In 390 BC a Gallic army marched on the city of Rome, routed the defending army and sacked the city bringing the Roman state and people to their knees. It was entirely possible that the Romans could have been totally wiped from the records, nothing more than a spec of dust in the footnotes of history. The events of 390 BC haunted the imaginations of Romans until the last days of the last western Roman empire 800 years later where another barbarian army sacked the city, this time with fatal consequences.
The Rome of 390 BC was not the Rome that’s embedded in our imaginations, the magnificent ancient city clad in marble that Rome would develop into was not yet a reality. Rome was a city made of mud, clay and brick, just like any other city on the Italian peninsula. At this time Rome was embedded in conflict with the other inhabitants of Italy, fighting for its place at the table just like everyone else, it’s worth emphasising that at this point in time, Rome was barely even a regional power. The fact that at the time we will pick the events Rome is embattled in a war with the Etruscan city of Veii, roughly 10 miles north of Rome illustrates how little expansion Rome had experienced to this point.
Tensions started to rise between Rome and Veii directly after Rome had captured the Etruscan city of Fidenae, this caused great anxiety within Etruria and specifically the people of Veii. Although Veii was part of the Etruscan league as were all of the larger settlements in Etruria this was more of a loose coalition rather than a binding alliance between these cities. So when Veii appealed to the other Etruscan cities for help against the Romans they were, surprisingly left on their own. Livy states that this was because Veii was seen to be escalating conflicts against Rome and should, therefore, face them alone.
For a number of years Rome and Veii waged war on each other but neither was able to strike a decisive blow enough to win the conflict. However, the bitterness between each other that was now deeply rooted in both cities made it evidently clear that defeat for either would mean their utter destruction. Livy makes clear contrasts on how these two cities deal with the threat of destruction, Rome increased its military tribunes to 8 including Mamercus and Marcus Furius Camillus (That name is in my top 10 Roman names for sure). While Veii had appointed a king, this proved to be the death knell for the Veii as this move alienated them against the other members of the Etruscan league thus ensuring no aid was given. After a number of failed attempts to capture the city of Veii Camillus took control of the siege works and due to careful planning and execution soon realised that victory was near needed to figure out what he was going to do with the spoils. Veii was a far wealthier city than Rome and Camillus knew that he had to tread a careful line between being generous with the spoils and strike a balance between the Senate and people of Rome as upsetting either one could mean the end of his political career at best. So when Veii was eventually sacked he was careful to try and allocate spoils to the soldiers, plebs, Senate and religious offerings.
There was another social undercurrent to these events that threatened to tear Rome apart. There was on-going tension between the Senate who were the patrician (noble) families and the plebs (ordinary people). Rome was becoming too crowded and there wasn’t enough space and opportunities as the patricians held most of the land in Rome leaving the vast majority of the plebs in squalor. The capture of Veii would increase Rome’s territory by roughly 60% and there was even talk of abandoning Rome and moving to the larger city of Veii. Camillus was a leader in the resistance of the move from Rome as it was to him, a sacred place for all Romans. However, before these proceedings came to a head he was accused, possibly by his political opponents of embezzling funds from Veii and was exiled. Soon after Camillus’ departure a plebian in the temple of Vesta heard a voice more than a human whisper in the night:
“Tell the magistrates… the Gauls are coming”
In the absence of their greatest military leader, Rome was going to be pushed to the brink of destruction.
Gauls are a collection of Celtic tribes in what is now modern-day France and Belgium, then called Gallia hence the name Gauls. They were a fierce warlike people who were well aware of the benefits of crossing the Alps to raid and plunder Italy. They were also frequently used as mercenaries due to their warrior culture for conflicts between other various Italians and Greeks. So there was definitely a president for Gauls crossing the Alps to raid and also take part in conflicts as mercenaries. The Senones tribe lead by their mighty warrior chief Brennus crossed the Alps in 391BC with the aim of sacking the city of Clusium. Historian Livy says it was a possibility that they were acting as mercenaries for a rival city of Clusium, however, there is a possibility they were acting on their own. The city of Clusium turned to Rome for help against this Gallic invasion. The Romans sent envoys to the Gauls and asked them not to molest any people who had not done them wrong, the Gauls replied saying that if they were granted land then they wouldn’t attack Clusium, if not they offered a warning that the Gauls exceeded all other men in valour. The Romans replied that they had no right to any land and the Gauls stated aggressively:
“All things belong to brave men who carry justice on thier swords”
As emotions were a high a fight broke out between the two groups of envoys with the Romans clearly being the aggressor (Remember the scene from 300 when Gerrard Butler attacks the Persian messengers? it was a big no-no and seen as a real cheap shot). With these events all interest on Clusium was lost and the Gauls, enraged let of the war cry ”To Rome!” and marched south towards the city.
With the Gauls on their way to attack Rome the Romans mustered an army by the river Allia and waited. However without Camillus, the Roman commanders were not able to organise a successful defence, they had failed to prepare an effective defensive position and erected no fortifications of any kind. Livy writes that the Romans had made their line too thin due to their concern of being flanked however this mad merely made it too weak to withstand a direct attack. Brennus moved against the Roman troops stationed on a hill on one side of the battlefield first, defeated them and attacked the Romans from the front and side. Livy describes a bloody ‘slaughter’ on the banks of the river as men tried to escape stating that amongst all the Roman soldiers where wasn’t an ounce of manhood. With the Roman army scattered the survivors fled back to the city, and with so few numbers realised it would be indefensible fell back to the well defended and provisioned capitol hill. Brennus astonished that Rome was not defended entered the city with his army and besieged the remaining survivors whilst plundering the city. The Romans watched in horror as their city was being burned raided and plundered before their very eyes, powerless to stop it. At this point in time, the fate of the Roman people was on a knife-edge. However luckily the main motivation for the Gauls was plunder and instead of launching a final assault on the Capitol hill they were contempt to keep them surrounded and sack the city. So the Romans survived, just, but they now faced a slow death from either disease of starvation once their food ran out, but they had bought time.
As time went on food and disease became an issue for both sides, the Romans cut off from getting more food and the Gauls used to a wet colder climate grew restless and hungry. Defiantly the Romans threw bread to the Galus while taunting them that they had plenty of food, an example of the indomitable will of Rome and its willingness to fight to the bitter end. However, as time passed and the dead piled up both sides started to negotiate. A deal was struck, Rome would buy its freedom. If the Gauls received 1,000lbs of Gold they would leave. or as so eloquently stated by Livy “a thousand pounds weight of gold – the price of a nation soon to rule the world”.
Pause at this moment and ask yourself if Rome would have agreed to this if positions were switched? or even what would you do in this situation?
The answer is absolutely not. As Rome went on to show countless times that once they had their foot on the enemy’s throat they made sure that that people were destroyed utterly. Notable examples of this include the sack of Carthage (149BC), Alesia in 52BC and at Sarmizeguthusa in 106AD. All of these cities were the last bastion of defence for their people, and all were utterly destroyed root and stem. Whereas the resistance that was shown by Rome in times of dire peril and in the face of destruction at times like this and the aftermath of the battle of Cannae in 216BC demonstrate their uniqueness in the ancient world.
Anyway back to our story… (If you haven’t noticed I really like this shit and sometimes go off on tangents)
The gold was brought forward by the Romans and placed on the scales so that the correct amount could be counted, then handed over to Brennus and the Gauls. However, adding insult to injury the scales the Gauls brought were rigged so the true weight was always under-represented thus making the Romans pay substantially over the agreed upon 1,000 pounds weight. When the Roman commander objected, a furious Brennus drew his long sword threw it onto the scales and shouted in Latin “VAE VICTUS”.
“Woe to the Vanquished”
Essentially meaning, you are defeated and we can do as we please because it was us who defeated you, for Brennus was now delivering justice on the tip of his sword just like the Gauls had earlier proclaimed. This distribute had made the proceedings go on for longer than expected and before the deal was done Marcus Furius Camillus returned to save the Roman people.
Camillus proclaimed that he was the highest ranking Roman and since he hadn’t agreed to any such deal and ordered the Gauls to leave or face him in battle. For during these events Camillus had rounded up survivors of the battle of Allia and recruited more men, enough to defeat the tired diseased Gauls. And on the outskirts of Rome, he defeated the Gauls in two battles and utterly annihilated them. Upon returning to the city he was praised as the second founder of Rome and a father to his country. Around this time he delivered a passionate speech about the city of Rome and its scared importance and how it should not be abandoned. For now, Rome was a ruin and the likelihood of them moving to Veii was even greater than before. However, because of Camillus, the city of Rome was saved and it was rebuilt and would one day flourish first as a republic, then as an empire and become one of the most fabulous cities in the world right up to this very day. How very different the world would be if the Romans were destroyed in 390BC.
Oliver J. Hallett
Beard, M. (2015). SPQR: a history of ancient Rome. London, Profile Books.
Selincourt, AD. 2002. Livy: The early history of Rome. Penguin Classics. Third edition. London, England.