On August 3, 390 BC, the unthinkable happened – the city of Rome fell to the barbarians. But first, some background information…
After a ten year long civil war, the Roman Republic was officially created in 499 BC. Ever since then, the Romans had been fighting a series of wars in central Italy against their Latin, Italic, and Etruscan neighbors. However, in the summer of 390 BC, they faced off against an enemy that they had never encountered before – the Celts.
The Celts were a collection of tribes that appear to have originated in what is now Austria. By the early 4th Century BC, they had spread and had become the dominant culture throughout much of western and central Europe. They had even crossed the Alps and had occupied all of the territory north of the Po River.
The Etruscan city-state of Clusium, which lay a hundred miles north of Rome, was under threat from the Celts. Although the Etruscans and Romans had been enemies for many years, the Etruscans feared these northern newcomers far more than the Romans, and so they decided to send a message to Rome asking for help.
However, the Republic was wary. They were still very conscious that they had formerly been under Etruscan rule and that the Etruscans had a century earlier assisted the monarchist forces during Rome’s civil war to overthrow the Tarquin Dynasty. Furthermore, Rome had been fighting wars against the various Etruscan city-states for many years, and had only recently emerged victorious in one such conflict. They were not going to suddenly change direction and extend the hand of friendship to their enemy. However, the officials in Rome were curious about who these strange northerners were, so they sent a delegation to Clusium to see if a peaceful settlement could be brokered between the warring sides, and also to gather as much intelligence on these foreigners as they could.
When the Roman envoys arrived, it soon became clear that the Celts had no interest in negotiating. Scarcely had the meeting began when they demanded to the Romans that land in central Italy should be handed over to them or else face the consequences. The emissaries were taken aback by this – nobody made demands to the Roman Republic. Things quickly turned ugly. An argument ensued which rapidly became heated, and in a flush of rage, one of the Roman envoys struck one of the Celtic warriors with a blow so hard that it killed him. Realizing that their own lives were now in danger, the envoys raced back to Rome.
Chief Brennus, the leader of the Celts, sent a message to the Senate demanding that the murderer should be delivered up to them to be punished, but the Senate refused. Fueled by anger and indignation, the Celts raced southwards with the cry “To Rome! To Rome!”
The Republic hastily cobbled together an army with the goal of intercepting and defeating the Celtic horde before it got close to the city. However, the majority of the troops that were called up were not professionally-trained veteran soldiers, but were instead hastily-trained draftees. Some of them hadn’t even done weapon drills yet when they marched out.
On July 18, 390 BC, the two sides met just eleven miles north of Rome along the banks of the Allia River. The Celtic and Roman forces were more-or-less evenly matched in size, but the Romans force was mostly made of new poorly-trained recruits while the Celtic force was made up of battle-hardened warriors. The Romans took up a defensive position, but they didn’t bother to build defensive barricades, and they also spread their forces out in a long thin line to protect against being out-flanked. However, this made them very susceptible to a heavy-scale head-on charge, especially if such a frontal attack was directed at just one spot on that thin line of men.
At the Battle of the Allia River, the Romans fought their first battle against the Celts and lost. The battle itself was a chaotic mess, and the army of the Roman Republic was thoroughly crushed and routed by Chief Brennus’ Gallic warriors. Some of the survivors fled back to Rome, others fled to the nearby town of Veii, while the remainder of the survivors hunkered down in a nearby forest for the next three days. The Celts eventually gave up hunting for the refugees and turned their full attention upon Rome itself.
When the fleeing troops that returned to Rome reported the disaster, the people were gripped with panic and terror. The Celts were following them, and they would be arriving outside the city within a matter of hours. They realized that they did not have enough strength to adequately defend the whole city, so it was decided to make a stand at the city’s central defensive position – the citadel located atop the Capitoline Hill. Other people simply abandoned Rome entirely and fled elsewhere, believing that the city was doomed to fall to the barbarians regardless of whatever defenses may be mustered against them.
By the evening of the 18th, the Celts arrived outside the city. However, the decided to wait until the following morning to launch their attack. On the 19th, the Celts advanced. The gate was open and unguarded, and they cautiously advanced through the city’s wards. Resistance was miniscule, and the Celts went on a looting rampage, plundering the people’s houses and then setting them on fire. Still, the Celts did not attack the fortified center of the city. For the next two weeks, the Celts besieged the citadel with little success.
Meanwhile, the Roman troops who had fled to Veii after the disaster at the Allia River began to rally together to form a counter-attack. However, this force was delayed in striking the Celtic rear because they had to contend with the Etruscans once again. Veii had once been an Etruscan town, and now that the Romans were weakened, the Etruscans saw this as an opportunity to strike and take the town back. This attack failed, but it did delay the Roman reinforcements. A messenger was dispatched to Rome to let the Senate know that reinforcements were coming. This person knew a secret way to scale up the steep cliffs that formed one side of the Capitoline’s citadel. Unfortunately, this method of accessing the citadel was discovered soon afterwards by the Celts.
On August 3, after laying siege to the citadel for two weeks, the Celts ascended the cliff under the cover of darkness. The guards who had been posted did not notice their approach, and the watch dogs were all asleep. However, a flock of geese which were present sounded the alarm by loudly honking, and this is what alerted the Romans to the enemy presence. The defenders rushed to repel the attackers, who were driven off with great force.
However, this last-minute victory was short-lived. By now, people on both sides were suffering from hunger, disease, and heat sickness, and a ceasefire was called. Representatives from the two sides met to discuss the surrender terms for the city’s defenses. Chief Brennus demanded that the Romans pay him 2,000 pounds-weight of gold in order to encourage his warriors to leave. A set of giant scales was set up in the open, but the Gauls cheated by using heavier weights. When the Romans protested at this, saying that he was violating the terms of the agreement by making the Romans pay more money than what they had agreed to, he answered this simply by adding even more weight onto the scale, in this case by dropping his own sword onto the balance. With this, Chief Brennus uttered the Latin words “Vae victis”, which means “Woe to the vanquished”.
It would turn out that Brennus could not bask in his glory for long. Word soon arrived that his lands were under attack by neighboring tribes, and his warriors had to return home. To the Romans, the fall of their city was a crushing gut-check moment, and it would be forever scared not only onto their history but also onto their psyche. From that moment on, the northern barbarian was their most hated and feared enemy.
In later years, the events which occurred on the night of August 3 were marked by a macabre ritual enacted by the Romans on the third of August for years afterwards: the Supplicia Canum, which means “the Begging of the Dogs”. As a punishment for allowing the Gauls to enter the city because they were not being attentive enough, the Romans would take all of the stray dogs that they found in the city, crucify them alive, and carry them in a solemn procession through the streets. The name refers to the idea that as the unfortunate animals howled and shrieked in pain as they were cursed at by the Roman people lining the sides of the roads, they were actually begging for forgiveness for falling asleep on guard duty rather than protecting their masters. Perhaps the unearthly sound also conjured up something of the melancholy wailing of the souls in the Underworld who perished at the Gauls’ hands. Meanwhile, the holy geese who did raise the alarm cry were carried around on a golden litter draped with purple, and were praised and honored by all who saw them.