When most people think of Rome, they usually imagine an all-powerful, conquering empire commanded by the mighty Julius Caesar and his legions. Ancient Rome has often been depicted as an incredible war machine crushing it’s enemies and establishing the Pax Romana over large parts of Europe, North Africa and western Asia. But Rome wasn’t always like this, in fact Rome has been sacked several times, the first in 390 BCE by the Gallic tribe of Senones and their chieftain Brennus.
“Woe to the conquered!”
According to the Roman historian Livy, Brennus lead his army of Gauls to a great victory over the Romans at the Battle of Alia, and subsequently marched on Rome. They quickly captured most of the city, looting and pillaging during their occupation. Roman nobles holed up on the Capitoline Hill offered to pay a ransom for the Gauls to leave, to which Brennus demanded 1000 pounds of gold. The Romans agreed, and brought the gold only to find that the Gauls were using scales and weights rigged in their favour. When the Romans complained about the unfairness, Brennus flung his sword on the weights making them even heavier and exclaimed “Vae victis!”, meaning “woe to the conquered”. These two words struck a menacing undertone, implying the people defeated in battle could not dictate terms and were at the mercy of their conquerors and the Romans were forced to bring even more gold. A more modern equivalent of the phrase “vae victis” is “might is right”, meaning those with power can do as they wish and rules don’t apply to them, regardless of how unjust their actions are.
While Rome was still a young republic, having overthrown their monarchy a little over a century prior, the Gallic tribe of the Senones invaded northern Italy and settled on the Adriatic coast. As they made their way to the Etruscan town of Clusium, the frightened Clusians begged Rome for aid. The Romans responded by sending ambassadors to broker peace between the Gauls and the Clusians. However the negotiations soon broke down and in the ensuing violence, one of the Roman ambassadors killed a Senone chieftain. The Gauls, furious that the ambassadors broke their neutrality, demanded that they be handed over. The Romans refused, as these ambassadors were the sons of a wealthy and powerful aristocrat Marcus Fabius Ambustus, and the Gauls found their casus belli.
The Battle of Allia
The Gauls marched on Rome from Clusium, a distance of around 80 miles, with a supposedly large force of 40,000 warriors. It is likely that this number is exaggerated by ancient historians, and the real figure was probably about 15,000. The Romans responded with an equivalent force, and met the Gauls at the confluence of the Tiber and Allia rivers, barely 10 miles north of Rome. The Romans placed their main force on the plain, and assembled a smaller force of weaker troops on the hill to avoid being flanked. Brennus suspected that this auxiliary force on the hill might attack the Gauls from the rear during the course of the battle, so he decided to attack them first, sending his best warriors against them.
The result was a complete route of the Roman army, starting with the force on the hill and eventually the rest of the troops on the plain. According to Diodorus Siculus, the panicked Romans fled to escape the slaughter and many tried to retreat across the river in their armour, drowning in the process or from javelins hurled by the Gauls. The Gauls were amazed; this seemed too easy a victory and cautiously waited for a Roman counter attack. In the meantime, they mutilated and beheaded the corpses of the slain Romans as was their custom. When it was clear that they had indeed sent their enemies fleeing, they continued their march on the now defenseless city of Rome.
The Sack of Rome
At this time, the Roman Republic was just a city state with influence that extended barely 50 miles from the city itself, not a mighty walled city with impregnable defences. According to Plutarch, the Gauls arrived at the city days after the battle and met little to no resistance as they marched in through the Colline gate. By then many Roman citizens had already fled the city; those that remained gathered their valuables and supplies, and retreated to the Capitoline Hill which they fortified. Brennus and his Gauls had a free run of the city, and they made the most of it by looting and pillaging the city, killing anyone they could find, and razing buildings to the ground. When most of the city lay in ruins, they attacked the precipitous Capitoline Hill, where the Romans prepared to make their last stand.
Despite their earlier successes, taking the Capitoline Hill proved to be an insurmountable challenge. The slopes were steep and the Roman defenders were determined, inflicting massive casualties on the celtic attackers. Realizing that it was futile, Brennus ordered his warriors to lay siege to the hill and starve the Romans out. It was during the course of the siege, the famous episode of the Capitoline geese took place. The clever Gauls had found a way to scale the hill from behind, and did so at night to launch a surprise attack. They stealthily reached the summit while most of the Roman defenders were fast asleep, only to hear the loud flapping of wings and honking of geese. The sacred geese of the temple of Juno were the first to hear the Gauls, creating such a commotion that woke the Romans who rushed to walls and easily threw the attackers off the slopes, preventing a wholesale massacre of the remaining Romans.
As the siege continued, the Romans finally grew weary and could no longer endure hardships of the blockade. They approached the Gauls with an offer of ransom, hoping to buy their way out and pay Brennus to leave with his men. The invaders accepted, demanding a thousand pounds of gold which the Roman soon brought to them. However, the weights used by the Senones did not tally with the gold leading to indignant protests by the Romans. While some accounts have the Romans accusing the Gauls of cheating them, it may have been a cultural difference and a lack of a uniform standard of weights used across regions. In any case, this when Brennus reportedly made his infamous exclamation, leaving the Romans humiliated. The Romans continued to fear the Gauls and fought a series of wars with various Gallic tribes for centuries after, until Julius Caesar finally conquered Gaul in 50 BCE.