Tarentum, recognised as the strongest capital of Magna Graecia in the South, was founded by Palanthus of Sparta in 706 BC. Featuring an excellent harbour, it was a huge commercial centre and connected Rome and Etruria to Greece.
With almost undisputed control of the Bay of Tarentum, the city was able to make a fortune importing and exporting goods, silver and gold, artwork and agricultural produce. In the early 5th century, Tarentum scored several victories over Metapontum – a rival city about 40 km away. However, in 475 BC, they suffered a bloodbath and were defeated by the Metapontians.
Tarentum’s army, for most of the time, was comprised of Greek mercenaries, generals and allies. Consequently it was very loose and often open to defeat. During the Pyrrhic Wars and Punic Wars, Tarentum was a crucial and much-desired city. In 280 BC, the Romans were advancing towards the port in an attempt to capture it whilst they continued their conquest of the Italian peninsula. Tarentum called the help of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a legendary leader and military hero of Greece. Crossing the sea with twenty-five thousand soldiers and twenty elephants, he launched his assault on the Romans. It is likely that he saw the island of Sicily as a desirable target.
“But we broke the treaty then as we are breaking it now; we did not keep our hands off Tarentum”
The Romans had never seen elephants before, and were terrified by them. At the Battle of Heraclea, the Romans cavalry was routed by Pyrrhus’ beasts. Although there were extremely high casualties on both sides, the Greek king was ultimately defeated, leaving Rome to incorporate Tarentum into their rapidly-growing domain in 270 BC.
In the First Punic War, Rome used Tarentum – as well as Ostia – to help build their navy so as to defeat the natural sea-farers, the Carthaginans, at sea. Arguably, Tarentum saw the most action during Rome’s second war with Carthage. The year 213 BC saw the port city’s government overthrown, and Hannibal had (several years before) crossed the Alps with his contingent of elephants. With 8,000 infantry and a couple thousand cavalry, Hannibal headed for Tarentum, as he saw that Southern Italy would be an excellent place to secure (maybe so that he could impose a naval presence around Italy).
Several cases of (arguably justifiable) abuse from the Romans caused Tarentum to rise up in revolt several times, with the rebel leaders making communications with Hannibal, whom they believed would be their saviour. When Hannibal arrived outside the city with his forces prepared to launch an assault on the walls, the commander of the city, Marcus Livius, was incredibly drunk and heavily-fed, his troops also. Once the alarm went out about the Carthaginian warlord’s arrival, the Roman fighting force failed to fight effectively. Eventually, Tarentum was caught by Hannibal and the Carthaginians – excluding the citadel, which was held by the Romans.
Therefore, in 209 BC, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus led an army south to regain Tarentum. Carthalo, commander of the city, turned on Carthage and aided the Romans in their mission to recapture Tarentum. The city suffered from the wars it was engaged in, but continued at a relatively stable rate throughout the rest of the Roman Republican period and much of the Imperial period. When the Empire ultimately fell to barbarians in the 5th and 6th centuries, Tarentum was overrun with new religions and cultures. Duke Romauld sacked the city at the commence of the Medieval era and gradually Tarentum fell into oblivion.
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