Ancient Rome


The Roman Way of Declaring War

Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition.  Robert A. Guisepi:  Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)


"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war." 

650 BCE

[Davis Introduction]:

Among the very old formulas and usages that survived at Rome down to relatively late times, this method of declaring war holds a notable place. It was highly needful to observe all the necessary formalities in beginning hostilities, otherwise the angry gods would turn their favor to the enemy. Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, was at once a man of peace and an efficient soldier; and on the outbreak of a war with the Latins he is said to have instituted the customs which later ages of Romans observed in war.

History of Rome, I.32:

Inasmuch as Numa had instituted the religious rites for days of peace, Ancus Marcius desired that the ceremonies relating to war might be transmitted by himself to future ages. Accordingly he borrowed from an ancient folk, the Aequicolae, the form which the [Roman] heralds still observe, when they make public demand for restitution. The [Roman] envoy when he comes to the frontier of the offending nation, covers his head with a woolen fillet, and says: Hear, O Jupiter, and hear ye lands _____ [i.e., of such and such a nation], let Justice hear! I am a public messenger of the Roman people. Justly and religiously I come, and let my words bear credit! Then he makes his demands, and follows with a solemn appeal to Jupiter. If I demand unjustly and impiously that these men and goods [in question] be given to me, the herald of the Roman people, then suffer me never to enjoy again my native country!

These words he repeats when he crosses the frontiers; he says them also to the first man he meets [on the way]; again when he passes the gate; again on entering the [foreigners'] market-place, some few words in the formula being changed. If the persons he demands are not surrendered after thirty days, he declares war, thus: Hear, O Jupiter and you too, Juno---Romulus also, and all the celestial, terrestrial, and infernal gods! Give us ear! I call you to witness that this nation _____ is unjust, and has acted contrary to right. And as for us, we will consult thereon with our elders in our homeland, as to how we may obtain our rights.

After that the envoy returns to Rome to report, and the king was wont at once to consult with the Senators in some such words as these, Concerning such quarrels as to which the pater patratus [i.e., the head of the Roman heralds] of the Roman people has conferred with the pater patratus of the ____ people, and with that people themselves, touching what they ought to have surrendered or done and which things they have not surrendered nor done [as they ought]; speak forth, he said to the senator first questioned, what think you? Then the other said, I think that [our rights] should be demanded by a just and properly declared war, and for that I give my consent and vote. Next the others were asked in order, and when the majority of those present had reached an agreement, the war was resolved upon.

It was customary for the fetialis to carry in his hand a javelin pointed with steel, or burnt at the end and dipped in blood. This he took to the confines of the enemy's country, and in the presence of at least three persons of adult years, he spoke thus: Forasmuch as the state of the _____ has offended against the Roman People, the Quirites; and forasmuch as the Roman People the Quirites have ordered that there should be war with _____ and the Senate of the Roman People has duly voted that war should be made upon the enemy _____ : I, acting for the Roman People, declare and make actual war upon the enemy!

So saying he flung the spear within the hostile confines. After this manner restitution was at that time demanded from the Latins [by Ancus Marcius] and war proclaimed; and the usage then established was adopted by posterity.

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