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Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest”

Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest.”

Ludwig H. Dyck

Telamon, the Battle for Northern Italy;

“We can imagine how the Boii and Insubres ambassadors stood in the midst of the seated circle of the Gaesatae Kings, Concolitanus and Aneroestes, by whose sides sat their warrior champions and their druid advisors. With eloquent tongue, the ambassadors offered a large sum of gleaming gold, which was but a paltry amount compared to what could be looted from the rich and prosperous lands of the Romans. The Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae, proud allies, would honor the deeds of the Gauls who long ago crushed the legions at the River Allia and made themselves masters of Rome for seven months! The heroic tales roused the Gaesatae’s lust for war. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius (Polybius, The Histories, II. 27.)”

The Barbarians Before Rome (oil on canvas) by Luminais, Evariste Vital (1822-96); Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dunkirk, France; Giraudon; French

“Death March of the Legions,” The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest;

“Provisions of food were gathered, mainly millet, barley and livestock. Ordinarily meat was too precious to be eaten on a regular basis. Now, however, the warriors would need all the strength they could get. Those too old would stay behind, to look after the very young and the remaining farm animals. Aged grandparents bid emotional farewells to sons, grandsons and daughters-in-law, who they might never see again. They trusted in their gods to give them courage and good fortune. Priests took sacred emblems from their holy groves and carried them into battle. The Germanic warriors would fight side by side with their family members. Fathers, sons and brothers were comrades in arms, families were their squadrons and clans were their divisions. From thousands of tiny settlements, bands of warriors hungry for loot and vengeance gathered and followed in Arminius’ wake.”

Knackfuss low pix
‘The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest,’ H. Knackfuss (Courtesy of School Museum Zetel and of Museum and Park Kalkriese).

Caesar against the Belgae, “The Bravest of the Gauls;”

As soon as the Roman baggage train appeared over the hillside, the entire Belgae army broke out of the woods. The Nervii formed the left wing, the Atrebates the right and the Viromandui in the center. The barbarians poured down the hillside like a human avalanche, unstoppable in its fury. The Roman cavalry and light troops were completely overwhelmed and scattered, barely even impeding the enemy charge. So fast were the barbarians that Caesar wrote, “almost at the same moment they were seen at the woods, in the river, and then at close quarters!” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, II. 19). The three-foot deep river proved scarcely more of an obstacle than the Roman cavalry. In no time the barbarians gained the river’s farther side to continue with seemingly unbroken momentum up to the entrenching Romans.

“The barbarian ambush would have sealed the doom of almost any other army caught in the same situation. But this was not just any army; it was the Roman legion in its prime, under the generalship of one of the great captains of history.”

Gaius Julius Caesar in battle by Mark Churms

Viriathus, Hero of Hispania;

“Galba came to the first group and asked them to lay down their arms in a gesture of good faith. The naïve Lusitanians did as they were told. Women with babes in their arms, old couples supporting each other and young warriors who clenched their fists, watched in helpless apprehension, as Roman soldiers with spades moved around them. The Romans dug as only Romans could until a vast trench surrounded the Lusitani. Swords slid out of scabbards as the legionaries moved in. Children cried, frantic women screamed and clung to their men who cursed in anger. Roman soldiers pushed their way through the panicked mob to single out the able bodied men and cut them down like sheep. The others were “saved” for the slave markets. The slaughter was repeated with the other two Lusitani groups. Of the plunder, the greedy Galba kept most of it for himself and only gave a little to his soldiers, even though he was already a man of great wealth.”

Copyright L. H. Dyck

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The Cimbri and Teutones humble Rome’s Legions

Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network

The Cimbri and Teutones humble Rome’s Legions

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Chronicling the initial Roman battles against the Cimbri and Teutones, from the origin of these tribes up to the beginning of the gigantic battle of Arausio in 105 BC.

In 113, BC the Cimbri and Teutones marched into the limelight of recorded history when they first appeared to the Roman Empire along the Balkan frontier.

 

Who were the Cimbri and Teutones?

In 113 BC the Cimbri and Teutones marched into the limelight of recorded history when they appeared on the Roman Balkan frontier. Clad in primitive hides and furs and rumored to be eaters of raw flesh, the tall, blond, and blue-eyed people appeared to the Romans as a race of savage giants. In lumbering wagons, literally huts on wheels, they traveled with their entire families alongside herds of livestock.

The Cimbri and Teutones’ origin mystified the Romans who in those days knew little of the realms and peoples of northern Gaul and Germany. Most claimed that they were Germans; some thought they were Celts. Others pondered if they were Galloscythians, a mix of the Gauls and the Scythian peoples of the eastern steppes, or the Cimmerians of Greek legend who lived in eternal darkness at the world’s edge.

Modern scholars generally believe that the Cimbri and Teutones were Germans. This Germanic argument is based on the location of the Cimbri and Teutones’ homelands in northern Denmark, which were within the Germanic and outside of the Celtic domains. Nevertheless, the names of their chieftains are Celtic, which leads some modern historians to maintain that the Cimbri and Teutones were Celts.

However, classical historians might have transmitted German names to us in Celticized form because they were more familiar with the Celtic language. Whether they were Germans or Celts, the incredible saga of the Cimbri and Teutones began during the late 2nd century BC when a rise in the ocean level inundated large tracts of the Danish coast. A scattering of tribes were forced to seek homelands elsewhere; they were led by the Teutones and Cimbri. Classical historians hopelessly exaggerated their numbers, either to justify Roman defeats at the barbarians’ hands or to magnify the scale of the final Roman victories. Plutarch claimed that there were 300,000 warriors. The precise number of Cimbri and Teutones will never be known, but it is likely that together the two tribes numbered less than 150,000 men, women, and children, a figure on par with the larger German tribes of the 5th to 7th centuries AD.

The Epic Journey of the Cimbri and Teutones

Starting from northern Denmark, the Cimbri and Teutones first wandered south along the Elbe around the year 100 BC. From there, they headed east along the Danube. In Bohemia they met the Celtic Boii whose resistance persuaded the two tribes to trek farther south into the Balkans. There they clashed with the Celtic Scordisci. As a result of this encounter, the Scordisci were pushed south into Macedonia while the Cimbri and Teutones were deflected westward toward Italy via the valley of the Drave and the passes of the Carnic Alps. They now threatened the Celtic kingdom of Noricum, a close trading partner of Rome, and the iron mines of Noreia. This placed them dangerously close to the borders and interests of the Roman Republic.

To meet this new barbarian incursion, Consul Papirus Carbo was sent to bar their way in the heights north of Aquileia, near present-day Venice. Although outnumbered, Carbo felt that his disciplined legions could deal with the crudely armed barbarian rabble. Having had little contact with the civilized world, the half-naked Cimbri and Teutones warrior probably had little more than a wooden shield for protection, his principal weapon a wooden, bone, or for some an iron-tipped spear. Cavalry was uncommon and the bulk of the warriors fought as infantry. A few of the chiefs, their retainers, and warriors of renown may have sported body armor and wielded iron long swords. It was they who boldly formed the front ranks in battle.

The migration of the Teutones, Courtesy of Heritage History
The Teutones, Courtesy of Heritage History

A Failed Roman Army Ambush

When the Cimbri and Teutones heard that the people of Noricum were friends of the Roman Republic, they sent word that they would leave them in peace. Carbo praised the barbarian envoys, and in a gesture of goodwill, offered guides to take them back across the Noricum borders. In reality, Carbo’s guides led the Cimbri and Teutones into a Roman ambush. Carbo sprung his trap near Noreia but failed to scatter the barbarians, who rallied and viciously counterattacked. The Roman army was suddenly in very serious trouble. It would have been completely annihilated had it not been for a severe tempest that put an end to the battle. In face of this disaster, Carbo took his life by poison.

After their victory, the Cimbri and Teutones did not press on toward Italy; perhaps because remnants of Carbo’s army still guarded the passes. They crossed the Alps, and skirting their northern reaches, marched into Gaul by way of the lowlands between the Jura and Vosges Mountains. En route the Celtic Tigurini of western Switzerland gave the wanderers a warm welcome. The guests boasted of their triumph against the Roman Republic and of the treasures amassed in their epic journey. Such tales whetted the Tigurini’s taste for adventure and they decided to join the Cimbri and Teutones in their travels.

For over a year the Cimbri coalition pillaged the southern Gallic countryside but lacked the siege know-how or the required patience of a blockade to take any of the walled towns. By 109 BC the barbarians reached the northern border of Narbonese Gaul where their progress was blocked by a Roman army under Consul M. Junius Silanus.

The Cimbri and Teutones wander through Gaul, Courtesy of Heritage History
The Cimbri and Teutones wander through Gaul, Courtesy of Heritage History

The People of Mars

Barbarian envoys arrived before Silanus and asked that “the people of Mars should give them some land by way of pay and use their hands and weapons for any purpose they wished”¹.  Silanus referred the matter to the Senate. In another age, Roman Emperors who lacked the manpower to protect their crumbling frontiers might have accepted such an offer, but in 109 BC it was a different matter. Victorious against the armies of Greece, Spain, Carthage and Asia Minor, the Roman Republic had no need to settle such barbarous folk within the borders of its rising empire. Silanus told the barbarians that “Rome has no lands to give, and desires no services.”² He went out to engage the intruders and was promptly defeated.

Fortunately for Rome, the barbarians did not push onward into Italy. The Cimbri and Teutones turned north to plunder Gaul while the Tigurini continued westward. Led by their chief Divico, the Tigurini raided Roman Republic territories along the Rhone and in 107 incited a revolt among the Volcae Tectosages who placed the Roman garrison of Tolosa in chains. To suppress the uprising, Consul L. Cassius Longinus, commander of Narbonese Gaul, confronted and initially routed Divico. However, the Tigurini withdrawal was but a feint to waylay the pursuing legions northwest of Tolosa (around Agen on the Garonne). Longinus and a great part of his army were slain. The Tigurini chose to spare the survivors but demanded half their valuables, a number of hostages and humiliated the legionaries by forcing them to crawl under the yoke.

Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 107 BC the Tigurini humiliated the defeated Romans by making them crawl under the yoke (Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Raising Yet Another Army

To avenge these insults and restore order in Narbonese Gaul, the Roman Republic raised yet another army to be placed under the command of Consul Quintus Servilius Caepio. Caepio was a veteran of the Spanish wars for which he earned a triumph. In 106, he somehow managed to have Divico agree to a peaceful withdrawal. Caepio recovered Tolosa with the aid of traitors inside and looted the temple treasures of the god Belis (the Celtic Apollo). The fantastic amounts of gold and silver (rumored at 100,000 pounds of gold and 110,000 pounds of silver) would have been a welcome sight in Rome, whose own treasury was drained by the wars in Africa and Gaul. Mysteriously, the treasure disappeared while on its way to Massilia. The blame was put on bandits but not everyone was convinced. Caepio himself fell under suspicion, but Rome’s attention was diverted by the renewed appearance of the Cimbri and Teutones in Narbonese Gaul in 105.

Rome scraped together an additional army to rid itself of the barbarian menace once and for all. It was led by Consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and accompanied by a separate strong corps under Legatus Marcus Aurelius Scarus. By early October, all three Roman armies gathered on the banks of the Rhone, near Arausio (Orange) to await the Cimbri and Teutones. The Roman Republic’s forces were by far the largest assembled in the barbarian wars, numbering up to 80,000 men. Caepio, now Proconsul, held the east bank of the river, Maximus the west. Well ahead of Maximus, Scarus and his corps occupied a vanguard position.

An Awful End for Scarus

Scarus was the first to feel the fury of the north men. Led by the Cimbri king, Boiorix, the barbarians tore down upon the Romans in a rough square phalanx, relying on sheer speed and ferocity to overwhelm the enemy. Like Silanus before him, Scarus was unable to stand against their charge.

His vanguard smashed, Scarus was thrown into chains and dragged to Boiorix’s feet. The latter held council with his chiefs, contemplating whether or not to move on into Italy. Scarus defiantly cried out that they would learn of true Roman power if they dared to cross the Alps and set foot in Italy. In answer, the barbarians ran a blade through his body.

Rome needed a New Commander and a New Army

Were Caepio and Maximus, with their huge army, able to finally stop the Cimbri and Teutones? And if they could not, who could? Rome did finally find a savior, a man born of humble origins but lofty ambitions, Gaius Marius. Marius would forge a new professional army, which would prove a match for the heretofore invincible barbarians.

The net article “The Cimbri and Teutones humble the Rome’s Legions” by Ludwig H. Dyck was first posted in two separate blogs on April 27, 2014 by James Hart on Warfare History Network. The article was originally published as part of the longer article “Wolves at the Border” in Military Heritage Magazine June 2003. The remainder of Rome’s fierce war with the Cimbri and Teutones is also featured in Ludwig H. Dyck’s book, “The Roman Barbarian Wars, the Era of Roman Conquest.”

L.H. Dyck's article on the the Cimbri and Teutones first appeared in magazine form in Military Heritage 2003
L.H. Dyck’s article on the the Cimbri and Teutones first appeared in magazine form in Military Heritage 2003

 

The complete saga of the Cimbri and Teutones forms a chapter in L.H. Dyck's book, "The Roman Barbarian Wars, the Era of Roman Conquest."
The complete saga of the Cimbri and Teutones is featured in Dyck’s book, “The Roman Barbarian Wars, the Era of Roman Conquest.”

 

 ¹ Annaeus Florus . XXXVIII, ²Ibid.

Selected Sources

Appian, Appian’s Roman History. Translated by Horace White. London: William Heinemann. 1912. , Cary M. and Scullard H.H. A History of Rome. London: MacMillan Education.1988, Cunliffe Barry. Editor. Prehistoric Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997,  Dio. Dio’s Roman History. Trans. by Earnest Cary. London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1914, Ellis. Peter. The Celtic Empire. London: Constable. 1990, Florus Lucius Annaeus. Epitome of Roman History. London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1947, Goldsworthy Adrian Keith. The Roman Army at War. 100BC – AD 200. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1998, Green Miranda J. Editor. The Celtic World. London: Routledge. 1998, Heitland. W.E., The Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1909, King John. Kingdom of the Celts. London: Blandford. 1998, Livius. The History of Rome. trans. by William A. M’Devitte. London: George Bell & Sons. 1903, Malitz Jurgen. Die Historien des Poseidonius. Munich: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung. 1983, Mommsen T. The History of Rome. Volume III. London: MacMillan and Co.1901, Pounds Norman J.G. A Historical Geography of Europe 450 BC-AD 1330. London: Cambridge University Press.1973, Strabo. The Geography of Strabo. trans. by Horace L. Jones. London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1923 , Tacitus. The Agricola and Germania. Trans. by H.Mattingly and S.A. Handford. Ontario: Penguin Books.1987, Todd Malcom. Everyday Life of the Barbarians. New York: Dorset Press.1988, Wilcox Peter and Trevino Rafael. Barbarians Against Rome. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2000

Sketch Map: The Roman Gallic Wars for Italy

Ludwig Heinrich Dyck’s book, “The Roman Barbarian Wars: The Era of Roman Conquest,” features five maps to accompany the text. The maps show localities, tribes, battle sites and natural features relevant to the narrative. Dyck’s sketch map, “Roman Gallic Wars for Italy, BC 391-191,” was used by Pen & Sword to make the professional map in the book. Because of space constraints, the sketch maps actually contain more information than the book maps.

Sketch Map: Roman Gallic Wars for Italy,  BC 391-191

Roman Gallic Wars ItalyThe map “Roman Gallic Wars for Italy, BC 391-191,” covers Rome’s wars with the Celtic Gauls who had settled in northern Italy.  The period begins with the 391/90 invasion of Italy and sack of Rome by the Gallic Senones and ends with the defeat of the Boii in 191. Thereafter northern Italy, once Celtic, was absorbed into the Roman world.

The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest. Pen and Sword Edition
The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest. Pen and Sword Edition

Battle of Allia: the Gauls Sack Rome

The net article “Battle of Allia: The Gauls Sack Rome,” by Ludwig H. Dyck was posted on July 2015 by James Hart on Warfare History Network. The article was originally published as “Onslaught at Allia and the Gallic Sack of Rome,” in Military Heritage Magazine and went on to serve as the basis for a  chapter in Ludwig H. Dyck’s book “The Roman Barbarian Wars, the Era of Roman Conquest.”

Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network

Battle of Allia: the Gauls Sack Rome

During the Battle of Allia, ‘mere barbarians’ defeated the Roman army when the Gauls sacked Rome.

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

The Celts, like all other Indo-European peoples, originated on the steppes of Eurasia, from whence they drifted into central Europe. During the first half of the first millennium BC Celtic culture thrived, just as to the south the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta emerged and flourished. Separately in central Italy, the Etruscan civilization rose to dominate its neighbors, and it was under Etruscan kings that the town of Rome, on the banks of the Tiber, prospered to become a city-state.

From the fifth century BC onward, the Celts migrated westward from their heartland in southern Germany. The native tribes were unable to withstand their long slashing swords, cavalry and war chariots. From the Alps to Spain and northward to the British Isles, most of western Europe was transformed into a Celtic world. Yet the Celtic tribes, often at odds with each other, never formed a unified Celtic empire.

To the literate “civilized” cultures of Greece and Italy, the Celts were barbarians. The Greeks called them the keltoi, in loose reference to the people north of the Alps. The Romans called the Celtic tribes settled in today’s France and low countries Galli, or Gauls. But the Greeks and the Romans paid the Celts scant attention and neither considered them a serious threat. That perception was put to the test when in the fifth century BC, the wealth of the Mediterranean countries induced the Gauls, led by the Senones, to drift southward into the northern Italian plain.

Their initial migration may have been peaceful, but after BC 400 the lands and cities north of Etruria, belonging to a mosaic of peoples—the Villanovans, the ancient Ligurians, the Golasecans and others—were steadily looted and annexed by the waves of Gallic tribes. Circa BC 396 the northern bulwark of the Etruscan nation, the city of Melpum, fell to the Gauls. In BC 391, large bands of Gauls led by the Senonian chief Brennus advanced into Etruria and threatened the town of Clusium. With no help forthcoming from other members of the politically divided Etruscan cities, Clusium appealed to Rome for help.

The Rome of the early fourth century BC was a powerful city-state held in high renown by its neighbors. In the previous century Rome cast out its Etruscan overlords and subdued the neighboring mountain peoples, the Aequi and Volsci. In BC 405 Rome embarked on the road of the conqueror with its epic and victorious 10-year war against the Etruscan city of Veii.

“Everything Belongs to the Brave”

In response to Clusium’s pleas for help, the Roman Senate sent envoys, the sons of Fabius Ambustus, to forewarn the invading Gauls. The envoys came in peace but tempers soon flared. The Gauls stated that they had no quarrels with the Romans, but when asked as to what right they had to the lands of the Etruscans, the Gauls replied “that they carried their right in their weapons … and that everything belonged to the brave.” Matters quickly deteriorated when the envoys joined the Etruscan army in an engagement against the Gauls. During the battle one of the Roman ambassadors ran his spear through a Gallic chieftain.

During the Battle of Allia, ‘mere barbarians’ defeated the elite Roman army when the Gauls sacked Rome.

The Gauls held off their attack on the Clusines in order to debate the Roman intervention. The younger men advocated a direct attack on Rome. The elders counseled that ambassadors should first be sent. The elders had their way and the Gallic envoys stated their case in front of the Roman Senate; war could be avoided if Rome surrendered the Fabii ambassadors. The validity of the Gallic demands was appreciated by the Senate but not by the people. A public inquiry into the matter found the Fabii more popular than ever so that both Fabii brothers were elected as consular Tribunes for BC 390. To the Gauls this was a slap in the face. The envoys threatened war and returned to their people.

Soon messages from Clusium arrived at Rome: The Gauls had arisen in rage against Rome and with celerity were storming southward. In fear of the Gallic hordes, rural folk took to flight and cities shut their gates. But for the most part, the Gauls spared the countryside of Rome’s neighbors. Everywhere they went, the Gauls shouted that they were going to Rome. Despite all this the Romans remained complacent. Although alarmed by the speed of the Gallic advance, the Roman commanders were sure that they could handle the barbarian rabble. An army was hastily raised by a levy. Less than 11 miles from Rome, the Romans intercepted the Gauls on July 18, BC 390 on the left bank of the Tiber near its confluence with the River Allia.

Tall, Tough, and… Naked?

Whatever their preconceptions, the Romans were shocked at the sight of the Gallic army. Here was no orderly phalanx confronting them, but a 30,000-strong mob of tall, big-boned, fair-skinned men. The Gauls had full mustaches and manes of long hair swept back over their brows. The bulk of their army consisted of light infantry with oval shields and long swords. Large numbers were completely naked, in accordance with religious and social customs, and wore torques, collars of gold, around their necks, as a sort of magical talisman. Others wore trousers, their upper bodies bare or clothed in tunics. Helmets were adorned with horns or crests of animal designs. A few of the chiefs and noble warriors had mail shirts and even the occasional piece of armor for their horses.

The Gauls also had a sizable cavalry contingent armed with spears. In pompous displays, nobles may have arrived at the battle site in chariots but then fought on foot or mounted steeds to lead the cavalry. The howls and wild cries of the Celts, accompanied by blaring of horns and trumpets, resounded over the battlefield as the barbarians worked themselves into a battle frenzy.

Facing the Gallic horde were upward of 15,000 Romans and allies from neighboring Latin cities. The basic Roman military unit was already the “Legio,” a levy “gathered from the clans,” of six thousand warriors blessed by Mars, the Roman god of war. Tactically it relied on the shock value of a phalanx of hoplites (heavy infantry). Reserves were few and there was little cavalry support. The hoplites were ideally armored with helmet, breastplate, and round shield and armed with a thrusting spear and sword. They were drawn from the citizens of Rome. Hoplite tactics were widespread throughout Greece and Etruria and were introduced from Etruria into Rome during the mid-sixth century BC.

Despite the superior numbers of the enemy, the Romans made no attempt to entrench their position. To prevent being outflanked by the Gauls, who had formed a broad front, the Romans greatly extended their wings. The extra men required for this were apparently taken from the Roman center, which was thus weakened. Even so there were insufficient men to make the Roman front equal to that of the Gauls. As a result the Gallic army not only extended beyond the wings of the Romans but, on average, was twice as deep and even more so opposite the Roman center. To the right of the Romans was a small eminence and here the Romans stationed their reserves. They were the weakest troops in the Roman force, probably poorly armed and inexperienced.

Brennus, the Gallic chieftain, suspected that behind the scanty numbers of the enemy lurked some Roman ruse. He feared that the Roman reserves on the hillock would outflank his left wing and strike at his army from the rear while his men were engaged with the legions. As a result Brennus opened the battle by attacking the reserves, with elite, possibly cavalry, detachments from his left wing.

Discipline Overrated

At first, owning to their position on higher ground, the reserves resisted the onslaught. But the brute power of the northern barbarians proved too much. Some of the reserves were driven back into the hills while others were pushed onto the main Roman battle lines. Upon the rest of the Roman army the shouts and clamor of battle on the hill had a disastrous effect. Not only were the Roman right wing and center thrown into confusion but panic spread from those nearest to the reserves, like a domino effect, all across the lines. At this moment the whole Gallic army charged. The ferocity and momentum of the barbarians shattered the Roman phalanx. The Gauls could scarcely believe their good fortune. “None [of the Romans] were slain while actually fighting; they were cut down from behind whilst hindering one another’s flight in a confused, struggling mass,” wrote Livy.

During the Battle of Allia, ‘mere barbarians’ defeated the elite Roman army when the Gauls sacked Rome.

The Roman left wing and possibly all of the center were swept into the Tiber. Here along the banks of the river, there was a great slaughter. The Gallic long swords slashed down upon the Romans like butcher’s cleavers. Many legionaries tried to swim across the waters, but those too wounded, or unable to swim, or too hampered by the weight of their cuirasses were sucked down by the current. From the banks the Gauls peppered the swimmers with missiles. The Romans that reached the other side fled to entrench themselves at the deserted site of Veii.

On the right wing the situation was much better. The majority of its men retreated into the hills from whence they withdrew to Rome. There they fled to the Citadel on the Capitoline Hill but were in such haste that they neglected to close the city gates.

The Gauls, at first dumbstruck at their easy victory, looted the dead and according to custom piled up the enemy weapons in great heaps. They then commenced their march on Rome, which they reached on the day after the battle. Ahead of the main host the cavalry carried out reconnaissance and, to what must have been an astonished Brennus, reported that they had encountered no enemy pickets, that the gates to the city were not shut, and no troops manned the walls. Suspicious of the virtually effortless way they had defeated the reputable might of Rome, the Gauls suspected a trap. Instead of marching right into the undefended city, they bivouacked between Rome and the Anio River and sent further patrols to reconnoiter the walls.

The Galloping of Enemy Cavalry Outside the City Walls

Within the walls of Rome the wailing and lamentations for the fallen at Allia were replaced by a silent terror of the enemy. Throughout the night the yells and galloping of enemy cavalry could be heard outside the city walls. For those inside the city the tension was nearly unbearable. But due to Gallic indecision, no attack came during the night. The citizens decided that owing to the lack of fighting men and inadequacy of its walls, which consisted of little more than an earth rampart (agger) and a ditch, the city was doomed. The only defendable spot was the Citadel on the steep Capitoline Hill and there the Senate and those men of military age, along with their families, sought refuge. The priesthood fled from the city, taking with them the most sacred religious relics. As to the common folk, the plebs, many followed the priests’ example and streamed out of the city in disorganized mobs to seek safety in the countryside or within neighboring cities.

About three days after the battle at the Allia, the Gauls entered the city unopposed. Although they had carried out nightly cavalry reconnaissance, they could not have been very thorough; the Gauls were surprised at the large number of people who, along with their possessions, had already slipped through their grasp. The Gauls stationed a squad of troops around the Capitoline Hill and then let loose their wrath on those that remained in the city or were still in the process of fleeing. For the next few days and nights, the Romans on Capitoline Hill watched helplessly as below them their cherished city was torched by the Gauls. From out of the roaring inferno resounded the shouts of the barbarians and the cries of citizens put to the sword.

Storming the Citadel

When nothing survived amid the ashes and ruins of the city, the Gauls stormed the Citadel. In stark contrast to the battle of Allia, the Romans now put up a stout defense. The Gauls came on with a battle-shout and locked their shields above their heads to protect themselves against missile fire. The Romans let the enemy advance about halfway up the hill, up to where the ground was steepest, and then charged. Because of the steep gradient the Romans proved unstoppable and completely scattered the Gauls.

During the Battle of Allia, ‘mere barbarians’ defeated the elite Roman army when the Gauls sacked Rome.

Wisely deducing that any further attempts to take the Citadel would be fruitless and only result in more Gallic casualties, and that in any event time was on their side, the Gauls surrounded the Capitol in a blockade. The problem was how to feed their own troops, because the fire had burned the grain supplies in the city while the surrounding fields had been stripped bare by those citizens who had fled. So the Gauls decided that half of their numbers would scour the countryside for provisions while the other half continued the siege.

At Rome, a period of relative inactivity set in with the Romans secure within their hilltop fortification while the besiegers continued their investment. Elsewhere there was more activity. At Ardea the renowned Roman general Marcus Furius Camilus, who in BC 396 had captured and destroyed the Etruscan city of Veii, rallied the citizens against Gallic raiding parties. Not far from Ardea, Camilus and his levy of Ardeans surprised and slaughtered a large throng of Gauls. Similarly the Roman troops still encamped at Veii fought against various Etruscan bands who, sensing easy spoils, made forays into Roman territory. The Roman army at Veii was steadily swelled by volunteers from the rest of Latium. All that was needed was a capable leader. It turned out to be Camilus. With the consent of the Roman Senate, and notified by a secret messenger, Camilus was nominated Dictator by order of the people.

Gauls Foiled by Fowl

According to tradition, the Gauls meanwhile attempted to infiltrate the Capitoline Hill by stealth. At night, a small party scaled the hill near the Temple of Carmentis. The climb was precarious but the party gained the summit and completely eluded the Roman sentinels. The Gauls did not even wake the guard dogs. Fortunately for the Romans, a flock of sacred geese, near the temple of Juno, were in the vicinity of the Gallic infiltration. The geese put up such a racket that the Roman guard was finally roused. Led by a certain Marcus Manilus Capitolinus, a veteran soldier, those Gauls who had reached the summit were flung back over the cliff. Manilus confronted two of the enemy. His sword sliced away the right hand of one Gaul, sending a battle ax flying. Manilus smashed his shield into the face of the other, who tumbled down the cliff. The other Gauls, who still clung to the rocks, were dislodged with a volley of javelins and stones. The result of this fiasco was that stricter watch was kept by the Romans. The Gauls, too, tightened their security around the hill for they had come to realize that messages were passing between Veii and Rome.

Despite their valiant defense of the Capitol, the Roman condition was far from desirable. Seven months of blockade had reduced them to famine. The Gauls also suffered from malnutrition, along with severe outbreaks of malaria, and died in such great numbers that efforts were no longer made to bury the dead. The corpses were simply piled into heaps and burned.

Finally, hunger so gnawed at the defenders of the Capitol that they gave up any hope of being relieved by Camilus. All that was left was to sue for a peace. A conference between the consular Tribune Q. Sulpicious Longus and the Gallic chief Brennus resulted in a ransom of 1,000 pounds of gold to be paid by the Romans for the peaceful withdrawal of the Gauls. When it was time to weigh the gold the Gauls produced false weights. The Romans complained, but to no avail, for Brennus threw his own sword on the scales and haughtily proclaimed, “Woe to the vanquished.”

Fanciful Revisionism By Classical Historians?

What happened next is disputed. Livy wrote that Camilus and his army now appeared on the scene. He at once ordered the Gauls to leave the gold and to march away from the city. When they refused to do so, a chaotic battle erupted as Romans and Gauls fought within the streets and alleys of the ruined city. The end was that the famished and disease-stricken Gauls were easily routed and driven out of the city. At the eighth milestone on the road to Gabii, the Gauls rallied but were again defeated by Camilus’s pursuing force. Plutarch mirrors Livy’s tale, except that he maintains the skirmish in the city resulted in few Gallic casualties and that the Gauls retreated in good order until their defeat on the road to Gabii. In contrast to Livy and Plutarch, Polybius makes no mention of Roman heroics and says the Gauls raised the siege because their own lands were threatened by the Veneti. Diodorus gives us yet another account in which the Gauls left Rome of their own free will after receiving the gold. Later they were defeated on two separate occasions, by Camilus at the town of Veascium and by the Caeretans in Sabine territory.

Most historians consider Camilus’s defeat of the Gauls to be little more than a fanciful revisionism by classical historians to conceal the true scale of the disaster at the hands of mere “barbarians.” But there is probably a bit of truth in the classical accounts. Perhaps the Gauls accepted the ransom because of pestilence and malnutrition within their own ranks, and because of rumors of the Veneti invasion and a possible large gathering of fresh Roman forces in the countryside. On their way home the Gauls no doubt spread into smaller bands to ease their living off the land. Many of these bands might well have been ambushed by Romans and other tribes and with them part of the ransom gold was lost.

Whatever the truth of the Gallic departure, the Romans ever after called their defeat at the Allia the “black day” (“dies ater”), and the sack of their city left a memorable impression on them. Clearly the army needed improvement and the city defenses strengthening to prevent future disasters at the hands of the Gauls.

During the Battle of Allia, ‘mere barbarians’ defeated the elite Roman army when the Gauls sacked Rome.

A Military Overhaul

The first of these problems was addressed by Camilus, who begun a series of army reforms that were further enhanced during the Samnite wars of the late fourth century BC. The easily disordered phalanx was abandoned in favor of the tight, independent unit of the maniple. This formation was 60 or 120 men strong, placed at intervals in a line, and allowed greater elasticity in both attack and defense. Volleys of javelins were used to prepare the way for combat with the short sword. The round shield was replaced by the more familiar Samnite scumtum, a large semi-cylindrical four-cornered shield. Alongside the new army, Rome’s agger was raised and backed by a 12-foot-thick and 24-foot-high solid stone wall circling the whole city for a distance of over five miles. Greek contractors may have been called in to build the wall, the labor possibly being done by the Roman army and Veientine captives.

The new army was not tested against the Gauls for a long time. Their defeat at the Allia so discredited Rome in the eyes of her neighbors that the loyalty of her Latin allies began to waver, while erstwhile enemies, the Aequi, Volsci, and Etruscans, reopened old wars. Fortunately for the Romans, barbarian raids into peninsular Italy were sporadic as the Gauls concentrated on consolidating their hold on northern Italy. Twice, in Gallic forays of BC 360 and again in BC 349, battle was avoided when the combatants lost their nerve. On the former occasion the Romans sought safety behind their walls, while on the latter it was the Gauls who withdrew before a force of Romans and Latins. In BC 331, the Gallic Sennones concluded a peace with Rome. For the Celts the next century would mark their martial zenith. Although Rome had proved a formidable buffer, Celtic warbands crushed Etruscan power north of the Apennines, and the north Italian plain became known as Gallia Cisalpina. Other tribes pushed into Greece, Russia, and Asia Minor.

Fool Us Once…

Not until BC 236, with raids by the Boii, did Gallic inroads again become problematic to the Romans. In BC 225 a combined horde of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gauls poured into Etruria in what was heretofore the largest Gallic invasion of Italy. But in the interval of nearly two centuries since their meeting at the Allia, Rome had grown from a city-state into an Empire. Her army and people had been hardened by successful wars against Latins, Etruscans, Samnites, Greeks, and Carthaginians. With her vast resources, Rome levied an army more than twice the size of the Gallic host. The Gauls were outmaneuvered by converging Roman armies of at least 130,000 soldiers. At the battle of Telamon the barbarians made a brave stand but were cut down to a man.

In retrospect, the battle of the Allia and the sack of Rome were a hollow victory for the Gauls. The Romans learned from their mistakes and emerged defiant and stronger than before. By the aftermath of Telemon, Rome was in a position to take the war to the barbarians. Through shrewd diplomacy and war, Rome slowly chipped away at the Gallic domains until in the mid-first century BC Julius Gaius Caesar completed the conquest of Gaul. For the Gauls, the long-term effect of their conflict with the Romans proved to be the downfall of their supremacy over much of Europe.

But if the Romans emerged victorious in the end, the sack of their city had burned into every Roman heart an everlasting fear and apprehension of the barbarians. That fear proved justified. Although for eight hundred years after the Gallic sack, Rome would remain unconquered, her people would once again be put to the fire and sword by a barbarian peoples, the Germanic Visigoths, in 410 ad.

Primary Sources: Dio, translated by Earnest Cary, Roman History, (London: William Heinemann LTD., 1914), XIV113.4, 113.5, 114.1–4, 115.3–7, 116.7, Plutarch.,trans. by Bernadotte Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives. Volume II ( London: William Heinemann LTD. 1959), XIV 2, XVII 1–6, XVIII, XIX, XXII.1,2,5,6, XXIII, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX 4, 5, Polybius, The Histories, translated by W.R. Paton (London: William Heinemann LTD., 1967), Book I,

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