By Periklis Deligiannis
The prow and ram of the modern trireme Olympias.
After the Etruscan defeat in the land battle of Cumae (524 BC), the Cumaeans and the Etruscans (or Tyrrhenians or Tyrsenians) did not come into heavy fighting until 505 BC. That year, the Latins of the small city-state Aricia called for help the Cumaeans against the Etruscans. In 505 BC the Aricians, the Romans and the other Latins revolted against the Etruscan rule, gaining their independence, but the Tyrrhenians had returned under the leadership of Larth Porsena, the powerful warlord of the city-state Clusium (Etruscan Clevsin). Porsena was sent by the Etruscan Confederacy (‘Dodekapolis’) and managed to recapture rebellious Rome. Then he returned to Clusium to deal with other enemies of the Tyrrhenians, leaving Larth Aruns, his son, to reconquer the other cities of Latium.
The Aricians called the Cumaeans for help, who acceded to their request in order to accomplish a preventative blow to their Tyrrhenian enemies. The aristocratic rulers of Cumae dispatched a military expedition to Aricia under Aristodemos, a veteran hero of the battle of Cumae. The Cumaeans knew that sooner or later the Etruscans would again march against them. The Greek ships sailed to the Latin coast and landed in the territory of the Laurentes, the people of the city-state Lavinium. The Greek military force disembarked and marched to Aricia. The city was under siege by the Etruscans under Aruns. The Cumaeans joined forces with the Aricians and other Latins and confronted the Tyrrhenians in a hoplite battle (the main battle troops of the Etruscans, Greeks and Latins of this period were their Greek-style hoplite phalanxes).
The Cumaeans won the day when Aristodemos managed to kill Aruns in a duel (505 BC). The rule of the Tyrrhenians in Latium and the territory of the Aurunci (Ausones in ancient Greek) collapsed permantently and they lost territorial contact with their colonies in Campania. Aristodemos returned triumphant to Cumae, where with the help of the common people, overthrew the rule of the nobles and became tyrant of the city. For the seizure of power, he used numerous Etruscan captives brought from Latium, which he had armed and then incorporated into his new army. The Tyrrhenian and Greek warriors of Aristodemos’ personal guard became a key holder for his rule. The Cumaean aristocrats that Aristodemus did not manage to kill, fled to the neighboring large city-state Capua, the great Etruscan rival of Greek Cumae. Capua was a Tyrrhenian colony in Campania (called Campeva in Etruscan)
It is believed that Aristodemos had large plans: he probably intended to transfer permanently the war against the Etruscans on the banks of the Tiber, on the borders of Etruria itself. This would relieve Cumae and its colonies from the Tyrrhenian pressure on their own borders. But Aristodemos’ callous attitude towards the people which supported him to become tyrant of Cumae, brought about a revolt against him and the restore of the oligarchic-aristocratic regime.
Image of a trireme of the 5th century entering the harbor of Delos. The Syracusans defeated the Etruscans in the sea battle of Cumae and then again, thanks to their superiority in their number of triremes (copyright: Stephen Bistie).
After the defeat of the Tyrrhenians in Aricia, they sought the restoration of territorial contact with their colonies in Campania. Now, these colonies communicated with Etruria only by sea. But the Etruscans had already passed into a decline phase, evacuating Latium, the Po valley (because of the wild Celtic invaders), coastal Liguria and other territories. Thus, they could not attack Cumae. In 480 BC they enforced with mercenaries and ships the Carthaginians who attacked Greek Sicily (attacked the states of Gelon and Theron). However, the numerous Carthaginian (Punic) army was crushed in the great battle of Himera (480 BC).
In 474 BC the Tyrrhenians recovered and moved against Cumae again, but this time by sea. This time Cumae was exhausted but the other Italiotes (the Greeks of Italy) managed to enforce it. Hieron, the tyrant of Syracuse, foreseeing the Etruscan threat on all the Greeks of the West, responded to the call for help of the Cumaeans, sending a fleet of triremes to the bay of Naples. Although it is not listed by the ancient sources, it is probable that the Syracusan/Siceliot fleet was enforced with naval forces from the maritime Greek cities of the Tyrrhenian Sea, namely Rhegium, Terina, Hipponium, Elea, Laos, Posidonia (Paestum), which suffered from the Etruscan pirates. When the Greek warships approached Cumae, they found it besieged by the united Etruscan fleet. The city was probably under siege also by land, by the Tyrrhenians of Campania (Capuans, Markinans and others). The Siceliot navy attacked immediately the Etruscan fleet, and achieved an overwhelming victory in a naval battle off the coast of Cumae (474 BC). The Syracusan victory was mainly due to the fact that the Greek warships were overwhelmingly triremes. On the other hand, the Tyrrhenian navy had not been modernized, still composed mainly of obsolete biremes and penteconters (but it included some triremes also). (Several decades later, the Etruscans managed to build gradually new fleets consisted almost exclusively of triremes, but it was too late for their naval power). After the victory of the Syracusans, they founded a military colony in the island of Pithekousai, off the coast of Cumae, for the stable defense of the city.
The Etruscans had been defeated for the second time in front of Cumae, this time at sea. Thus they lost sea and land contact with their colonies in Campania. Hence the Tyrrhenian colonies were weakened and a few decades later, they were captured by the Oscan/Samnite peoples of the Italian mainland (Pentri, Sidicini, Hirpini and others). As it was the case for the Athenians in the sea battle of Salamis in mainland Greece sixteen years earlier (480 BC), the main role in the sea battle of Cumae belonged to the greatest Greek naval power of the West: the Syracusans. This is another reason why Syracuse was known as “Athens of the West”.
The Tyrrhenians built a new fleet and dominated again the Tyrrhenian Sea which bear their name until today. The intimidating recovery of the Etruscans led the Syracusans to the decision of unleashing a new naval campaign against them in 453 BC, on the shores of Etruria itself. The Syracusan admiral Fayllos captured the Etruscan island Aithaleia (modern Elba) but he was possibly bribed by the Tyrrhenians and eventually returned empty-handed in Sicily. In any case, his dubious role in the campaign brought about his condemnation by his fellow-citizens to exile and confiscation of his property. The Syracusans sent against Etruria their new admiral, Apelles, with 60 triremes. Apelles succeeded initially to weaken the enemy navy carrying out commando-type operations against the Etruscan ports and harbours, and then attacked Cyrnos (Corsica) which was a dominion of the city-state Caere (Caisra in Etruscan, Agylla in Greek, Caere in Latin), the most powerful maritime city of Etruria. Apelles conquered a great part of the island and probably founded there a military colony or a naval dockyard, as it is evidenced by the existence in the Roman era of a port called “Syracusan Port” (Portus Syracosianus) in southern Corsica. Then Apelles recaptured Aithaleia (Elba) and returned triumphant to Sicily with many Tyrrhenian prisoners of war and rich booty.
Map of ancient Italy and Sicily with the Greek city-states and references to their main currencies, in which we can see many of the usual emblems of the corresponding cities: the simple bull, the anthropomorphic bull, the lion, the lion’s head, Pegasus (the winged horse), the hare, the eagle etc. These emblems were also common as insignias in the surfaces of the shields of the hoplites of the respective cities.
Despite the ongoing Greek victories, Cumae was already a city in decline. As early as 470 BC, its independent colony Parthenope or Neapolis (meaning “New City” in Greek, modern Naples) was contending Cumae and developing to the new Greek metropolis of Campania. In the mid-fifth century a new powerful enemy appeared on the horizon of Campania: the aforementioned Oscans-Samnites who soon conquered the land. The two old enemies but also commercial associates, Etruscans and Greeks, exhausted by their lasting war between them, could not repel the Oscan invaders (Opikoi in Greek). One by one their cities were conquered by the newcomers, with the exception of Neapolis. The invaders conquered Capua in 423 BC, Cumae in 421 and Posidonia later. However the Cumaean refugees survived because they settled in Neapolis, where they were naturalized (as Neapolitan citizens). Thus Naples became the “new Cumae”. The Oscans now named “Campanians” because of the name of their main city Capua (Capuanians/Campanians), never managed to conquer Neapolis despite their unbearable military pressure on the city. Neapolis remained Greek down to the Roman period. The Neapolitans retained their language even when the neighboring Campanians abandoned their native Oscan in favour of the Latin of the Romans. On the contrary, the remaining Etruscans of Campania disappeared being assimilated by the Oscan/Campanian population. It seems that only a few of them had chosen to return to Etruria.
A thousand years later, during the war of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire on the Ostrogoths of Italy, the Byzantine soldiers found the Neapolitans speaking Greek and bearing Greek names.
1. Dionysius of Halicarnassos, Roman Archeology.
2. Diodorus of Sicily, Historical Library.
3. Titus Livius (Livy), Roman History.