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Feb. 9, 2019

7 – Celts on the Warpath: The Sack of Rome

7 – Celts on the Warpath: The Sack of Rome

A lover's quarrel spirals out of control and leads to a war between Rome and the Gauls.


According the Roman historian Livy, Celts had lived in Italy north of the Po River as early as 500 BCE. In all likelihood they had been there much longer. The earliest Celts may have migrated from what is now Switzerland, but by 400 BCE tribes from Gaul, a land which roughly corresponds to modern-day France, dominated the northern Italian region just south of the Alps, aptly named Cisalpine Gaul. Livy recounts a legend that the Gauls became overly populous, at which point a mythic king named Ambicatos, decreed that his sister’s sons Bellovesos and Sigovesos should take a portion of the population out of Gaul. According to this legend, Sigovesos was given Germany and Bellovesos, the lucky one, was given northern Italy. Legends like these are hard to believe, particularly since Livy was writing in the early first century CE. What makes this even more dubious is that it sounds like the myths of Rome’s founding, which involves either the two brothers Romulus and Remus, or Aeneas of Troy who left his homeland and founded the eternal city. It may be that this retelling of the origin of the Italian Gauls was the end of a long game of ‘telephone’ or ‘Chinese whispers’ depending on what your elementary school called it, in which a tale is passed down for so long through so many cultures, that it loses it’s original meaning and is reinterpreted in a way that would be familiar to its audience, in this case imperial Romans.


When the Gauls arrived in northern Italy they made quick enemies with the Etruscans. The Etruscans were a loose group of city-states in the northern half of Italy, who shared many cultural and religious elements with the Greeks. By 500 BCE the Etruscans commanded an empire that stretched from the Po River Valley in the north, to Campania in the south, near modern-day Naples. The glory days of the Etruscans came to an end as the Gauls invaded from the north and Rome grew in power in the south. In 474 BCE a Gallic army defeated an Etruscan army near Ticino, while simultaneously a Roman naval force destroyed an Etruscan navy near Cumae. Caught between two rising powers, the Etruscans went into terminal decline. Having forced their way into Italy, the Gauls set about making towns, setting the foundation for the future cities of Trent, Milan, Turin and Bologna, among others.


In 396 BCE Rome conquered the Etrurian city of Veii, making Rome the dominant Italian power south of the Po River. The Etruscan city-states were weakened, but they still had a measure of independence from Rome and engaged in inter-city rivalries. While we like to think political squabbles have to do with high-minded things such as trade and border rights, wars have a tendency to break out for truly petty reasons. Around 387 BCE an aristocrat named Arruns of Clusium accused Lucomo of seducing his wife. In response Arruns did what any sensible man would do: he hired an army of Gauls to pillage his rival’s city. Unfortunately for Arruns when the Gauls arrived at Clusium they decided they would rather sack it. Since Rome was the new power in the region it couldn’t help but get involved in this love triangle that had gotten horrendously out of hand. Rome sent three envoys to the Gauls, supposedly to negotiate a peace. However, when these envoys arrived they assassinated one of the Gallic chiefs. Outraged, the Gauls continued their assault on Clusium.


With things thoroughly getting out of hand, Rome sent an army to deal with the matter. According to ancient records, the army numbered 40,000. However, this seems entirely implausible. The city of Rome at this time had a population of perhaps 100,000, most of which were women and children. For Rome to raise an army of 40,000 that would mean every male from 7 to 70 years old would have had to march out to meet the Gauls, which seems highly unlikely. If we calculate that in any given classical city 1/3rd to ½ of all males between 18 to 40 were soldiers, or at least could take up arms if need be, this brings the total number of fighting men down to perhaps 20,000. Furthermore, if we assume that a city would never send out more than half of its soldiers to fight in a foreign campaign for fear of invasion, this brings the number down to 10,000. So, where did the classical historians get 40,000? Did they just pull it out of their toga? This is a possibility, as numbers are frequently inflated in ancient sources. However, it is possible that this army really numbered 40,000. Let’s assume for a moment that Rome fielded 10,000 men. Now, it’s possible that Rome’s Latin allies met Rome’s numbers, bringing the total to 20,000. Ancient sources have a habit of numbering armies not just by how many fighting men there were but also by how many camp followers there were. In the modern era we tend to think of militaries as self-sustained units, capable of feeding, clothing, housing and supplying themselves, but this is a relatively modern notion as past governments either could not or did not provide for all the expenditures of their soldiers, forcing them to rely on civilian resources. Don’t forget that the Fourth Amendment in the United States Constitution forbids the quartering of soldiers in private homes, because as recently as the 1770s, the army of the British Empire depended on civilian assistance to care for it’s army; even if that assistance wasn’t voluntary.


Armies often conscripted aid from civilians when marching through foreign-held territory, but this was not possible within their own lands, meaning that Roman and Latin civilians would accompany the army and provide essential services in order to make some quick cash. In ancient societies armies often had camp followers who sold the soldiers food, clothing, weapons and supplies. Furthermore, adolescent boys could make some money by carrying packs for soldiers. And of course, where there are thousands of homesick men heading towards possible death there are promiscuous women accompanying them. Near the end of the Republic and into the Imperial era, Rome’s armies professionalized and camp followers were less common, but the Romans of 387 BCE were not the full-fledged legionaries that we think of today.


So, back to our numbers. If we estimate that Rome provided 10,000 able-bodied male soldiers, which was then matched by another 10,000 from its Latin allies, this gives us 20,000 soldiers. It is possible that for every soldier there was a camp follower, either a cook, a tailor, a pack-boy, or a prostitute, meaning that the total number of the army would be 40,000. While this number might still be a bit high, it is within the realm of possibility.


The Roman army, led by consul Quintus Sulpicius marched out to meet the Gauls, who were led by a chief named Brennos. When Brennos heard the Romans were marching on them he made the clever decision to withdraw the siege of Clusium and meet the Romans on a battlefield of his choosing. On July 18, 387 BCE the Gauls met the Celts on the banks of the River Allia, roughly ten miles north of Rome. From here I’ll read a passage from Livy’s History of Rome, which describes how the Romans, suddenly set upon by the Gauls, and with no time to prepare, were routed.

Livy says,  “The consular tribunes had secured no position for their camp, had constructed no entrenchments behind which to retire, and had shown as much disregard of the gods as of the enemy, for they formed their order of battle without having obtained favourable auspices. They extended their line on either wing to prevent their being outflanked, but even so they could not make their front equal to the enemy’s, whilst by thus thinning their line they weakened the centre so that it could hardly keep in touch. For Bennus, the Gaulish chieftain, fearing some ruse in the scanty numbers of the enemy, and thinking that the rising ground was occupied in order that the reserves might attack the flank and rear of the Gauls while their front was engaged with the legions, directed his attack upon the reserves, feeling quite certain that if he drove them from their position, his overwhelming numbers would give him an easy victory on the level ground. So not only Fortune but tactics also were on the side of the barbarians. In the other army there was nothing to remind one of Romans either amongst the generals or the private soldiers. They were terrified, and all they thought about was flight, and so utterly had they lost their heads that a far greater number fled to Veii, a hostile city, though the Tiber lay in their way, than by the direct road to Rome, to their wives and children. For a short time the reserves were protected by their position. In the rest of the army, no sooner was the battle-shout heard on their flank by those nearest to the reserves, and then by those at the other end of the line heard in their rear, than they fled, whole and unhurt, almost before they had seen their untried foe, without any attempt to fight or even to give back the battle-shout. None were slain while actually fighting; they were cut down from behind whilst hindering one another’s flight in a confused, struggling mass. Along the bank of the Tiber, whither the whole of the left wing had fled, after throwing away their arms, there was great slaughter. Many who were unable to swim or were hampered by the weight of their cuirasses and other armour were sucked down by the current. The greater number, however, reached Veii in safety, yet not only were no troops sent from there to defend the City, but not even was a messenger despatched to report the defeat to Rome. All the men on the right wing, which had been stationed some distance from the river, and nearer to the foot of the hill, made for Rome and took refuge in the Citadel without even closing the City gates.


The Gauls for their part were almost dumb with astonishment at so sudden and extraordinary a victory. At first they did not dare to move from the spot, as though puzzled by what had happened, then they began to fear a surprise, at last they began to despoil the dead, and, as their custom is, to pile up the arms in heaps. Finally, as no hostile movement was anywhere visible, they commenced their march and reached Rome shortly before sunset. The cavalry, who had ridden on in front, reported that the gates were not shut, there were no pickets on guard in front of them, no troops on the walls. This second surprise, as extraordinary as the previous one, held them back, and fearing a nocturnal conflict in the streets of an unknown City, they halted and bivouacked between Rome and the Anio. Reconnoitring parties were sent out to examine the circuit of the walls and the other gates, and to ascertain what plans their enemies were forming in their desperate plight. As for the Romans, since the greater number had fled from the field in the direction of Veii instead of Rome, it was universally believed that the only survivors were those who had found refuge in Rome, and the mourning for all who were lost, whether living or dead, filled the whole City with the cries of lamentation. But the sounds of private grief were stifled by the general terror when it was announced that the enemy were at hand. Presently the yells and wild war-whoops of the squadrons were heard as they rode round the walls. All the time until the next day’s dawn the citizens were in such a state of suspense that they expected from moment to moment an attack on the City. They expected it first when the enemy approached the walls, for they would have remained at the Alia had not this been their object; then just before sunset they thought the enemy would attack because there was not much daylight left; and then when night was fallen they imagined that the attack was delayed till then to create all the greater terror. Finally, the approach of the next day deprived them of their senses; the entrance of the enemy’s standards within the gates was the dreadful climax to fears that had known no respite.


But all through that night and the following day the citizens afforded an utter contrast to those who had fled in such terror at the Alia. Realising the hopelessness of attempting any defence of the City with the small numbers that were left, they decided that the men of military age and the able-bodied amongst the senators should, with their wives and children, withdraw into the Citadel and the Capitol, and after getting in stores of arms and provisions, should from that fortified position defend their gods, themselves, and the great name of Rome. The Flamen and priestesses of Vesta were to carry the sacred things of the State far away from the bloodshed and the fire, and their sacred cult should not be abandoned as long as a single person survived to observe it. If only the Citadel and the Capitol, the abode of gods; if only the senate, the guiding mind of the national policy; if only the men of military age survived the impending ruin of the City, then the loss of the crowd of old men left behind in the City could be easily borne; in any case, they were certain to perish. To reconcile the aged plebeians to their fate, the men who had been consuls and enjoyed triumphs gave out that they would meet their fate side by side with them, and not burden the scanty force of fighting men with bodies too weak to carry arms or defend their country.


Thus they sought to comfort one another – these aged men doomed to death. Then they turned with words of encouragement to the younger men on their way to the Citadel and Capitol, and solemnly commended to their strength and courage all that was left of the fortunes of a City which for 360 years had been victorious in all its wars. As those who were carrying with them all hope and succour finally separated from those who had resolved not to survive the fall of the City the misery of the scene was heightened by the distress of the women. Their tears, their distracted running about as they followed first their husbands then their sons, their imploring appeals to them not to leave them to their fate, made up a picture in which no element of human misery was wanting. A great many of them actually followed their sons into the Capitol, none forbidding or inviting them, for though to diminish the number of non-combatants would have helped the besieged, it was too inhuman a step to take. Another crowd, mainly of plebeians, for whom there was not room on so small a hill or food enough in the scanty store of corn, poured out of the City in one continuous line and made for the Janiculum. From there they dispersed, some over the country, others towards the neighbouring cities, without any leader or concerted action, each following his own aims, his own ideas. and all despairing of the public safety. While all this was going on, the Flamen of Quirinus and the Vestal virgins, without giving a thought to their own property, were deliberating as to which of the sacred things they ought to take with them, and which to leave behind, since they had not strength enough to carry all, and also what place would be the safest for their custody. They thought best to conceal what they could not take in earthen jars and bury them under the chapel next to the Flamen’s house, where spitting is now forbidden. The rest they divided amongst them and carried off, taking the road which leads by the Pons Sublicius to the Janiculum. Whilst ascending that hill they were seen by L. Albinius, a Roman plebeian who with the rest of the crowd who were unfit for war was leaving the City. Even in that critical hour the distinction between sacred and profane was not forgotten. He had his wife and children with him in a wagon, and it seemed to him an act of impiety for him and his family to be seen in a vehicle whilst the national priests should be trudging along on foot, bearing the sacred vessels of Rome. He ordered his wife and children to get down, put the virgins and their sacred burden in the wagon, and drove them to Caere, their destination.


After all the arrangements that circumstances permitted had been made for the defence of the Capitol, the old men returned to their respective homes and, fully prepared to die, awaited the coming of the enemy. Those who had filled curule offices resolved to meet their fate wearing the insignia of their former rank and honour and distinctions. They put on the splendid dress which they wore when conducting the chariots of the gods or riding in triumph through the City, and thus arrayed, they seated themselves in their ivory chairs in front of their houses. Some writers record that, led by M. Fabius, the Pontifex Maximus, they recited the solemn formula in which they devoted themselves to death for their country and the Quirites. As the Gauls were refreshed by a night’s rest after a battle which had at no point been seriously contested, and as they were not now taking the City by assault or storm, their entrance the next day was not marked by any signs of excitement or anger. Passing the Colline gate, which was standing open, they came to the Forum and gazed round at the temples and at the Citadel, which alone wore any appearance of war. They left there a small body to guard against any attack from the Citadel or Capitol whilst they were scattered, and then they dispersed in quest of plunder through streets in which they did not meet a soul. Some poured in a body into all the houses near, others made for the most distant ones, expecting to find them untouched and full of spoils. Appalled by the very desolation of the place and dreading lest some stratagem should surprise the stragglers, they returned to the neighbourhood of the Forum in close order. The houses of the plebeians were barricaded, the halls of the patricians stood open, but they felt greater hesitation about entering the open houses than those which were closed. They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in the porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances, wearing the very aspect of gods. So they stood, gazing at them as if they were statues, till, as it is asserted, one of the patricians, M. Papirius, roused the passion of a Gaul, who began to stroke his beard – which in those days was universally worn long – by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed, the others were butchered in their chairs. After this slaughter of the magnates, no living being was thenceforth spared; the houses were rifled, and then set on fire.”


[End of Livy’s History of Rome.]


The next few days the Gauls besieged the Capitoline Hill, but the Romans would not surrender, for three main reasons. One, they were backed into a corner and knew that surrender meant death, meaning that they fought with all the necessity they could. Two, they were defending the Capitoline Hill, the holiest of holies within Roman religion, which housed the temples of Jupiter and Saturn. Three, the Romans were led by a capable and cunning commander with the greatest name in history: Marcus Manlius. Manlius staved off Brennos’ attacks long enough for a Roman army from Veii to arrive outside the city. This fresh Roman army was afraid to engage to the Gauls, after the last Roman army had been annihilated. Instead, the Romans took a defensive position and when the Gauls sent out parties to forage for food, attacked them. Thus, this turned into a war of attrition on both sides. The new Roman army was starving out the Gauls, just as the Gauls were starving out the defenders on the Capitoline Hill, while burning parts of Rome for good measure.


With nothing more to gain, the Romans sued for peace. Chieftain Brennos replied that he would leave Rome for 1,000 pounds of gold. With no other option, the Romans agreed, though there remained one final confrontation between the two parties. While the Gauls weighed the gold, a Roman official complained that the Gauls were using improper weights in order to cheat them. In response to this accusation Brennos retrieved his sword, placed it on the scale and proclaimed, “Woe to the conquered.” Then the Gauls left Rome, laid down with a mountain of gold and returned to northern Italy.


From here on, this podcast won’t deal with the Cisalpine Gauls, as they cease to be part of French history. While the Gauls originated from Gaul, and had ties to their homeland, after hundreds of years they acclimated to Italian lifestyle, creating their own chiefdoms and regional culture. But even though the Cisalpine Gauls drifted apart linguistically, culturally and politically from the rest of the Gauls, the Romans would nurse a pathological grudge against all Gallic people for hundreds of years, as they were the only people that had ever sacked the city in its history. It wasn’t for another 800 years when the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410AD that such an event would occur, as not even Hannibal could overtake the eternal city. Because of this, the Gauls occupied a special place in the Roman mind, as the wild, savage barbarians that threatened to overthrow glorious civilization if the Romans ever let their guard down. This worldview is more culture myth than reality, but it will lead to drastic consequences down the road. When Rome ascends in the next few hundred years, it will disregard the advanced societies which the Gauls created, dismiss the oppida, or large trading cities they had developed, and depict them as savage, woods-dwelling brutes. This stereotyping came to a head when Julius Caesar brutally invaded Gaul, and finally got revenge upon the spirit of Brennos.


But Caesar is four hundred years later, and Rome isn’t the only power in the Mediterranean. While Rome expanded through land-based conquest, the Greeks and Phoenicians expanded by colonizing prime coastal locations. In 600 BCE, just as a tribe of Gauls were moving into Italy, a band of Greeks established a city in Southern France, named Massilia, or as we know it, Marseille. Next time we’ll track the Greeks in southern Gaul, and the effects they had on the Gauls.



Ellis, Peter Berresford, Celt and Greek: Celts in the Hellenic World, 1997

Ellis, Peter Berresford The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic history, c.1000 BC-51 AD, 1990

Ellis, Peter Berresford; Silva, Walter and Berresford Ellis, Peter, Celt and Roman: the Celts in Italy 1999

Livy’s History of Rome.