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Eth. MARSI (Eth. Μάρσοι: Adj. Μαρσικός, Adj. Marsicus), an ancient nation of Central Italy, who inhabited an inland and mountainous district around the basin of the lake Fucinus, where they bordered on the Peligni towards the E., on the Sabines and Vestini to the N. and on the Aequians, Hernicans, and Volscians, to the W. and S. There can be no doubt that they were, in common with the other inhabitants of the upland valleys of the central Apennines, a race of Sabine origin; though we have no direct testimony to this effect. Indeed the only express statement which we find concerning their descent is that which represents them as sprung from a son of Circe, obviously a mere mythological fable arising from their peculiar customs. (Plin. Nat. 7.2; Solin. 2.27.) Another tradition, equally, fabulous, but obscurely known to us, seems to have ascribed to them a Lydian origin, and derived their name from Marsyas. (Gellianus, ap. Plin. 3.12. s. 17; Sil. Ital. 8.503.) But the close connection of the four nations of the Marsi, Marrucini, Peligni and Vestini, can leave no reasonable doubt of their common origin; and the Sabine descent of the Peligni at least is clearly attested. [PELIGNI] It may be added that the Marsi are repeatedly mentioned by the Roman poets in a manner which, without distinctly affirming it, certainly seems to imply their connection with the Sabine race (Hor. Epod. 17. 29; Juv. 3.169; Verg. G. 2.167.) That the Marsi and the Marrucini were closely related is sufficiently evident from the resemblance of their names, which are in fact only two forms of the same; the old form Marrubii or Marruvii, retained by Virgil (Aen. 7.750) as the name of the people, as well as preserved in that of their capital city, Marrubium, being the connecting link between the two. (Niebuhr, vol. i. p. 100.) This connection seems to have been already perceived by Cato (ap. Priscian. ix. p. 871), though he mixed it up with a strange etymological fable. But we have no historical account, or even tradition, of the origin or separation of these closely connected tribes. which appear in history together with the Peligni and Vestini, as nearly related, but still distinct, nations.

The Marsi are first noticed in Roman history in B.C. 340, at which time they, as well as the Peligni, were on friendly terms with the Romans, and granted a free passage to the consuls who were proceeding with their armies through Samnium into Campania. (Liv. 8.6.) At the commencement of the Second Samnite War they appear to have remained neutral; and even when their kinsmen and allies the Vestini were assailed by the Roman arms, they did not, as had been expected, take up arms in their defence, (Id. 8.29.) It was not till B.C. 308 that we first find them engaged in hostilities with Rome, and we have no explanation of the circumstances which then induced them to take part with the Samnites. (Id. 9.41.) It is indeed singular that while Livy notices this campaign as memorable from its being the first occasion on which the Romans were opposed to the Marsians, Diodorus gives a wholly different account, and represents the two nations as in alliance against the Samnites. (Diod. 20.44.) There is, however, every probability that the account given by Livy is the more correct one, as we find shortly after (B.C. 304) a special treaty concluded with the Marsi, Marrucini, and Peligni, immediately after the defeat of the Aequians. (Liv. 9.45; Diod. 20.101.) But a few years later (B.C. 301) the Marsi again took up arms (this time apparently single-handed) to oppose the foundation of the Roman colony at Carseoli, on the immediate frontiers of their territory. They were, however, easily defeated; three of their towns, Plestina, Milionia, and Fresilia, were taken; and they were compelled to purchase peace by the cession of a part of their territory. (Liv. 10.3.) With this exception, they obtained favourable terms, and the former treaty was renewed.

From this time the Marsi, as well as their confederate tribes, the Marrucini, Peligni, and Vestini, became the faithful and constant allies of Rome, and occupied a prominent position among the “socii” whose contingents bore so important a share in the Roman victories. The names of the four nations are sometimes all mentioned, sometimes one or other of them omitted; while the Frentani, who appear, though of Samnite origin, to have maintained closer political relations with their northern neighbours, are, in consequence, often associated with them. Thus Polybius, in enumerating the forces of the several Italian nations in B.C. 225, classes the Marsi, Marrucini, Vestini and Frentani, under one head, while he omits the name of the Peligni altogether. (Pol. 2.24.) Dionysius, on the other hand, notices by name only the Marrucini, Peligni, and Frentani, among the Roman allies at the battle of Asculum, omitting both the Marsi and Vestini ; while Silius Italicus enumerates them all among the Roman allies at the battle of Cannae. (Dionys. xx. Fr. Didot; Sil. Ital. 8.495-520.) Ennius also associated together the “Marsa manus, Peligna cohors, Vestina virum vis.” (Enn. Fr. p. 150.) During the Second Punic War they suffered severely for their fidelity to Rome, their territory being repeatedly ravaged by Hannibal. (Liv. 22.9, xxvi. ll.) Nevertheless, towards the close of the same war, they were among the foremost to offer volunteers to the fleet and army of Scipio in B.C. 205. (Id. 28.45.)

During this period the Marsi appear to have earned a high reputation among the Roman allies for their courage and skill in war; a character which they shared in common with the neighbouring tribes. But their chief celebrity was derived from the prominent part which they took in the great struggle of the Italian allies against Rome, commonly called the Social War, but which appears to have been more frequently termed by the Romans themselves the Marsic War. (Bellum Marsicum, Fast. Capit.; Vell. 2.21; Cic. de Div. i. 44, &c.; Μαρσικός καλούμενος πόλεμος, Strab. v. p.241.) Pompaedius Silo, who is termed by Livy one of the chief authors of this memorable contest, was himself a Marsian; and it was probably at his instigation that the Marsi were the first to take up arms after the outbreak of the Picentes at Asculum; thus at once imparting to the impending contest the character of a national war. (Vell. 2.15; Strab. v. p.241; Diod. 37.2.) Their example was immediately followed [p. 2.281]by their neighbours and kinsfolk the Peligni, Marrucini, and Vestini, as well as by the Samnites, Frentani, and Lucanians. (Appian, App. BC 1.39; Liv. Epit. lxxii.; Oros. 5.18.) During the military operations that followed, imperfect as is our information concerning them, we may clearly discern that the allies formed two principal groups; the one composed of the Marsi, with their immediate neighbours already mentioned, as well as the Picentes, and probably the Frentani; the other of the Samnites, with the Lucanians, Apulians, and some of the Campanians. The Marsi appear to have stood, by common consent, at the head of the former section; and hence we frequently find their name alone mentioned, where it is clear that their confederates also fought by their side. At the first outbreak of the war (B.C. 91), they laid siege to Alba Fucensis, a Roman colony and a strong fortress (Liv. Epit. lxxii.), which appears to have at first defied all their efforts. But the Roman consul P. Rutilius, who was sent against them, proved unequal to the task. One division of his army, under Perpenna, was cut to pieces at the outset of the campaign; and somewhat later the consul himself was defeated and slain by the allied forces under Vettius Cato. (Appian, App. BC 1.43; Liv. Epit. lxxiii.; Oros. 5.18.) C. Marius, who was acting as legate to Rutilius, is said to have retrieved this disaster; and afterwards, in conjunction with Sulla, achieved a decisive victory over the Marsi, in which it is said that the allies lost 6000 men, and the leader or praetor of the Marrucini, Herius Asinius, was slain. But notwithstanding this advantage, it appears that Marius himself was unable to keep the field, and was almost blockaded in his camp by Pompaedius Silo; and when at length he ventured on a third battle, it had no decisive result. Meanwhile, his colleague in the command, Q. Caepio, was totally defeated and cut to pieces with his whole army by the Marsi; while an advantage gained by Ser. Sulpicius over the Peligni appears to have led to no important result. (Liv. Epit. lxxiii. lxxiv.; Appian App. BC 1.46; Plut. Mar. 33; Oros. 5.18.) The next campaign (B.C. 89) proved at first scarcely more favourable to the Roman arms; for though the consul L. Porcius Cato obtained some successes over the Marsi and their allies, he was himself slain in a battle near the lake Fucinus. (Appian, App. BC 1.50; Oros. 5.18.) But it is probable that the policy adopted by the Romans in admitting to the franchise all those of the allies who were willing to submit had a great tendency to disarm the confederates, as well as to introduce dissensions among them; and this cause, combined with the successful operations of the consul Cn. Pompeius Strabo and his lieutenant Sulpicius, effected the submission of the Marrucini, Vestini, and Peligni before the close of the year. The Marsi for a time still held out, though single-handed; but repeated defeats at length compelled them ,also to sue for peace. (Liv. Epit. lxxvi.; Oros. 5.18.) Notwithstanding their obstinate resistance, they were admitted to favourable terms, and received, in common with the rest of the Italians, the full rights of Roman citizens.

From this time the Marsi as a nation disappear from history, and became merged in the common condition of the Italians. They however, still retained much of their national character, and their existence as a separate tribe is acknowledged by many Roman writers, both of the Republic and Empire. In the civil war between Caesar and Pompey they appear to have been at first favourably disposed to the latter; and the twenty cohorts with which Domitius occupied Corfinium were principally raised among the Marsi and Peligni, or their immediate neighbours. (Caes. B.C. 1.15, 20.) In like manner, the Marsi are mentioned as declaring themselves, as a people, in favour of Vespasian during the civil war between him and Vitellius. (Tac. Hist. 3.59.) In the days of Cicero, the Marsi and Peligni, as well as the Sabines, were comprised in the Sergian tribe (Cic. in Vatin. 15; Schol. Bob. ad loc.); and; at a later period all three were included in the Fourth Region of Augustus, which, according to Pliny, was composed of the bravest nations of all Italy. (Plin. Nat. 3.12. s. 17.) In the later division of the Empire, the territory of the Marsi (Marsorum regio) was included in the province named Valeria. (P. Diac. 2.20; Lib. Col. p. 229.) It appears to have early formed a separate ecclesiastical diocese; and in the middle ages the bishop of Marruvium bore the title of “Episcopus Marsorum,” which is still retained by the bishops of Pescina, to which place the see has been transferred. (Bingham's Ecclesiastical Antiquities, book ix. ch. 5.3.) The district comprised within it is still familiarly called “the land of the Marsi,” and the noble Roman family of Colonna bears the title of Counts of the Marsi. (K. Craven's Abruzzi, vol. i. p. 144.)

The Marsi appear to have been always celebrated in ancient times, even beyond their hardy and war-like neighbours, for their valour and spirit in war. Virgil adduces them as the first and most prominent example of the “genus acre virûm” which Italy was able to produce: and Horace alludes to the “Marsic cohorts” as an almost proverbial expression for the bravest troops in the Roman army. (Verg. G. 2.167; Hor. Carm. 2.20. 18, 3.5. 9.) Appian also tells us that a proverbial saying was current at the time of the outbreak of the Social War, that no triumph had ever been gained over the Marsi or without the Marsi (Appian, App. BC 1.46). The historical accuracy of this saying will not bear examination, but it sufficiently proves the high character they had earned as Roman auxiliaries. In common with the Sabines and other mountain tribes, they retained down to a late period their rustic and frugal habits ; and are cited by the Roman poets as examples of primitive simplicity. (Juv. 3.169, 14.180.)

But the most remarkable characteristic of the Marsians was their peculiar skill in magical charms and incantations,--especially in charming venomous reptiles, so as to render them innoxious. This power, which they were said to have derived from their ancestress Circe, or from the local divinity Angitia, who was described as her sister, was not confined to a few individuals, though the priests appear to have principally exercised it, but, according to Silius Italicus, was possessed by the whole body of the nation. (Verg. A. 7.750-758; Sil. Ital. 8.495-501; Plin. Nat. 7.2, 21.13. s. 25, 28.3. s. 6; Solin. 2.27; Gel. 16.11; Lamprid. Heliogab. 23.) It is worthy of notice that the inhabitants of these regions still pretend to possess the same occult powers as their ancestors: and are often seen as wanderers in the streets of Naples carrying boxes full of serpents of various sizes and colours, against the bites of which they profess to charm both themselves and the spectators. (Craven's Abruzzi, vol. i. p. 145.)

The physical characters of the land of the Marsi have been already described under the article of the lake FUCINUS; the basin of which, surrounded on [p. 2.282]all sides by lofty, or strongly marked mountain ridges, may be considered as constituting the natural limits of their territory. But towards the NE. we find that Alba Fucensis, though certainly belonging to this natural district, and hence sometimes described as belonging to the Marsi (Ptol. 3.1.57; Sil. Ital. 8.507), was more properly an Aequian city [ALBA FUCENSIS]; while, on the other hand, the upper valley of the Liris (though separated from the lake by an intervening mountain ridge) was included in the Marsic territory, as Antinum (Civitá d'Antino) was unquestionably a Marsian city. [ANTINUM] On the N. the Marsi were separated from the Sabines and Vestini by the lofty group of the Monte Velino and its neighbours; while on the S. another mountain group, of almost equal elevation, separated them from the northern valleys of Samnium and the sources of the Sagrus (Sangro). On the E., a ridge of very inferior height, but forming a strongly marked barrier, divided them from the Peligni, who occupied the valley of the Gizio, a tributary of the Aternus. From its great elevation above the sea (2176 feet at the level of the lake), even more than from the mountains which surrounded it, the land of the Marsi had a cold and ungenial climate, and was ill adapted for the growth of corn, but produced abundance of fruit, as well as wine, though the latter was considered harsh and of inferior quality. (Sil. Ital. 8.507; Athen. 1.26; Martial, 13.121, 14.116.)

The principal town of the Marsi was MARRUVIUM the ruins of which are still visible at S. Benedetto, on the E. shore of the lake Fucinus. This was indeed (if Alba Fucensis be excluded) probably the only place within their territory which deserved the name of a city. The others, as we are told by Silius Italicus, though numerous, were for the most part obscure places, rather fortified villages (castella) than towns. (Sil. Ital. 8.510.) To this class belonged, in all probability, the three places mentioned by Livy (10.3) as having been taken in B.C. 301 by the dictator M. Valerius Maximus,--Milionia, Plestina, and Fresilia ; all three names are otherwise wholly unknown, and there is no clue to their site. Pliny, however, assigns to the Marsi the following towns :--ANXANTIA (Anxantini), the name of which is found also (written ANXATINI) in an inscription, and must have been situated near Androssano or Scurgola, in the immediate neighbourhood of Alba (Hoare's Classical Tour, vol. i. p. 367; Mommsen, Inscr. R. N. 5628); ANTINUM (Antinates), now Civita d'Antino; LUCUS (Lucenses), more properly LUCUS ANGITIAE still called Lugo, on the W. bank of the lake ; and a “populus” or community, which he terms Fucenses, who evidently derived their name from the lake; but what part of its shores they inhabited is uncertain. Besides these he notices a tradition, mentioned also by Solinus, that a town named Archippe, founded by the mythical Marsyas, had been swallowed up in the waters of the lake. (Plin. Nat. 3.12. s. 17; Solin. 2.6.) From the number of inscriptions found at Trasacco, a village near the S. end of the lake, it would appear to have been certainly an ancient site; but its name is unknown. (Mommsen, l.c. p. 295.) The only town of the Marsi mentioned by Ptolemy (3.1.57) besides Alba Fucensis, is a place which he calls AEX (Αἴξ), a name in all probability corrupt, for which we should perhaps read Ἄνξα, the Anxatia or Anxantia of Pliny. CERFENNIA a place known only from the Itineraries, was situated on the Via Valeria, at the foot of the pass leading over the Mons Imeus into the valley of the Peligni. This remarkable pass, now called the Forca di Caruso, must in all ages have formed the principal line of communication between the Marsi and their eastern neighbours, the Peligni and Marrucini. Another natural line of communication led from the basin of the Fucinus near Celano to the valley of the Aternus near Aquila. It must be this line which was followed by a route obscurely given in the Tabula as leading from Aveia through a place called Frusteniae (?) to Alba and Marruvium (Tab. Peut.). [E, H. 13.]

hide References (25 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (25):
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 1.5.43
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 1.5.39
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 1.6.46
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 1.6.50
    • Cicero, Against Vatinius, 15
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 7.750
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 7.758
    • Vergil, Georgics, 2.167
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 3.59
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 21.13
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.12
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 7.2
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 8, 6
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 9, 45
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 10, 3
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 9
    • Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.44
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 16.11
    • Plutarch, Caius Marius, 33
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 1.26
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 13.121
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.116
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 20.101
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 20.44
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 3.1
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