The Sack of Rome by the Celts

Celtic migrations to Italy

The sack of Rome by the Gauls was the first event in Roman history that the educated Hellenes learned about. In this context, information about the city was preserved by Aristotle, Theopompus and Polybius. The latter wrote that

“Galatians (Gauls) conquered Rome itself and occupied the entire city, except for the Capitol”

in the year of the siege of the city of Regia by the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius the Elder, that is, in 387/386 BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans called the ethnic groups of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family Gauls or Galatians. We will use all three ethnonyms as synonyms.

The city founded by Romulus and Remus is located in the center of the Apennine Peninsula, and therefore, before approaching Rome and capturing it, the Celts living in Gaul had to overcome huge distances. According to Titus Livius, the penetration of the Gauls into Italy began as early as the fifth Roman king, Tarquinius the Ancient, whose reign is traditionally dated to 616–579 BC. In his History from the Foundation of the City, the ancient Roman historian painted a broad picture of the continuous migrations of various Celtic tribes, beginning with the Insubres. Over the next two centuries, more and more “hordes” of Gauls invaded the Apennine Peninsula: Caenomani, Libui, Salluvia, Boii, Lingones and Senones. The attack of the latter on Clusium and Rome Titus Livius refers to 390 BC.

As Plutarch wrote, “even more children and women trailed behind the armed Gauls-men,” as Plutarch wrote: the Celtic tribes penetrated the Apennine Peninsula in order to firmly settle there. According to ancient authors, the Gauls were attracted by the fertile land of Italy, primarily the valley of Pada, the modern Po River. On reaching Clusium, the invaders encountered the Romans for the first time. The Roman ambassadors, representatives of the Fabius family, who were at that time in the city, participated in the battle against the Gauls. Upon learning of this, the leader of the Senons, Brennus, led an army against Rome.

Archaeological material sometimes supplements, and sometimes corrects the evidence and legendary information of ancient writings about ancient Italy. The results of excavations carried out over two hundred years indicate that the amount of material attributed to the Celts of the La Tène culture in Northern Italy gradually increased. One of the most striking evidence of Celtic migrations is the burial grounds discovered in the 19th century in the vicinity of the town of Marzabotto near Bologna and dating from the end of the 5th – beginning of the 4th century BC. At the same time, relying on the current level of archaeological data, the German archaeologist Bernhard Mayer rejects the possibility of dating the mass migrations of Celtic tribes to the beginning of the 6th century BC, as Titus Livy wrote about, or earlier. Apparently, the mass penetration of the Gauls into the Apennine Peninsula dates back to after 400 BC. Gallic tribes settled in the Po Valley, capturing the cities of the Etruscans or founding their own fortified settlements.

Gauls, geese and a sword on the scales

The Romans had to deal not with the migrating people, but with a detachment of the retinue type under the command of Brenn. Upon learning of the approach of enemies, the Roman army advanced to the Allia River and, on its banks, 11 miles from the city, entered with the Senons, according to Plutarch, “in a disorderly and therefore shameful battle for themselves.” The Gauls defeated the Romans, some of whom fled to Rome, and some to Veii. Since that time, the day of the battle, July 18, was considered unlucky by the Romans.

 Leader of the Senons Brenn. The figurehead of the French battleship Brenn, launched in 1896. The figure is currently kept in the National Maritime Museum in Paris.

With the approach of the barbarians, the priests and vestals with the main shrines of the city left Rome and took refuge in Caere. The remaining inhabitants of Rome abandoned their homes to the mercy of fate and fled to the fortified hill of the Capitol. The story of Titus Livius and Plutarch about the Gallic invasion contains several entertaining stories – in particular, about elderly senators and priests who did not find the spiritual strength to part with their native city. They refused to evacuate and take refuge on the Capitol. Instead, the noble elders put on rich festive attire and began to await the decision of their fate in the Roman forum, seated in ivory chairs. All of them were slaughtered by the barbarians who entered the city.

For several days the Gauls of Brenna plundered the houses of the Romans, burning and destroying the city, as Plutarch writes,

“in anger and anger at the defenders of the Capitol, who not only refused to surrender, but, defending the walls, inflicted tangible damage on the attackers.”

The Roman district was also ruined. All the captured inhabitants of the city, including women and children, died from the swords of the Gauls.

 Funerary stele from the Etruscan necropolis in Bologna, second half of the 5th century BC. The battle scene at the bottom depicts a battle between a naked Celtic infantryman and an Etruscan horseman. Archaeological Museum of Bologna.

An important place in the ancient Roman historiography of the Gallic invasion is occupied by the noble Roman Mark Furius Camillus. Having accepted the appointment as dictator, Camillus gathered a new army of Weisky fugitives and new people and began to prepare for an attack on the Gauls.

Meanwhile, Brenn’s warriors managed to discover a secret path leading to the Capitol. Around midnight, the Gauls climbed up the rock. Probably, neither the walls of the fortress nor the sleeping sentries would have stopped them, but, as you know, the quirites hiding on the Capitol were rescued by the sacred geese from the temple of Juno. The hungry birds slept restlessly and therefore heard the noise made by the galls. With a loud cackle, the geese rushed at the intruders. Mark Manlius, who later received the cognomen (nickname) Kapitolin, was the first to hear the noise. Other Romans followed him. They were able to repel the attack of the enemies and turn them back.

The situation of unfavorable balance for both sides after the unsuccessful assault on the Capitol prompted them to enter into negotiations. The opponents agreed that the Romans would pay the Gauls a thousand pounds of gold, and they would immediately leave the city and the Roman possessions. Another legend tells of the indignation of the Romans that the Gauls used fake weights when weighing gold. In response to their complaints, Brenn unfastened his sword and belt and threw them on the scales, exclaiming: “Woe to the vanquished!” (Vae victis).

 Brenn and part of his trophies. Painter Paul Jamin, 1893.

Just at this decisive moment, Camillus entered the gates of Rome at the head of the army he had assembled. Taking the gold off the scales, he declared that

“The Romans have long been established to save the fatherland with iron, not gold.”

In the ensuing battle, the Romans were victorious. The Celts retreated to the camp and left the city at night. The soldiers of Camillus and the inhabitants of the Roman environs exterminated the remnants of the Gauls.

From legends to history

Plutarch’s story is full of entertaining legends, but is not the only source of information about those dramatic events. Even in the ancient historical tradition, alternative versions of the stay of the Gauls in Rome and the circumstances of their departure from there have been preserved. For example, according to several authors, the Gauls captured the Capitol. Polybius reports that the Celts left Rome of their own accord, because they received news of the attack of the Veneti on their own lands. According to Strabo, the inhabitants of the Etruscan Caere managed to defeat the Gauls and return the captured gold to the Romans.

Comparing various versions of the history of the Celtic invasion, the Italian historian Marta Sordi conjectured that the actions of the Gauls were directed by the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius the Elder, who sought to undermine the power of Rome’s ally, the city of Caere. Developing the version of Diodorus Siculus, Tim Cornell suggested that it was the victory of the Cerians over the Gauls that provided the factual material for the story of Camillus’s victories. The story of an imaginary victory, like the famous phrase about gold and iron, played the role of compensation for the defeat inflicted on the Romans. Although in reality their ally Caere turned out to be the deliverer of the Romans, in the Roman version of the legend, Camillus became the winner of the Gauls, while the representatives of the Fabius family were assigned a role close to perjurers.

Indeed, in the 4th century BC. the Etruscan Caere was an ally of Rome and could become a refuge for the Vestals who fled from the city, as T. Cornell suggested. The inhabitants of the city could not only help the exiles, but also defeat the Celts on their own. At least Diodorus Siculus’ Historical Library tells of the rout that the Cerians inflicted on the Gauls on the Trausian plain when they returned from the south.

It is likely that the Gauls of Brenna were mercenaries hired by the tyrant of Syracuse to wage war against the Etruscans and their allies. Dionysius is informed about the service of the Gauls in the epitome (summary) of the work of Pompeius Trogus by Justin, compiled by him. According to him, Dionysius

“He made an alliance with the Gauls and, having strengthened his army with Gallic auxiliary detachments, began the war [against the Italian Greeks] as if all over again.”

Note that, according to Justin, the tyrant waged war against the Greek colonies in Italy, and the Gauls were hired a few months after they burned Rome. The data of Diodorus and Polybius confirm the chronological connection between the war of Dionysius with the Greeks (in particular, with Rhegius) and the arrival of the Gauls.

As a summary of this short investigation into the history of the Gallic invasion, we quote from the work of James Richardson:

“If the Gauls were moving south of Italy to help Dionysius in his campaigns, then this gives us an excellent explanation for their arrival in Rome, an arrival that cannot be explained by the story of the Fabial ambassadors or the idea that this was a migration of people in search of earth.”

Thus, an attempt to embed the episode with the campaign of Brennus and the sack of Rome by the Gauls in the broader context of the history of the Western Mediterranean at least has the right to exist.

Consequences of the invasion

In conclusion, it is necessary to assess the extent of the destruction of Rome. According to Titus Livy, the Gauls burned houses and devastated the area, so that in the end the city was dilapidated. Even the question of the resettlement of the Romans in the recently conquered Veii was considered, but thanks to the hero Camillus, the senate decided to stay and rebuild Rome. This decision entered the annals as the “second foundation” of the city (secunda origine).

In all likelihood, Roman historians exaggerated the extent of the destruction caused by the Gauls. The excavation data and other evidence speak in favor of the fact that the raid of the Brenn squad was aimed at ransom. Having received the desired gold, the Gauls left the hostile city and took with them those material values ​​that they could take away. In general, according to Cornell,

“archaeologists have not yet succeeded in discovering any clear traces of the Gallic invasion.”

Obviously, this explains the rapid restoration of the city, noted in ancient sources.

The main consequence of the invasion of the Gauls lay in the political, and not in the economic or material plane. The development of the city center is continuous, and the fires attributed to the Gauls probably belong to a later time. According to T. Cornell, the main result of the invasion was the opening of access for the plebeians to higher magistracies, provided by the law of Licinius-Sextian in 367 BC.

After the capture of Vei and the departure of the Gauls, the Roman Republic embarked on the path of unstoppable expansion, first in Italy and then throughout the Mediterranean. For several centuries after the Gauls, the inhabitants of Rome were not threatened enough to take refuge in the Capitol or think about moving the capital to a new location. Even the great Hannibal failed to take the Eternal City.