to the city treasury. He decided to ask the Senate what he should do, and the Senate decided that the loot should go to the army. This careful approach didn't save Camillus from being prosecuted after the war, and when the Gauls threatened Rome a few years later he was in exile.

According to Livy the city fell when the Romans in the tunnel broke into the Temple of Juno, which was inside the citadel of Veii. The defenders inside the citadel were overwhelmed, and the Romans were able to open the gates in the city walls. Eventually Camillus allowed unarmed Veientines to surrender, and the fighting died down.

The fall of Veii greatly increased the potential strength of Rome. It nearly doubled the land directly controlled by the city. Although the surviving inhabitants of Veii itself were sold into slavery the rural population was probably left alone, increasing the Republic's manpower. This great increase in power was soon to be temporarily overshadowed by a great disaster, for only six years later the city was captured and sacked by the Gauls under Brennus. 

Roman Conquests: Italy, Ross Cowan. A look at the Roman conquest of the Italian Peninsula, the series of wars that saw Rome transformed from a small city state in central Italy into a power that was on the verge of conquering the ancient Mediterranean world. A lack of contemporary sources makes this a difficult period to write about, but Cowan has produced a convincing narrative without ignoring some of the complexity.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 October 2009), Siege of Veii, 405-396 B.C. ,

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