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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 5
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Romans
on the Riviera and the Rhone

by W. H. Hall

originally published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Ch. 7

 p57  Chapter VI
Campaigns in Eastern Liguria

It was in the year B.C. 238, just twenty years before the invasion of Hannibal, that as far as we know the first fighting took place between Romans and Ligurians. It continued intermittently for more than two centuries, the last occurring B.C. 14, when Augustus finally dislodged the Ligures Capillati from their strongholds in the Maritime Alps.​1 No details however of any campaign in Liguria previous to Hannibal's invasion have been handed down to us.

For the first fifty years of this fighting (from B.C. 238‑191) the Ligurians were associated with and made common cause with Gauls or Carthaginians, as I have shown above.

After the close of the second Punic War, which was followed by the Roman conquest and the expulsion of the Boii from Gallia Cisalpina, the Ligurians were left to cope with the Romans single-handed.

The next period (from B.C. 191‑110) is probably the eighty years' war to which Strabo refers below:

"The Ligurians closed against the Romans all the roads into Iberia along the coast, and carried on a system of pillage both by sea and land. Their strength so increased, that large armies were scarcely able to force a passage, and after a war of eighty years the Romans were hardly able to obtain a breadth of twelve stadia for the purpose of making a public road."​2

 p58  This eighty years' war naturally divides itself into two groups, viz.:

(a) The wars waged on both slopes of the Apennines in Cisalpine Liguria, from the borders of Etruria as far as the modern Vintimiglia, in pursuance of purely Roman interests.

(b) Those carried on in Transalpine Liguria (the French Riviera) between Nice and Marseilles at the instance of their allies, the Massiliots.

Between these two sections of the ancient Liguria the Maritime Alps interpose, extending in width for about 25 miles from Nice to Vintimiglia. The pass by which the Maritime Alps are crossed is that of La Turbie, about 1500 feet above the sea-level — the lowest in the whole range of the Alps.

It was with the double object of putting a stop to predatory incursions into their newly-settled colonies of Pisae and Bononia (Bologna) and of forcing a thoroughfare along the coast to keep up communications with Spain by land, that the Romans entered upon this succession of wars with the Ligurians after the subjugation of the Cisalpine Gauls.

To the Romans military service in Liguria was not unlike what campaigning was to the English in Ireland in the days of the Tudors and Stuarts, or what it is now in the borderland between India and Afghanistan. Livy describes it as follows: "In Liguria there was everything to put soldiers on their mettle: positions to scale, in themselves difficult enough, without having to oust a foe already in possession; hard marching through defiles lending themselves to constant surprises; an enemy dashing and light-footed, rendering every spot and hour insecure; wearisome and perilous blockadings of fortified strongholds, in a country barren of resources and yielding no plunder worth mentioning, with no camp-followers and no long line of beasts of burden; no hope but in cold steel and individual pluck."3

 p59  Consisting mostly of rocky ravines and forest-clad mountains, Liguria offered so little attraction to the Romans for colonizing purposes that they were in no hurry to annex it.

With the Insubres and Boii the case had been very different, where the Romans from the very beginning were bent on the annexation of temptingly fertile and open territory — territory, too, which if not annexed from the side of Rome would certainly have been occupied by fresh hordes of barbarians from beyond the Alps.

Of the dealings of the Romans with the Ligurians, Plutarch, writing about fifty years later than Strabo, in his life of Aemilius Paulus remarks: "For the Romans did not choose utterly to cut off the people of Liguria, whom they considered as a bulwark against the Gauls, who were always hovering over Italy."

Nor even after its complete conquest, in the days of the empire, does the Liguria corresponding to the Italian Riviera of our day ever appear to have been a favourite locality with wealthy Romans.

The Romans, being as a nation destitute of the love of scenery for its own sake, did not care to settle on a narrow ledge between the mountains and the sea, where the difficulty of getting supplies must have been almost insuperable in Roman times. While the narrow Liguria from the Magra to the Var was little to the taste of the Romans, the widening plains of Transalpine Liguria — the modern Provence — where the Alps gradually recede from the shore, drew them irresistibly onwards. Here the Romans settled in such numbers that Pliny the elder, referring to the Provincia Narbonensis of his day (second half of first century A.D.), describes it as "Italia verius quam provincia."4

It is to the first group of campaigns, i.e. those on the Italian Riviera, that Livy's graphic description of Ligurian warfare mainly applies. For the greater portion of the first series of these wars, or rather punitive expeditions,  p60 Livy is our sole guide. But he is far from turning out as satisfactory in his accounts of the campaigns themselves as his masterly summing up of the style of warfare would have led us to expect.

These accounts are indeed conspicuously wanting in detail, and are sometimes confused and conflicting. For in one page we read of a tribe being almost exterminated, whereas the same tribe turns up again full of fight a little further on. A certain number of names of mountains and rivers are given, but mostly without any indications or descriptions enabling us to identify them. On the side of the Romans we are generally supplied with the names of the commanders, and the numbers of their armies. But in the case of the Ligurians numbers are rarely given, and no names of individuals, not even of the chiefs in any campaign — a most regrettable omission, both from a historical and philological point of view.

However, when Livy's history fails us, as it does after B.C. 167, we only then realize how much we have lost. We are indeed at sea, reduced to a very meagre diet of epitomes of his lost books, fragments of Polybius, Florus, Sallust, Appian, Dion Cassius, and stray rays of light from Strabo, Plutarch, Cicero and others. Orosius, an untrustworthy ecclesiastical writer of the fifth century of our era, whose chief claim to notice is his supposed acquaintance with the lost books of Livy, is rarely of any assistance.

To attempt a complete enumeration of the successive campaigns, for which one has to hunt up and down the last seven extant books of Livy, where notices, sometimes confined to a few lines, turn up in most unexpected places, would only weary the reader to no purpose. It will be sufficient to attempt a brief reference to the more important.

At the outset of the Ligurian wars, Pisae, near the mouth of the Arno, was the base of the Roman military operations to the south of the Apennines, as Placentia was of those carried on to the north. The wide, fertile  p61 plain stretching for thirty miles along the shore comprised between the Arno and the Magra, commanded by the precipitous Apennines, had of old been a disputed borderland between the Ligurian and Etruscan nationalities.

The Romans had lately settled the matter by taking possession of the eastern half of it themselves, and dividing it up amongst the Roman colonists of Pisae.​5 Pisae, which had just become a Roman colony, was originally founded by Peloponnesian Greeks from Pisa in Elis. In consequence of the proximity of its harbour to the boundless forests of the Ligurian Apennines, Pisae soon became a great shipbuilding centre and proved invaluable to the Romans by supplying them with a fleet. We have just seen how another Roman colony was established at Bononia (Bologna) to the north of the Apennines on the lands lately taken from the Boii.

Between the two interposed the great bend of the Apennines, where it trends south-eastwards to form the backbone of the Italian peninsula. The intricate valleys and ridges of this portion of the range, including the valley of the river Magra, were now in full possession of the Apuani, by far the most formidable of the Ligurian tribes on the Etruscan border. The Apuani were divided into lowlanders and highlanders, the latter of whom proved themselves such an intolerable nuisance to the Roman settlers in the rich lands below them, both around Pisae and Bononia, by raiding their cattle and destroying their crops, that the cultivation of those territories had to be abandoned.

In the spring of the year B.C. 187, the Apuani, anticipating Roman interference on behalf of the colonists, formed a league with their neighbours the Friniates, who occupied the northern slopes of the Apennines, where they melt insensibly into the plains of the Po. When the news of the coalition of the Friniates and Apuani reached Rome it was considered so grave that  p62 consuls were ordered by the Senate to proceed to Liguria to operate against them.

The consuls for the year (B.C. 187) were Caius Flaminius (son of the Flaminius who fell at the battle of the Lake Trasimene) and Aemilius Lepidus. It was agreed between them that while Flaminius attacked from the north, having Placentia for his base, Aemilius should advance from Pisae on the south. This plan seems to have completely answered. The fighting both south and north of the Apennines began in the plains, from which the Romans easily swept the highland marauders. As the two consular armies advanced, driving the enemy before them to the mountains, the Ligurians were taken as it were between two fires. Finding themselves caught in a trap in the mountains, to which they were wont to retire, both Friniates and Apuani were eventually surrounded and disarmed.

At the end of the campaign each consular army found itself on the opposite side of the mountains to that from which it had started, that of Flaminius emerging on the south or Pisan side, and that of Aemilius on the side of Bononia.

Of the numbers of the forces engaged on either side, or of the killed and wounded, or of the number of prisoners taken, Livy is on this occasion absolutely silent. We gather, however, from his brief narrative that the campaign was comparatively bloodless, the main object of the Romans having been to disarm, rather than to put the enemy to the sword. The fighting does not appear to have been severe at any stage of the campaign, the enemy having taken to their heels with unusual precipitancy. It seems not unlikely that the lives of the exceptionally large number of Ligurians taken prisoners were spared with the view of utilizing them on road-making. For the year B.C. 187 marks the beginning of military road-construction in Gallia Cisalpina, both consuls, on the conclusion of their campaigns, setting themselves  p63 energetically to this undertaking. The Via Flaminia, the great North Road, the work of the elder Flaminius, which left Rome by the Porta Flaminia, crossing the Tiber by the Milvian Bridge, had hitherto stopped at Ariminum (Rimini) on the Adriatic. It was now carried in a straight stretch of 175 miles on to Placentia, unfortunately not by his son, the consul Flaminius the younger, but by his colleague Aemilius Lepidus, after whom the road has been called ever since 'Via Aemilia Lepidi,' and the country it traverses the 'Emilian' province.

Had the younger Flaminius appropriately carried onwards the road, constructed as far as Ariminum by his father (B.C. 220, just before the second Punic War), and given the family name to it, we should have found an unbroken length of 400 miles of Via Flaminia, extending from Rome to Placentia. Considerable confusion of names would have been thereby avoided. For as the reader will find later on, there was also another Aemilius, viz. Aemilius Scaurus, after whom the coast section Via Aemilia was named later on. But, as it unfortunately happened, the more difficult task of carrying a road across the Apennines from Bononia to Arretium now fell to the lot of the younger Flaminius.

Livy, who informs us that the campaigns in Liguria were full of surprises to the actors, has ingeniously contrived to impart this character to his history of them. For the curtain of the year B.C. 187 having fallen on the peaceful occupation of road-making on both sides of the Apennines, the Ligurians having been rigorously disarmed, we are astonished to find it rise on a great disaster to the Roman armies under the consul L. Marcius at the hands of these same Apuani! According to Livy, it was the turn of the Romans to be caught in a trap. Having been drawn onward into a deep recess of a forest, the Romans were suddenly attacked and thrown into confusion, losing 4000 men, three Roman and several standards of their allies, besides an immense quantity  p64 of arms thrown away by the fugitives. So complete was the necessary of the Romans and their Latin allies that Livy adds, "the Ligurians tired sooner of pursuit than the Romans of running away."

As the Roman armies at this period, and till the radical change effected by Marius, seventy years later, consisted mostly of raw levies enlisted for service in the summer months, like our Militia, it is not surprising that such disasters as that related above were of not unfrequent occurrence. The wonder rather is that the Romans won any victories before B.C. 104, when Marius by two years' drilling made real soldiers of the first standing army Rome ever possessed.

This unlooked-for disaster, which overtook the army of Marcius, was signally avenged in the following year (B.C. 185) by the consul Sempronius, marching from Pisae. Sempronius began by sweeping the Ligurians from the plains, between the Arno and the Magra. This was comparatively easy work, but to dislodge the fugitives from the mountains was a task of the utmost difficulty, as will be readily realized by travellers familiar with the aspect of the range behind Carrara, where the almost precipitous flanks of the mountain ridge are flecked with alternate streaks of snow and marble.

The good beating they got at the hands of Sempronius seems to have kept the Apuani fairly quiet for the next five years. But after this interval the highlanders reverted to their old practice of raiding the Roman colonists in the plains below. It was therefore decided in the year B.C. 180 by a decree of the Senate to remove the troublesome mountaineers bodily and transport them with all their belongings to the Taurasian plains — territory in southern Italy taken originally from the Samnites and still untenanted. This operation was successfully and bloodlessly effected by the consuls M. Baebius and P. Cornelius, who transported 40,000 of the highland Apuani, with their wives and families, to  p65 their new settlements in the south.​6 Funds were provided at the public expense to enable them to start in farming, to which they seem to have taken very kindly. It has lately been suggested that a similar experiment might be advantageously tried in dealing with the Afridis. Subsequently, these transported Apuani were known even as late as the reign of the Emperor Trajan by the name of "Ligures Corneliani et Bibiani."

Having proved themselves less obnoxious to their Roman neighbours, and having probably been forced into the war by their highland kinsmen, the lowland Apuani were left undisturbed by the Romans for another year. But as their territory was required for the Roman settlers of the new colony of Luna, which the Romans saw the necessity of planting near the south of the Magra to secure quiet possession of the adjoining unrivalled harbour of Spezia, the lowland Apuani were also compelled to migrate to Samnite territory.

The year B.C. 177 is notable for the foundation of the Roman colony of Luna, on the site of the former Etruscan settlement. This marks the first stage of the advance of the Romans along the Ligurian coast. For Pisae lies just outside the borders of Liguria. Two thousand Roman citizens, conducted by the triumvirs P. Aelius, M. Aemilius Lepidus, and Cn. Sicinius, formed the first settlement. It is expressly stated by Livy​7 that although the territory divided up amongst the colonists was taken directly from the Ligurians, it had previously belonged to the Etruscans.

This proves the accuracy of Macaulay, who refers to Luna as an Etruscan city in his Lays of Ancient Rome:

"And in the vats of Luna,

This year, the must shall foam

Round the white feet of laughing girls

Whose sires have marched to Rome."

There are, however, at the present day no signs whatever  p66 of its Etruscan origin to be found at Luna in the shape of massive walls, gateways or sepulchres, such as abound in Etruria proper, and have been so admirably described in Dennis's Etruria.​a As such monuments are practically indestructible, Luna can never have been of sufficient importance to rank as one of the twelve cities of the Etruscan League. In fact Strabo observes of Luna "The city indeed is not big, but the harbour is of the biggest and fairest, embracing within itself several and all deep-water havens, and offering just such a naval base as is required by a nation, which has ruled the waves so long."​8 To find the true ring of the Rule Britannia sentiment proceeding from an Asiatic Greek, like Strabo, proves how generous and widespread was the patriotism of the subjects of Rome. In its position relative to the Ligurian wars, Luna may be compared to Peshawur as an advanced post and base of frontier operations against border tribes. But for the harbour to which it gives its name, and for its strategic importance the colony of Luna would never have been known to fame. For, situated on a fertile but malarious plain near the mouth of the Magra, Luna must always have been an unhealthy and unattractive residence, in spite of its Carrara marble buildings and gleaming white walls, alluded to by Rutilius, the Gallic fourth century poet, as

"Candentia moenia Lunae."b

Within 150 years of its first settlement by Romans, its population had so dwindled down, that in the time of the second Triumvirate it was found necessary to plant a second Roman colony at Luna. A century later it seems to have been altogether abandoned, for, writing in the reign of Nero, the poet Lucan refers to it in his Pharsalia as

"desertae moenia Lunae."

 p67  How Luna came to give its name to the harbour of Spezia, from which it is several miles distant, and from which it is separated not only by the river Magra but by the range of hills which form its eastern boundary, will always remain a geographical puzzle. That the harbour of Spezia, under the name of 'Portus Lunae,' was used by the Romans before the foundation of their colony is proved by the fact that M. Porcius Cato made it a rendezvous of the fleet that was to sail with him to Spain B.C. 195. It is supposed to have been on the occasion of preparing to embark on this expedition that Ennius wrote:

"Est operae pretium cives cognoscere Portum


In Smith's Dictionary of Classical Geography, article 'Luna,' whence it has been copied into the guide books, it is stated that "vestiges of an amphitheatre" are to be seen there. As a matter of fact, as I ascertained by personal inspection in December 1895, there is an almost complete oval still extant, of which the longer axis measures about 80 metres and the shorter about 30. The outer wall is from 15 to 20 feet high, with an unroofed corridor running all the way round between the outer and inner wall. The walls are composed of stones of all sizes, very irregularly set in cement.

Strange to say, there is very little white marble embedded in the walls of the amphitheatre, which probably dates from the second foundation of Luna as a Roman colony. Besides the amphitheatre there are several other considerable fragments of ruins of a nondescript character. There is, however, no trace of boundary walls, ancient or modern. The Luna of to‑day is not even a village, consisting as it does merely of a farm-house and buildings, with a ruined chapel attached, a white marble threshing-floor, and several isolated labourers' dwellings. Into the walls of the latter are let medallions of Madonnas, beautifully carved in white marble. Luni  p68 lies on low ground about a mile and a half to the west of the railway 'halt' Luni, on the Spezia-Pisa line, and is approachable by a winding English-looking country lane.

The Author's Notes:

1 Dion Cassius, 54.24.

2 p203.

3 Livy, XXXIX.1.

4 Pliny, Nat. Hist. III.4.

5 Strabo, p222.

6 Livy, XL.38.

7 Livy, XLI.13.

8 Ὁρμητήριον θαλαττοκρατησάνωτων ἀνθρώπων, τοσαύτῆς μὲν θαλάσσης τοσοῦτον δὲ χρόνον. Strabo, p222.

Thayer's Notes:

a Dennis's Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria is onsite, including of course his chapter on Luna, in which he points out the absence of any Etruscan remains.

b II.63; emended or read by the Loeb editor as lapsu: either way, however, the passage clearly refers to Luna, as the same editor notes in the facing English.

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