The Roman fleet at Fidenae?

A lesson from reading Livy

According to the Roman historian Titus Livius, some earlier historians claimed that the Roman fleet participated in the Battle of Fidenae in 426 BC. How can we figure out if this really happened?

Joshua R. Hall

With the recent publication of two articles by Josho here on Ancient World Magazine discussing some of the problems in approaching the ancient literary sources (first, second), I have been inspired to do the same. My focus in this article is on the author who I know the best: Livy.

Titius Livius, better known to today simply as Livy, was born in 64 or 59 BC. He died in AD 17. Both of these events occurred in Patavium (modern Padua), a wealthy town in the province of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy). He wrote a comprehensive history of Rome, from the mythological foundation up to 9 BC.

The “first pentad”, or first five books, ran from the story of Romulus and Remus through to the Gallic sack of Rome in about 390 BC. These are the most historically controversial of the surviving books of Livy’s history. This is because most modern scholars doubt much of the information that we find in them.

Livy himself conceded that (6.1; transl. J.C. Yardley):

I have now devoted five books to my account of the history of Rome from the city’s foundation down to its capture [by the Gauls], a history that began under kings and continued under consuls and dictators, decemvirs and consular tribunes, and was marked by warfare abroad and sedition at home. The events covered are unclear because they lie far in the past, rather like objects seen only with difficulty at a great distance. But there is also the added factor that writing, the only thing that keeps a reliable record of past events, was sparse and little used during the period, and also that whatever information was actually stored in the pontifical records and other public and private papers was for the most part destroyed when the city burned down [in 390 BC].

There is no reason to doubt what Livy tells us in this passage. The Romans remembered the Gallic Sack as being extremely destructive. It seems likely that many of the documents from that period were either looted or outright destroyed. For scholars, this has led to an increasing degree of skepticism being applied to the first five books of Livy’s history.

Some modern commentators have spent much of their career pursuing this line of inquiry. T.P. Wiseman in particular has built compelling arguments as to why we should doubt much of what we find in all of the early historical notices about Rome.

The reasons behind this line of thinking, however, extend beyond Livy’s admission that he was working from incomplete sources. One of the most important to note is that historical writing – that is, narrative prose – only began to be produced in Rome in the third century BC. Fabius Pictor is credited with pioneering the practice and writing historical works in Greek and perhaps also in Latin. (On Fabius Pictor, see T.J. Cornell et al., The Fragments of the Roman Historians, vol. I (2013), pp. 160-78.) Thus, when the Romans started to write about their history, it was centuries after the foundation of the city or about two hundred years after the event specifically discussed in this article.

Despite these and other problems, some modern scholars, myself included, believe that there is a “kernel of truth” to be found in the stories we read about in Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and other ancient authors who discuss early Rome. (The “kernel of truth” approach can be found in works such as T. J. Cornell 1995-book, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000-264 BC.) But sifting truth from fiction requires careful study of the sources.

The Roman navy at Fidenae?

An example of where this careful study is necessary can be found in a passage of Livy discussing the events surrounding the Roman capture of Fidenae in 426 BC. Fidenae was located ca. 8km north of Rome and sat at an important ford of the River Tiber. This was a strategic position between the two primary centres of Rome and Veii, the latter a large Etruscan city sited at about 16km distance from the former.

Fidenae was remembered as being so important by the Romans (or at least their later historians) that its involvement in Roman foreign policy was inserted into the early traditions about the city. An example is its association with Romulus, the mythical first king of Rome, who supposedly captured Fidenae and made it into a Roman colony (Livy 1.14; Dion. Hal. 2.53; Plut. Rom. 23.5-6).

By 426 BC, Fidenae was an ally of Veii, or perhaps even a possession of the larger city? Regardless of its political status, we hear that the Romans attacked the town as retaliation for a raid on Roman territory by men from both Veii and Fidenae in 427 BC. A drought and pestilence forced the retaliatory effort to be put off until the next year (Livy 4.30).

When the Roman army was finally mustered under the power of three military tribunes with consular power, it met with defeat. This supposedly caused a stir in the city leading to the appointment of Mamercus Aemilius as dictator and Aulus Cornelius as master of horse. After a fierce fight, the Romans emerged victorious (Livy 4.31-34).

While many of the details may be elaborations, an effort by Roman historians to make an otherwise seemingly unremarkable victory at Fidenae into an interesting narrative, Livy notes something peculiar: the Roman navy had been present at the battle (Livy 4.34.6-7). In Luce’s translation:

Certain historians record that there was a naval battle with the Veientes at Fidenae, a feat as difficult to execute as it is to believe. Even now the river is not wide enough for one, and older writers say that in those days the channel was somewhat narrower – unless perchance these historians were aiming, as they sometimes do, to inflate the collision of a few boats in blocking the crossing of the river into a full-scale naval victory.

What should we make of this passage? It is a precious instance of Livy noting something that he has found in his sources, but about which he himself has doubts. But does that mean we should trust his conclusion? As modern, critical, historians we have to question it and delve into a more detailed reading.

Classi(s): double meanings

To study the problem, we need to refer back to the original Latin, as working from someone’s translation is problematic in this case. When we look at the original text, what we find in Livy is slightly different from the translation that I cited earlier.

At this point, it must be noted that I have taken the Latin from W. Weissenborn and H.J. Müller’s 1898 Teubner version. All of the classical texts that we possess today come to us through what is typically called a “manuscript tradition”: a process of being copied and recopied by scribes from the ancient period through to the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Although this is not the most recent scholarly edition of the text, it is what I have available and (I believe) is no different from R.M. Ogilvie’s Oxford text. For some texts and passages, however, which edition a scholar is working from is important for their interpretation, a further reason that studying the ancient world takes considerable training.

Now, let’s take a look at just the first line of the Latin text:

Classi quoque ad Fidenas pugnatum cum Veientibus quidam in annals rettulere.

A literal translation would read something like:

In certain annals, it is related that the fleet also engaged in a battle against the Veintes at Fidenae.

The Latin is not really complicated, but there is one word that draws the eye, classi, or, in the nominative, classis. In Livy’s day, this word meant “fleet”, as in a group of warships. But as noted in the Lewis & Short Latin dictionary, and by many commentators on early Rome, “in milit[ary] lang[ugage]” it meant “the whole body of the citizens called to arms, an army,” but note: this was “mostly very ancient” (C.T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary (1879), s.v. Classis).

Our knowledge of this archaic usage, however, comes from a reading of various later sources, not from any archaic documents themselves. Thus, we see classis has the meaning of “the army” in Festus (100L) and Aulus Gellius (NA 6.13, 10.15, cf. 1.11). In these instances, we hear of the army consisting of a single “class” of Roman citizens equated with the “first class” of the so-called Servian Constitution. In order to not bog down this article with possibly superfluous debate, we’ll accept this as fact. (I have questions on the broad application of this and its use in completely dismissing the five-class breakdown of the army supposedly adopted by Servius Tullius.)

We can now advance the theory that Livy’s sources (or, less likely, Livy himself) have confused the meaning of something that they have read (or maybe even heard as part of an oral tradition), namely that the classis was at the Battle of Fidenae and that classis should be interpreted as the navy.

That is the conclusion most modern scholars have drawn. Thus, in his commentary on Livy, R.M. Ogilvie wrote that it was “a misunderstanding of the term used to denote those eligible by property qualifications to serve in the army and hence, by a transference, the army itself” (R.M. Ogilvie, A Commentary on Livy Books 1-5 (1965), pp. 588-589). Because classis is assumed to have been the archaic word for “the army,” Ogilvie elsewhere suggested that “the obscurity and accuracy of the note (…) suggest that it must have been derived from a contemporary record” (R.M. Ogilvie, Early Rome and the Etruscans (1976), p. 143).

This conclusion is plausible and makes a lot of sense. It would mean that Livy’s sources came across the word classis associated with the battle and then inferred the involvement of the fleet. If we accept this, then, it hints at some of the problems of the early Roman historians that Livy was forced to use. Rather than relying on substantiated historical narratives, they sought out information, probably to add flair to an otherwise boringly simple record of events from earlier times.

Gary Forsythe has put forward a theory as to the source of the classis confusion. He points to the monuments that were associated with the war against Fidenae and which were still standing in later Roman times. These were statues of four ambassadors who had been murdered by the Fidenates, an armour tunic dedicated by one of the Roman commanders, and a golden crown dedicated in the Capitoline temple (Livy 4.20).

The last of these, it is claimed by Forsythe, included classis in the “language of [its] (…) dedication” (G. Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome (2005), p. 246). This is a sound explanation, and explains why some of the early Roman historians read by Livy would have claimed that the navy was also there.

If so, we run into another problem. Livy says that “some of the annals also” claim that the fleet fought a battle at Fidenae. Does this mean that the earlier authors read the inscription on the crown and found both army and classis mentioned? This, of course, is the problem caused by Livy’s quoque. The simple response to this proposed problem is that no, they simply found classis and became confused.

Someone examining Livy’s statement at this level of detail will probably reach a conclusion similar to Ogilvie and Forsythe. Those who lack the necessary background knowledge, or who engage in a more cursory reading, may come to a different conclusion, and believe that the question ultimately came down to whether or not to trust Livy’s judgement regarding how wide the Tiber was Fidenae and how likely a naval engagement would have been.


As Josho has written earlier, “doing” history, at least ancient history (as I can’t speak for other chronological disciplines), is hard work, and takes training and careful study.

This is not to say that one has to have spent years studying the classics to have an opinion on the ancient Mediterranean world. In fact, opinions that come from outside the academic milieu can be very beneficial to the field. And enthusiasts for the subject generally enhance it because of their zeal, something that some academics lose over time.

But with that said, there is a reason that publications and media created by scholars are the safest places from which to draw knowledge. In these you will find finely honed opinions, written by people who have dedicated at least part of their lives to studying Latin and Greek, art and archaeology. So avoid making your own personal classis conundrum by seeking out the opinions of others who rigorously study the ancient world, even if you disagree with some of what they say.