Unlike later Roman conflicts for which we have more sources, the Etruscan Wars do not survive well in the ancient sources, numerous difficulties arise in assembling their course. These wars occurred so early in Roman history that extensive elements of the early narratives are shrouded in mythology and should be heavily discounted. Livy is our best surviving source for this early period, but he wrote four centuries after the events and drew on sources that were recorded at least two centuries after the events they described. Also, his account does not become more detailed until the last phase of the Etruscan conflict, and then it breaks off abruptly with events in 293. The problems in all of our sources are such that no continuous narrative of the Etruscan Wars can be reconstructed. It is, however, possible to discern at places the general course of the wars.
The Etruscan Wars began with Rome’s three wars against the city of Veii, beginning in 483 BCE. Veii was a successful Etruscan city nine miles north of Rome. Both cities were of similar size and strength and had been in competition for years. It is not clear from our sources which side struck first, but the warfare was annual, and the raiding by both sides continued alongside regular campaigns. There was a Roman battle victory in 480, but the Veiians were still able to invade and set up a camp in Roman territory on the Janiculum Hill. In response, the Fabian clan of Romans set up a fort in Veiian territory on the Cremera River. Veii destroyed this fort in 477. Finally in 474, the two sides signed a 40-year truce.
As it happened, the truce coincided with the Battle of Cumae off central Italy. The Greek tyrant Hiero I of Syracuse, allied with Aristodemus of Cumae, defeated a large Etruscan fleet in the bay of Naples. Rome played no role in the engagement, but the naval battle resulted in the end of Etruscan hegemony in central Italy and left a power vacuum into which Rome would eventually turn its energies.
The second war with Veii began in 437 when the Veiian leader Lars Tolumnius had Roman ambassadors murdered. In the ensuing warfare, Tolumnius died in single combat. In 436 or 435, Rome attacked and began to siege the Veiian city of Fidenae. Roman soldiers tunneled into the city’s citadel, capturing it. Remarkably, no other Etruscan city sent aid to Fidenae or Veii, so they had to sign a 30-year truce in 435. The final conflict with Veii began when Rome attacked it directly after the Veiians refused to pay an indemnity for the prior conflict. Rome laid siege to Veii. Livy’s report that the siege lasted 10 years and ended the same way as the siege of Fidenae are too poetic to be true. There may have been a siege, and the city did fall in circa 396 and was absorbed into Roman territory. The end of this conflict was merely the end of the first phase in the Etruscan Wars.
There was a brief war (358-351) between Rome and the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, which was later supported by the Etruscan communities of Falerii and Caere. Tarquinii soldiers raided Roman territory, and when they refused to pay reparations, the war began. As with so many Roman wars in this period, the quality of the leadership and combat was erratic, so the war dragged on. Rome won a major victory in 353, forcing Caere to sign a truce, and two years later after much pillaging, Tarquinii and Falerii signed truces also, ending the war. As with the prior conflict, most of the Etruscan communities did not send aid, though this pattern is not surprising given that the Etruscans did not maintain a federal or imperial system.
The final phase of the Etruscan Wars began in 311 when Etruscan cities, probably Volsinii, Perusia, Cortona, Arretium, and Clusium, banded together and attacked the Roman colony at Sutrium, in formerly Etruscan territory. What triggered the attack is not recorded, but it may have been connected with Roman warfare with the Samnites and Gauls. Rome responded aggressively, forcing Perusia, Cortona, and Arretium to sign treaties in 311 and forcing Volsinii to sign a treaty in 308. Even after bringing these cities to make peace, the Romans continued fighting in Etruria annually as the Samnites tried to forge a broader alliance to distract or crush Rome. This phase of the war turned more aggressive after the Battle of Sentinum against a Samnite coalition in 295. Roman commanders moved against the Etruscan cities that had allied with the Samnites, and more vigorous annual, or nearly so, campaigns into Etruria continued.
After 293 Livy’s narrative is lost for most of the third century, so there are only occasional notices. In 284 a Roman army was defeated by Gauls with Etruscan allies near Arretium, but in 283 Rome defeated a similar force at Lake Vadimon. By 280, the Etruscan communities of Vulci, Volsinii, Rusellae, Vetulonia, Populonia, Volaterrae, and Tarquinii had been forced to become allies of Rome. Caere’s conquest in 273 was the effective end of the Etruscan Wars. A last gasp occurred when Falerii revolted in 241, but the city was was razed and its population relocated as an example to other allies. Rome finally had unchallenged dominance of Etruria.
The Etruscan Wars read as if the outcome was a foregone conclusion, but it is important to recall that Rome lost numerous battles, and for a time early in the wars, part of its territory was occupied. During the later phase of the wars, Rome was distracted with wars in central Italy but still managed to bring this series of conflicts to a conclusion.
Rome benefited immensely in the long term from the war. Starting with the elimination of Veii and the seizure of its territory in 396, Rome added a great deal of territory to its public holdings. Rome also established a number of colonies that had the economic benefit of removing some of the poor from the city by giving them land elsewhere but also spreading Roman commercial interests and control over resources. Rome also gained control over Etruria, thus freeing up resources for employment to the south and adding to Rome’s pool of allied manpower reserves. This was the first war in which Rome fielded an army that included as many or more allied troops as legionaries. Rome applied the military, commercial, and colonial practices that evolved to win the Etruscan Wars to later conflicts in central and southern Italy. These wars contributed immensely to Rome’s later success.
Another consequence of these wars was internal political change in Rome. In his narrative, Livy connects the wars with a number of points in Rome’s political conflict called the Struggle of the Orders. During the wars, the Plebeians used crises to assert their demands. Thus, tribunes of the Plebeians were able to assert independent authority, the first Plebeian consul was elected, and the first Plebeian dictator was named. The Etruscan Wars were not internal conflicts in Rome, but they contributed to internal political change.
While the wars spread destruction and turmoil, over the long term they were an immense boon to Rome. They laid much of the groundwork for later Roman military and economic success. The Etruscan allies were sufficiently satisfied with the arrangement that when Hannibal invaded Italy in 218, they contributed men to Rome’s armies and remained loyal. When the Social War erupted, Rome’s allies participated but accepted the offers of citizenship and peace early. Shrouded in legend and lost sources, the Etruscan Wars were an important episode in Roman military history.