Tullus Hostilius And The Forgotten Roman Art Of Starting A War


Although not related to the previous king, Tullus was a member of a well-known and respected family. He was a grandson of a war hero called Hotsilius, who made a name for himself in the Roman war against the Sabines. According to some sources (e.g. Dionysius of Halicarnassus), his grandma was a woman named Hersilia who was chiefly responsible for the peace treaty concluding the Roman-Sabine war that was led after the Rape of the Sabines.

As soon as he was elected king, he made several steps to secure his position and gain some points in the popular opinion. With the title of the king, came also a huge land inherited from the previous kings. He decided to give this lad away to the poor. Moreover, he expanded the city to include a hill Caelian and built houses there to help find real estate for every Roman citizen that didn’t have one.  With his domestic position secured, he turned his attention to foreign relations.


Early in his reign, the relationship between the Romans and their neighbours and relatives in Alba Longa deteriorated. Decades ago, the first Romans led by Romulus and Remus came from Alba Longa and ever since the Alban kings were ready to help the Romans with advice or soldiers if necessary. However, this alliance slowly came to an end. Neither the Romans nor the Albans could respect the boundaries of their city-states. Occasionally, each of them crossed the borders to steal and plunder the property of the other. Although these were not some kind of organized military operations, mere robberies, they sufficiently annoyed the rulers of both cities – Tullus Hosilius of Rome and Gaius Cluilius of Alba Longa. Even though the wrong-doing was clearly mutual, both men were proud enough to ignore the fault of their people and just blame the other side. So it happened, that both kings sent envoys to the other city demanding satisfaction – admission of guilt and compensation for the suffered offence.

Tullus Hostilius had a fierce personality. In fact, he was a complete opposite of his predecessor, the peaceful king Numa Pompilius. Warmongering seemed to be his favourite pastime. He saw a potential for Rome to achieve greatness, but the path to that was paved not by prayers and farming, but by marching out of the city armed and conquering nations. He could hardly find a closer and easier target than Alba Longa.

Even at this time, declaring war came with some difficulties. There had been an old treaty between Alba Longa and Rome that forbade war between the two cities. Only after demands for satisfaction were refused, was one city allowed to wage a just war against the other and not offend the gods.

Moreover, one could be the king of Rome and still not have complete liberty to throw the nation into armed conflict at will. King Numa, eager to keep Rome out of unjust wars, had made it deliberately complicated.  There were now procedures to be followed. Rome had a college of priests called fetiales (“arbiters of peace”) and all the declarations of war relied on them. Their duty was to ensure the upcoming war is just and necessary and they could only give it a go once all the necessary condition were met.

Fetiales had to go to the city that offended Rome and to demand justice (usually delivering up the guilty so that they could be punished in Rome). The offenders often didn’t submit to Rome’s demands right away and asked for time. In such cases, the fetiales were instructed to give them 10 days and then ask again. If the offenders still required more time, they were given 10 more days, and then possibly 10 more. If, however, after 30 days Rome’s demands were still not met, the fetiales left. They returned to Rome, spoke to the Senate and granted their blessing for the upcoming war.

How did all this affect the bloodthirsty Roman king? He needed 30 days to pass before he could officially start this war. After 30 days he could say that the Albans refused to answer the fair demands Rome had made and therefore they were to blame for the war. In this case, no one could doubt the justice of Rome’s casus belli. On the other hand, he needed to make sure that the Alban people didn’t voice their demands in these 30 days. A situation where both parties demand satisfaction form each other would no longer seem so clear in terms of justice. If the Romans were the first to refuse, it could put them in a very negative light in terms of the old treaty between the cities. 

Tullus did not hesitate and sent envoys to the Albans as soon as possible. Nonetheless, the envoys from Alba Longa arrived very soon too. The Roman king employed a very successful delaying tactic. He invited them to feats and made them busy but didn’t allow them to actually officially say why they came. Only after 30 days passed and Tullus heard that the Roman fetiales returned from Alba empty-handed, he permitted the Alban envoys to speak.  As expected, they demanded satisfaction for Roman crimes, but it was too late. Tullus, now with great confidence, replied that the nation that rejected the heralds and the demands of the other nation first was to be punished by gods in war. This nation was now Alba Longa.


Thus, the war officially began. As Livy remarks, it was almost like a civil war. Both Rome and Alba Longa tracked their origins to the Trojans landing in Italy with Aeneas. The founders of Rome were born in Alba and into the Alban royal family. The Albans prepared for the fight but didn’t really want to crush Rome with the same ferocity Tullus Hostilius displayed on the other site. The marched out of their city and built their camp near Rome. In that camp, their leader Gaius Cluilius died (seemingly natural causes). They elected Mettius Fufetius to be his successor.

Tullus immediately interpreted this as a show of fate – the gods now hate the Albans and they are starting to punish them at the very top of their hierarchy. Mettius Fufetius saw things differently. He embraced the opportunity to reverse the possible apocalypse of the two nations. He brought the wider international relations into the attention of the Roman king. Rome and Alba Longa were not on their own in the region. Just several miles away, the mighty Etruscan cities waited for the outcome of this conflict. Citizens of Veii were suspected to already having been allied to Fidenae (a former Roman colony eager to uprise). They hoped for a long and bloody conflict between Rome and Alba because no matter who would win, they could just come and easily conquer both weakened nations.

Even Tullus had to acknowledge the Etruscan threat. After a short discussion with Fufetius they agreed that the fewer causalities this war would have, the better. Nonetheless, a war still had to be fought and the conflict still had to be resolved. The two kings managed to find a peaceful solution… almost.

On each side, there were triplets on the top of their strength – the Horatii from Rome and the Curiatii from Alba Longa.  The two kings agreed that the war could be easily and fairly decided if just those two groups face each other in a triplets-to-triplets combat. They convinced the Horatii and Curiatii to fight and both kings pledged to honour a treaty that would enable the winning side to rule over the losing one. Eventually, the two groups of triplets really did fight each other and (with the help of luck and great tactics employed by the sole surviving Horatius) the Romans emerged victoriously.

This could have been the end of Alba Longa, but it wasn’t. Not just yet. Mettius Fufetius conceded his defeat officially but maintained hope to twist the situation once again. When Tullus Hostilius asked him to keep his army prepared for further wars and not to disband it, he was pleased and started to devise a plan of treason.

An opportunity came right away. The Romans were attacked by a coalition of two cities – an Etruscan city of Veii and Fidenae. Mettius might have had some word in inspiring these guys to attack Rome. Tullus called for the Alban army and they arrived but didn’t really want to fight. When the battle started, they moved away from the battlefield and just waited where the fortune would go, ready to join the winning side. The Romans were fairly surprised by this treacherous behaviour, but Tullus found a way to turn it around. He acted as if this was all based on his commands and the Albans were just preparing to attack the enemy forces from behind. This improvisation worked. The enemy fled and suffered a horrible defeat. Rome won this war too, but Tullus now had to provide some inspirational feedback to the Albans to prevent future treason. This is not an easy thing to do – if the other side has an army, it can go terribly wrong.

Tullus Hostilius came up with a cunning plan worthy of a Roman king. He joined the Alban and Roman armies in one camp. He decided to give the joint army a speech in the early morning. The soldiers were called to assemble and listen. The Albans were called first so that they didn’t really have time to prepare any surprises or to grab some weapons. Only then, the Romans were called – as opposed to the Albans, the Romans were armed. Tullus began to speak and admitted that he lied during the victorious battle and the Alban army did, in fact, not leave the battle line on his orders. What they actually did was betraying the Romans. The Albans stood there nervously. This might escalate to some kind of very unpleasant genocide with them as victims. But just a moment later they were calmed down – Tullus didn’t blame all of them, just their leader Mettius Fufetius. It was Mettius who plotted to start this war, it was he who deserted the Roman forces, and now it was he who must be held responsible. Roman soldiers grabbed the surprised Mettius, while the Albans just stood there knowing that any attempt to resist would be futile. On the same day, Mettius’ life ended when his body was torn to two halves by two teams of horses. Needless to say, all on the orders of Tullus Hostilius.


After the execution of Mettius, Tullus brought peace between the Romans and Albans and moved to create a single nation out of the two. He ordered the Albans to abandon their city and come to Rome – not as slaves, but as citizens. Alba Longa was subsequently demolished and only the temples of gods were left standing.

Tullus successfully waged other wars – this time against the Sabines and gained much glory. However, his focus changed when he became infected with a contagious disease. He turned his energy to religion. Tullus had never paid too much attention to religious matters before and now his eagerness hugely overshadowed his competence. Livy writes that he once attempted to conduct religious rites to please Jupiter Elicius, but did such a painfully bad job that he was struck by lightning and died.

There was, however, an alternative theory about his death. One that relied less on the divine justice and more on the palace intrigue. According to this theory, Tullus and his whole family died in a fire that was not caused by lightnining, but delibarately started by on of his closest confidants. This man subsequently became Rome’s next king. His name was Ancus Marcius.


Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri

Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities

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